Film & Television

Life in Marvellous Times – Thoughts on the X-Files and Twin Peaks

“In these strange times” is becoming one of those endlessly repeated platitudes that are becomes such a staple of journalese, something that we type out in lieu of anything else, that fills a hole rather than saying anything and belies the morbidity of a media largely resigned to simply delivering tautological reiterations of the current state of affairs ad infinitum. Place this term alongside “truth to power” and countless others in the crypt, seal it off and force yourself to look elsewhere, perhaps even challenge your audience. A challenge for the ages.

I’ve assigned myself the task of writing something after simply stewing in my own juices for a little too long. The problem with quarantine so far is that is has exacerbated the proliferating anxieties of constant communication that were already ever present outside it. Ubiquitous connection isn’t necessarily the blessing we might assume as soon as it becomes necessary to stay physically separate from one another; indeed, it’s in this scenario that the sheer effect of networked technology on my consciousness has twitched at the back of my mind, insect-like. Psychic pressures, the ever-present feeling that I’m not doing what I’m supposed to, creeping unease that I’ve just become too familiar with this screen, these buttons, this mindless action that I couldn’t even recall without its attendant task, the world closes in through its possibilities rather than restrictions. While the various plans I’ve had regarding projects have still stayed with me, the fragmented, frayed ends of my brain have struggled to articulate them for varying stretches of time.

To mitigate this, my newfound love of the X-Files has been an immense help, a love that has grown increasingly after I resolved to systematically watch through every episode [Currently making my way through season 3]. The fondness I have for a lot of these stand-alone stories and, yes, the alien conspiracy story arcs, by this point knows no bounds and I can’t see myself tiring of it. There has been some rough points, a standout worst episode so far is perhaps 3 at the centre of season 2, an attempt at pulling off this somewhat questionable sexy contemporary vampire shtick that was somewhat popular at some point in the 90s. The result is 45 minutes that feel horribly disconnected from the show around it, a Mulder who seems to have become an entirely different and much more baffling character for one episode only, something that only succeeds in coming off like a tacky exploitation film in tone. That this mediocre interlude stood out as much as it did is largely testament to the success of the show around it, and that it’s sandwiched in between a particularly moving three episode arc centred on Scully’s abduction [perhaps another reason 3 fails is due to her conspicuous absence from proceedings].

Watching the x-files today it comes across as something of a catalogue of concerns, fears, and notably technological developments. Early on, in the first season, a story involving a killer computer presents what seems for all the world like a kind of fictional Apple/Microsoft, and later on we increasingly begin to note the presence of the early internet, season 3’s 2shy even explicitly addressing the then novel fears around online dating. Many of these early 90s tech focused narratives are interesting to see today partly because of how quaint they sometimes seem, addressing these developments as supplementary experiments rather than immanent features of social life, the internet gradually appearing and developing with the show as it tried to keep abreast of the contemporary moment it occupied. Even more interesting than this is the way these technologies intersect with the central paranormal and supernatural elements of the show. Very early on in the first season, the notion that new technologies are “alien” is presented literally through Mulder’s theory that the government is trialling new military craft using UFO technology. Later on, however, this is complicated, where computing and the genesis of the internet become introduced both as tools for investigation, and portals through which unsavoury new threats may slither into our lives.

The paranormal in the x-files is always something explicitly there but never fully there, it lingers at the centre of Mulder’s belief and Scully’s scepticism, her faith and his atheism. Whereas at the show’s beginning this dualism seems a simple one, and the issue of faith not yet a glimmer in Chris Carter’s eye, it unravels in fits and starts not only during the alien conspiracy arcs, but throughout the succession of stand-alone episodes, perhaps more so. By the time we reach season 3, we’ve already seen them switch roles, perhaps evidence that both may not be as assured in their beliefs as they first appear, indeed that they both hold contradictory views. This hasn’t yet reached some kind of ultimate apotheosis, but it strengthens the conceit of the show immeasurably, and lends this dual characterisation the justification it deserves. The question arises, at least in my mind, what separates the paranormal from the normal, the supernatural from the natural? In a basic sense, the supernatural is nature that we haven’t explained yet. It makes me think of the point Mark Fisher makes in The Weird and the Eerie, where he says “In many ways, a natural phenomenon such as a black hole is more weird than a vampire”. If not in weirdness but in abjection this finds itself reflected in the 2nd season episode Irresistible, in which the central horror is revealed and/or accepted to be no alien or monster, but a man, a death fetishist digging up corpses who progresses to murder. Scully’s sheer horror in confronting this is one of the notable times her scepticism and scientific demeanour fails her, and one of the first times of a few until this point where the show has endeavoured to tackle the immediate emotional weight of the circumstances Mulder and Scully find themselves investigating. In this instance, as in others, even when the monsters and aliens are real, flesh and blood beings, when in the midst of uncovering US government conspiracies, that it’s not the extraterrestrial or paranormal events themselves but the powerlessness and suffering of their victims that disturb or unsettle.

Duane Barry is an astounding episode of television when it comes to this, in both its simplicity and its potency. Even shorn of the other episodes in this story arc, the hostage situation here serves to lead us into an exploration of trauma and the re-visitation of childhood horror build on in future episodes, and as both Mulder and Scully grapple with the weight of family action and responsibility, the past weighing on the conscience of the present. The past becomes an alien, a horrible parasite as much as a source of comfort, and the disorienting, dehumanising process of abduction is mirrored in the unveiling of truth as falsehood, of their own subjectivity as a lie. The show is at its best when shifting around the co-ordinates of what natural or real implies, whether it’s in the form of the episode humbug, something of a love letter to outsiders and freaks and a genuinely funny outing, or the constant questioning of beliefs and knowledge. “The truth is out there” we are assured at the beginning of nearly every episode, and yet the meaning of this remains consistently obscured, whether we are talking about the truth of conspiracy, the truth that lies behind the closed doors of power, or the truth of what is scientifically verifiable, a naturalistic truth.

Part of this ambiguity in the x-files, partly facilitated and necessary to the set-up of the show, reminds me, though it is a very different piece of work, of the ambiguity of Twin Peaks, which in its case ended up leading to its own demise. The previously mentioned X-Files episode 3 feels so off precisely because, with Scully briefly out of the picture both Mulder as a character and the writing of the show seem to be spinning off their axis, unsure of where to go. In the case of Twin Peaks, this was a far more extensive sensation, coming to bear after the unveiling of the killer around halfway through the second season [the episode itself a masterstroke of uncoupled horror that shouldn’t be overlooked]. The central conceit of the show done away with, many of the plot-lines thereafter feel like Peaks desperately trying to find new land, rediscover itself somehow, resulting in some of the only moments where the show feels hackneyed and weightless in tone. There are some hits here and there but many of the new characters read more like straightforward and played out caricatures than anything prior. The irony here is that it’s leading up to the shows final moments, and its infamous cliffhanger, that it becomes wholly compelling again. While the show had failed again and again trying to right itself, introduce such quaint oddities ascoherent narratives”, it was with its final lurch into untrammelled, fractured and abstract structure that it went somewhere again.

The X-Files is, in some ways, a more standard show, but also the kind of show that doesn’t particularly get made anymore. It’s structure, wherein the standalone “monster-of-the-week” style episodes provide the glue for the periodic story arcs to hold together rather than the other way around, is something unthinkable for prestige TV with all its seamless singular narratives running the course of a season. There is a sense, and this is where similarities with Peaks and its soap opera structure emerge, in which both shows at their best emphasise, rather than trying to smooth away, the cracks and mould lines in the medium. This provides the pretext for their moments of failure, but also their enduring success, in which this hour to hour shift and lack of faith to the coherent narrative structure demanded of them prove something that could only be done via television. Perhaps its better, rather than to attempt a kind of melding of mediums into a smooth entity, to accentuate the broken, weird qualities of television as a medium. If the perhaps indulgent but largely unapologetically brilliant return of Twin Peaks a few years ago demonstrated anything, it’s that there’s nothing particularly wrong with being a television show.

Film & Television

Upstairs/Downstairs – Cinema and Class War Today

Recently, there seems to have been an explosion of films implicitly or explicitly about class divisions becoming a popular concern. This years best picture winner at the Oscars, Parasite, held class as its central dynamic; where some have argued that its popularity and critical acclaim, which doesn’t escape without some degree of irony, are testament to its perhaps noncommittal or ambiguous position [something I’m not sure I can agree with] the point still stands that, as of now, class war is something of a running trend in mainstream film. Joker, in 2019, became a perhaps surprising smash hit, partly on the basis of the controversy swirling around its release, and despite this being a film which I find takes a far more predictable middle ground, the presence of class conflict in the narrative is nonetheless again pronounced. Jordan Peele’s US, in the same year, again foregrounded issues of class, while such themes arise again in surprising places, such as Rian Johnson’s whodunnit homage Knives Out. Class is everywhere, even if the way its approached changes and may sometimes shy away from uncomfortable conclusions for the rich socialites of the film industry, the divisions and impasses between the attic and the basement seem to have bubbled to the surface of popular culture, at least in the cinema.

This can be contrasted perhaps with the trend earlier in the 2010s for dystopian narratives, found in another of Bong Joon-Ho’s [Director of Parasite] film Snowpiercer, or the popularity of the Hunger Games series and a host of imitators. This often dealt similarly with Class, and yet did so through a relatively easy to parse analogy. In Snowpiercer or the Hunger Games, we are left in no doubt as to who to oppose, who is in the wrong here, a picture is drawn of a pseudofascist authoritarian regime violently keeping people in line; even when ambiguities arise in the revolutionaries, as they often do, somewhere at the heart of these is a struggle of good versus evil. Here is where the recent wave of class war in cinema changes, especially when we reach Parasite, whose title itself has a double meaning. These films have, rather than focusing themselves on a revolutionary uprising, or a resistance to fascist regimes, attempted to take a scalpel to class relations themselves, and the assumptions that drive them. The friction between the rich/powerful and the poor/downtrodden here sits within a broader social dynamic, and there’s a general sense here, in nearly all films mentioned, of people from differing backgrounds who would usually simply avoid each other or never come into contact, being thrown into a room with each other.

The significance of this could possibly be overstated by some, but in terms of its symptomatic nature it seems to be a little more than the kind of typical political #resist Oscars fare that poured out of Hollywood in the wake of Trump and Brexit. An awareness of class however, seems to have been made an increasing concern in the years since this double whammy, with conversations around the left’s ability to connect with the working classes and the ever-rising dominant and unavoidable sheer cliff of inequality becoming a regular talking point in the public-political sphere. That it would make its way gradually into the realm of pop culture phenomena may not be surprising, and yet its worth examining for a few reasons, if only to examine our own interaction with not only the idea of class in the abstract but our particular place within it, something we may be naive to expect naturally emerging from the popularity of these films in itself.

What then, does Parasite say about class? The answer isn’t entirely easy, but by any standard it isn’t comfortable. I’m loathe to simply recount the events of the film here as it’s very much worth watching if you haven’t already, but there’s a certain capacity for ambiguity here that is perhaps why notably rich socialites and industry figures could happily proclaim it their favourite film of the year without a second thought. Cinema is cinema, narrative is narrative, indeed, the film takes place in Korea, so we can happily, if we so wish, take this as an example of something that exists “over there” but we don’t have to concern ourselves with. It’s entirely possible, in other words, to list the reasons Parasite is one of the best films of the year without even mentioning class once, despite its centrality to the relations of the film. This, in a sense, reflects how on a regular basis the relations of class are sublimated into its component symptoms, a micromanagement of subjectivity where class is the unspoken abstract.

We may notice mental health, social norms, gender essentialisms, even rampant inequality, without even thinking about class dynamics, despite any and all of these factoring into such an analysis. Something that’s notable to Parasite is the way it looks at class consciousness, or rather the lack of it, and this is reflected quite prominently in the praise its received; both illustrate the ways in which we may recognise any number of injustices and factors of a world driven by economic inequalities, something that may manifest differently yet remains as true as when Marx originally pinpointed it, and yet fail to recognise that we sit within that same dynamic. So, when we watch a film that tackles class conflict, we can safely be a spectator, existing in the “real world” where these things aren’t actually happening, the link between cinema and life is severed as soon as we enter the theatre.

This doesn’t quite kill off my hope however, that the success and prominence of a number of films tackling class, inequality and expression at their thematic core is on the whole a sign of something at least, even if it doesn’t lead to some phantasmic era of “class conscious cinema” as I’m sure some towering monoliths of orthodox Marxism are demanding. Rather than ushering in some kind of pseudo-Lukacsian social realist cinema revolution, it’s notable how many of these films haven’t taken up that mantle at all. Rather than a plodding Ken Loach-esque realism Parasite’s cinematography is itself exquisite and sometimes painterly, colours are heightened, in other words, it makes no bones about its cinematic qualities, and as Mark Kermode has noted, there’s a distinct Shakespearean quality to the narrative here. The problem with the dull realism that someone like Loach churns out to predictable acclaim on a regular basis is that its destiny is perhaps only ever to play to the choir, it is cinema reduced almost entirely to message, an exceedingly simplistic vision of what Political Art can ever be, similar to the kind of folksy protest songs of a Billy Bragg or similar figures.

Beyond Parasite, the films I listed above are all found quite far from the realist tree, all presenting either an outright analogy or a kind of heightened world of cinema quite separate from the muted colours and mockumentary didacticism of “real life”. While it could be argued this somehow leads to the very ambiguities and disconnection I mentioned earlier, I would contend that it is, if anything, more effective at mirroring our lives than some direct translation, given for example the extent to which pop culture drives our interactions with and interpretations of the world, and the way in which, existing as we do in something of a post-Kantian, post-post-structuralist world, we might have to contend with the ways in which “real life” is defined more than anything by fantasy, far from the colour drained authenticity realism tends to demand. What we are offered in the class mirror presented to us through say, Horror, Science Fiction, Cinema more generally, is a subjective mirror, a process of interpreting rather than simply representing reality. In this way the prominence recently of class in cinema is more important than any film Ken Loach has produced, not simply due to the popularity of these films, but their lack of hesitation to exist as cinema, to take up the role of image production rather than simply some kind of simply reflective surface. The warp in the mirror is accentuated rather than ironed out, and so the reality presented in these films, while ending up quite far from any kind of solution to the problems they tackle, does end up moving away from the tendency to risk reinforcing those problems through implying they are what lies underneath, that if we strip away the fantasy and image, the real problems of real people is what remains. In this way, perhaps this wave of films about class might begin, rather than to re-enforce the reality of class identity, lead us to question it, to displace it from the assumed real rather than anchor it to the centre. While its important not to claim for these films some kind of revolutionary capacity, perhaps its a sign that class inequality is not quite the unspeakable it has been in the past.

Books Film & Television

Better Dreams; Memories of Cyberpunk

“Don’t think of it that way” McClane said severely. “You’re not accepting second-best. The actual memory, with all it’s vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions – that’s second-best”

Phillip K Dick’s We Can Remember it For You Wholesale

I recently, for whatever reason, decided on a whim to watch the 2012 remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 Schwarzenegger starring action blockbuster Total Recall, itself an adaptation of the Phillip K Dick short story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale. While in some respects it is slightly less distracting than the Verhoeven film, Colin Farrell being slightly more believable as an everyman than the over-the-top action juggernaut of Schwarzenegger, in many other respects it is a pale and flaccid regurgitation, lacking both sci-fi heft and action effervescence.

In many of its tics this Total Recall feels like it belongs in the early 2000s in a kind of post-Blade Runner, post-Matrix continuum, seeming to ape both films in the appropriating of a cyberpunk dystopia now as well worn as the action-structure of its plot, and the paper-thin philosophical dallying worked into its themes. In this, however, it could exist no other time but now, a blockbuster trapped in its own PoMo referential purgatory, finding itself unable to muster any kind of modernist impulse besides a copy-pasted hall-of-fame, even giving into the screamingly obvious impulse of referencing the original Total Recall.

It becomes difficult to buy the typical PR spiel at release that it is more of a re-interpretation of the source material than a remake of the adaptation, especially when if anything the film generates yet more stages of removal from the story itself with its piecemeal appropriation of sci-fi cinema visuals, and even takes the disentangling of ambiguities of the political themes in the Verhoeven film further, really driving home our main character Quaid [notice that again the name Quail, much less forgiving on the male ego of our protagonist, is yet again hardened into the much more action-hero-suitable denomination applied to Schwarzenegger] as a heroic [flawed of course; “he can be a real ass”] political freedom-fighter, starkly set against Bryan Cranston’s Chancellor Cohaagen, who in his enthusiasm for international conflict and torture seems to be a rough caricature of bush administration neocon politics, missing the essential component of smiling “likeability” that accompanied it. Something that Hollywood films often seem to miss when presenting their neoconservative archetypes is the banality of their warmongering, that sense of thumbs up and a smile as the meat-grinder kills a few hundred people somewhere else in the world bonhomie. This duplicity would never have conceivably worked given the explicitly authoritarian visage of Cohaagen in the film.

The kind of warmed over political simplifications we receive here only become more notable when set against the Phillip K Dick story, which in contrast keeps the actual political motivations for any of its developments almost entirely ambiguous. Indeed the main question we are intended to take away from both Total Recalls [and I say intended as I’m not sure either really succeed in the reality-questioning they supposedly reach for.. it all comes across as far to telegraphed and obvious], whether the whole thing is simply an implanted memory itself, really doesn’t factor into the story at all in such a fashion, somewhat ironic as these are the main pretences both films make towards sci-fi credentials. Instead the focus is on the nature of memory and fantasy itself, the “Vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions” inherent to remembering something, and, by implication, inherent in how we experience the world.

This ambiguity, the partial nature of memory and experience, is something lacking in both films not in theme but in form. Just as one could say that Inception is a film that’s good at talking about dreams but not at representing them, Total Recall is good at mentioning the fallibility of memory without actually showing it meaningfully. The rote action film structure, built on the bare bones of a very short story indeed, forecloses any meaningful sense that what we are witnessing may not be real, the confusion simply acting as an explicit hint rather than an implication of the film itself. Dick’s story explores in many respects the unsettling idea that our memories are simply a simulacra, that is to say, that they an unreliable patchwork constructed of approximations, and that an actually imposed, artificial memory may be better than the real thing as it were. This is at least hinted at in the newer film, but this hint is immediately frustrated by the film’s need to throw us headlong into rather unexciting action set pieces for the rest of its duration.

“We need to get you some better dreams” says Quaid’s wife, played by Kate Beckinsale, towards the beginning of the film. The ultimate irony is that the film has nothing to offer in this regard, the dreams it offers are the same old dreams we’ve become used to, clad in the same old monotonous fabrics. Of course, Phillip K Dick was in every sense more than a simple sci-fi writer, his work toeing the line between speculative futures and psychedelic subversions constantly, even if the interests of commodification drive his work, much like J.G Ballard’s, out of its un-definition to be crammed into the sardine tins of bookshelf conformity. This is precisely what we see in this ultimate repackaging of the old cyberpunk standard, a tinned, vacuum packed reiteration with as much life as a nuclear desert. Its appeals ultimately rest upon our perception of culture becoming so fuzzy that the Blade Runner-Matrix dynamic just beds in as the best we can expect. This is particularly noteworthy when if anything the actual sequel to Blade Runner explored the theme of artificial memory much more effectively and, while not entirely empty of its past more often than not broke free of the cyberpunk-noir shackles of its legacy. Striking at something quite different in terms of theme and focus, it became that wonderful thing; a sequel that manages a re-imagining, a complete shift in perception within the same space. Total Recall on the other hand only musters a gutted out, empty vision of a future we’ve already seen.

We need to get ourselves some better dreams.