Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe

As American culture settled down to the country's role as international arbiter in the decade-long interregnum between the final collapse of the Soviet Union and the attacks of September 11th, it was a culture coming to terms with having had a key principle of its fixity knocked away. The world could no longer simply be divided into black and white. The evil empire had lost and the free world had won. With the passing of the USSR and the emergence of a world order dominated by American power, the paranoia once directed against a clear identifiable enemy turned in and against itself. America knew something out there was going to get it, but what would it be? Could its friends possibly its enemies? And what motives could possibly drive their hostility? Are they misguided or do they have a firm agenda?

This anxiety was reflected time and again in the leading science fiction cult shows of the period. On the surface
Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine were traditional-style conflicts of goodies vs baddies, but picking through the shows' narratives reveals a more complex picture. The Shadows of Babylon 5 were not interested in conquest and domination. They were extreme social Darwinists, believing that war and conflict between alien races wheedled the weak out from the strong and boosted the quality of the galaxy's biological stock. Deep Space Nine eventually got a story arc going about subversion, invasion and war between the Federation and its allies and the shape-shifting Dominion. But the latter weren't in the game for a simple power grab. Theirs was a "defensive" offensive war against "the solids" they believed would persecute them. Both shows had bucket loads of subterfuge, enemy agents, shifting alliances and a dose of paranoia. The space stations they drew their titles from were the rocks of the shows. The waves of great events broke against them but they remained eternal and unchanging. No matter what happened they would win through in the end, just like Uncle Sam.
Warning: Spoilers

In this regard
The X-Files is the archetypal 1990s cult show. FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate a bizarre world of unexplained Forteana and alien-related conspiranoia. Adversaries come and go, switching allegiances, disappearing and reappearing. Conspiracies are found to have conspiracies within them. There are no fixed points in the X-Files universe, apart from the bond Mulder and Scully establish between themselves.

It is perhaps because
The X-Files cuts against the grain of the contemporary cultural zeitgeist that explains the relatively poor box office receipts for the new film, The X-Files: I Want To Believe. That, and it not being a particularly fantastic picture. Unlike the previous film, which indulged the show's black oil/little grey aliens conspiracy, this is a stand alone addition to the X-Files canon akin to the monster-of-the-week staple of the series.

Scully, now working as a medical doctor at a Catholic hospital is approached by the FBI desperate to get back in touch with Mulder. The agent in charge of the investigation, Dakota Whitney (
Amanda Peet), requires his "expertise" in solving what would have been classed as an x file. One of their agents has gone missing from her home, and the only lead they have are the visions of a convicted paedophile priest, Father Joseph (Billy Connolly, himself a survivor of child abuse). His visions lead the FBI to a severed arm in the snow and he tells them the agent is still alive. True to form, Mulder embraces Joseph as evidence of psychic powers whereas Scully is far more sceptical (as well as being repulsed by his crimes). Very shortly another woman is abducted and Father Joseph experiences more visions. He leads them to a grisly burial ground of severed limbs from multiple victims. Analysis of the remains gives them a lead to Janke Dacyshyn (Callum Keith Rennie) of an organ courier firm. They learn his civil partner, Franz Tomczeszyn, was one of the boys abused by Father Joseph.

The agents move in to arrest Dacyshyn at his company's offices, but manages to escape, killing agent Whitney in the process. He also leaves behind a grisly package - the frozen severed head of the abducted FBI agent. But the trail picks up again thanks to the animal tranquiliser found in the body parts. Mulder is able to trace it to a store in small town, Virginia and goes along to check the lead. By coincidence, as Mulder is questioning the proprietor Dacyshyn rolls up. Mulder is able to follow him back to his compound (after a brush with Dacyshyn's snow plough, being bulldozed off a rocky outcrop and hypothermia) where he discovers this macabre scheme: Tomczeszyn is dying from lung cancer. Dacyshyn and a team of Russian Doctor Frankensteins are attempting to "cure" this by transplanting Tomczeszyn's head to a succession of (female) bodies. Mulder is overpowered and taken outside to be chopped up, but is rescued by Scully and his old boss at the FBI, Walter Skinner (
Mitch Pileggi). It all ends rather abruptly as the scene moves back to Mulder's house, where he tells Scully that if she were to check the medical records, Father Joseph succumbed to his cancer at the very same moment the blood supply was cut off to Tomczeszyn's disembodied head.

One of the formulas that made
The X-Files interesting was Mulder's belief in any old lizard theory that came his way, whereas Scully was always more critical. The irony was Scully's scientific rationality was always tempered by her devout Catholicism, while Mulder was seemingly uninterested in religion, beyond his supernatural peccadilloes. In this film, the subtitle, 'I Want to Believe' is not about Mulder's relationship to the paranormal, it is about Scully's faith. While he does the action Scully gets the character scenes. Her sub-plot sees her as the lead doctor for Christian, a young boy diagnosed with the degenerative and difficult-to-treat brain illness, Sandhoff disease. Despite being a Catholic hospital, the chief administrator, Father Ybarra, believes Christian is beyond help and should be transferred to a hospice. Scully argues there is hope in new complex stem cell-based techniques, but which would be very uncomfortable and may not work. Scully is plagued with indecision. Should she fight for the treatment, even if God (in the shape of Ybarra) has given up on the boy? She puts aside her scepticism and revulsion for Father Joseph and repeatedly asks him for guidance. He blurts out 'don't give up' during one of his psychic trances. She takes this advice and obtains consent from Christian's parents, and the film ends as his final operation is to begin. Scully wants to believe she's doing the right thing but cannot find enough confirmation in her faith. It takes a bland utterance of seemingly supernatural origin for her to continue.

I try not to end on a low note, but some things cannot be passed over without comment.
The X-Files comes with some pretty reactionary baggage. To begin with, Scully comes across as the more complex and satisfying character in this story because she is the foil for the conflicts, irresolutions and self-doubts that afflict us all throughout our lives. But is it entirely coincidental that she - a woman - is the one who is tortured by indecision? Especially when Mulder, a man, has no hesitation pursuing his x-file quarry? Her dilemma is only resolved when she turns to Father Joseph, another man. There is also the relationship between Mulder, agent Whitney, and Whitney's partner. As lead investigator Whitney cannot function effectively without being supervised by a man. Her partner, agent Mosley Drummy (Xzibit) is very sceptical of Father Joseph's psychic abilities and would like to see the investigation unfold conventionally. However, it takes Mulder to prevent Whitney being led astray by this black man to put the search for the missing agent on its proper footing.

But by far the worst is the treatment of the homosexual villains at the heart of the plot. If the implication that Father Joseph's sexual abuse was what turned the young Tomczeszyn gay wasn't bad enough, Dacyshyn is committing unspeakable and morally repugnant acts to his partner. I'm sure that is entirely coincidental, of course. But then why are they committed to procuring female bodies to graft Tomczeszyn's head on to? Was Dacyshyn questioning his sexuality? Were the script writers trying to "heterosexualise" their relationship? Or worse, is this a nod toward 19th and 20th century discourses that positioned gay men as women in male bodies? Whatever, this kind of juvenile homophobic rubbish has no place in the cinema of 2008.


unionstreet said...

Thanks for the review. I was trying to decide whether to see it before it disappeared from the theaters, and now I think I'll pass. The homophobic subtext sounds absolutely crap.

Anonymous said...

hi phil

interesting review - hopefully going to see this in the next few days.

myself and hannah have got the box sets from the local library and have started watching them right from the first episode.

they are very very good

all the best


Matthew said...

Thanks for this - it convinced me to go see this rather mediocre film, which did provide some moments of hilarity. Clearly intentional was the shot of George W.Bush in the FBI office accompanied by spooky theme tune. Even funnier was the scene when Dr Scully having announced she will save the kids life with gene stem therapy (or whatever) is then seen googling for information on gene stem therapy. Is this the first filmic reference to Google (was it product placement? Do Google still object to people saying 'googling'). And the final shot of the nuns crowding to the window to watch as she determined to go through the final painful operation on the kid(and one feels with a guaranteed happy outcome).

But really I want to challenge you on your reductiveness - culture 'settling own' to a country's role indeed! These relationships are more complex and more contsted than you allow - and films must always be judged as polysemic. Even in the epoch of the cold war there was enough indertimate paranoia around to undercut your braod thesis. Confident generalisations need more work!

And some points on the film: fistly I missed the bit about Father Joe being a child abuse survivor. Maybe I'm wrong, but are you just inserting a handy trope into the narrative?

The attempts at criticsm around gender and sexuality are far too simplistic: beware anyone saying 'is it entirely coincidental'! Why not say it's racist for having the black FBI agent being so wrong! And there is a drastic overstatement of the 'bad gay' subtext you focus your criticism on. The gay subtext is passed over very quickly - there was NO 'implication that Father Joseph's sexual abuse was what turned the young Tomczeszyn gay': Father Joe clearly regretted what he had done and what he might have helped produce, but the emphasis on his badness rather than his sexuality. Overwhelming any 'bad gay' subtext was the 'bad Russian' text - just contrast the poor hygiene of the Russian's operating theatre compared the the pristine cleanliness of the American!

So realy I think you have read things into the film in search of a politics that isn't really there! Now I thought the worst bit were the banal retreads of the 'why has God made or allowed such badness/pain/suffering' business - long time since that's been a serious problem for theology and so unconvincing for Scully to have these pangs after all those years of badness and suffering (as was her unprofessional hostility to Father Joe as a paedophile!).

Anyway thanks for your review and the impetus to see the film!

Phil BC said...

Sorry it's taken so long to get round to replying to you, Matthew. Things have been busy of late!

I am aware of cultural complexity and the many ways you can read a film - I do have a masters in cultural studies! But this is a blog post, not a paper for Screen, so one can have a little leeway when it comes to making broad brush strokes. Were there counter-narratives in American culture to cold war paranoia? Undoubtedly. But does this mean there is no relationship between a country's position as a global hegemon and its culture? Absolutely not. The reason why I run with the cold war paranoia thing is because I think it is a particularly useful trope when it comes to much American science fiction.

On your more specific points about the film, and particularly the point about Tomczeszyn's child abuse and sexuality, if there is no implication then why bother including it at all? There was no reason why Tomczeszyn couldn't have been assisted by a brother, a friend, an underworld associate or whatever. The fact they didn't would have been picked up by anyone giving the film a queer reading.

On Father Joseph, my line about him being a child abuse survivor refers not to the character but the actor, Billy Connolly.

I do agree with you about the Russian sub text though. Gievn the hysterical talk of a new cold war I wouldn't be surprised to see more nasty Russians turn up in Hollywood productions in the near future!