Thursday, February 11, 2016

X-Files: Home Again (TV, 2016)

Spoilers below.

Fourth episode out of six - only two left, now. And yet again, TPTB have put in a mytharc episode, this time in the sense that it's the ongoing saga of Scully's family (as opposed to aliens, hybrids and world domination). Mixed in with this, the -spoilers - death of Scully's mother, is a rather jarringly-different-in-tone monster of the week story.  The pairing required Mulder to juggle being available to Scully in her grief within minutes of cracking wise about corruption and self-interest in local government. Duchovny's acting is up to it, but I'm not sure he should have *had* to do it.

There was at least one quotable line. As her mother lay dying, Mulder admittd to Scully that he'd tried to develop a technique for wishing people back from the dead when she was in her own coma. Scully replied, "Mulder, you're a dark wizard."

The story itself seemed to have grown out of the fighting phrase 'takin' out the trash'.  The homeless of Philadelphia are being harassed alternately by a developer and by a do-gooder who claims she's on their side but is actually fighting to prevent them being relocated only because she doesn't want them living anywhere near her. Mulder quickly deduces they're both in it for themselves, and so does a super-strong monster called the Band Aid Nose Man, who literally takes them both apart. His modus operandi includes arriving in the back of a garbage truck, and often, dragging bits of them out and throwing them into the back and jumping in after them as he leaves.

M&S are called in to investigate, and Mulder notices a piece of Banksy-style graffiti art on a wall nearby. So does a pair of low-lifes, who steal the piece of drywall it's painted on. It's signed by The Trashman, and they reckon they can sell it off for thousands. The monster kills them for also being self-serving and making money off the homeless. The local police analyse the paint on the signature, leading Mulder to the only store that sells that brand of paint. He tails a buyer to some warehouse where the kid runs away, but it's okay because the Trashman is there as well. (If all they had to do was test the paint, why do we even have the art thieves subplot? It just crowded out an already brimful episode.)

Anyway, Mulder finds the artist, who not only makes graffiti art, but also creates a sort of golem, which he describes as a tulpa (until Mulder gives him the dictionary definition of a tulpa, which is apparently different). The animated thing/whatever has picked up the artist's hatred for those who exploit the helpless and is out there killing them; the original artist knows of no way to destroy it. (And for his troubles gets a lecture from Scully about taking responsibility.)

The outsider-art aspect of the show is well done, and the artist's halting explanation of his work is a great set-piece.  (He's played by Rancid's Tim Armstrong, who seems to embody the character. Maybe he's a good actor or maybe that was great typecasting.) Scully gets in a short action sequence that marks her out as a badass and, when Mulder whines about having to "do" stairs, she quips she used to "do" stairs in three inch heels. Scully's anguish at her mother's death and continuing remorse over losing her adopted-out son William is also wrenchingly-well done. Mulder gets to be sarky, knowledgeable about mythological creatures and a strong support for Scully, so it's all round a good episode.

Don't know who drove the garbage truck, though. Or how M&S could possibly write up the case report without being called delusional.

And there's one big error - Gillian Anderson fluffs one of the most important lines. After her mother has heard from her estranged younger brother and died in relative peace, she should say, according to the subtitles and to common sense, "She wanted to know before she left that he'd be okay." What she actually says is "She wanted to know before he left that he'd be okay." It's odd that either the director didn't notice (which would be bad) or that he didn't have the money to reshoot or work around it (which is arguably worse).

You can watch the X-Files here. 

Sunday, February 07, 2016

X-Files: Mulder and Scully Meet The Were-Monster (TV 2016)

The second episode of the re-launched X-Files was a bit iffy. It was a mytharc-style episode, and it seemed kinda odd to start a new mytharc when the old one was never really finished, in a six-episode season that may not be picked up next year for any further elaboration.  Called Founder's Mutation (a sort of X-Filian pun on the 'founder' of a charitable foundation that looks after mutant kids and the founder mutation, which is the mutation that precipitates a speciation event), it went everywhere from telekinesis through telepathy, mutant kids with cronenbergian bodies, Mulder and Scully's separate fears over what may have happened to their adopted-out child William, to ice-pick suicides and good old-fashioned male terror at the concept (sorry) of pregnancy.  

It was a decent X-Files episode but seven hundred years of Orphan Black (at least) have aired since X-Files went off the air, and in that we've seen so many foundations and founders and children in orphanages and mutations that the original source has been eclipsed by its...clones. (Sorry again.)

Scully mentions a paper on Founder Effects by Batini and Hallast - which says that 64% of the population of Europe can be traced to three male ancestors in the Bronze Age. This is a real paper. You can read it here. 

Now, the third episode, Mulder and Scully Meet The Were-Monster was helmed by one of the best of the original writers, Darin Morgan, and is a perfect X-File. A monster-of-the-week episode, it trotted along nicely with all the eye candy of a good episode and all the clever-dickery of the very best episodes.  The poor editing and iffy acting of the pilot and second-aired-episode failed to make an appearance.

Almost all the lines were quotable and it was all I could do not to pause every couple of minutes to write them down and put them here. Scully's "Mulder, the internet isn't good for you," was one of the best delivered, and the scene where the game warden and Mulder stop in mid-screaming-and-running to find "settings" on Mulder's newfangled cellphone was another memorable moment. Oh, and I must mention Mulder saying, "I'm a middle-aged man - no, Scully, I am!" followed by a cut to Scully, who hadn't said a word in protest. 

 - spoilers everywhere below -
Not for the first time this was an episode where the peaks came from reversing the normal course of things. In the prologue, Mulder is going through old files and throwing them out, as they've been solved since he was last in the office. Student pranks, advertising gimmicks and in the case of mysteriously moving rocks on a 'racetrack', simple ice-formation, have now been shown to be the explanations of the 'mysteries'. He's no longer the believer. He's throwing pencil-darts not at the ceiling tiles, but at the I Want To Believe poster, which Scully, when she comes in, declares is actually hers

The monster, when today's mystery is finally solved, is a lizard who was bitten by a man and therefore becomes a man each full moon, much to his disgust. This reversal is used to great comedic effect as the were-man gets an opportunity to show how absurd much of human culture actually is. After his transformation he found himself compelled to...get a job. So he could qualify for a mortgage, whatever that is.  He was worried it was too late for him to write a novel. 

The bad guy (doing the murders and the biting) is the game warden. The babes in the woods who stumble across the murders are huffing paint fumes and the man who runs the motel with the creepy hidden corridor and peeping-tom holes into every room (which are full of animal skins and weird-ass stuffed heads, including a jackalope) drinks rubbing alcohol. Mulder sympathizes with him - that's what he expects in a motel-keeper.  The motel keeper tells him to go away, in quite a friendly fashion and adds, without malice, "Or I'll kill ya."

Although it sounds depressing, an entire hour of hearing that humanity is crap and everything anyone cares about is meaningless, completely-arbitrary hooey, the writing is light and funny.  The were-man (yes, I'm aware that 'were' means 'man' and so that means 'man-man' but what else would you call him?) is played by Rhys Darby, the New Zealand comedian. You may remember him from such films as What We Do In The Shadows, a vampire mockumentary in which he played a polite were-wolf. "I'm a were-wolf, not a swear-wolf!" He has exactly the right touch for a role in which he's called on to wave his arms and point out the ridiculousness of human existence, much of it expounded while standing around a gravestone named for Kim Manners

He's also wearing clothes in the style of Kolchak, the Night Stalker (having taken them from the corpse of one of the people murdered by the game warden) and there's a story behind that. The whole script is taken from an unfilmed episode of the latterday Kolchak and repurposed for the X-Files. The full story is here.

One thing I'm always interested in is how a story is put together, how the scenes are written to cover the story adequately. The following is just a set of notes to myself. 

I was particularly taken with this sequence: Mulder finds some pills in the were-man's motel room and of course pills have the prescriber's name on them. He goes to see the psychiatrist named and presumably asks about the patient. We don't hear about the patient. The scene opens with the psychiatrist telling the story of a man who was tormented by a lizard dragon and eventually finds a gypsy who tells him to stab it in the appendix with a shard of green glass.  He stabs the creature and as it dies he realizes he's looking in a mirror and it is himself.  The psychiatrist says the moral is it's easier to believe that there are monsters out there than to look inside yourself.  

This 'legend' turns out to be the actual story. Without any connecting 'real story logic' being offered, it seems the only way you can kill this creature is to stab him with a broken bottle. Or did the lizard-man just believe that because the trick cyclist told him the story? Why is the psychiatrist telling this story to people anyway? (Whenever a question about the were-man's life-cycle comes up, both the lizard-man and Mulder agree there's no logic to it, and yet, overall, it works in the story.)  

The psychiatrist also tells Mulder he told the lizard-man to go to a cemetery, because if nothing else, it'll bring home the fact that all one's troubles are temporary. Mulder questions this, but the doctor says, "It's what I do."  That gives Mulder enough information to find the lizard-man. He's going to be in a cemetery.  How-to-write columns always say that each scene should not solve the mystery, but should give sufficient information for the next step to take place but I've never seen two togeher that are so pure.  In the motel room the bottle. From the psychiatrist, the location. When Mulder finds the were-man by the gravestone, he explains that until a few days ago he had no idea he could die, so I guess the psychiatrist has his uses. 

For equally illogical, but strong story reasons, the were-man is due to hibernate for 10,000 years soon and hopes to wake up cured. As endings go, it's total bollocks, but it solves all the story problems. No one now alive will be around and so you don't have to think of a happy ending. It's out of our hands. Assume all live happily ever after. 

I've seen a couple of comments on the interwebs asking why a lizard-man in America who hibernates for 10,000 years at a time would have a New Zealand accent.  What accent should he have had? The mind boggles.
(Edited for clarity.)

Saturday, February 06, 2016

I hate the internet. Well, Jarrett Kobek does.

Did you know the 'literary' novel was invented by the CIA? I knew Modern Art was their baby but I hadn't realized that about books.

Picture from Lithub

I’m a recovered tech person and much of my life has revolved around this shit. For what seems like a thousand years. And I still like the early ethos of tech, back in the hobbyist days, when computers were not interchangeable and no one had realized that this thing the Internet could be used to trample the gullible with advertisements for car insurance. Or before an even more unsavory lot realized that they could make beaucoup bucks setting up unprofitable companies as money laundering events for war criminals and investment bankers. That’s why I did a prequel of I Hate the Internet for the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, an old British microcomputer. It felt like there was some virtue counterbalancing all of that disgust with an acknowledgment of a time you using computers did not require you to participate in several overlapping systems of global evil.
More fascinating insights here by JARETT KOBEK(*), of whom I had not previously heard(**) on the meaning of modern life and its relationship to 'the novel', among other things. On the strength of this I'm buying his ahem novel, I Hate The Internet, and probably Sister Souljah's 'literary novel' The Coldest Winter Ever, as well.

(*) Doesn't he look like Kato Kaelin?
(**) I'm writing proper like.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Explaining Caucuses

Today is the day of the Iowa Caucuses. I know what a caucus is, but it's a fair bet you don't, so I got hold of the definition. It's from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which is my favorite book. 

Scene: Alice has been crying. Her tears turned into a flood, which caught up a number of small animals including the Dodo, who are all now cold and bedraggled.

'What I was going to say,' said the Dodo in an offended tone, 'was, that the best thing to get us dry would be a Caucus-race.'
'What is a Caucus-race?' said Alice; not that she wanted much to know, but the Dodo had paused as if it thought that somebody ought to speak, and no one else seemed inclined to say anything.
'Why,' said the Dodo, 'the best way to explain it is to do it.' (And, as you might like to try the thing yourself, some winter day, I will tell you how the Dodo managed it.)
First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle, ('the exact shape doesn't matter,' it said,) and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there. There was no 'One, two, three, and away,' but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so, and were quite dry again, the Dodo suddenly called out 'The race is over!' and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, 'But who has won?'
This question the Dodo could not answer without a great deal of thought, and it sat for a long time with one finger pressed upon its forehead (the position in which you usually see Shakespeare, in the pictures of him), while the rest waited in silence. At last the Dodo said, 'Everybody has won, and all must have prizes.'
'But who is to give the prizes?' quite a chorus of voices asked.
'Why, she, of course,' said the Dodo, pointing to Alice with one finger; and the whole party at once crowded round her, calling out in a confused way, 'Prizes! Prizes!'
Alice had no idea what to do, and in despair she put her hand in her pocket, and pulled out a box of comfits, (luckily the salt water had not got into it), and handed them round as prizes. There was exactly one a-piece all round.
'But she must have a prize herself, you know,' said the Mouse.
'Of course,' the Dodo replied very gravely. 'What else have you got in your pocket?' he went on, turning to Alice.
'Only a thimble,' said Alice sadly.
'Hand it over here,' said the Dodo.
Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying 'We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble'; and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.
Alice thought the whole thing very absurd, but they all looked so grave that she did not dare to laugh; and, as she could not think of anything to say, she simply bowed, and took the thimble, looking as solemn as she could.


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