Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘JFK

The surprising skepticism of The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Note: To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the premiere of The X-Files, I’m republishing a post that originally appeared, in a somewhat different form, on September 9, 2013.

Believe it or not, this week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of The X-Files, which aired its first episode on September 10, 1993. As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I didn’t watch the pilot that night, and I’m not even sure that I caught the second episode, “Deep Throat.” “Squeeze,” which aired the following week, is the first installment that I clearly remember seeing on its original broadcast, and I continued to tune in afterward, although only sporadically. In its early days, I had issues with the show’s lack of continuity: it bugged me to no end that after every weekly encounter with the paranormal—any one of which should have been enough to upend Scully’s understanding of the world forever—the two leads were right back where they were at the start of the next episode, and few, if any, of their cases were ever mentioned again. Looking back now, of course, it’s easy to see that this episodic structure was what allowed the show to survive, and that it was irrevocably damaged once it began to take its backstory more seriously. In the meantime, I learned to accept the show’s narrative logic on its own terms. And I’m very grateful that I did.

It’s no exaggeration to say that The X-Files has had a greater influence on my own writing than any work of narrative art in any medium. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite work of art, or even my favorite television show—only that Chris Carter’s supernatural procedural came along at the precise moment in my young adulthood that I was most vulnerable to being profoundly influenced by a great genre series. I was thirteen when the show premiered, toward the end of the most pivotal year of my creative life. Take those twelve months away, or replace them with a different network of cultural influences, and I’d be a different person altogether. It was the year I discovered Umberto Eco, Stephen King, and Douglas R. Hofstadter; Oliver Stone’s JFK set me on a short but fruitful detour into the literature of conspiracy; I bought a copy of Very by the Pet Shop Boys, about which I’ll have a lot more to say soon; I acquired copies of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and 100 Great Science Fiction Short Short Stories; and I took my first deep dive into the work of David Lynch and, later, Jorge Luis Borges. Some of these works have lasted, while others haven’t, but they all shaped who I became, and The X-Files stood at the heart of it all, with imagery drawn in equal part from Twin Peaks and Dealey Plaza and a playful, agnostic spirit that mirrored that of the authors I was reading at the same time.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

And this underlying skepticism—which may seem like a strange word to apply to The X-Files—was a big part of its appeal. What I found enormously attractive about the show was that although it took place in a world of aliens, ghosts, and vampires, it didn’t try to force these individual elements into one overarching pattern. Even in its later seasons, when it attempted, with mixed results, to weave its abduction and conspiracy threads into a larger picture, certain aspects remained incongruously unexplained. The same world shaped by the plans of the Consortium or Syndicate also included lake monsters, clairvoyants, and liver-eating mutants, all of whom would presumably continue to go about their business after the alien invasion occurred. It never tried to convert us to anything, because it didn’t have any answers. And what I love about it now, in retrospect, is the fact that this curiously indifferent attitude toward its own mysteries arose from the structural constraints of network television itself. Every episode had to stand on its own. There was no such thing as binge-watching. The show had to keep moving or die.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why even fundamentally skeptical viewers, like me, could become devoted fans, or why Mulder and Scully could appear on the cover of the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s true that Scully was never right, but it’s remarkable how often it seemed that she could be, which is due as much to the show’s episodic construction as to Gillian Anderson’s wonderful performance. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scully might be my favorite character on any television show.) Every episode changed the terms of the game, complete with a new supporting cast, setting, and premise—and after the advent of Darin Morgan, even the tone could be wildly variable. As a result, it was impossible for viewers to know where they stood, which made a defensive skepticism seem like the healthiest possible attitude. Over time, the mythology grew increasingly unwieldy, and the show’s lack of consistency became deeply frustrating, as reflected in its maddening, only occasionally transcendent reboot. The X-Files eventually lost its way, but not until after a haphazard, often dazzling initial season that established, in spite of what its creators might do in the future, that anything was possible, and no one explanation would ever be enough. And it’s a lesson that I never forgot.

Written by nevalalee

September 14, 2018 at 9:00 am

On the paper trail of the assassins

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At the climax of Oliver Stone’s JFK, a movie that has obsessed and exasperated me for the last quarter of a century, Kevin Costner, as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison, delivers what by some measures is the longest courtroom speech in movie history. It goes on for something like forty minutes, interspersed with vivid recreations of the scene in Dallas on November 22, 1963, and the closing argument, which ends with Costner looking directly at the camera, includes the following odd passage:

There’s a simple way to determine if I am paranoid. Ask the two men who profited most from the assassination—former President Johnson and your new President Nixon—to release the fifty-one CIA documents pertaining to Lee Oswald and Jack Ruby. Or the secret CIA memo on Oswald’s activities in Russia that was destroyed while being photocopied. These documents are yours. The people’s property. You pay for it. But as the government sees you as children who might be too disturbed to face this reality, or because you might lynch those involved, you cannot see these documents for another seventy-five years. I’m in my forties, so I’ll have shuffled off this mortal coil by then. But I’m telling my eight-year-old son to keep himself physically fit, so that one glorious September morning, in 2038, he can go to the National Archives and learn what the CIA and FBI knew.

As Costner makes his appeal, we cut to the young actor playing Jasper Garrison, who is actually Sean Stone, the director’s son. And there’s little doubt that Stone is speaking here with his own voice. (In fact, the date for the release of these records was 2039, not 2038, which raises the tragicomic image of eighty-year-old Jasper eagerly showing up one year early at the National Archives, only to be turned away.)

In the most surprising twist of all, JFK upset its own timeline, and the film’s success inspired the creation of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act, which released the vast majority of the files related to Kennedy’s death and stipulated that the rest be disclosed within “twenty-five years after the date of the enactment of this act, October 26, 1992.” Well, that’s today. So what exactly does this mean? For answers, we can turn to the biggest book in the world, Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi, which is so physically huge that it includes a thousand pages of endnotes in a separate bonus disc. Freed up to talk about whatever he wants at length, Bugliosi spends close to fifteen pages of small type discussing the JFK Records Act, and he takes pains to debunk the notion that these records were deliberately “sealed” by the Warren Commission. In reality, at the commission’s last meeting on September 24, 1964, a motion was made and carried that “all of the remaining materials and records of the Commission shall be delivered to the National Archives to be held in perpetuity for the use and benefit of the people of the United States.” Two months later, over three hundred cubic feet of documents and numerous boxes of physical evidence, including Oswald’s rifle, were transferred to the archives. At the time, materials related to all investigations conducted by the executive branch were kept classified for seventy-five years, and the Warren Commission itself had nothing to do with it. In an interview with the New York Herald-Tribune toward the end of that same year, Dr. Robert Bahmer, the deputy archivist, explained that this period was chosen “because it is considered to be the life span of an individual…to serve as protection for innocent persons who could otherwise be damaged because of their relationship with participants in the case.”

The interview with Bahmer prompted the mayor of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to write a letter to President Johnson protesting the classification of “off-the record testimony and exhibits” from the investigation. (Bugliosi points out that all of the testimony before the Warren Commission was actually on the record, and everything had been released in the fifteen volumes of the full report.) Johnson looked into making an exception, and Earl Warren himself advocated for “the fullest possible disclosure.” In consequence, as early as 1966, about eighty percent of documents from federal agencies had been released. Yet the notion persisted that the unreleased files would provide important evidence for the existence of a conspiracy. Bugliosi has some choice words for this notion:

In the first place, the belief that any alleged conspirators who plotted Kennedy’s assassination would commit to paper anything that expressly, obliquely, or in any other way referred to the murderous plot is ridiculous on its face. Moreover, even if we make the assumption that one or more of these documents did exist, the only reason why anyone would want to suppress their existence would be if they were involved in the conspiracy to murder Kennedy…But you see, if that were the case, these people would simply destroy these documents, not leave them in any file. If they were immoral enough to murder Kennedy, or do whatever they could to cover up for those who did, surely they would eliminate an incriminating document. To suggest otherwise is to say that they would have, in effect, the following state of mind: “It’s one thing for me to be a part of the conspiracy to murder President Kennedy or to be an accessory after the fact to his murder, but don’t expect me to throw away any incriminating document. That’s just going too far. You have to draw a line in the sand somewhere. How immoral do you think I am?”

Bugliosi concedes that it might be possible for incriminating information to be overlooked and uncovered by a diligent search, but at the time that he wrote his book, ten years ago, virtually all the documents had already been released. His source at the National Archives estimated that about five thousand pages remained, which were withheld because they contained such information as the names of intelligence agents or details about investigative methods. Bugliosi concludes:

Three things are very clear: First, after an unprecedented and historic four-year scavenger hunt by the [JFK Assassination Records Review Board] for all documents “reasonably related” to the assassination, no smoking gun or even a smoldering ember of conspiracy was found. The reason is that no such smoking gun or ember ever existed. Second, if it did exist, it would never have been left in any file for discovery. And finally, assassination researchers and conspiracy theorists will never be satisfied, not even when the cows come home.

But the real punchline, as the New York Times has pointed out, is that after all these decades, an accident of timing means that these files will be released “by the administration of a president who dabbles in conspiracy theories himself.” (One of the categories of documents specifically exempted from the JFK Records Act, by the way, is income tax returns. I don’t really have anything to say about this—I’m just pointing it out.) And in at least one respect, the fears of the truly paranoid might turn out to be justified. It’s hard to imagine a moment in history when these documents would seem less interesting. The obsessions of aging conspiracy theorists can only seem quaint compared to the outrages unfolding in plain sight every day. Trump has inadvertently done what no genuine coverup could possibly have accomplished. He’s made all of the old conspiracy theories seem boring.

Written by nevalalee

October 26, 2017 at 8:21 am

The act of killing

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Over the weekend, my wife and I watched the first two episodes of Mindhunter, the new Netflix series created by Joe Penhall and produced by David Fincher. We took in the installments over successive nights, but if you can, I’d recommend viewing them back to back—they really add up to a single pilot episode, arbitrarily divided in half, and they amount to a new movie from one of the five most interesting American directors under sixty. After the first episode, I was a little mixed, but I felt better after the next one, and although I still have some reservations, I expect that I’ll keep going. The writing tends to spell things out a little too clearly; it doesn’t always avoid clichés; and there are times when it feels like a first draft of a stronger show to come. Fincher, characteristically, sometimes seems less interested in the big picture than in small, finicky details, like the huge titles used to identify the locations onscreen, or the fussily perfect sound that the springs of the chair make whenever the bulky serial killer Ed Kemper sits down. (He also gives us two virtuoso sequences of the kind that he does better than just about anyone else—a scene in a noisy club with subtitled dialogue, which I’ve been waiting to see for years, and a long, very funny montage of two FBI agents on the road.) For long stretches, the show is about little else than the capabilities of the Red Xenomorph digital camera. Yet it also feels like a skeleton key for approaching the work of a man who, in fits and starts, has come to seem like the crucial director of our time, in large part because of his own ambivalence toward his fantasies of control.

Mindhunter is based on a book of the same name by John Douglas and Mark Olshaker about the development of behavioral science at the FBI. I read it over twenty years ago, at the peak of my morbid interest in serial killers, which is a phase that a lot of us pass through and that Fincher, revealingly, has never outgrown. Apart from Alien 3, which was project that he barely understood and couldn’t control, his real debut was Seven, in which he benefited from a mechanical but undeniably compelling script by Andrew Kevin Walker and a central figure who has obsessed him ever since. John Doe, the killer, is still the greatest example of the villain who seems to be writing the screenplay for the movie in which he appears. (As David Thomson says of Donald Sutherland’s character in JFK: “[He’s] so omniscient he must be the scriptwriter.”) Doe’s notebooks, rendered in comically lavish detail, are like a nightmare version of the notes, plans, and storyboards that every film generates, and he alternately assumes the role of writer, art director, prop master, and producer. By the end, with the hero detectives reduced to acting out their assigned parts in his play, the distinction between Doe and the director—a technical perfectionist who would later become notorious for asking his performers for hundreds of takes—seems to disappear completely. It seems to have simultaneously exhilarated and troubled Fincher, much as it did Christopher Nolan as he teased out his affinities with the Joker in The Dark Knight, and both men have spent much of their subsequent careers working through the implications of that discovery.

Fincher hasn’t always been comfortable with his association with serial killers, to the extent that he made a point of having the characters in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo refer to “a serial murderer,” as if we’d be fooled by the change in terminology. Yet the main line of his filmography is an attempt by a surprisingly smart, thoughtful director to come to terms with his own history of violence. There were glimpses of it as early as The Game, and Zodiac, his masterpiece, is a deconstruction of the formula that turned out to be so lucrative in Seven—the killer, wearing a mask, appears onscreen for just five minutes, and some of the scariest scenes don’t have anything to do with him at all, even as his actions reverberate outward to affect the lives of everyone they touch. Dragon Tattoo, which is a movie that looks a lot better with time, identifies its murder investigation with the work of the director and his editors, who seemed to be asking us to appreciate their ingenuity in turning the elements of the book, with its five acts and endless procession of interchangeable suspects, into a coherent film. And while Gone Girl wasn’t technically a serial killer movie, it gave us his most fully realized version to date of the antagonist as the movie’s secret writer, even if she let us down with the ending that she wrote for herself. In each case, Fincher was processing his identity as a director who was drawn to big technical challenges, from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network, without losing track of the human thread. And he seems to have sensed how easily he could become a kind of John Doe, a master technician who toys sadistically with the lives of others.

And although Mindhunter takes a little while to reveal its strengths, it looks like it will be worth watching as Fincher’s most extended attempt to literally interrogate his assumptions. (Fincher only directed the first two episodes, but this doesn’t detract from what might have attracted him to this particular project, or the role that he played in shaping it as a producer.) The show follows two FBI agents as they interview serial killers in search of insights into their madness, with the tone set by a chilling monologue by Ed Kemper:

People who hunt other people for a vocation—all we want to talk about is what it’s like. The shit that went down. The entire fucked-upness of it. It’s not easy butchering people. It’s hard work. Physically and mentally, I don’t think people realize. You need to vent…Look at the consequences. The stakes are very high.

Take out the references to murder, and it might be the director talking. Kemper later casually refers to his “oeuvre,” leading one of the two agents to crack: “Is he Stanley Kubrick?” It’s a little out of character, but also enormously revealing. Fincher, like Nolan, has spent his career in dialogue with Kubrick, who, fairly or not, still sets the standard for obsessive, meticulous, controlling directors. Kubrick never made a movie about a serial killer, but he took the equation between the creative urge and violence—particularly in A Clockwork Orange and The Shining—as far as anyone ever has. And Mindhunter will only become the great show that it has the potential to be if it asks why these directors, and their fans, are so drawn to these stories in the first place.

“That doesn’t sound like the Putin I know…”

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"That doesn't sound like the Putin I know..."

Note: This post is the forty-second installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 41. You can read the previous installments here.

In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe published an essay titled “The Philosophy of Composition,” in which he described what he claimed to have been the creative process behind his poem “The Raven.” He portrayed each element as the result of a long chain of logical reasoning, as in his account of how he arrived at the image of the dead Lenore:

Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—“Of all melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?” Death—was the obvious reply. “And when,” I said, “is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?” From what I have already explained at some length, the answer, here also, is obvious—“When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world—and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”

Ever since, critics have been inclined to read Poe’s essay as a sort of fiction in itself, or even a sly parody, since few poets seem to have ever approached their work in such a calculating way. But I think it’s reasonable to see it as a series of high-speed photographs of the artist’s mind, like one of those pictures showing a bullet being shot through an apple: it slows down and fixes an instinctive phenomenon that really occurred within seconds.

In other words, Poe is laboriously dissecting a process in which every poet engages, consciously or otherwise: the search for symbols that can do double or triple duty within the poem. Poetry is the art of compression, and the hunt for fruitful images or metaphors is ultimately a way of saving space—you pack each line with maximum meaning by looking for combinations of words that can stand both for themselves and something else. “A violet by a mossy stone” says more in six words than most writers could do in sixty, and we see much the same impulse in Robert Graves’s list of poetical images from The White Goddess:

Sometimes, in reading a poem, the hairs will bristle at an apparently unpeopled and eventless scene described in it, if the elements bespeak [the goddess’s] unseen presence clearly enough: for example, when owls hoot, the moon rides like a ship through scudding cloud, trees sway slowly together above a rushing waterfall, and a distant barking of dogs is heard; or when a peal of bells in frosty weather suddenly announces the birth of the New Year.

What these images all have in common—along with what Graves calls their evocation of the muse—is that they stand at the center of an aura of associations: each one trails a hidden story behind it, and it allows the poem to convey the same amount of meaning with fewer components.

"But they can't do it alone..."

This may seem like a mechanical way of describing the craft of poetry, but I suspect that authors of all kinds, if they look how their writing evolves, would point to the moments in which they did more with less as the places where their work was most effective. This is particularly true of forms that are constantly managing their own complexity. A conspiracy theory, for instance, which I’ve elsewhere called a sort of surrogate for the act of writing itself, is more powerful when assembled out of elements that carry their own cognitive charge. The early seasons of The X-Files evoked a world of intrigue using a few well-chosen symbols—smallpox vaccination scars, for instance—and it grew less compelling and more confusing as the names of the players multiplied. Even conspiracy theories that depend on the accumulation of detail rely on a few vivid images to keep the rest of the pieces in line. I’ve watched Oliver Stone’s JFK maybe a dozen times over the last twenty years, and although I’d have trouble remembering exactly what argument he’s making, I can’t forget the magic bullet, whether or not I believe in it. A conspiracy theory might seem to have little in common with a poem, but both depend on a certain economy of means. There’s a good reason why the Freemasons or the Illuminati reappear so often in such theories: just as a poet like Robert Graves returns repeatedly to images of the moon, conspiracy theorists fall back on metaphors that have proven their memorable qualities over time.

You see a similar progression toward simplicity in my own novels, each of which is basically a conspiracy thriller with different kinds of window dressing. The Icon Thief spends an exorbitant amount of time laying out a complicated theory involving Marcel Duchamp, the Rosicrucians, and the Black Dahlia murder, both because the story was about complexity and because it was what I felt comfortable writing at the time, and it occupies fifty or more pages of the finished book. City of Exiles has a conspiracy centering on the Dyatlov Pass incident, which had to be described at length, but it devotes half as much space as its predecessor to laying out the details, in part because I wanted to cut down on this sort of thing, but also because the elements were inherently evocative. Eternal Empire cuts it even further: the historical conspiracy that drives the plot, such as it is, is described in a couple of dialogue scenes, most notably in Chapter 41. And when I look back, I think that I was able to condense this material so much because I hit on the right cluster of symbols. If the death of a beautiful woman, as Poe says, is the most poetical subject in the world, there are a few words that perform much the same function in conspiracy fiction, and the best of them all—at least for now—is Putin. Vladimir Putin is the Lenore of Eternal Empire, and his name and all it embodies is enough to spark the reader’s imagination when paired with a few intriguing details. Putin’s aura allowed me to do in five pages what The Icon Thief did in fifty. And I couldn’t have written this book without him…

A cut above the rest

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Saul Bass in the editing room

The other day, my wife pointed me to a recent poll by the Motion Picture Editors Guild of the best-edited movies of all time. Most of the usual suspects are here, although not, curiously, The Usual Suspects: Raging Bull and Citizen Kane top the list, followed by the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Psycho, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as a few enticing surprises. (I’ve never seen All That Jazz, which sits at number four, although the fact that a subplot revolves around the protagonist’s attempts to edit a movie of his own makes me wonder if there’s a touch of sentiment involved.) What struck me the most about the ranking is its fundamental oddity: it seems natural that a list like this would exist for movies, but it’s hard to imagine a similar one for books or albums, which are as intensely edited as any motion picture. So, for that matter, are plays, songs, magazine articles, and podcasts. Nearly any work of art, in fact, has undergone an editing process, if we take this to mean only the systematic arrangement of its component parts. To take a slightly offbeat example: Meghan Trainor’s “All About that Bass” might seem like a trifle, but it’s ruthlessly organized, with a lot of ideas—some, admittedly, lifted from Chuck Berry—flowing seamlessly together. The editing, if we’re willing to grant that a pop song can be as consciously constructed as a film by Martin Scorsese, is brilliant. So why are we so used to talking about it in movies and nowhere else?

A few possible explanations come to mind, starting with the fact that the roles of movie editor and director usually, although not always, reside in two different people. Choices about editing can be hard to separate from earlier choices about structure, and the division of labor in movie production—with structural decisions shared among the screenwriter, editor, director, and others—make film editing feel like a pursuit in itself, which is less obvious in a novel or album. (Literary editors and music producers play a crucial role in the arrangement of the pieces in their respective fields, but their contribution is harder to define.) It doesn’t hurt that movie editors are probably the only ones we’ve ever seen accepting an award on television, or that books on film editing considerably outnumber those of any other kind. Perhaps most relevant of all is the very nature of editing a movie, which differs from other types of editorial work in that the amount of raw material is fixed. When you’re writing a book, it’s possible to write new chapters to fill in the gaps in the story; a recording artist can always lay down a fresh version of a track; but a movie editor is stuck with the dailies that the director delivers. These days, this isn’t necessarily true: directors like Peter Jackson plan for reshoots even before principal photography begins, and modern software allows for considerable freedom in creating new shots in post. But the image still persists of the editor exercising his or her will on a resistant mass of footage, solving narrative problems under enormous constraints. Which is what makes it so fascinating.

The editing room of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

So what do we mean when we say that a movie had great editing? There’s an old chestnut, which isn’t any less true for being so familiar, that if you’ve noticed the editing in a movie, the editor has done a poor job. That’s right as far as it goes, and it’s equally correct that the showier moments in a smartly edited movie have a way of obscuring more meaningful work. The multiple film stocks in JFK might grab the eye, but they’re much less impressive than the massive amount of information that the movie allows the viewer to absorb. Famous cuts, like the one from the match to the desert in Lawrence of Arabia or the time jump in 2001, are the ones we recall, but we’re less prone to take notice of how expertly those films keep us oriented in two of the most confusing environments imaginable—the desert and outer space. And we’re often barely aware of how much of a movie has been constructed in postproduction. When you compare the script of The Usual Suspects with the final result, it’s hard not to conclude that the movie’s secret hero, its true Keyser Soze, is editor John Ottman: the whole closing montage of sounds, images, and dialogue, which is the first thing many of us remember, isn’t even hinted at in the screenplay. But we aren’t meant to see any of this. We’re left with the stubborn, redundant axiom that if a movie is great, its editing was great as well. That’s why the Editors Guild poll is foremost a list of terrific movies, and one of the first such lists that I’d recommend to anyone who was interested in learning more about film.

That said, as I’ve suggested above, there are times when we can’t help but be grateful for the problems that a movie’s editor has solved. Managing the delivery of complicated information, as we often see in the movies of David Fincher, poses tremendous challenges, and Gone Girl and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo play like thrillers in which most of the drama is unfolding in the editing room. Casino, which I recently watched again just for my own pleasure, does this kind of thing so beautifully that it makes The Wolf of Wall Street seem a little lame by comparison. When it comes to keeping the audience grounded during complex action, we’re likely to think first of the films of Paul Greengrass, who has ruined much of modern action filmmaking by chopping up the footage so fluently that he encourages less talented filmmakers to do the same—hence the vast divide between The Bourne Supremacy and Quantum of Solace. (Although if I had to name one movie that still fills me with awe at how expertly it choreographs and assembles action on a large scale, it would have to be Titanic.) And editors have often been called upon to pull shape and logic out of seemingly unworkable footage. Annie Hall wasn’t even a love story before Ralph Rosenblum, by his own account, saw what its three hours of raw material were really about, and the result is a film that seems perfect, even if it was anything but preordained. Elsewhere, I’ve described creativity as the conversion of the arbitrary into the inevitable. And that, really, is what editors do.

The conspiratorial urge

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Donald Sutherland and Kevin Costner in JFK

Like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, I believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, but this wasn’t always the case. There was a period of a year or so in my early teens when I must have read a dozen books, in their entirety or in part, on the Kennedy assassination, ranging from the Warren Commission Report itself to works on a sliding scale of lunacy ranging from Case Closed to Appointment in Dallas. This was mostly thanks to Oliver Stone’s JFK, a film that strikes me now as a maddeningly skillful, highly irresponsible work of fiction, as well as, inconveniently, one of the greatest of all American movies. When I first saw it, though, I was prepared to take much of it at face value, partially because I encountered it during a golden age for conspiracy fiction: Foucault’s Pendulum had been released a few years earlier, and The X-Files had premiered that fall. As a result, I was primed to soak up reams of conspiracy literature, and not just on the assassination but on all aspects of history and culture: Holy Blood, Holy Grail, Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince’s books on the Shroud of Turin—which in my weaker moments I still find oddly persuasive—and endless works on the secrets of the Bible, the Masons, and even, yes, the Rosicrucians, spiraling out into the larger subjects of the paranormal and occult. (There comes a point in every kid’s life when he tries to move a salt shaker with his mind, and in some ways, I’ve never entirely left it, although I’d like to think I’ve channeled those energies into more constructive pursuits.)

This was also the year in which I wrote my first novel, typing up three hundred pages of science fiction using WordStar at my parents’ office, and when I look back at it now, I can see how closely those two impulses were entwined. It’s possible that puberty leads to a surge in an obsessive kind of creativity, the kind that results in drawing endless pages of comics or picking up the guitar, and to the extent that I was drawn to conspiracies, both real and imaginary, it wasn’t because I distrusted the government or the official version of history, but because I fell in love with a creative act. Writing a novel and constructing a conspiracy theory seemed like similar pursuits: they both involved sustained intellectual effort, wide reading, and a considerable amount of ingenuity. In retrospect, I wasn’t entirely wrong, at least not at the time. I happened to come of age at an era when conspiracy theories still involved weeks of sleuthing in libraries and piecing together fragments of information from many scattered sources, none of which were easily accessible. It may seem strange to wax nostalgic about an age of paranoia, but I miss the old days. Conspiracy theories have always been weirdly distorted versions of conventional scholarship, both in their methods and in the kinds of personalities they attract, and just as the ease of searching texts leads to a loss in serious academic work—you no longer need to read all the books on a library shelf to get the references you need—even contemporary conspiracy theories are looking a little thin.

The umbrella man's umbrella

Yet even in their modern, increasingly hysterical form, conspiracy theories can best be understood as a literary impulse. An even better analogy might be that of the collage: you’re assembling information into a larger, surprising pattern, and much of the power of the result comes from its resonance with its original form. We remember Picasso welding a bicycle seat and handlebars together to create the head of a bull because it forces us to see its constituent parts in a new light, and we’re drawn to conspiracies about the life of Jesus, say, because of the way it combines familiar elements—the wedding at Cana, the last supper—into something novel. The “best” conspiracy theories are the ones that seem to invent the least: they’re about juxtapositions and recombinations, or laying a new scrim on the lens to bring out unexpected details. That’s why a subject like the Kennedy assassination has turned out to be so fruitful. There’s an overwhelming amount of material available, some of it contradictory and enigmatic, so it feels like a bin of mosaic pieces that can be set together in countless ways. To add yet another analogy to the mix, it’s like a magnet that draws certain personalities who are unconsciously in search of a subject. A writer can weigh and discard various ideas for a long time before finding the one that magically clicks, and I have a feeling that a lot of conspiracy theorists were born looking for an event that would allow them to indulge their existing hunger for interpretation. The urge to create comes first, and its darker companions, like paranoia, emerge as a way of justifying the work itself.

But a line needs to be drawn here. History isn’t fiction; real life isn’t a novel; and while the creative urge in storytelling often leads the author to discover more about himself and how the world works, conspiracies encourage emotional retreat and alienation. When I read Foucault’s Pendulum for the first time, I was seduced by its inventiveness and erudition, and I totally missed its larger point about the pathology of paranoia, or how our urge to connect everything to everything else can distort reality’s irreducible mysteries. In my own fiction, I’ve taken pains, almost to a fault, to have it both ways: The Icon Thief and City of Exiles both end on the revelation that the historical conspiracies they describe are something other than what they seemed. Part of this is my desire to show some residual respect for the real people and events I use—Duchamp wasn’t a Rosicrucian, and I didn’t feel comfortable writing a novel that made that point in earnest, however ingenious the argument might have been. But it had even more to do with a shift in my own priorities. For all the cleverness involved in the construction of a good conspiracy, it pales compared to the intellectual effort required to see the world as a whole, with all its contradictions, its dead ends, and its combination of unfathomable complexity and frustrating simplicity. That’s the real challenge, and it’s work enough for a lifetime. And in the end, we’re all acting alone.

Written by nevalalee

November 21, 2013 at 9:20 am

The surprising skepticism of The X-Files

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Gillian Anderson in "Jose Chung's From Outer Space"

Tomorrow, believe it or not, marks the twentieth anniversary of The X-Files, which aired its first episode on September 10, 1993. As much as I’d like to claim otherwise, I didn’t watch the pilot that night; I’m not even sure I watched the second episode, “Deep Throat.” “Squeeze,” which aired the following week, is the first installment I remember seeing on its original broadcast, and later, I continued to tune in, although only sporadically at first. In its early days, I had some issues with the show’s lack of continuity: it bugged me to no end that after every weekly encounter with the paranormal—any one of which should have been enough to upend Mulder or Scully’s understanding of the world forever—the two leads were right back where they were at the start of the next episode, and few, if any cases were ever mentioned again. Looking back now, of course, it’s easy to see that this episodic structure was what allowed the show to survive, and that it was irrevocably damaged once it began to take its backstory more seriously. In the meantime, I eventually learned to accept the show’s narrative logic on its own terms. And I’m very grateful that I did.

It’s no exaggeration to say that The X-Files has had a greater influence on my own writing than any work of narrative art in any medium. That doesn’t mean it’s my favorite work of art, or even my favorite television show. What it does mean is that Chris Carter’s supernatural procedural came along at just the point in my life when I was ready to be profoundly influenced by a great genre series. I was thirteen when the show premiered, and the more I age, the more this starts to seem like the pivotal year of my creative development. Take that year away, or replace it with a different set of cultural influences, and I’d be a different person altogether. It was the year I discovered the work of Umberto Eco and Douglas Hofstadter; Oliver Stone’s JFK set me on a short but fruitful detour into the literature of conspiracy; and it marked my first deep dive into the work of David Lynch and, later, Jorge Luis Borges. Some of these works have lasted for me, while others haven’t, but they’ve all played a part in shaping who I am, and The X-Files stood at the heart of it all, with imagery drawn in equal part from Twin Peaks and Dealey Plaza and a playful, agnostic spirit that mirrored those of the intellectuals and authors I was reading at the same time.

Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny in The X-Files pilot

And this underlying skepticism—which may seem like a strange word to apply to The X-Files—was a big part of its appeal. What I found enormously attractive about the show was that although it took place in a world filled with aliens, ghosts, and vampires, it didn’t try to force all of these individual elements into one overarching pattern. Even in its later seasons, when it attempted, with mixed results, to weave its abduction and conspiracy threads into a larger picture, certain aspects remained stubbornly, incongruously unexplained: the same world shaped by the plans of the Consortium or Syndicate also included lake monsters, clairvoyants, and liver-eating mutants, all of whom would presumably continue to go about their own lives after the alien invasion occurred. The show, remarkably, never tried to convert us to anything. It didn’t have any answers. And what I love about it now, in retrospect, is the fact that this oddly indifferent attitude toward its own mysteries arose from the vagaries of network television itself. Every episode had to stand on its own. There was no such thing as binge-watching. The show had to keep moving or die.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why even fundamentally skeptical viewers, like me, could become devoted fans—or why Mulder and Scully could appear on the cover of the Skeptical Inquirer. It’s true that Scully was never right, but it’s remarkable how often it seemed that she could be, or should be, which is due as much to the show’s episodic construction as to Gillian Anderson’s wonderful performance. (As I’ve mentioned before, Scully might be my favorite character on any television show.) With every episode changing the terms of the game, complete with a new supporting cast, setting, and premise, it was impossible for viewers to know where they stood, and a defensive skepticism was as healthy an attitude as any. If the show premiered again today, I have a feeling that much of this quality would be lost: there would be greater pressure to establish a mythology up front, or to tell overarching stories that required thirteen episodes to completely unfold. The X-Files did go this way eventually, alas, but not until after a haphazard, remarkably rich initial season that established, in spite of what its creators might try in the future, that anything was possible, and no one explanation would ever be enough. Tomorrow, I’ll talk a little more about how deeply the result has influenced my own fiction, and why I suspect that it will continue to do so.

Written by nevalalee

September 9, 2013 at 9:06 am

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