"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Can anyone on “The X-Files” hold a normal conversation anymore? Would that be too much to ask? Would it be too much to ask for Agent Scully, when presented with a direct question from a friend and X-Files compatriot, to reply in a prompt and courteous manner, rather than stare at her interlocutor and then stride out of the room? Just answer the question. Please.
If I wanted to watch people in a poorly lit room hold painfully slow, incoherent conversations, I’d hang out with heroin addicts.
Yes, “The X-Files,” that groundbreaking paranormal crime series, comes to a close on Sunday. Two years after David Duchovny left the show, with the ratings falling, creator Chris Carter and friends have decided to pull the plug at last.
The show returned from winter reruns with the promise that, in the final 11 episodes, the “X-Files” team would tie up some of the loose ends regarding this wayward series and the ineffable conspiracy plot, or “mythology,” that underlies it.
With 10 episodes down and only the two-hour finale to go, that promise has not only gone unfulfilled but is also starting to look like a downright hoax.
Like other “X-Files” fans of yore, perhaps, I was lured back to the show by the prospect that they were finally going to put a slug in the back of this lumbering giant’s head and, in the process, clear some things up and maybe do something interesting.
The hope was that Carter, Duchovny, Gillian Anderson and company would rise to the challenge and deliver a run of shows that would approximate the peaks of inventiveness, suspense and quirky humor that “The X-Files” reached during its heyday.
But that’s not how it has happened. The first 10 of the 11 episodes have done little to belie the perception that “The X-Files” has degenerated into soap opera: Emotions are conveyed by twitching lips, watery eyes and long glances pregnant with nothing.
Driven away by the show’s absurdities, I’ve watched only intermittently over the past two years, but research confirms that this is what has transpired:
Duchovny, moving on to a movie career, is written out of the show but agrees to make occasional appearances. Natch, his character, Agent Fox Mulder, is abducted by aliens. At about the same time, Scully becomes pregnant in what appears to be an immaculate conception (she was rendered infertile by alien experiments).
New characters come aboard, including:
Agent John Doggett (Robert Patrick, of “Terminator 2″ fame — an admittedly superb casting choice by Carter): The no-nonsense fugitive specialist who is tasked with finding the vanished Mulder.
Deputy Director Alvin Kersh: The latest antagonistic authority figure and the first black character on the show since the mysterious shadow player, “X.”
Agent Monica Reyes: An expert on satanic cults who teams with Doggett to form the new X-Files crew.
Assistant Director Brad Follmer: Another sinister higher-up, who was once romantically linked with Agent Reyes.
Doggett and Scully clash but learn to respect one another. Scully begins to learn freaky things about her unborn child and a possible link to government experiments involving human-alien hybrids, or Super Soldiers.
Mulder is found and brought back from the dead. Then, after Scully gives birth, Mulder disappears again. It is hinted that he may be the father of Scully’s child. Scully leaves the X-Files team to care for her son William but still plays an active role in investigations as a forensic pathologist.
But if you’ve missed the last two years, don’t worry. Here’s a brief summary that ought to get you back up to speed in a hurry:
Agent John Doggett (in a gravelly voice): “My job is to find Mulder. And I intend to do it. I may seem gruff and antagonistic now, but you’ll learn to like me because I’m a stand-up guy.”
Scully: “I’m going to have a baby! But how is that possible?”
Deputy Director Kersh: “I’m the new ominous black guy.”
Doggett: “Scully, you’re not trying to tell me Mulder was abducted by aliens, are you?”
Scully: “Yes, I am, Agent Doggett. But you can’t let these mysterious strangers hurt my unborn baby.”
Doggett: “Don’t worry. Just don’t try to sell me any more of this alien conspiracy hogwash, OK?”
Deputy Director Kersh: “I’m a mysterious, ominous presence.”
Agent Monica Reyes: “And I’m the peppy new female presence!”
Assistant Director Skinner: “Don’t forget about me! I’m as ambiguous as ever! Why am I always so painfully conflicted? What am I hiding?”
Doggett: “I think you’ve got something to hide, Skinner.”
Mulder: “Aaaaaggghhhhhhhhh! You’re stretching my face with hooks!”
Cigarette-Smoking Man: “Look at me! I’m smoking through my trachea! Oops, now I’m dead. Maybe.”
Scully: “Don’t touch my baby!!”
Doggett: “All right, already. Jeez. But if I hear one more thing about alien bounty hunters, I’m going to crap my pants.”
Alex Krycek: “Looks like I’m dead now. Well, it was a good run.”
Scully: “The word I’ve used most this season, besides “the”? Hmm. I’d have to go with “baby.”
Assistant Director Brad Follmer: “Hi! I’m Cary Elwes. You might remember me from my sinister turn as the bad-guy driver opposite Tom Cruise in “Days of Thunder”!
Mulder: “Can’t you aliens use some anesthetic?”
Doggett: “I’m skeptical of you, Kersh. But I’ve got no evidence.”
Kersh: “Well, I’m ominous for a reason, you know.”
As I said, I haven’t watched every episode over the past couple of seasons, but that’s OK, because only about one-third of all the episodes deal with the actual conspiracy. The rest deal with your run-of-the-mill investigations of that vampire mom with jaws that unhinge who devours her son’s entire soccer team, and those exist as if in suspended animation.
As the series has worn on and the stakes for Mulder and Scully have grown higher, this discrepancy has become perhaps the most frustrating absurdity plaguing “The X-Files”: the lack of connection between the episodes that delve into the conspiracy that hangs like the sword of Damocles over humankind and those that deal with unrelated paranormal phenomena.
Aliens are taking over the planet, the fate of the human race hangs in the balance, fire and brimstone are raining from the sky, and yet the agents have the time to delve into picayune murder mysteries. Forces of incomprehensible magnitude are conspiring to destroy Mulder, Scully and their efforts to uncover the truth, yet they are in no apparent danger when they walk to the grocery store to get a roll of toilet paper.
Another annoying development has been the discontinuity in terms of the emotional relationships between the characters. In the 1998 “X-Files” movie “Fight the Future,” Scully and Mulder essentially go to hell and back. They almost consummate their affection for each other with a kiss. He saves her from a tank deep in an alien spacecraft buried in the ice of Antarctica just before the huge ship takes off, nearly killing them. But in the denouement, when they see each other again in Washington, D.C., they hold a terse conversation before Mulder, for no apparent reason, spins on his heel and walks away.
At its best, “The X-Files” provided the kind of action and suspense packed into 45 minutes that you normally found only at the movie theater. It was like watching a good thriller every Sunday night without having to schlep over to Blockbuster and stand under those horrible fluorescent lights.
“The X-Files” also delivered first-rate humor in offbeat episodes, like 1996′s “War of the Coprophages” and 1998′s “Bad Blood.” In the latter, a botched investigation of vampires in Texas leads Mulder and Scully to present entirely different versions of the same events in their report to a bemused A.D. Skinner. Luke Wilson played the local sheriff who, in Scully’s version, is a charming and capable officer who flirts with her and lavishes praise on her investigative insight. In Mulder’s eyes, he’s a bumbling, bucktoothed yokel.
In a two-part episode titled “Dreamland,” from 1998, a government-operated UFO outside the infamous Area 51 creates a ripple in the space-time fabric, causing Mulder to switch bodies with government official Morris Fletcher, played by Michael McKean. Only Mulder and Fletcher are aware of the identity change and, as Mulder desperately tries to figure out how to reverse the situation while dealing with Fletcher’s horribly fractured family life, Fletcher, liberated and with no intention of going back, settles fatuously into his new role as FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder, hitting on an increasingly flustered Scully and slapping her on the butt. McKean’s performance is the funniest thing I’ve seen him do outside “This Is Spinal Tap.”
In those episodes, the X-Files team showed a willingness to spoof itself, and Duchovny and Anderson were given the opportunity to step out of their characters and treat Mulder and Scully with refreshing irony. That was particularly effective in the case of Anderson, who displays a giggly, winning personality on late-night talk shows that stands in stark contrast to Scully’s ice-queen demeanor.
“The X-Files” has also, in its finer moments, been among TV’s most inventive shows. In a 1998 episode titled “Triangle,” distinguished by its outstanding camerawork, Mulder finds himself in 1939 aboard the Queen Anne, a British ocean liner taken over by Nazis as war begins in Europe. As Scully hustles around FBI headquarters, trying to figure out what’s happened to Mulder, the viewer follows her through corridors, into and out of offices, and up and down elevators via a single camera shot that lasts for several minutes.
Later, aboard the ship, Scully and the super-nerd Lone Gunmen trio race through the hallways searching for Mulder. Mulder, meanwhile, is running through the same hallways, only in 1939. Director Carter splits the screen in two, so that the viewer sees Mulder and Scully running toward each other on different halves of the screen and assumes they will collide where the hallways intersect. Instead, since they occupy the same space at different points in time, the agents run right past each other, switch screens and continue sprinting down the hall.
The thing about “The X-Files” is that, every time you pronounce it creatively dead, it comes back to life like the ghouls Mulder and Scully have been investigating these eight-odd years. Every time you think the show has fallen into irreparable, lazy self-parody, Chris Carter has a marijuana-induced epiphany, rolls off his chaise on some remote Hawaiian beach, and videophones in an idea that will shake new life into it.
But now, because he has avoided doing it over the past 10 episodes, Carter is out of time. And in the season finale, “The Truth,” he has to deliver answers to the riddles he has posed.
The audience Carter has toyed with for so long will on some level demand that there be logic underlying the mystery, that the show make sense. The frustrating yet compelling ambiguity that has been “The X-Files”‘ hallmark is poised to be its undoing.
In an essay about David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” another seminal television series that fell apart in the process of resolving itself, David Foster Wallace might have been describing Carter. Lynch, he wrote, “is way better at deepening and complicating mysteries than he is at wrapping them up.” Wallace continues:
The show had degenerated into tics and shticks and mannerisms and red herrings … Part of the reason I actually preferred “Twin Peaks”‘ second season to its first was the fascinating spectacle of watching a narrative structure disintegrate and a narrative artist freeze up and try to shuck and jive when the plot reached a point where his own weaknesses as an artist were going to be exposed (just imagine the fear: this disintegration was happening on National TV).
I’m not sure fear could penetrate Carter’s cocoon of self-satisfaction. Is he at all concerned that he has shied away from providing the answers his audience craves? Over the course of “The X-Files”‘ stretch run, only three episodes — including the first two: “Provenance” and “Providence” — dealt seriously with the conspiracy. The rest were, at this stage in the game, irrelevant.
One episode, “Jump the Shark,” in which McKean reprises his role as the craven and venal Fletcher Morris, killed off the Lone Gunmen in a biological terrorism plot unrelated to the conspiracy. The fact that the episode was so named indicates that Carter and his co-conspirators still have a sense of humor, if not a keen sense of where and when to apply it.
“Jumping the Shark” refers, of course, to the moment in “Happy Days” when Fonzie jumped a shark tank in a motorcycle and the highly popular sitcom lost its last shred of dignity. The term now applies to the moment when any TV show or cultural phenomenon, having reached its zenith, resorts to ridiculous lengths to hold on to its audience and then proceeds unceremoniously downhill.
OK, so Carter et al. are aware of the criticisms leveled against them. But the problem is that the episode was characterized by some of the very same flaws (cheesy melodrama, deathly slow pacing, and a lack of coherence) that caused “The X-Files” to jump the shark in the first place. A mere wink at the audience does not credibility restore.
In “Provenance,” the first of the final 11 episodes, it seemed Carter was trying to stall for time. Thirty minutes and two commercial breaks came and went before anything happened. Finally, a guy who turns out to be a deep-cover FBI agent tries to kill little telekinetic William. Later, in the only interesting moment of the show, William causes a metal fragment of a spaceship that may contain the secrets to all of human history to explode from a bureau drawer and spin over his head.
In the next episode, “Providence,” William is abducted but apparently defeats his captors by making a buried spaceship roar to life and take off with the kidnappers either on top of it (ouch) or inside it. He’s a precocious little tyke, all right.
But after all the time devoted to Scully’s baby, Carter scuttled the entire thing in “William,” an episode directed by Duchovny. In it, Jeffrey Spender, Mulder’s old foil and half-brother, comes back to Washington horribly disfigured and injects William with a magic solution that “cures” him of his superpowers. Scully gives him up for adoption, and that’s that. As Agent Reyes says in the episode after “William” (“Release,” in which Doggett finally puts to rest the unsolved murder of his son): “In other words, we’re nowhere again.”
To make this hoax more pronounced, Carter gave the subtitle “Endgame” to the final four episodes, the first of which was “William.” The promos implied that with “Endgame” we’d be getting down to the nitty-gritty, but “Release” was unconnected with the conspiracy, and “Sunshine Days,” which the promos touted as the “most bizarre” episode ever (it wasn’t), dealt with a psychokinetic man obsessed with “The Brady Bunch.”
Which brings us to the finale. Mulder is back and on trial for his life. Where’s he been? What will be explained? Will Carter abandon his newfound roles of cheese merchant and staller for time?
There is at least one more “X-Files” feature film on the way. In this week’s TV Guide, however, Carter says the next film will be a stand-alone mystery, unrelated to the show’s overarching mythology.
Therefore, if Carter really has anything left to say about the mythology, now’s the time to do it. He doesn’t have to answer every last question in order to satisfy me, and indeed the audience shouldn’t demand that of him. But he must, at the very least, put out a blueprint for who’s involved in the conspiracy and what their roles are.
I mean, I went to college and whatnot. And I have no idea what the hell’s going on. There are aliens (including mellow gray aliens and ferocious, flesh-tearing aliens), there are alien bounty hunters, there are alien rebels, and there are Super Soldiers. Prove to us, Chris, that you know what you’re doing, that there’s actually a coherent plot that connects all this.
There is a conspiracy within the FBI. Sinister characters are threatening Kersh and Skinner. Who are these people and what is their agenda? Are we going to discover why Skinner always looks so thoroughly constipated? Perhaps it’s just an unresolved childhood issue.
I want Carter to prove me wrong and knock me out with “The Truth.” To do that, he’s got to deliver something on a much higher level than the final season has done so far. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but for all my skepticism I’ll still be glued to the sofa on Sunday night. If nine years of “The X-Files” have taught us anything, it’s that unlikely things — even impossible things — sometimes happen.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)