Uncovering The X-Files Season 1 Ep. 7-9

S1, E7 – “Ghost in the Machine”, dir. Jerrold Freedman, written by Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, originally aired October 29, 1993
            The CEO of software company ‘Eurisko’ is murdered by a strangely elaborate booby-trap.
The crime itself is not immediately strange enough to be X-filed; Mulder and Scully only get pulled into the investigation when Mulder’s old partner Jerry Lamana (Wayne Duvall) calls him in for a favour. We get an important new perspective on Mulder as a competent agent, as seen through Jerry’s jealousy. When Jerry is killed during the investigation, it’s interesting to see how Mulder, a man who usually acts on instinct, is able to restrain his emotions enough to see behind the ‘obvious evidence’.
Said evidence points towards Brad Wilczek (Rob LaBelle)—a disheveled computer whiz not unlike Steve Wozniak—as he was fired just before the murder of his boss. We, the audience, very quickly realize that it was Brad’s creation, the Control Operating System (COS) that is the true perp, but such a revelation evades everyone for most of the episode. It’s a sci-fi twist that borrows from “2001: A Space Odyssey”’s HAL-9000; an all-powerful artificial intelligence acts proactively for the sake of self-preservation. Besides a few dated hacking scenes, the episode thankfully steers clear of computer jargon. It’s also interesting to note that Deep Throat returns, though not to contribute to the mythology arc strangely enough.
By the time Mulder has realized COS is the killer, Brad has already turned himself in for the sake of protecting his creation… not from being destroyed, but from being weaponized by the government. There’s a funhouse-esque bit of Mulder and Scully making their way through the Eurisko building, but the kicker that really made the episode great for me was COS’ security guard being a double agent for the government. There was so much conflict and tension at every turn; they were able to turn a decades-old twist into something exciting.


S1 E8 – “Ice”, dir. David Nutter, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong
originally aired November 5, 1993
            A video transmission from a remote research base in Alaska shows that all the scientists have gone insane and killed each other.
By far the most dark and tense episode in the series yet, but it has to be said that it lifts so, so heavily from John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982), which itself is just one of many adaptions of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s “Who Goes There” (1938). Everything from the locale and atmosphere to the infected dog is directly taken. The only prominent difference between it and “The Thing” is that this bottle-episode can’t afford grotesque puppeteering, so those infected by the alien parasite simply become violently aggressive. The parasite itself is a pretty disgusting worm that runs along the nape of its host’s neck, flexing that TV-14 rating that the show so rarely reminds us it has. As just a monster-of-the-week episode, it’s interesting that it contributes to the alien mythology.
Mulder and Scully aren’t at it alone—we need a tight cast of unique characters to kill off in horror movie fashion. We have the uptight man, the innocent man, the nervous woman, the scruffy pilot; in the brief time we’re introduced to them we get pretty strong characterizations of them, making their eventual descent into paranoia that much more rewarding. The climax is deservingly frantic, but for me the tensest scene was Mulder and Scully standing off against each other. It tells a lot about their ability (and inability) to make difficult choices in an episode that otherwise doesn’t focus too much on their development.
It may be shamelessly ripped from a great horror story, but it’s still a great and thoroughly satisfying episode.


S1 E9 – “Space”, dir. William Graham, written by Chris Carter
originally aired November 12, 1993
            A strange force is sabotaging NASA’s attempts to launch a shuttle.
Mulder and Scully are called in by communications commander Michelle Generoo (Susanna Thompson) to investigate NASA’s Mission Control. It’s already a strange case for the X-Files specialists to take, but I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt. Mulder meets his childhood hero, former astronaut Colonel Marcus Belt (Ed Lauter), who acts very strangely and harshly, disillusioning Mulder. In a series of poorly rendered and non-scary nightmare sequences, we learn that Belt is haunted by some kind of Alien spirit he encountered years ago in his space-faring days. The CGI-heavy ghost bits are pretty terrible, as is the cheap Mission Control set. Mulder and Scully have little-to-no affect on the plot, instead just standing around while Belt and Generoo act out rocket science mumbo jumbo. Even if the production side of the episode would have come together, it’s still the worst episode yet.
There’s a few poignant scenes, particularly between Mulder and Belt. The one that stood out was Belt turning on the agent and criticizing sensationalist media coverage and general disinterest in the space program; “They only know your name if you blow up”, a biting comment no doubt referring to NASA’s shuttle Challenger tragically exploding in 1986. It’s fascinating to see Mulder’s faith turn on him for once, as his admiration for Belt blinds him to the Colonel’s strange actions.
Overall it’s a boring, inconsequential episode that does little to engage the series’ main characters, thus losing the audience’s attention.

You can find my thoughts on Episodes 4-6 here


Uncovering the X-Files Season 1 Ep. 4-6

S1, E4 – “Conduit”, dir. Daniel Sackheim, written by Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon, originally aired October 1, 1993
            At a campground in Iowa, A teenaged girl vanishes in a flash of light before her little brothers eyes.
When Mulder and Scully show up to investigate, the story quickly branches off into two closely connected plots: the first, in very “Twin Peaks” fashion, is the agents peeling back the supposed innocence of the victim, Ruby, and finding out about her seemingly dark history. She’s ‘not exactly prom queen’, as the local sheriff tells them. The side plot (which ends up taking precedence) has to do with how Ruby’s disappearance affected her little brother, Kevin—a boy Mulder immediately identifies with. When Mulder finds Kevin writing binary messages he’s hearing from TV static, it becomes clear there’s something very wrong with Kevin. But rather than go along with the horror trope of creepy children (think ‘Return of the Repressed’), Kevin is depicted more as a metaphor for innocent belief. One of the scenes that stood out to me was the NSA tearing through Kevin’s bedroom for evidence—symbolic of how Mulder’s own investigations are constantly torn down by authority figures.
The Kevin plot ends with Mulder realizing his own obsessions, followed rather abruptly by Ruby being suddenly returned to her family. There’re gaps in her memory, and her captors apparently forbid her from talking. I took this part as an allegory for sexual abuse, especially with Ruby’s mother encouraging Ruby’s silence, saying she doesn’t want their family shamed.
Though not exactly an episode that contributes to the “Mythology” arc, the episode does remind us about Mulder’s personal quest to find his long-lost sister, Samantha. The episode ends with Scully listening to Mulder’s hypno-therapy sessions about the night his sister vanished, as Mulder sits alone in a church, crying. Suddenly, “I want to believe” carries a little more meaning.


S1, E5 – “The Jersey Devil”, dir. Joe Napolitano, written by Chris Carter,
originally aired October 8, 1993
            In the outskirts of Atlantic City, a man is brutally murdered by a local urban legend.
Much like Episode 3, “Squeeze”, here we have a ‘Monster-of-the-Week’ episode. Mulder and Scully show up to find Atlantic City—and it’s casino—abuzz with news of the ‘Jersey Devil’. Despite the local law enforcement appearing capable (rare), they seem hesitant to investigate the murders because of the tourists they bring. The week’s mystery was handled pretty offhandedly here, with the episode seeming to focus more on the buds of romance between Mulder and Scully. Here for the first time we see Scully’s personal life: dates, birthday parties, and so on, while Mulder seems too absorbed by his work. There’s something of a milestone developed between the two agents when Scully decides to skip out on her date with a very promising man in favor of helping Mulder dig deeper into a case.
The resolution of the mystery comes pretty anticlimactically: Mulder is jumped by the Jersey Devil who spares him and runs into the woods to be gunned down by the local sheriff. What’s more interesting is the implications the monster brings—she ends up being a beautiful though primitive woman, a missing link of sorts, leading Mulder to philosophize “Maybe we’re just beasts with big brains.” The Jersey Devil was just trying to protect her young the whole time, leaving the viewer with the question of ‘who’s the real monster this week?’


S1, E6 – “Shadows”, dir. Michael Katleman, written by Glen Morgan & James Wong, originally aired Oct. 22, 1993
            A woman, mourning the suicide of her boss, is protected from assailants by an otherworldly force.
Though pretty predictable from the cold opening alone, the plot of this episode was really interesting. Finally, the monster-of-the-week being the focus of the episode! And yet… parts of the plot are very problematic in relation to the characters and canon the show has thus far established. More on that later.
Lauren, a young secretary, seems aware of the fact that the ghostly presence of her dead boss, Howard Graves, is watching over her like a guardian angel. The evidence of his ghost are there right from the beginning—Mulder and Scully see the autopsy reports of the two men who seemed to be psycho-kinetically shocked and killed from the inside out—yet this pretty undeniable evidence gets swept under the rug. Even Mulder, defender of the faith, goes along with Scully’s idea that Howard Graves is alive and hiding somewhere.
There’s an intense but nonsensical scene where Mulder witnesses Graves’ ghost save Lauren by choking another assailant…while Scully is of course out of the room. It’s just strange for the show to so blatantly admit the existence of ghosts to Mulder—how can you not believe?! It’s clearly not the first thing Mulder and the audience have seen, but at least the moments that came before were packaged with the possibility of doubt, dreams, mental instability and such.
           The focus on the ghost, however, is lost when the investigation shifts from ‘the pursuit of paranormal possibilities’ to a tangible case, namely Graves murder at the hand of his business partner. It’s frustratingly out of character for Mulder to give up on proving the ghost’s existence and instead accept its help in solving the more earthbound case. It was one of the most intriguing episodes so far, but it was resolved so strangely.

You can find my thoughts on Episodes 1-3 here

You can find my thoughts on Episodes 7-9 here


Digging Deeper – Planet of the Apes (1968)

The screenplay for “Planet of the Apes” (1968), adapted loosely from the 1963 novel “La Planête des Singes” by Pierre Boulle, was written by Michael Wilson & Rod Sterling. Considering the latter’s previous work of creating and hosting “The Twilight Zone” (1959), Planet of the Apes is a cautionary tale, more intent on asking the tough questions than leaving its audience with that warm fuzzy feeling. The timing of the movie was so perfect: it was the peak of the Cold War and the American Space Age, and just a year before the Moon Landing in ’69. And while it’s most remembered for it’s iconic closing shot (we’ll get to that), the entire film works great as a sort of thrilling, dark political satire, not unlike George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1945), which Charlton Heston’s character Taylor even paraphrases: “All apes are equal… but some are more equal than others.”

The film opens with Taylor and his American astronauts returning to Earth after a deep-space mission sometime in the undisclosed future. His shipmates already in stasis, Heston delivers a very philosophical final status log: “From out here, everything seems different. Time bends, space is… boundless. It squashes a man’s ego.” He sets the high-concept setting for the audience, before leaving he and his crew in the hands of machines to auto-pilot their ship home. (Humans leaving their lives to technology? Hmm…) The ship crash lands on a seemingly deserted yet hospitable planet; Taylor and crewmates Dodge (Jeff Burton) and Landon (Robert Gunner) find the only female member has suffered a rupture in her stasis chamber, seemingly dead for centuries. Taylor explains the concept of time diffraction—how their relatively short mission has lasted around two thousand years of Earth, ‘give or take a decade’.


The other crewmates serve more to explain Taylor’s character, with Landon accusing his cynical, realist attitude a symptom of misanthropy. There’s a very on the nose scene where Landon plants a tiny American flag, claiming the beach they landed on, to which Taylor simply laughs. The three men explore this strange new world, finding trace signs of life before coming across primitive, human-like creatures. Taylor quickly settles into a colonialist attitude, quipping “in six months we’ll be running this planet.” Cue the howling of apes. Gorillas suddenly ride in with technology matching humanity’s own industrial era, capturing Taylor and killing his crewmates. Taylor, whose neck was wounded in the kerfuffle, can’t speak in his own defence, and he spends several humiliating days caged up like an animal, prodded by Chimpanzee scientists Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) and Zira (Kim Hunter). Any results to display his intelligence through gestures is met with table-turning phrases like “human see, human do”. Remembering all that talk about squashing the human ego?


The Ape society is not without it’s own flaws however. A sort of racial caste system becomes clear: Gorillas are the enforcers and laborers, Chimps the intellectuals, and Orangutans the political and religious leaders. Just as Zira begins sympathizing with Taylor, we’re introduced to the physical antagonist of the film, the orangutan Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), ‘Minister of Science and Defender of the Faith.’ It’s Dr. Zaius who suppresses knowledge and keeps Ape society as being dictated by ‘ancient taboos’. Alongside satirizing the false self-righteousness of humanity, the orangutans in particular represent an outdated older generation, to which a disillusioned young chimp asks, “Why must knowledge stand still?”

When Taylor’s speech comes back to him, Heston comes out swinging at his most Shakespearean acting: “Take your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape!” By this point we learn more about Taylor’s motives: he left Earth so long ago because “There was lots of lovemaking, but no love.” His humanity is then put on trial before a court of orangutan judges, yet it’s his humanity that is the crime. The idea that the pathetic human race once surpassed Apes seems so ridiculous, Zaius poses the golden question: “If man was superior, why didn’t he survive?” By now, the mystery is piecing itself together… not where, but when? Amidst this upside-down civilization, Zaius criticizes Taylor as only seeing it that way because ‘he exists on its lowest level’. Like much of the Golden / Silver Age of science fiction around the mid-20th century, “Apes” takes a ridiculous yet intriguing idea and uses it to hold a mirror up to the audience so they can see their own twisted follies.


And if the mirror wasn’t clear enough, we’re left with a very grim note to think on. As Taylor rides away from his captors into the great unknown, he comes across a sight so powerful it brings him to his knees, cursing the human race. Buried amidst the sandy beach… a rusted Statue of Liberty. The planet of the Apes was Earth’s future all along! “You finally made a monkey out of me!” cries Troy McClure in “The Simpson”’s Planet of the Apes Musical. Decades of parodies have somewhat robbed the scene of it’s shock-factor, but it fits in well with the darkly comedic tone of the rest of the film. You may laugh, not because the film is hammed up, but because this ridiculous, inverted world is so close to our own.

The assumption (which would be elaborated in the sequels) is that humans destroyed themselves with nuclear warfare, and the film’s been rubbing your nose in the possibility the whole time without you knowing it. I’d say that’s why the original Planet of the Apes has always stood out, and why subsequent entries in the franchise have lacked that certain flair. The beauty of it is that “Apes” poses all of these questions, these ‘What If?’s, and just leaves them for the viewer to mull over.


Uncovering The X-Files Season 1 Ep. 1-3

S1, E1 – “Pilot”,dir. Robert Mandel, written by Chris Carter,
originally aired September 10, 1993
            A small town in Oregon has a series of kids from the same graduating class of ’89 disappear into the forest to be killed in a flash of light.
           As the pilot of the series, the episode focuses less on the weekly mystery and more on establishing the main characters, F.B.I. Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson), and their relationship to their superiors. We first see Scully, but before we know much about her we have her describe Mulder’s reputation, notably his being obsessed with the paranormal. Scully’s role as dictated by her commanding officers is to debunk Mulder’s attempted solutions to the X-Files, a series of unsolved cases relating to the unexplainable. When we first see Mulder, he introduces Scully as the scientifically-driven straight arrow, clearly there as his foil. It’s this tug-of-war between the two, Fact versus Gut Feeling, Science versus Faith, that underlies much of the show.
One deceptively minor scene that tells so much about both characters is when their plane to Oregon experiences major turbulence; Scully clutches her armrest in panic while Mulder lays back nonchalantly, accepting his fate.
It’s the first episode to kick off the ‘Mythology’ arc that the whole series falls back upon—are aliens real?—and many other side plots are subtly set into motion throughout the episode, notably Mulder’s missing sister. The main theme of the episode (and the Mythology arc as a whole) is the idea that you can trust no one. It’s a conspiracy-driven show that aired in the perfect time: America wasn’t involved in many major conflicts and the events of 9/11 were still years away. The idea that everyone, from the small-town paraplegic to the U.S. government is working in the shadows—it’s a scary and captivating concept. Most important to the series though, is we as the audience see the scientifically unexplainable, yet the evidence for it always disappears, leaving us caught between Mulder’s insistence and Scully’s skepticism.


S1, E2 – “Deep Throat”, dir. Daniel Sackheim, written by Christ Carter,
originally aired September 17, 1993
            A military test pilot in Idaho goes missing amidst a series of unexplained phenomena.
The beginning of the episode introduces Mulder to a mysterious ally, the titular Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin), another seeker of the truth. It quickly becomes clear to Mulder and Scully that the Idaho military base is the source of strange goings-on in the town nearby, from mentally crippled pilots to UFO-like lights flying by at night. What’s interesting about this episode is that while it’s inferred the government is suppressing the agents in the first episode, here the military takes on an active, oppressive role against Mulder and Scully’s investigation. There’s even a scene of Mulder’s capture by the military, which plays out eerily similar to what one would think an alien abduction would be like.
In an especially chilling scene, the wife of a former pilot calls the agents to her house, screaming “That man’s not my husband!” The husband, meanwhile, seems confused by the sudden outburst—he shows very little sign of change to those besides his wife. It’s unnerving, and as Mulder says, ‘deliberate and insidious’, while also upping the tension behind the recurring ‘evidence versus word’ debate.
The central idea of the episode is the government possessing advanced alien technology and the ethical question of progression weighed with the human cost. When their investigation leads to an intense reaction from the military, we’re left with the disturbing reality that it’s Mulder and Scully who acted inappropriately; the military were following a cold protocol.
It’s much darker and bolder than the first episode, and the central mystery is fleshed out through a much more creative plot. Also, there’s Seth Green as a stoned, teenaged witness.


S1, E3 – “Squeeze”, dir. Harry Longstreet, writers Glen Morgan & James Wong
originally aired September 24, 1993
           A series of gruesome murders take place in locations where no physical entry or exit for the murderer seems possible.
Distinct from the story set in the ‘Mythology” episodes, we have our first “monster-of-the week” episode—stand-alone stories similar in style to a show like “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. It’s these episodes where the writers really have to flex their creativity, sometimes to great effect. This is a fine episode, but for me it was the interactions between Mulder and Scully that outshone the actual mystery, which unfolded somewhat weakly.
When Scully is approached by Agent Tom Colton, a friend from her academy-years, she learns she’s become a laughingstock for taking part in Mulder’s paranoid theories. It’s an important episode for her partnership with Mulder, as she’s forced to put aside her own doubts (and workplace politics) to support him. Another interesting aspect of this episode is that while Mulder’s theories are typically the focal point of the plot, Scully’s own medical and scientific investigations seem to win out. The suspected monster, Toom, is played so creepily by Doug Hutchison, it’s a shame more of the episode didn’t focus on him—he goes down in an intense but admittedly lazily written showdown… Using fist-flying action to solve any mystery is usually the least-interesting climax you could think of.
Luckily for us, this isn’t the last we’ll see of Toom, as we leave him in a very “Psycho”-esque shot of him sitting in a jail cell, unperturbed by his defeat.

Read my thoughts on Episodes 4-6 here


Listening Back – Herbie Hancock’s “Sextant” (1973)

Since becoming the pianist for Miles Davis’ Second Quintet in the early 60s, Herbie Hancock spent much of the decade mastering a mixture of modal and freeform jazz, until Davis split the group up in search of new sounds and genres. Hancock, too, had already been branching in his own direction, becoming a bandleader on albums like “Maiden Voyage” (1965) and “Speak Like a Child” (1968)… but then Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” (1970) dropped, and jazz was slammed right in the center, fracturing off into all kinds of musical directions. Hancock himself became interested in electronic music, leading him to form his band Mwandishi. They would release three albums together: a self-titled fusion jazz LP (1971), the more electronic / avant-garde “Crossings” (1972), and perhaps the most striking album of Hancock’s career, “Sextant” (1973).

On the album we have Herbie Hancock on piano and several synthesizers, Billy Hart on drums, Buster Williams on bass, Scatalie Cassidy on trumpet and horn, Julian Priester on trombone, Bennie Maupin on several different reeds, and Patrick Gleeson on additional synths. The album hits 39 minutes in just three tracks, so without further ado:


Opening the record with “Rain Dance” (9m16s) was a pretty bold move, as it’s by far the most experimental and spaced out of the three. The first couple minutes are only rhythmically held together by a synth loop that gives the impression of raindrops. There’re strange ‘data-stream’ sounds looped under much of the track as well, interrupted by bursts of energy from the drums and horns. It’s like a very loose, dancey amalgamation of man and machine, a spinning collision by the past and future. It’s by far the most inaccessible track here, but even then the challenge presented to the listener is balanced out by the fact that it manages to keep itself tied down before it gets too spacey. It’s as if it were a warm up for the more cohesive sound the rest of the album brings—and yet it still feels like the future of music that only Hancock can hear.

“Hidden Shadows” (10m11s) could easily fit into Hancock’s next album, the funk-drive “Head Hunters” (1973). The track revolves around a heavy-groove held powerfully down by synth, bass and drums, while the horns and additional synths solo over it. The odd time signature of the groove (19/8 ?!) keeps the song rolling along with varied momentum, yet it’s always moving nonetheless. You can hear the intensity periodically swell, just waiting to burst, until finally in the last few minutes things explode / fall apart for just a moment before it falls back into a suddenly mellow take on the groove, before fading away. It’s a very fun track that shows real chemistry between the band—easily the best track to just jump into.


The final track, “Hornets” (19m35s) falls somewhere between the last two tracks in terms of genre and style. There’re strange kazoo/mellotron instrumentals here that give the image of buzzing hornets (hence the name), the bass and drums lay down a fast but simple groove while the horn section sounds as if they’re taking swats at the hornets to drive them away. It’s not powerful in the way “Hidden Shadows” has the band punching together, but it’s the most high-energy song on the record, though everyone seems to be running in their own direction, rubber-banding back to the rhythm section eventually. There are many strong sections of “Hornets” but they don’t really justify how long the jam stretches on for—it’s a fine song but not as strong as it’s predecessors.

Herbie Hancock’s “Sextant” sees the composer treading where few men have gone before, leading to some of the most challenging yet rewarding sounds to come out of (let’s say) the autumnal years of jazz. It caught Hancock right before he opted for a more commercially viable funk-fusion sound, and serves as a showcase for his creativity with his newly found love for electronic music. It might not be the most consistently-great album in his library, but it leaves perhaps the deepest impression.


Digging Deeper – Apocalypse Now (1979)

Filmmaker John Millius (“The Wind and the Lion”, “Conan the Barbarian”) is said to have written the first draft of “Apocalypse Now” as early as 1969—the year the film takes place. Milius adapted Joseph Conrad’s classic story “Heart of Darkness” (1899) so that it was set in the jungles of the Vietnam War. Production of the film (then called “The Psychedelic Soldier”) didn’t begin until it attached director Francis Ford Coppola, who hot off the massive success of “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974). Though the script went through numerous redrafts from Milius and Coppola, Coppola claims to have been immediately grabbed by the film’s mix of ‘black comedy and psychological horror’.

After about five years of delays, careful editing, and just slugging through jungles with too much money and equipment, “Apocalypse Now” was released in the summer of 1979. As Coppola infamously said, “My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam.”

Note the version I’m reflecting on here is the 2001 “Redux”, which bumps the runtime from 153 to 196 minutes.


We open on a treeline of a Vietnamese jungle. The sounds of choppers thump by as The Doors’ “The End” starts to play. Then the palm trees burst into flames, victims of another napalm strike. We’re immediately introduced to the film’s morally and mentally questionable protagonist, Captain Willard (played by Martin Sheen). Willard lies in bed amidst booze, pills, old photos, and a loaded pistol, clearly haunted by memories of Vietnam. But then he looks out of his window: “Saigon… shit, I’m still in Saigon”. We immediately learn he’s conflicted between seeing his service in the war as both punishment and reward, and he’s ready for another mission to feed his strange addiction. If his instability wasn’t clear enough, he does tai chi in his underwear before punching his mirror and slicing his hand open.

Within the first ten minutes we see this side of Willard contrasting his more professional demeanor in front of his commanding officers. They play a tape for Willard: it’s here we’re first teased with the shrouded character of Colonel Kurtz (played by Marlon Brando), an incredibly promising soldier who turned his back on America and has supposedly gone insane somewhere in Cambodia. Willard’s charged with terminating Kurtz with “extreme prejudice”. The tension is set—if Willard is so crazy behind closed doors, what kind of a man is Kurtz? The bulk of the movie is then Willard and a rag-tag team of mostly young, naïve soldiers making their way down a huge river basin. All the while, Willard reads from his target’s impressive dossier, so that although we don’t see Kurtz until the final third of the movie, by that point a legend has been built up around him in the audience’s mind.


An early chunk of the film has Willard and his fellow soldiers meeting Colonel Kilgore (played by Robert Duvall), a surfing fanatic who is either too confident in his own safety or too shellshocked to care. While other men duck for cover at the sound of artillery strikes, Kilgore insists the beach they’re storming is ideal for surfing. It’s from Kilgore and his chopper squadron that many iconic lines and Vietnam film tropes come from: “DEATH FROM ABOVE” painted on the nose of the chopper blasting Richard Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”; “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”; and so forth. As Kilgore’s men rain fire down on quiet Vietnamese villages, all the while calling their victims “savages”, the ties to “Heart of Darkness” are clear… though perhaps it extends ‘unreliable narrator’ to ‘unreliable America’. That being said, Kilgore can’t be simply written off as a thick-skulled jarhead, as we see his compassion for the Vietnamese civilians, first when he lets a dying man drink from his canteen, and then when he saves a mother and her wounded child. The film is not just morally grey, it’s emotionally and psychologically disarrayed—‘the confusion of war’.

The journey down the river itself gets more and more surreal, as if Willard were travelling down the mythological river Styx that bridges Earth and the Underworld. There’s a constant theme of insanity / paranoia in the soldiers they encounter along the way, yet there are never a commanding officers to be found. Just a series of confused kids with the absurdist feeling of “why are we fighting?” There’s also many ideas of the duality of human nature, most obviously reflected on in a length scene added in the Redux, where Willard meets a plantation of Frenchmen who tell him he’s “fighting for nothing” and that there are two versions of himself: “one that kills, and one that loves.”


Willard and his surviving crew finally reach the idyllic, temple-like domain of Kurtz, who watches over a massive population of indigenous peoples who worship him like a god. “This was the end of the river alright”, Willard narrates, noting the smell of ‘slow death, malaria, and nightmares’. But if this truly is like a living Hell, is Willard being sent to kill the Devil, or just another victim? When we finally see Kurtz, though often veiled in shadows, we get the ‘poet-warrior’ impression that has been laid before him, as he quotes T.S. Eliot as often as he spouts political riddles. He immediately knows why Willard was sent to him, commanding his respect as much as he does his fear. We rarely see Kurtz move at more than a slow walk, yet as he appears in the night to brandish one of Willard’s fellow soldier’s decapitated head, we realize the great physical power that lurks within him. It not only becomes a question of ‘will Willard kill this man’, but also ‘can he?’

Kurtz also acts as an almost fourth-wall breaking medium for much of the film’s political messages to be more explicit stated. Kurtz is ‘crazy’ as if ‘the truth’ has been revealed to him, as if he’s been blinded by the light. It’s not the first time the film becomes self-reflexive: an early scene of the Americans storming a beach has Coppola himself cameoing as a wartime-news director, yelling at the soldiers to not look into the camera. Kurtz is such an interesting and unforgettable character because of how out of place he feels, in both the conflict in Vietnam and as the supposed antagonist of the film. So what does he do? He carves out his own place amidst the jungle.


The final act of the film is narratively and cinematographically hazy and often delusional, and it adds so well to the mixture of Willard’s worn down state and the legendary stature of Kurtz. Knowing of his incoming death, Kurtz frees Willard and imparts his wisdom and philosophy on him. Willard returns later that night, as the indigenous peoples are butchering a buffalo—his own murdering of Kurtz imposed with the extremely disturbing slaughter of the beast. Though the ending varies in each version, the Redux (and most ‘original versions’) end with Willard simply sailing away with the last surviving soldier in his party, with Kurtz’ dying words echoing in his mind: “…the horror…the horror…”. It’s all very poetic; like Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” it quotes so often, it ends ‘not with a bang, but with a whimper’.

Despite it’s great length, the film is engaging all the way through, backed by an impressive amount of practical effects and beautiful on-location shooting. In terms of what the Redux brings to the theatrical version, it’s a somewhat unnecessary, indulgent unbalancing of the pacing, but considering the two-plus decades the original film allowed itself to breathe, the film’s notoriety allows it to take a few artistic liberties without sacrificing the quality of the work.

Arguably the finest film about Vietnam ever made, “Apocalypse Now” is one of the most breathtakingly crafted and thoroughly haunting cinematic experiences, period.


The Revenant – Pacing versus Payoff

After hearing about its Best Picture Oscar nomination, I was compelled to finally see Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” (2015). It was a lot of things—intense, fantastically acted by Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, and most notably: beautifully, perfectly shot. That being said, it was also self-indulgent, unnecessarily long, and painfully disjointed for much of the second act, a.k.a the bulk of its 2 ½ hour runtime. Considering it’s ‘inspired by true events’, it seems they had the beginning and the end all planned out (and they were executed so well), but too much of the movie feels like it’s just one idea being piled on top of the other.

It’s a revenge flick. DiCaprio’s character, Hugh Glass, is wounded physically and emotionally to the point where we as the audience believe he’s hit rock bottom. But he doesn’t. There’s about an hour and a half of Glass suffering, crawling his way towards his distant revenge—and honestly it feels inconsequential. A series of unfortunate events strike Glass one after the other, though hardly connected between each other and hardly contributing to the story or his own character development. Each scene often ends with Glass falling unconscious before waking up to another torturous event, like the ever-tempting transition of a children’s novel. As a revenge flick, it’s understandable they want to give the audience reason after reason to sympathize Glass / hate Tom Hardy’s character John Fitzgerald, and it does… but in a drawn out, choppy manner that had me asking “…really?”



            When Glass finally gets close enough to be discovered by the men who had thought he was dead, it happens so suddenly and for no good reason, that it leaves you wondering what the last hour was even for. Obviously Glass gets closer and closer to their encampment, sure, but the release/relief feels so unearned (for me at least). That’s not to say that every plot should follow a linear A to B to C pattern, but maybe the events of the film should be connected or even remotely affect each other in the slightest. And if not to drive the plot forward in some way, a good scene should tell us create tension or build the character. Glass shows little change throughout, grunting and wheezing the whole way through, and any hurt inflicted on him feels like a cheap thrill more than a valuable addition to the tension. To put the viewer through that much pain (and it is painful to watch, in an emphatic way) to only dish out a weak payoff feels like you cheated them for much of the film.

The finale and his ultimate revenge is very satisfying, but considering the amount of buildup that frankly fizzled out half an hour too early, the emotional punch of The Revenant was all but lost on me. It’s still a fine film composed of great factors—perhaps it could’ve been edited to become truly great. It just shows the needlepoint that effective plot so delicately balances on.


Listening Back – Siamese Dream

The Smashing Pumpkins’ debut album “Gish” (1991) was released just a few months before Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, which drastically changed the future of Alternative Rock in the United States. Alt-Rock being a somewhat vague term, The Pumpkins’ sound differed significantly from Kurt Cobain’s songwriting, yet that intimidating bar was set high nevertheless—not to mention Butch Vig, the man who produced “Nevermind”, was working closely with The Pumpkins. “Gish” had found warm reception and minor success, especially with a younger audience, so the followup album was expected to do great things. All of this burden wore heavily on Billy Corgan, guitarist/vocalist/mastermind behind the band. The result was “Siamese Dream” (1993), a less spiritual, more dark, angsty amalgamation of any number of musical sources.

The Smashing Pumpkins’ lineup at the time was as they had been from their start: Billy Corgan (lead guitar, vocals), James Iha (rhythm guitar), D’arcy Wretzky (bass), and Jimmy Chamberlin (drums). Though the story changes officially, it’s said that Corgan would end up doing most of the guitar and bass parts in the recording—a testament to his infamous ‘control-freak’ reputation. That being considered, it’s interesting to hear just how much of a solo-effort Siamese Dream is; it seems to be the personal intimacy from songwriters like Corgan and Kurt Cobain that appeal so well to their listeners.


The album starts with “Cherub Rock”, a kind of dreamy, prog-rock song that calls out the music industry. The chorus asks “Who wants honey / As long as there’s some money”, with Corgan going on to admit “I know, I know, I know / Should have listened when I’m told.” As what is supposedly the last song written for the album, it’s a thankfully lighter tone to begin on, while keeping the frustration that went into making it all.

Corgan’s voice has always been this charming, strange mixture of husky echoes and throaty screeches, which in the case of the shoegazing “Quiet”, fits in perfectly as another instrument amidst a wall of fuzzy power chords. Lyrically, it’s a pretty literal cry for help, sounding as if coming from an ignored child.

“Today” has lived on as arguably the most popular single from Siamese Dream—and from the 90s as a whole. It’s the most deceptively soft tracks on the album, masking suicidal thoughts behind a sweetly ironic chant of “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever know”. The verses are light and sparse before kicking into the distorted and heavy chorus—a very Pixies-esque technique that was used liberally in Nirvana’s breakthrough work.


“Hummer” is a 7-minute track that passes through multiple guitar progressions, all the while anchored by a very dream-pop verse. It seems to not so much summarize everything Corgan writes about as it does throw them all into question for the audience, like a stream of consciousness that covers everything from body image, love, disenchantment, and depression. The advanced playing here really distinguishes The Pumpkins from many alt-rockers, who typically get a bad wrap as unskilled or at least ungraceful with their instruments.

“Rocket” is a song about trying to let go of the pressures that surrounded Corgan, seemingly through the means of just becoming numb to everything; “Consume my love, devour my hate”.

“Disarm” is a pseudo-solo acoustic pop ballad, that harkens back to Corgan’s (or his speaker’s) lonely childhood, and how it’s affected him to this day—contrasting a “little boy” with the ‘killer’ in him. Though it’s a quieter and more personal song, the use of a string arrangement over the chorus and the constant bell-ringing backbeat give it a sort of grandiose importance.

From this point onwards, the album takes a generally softer, more experimental route with each song—not all of which pay off as well as some of the earlier tracks, but which give the album a kind of longevity. “Soma” is this very gentle, psychedelic rock with Corgan’s crooning initially only back by slow chords, before kicking into the full band, and the strongest guitar solo on the album.


“Geek USA”’s verses take some hints of metal, with some particularly impressive drumming from the criminally underrated Chamberlin. There’s a brief respite in the middle, before the guitar solo shreds in—Corgan himself has referred to the song as a kind of compression of “Gish” into one song.

“Mayonnaise” is another shoegazing track; in what could easily have been the most melodramatic track, Corgan and Vig’s production subtleties turned it into perhaps the songs strength. The feedback on Corgan’s guitar creates this charming little whistling between it all, as Corgan again explores his own psyche: “Out of hand and out of season / Out of love and out of feeling”.

“Spaceboy” seems to be a tribute to David Bowie, both in style and substance, with Corgan even namedropping “Mr. Jones” (Bowie’s real surname). The string arrangement playing under the song sounds like a prototype for the pseudo-orchestra instrumentations that would shine in The Pumpkin’s next album, “Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness” (1995).

“Silverfuck” is the album’s last chance to vent any and all excess angst, in a nearly 9-minute track that peels back several layers of progressions before hitting an ambient, minimalist rock bottom, slowly and screechingly climbing it’s way back up for the song’s distorted and frayed climax.

“Sweet Sweet” is a quick little love poem, complete with vocal harmonizing between the band and a nice little melodic riff—it’s placement in the album between the final push and the windown is strange, however.

The album ends with the poppy love song “Luna”, suggesting a sort of ironic swapping of thematic focus after “Silverfuck” seemingly drained the band. The album ends with Corgan serenading the moon with his love; simultaneously a “good night” to the album and a foreshadowing of the spacey-love songs that would comprise much of their next album.

Billy Corgan is nothing if not ambitious with the scope of his vision, even if that vision is a clouded version of his own downfall. Siamese Dream is jammed with angst, frustration, and often hopelessness, conveyed through every alt-rock genre from grunge to prog-rock to shoegazing—and it all draws the listener in wonderfully.


Digging Deeper – A Fistful of Dollars

Sergio Leone’s “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964) can easily be named the film that revamped the Western genre, which Hollywood had spent the last thirty years milking for all it was worth. The film’s low-budget allowed Leone to take artistic risks which immediately proved popular worldwide, becoming the golden standard of the emerging ‘Spaghetti Western’ subgenre. One could even argue that in the decades since (which have been relatively sparse on the ‘Western’ front), Spaghetti Westerns have become the new norm for the genre as a whole. For an Italian like Leone to rework tightly held American standards and present them back arguably better than ever is no small feat, yet you can see it in the way the United States quickly adopted Clint Eastwood as a rising star.

It’s also worth noting that the setting wasn’t the only thing Leone borrowed—he openly acknowledged that the plot was a reworking of celebrated Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s film “Yojimbo” (1961), which features a wandering samurai playing opposing crime lords for the sake of the town he passes through. Kurosawa wrote to Leone via letters, and the two worked out a legal deal that allowed certain distribution rights in Asia and royalties to give Kurosawa his due. This combined with the many ways in which Leone’s stylistic choices have been borrowed in the years since show the somewhat cyclical way filmmakers inspire each other—but I digress.


The film is just plain beautiful. From the wide-lensed landscape shots to the crystal clear close-ups to the naturally lit but intelligible night sequences, the framing, editing and in-motion camerawork is perhaps the greatest legacy of the film. Just as iconic, however, is the musical score done by Ennio Morricone. Unlike the orchestrated soundtracks of American films, the music here is made of obscure sounds and noninstruments—yelps, whips, and so on to build the ‘Wild West’ mood and heighten tension before the action starts. And considering how difficult it can be to hear all the nuances in dialogue of 50s/60s films, all the sound in “Fistful” was dubbed in post-production.

Clint Eastwood stars as The Stranger, sometimes called ‘Joe’, commonly referred to in his future appearances as “The Man With No Name”. He’s a man of few words, confident, lawful yet ruthless. We know little about his past besides the occasional vague blurb, (“I never found home that great”, etc.) but we as the audience don’t need to know anything—his actions speak for him. He quietly rides into San Miguel, the almost-deserted borderlands town caught under two feuding gangs: the Baxters and the Rojos.


In an iconic scene that has become imitated to death, he stands off against four outlaws; a tense Mexican Standoff where any of his many foes could take a shot at him any second. He calmly yet sternly warns them, his poncho shifting slightly enough for the outlaws (and the audience) to catch a glimpse of the .45 on his hip. There’s extreme-closeups that quickly jump from each characters face; the menacing Stranger, the nervous outlaws, the enthralled citizens. And just as quick, the Stranger draws—we watch from behind the pistol at his hip as he quickly guns down all the men without missing a shot. As a hero, we never question his capability… we do however, question his motives, not at all like the “white hats” who championed many of the Hollywood Westerns of yesteryear.

As the title suggests, The Man With No Name initially cheats both the Baxters and the Rojos for a few dollars. He’s cunning, but the film contrasts him with a supporting cast that is clearly meant to create ‘the line’ that divides honor from dishonor. For example, Esteban Rojo (Sieghardt Rupp) is another capable gunman, yet he is cowardly and sneaky. No Name is tricky to be sure, but he chooses to face men fairly, whereas Esteban is constantly plotting to literally shoot others in the back. The main antagonist of the film, Ramón Rojo (Gian Maria Volontè), is the only man as deadly as No Name, yet twice in the film we see him brutally gun down first an entire platoon and then a gang of unarmed men, a wild grin on his face the whole time.


It’s not all grim however. The film is for the most part lighthearted and self-referential (“It’s like playing cowboys and Indians!”), and No Name himself is offered a few goofy moments in his solitude. He shots the ropes of a door so it slams a guard in the face; he accidentally punches a woman in the face when she sneaks up on him; he sleeps with his cigar still in his mouth. He often gets a bad wrap for being one-dimensional, yet he’s meant to be this certain ‘mask’ or blank slate which we as the audience can fill in, and it makes the little details all the more rewarding. By the end of the film his heart has warmed to the townsfolk, he no longer works for money but because they ‘remind him of someone’, and then he’s on his way by the end.

It’s important to remember he’s a loner, always caught in the middle of two opposing forces, be it the Baxters and Rojos or America and Mexico. He’s constantly cursed as ‘the gringo’, and it ends up being an ‘old Mexican proverb’ that he defies in the films finale standoff: rifles always beat pistols. His .45 versus Ramón’s Winchester. Of course he wins and leaves with just a few parting words, onto his next adventure (aka the rest of Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy”), and it’s perhaps this mystery, those empty boots and hat for us to fill, that makes The Man With No Name such a timeless character. We name him ourselves.


Listening Back – Black Sabbath (1970)

*Note this is about the North American release of the LP.

In his 2011 memoir “Iron Man”, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi detailed how he lost the tips of the middle fingers of his left hand on his last day working at a sheet metal factory; determined to continue playing guitar, he fashioned some plastic fingertips (which he still keeps to this day), but it still wasn’t enough. Iommi then started using lighter strings with lower and lower tunings, the looseness of which gives his guitar playing that deep, heavy sound. And thus heavy metal was born—depending on who you ask of course. There are some who cite Led Zeppelin as an earlier influence, and perhaps that makes sense—Iommi and John Bonham were apparently best friends growing up.

Tony Iommi, Bill Ward (on the drums), Geezer Butler (bass) and Ozzy Osbourne (vocals) first formed in 1968 under the moniker “Earth”, a heavy blues-rock band. The name never stuck, and in ’69 Butler suggested the name ‘Black Sabbath’ after the 1963 Boris Karloff movie of the same name. It was be Butler (with help from Osbourne) who was fascinated with the dark, occult imagery that the band—not to mention the entire metal subculture—would become famous for. On October 16, 1969, the band would record their first album in a single session; their eponymous debut “Black Sabbath” would be released February of 1970.


Admittedly, much of the album doesn’t reach the heaviness of their later work—in fact I’d defined most of the album as heavy blues, like say Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut…That is except for the first track:

“Black Sabbath” opens with a distant church bell ringing through pouring rain and thunder. Then comes ‘the Tritone’, a.k.a. ‘the devil’s interval’, or ‘diabolus in musica’ (‘devil in music’). It’s a three note riff that persists through most of the song, but to great effect. It’s a technique even used in classical music to invoke a feeling of terror or dread—not as ‘catchy’ as some of Iommi’s later riffs, but an iconic opening statement. Osbourne moans: “What is this that stands before me? / Figure in black which points at me”, apparently referring to a shadowy figure Butler once saw at the foot of his bed when he was most invested in studying the occult. The experience shook him out of those interests, but that didn’t stop them from bleeding into the lyrics of the entire album. Despite the Satanic allegations the band infamously earned, the song is more like a doomed pariah crying out for mercy and help from God. The song could easily be seen as gimmicky out of context, what with the sound effects throughout, but considering the vast legacy it began, it holds legitimate historical importance.

“The Wizard” would feel right at home in Led Zeppelin’s setlist; a harmonica, pounding drums, and lyrics inspired by Lord of the Rings’ Gandalf. It has heavy, headbanging guitar riffs, which are given that extra punch by the rhythm section playing under its lead. After the gloominess of the first track, this song assures the listener that it’s all in good fun.


Next is an almost 10-minute track in four parts: “Wasp / Behind the Wall of Sleep / Bassically / N.I.B.”. (Note that the original European record was marked separately: track 3 being “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and track 4 being “N.I.B.”). The first half is more of a blues jam, with ‘Wasp’ probably referring to the buzzing tremolo of Iommi’s guitar. This fades into about a minute-long bass solo, which in turn jumps into ‘N.I.B.’, a love song from the perspective of Lucifer—a sort of twist delivered near the end of the song.

Side two of the European record begins with a cover of Crow’s “Evil Woman”—it’s from here that the versions of the album become markedly different. As mentioned earlier, we’ll move on with the North American release:

“Wicked World” begins with a pretty jazzy drum groove with light little guitar licks thrown on top. This springs into a style more akin to the rest of the album, followed by the band’s first political lyrics (a theme that would take up most of their following album, “Paranoid”, released later in 1970). They criticize how politicians “can put a man on the moon quite easy / while people here on Earth are dying of old diseases.” It doesn’t get too preachy or timestamped by a specific topic, and is bisected with the most ‘shreddy’ guitar solo on the album.


The album ends with the three part song, “A Bit of Finger / Sleeping Village / Warning”. “Sleeping Village” is a small, poetic verse backed by a somewhat out of place Jew’s harp. “A Bit of Finger”, most likely named for Iommi’s lost digits, is couple minutes of instrumental jamming, leading into the final song, “Warning”. It’s probably the most generic-blues song of the bunch, with a lot of the usual ‘unrequited love’ images—“’cause there’s iron in my heart / I just can’t keep from cryin’.” It’s not the band’s usual fare, but thankfully it leads into a heavy jam session, returning again to the final verse in the final moments of the album.

“Black Sabbath” is definitely a fun album, with a majority of the record being heavy-blues jamming mixed with slick solos and silly fantasy lyrics. It’s the darker material that really stands out in the album’s legacy, with the title track in particular bringing a revolutionary sound that would quickly pioneer the heavy metal genre. It’s not as face-melting or memorable as their follow up album, “Paranoid”, but it’s a great debut nonetheless.