SONG REVIEW: “CONVOY,” C.W. MCCALL.  It’s depressing to know that, at one point in time, in America, C.W. McCall actually merited a “Best Of” album. No doubt it’s one of those collections that quickly faded into the musical woodwork (from whence it came); a quick check of the titles, including “Long Lonesome Road,” “Black Bear Road,” and “Four Wheel Cowboy,” tells me that C.W. was some kind of redneck crooner. I’m fully prepared to allow my admittedly short-sighted, perhaps ill-informed image of Mr. McCall to stand. I’m OK with stereotyping white country singers.

Because a song like ol’ C.W.’s “Convoy” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s not filled with deeper meanings that catapult it unharmed into the 21st century. This song is about as contemporary as dial-up Internet. It “hilariously” relates the tale of a “convoy” leader (handle: Rubber Duck) leading a bunch of his truck-driving buddies (including Pig Pen) on a “we-ain’t-gonna-take-no-shit” odyssey across the highway and byways of mid-1970s America. Apparently it’s some kind of entitled White Male Protest Song in which the truckers (read: Modern-Day Cowboys) stand up to “the Bear” (read: poh-leese, “they even got a Bear in the Air!”) and, get this, ditch their paperwork, on which they apparently lie, anyway. Then, dagnab it all, they refuse to pay the toll at the New Jersey stateline! A dogshit song? Yes. A dogshit song.

SONG REVIEW: SCARECROW’S DREAM. Dan Fogleberg’s “Scarecrow’s Dream” is off his 1977 album Nether Lands. It’s a soft, dreamy, highly atmospheric piece about a man who, minus the love of his life, feels frozen in place, caught somewhere between reality and fantasy. Referring to himself as a scarecrow, he laments the past even as he looks toward happiness: “Garden gate/empty plate/waiting for someone to come and fill.” That’s some nice imagery, making the point without diving off into cheesy hysterics (as many songs on this subject matter do).

I am totally unfamiliar with Fogleberg. “Leader of the Band” was, of course, a radio hit for the ages, but beyond that, I haven’t done much digging into his career. Sometime in the early 1980s, he had another radio hit called “The Language of Love,” which sounds a little too uncomfortably close to Rick Springfield of the same period. It’s not a bad song; it’s got the expected, upbeat combination of synth/drum/rhythm guitar that defined adult contemporary radio Back in the Day. But it doesn’t have much of a shelf life beyond the early 1980s. (What does it mean when he sings, “When she says no/she means yes”?)

“Scarecrow’s Dream” sounds very much like a song released in the late 1970s. It has a laidback groove and feels like conversing with an old friend.

SONG REVIEWS: THE WORST POP/ROCK SONGS OF ALL TIME. Worst pop songs of all time? Let’s go! (A work in progress. – Ed.)

  1. Lips Are Moving. This unbearable piece of pop twaddle is of fairly recent vintage, say, 2014. It’s by Meghan Trainor, whose career I sincerely hope is now finished. The song is terrible for a variety of 100-percent valid reasons (those who disagree are simply wrong), but let’s review a few. First, it’s unbearable. Second, Trainor can’t sing – her voice has no personality or defining characteristic, but is irritatingly middle-of-the-road and, therefore, pleasantly inoffensive (for maximum downloads). Third, of all the “we’ve broken up because you’re an irredeemable liar” songs that have come down the pike in music history, this one is the most uninspired, the most predictable, and the most completely and unforgivably unoriginal. Trainor starts at point A and takes the meaning of the song all the way to Point B. It’s a case of a track that wasn’t that good to begin with getting run into the ground by MILFs and their kids.
  2. Uptown Funk. Another 2014 POS, this one by the inexplicably popular Bruno Mars, whose entire act rips off early-Eighties Michael Jackson. I can’t think of another song that struts about thinking it’s original and cutting edge, while sounding exactly like the entirety of 1983 (country AND pop) condensed into one over-produced “ghetto dance” track DESTINED to be played over a shampoo ad. (Which, today, it is.) Please, Bruno, fuck off and die.
  3. Cotton Eyed Joe. This track first rose to prominence on an episode of “Beavis and Butthead,” which should tell you pretty much all you need to know about this POS. Perpetrated on an unsuspecting public by U2-wannabes Rednex (that’s a joke), “Cotton Eyed Joe” is some kind of nightmarish, high-on-meth blend of the “classic” rockabilly tune with early-Nineties “guitar rock” that sounds exactly as depressing as you might imagine it would. It’s hard to say which one makes me want to commit murder faster, the bizarre vocal, or the pointlessly outlandish “music.” This is the sort of atrocity that makes you not so sad to contemplate a movie like “Dr. Strangelove” becoming a reality.
  4. Spin the Black Circle. Okay, look. I respect Pearl Jam. Its first two albums, Ten and Vs., are twin monuments to rock and roll goodness. There’s not a fly on Pearl Jam, based solely on the quality of those two records alone. But the group’s third album, Vitalogy, unfortunately boasts this POS, which is bad almost beyond description. In fact, it’s so bad it drags down the rest of the album, which may or may not deserve reconsideration. Sadly, “Spin the Black Circle” is all but impossible to forgive. So, yeah, this too-fast, too-loud, unvaried, texture-less, over-thought, tuneless chunk of idiocy lands on the list.
  5. Thinking Out Loud. Ed Sheeran? If ANY mop-headed, sad-eyed, acoustic-guitar-strumming DB deserves to end up on my “worst of all time” (WOAT?) list, it’s Ed. I wouldn’t even have considered the track if it hadn’t been played UNTO DEATH between the years (felt like decades) 2014-2017. The song is simply intolerable, a mopey-but-hopeful “ballad” (you know, like “Stairway to Heaven”) that finally … finally … reaches an emotional crescendo with a slight punch to the orchestral strings, as Ed croons his heart out to the sweetest little English major you ever did see. One envisions Ed camped out in a subway tube, strumming this song for commuters, a one-legged dog (named Lucky) at his side. He brings in enough spare change to capture the eye of a corporate flack, who thinks out loud, “Hey, there’s a fellow in Arkansas who’s just DYING to hear this song EVERY SINGLE DAY for the REST OF HIS FUCKING LIFE.” Which is the only reason I could ever have heard it.
  6. Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver. Ah, Primus. I know zero-zip-nada about Primus, and “Big Brown Beaver” does little to spark my interest. Here is another track introduced to me on an episode of “Beavis,” which was a boneyard for tracks that had no other means of reaching a mass audience. It’s clear why “Beaver” had no such means. It’s a revolting mess, juvenile even for the alt-rock scene. Its choice of subject matter — a woman’s man-devouring pussy — is not only off-putting but, yes, offensive, and let me state for the record: I am not easily offended. It’s the kind of lyric a serial killer might dream up at age 7. Or, OK, 14. Anybody needing a reason to switch from rock to country (or, better yet, jazz) need only listen to five seconds of “Wynona” to receive a lifetime conversion.
  7. Something Just Like This. The Chainsmokers + Coldplay. Overproduced aural crap, an instantly forgettable, eminently despicable “dance floor hit” that gives Coldplay haters all the ammo they could ever need (or deserve). The track argues, quite credibly, for the cessation of all pop music and anything resembling it. Or, at least, for the cessation of Coldplay, which is more doable. (Oh, and The Chainsmokers? What? Who?)
  8. Set Fire to the Rain. I read on one of the more reputable websites that listening to Adele will turn straight men gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but listening to this Adele song will make you lose your taste, which is harder to forgive. The British singer goes so far over the top (a tough, hard climb for her) as to approach parody. No, wait. She gets there, full stop. “Fire” (“FFFFFFFIIIIIIIIYYYYYYAHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!”) is a parody of a torch song, and Adele is a parody of a pop/soul singer. Amy Winehouse could have mopped the floor with her. True facts.
  9. Endless Love. Ah, the early 1980s, a time of endless love. Lionel Richie, that purveyor of tripe, and no less a legend than Diana Ross pour it on thick, like deer brains in gravy, their silky-smooth voices oozing out of Datsun speakers everywhere in the summer of 1981. With a lush orchestra backing them up, Lionel and Diana ushered in the era of Soundtrack Hits. Indeed, the decade would be cluttered with everything from Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” to Phil Collins’ “Separate Ways.” But this track is the worst offender, taking dead aim at the Academy Award for Best Original Song and … just … missing.
  10. Hello. Lionel Richie again, off his MOR album Can’t Slow Down (which, inexplicably, won the Grammy for Best Album in 1984, yes, uh-huh). I’ll say this in its defense: the song isn’t as bad as some of the others on here. Structurally and technically, it’s OK, and Lionel is at least heartfelt. BUT. “Hello” is by far the most ridiculous song of the past 40 years, inspiring thousands of Internet memes and other jokey references that are funny simply because they point out how syrupy and pretentious the song is. Oh, and do you remember the video? In that one, Lionel stalks a blind art student, crooning, “Is it me you’re looking for?” Get it? Ouch.
  11. Say You, Say Me. Look, I’m not trying to pick on Lionel. The guy’s doing his best to spend his millions. The least I can do is leave him alone. But this song? I remember it well, droning over my stereo speakers on long, cold, dreary winter nights in 1986. “I had a dream/I had an awesome dream/people in the park/playing games in the dark.” Yeah, Lionel? Those are known as pervs. Child molesters. “And from behind the walls of doubt/a voice was crying out.” What the hell are you trying to say here, Lionel? Oh, yeah. Say, you. Say, me. “Say it together/(un)naturally.”
  12. Manic Mechanic. ZZ Top is one of my favorite bands. It’s a shame Dusty Hill passed away, leaving only Frank Beard and Billy Gibbons. I’m sure the Top will play no more without their beloved bassist. Did I mention I love ZZ Top? But “Manic Mechanic” is a bad song, in a way that’s not good. Some songs are so bad they are good; some acts power their way through a lousy song and redeem them somehow. “Manic Mechanic” is just weird. It’s a weird fucking song. In fact, it doesn’t even qualify as a song, but as a bizarre spoken-word performance, where Gibbons’ vocal is cloaked in some pointless production treatment so that he sounds like a homicidal extraterrestrial redneck. There’s even a story, about a proposed hot rod race that is abandoned because … well, because the hot-rod driver in question doesn’t feel like doing it. Or something. It’s weird. These guys were obviously cooking on 11 herbs and spices when they wrote and recorded “Manic Mechanic.” This song is why the cutting room floor was invented.
  13. Money. Confession: I’m not the biggest Pink Floyd fan. I would say that of all the “classic rock” acts of 1970-1985, the Floyd has been the most difficult for me to get a handle on. I can admire and appreciate Pink Floyd but that doesn’t make me especially warm towards it. “Money,” one of the more popular tracks from the classic (everything associated with Floyd is preceded by “classic”) album Dark Side of the Moon, is a particularly unpleasant musical experience for me. I don’t know why but to me, it just sounds goofy. And old. Like …. real, real, real old. Older than the 1970s. Ancient. Geriatric. As in, “left behind in another century and unable to grow past its sell-by date.” I can enjoy/tolerate the rest of DSOTM, but “Money” sounds WAAAYYYYYY too much like classic FM radio. As if MAGIC 105’s noontime DJ had suddenly found his way into a towering rock opera and inserted a jangly pseudo-Skynyrd track in the middle of it. Sorry.

SONG REVIEW: RUSH, TOM SAWYER. Certain songs I can count on hearing on any Classic Rock radio station (like, say, 98 Rocks out of Shreveport). “Freebird” (check). “We Will Rock You” (check). “Born to Run” (check). “Hotel California” (check). “Life’s Been Good” (check). “Running With the Devil” (check). “Back in Black” (check). “Dreams” (check). “Free Fallin’” (check). And “Tom Sawyer” (check).
These songs are played as regularly as clockwork, none of more recent vintage than 1989. Add the abundance of songs by the Rolling Stones (“Satisfaction”) and The Beatles (“Come Together”) and you have a cabal of hits going on 50-60 years old.
Thing is, these tracks have been classics for decades. “Tom Sawyer” by Rush feels its age. If any rock song could be said to be cliché, then “Tom Sawyer,” along with every title listed above, can be included. These are go-to, comfort tunes for Men of a Certain Age (yeah, yeah, I’m one of those men) that were played-out 30 years ago. You start wanting the classic rock stations to find something else to put on the air. Just please not another spin-up of “Give Me Three Steps.” Been there. Done that. Let’s freshen things up a bit.
I never boarded the Rush train. I don’t get Rush, I don’t think of it as a “hard-rock” band, I don’t even think of it as a guitar band. In the 40 years that I have been listening to rock music (and hearing “Tom Sawyer” on the radio), I have never once taken Rush seriously. I don’t know how much of a line separates Rush from, say, Spinal Tap, but I’m guessing it’s razor-thin.
“Tom Sawyer” is classic FM. “Tom Sawyer” does not improve on silence.
Rush is (or, rather, was, I guess) a big, popular group, influential and long admired. Its late drummer, Neil Peart, was a genius. But Rush’s signature blend of “gee-wow” theatrics (hey, synths!) does nothing for me. “Tom Sawyer” belongs to the era of heavily-conceptualized sci-fi rock. Nothing about it has outgrown that era. I know my opinion stinks and that 98 Rocks will have spun this song (and “Freebird”) 20 times before noon.
That’s OK.

SONG REVIEW: DUNCAN SHEIK, HOUSE FULL OF RICHES. “House Full of Riches” is a song full of regret that pretty much anyone can relate to. It’s a song about the loss of a relationship, one that was apparently thrown away for a not-very-good reason, which is the kind that hurts both parties the most.

Duncan Sheik has the song on his album Humming, and outside of his hit 1990s-era singles, I’m not familiar with his work. I do recall really liking “Barely Breathing” back in the day, but it’s been awhile since I’ve heard from him.

He has an appealing voice and it’s in full flight on “House Full of Riches,” which also boasts some nice orchestral touches as opposed to the usual rock balladry. It’s an engaging, emotional song with some very affecting, self-incriminating lyrics. The singer insists he is “not a worthy man” and might have made a wrong decision in ditching his beautiful lover. What’s worse is that he realizes he could have been so much more if he’d just chosen wisely and not thrown away his life.

Yet this is something we all do, we make bad decisions that come with their own form of pay-off in the end. This song is about realizing one’s mistake and that it’s far too late to do anything about it, the kind of mistake that stains one’s life and future. It’s a very adult song, not one geared toward a radio single, but it certainly stands out an album that has some cogent things to say about love and relationships.

 SONG REVIEWS: NIRVANA AND THE CURE. “Carnage Visors” is The Cure’s shockingly long (27 minutes!) “soundtrack tour film” song from the 1981 album Faith, unheard by me. Some confessions:

1.   I don’t know much about The Cure;

2.   I’ve not heard much of the band’s music;

3.   I’m not sure that, on the basis of “Carnage Visors,” I’ll be delving into The Cure’s catalog anytime soon.

   It’s interesting they titled this as a “soundtrack,” as I can easily envision it as the warm-up song prior to the band taking the stage. Otherwise, the song does have a fascinating cinematic atmosphere to it. It’s almost like Pink Floyd as reimagined by Ennio Morricone, who scored such ominous classics as Once Upon a Time in the West and The Thing. We’re kept waiting for Henry Fonda to show up as the Bad Guy, or for the Thing to materialize out of the guts of a dog or a winter storm. It’s a heavy, dark piece, a true instrumental that invites the listener to envision a world that either doesn’t exist or existed long ago.

Put another way, it’s the kind of song that a programmer could put into an elaborate video game. It coasts along, helping tell a story full of existential doubt, neither growing more exciting as it goes along but never quite settling into dullness. Though it describes a pattern, it never grows monotonous, by which I mean there’s enough nuance and subtlety to keep us involved. I can as easily imagine a gunslinger riding into a dusty town as I can a long drive down a nighttime highway, following the white line to nowhere.

That’s probably what the song was best designed for: easing the listener into a zoned-out state of contemplation. (I can only imagine what it’s like when you’re stoned.) I dig instrumentals, especially those with a cinematic vibe, and “Carnage Visors” definitely fits that mold. But it is not for everyone. Once you get the gist of it, you either buckle in for the ride or turn your attention to the laundry. I stuck around and found the song growing on me long after. (To that end, I also listened to some other instrumentals on the extended version of Faith, including “Doubt,” “Drowning,” and “The Holy Hour.” I find these mood pieces creepy but not without interest.)

A song I chose for review was “Scentless Apprentice” by Nirvana, off the band’s final album, In Utero. Not the easiest listen. Kurt Cobain intended the follow-up disc to Nevermind to be less polished than that album, which annoyed him with its radio-ready sheen (something no one else seemed to mind). This song exemplifies Cobain’s disregard for the mainstream, which Nirvana had, by that point, become. (“Rape Me” is another example.) I think of “Scentless” as a house on fire, or a horror movie, or both. His shrieking vocals are truly hair-raising. The lyrics seem to address someone who exploits human scent (a recurring theme for Cobain). If its author intended to create a nasty, nerve-jangling piece of music, he succeeded.

BUT, as a unit, Nirvana takes rock musicianship to a whole new level with this track. The guitars are crunching, snarling, and Krist Novaselic’s bass provides a solid floor for Cobain’s impassioned (and deeply sarcastic) wailing. Then we have Dave Grohl’s thunderous drums, which approach Led Zeppelin-era Valhalla. One might be dismissive of Cobain’s drug-fueled rage, but there is no denying the talent of this gone-too-soon power trio. Nirvana never gave a fuck about Top 40 radio, something you could never say about Bon Jovi. Guess that explains why no one listens to Bon Jovi anymore.

FILM “NOBODY” (2021) Directed by Ilya Naishuller. “Nobody” begins with a shot nobody saw coming: that of Bob Odenkirk, as the title character, beaten to a pulp, cuffed, slowly, painfully lighting a cigarette, then silently removing a host of objects from his jacket that set the stage for the rest of the film: violence mixed with surprising, laugh-out-loud humor. “Nobody” is one of the best new films I’ve seen all year (new because most “new” films in the pandemic are at best mediocre, at worst POD piffle).

The whole movie is a banquet of surprises. I immediately nailed it as a thematic cross between “John Wick” (assassin living the normal life) and “American Beauty” (put-upon white male wakes up to his true potential). It is that, but it makes so much more of it. This violent action movie has a higher laughter-to-kills ratio than the original “Die Hard.” It’s funnier than “John Wick,” and just about as brutal. It turns every genre cliché upside down yet delivers exactly where and when we expect it to.

Just as “Die Hard” surprised us with wiry TV funnyman Bruce Willis as a tough cop, “Nobody” surprises us with wiry TV funnyman Odenkirk as a hard-ass retired killer. I’d seen Odenkirk before in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” but his performance here is transformative. We believe him in every bone-crunching scene in “Nobody.” There are moments that remind me of the best of Clint Eastwood, but there are flashes of Burt Reynolds in his tough-guy days, and, of course, lots of Keanu-as-John-Wick touches.

But Odenkirk is his own man and “Nobody” is its own movie. Though it was written and produced by some of the same guys behind “John Wick,” and features Russian villains just like the Wicks, it still comes across as its own story and, potentially, its own franchise. I’d love to see this character again, in a sequel that goes even deeper. (Heck, how about a “Nobody/John Wick” mashup, where these two characters go against each other, head-to-head? Now that’d be worth $20.)

There are many standout action scenes in this movie, but the best is, of course, the bus scene, where Odenkirk’s character takes on four or five nasty thugs. He does for two reasons: one, there’s an innocent woman involved. Two, he has to prove to himself that he’s still a nasty killer. Which he is. This fight is as good as any you can name in any other film. (The all-time best are in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Die Hard,” “John Wick 2,” and “Spectre.”) Odenkirk convincingly mops the floor with these guys, but it’s a hard-fought, bare-knuckles battle that leaves the bus in tatters. It is also funny as hell. “Nobody” quickly and solidly earns a spot among the champions of the genre.

SONG REVIEW: “MERCY STREET,” PETER GABRIEL. Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So is very much an album of the Eighties, though it remains highly listenable. As a time capsule of the period, you could certainly do a lot worse. Does any song speak to the Eighties as much as “Sledgehammer”? Or “Big Time”? Yet I wouldn’t turn down the chance to listen to either of them.

My favorite song from that album might be “Red Rain,” or perhaps “Don’t Give Up,” a duet Gabriel sings with Kate Bush (whose vibe I never quite got on board with). I could also go with “In Your Eyes.” But “Mercy Street” also ranks among the best tracks on the album, a pure dose of mid-Eighties Gabriel.

It’s a quiet ballad, laced with dignified, restrained electronica, with Gabriel’s ghostly vocal hovering above a haunted soundscape. Maybe it’s post-war, maybe it’s all taking place inside some disturbed person’s head. Set in a dark, broken world where the concept of mercy is just a dream, the song paints a stark picture of people in despair but not necessarily without hope. “Anne, with her father, is out in the boat/riding the water/riding the waves/on the sea.”

Gabriel rode the “Brit-pop” wave to success as a solo act apart from the band he helped found, Genesis, which also had a bunch of hits in 1986, including “Land of Confusion” and “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.” I find So to be much more appealing than Genesis’ Invisible Touch, which is really mired in that over-hyped, over-produced mid-Eighties studio sound. “Mercy Street,” though as highly processed as anything else released in the period, is still a good song.

TELEVISION REVIEW: THE X-FILES. The X-Files was one of the definitive programs of the 1990s until it drifted off into the weeds of post-9/11 irrelevance. Prior to 9/11, it was fun to imagine a government cabal involving Old White Men secretly scheming to control every facet of our lives, including hiding the existence of very-real extraterrestrials. After 9/11, such notions were dashed in favor of hardcore evidence-gathering and detective work (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation) and flag-waving, rah-rah patriotism (NCIS). Fox Mulder’s obsession with diabolical government plots was nothing compared to 9/11 “Truthers” and George Bush’s “hanging chads” presidential “victory.”

In other words, the reality of conspiracy theories injected into our evening news quickly overwhelmed the shadowy Monster-of-the-Week world created by Chris Carter. Let’s face it, with the exception of two major events – the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, and the O.J. case – nothing much happened to us collectively in the Nineties. It was a comparatively safe decade. Most of us watched OKC in horror as it unfolded on television; O.J. became another source of entertainment. Tabloid TV in the form of Jerry Springer, shock-jock radio hosts like Howard Stern and right-winger Rush Limbaugh, and 24-hour news coverage of any subject imaginable insulated us from the real world, which came crashing through the door to affect us all on a beautiful Tuesday morning in 2001. I remember feeling that the events I saw on TV that morning could actually affect my life in comfortable little Sherman, Texas, especially when lines began forming at gas stations, and grocery shelves were raided by my panic-stricken fellow Americans. How to take The X-Files seriously when Osama bin Laden had dealt our way of life a death blow?

I had mostly forgotten The X-Files, though it’s easy to recall the series’ popularity from 1993 through to about 1999. It peaked in 1998 with the feature film, Fight the Future, a stunningly mediocre big-screen adaptation that magnified some of the series’ shortcomings. Fortunately, the show is available for streaming on Hulu, and I have revisited several key episodes, with the (half-hearted) intention of rewatching (ha-ha!) the whole series. Let’s shelve that plan for now. The X-Files had some admittedly good-to-great episodes, but it is also, I realized, something of a one-trick pony.

The show became famous for its “truth is out there” plotlines, but what fueled it was the relationship between FBI agents Mulder and Dana Scully, played respectively by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. The two stars shared an amazing chemistry; even when viewers weren’t straining forward to see signs of a “romantic” relationship, we were intrigued by their bickering back-and-forth. Muller and Scully (Sculder and Mully?) made it cool to be nerds, hip to be square; the popular culture fell in love with the pair, though they spent most of their screen time doing autopsies and driving with worried looks on their faces. No question, Duchovny and Anderson were the hottest screen couple of the decade, and the most fascinating.

They were also successful at making their characters interesting on their own. Anderson could more than hold the screen without Duchovny, giving Scully a hard-boiled approach to the thorniest situations that made her both lovable and credible as a government functionary. Scully was intended to be the skeptic to Fox’s believer, a foil as much as a love interest or an antagonist. So when Anderson’s face or tone registers a profound empathy for Fox’s alien obsession, it’s a serious moment for the show. Does she, too, believe in the paranormal? Or does she simply believe that he believes? Either way, the show finds several moments of understanding between the two that are both touching and electric.

Ultimately, the show was all about empathy. It asks us to take Fox’s obsessions seriously, to feel his fear and take part in his (few) victories. It also wants us to feel sympathy for Scully. Tasked with debunking Fox’s X-files, she’s required to witness bizarre occurrences while finding ways of scientifically deflating them. The show wisely makes protagonists of both Mulder and Scully; they are the yin and yang who keep the otherwise absurd requirements of the plot believable.

For the early 90s, the show had a cinematic flair that made it flat-out fun to watch. Filmed mostly in shadows, with characters (human and otherwise) usually back-lit, The X-Files often felt like Steven Spielberg as filtered through David Lynch (or, occasionally, Ridley Scott). Directors like Rob Bowman and Kim Manners kept their cameras mobile and edited as if each episode were meant for the big screen. In an era when most TV dramas had all the visual interest of the most basic cable TV commercial, The X-Files had real cinematic style, from the way it photographed its characters to the framing, choreography, and set design. From a technical standpoint, there was nothing else like it on television.

The writing was also generally strong, though the episodes I went back and rewatched sometimes took some lazy shortcuts. (Unsurprising in the world of television.) Villains were usually spelled out and underlined, while heroes operated in shades of gray. I always found the Monster of the Week episodes more interesting than the overarching Government Conspiracy ones having to do with Mulder’s abducted sister or Scully’s mysterious “cancer.” I never found the Cigarette Smoking Man all that fascinating; his habit of lighting up every 25 seconds became tedious. I preferred it when our protagonists were chasing down humanoid tapeworms, vampires, homicidal telepaths, and other things on the fringe of the known world.

For the most part, it was a fun show, though today I see a few cracks in the design. The X-Files took full advantage of the SILENCE to LOUD NOISE dynamic, which sometimes makes it hard to understand what’s going on because of the wild swings in sound and volume. It was also dark, and I don’t mean thematically. I mean, visually, it was sometimes too damned dark for its own good. Yeah, Scully, I understand, you’re trying to penetrate to the heart of a mystery, but can’t you at least find a fucking light switch?

It also comes off a bit cheesy these days. Its Big Scares haven’t aged well, and we’ve all seen those Paranormal Activity movies, which are exponentially more terrifying than The X-Files. It’s hard to take seriously the episode titled “Humbug,” for example, which kind of exploits the plight of circus performers (read: freaks) while telling a rather predictable whodunit story. (I’ll admit, the episode does have a lot of great humor.) Many plot points and characterizations wouldn’t pass muster in today’s environment, for reasons that are sort of understandable.

One of the most controversial episodes, “Home,” was banned for three years after its initial run in 1996. (I remember watching it the night it first aired.) I fired it back up again recently and found it all but unwatchable. Yes, it’s clever and well-written, but over-directed and maybe too clever for its own good. It also contains several long sections of “suspense” that play out exactly as you expect. Too much of it amounts to waiting for the inevitable to occur. The horrific villains are played either for jump scares or laughs. Though I like the central conceit, that Scully and Mulder investigate a case in what is essentially Mayberry from “The Andy Griffith Show,” it’s overblown and predictable.

Ultimately, I don’t believe the writers and directors, including Chris Carter, knew what to do with their show. Its conspiracy theory plotting eventually became too self-conscious for its own good, especially when it began introducing characters who got all “meta” on Fox, insisting that, yeah, you might believe all this, but only because we WANT you to believe it. Though individual scenes worked, the overall vibe was wishy-washy, as if Carter wanted to have everything both ways. (Fox is right AND wrong; Scully believes AND disbelieves.) An air of pointlessness settles in; once more questions are raised than answered, the viewer starts to feel nothing ever really adds up. This might have put the final nail in the series’ coffin.

Or maybe that nail came in the form of Fight the Future. There’s no question the whole idea of The X-Files peaked with this would-be summer blockbuster. Released between seasons four and five, in the summer of 1998, the film garnered strong ticket sales but little else, neither answering questions from the 1997-98 season or preparing us much for the upcoming season. As both a standalone thriller and a continuation of the series on the big screen, Fight the Future accomplished almost nothing, introducing us to a literally shadowy cabal of Old White Men as well as to a shrieking, homicidal alien that vanishes from the story after only a few minutes. Mulder and Scully get caught up in a conspiracy plot that indifferently echoes the OKC bombing, but it’s neither here nor there. The film looks good, only in that it resembles a really expensive version of the TV show. Duchovny and Anderson are, of course, great in their roles, but they’re not enough to save it from mediocrity.

The X-Files’ uniqueness, indeed, its groundbreaking influence, certainly did not go unnoticed by Hollywood. I’ve detected influences of the show in movies ranging from Se7en to The Matrix and the latest crop of Paranormal Activity films. I’m willing to wager that the show can also be felt in the works of M. Night Shyamalan; what are Signs and The Visit, if not extended X-Files episodes?

Bottom line: The X-Files is a classic show that went nowhere in terms of plot. The charisma of the leads, however, and the overall influence of its theme and visual design, cannot be refuted.


MOVIE REVIEW: PAPER MOON. Peter Bogdanovich’s 1973 film Paper Moon is a minor classic, one of the best films of the 1970s. I vaguely recall it from my childhood but never got around to watching it until after Bogdanovich recently passed away. I had seen his The Last Picture Show and it is a masterpiece, if somewhat dry and a teensy bit unlikable. Paper Moon is sweeter, a bit more straightforward, and almost impossibly charming.

Filmed in black and white and set in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Paper Moon tells the story of a roving con artist called Moses, played by the vastly underrated Ryan O’Neal. Moses attends the funeral of a woman on the Kansas plains and accepts as his brief responsibility the transportation of the woman’s young daughter, Addie, played by O’Neal’s real-life daughter, Tatum. Moses may or may not be Addie’s actual father, but the film does a nice job of refusing to answer definitively. It could just be that, over the course of the story, Addie and Moses form a bond stronger than blood.

Nothing of earth-shattering importance happens between the opening and closing credits, but we are nonetheless riveted to the relationship between the grifter and the “innocent” child. I qualify innocent because Addie quickly proves to be as big a con artist as her temporary minder. She catches onto Moses’ various schemes (mostly involving the sale of customized Bibles to recently-widowed women) and becomes his biggest asset, making them more money than he might have been capable of on his own. (No one, it turns out, can resist a cute little girl and a terribly sad orphan story.) She turns the tables on him early on, after he blackmails a businessman out of $200 due mainly to Addie’s cute, pouty face. Addie demands Moses turn over the $200 to her, holding the debt over his head at every opportunity. They strike out for Addie’s relatives’ house in St. Joe, Missouri.

Paper Moon has the standard structure of the classic road movie, which it most certainly is, but it’s the budding relationship and unspoken affection that develops between the O’Neals that forms the heart of the journey. Bogdanovich shows us glimpses of Depression-era desperation as Moses and Addie make their way to Missouri; the deep-focus, b&w photography is perfect in portraying the hard-luck nature of the human situation on those stark, windswept plains. The film is located somewhere between comedy and drama, never straining for laughs or tear-jerking melodrama, instead focusing so intently on the characters that we come to care for them immensely.

The cast is simply wonderful. The O’Neals play off each other expertly, never going for cheap emotion, always playing the reality of their scenes and holding their cards close to their chests. With this and Barry Lyndon, I think Ryan O’Neal established himself as one of the best actors of the 1970s — he’s as goofy and sincere as he is masculine and tough. I don’t know why he seemed to stop getting big roles after 1979; maybe audiences grew tired of him. But there’s no doubt he did some great work for some of the top directors.

Tatum won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance here, deservedly so. She commands the screen. Her Addie is one of the great characters, smart, common-sensical, and just clever enough to survive any situation. (She never quite outsmarts herself, but is always able to get one over on the adults when she needs to.) Her career followed a similar trajectory to Ryan’s, but having a movie like Paper Moon on your resume is still an achievement.

I was surprised by the number of action sequences in the film. Moses and Addie get in such trouble that the cops and others try chasing them down. One car chase in particular is a great example of old-school filmmaking, using simple camera setups and effective editing. A sequence in the middle of the film shows Addie and a young Black friend scheming to rid themselves of a troublesome call girl (played exquisitely by Madeleine Khan); it could have derailed the film completely, becoming either a thriller or a screwball comedy. Instead, Bogdanovich plays it right down the middle, giving us just enough humor and suspense without shattering the movie’s charm. There’s a shot at the end of the sequence that signals the end of the episode and bids farewell to a very likable supporting character, in a way that is most satisfying.

I’ve never seen anything quite like Paper Moon. Its elements are almost predictable; you could almost call the movie small ball. But we care about these people, want things to work out well for them, and hope they end up sticking together. It’s not a spoiler to say that the film has the happiest sort of ending for people in their situation.

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