Skip to main content

It’s almost as if someone was using it to catalogue him.

The X-Files
2.5: Duane Barry

Immediately that The X-Files begins its two- (or even three-) part mythology episodes, it shows it has problems with the payoff. To be fair to Duane Barry/Ascension, this is, at least partly, because the first episode is so good, and in some respects would have functioned as a perfect single with a few amendments – one can readily discern that it was originally outlined this way – but it’s there nonetheless. I considered looking at my revisits of multi-part stories under one review, but the frequent gulf in quality put me off. Notably, Duane Barry finds Chris Carter pulling double duties as writer/director for the first time, and if you wanted evidence of what he could do in both departments when serving the idea in both writing and execution, look no further. The real star of the show, however, is Steve Railsback in the title role.

Duane Barry: I’m not crazy, doc. Duane Barry’s not like these other guys.

It’s a testament to Carter’s writing and Railsback’s acting that Duane Barry is never less than sympathetic, even as he is inflicting beatings, shootings and holding others hostage. Railsback’s is a perceptive, layered performance that rather knocks both Duchovny (and Mulder, in terms of finding the right ground to walk on) into the corner. Carter shows more of the ET element in this episode than ever before, but as much as he includes “objective” shots (the framing of the UFO over Barry’s house at the outset, the wide shot of Barry’s bedroom), he’s also careful not to be too literal. We’re not supposed to think everything happening to Duane is in his head – the implants are evidence enough of that – but neither are we intended to put complete stock in what we see “through his eyes”. Even the nature of the observing aliens (of a trollish, malevolent aspect here), gauzed behind polythene sheets surrounding his bed, is subjective and distancing; it is, by design, the stuff of nightmares, and beside his dog, there are no other witnesses (later, in Ascension, he mistakes figures outside the interrogation room for aliens).

Duane Barry: They’re not taking me again. You got it? They can take somebody else.

Scully, being an inveterate naysayer of such matters, is naturally on hand to unearth evidence that Duane is a pathological liar owing to a rare state of psychosis – inspired by the case of Phineas Gage – that destroyed the moral centre of his brain (a self-inflicted gunshot wound, purportedly). And the endearing manner in which Duane refers to himself in the third person is a succinct means of telegraphing that we should be wary of his mental state. Because people just don’t do that, do they? Albeit, this is countered by knowing he is a former FBI agent; Carter maintains that doubt/belief balance skilfully. Even Scully can’t deny the metallic objects found in Duane’s system appear to have a barcode equivalent imprinted on them; one of the best moments here, and indeed in the series as a whole, finds her testing one on impulse at a supermarket checkout scanner, with chaotic consequences. That’s Carter at his best, able to take a piece of UFO lore and rub it up against the everyday in resonant way.

Agent Kazdin: You really believe this stuff, Agent Mulder?
Mulder: Is that a problem?

It’s also important that Mulder is completely the counter to Scully’s resistance as he ignores instructions to maintain an emotional distance from hostage taker Barry; Duane has initiated the hostage situation upon breaking out of his mental institution, determined to prove to dismissive kidnapped Doctor Hakkie (Frank C Turner) that this is not all in his mind (it’s a beautifully pathetic touch that the hostage taking occurs at a travel agent, Barry having called in because he is unable to recall his abduction site). Again, Carter is taking a genre staple and feeding it through The X-Files prism, such that the characters’ scepticism and sniggers in response to Duane’s claims are entirely expected but also entirely work to elicit sympathy for the antagonist/victim.

Agent Kazdin: So whatever crap you’ve got to make up about spacemen or UFOs, just keep him on the phone.

Carter makes sure to include the necessary tropes (some of which are leading, such as sleep paralysis, but also feed into more ultra-terrestrial readings). Duane doesn’t want to take his meds (“I don’t like the way it makes me feel”), he rants about scoop marks, scars, homing devices and “a lot of other nonsense”. Time is lost during the crisis. Porting Mulder into this situation – the X-Files being closed at this point, of course – is a neat and germane get around, even if it’s stretching things a bit to have him then okayed to go and talk to Duane dressed as a medic.

What’s interesting is how this oppressive and intolerant environment instantly makes Mulder and Barry kindred spirits of a sort. It’s notable the way Fox lashes out in a gender-combative manner when Agent Kazdin (CCH Pounder who would later play a detective involved in further uncanniness in End of Days) is dismissive of Barry’s ravings: “Would you like to know what they do to a woman’s ovaries?” he asks. “Not particularly” she responds. She doesn’t take it to heart; indeed, rather than calling Mulder the next day to “chew me out” she shows him the metal objects that corroborate at least that part of Barry’s story.

Duane Barry: How could you ever know what Duane Barry’s been through?

Also interesting is that Mulder’s personal investment – his abducted sister – is peanuts compared to Duane’s torments. And really, Fox knows it. Such that, when Mulder processes Scully’s comments concerning Duane’s mental state, we feel Barry’s sense of betrayal is quite legitimate (Rob Shearman refers to the episode as a “parable about faith”, and there’s something to that). Indeed, the moment when, on letting two women hostages leave one of them says “I just want to say that I believe you”, might otherwise be put down to Stockholm Syndrome, except that we have it too. Or at very least, we believe Duane believes what has happened to him. There’s a genuine sense that Mulder’s manipulation of Barry, to enter the sniper’s line of sight – having earlier steered him clear – is unwarranted, that if he had persevered that bit longer, he might have avoided Duane being shot.

Duane Barry: They drilled holes in my damn teeth!

So while this is a strong episode in terms of giving Mulder some meaty interaction, it’s one that also highlights how fallible he is. He completely flunks helping Barry. Worse, he gets him shot. Yes, he saves the hostages, but this is really about saving the man. As noted, Carter shoots the torture scenes subjectively, but does so with an industrial harshness rather than unearthly sheen. We see Barry’s teeth being lasered and a Da Vinci man-style torture table. The success of the episode bolstered Carter’s confidence as a director (he took his starter’s tips from David Nutter), but unfortunately, he would tend increasingly towards gaudy visual excess while lacking the innate faculty to use such tricks appropriately.

Duane Barry: The government knows about it, you know. They’re even in on it sometimes. Right there in the room when they come. They work together with a, uh, secret, uh, corporation.

Duane’s recollections further emphasise the conspiratorial element, and Duane, who mistakes humans for aliens at various points, vouches for the intertwined agenda of the ETs and government. Indeed, many of the things Duane reports, from mind scans (“They know what I’m saying”) to establishment scrutiny, could be found in those without such experiences, such as victims of gang stalking or other intimidation and harassment tactics.

The series at this point was dealing with Gillian Anderson’s pregnancy, of course, writing in an alien abduction to cover it, such that Scully is kidnapped by Barry at the cliffhanger ending. In tandem with these wheels, we have weasely Krychek (Nicholas Lea) – introduced in the preceding episode 2.4: Sleepless as Mulder’s new partner – acting in suspicious and unscrupulous manner. Very amusing that he is subjected to a dismissive order for a cappuccino at the hostage scene when he asks how he can help. Also, his conspicuously focussing on the message, not the package, during the Fox in his Speedos male cheesecake scene. The show would deliver another strong hostage crisis situation in 5.19: Folie a Deux, but it’s testament to the effectiveness of Duane Barry that the thing you remember most here is Railsback’s performance; the Emmy nominations (Carter, Pounder, two tech ones) were entirely warranted.











Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Maybe he had one too many peanut butter and fried banana sandwiches.

3000 Miles to Graceland (2001) (SPOILERS) The kind of movie that makes your average Tarantino knockoff look classy, 3000 Miles to Graceland is both aggressively unpleasant and acutely absent any virtues, either as a script or a stylistic exercise. The most baffling thing about it is how it attracted Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell, particularly since both ought to have been extra choosy at this point, having toplined expensive bombs in the previous half decade that made them significantly less bankable names. And if you’re wondering how this managed to cost the $62m reported on Wiki, it didn’t; Franchise Pictures, one of the backers, was in the business of fraudulently inflating budgets .

White nights getting to you?

Insomnia (2002) (SPOILERS) I’ve never been mad keen on Insomnia . It’s well made, well-acted, the screenplay is solid and it fits in neatly with Christopher Nolan’s abiding thematic interests, but it’s… There’s something entirely adequateabout it. It isn’t pushing any kind of envelope. It’s happy to be the genre-bound crime study it is and nothing more, something emphasised by Pacino’s umpteenth turn as an under-pressure cop.

You absolute horror of a human being.

As Good as it Gets (1997) (SPOILERS) James L Brooks’ third Best Picture Oscar nomination goes to reconfirm every jaundiced notion you had of the writer-director-producer’s capacity for the facile and highly consumable, low-cal, fast-food melodramatic fix with added romcom lustre. Of course, As Good as it Gets was a monster hit, parading as it does Jack in a crackerjack, attention-grabbing part. But it’s a mechanical, suffocatingly artificial affair, ponderously paced (a frankly absurd 139 minutes) and infused with glib affirmations and affections. Naturally, the Academy lapped that shit up, because it reflects their own lack of depth and perception (no further comment is needed than Titanic winning the big prize for that year).

The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite?

The Box of Delights (1984) If you were at a formative age when it was first broadcast, a festive viewing of The Box of Delights  may well have become an annual ritual. The BBC adaptation of John Masefield’s 1935 novel is perhaps the ultimate cosy yuletide treat. On a TV screen, at any rate. To an extent, this is exactly the kind of unashamedly middle class-orientated bread-and-butter period production the corporation now thinks twice about; ever so posh kids having jolly adventures in a nostalgic netherworld of Interwar Britannia. Fortunately, there’s more to it than that. There is something genuinely evocative about Box ’s mythic landscape, a place where dream and reality and time and place are unfixed and where Christmas is guaranteed a blanket of thick snow. Key to this is the atmosphere instilled by director Renny Rye. Most BBC fantasy fare doe not age well but The Box of Delights is blessed with a sinister-yet-familiar charm, such that even the creakier production decisi

I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one.

Scanners (1981) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg has made a career – albeit, he may have “matured” a little over the past few decades, so it is now somewhat less foregrounded – from sticking up for the less edifying notions of evolution and modern scientific thought. The idea that regress is, in fact, a form of progress, and unpropitious developments are less dead ends than a means to a state or states as yet unappreciated. He began this path with some squeam-worthy body horrors, before genre hopping to more explicit science fiction with Scanners , and with it, greater critical acclaim and a wider audience. And it remains a good movie, even as it suffers from an unprepossessing lead and rather fumbles the last furlong, cutting to the chase when a more measured, considered approach would have paid dividends.

You seem particularly triggered right now. Can you tell me what happened?

Trailers The Matrix Resurrections   The Matrix A woke n ? If nothing else, the arrival of The Matrix Resurrections trailer has yielded much retrospective back and forth on the extent to which the original trilogy shat the bed. That probably isn’t its most significant legacy, of course, in terms of a series that has informed, subconsciously or otherwise, intentionally or otherwise, much of the way in which twenty-first century conspiracy theory has been framed and discussed. It is however, uncontested that a first movie that was officially the “best thing ever”, that aesthetically and stylistically reinvigorated mainstream blockbuster cinema in a manner unseen again until Fury Road , squandered all that good will with astonishing speed by the time 2003 was over.

Remember. Decision. Consequence.

Day Break (2006) (SPOILERS) Day Break is the rare series that was lucky to get cancelled. And not in a mercy-killing way. It got to tell its story. Sure, apparently there were other stories. Other days to break. But would it have justified going there? Or would it have proved tantalising/reticent about the elusive reason its protagonist has to keep stirring and repeating? You bet it would. Offering occasional crumbs, and then, when it finally comes time to wrap things up, giving an explanation that satisfies no one/is a cop out/offers a hint at some nebulous existential mission better left to the viewer to conjure up on their own. Best that it didn’t even try to go there.

How do you melt somebody’s lug wrench?

Starman (1984) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s unlikely SF romance. Unlikely, because the director has done nothing before or since suggesting an affinity for the romantic fairy tale, and yet he proves surprisingly attuned to Starman ’s general vibes. As do his stars and Jack Nitzsche, furnishing the score in a rare non-showing from the director-composer. Indeed, if there’s a bum note here, it’s the fairly ho-hum screenplay; the lustre of Starman isn’t exactly that of making a silk purse from a sow’s ear, but it’s very nearly stitching together something special from resolutely average source material.

You cut my head off a couple of dozen times.

Boss Level (2021) (SPOILERS) Lest you thought it was nigh-on impossible to go wrong with a Groundhog Day premise, Joe Carnahan, in his swaggering yen for overkill, very nearly pulls it off with Boss Level . I’m unsure quite what became of Carnahan’s early potential, but he seems to have settled on a sub-Tarantino, sub-Bay, sub-Snyder, sub-Ritchie butch bros aesthetic, complete with a tin ear for dialogue and an approach to plotting that finds him continually distracting himself, under the illusion it’s never possible to have too much. Of whatever it is he’s indulging at that moment.

We got two honkies out there dressed like Hassidic diamond merchants.

The Blues Brothers (1980) (SPOILERS) I had limited awareness of John Belushi’s immense mythos before  The Blues Brothers arrived on retail video in the UK (so 1991?) My familiarity with SNL performers really began with Ghostbusters ’ release, which meant picking up the trail of Jake and Elwood was very much a retrospective deal. I knew Animal House , knew Belushi’s impact there, knew 1941 (the Jaws parody was the best bit), knew Wired was a biopic better avoided. But the minor renaissance he, and they, underwent in the UK in the early ’90s seemed to have been initiated by Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, of all things; Everybody Needs Somebody was part of their That Sounds Good to Me medley, the first of their hits not to make No.1, and Everybody ’s subsequent single release then just missed the Top Ten. Perhaps it was this that hastened CIC/Universal to putting the comedy out on video. Had the movie done the rounds on UK TV in the 80s? If so, it managed to pass me by. Even bef