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.











Popular posts from this blog

The Illumi-what-i?

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) (SPOILERS) In which Sam Raimi proves that he can stand proudly with the best – or worst – of them as a good little foot soldier of the woke apocalypse. You’d expect the wilfully anarchic – and Republican – Raimi to choke on the woke, but instead, he’s sucked it up, grinned and bore it. Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness is so slavishly a production-line Marvel movie, both in plotting and character, and in nu-Feige progressive sensibilities, there was no chance of Sam staggering out from beneath its suffocating demands with anything more than a few scraps of stylistic flourish intact.

This risotto is shmackin’, dude.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 1 (SPOILERS) I haven’t had cause, or the urge, to revisit earlier seasons of Stranger Things , but I’m fairly certain my (relatively) positive takes on the first two sequel seasons would adjust down somewhat if I did (a Soviet base under Hawkins? DUMB soft disclosure or not, it’s pretty dumb). In my Season Three review, I called the show “ Netflix’s best-packaged junk food. It knows not to outstay its welcome, doesn’t cause bloat and is disposable in mostly good ways ” I fairly certain the Duffer’s weren’t reading, but it’s as if they decided, as a rebuke, that bloat was the only way to go for Season Four. Hence episodes approaching (or exceeding) twice the standard length. So while the other points – that it wouldn’t stray from its cosy identity and seasons tend to merge in the memory – hold fast, you can feel the ambition of an expansive canvas faltering at the hurdle of Stranger Things ’ essential, curated, nostalgia-appeal inconsequentiality.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

Is this supposed to be me? It’s grotesque.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022) (SPOILERS) I didn’t hold out much hope for The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent being more than moderately tolerable. Not so much because its relatively untested director and his co-writer are mostly known in the TV sphere (and not so much for anything anyone is raving about). Although, it has to be admitted, the finished movie flourishes a degree of digital flatness typical of small-screen productions (it’s fine, but nothing more). Rather, due to the already over-tapped meta-strain of celebs showing they’re good sports about themselves. When Spike Jonze did it with John Malkovich, it was weird and different. By the time we had JCVD , not so much. And both of them are pre-dated by Arnie in Last Action Hero (“ You brought me nothing but pain ” he is told by Jack Slater). Plus, it isn’t as if Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten have much in the way of an angle on Nic; the movie’s basically there to glorify “him”, give or take a few foibles, do

All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies.

Watership Down (1978) (SPOILERS) I only read Watership Down recently, despite having loved the film from the first, and I was immediately impressed with how faithful, albeit inevitably compacted, Martin Rosen’s adaptation is. It manages to translate the lyrical, mythic and metaphysical qualities of Richard Adams’ novel without succumbing to dumbing down or the urge to cater for a broader or younger audience. It may be true that parents are the ones who get most concerned over the more disturbing elements of the picture but, given the maturity of the content, it remains a surprise that, as with 2001: A Space Odyssey (which may on the face of it seem like an odd bedfellow), this doesn’t garner a PG certificate. As the makers noted, Watership Down is at least in part an Exodus story, but the biblical implications extend beyond Hazel merely leading his fluffle to the titular promised land. There is a prevalent spiritual dimension to this rabbit universe, one very much

What’s so bad about being small? You’re not going to be small forever.

Innerspace (1987) There’s no doubt that Innerspace is a flawed movie. Joe Dante finds himself pulling in different directions, his instincts for comic subversion tempered by the need to play the romance plot straight. He tacitly acknowledges this on the DVD commentary for the film, where he notes Pauline Kael’s criticism that he was attempting to make a mainstream movie; and he was. But, as ever with Dante, it never quite turns out that way. Whereas his kids’ movies treat their protagonists earnestly, this doesn’t come so naturally with adults. I’m a bona fide devotee of Innerspace , but I can’t help but be conscious of its problems. For the most part Dante papers over the cracks; the movie hits certain keynotes of standard Hollywood prescription scripting. But his sensibility inevitably suffuses it. That, and human cartoon Martin Short (an ideal “leading man” for the director) ensure what is, at first glance just another “ Steven Spielberg Presents ” sci-fi/fantas

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

Whacking. I'm hell at whacking.

Witness (1985) (SPOILERS) Witness saw the advent of a relatively brief period – just over half a decade –during which Harrison Ford was willing to use his star power in an attempt to branch out. The results were mixed, and abruptly concluded when his typically too late to go where Daniel Day Lewis, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro had gone before (with at bare minimum Oscar-nominated results) – but not “ full retard ” – ended in derision with Regarding Henry . He retreated to the world of Tom Clancy, and it’s the point where his cachet began to crumble. There had always been a stolid quality beneath even his more colourful characters, but now it came to the fore. You can see something of that as John Book in Witness – despite his sole Oscar nom, it might be one of Ford’s least interesting performances of the 80s – but it scarcely matters, or that the screenplay (which won) is by turns nostalgic, reactionary, wistful and formulaic, as director Peter Weir, in his Hollywood debu

Get away from my burro!

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) (SPOILERS) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is beloved by so many of the cinematic firmament’s luminaries – Stanley Kubrick, Sam Raimi, , Paul Thomas Anderson and who knows maybe also WS, Vince Gilligan, Spike Lee, Daniel Day Lewis; Oliver Stone was going to remake it – not to mention those anteriorly influential Stone Roses, that it seems foolhardy to suggest it isn’t quite all that. There’s no faulting the performances – a career best Humphrey Bogart, with director John Huston’s dad Walter stealing the movie from under him – but the greed-is-bad theme is laid on a little thick, just in case you were a bit too dim to get it yourself the first time, and Huston’s direction may be right there were it counts for the dramatics, but it’s a little too relaxed when it comes to showing the seams between Mexican location and studio.

If that small woman is small enough, she could fit behind a small tree.

Stranger Things Season 4: Volume 2 (SPOILERS) I can’t quite find it within myself to perform the rapturous somersaults that seem to be the prevailing response to this fourth run of the show. I’ve outlined some of my thematic issues in the Volume 1 review, largely borne out here, but the greater concern is one I’ve held since Season Two began – and this is the best run since Season One, at least as far my failing memory can account for – and that’s the purpose-built formula dictated by the Duffer Brothers. It’s there in each new Big Bad, obviously, even to the extent that this is the Big-Bad-who-binds-them-all (except the Upside Down was always there, right?) And it’s there with the resurgent emotional beats, partings, reunions and plaintively stirring music cues. I have to be really on board with a movie or show to embrace such flagrantly shameless manipulation, season after season, and I find myself increasingly immune.