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The X-Files – Hollywood A.D. (Review)

This September, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

And now as we drift off the laughing agents and back to the graveyard , we see the Lazarus Bowl lying discarded beneath a tree.

A SWITCH, a broken tipped branch of the tree gets blown by the fan’s wind force down toward the plastic grooves of the replica as we move down toward it, we can read a “MADE IN ISRAEL” sticker on its bottom – the branch reaching toward the plastic,  like a woman’s arms to her lover —

Close on the splintered wood making contact on the colored plastic like a phonograph needle on vinyl —

And now MUSIC COMES UP – scratchy like an old record, the fourth track from BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB, in a superior interpretation rendered by Mark Snow, called “PUEBLO NUEVO” – a beautiful stately cha cha instrumental —

We pull back wide as APPARITIONS appear to rise from their graves, rotting, but standing at atte ntion and then —

When the music kicks in, they begin to dance, all of them, in the round – dignified, changing partners… we hear the bones creaking, we see the gentlemanly half skulls smiling…

And now by the magic of Bill Millar & Co., the GREEN SCREEN becomes the rest of a HUGE GRAVEYARD with corpses dancing  stately and dignified upon it as we begin a slow pull out to a heavenly perspective…

This is what life’s about. This is what the dead would do if only they could. As we slowly fade to black, the band plays on.

And we end.

 – David Duchovny takes his bow

Everything ends.

Everything ends.

By the time that Hollywood A.D. entered production, the fate of The X-Files was still up in the air. It was quite clear that Fox wanted to renew the series for at least another season, not that they had much choice. Even if the series was no longer as big a ratings draw as it had been, it was still the most bankable show on the network by a considerable margin. After all, Fox was just coming to the end of its “worst season ever”, with viewing figures falling 16% on the previous broadcast season.

Chris Carter and Ten Thirteen could empathise. Harsh Realm was one of the shows caught in that disaster. Launching late 1999, the show failed to ignite the ratings. It was strangled in its crib, cancelled after only three episodes had aired. The last five episodes were being “burned off” on FX at the end of the television season, a rather ignominious fate for what had been a high-profile and prestigious project. However, Harsh Realm was not the only casualty of the season. Five of the network’s seven new shows for the season were cancelled by November 1999.

Well, Chris Carter did promise a new X-Files movie in 2000.

Well, Chris Carter did promise a new X-Files movie in 2000.

Put frankly, Fox had nothing with which they might replace The X-Files. Before it had even aired, the network was excitedly touting Harsh Realm as a possible replacement. The dream was to gracefully retire The X-Files after seven years of network success, maybe transitioning into a film franchise. Fox executives were eager to move Harsh Realm into the coveted Sunday night slot, hoping that substantially cheaper series would prove just as much of a success as The X-Files had been. Obviously, that was all off the table at this point.

This meant that Fox could not afford to lose The X-Files. The show had to keep going, because there was really no possible replacement for the series. Chris Carter’s popular conspiracy series might have been fading from the cultural conversation, but it remained a money-spinner for a television network that was floundering after a disastrous season. This put the seventh season of The X-Files in a strange position, with the production team starting out almost certain it would be the final season, only to gradually accept it would not be.

I want to believe...

I want to believe…

Negotiations went on through the early months of 2000. Interviews with the production team suggested that they were as uncertain of the show’s future as any of the fans. There was one stumbling block, though: David Duchovny. Duchovny was the bottleneck to an eighth season, the factor upon which a “go” or “no go” decision would be made. Asked about the possibility of an eighth season in February 2000, Vince Gilligan confessed:

I was waiting for that question. We’re waiting ourselves. It all comes down to David Duchovny at this point. Once he decides one way or the other, we’ll know whether or not there’ll be an eighth season. He still enjoys playing Agent Mulder, and of course does a wonderful job as always, but it’s up to him to decide whether to do it another year or to move on with his career.

At the end of the show’s fifth season, Duchovny had expressed an anxiety about remaining with the show. Fox and Ten Thirteen had convinced him to sign up for two more years on the promise of more money and a move to Los Angeles. Duchovny had been quite vocal about his desire to disengage from the television series after those two years were up. With the end of the seventh season, time was counting down.

Looking for the door...

Looking for the door…

Inevitably, interviews would broach the possibility of Duchovny signing on for an eighth season, and the actor would quite firmly shoot them down. In an April 2000 interview with Science-Fiction Weekly, Duchovny explained:

I never say never. It all depends. At this point, it’s just about money. Anybody that tells you that creatively there is anything left to do on that show…. The only creative thing left to do is the sheer high-wire act of “How can I keep on making this show?” That’s really all – you can’t really say that there’s more to do. All you can say is, “Wow, I can’t believe you keep on doing it and it’s still good.” And it is. But creatively, that’s kind of a weird response.

It is worth noting that Duchovny’s lawsuit against Fox (which accused Carter of taking “hush money”) was still on-going at this point in the season. It plays out in the background of the seventh season, unacknowledged but always there.

Associate Producer Walter Skinner...

Associate Producer Walter Skinner…

This weird ambiguity informs a lot of the late seventh season, as it seems like The X-Files is never entirely sure whether it is coming and going. The show sort of hangs there, unwilling to really resolve any of the remaining plot threads, but also unable to commit to any long-term planning. It seems like everybody involved in the production is holding their breath and just waiting to see what happens next. This is particularly apparent in Hollywood A.D. and Fight Club, both of which seem informed by the behind the scenes drama.

In many respects, Hollywood A.D. could be read as David Duchovny’s attempt to say goodbye to The X-Files, the show that had elevated him from a veteran supporting actor to an instantly recognisable leading man. It is not a script that engages with the show’s mythology or continuity in any real way, but those details always seemed of less interest to Duchovny than the basic iconography. When asked about a possible ending image for the series, Duchovny has pointed to the final scene of The Post-Modern Prometheus as his favourite image of the show.

"Starring Garry Shandling as Fox Mulder..."

“Starring Garry Shandling as Fox Mulder…”

In contemporary interviews, Duchovny talked about Hollywood A.D. as a conscious farewell to the show. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, he reflected:

“There’s a lot of love for the show in it,” Duchovny says. “I came to think of it as my way of saying goodbye.”

“I wanted it to be a cynical, ironic piece that ends up on a schmaltzy note. When I write for The X-Files, my hatred and love for it show at the same time.”

This sentiment is rendered explicit in the script for the episode, with Duchovny closing on the line, “And we end.”

"Starring Tea Leone as Dana Scully..."

“Starring Tea Leone as Dana Scully…”

There is something undeniably personal and unique about Hollywood A.D. When an interviewer observed that the episode felt like “a personal film for television”, Duchovny agreed:

That’s exactly what I feel I’m doing. I mean, I couldn’t write anything that wasn’t personal. This one is obviously about the difference between reality and acting, Hollywood and the rest of the world, truth and fiction – all of which is very personal to me.

It would be easy for Hollywood A.D. to feel impersonal or cliché. After all, it is very much “the Hollywood episode” or “the movie episode.” However, Duchovny makes the story his own.

Torch song...

Torch song…

Like The Unnatural before it, there is a sense that Duchovny is less interested in the continuity of the show than the identity of the show. As a writer, Duchovny tends to work better with archetypes than with fully-formed characters. There is something rather strange, for example, in his insistence in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati that all Mulder ever wanted was a quiet suburban life with a traditional family. It is a powerful dramatic image that resonates with the themes of the show and the context of the season, but it doesn’t feel particularly tuned to Mulder.

Duchovny did a lot of work to flesh out the mythology during the show’s early years; he pitched the stories for Colony, Anasazi and Talitha Cumi. Still, Duchovny was drawing on archetypes; he kept a copy of Campbell’s work in his trailer and spoke of a desire to give Mulder “a Joseph Campbell journey.” Duchovny tends to work more towards the iconic than the literal. If The Unnatural needs Mulder to be a baseball fan, he is a baseball fan; if The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati needs Mulder to want a suburban life, he wants a suburban life.

Unearthing the truth...

Unearthing the truth…

The most obvious example of this loose approach to characterisation in Hollywood A.D. is the way that the episode treats Skinner. Duchovny’s script features a delightfully wry take on the show’s angry father figure, suggesting that the Assistant Director is easily seduced by the superficial charms of Hollywood. Given Mitch Pileggi’s sheer macho charisma, there is something inherently funny about seeing him enjoy strawberries and champagne in a bubble bath. And it fits with the episode’s theme that Hollywood (literally and figuratively) changes people.

However, it is hard to reconcile the goofy “Associate Producer Walter Skinner” with the character who has been a fixture of the show since Tooms. It is hard to imagine any version of Skinner who would smile and chuckle at the idea that movie!Scully had a crush on him, rather than finding it borderline inappropriate. Even the basic leap that gets the plot of Hollywood A.D. moving – Skinner allowing “an old buddy of [his] from college” to ride along with Mulder – feels out of character for an Assistant Director who takes his job so seriously.

"Okay! Okay! It's in character! Just don't kill me, Skinman!"

“Okay! Okay! It’s in character! Just don’t kill me, Skinman!”

This is very much in keeping with Duchovny’s writing style, where theme and symbolism are more important than character or continuity. It is an approach that could be awkward. After all, the seventh season is populated with moments that feel weird or out of character for the duo; consider Gillian Anderson’s treatment of Scully in all things. Duchovny avoids by keeping Mulder and Scully on the outside looking in for most of The Unnatural and Hollywood A.D. When his scripts do focus on the duo, he tends to write them in broad strokes.

This is not to suggest that Duchovny is a bad character writer. One of the most interesting aspects of Hollywood A.D. is the care that he takes in defining and characterising Cardinal O’Fallon. (Which Wayne Federman even articulating the symbolism by noting, “Cardinal O’Fallen, perhaps.”) It would be very easy for Hollywood A.D. to reduce Cardinal O’Fallon to a one-note joke character. After all, he doesn’t even get a first name. However, the script is careful to suggest that he is more than simply a plot function.

Lighting the way...

Lighting the way…

There is something wistful and sad about the man suggested as “a possibility for the first American pope.” As played by Harris Yulin, Cardinal O’Fallen feels an almost tragic figure. Little details hint at a life beyond what the script needs from him. “I like to walk here during lunch,” he explains of the crypts beneath the cathedral, a small nugget of information that suggests a lot about the man. Even in his limited screentime, his motivations are complex and entirely human; nuanced and understandable.

Indeed, the biggest issues with Hollywood A.D. stem from this conflict between Duchovny’s key themes and basic dramatic structure. Duchovny structures Hollywood A.D. as a clever bait and switch, setting up an intriguing and compelling X-Files episode only to subvert it by getting Mulder and Scully suspended for four weeks so they can drop by the set of a movie based around the case. In the meantime, the case resolves itself in the background. The fates of Cardinal O’Fallon and Micah Hoffman are resolved in a single line of exposition from Scully in the final scene.

Crossing it off the list...

Crossing it off the list…

Duchovny acknowledged that the resolution to the primary plot was frustrating to the audience, but insisted that he always intended it to be so:

Duchovny added that he took pride in “throwing the case away, because I knew people would want to see the whole story. I like it that it’s so good I’m going to throw it away. Originally I had the news of the death of Hoffman and O’Fallon delivered when Scully comes to Mulder’s apartment in the third act when he’s watching an Ed Wood movie. They take that in and then they go to Hollywood, so that the X-File was wrapped up at the end of act three. The rest of the show would be a lark, until it was hopefully all brought back together by the final image. The producers felt that that ended the show there and they wanted to keep the O’Fallon/Hoffman story open until the very last possible moment. But the news of O’Fallon’s and Hoffman’s death was always going to happen off-screen. There was always going to be a sense, I think, in which people were going to feel cheated because it happened off-screen. I didn’t set out to cheat or confound anybody, it’s like I didn’t know how else to do it and still make the turn into the story I wanted to tell. If I was to rationalize it, I would say, here’s just another example of storytelling getting in the way of what really happened. But to be honest, it was just to be expedient.”

Once again, this is an example of Duchovny’s writing style. Duchovny tends to prioritise plot ahead of characters, with characters occasionally feeling like chess pieces moving around the board to enable the story he wants to tell.

The cracks begin to show...

The cracks begin to show…

There is a sense that Hollywood A.D. is not as experimental as it needs to be. The X-Files had demonstrated that it could be still shake things up with a bold formulaic departure every now and again; X-Cops looked utterly unlike any other episode that the show ever produced. Watching Hollywood A.D., it is interesting to wonder if the show might have benefited from a more ambitious approach. Imagine the show as a two parter split across the season, with the case airing as an episode early in the season, and the film adaptation airing towards the end.

As it stands, the strange transition between the set-up and the pay-off is perhaps the least satisfying element of Hollywood A.D. on a purely aesthetic level. Duchovny is doing something very smart and very shrewd in structuring the episode; the jarring juxtaposition between the resolution of the case and the climax of the movie is the heart of Hollywood A.D. It feels like that sudden subversive twist encapsulates a lot of what Duchovny is trying to say about life and about storytelling. However, that does not make the resolution feel any better.

Un(chest)flappable.

Un(chest)flappable.

Of course, this is the entire point of Hollywood A.D. The script laments the tendency of art and narrative to reduce people into simplistic two-dimensional caricatures. “Hoffman and O’Fallon were these complicated, flawed, beautiful people and now they’ll just be remembered as jokes because of this movie,” Mulder confesses to Scully in the final scene. This likely resonated with Duchovny, who must have been aware of the tendency to typecast actors as he prepared for a life after The X-Files.

(Even within The X-Files, Duchovny had fought against what he perceived as efforts to simplify or caricaturise Mulder. Perhaps the most obvious example remains his ad lib during the production of Oubliette, when Duchovny-as-Mulder insisted that the character must be more than just the disappearance of his sister. “Not everything I do, say, think, and feel goes back to my sister,” Mulder warns Scully. Duchovny seemed understandably uncomfortable with the application of simplistic motivation to what should have been a more complex character.)

Take me to church...

Take me to church…

Discussing his career after The X-Files, Duchovny has acknowledged a certain anxiety and uncertainty about whether he could ever truly escape the shadow cast by Fox Mulder:

I think when I left a long time ago I would have said never again because I had had enough, and the nature of network television was you had to do 22 episodes. It was your life. It was your career if you do a show like that. So I would have predicted there is no way I’ll do it on television again like that. And also there was a certain amount of ‘I’ll show that I’m not just this guy’ or whatever—a certain type of fear of being typecast or whatever, or other people’s voices in my head [going] ‘Is this all you can do?’” But now I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m satisfied with what’ve done since. And all I have left is really just love and appreciation and respect for the show and for the people—for Gillian [Anderson] and Chris [Carter].

Both Duchovny and Anderson have been enjoyed long and varied careers in the wake of The X-Files, holding down lead roles on other shows. Nevertheless, in the context of April 2000, Hollywood A.D.‘s fears about a Hollywood that reduces real people to cardboard cutouts feels appropriately personal.

Signalling intent...

Signalling intent…

Duchovny’s looming departure gives extra heft to Mulder’s profound questions to Scully in that final scene. “How are we going to be remembered now ’cause of this movie?” he wonders. “What about all the dead people who are forever silent and can’t tell their stories anymore? They’re all going to have to rely on Hollywood to show the future how we lived and it’ll all become… oversimplified and trivialized and Cigarette-Smoking Pontificized and become as plastic and meaningless as this stupid plastic Lazarus Bowl.”

Duchovny is asking some very basic questions about the commoditisation of art; one of the episode’s closing shots is the prominent “made in Israel” sticker on the Lazarus Bowl replica, a crass commercialised copy of something once sacred and unique. Early in the show’s run, Chris Carter confessed that Duchovny had been uncomfortable with licensing the X-Files brand; he was uneasy at seeing the show reduced to “wampum.” His on-going lawsuit against 20th Century Fox was fought over syndication rights, essentially another example of commoditising the show.

Taking it as gospel.

Taking it as gospel.

After all, the climax of the movie features a version of Mulder who is stuck playing out a tired character arc because it is what audiences expect. There is no depth or nuance to it, just routine. The Cigarette-Smoking Pontiff tempts Mulder with “proof positive of the paranormal. You could no sooner destroy that than let the redhead die.” It’s been done; quite a bit. Mulder is offered a place of importance if he surrenders his principles for pragmatism. “Save the bowl and we’ll dump that Ciggy-Smoking Stooge for you and you’ll be the new King of the Dead,” a zombie urges.

This is perhaps what Duchovny meant when he doubted that “creatively there is anything left to do on that show.” Mulder has already been through these character beats, several times over. How often has he come close to holding “proof positive of the paranormal” in his hands? How many times has he saved Scully? How many times has it been suggested that Mulder could give up the struggle and live a life of relative luxury if he would just lay down his burdens? At this point, the routine is a copy of a copy of a copy. A lot of the originality has been wrung from it.

Super Bowl.

Super Bowl.

This theme of disillusionment runs through Hollywood A.D. Most obviously, Cardinal O’Fallon finds himself disillusioned when confronted with documents that would seem to suggest that Jesus Christ was a man; an apocryphal Gospel of Mary Magdalene that celebrates the life of Jesus Christ after the resurrection. It is too much for Cardinal O’Fallon to process, something that so undermines his faith as to lead him to commit what might be two homicides before taking his own life.

This is to say nothing of Micah Hoffman, the mysterious trickster who began as a sixties radical and became a forger. (“From counter-culture to counterfeiter,” Wayne Federman wry notes.) Hoffman is an idol to Mulder, an embodiment of anti-establishment free-thinking. He was “one of the original Weathermen” and “the first Yippie.” However, at some point along the way, Micah Hoffman got lost. At some point, he abandoned the idealism of the sixties and embraced cynicism. He began peddling in something forced and unreal.

"So we're doing a Hollywood episode, then?"

“So we’re doing a Hollywood episode, then?”

Reportedly, David Duchovny originally wanted to cast director Oliver Stone in the role. Stone had considered casting Duchovny in Any Given Sunday, and this was the perfect opportunity for Duchovny to repay the favour:

I wrote an episode for the show called Hollywood A.D. and I made an offer to him to be in it, so that I can hire him as an actor before he gets a chance to hire me. He’d be perfect for this role. It’s a disaffected Yippie from the ’60s who’s taken to forging religious documents and extorting money from the church. The guy thinks that in order to become an expert in forging he’s got to immerse himself in the life and culture of Jesus Christ, and he somehow transforms himself into Jesus. Being an explosives expert, he then bombs the church where his forgeries are being kept, because now that he’s become Jesus he realizes that his forgeries are wrong. There’s a scene where Scully hallucinates him on a crucifix. The cross is only three feet high, so you’d see a little three-foot Oliver. I thought Oliver had the right neck size to play that. Although Oliver’s neck might be a little thick to play Jesus. The Jesus we know is always kind of a pencil-neck.

Duchovny’s joke about the size of Oliver Stone’s neck is itself a reference to Stone’s observation that Duchovny “didn’t have a thick enough neck to play a quarterback.”

Bring out your dead...

Bring out your dead…

Joking aside, the casting suggestion of Oliver Stone reveals a lot about the character of Micah Hoffman. This is to say nothing of the obvious inspiration for the name, Abbie Hoffman. Abbie Hoffman was a sixties radical who founded the Youth International Party, giving him as much claim to the title of “the first Yippie” as Micah Hoffman. Indeed, Abbie Hoffman had actually collaborated with Oliver Stone, filming a cameo in Born of the Fourth of July. It would be released eight months after Hoffman’s suicide in 1989.

Micah Hoffman embodies the sort of disenfranchisement and disillusionment that runs through The X-Files. Since the beginning, the show is rooted in the seventies paranoia of Vietnam and Watergate; of the anxiety that replaced the optimism of the sixties. In Hollywood A.D. is intended as Duchovny’s farewell to The X-Files, it makes perfect sense to draw a failed sixties radical into the story. Tellingly, the first thing Scully cuts out of Micah Hoffman is his heart. (“I’m going to need that when you’re done with it,” he quips.)

Pottering along...

Pottering along…

Of course, Hoffman could be read in another way. A tall skinny man with distinctive crop of white hair, actor Paul Lieber bares more than a passing resemblance to Chris Carter. Carter was never as much of a radical as Hoffman would claim to be; indeed, he is too young to have actively engaged with the Yippies or the Weathermen. However, Carter has defined himself as a California surfer, having written and edited for Surfing magazine before transitioning into film and television in the late eighties. Carter still considers himself a surfer.

After all, The X-Files owes rather a lot to counter-culture, embodying both the anti-authoritarian skepticism of the movement and some of its more New Age sensibilities. In creating The X-Files, Carter crafted a show that tapped into the existential ennui of the nineties and offered something that critiqued the structures or power while exploring the sense of spiritual crisis. Carter may not have been as radical as Hoffman, but there is a sense that The X-Files was shaped by his own politics and philosophy.

"They can't do this! I'm signed for the sequel!"

“They can’t do this! I’m signed for the sequel!”

With everything else going on around the production of the late seventh season, it would be easy to read Micah Hoffman as Duchovny’s criticism of Carter; a man who once had a bold and provocative vision but sold out. After all, the lawsuit running alongside the seventh season alleged that Carter had accepted money from 20th Century Fox in order to ensure his complicity in a syndication deal that undervalued the series. In that context, the idea of Micah Hoffman as a forger and counterfeiter seems like a very damning take.

At the same time, Hollywood A.D. is not quite as cynical as it claims to be. As much as Micah Hoffman might have been a huckster who used his artistic skills to extort money from Cardinal O’Fallon, the script suggests that Hoffman found something genuine in his forgery. In trying to fake something divine, Hoffman seems to actually stumble across something profound. Hollywood A.D. is never cruel or harsh in its treatment of Hoffman, even as a disillusioned burn-out. There is a charisma and power to the man that suggest Duchovny respects him deeply.

The bleeding edge...

The bleeding edge…

With all of this going on, there is something quite reflective about Hollywood A.D. – even if the script is not as explicitly personal as Gillian Anderson’s work on all things. The closing shot of Mulder in Scully in Hollywood A.D. has the pair holding hands as they wander off the Fox soundstage. It is certainly postmodern and self-aware, but it is an image that suggests freedom and escape. Given that Duchovny himself was planning to wander off the sound stage soon enough, it is an appropriate closing image.

Despite all this cynicism, Duchovny remains a romantic at heart. He did write and direct The Unnatural, a story where an alien wished so hard to be human that he was magically transformed on his deathbed. Duchovny’s writing has an almost poetic quality to it, perhaps even more than the work of Chris Carter. Hollywood A.D. might acknowledge the actor’s unease and uncertainty about the legacy of The X-Files and the impact that it will have on his career (and life), but there is also something celebratory about the whole episode.

"And that goes for you as well."

“And that goes for you as well.”

For all that Hollywood A.D. seems pessimistic about film (and, perhaps implicitly, television), the episode is infatuated with music. The Lazarus Bowl is something of a historic LP, capturing the sound of Jesus Christ and preserving it for two millennia. Micah Hoffman repeatedly references the Beatles as a sort of creative muse – wearing a shirt labelled “All You Need is Love” and repeating “I Am the Walrus” to get into character while forging the counterfeit Lazarus Bowl.

“There’s music in the air, Agent Scully,” Chuck Burks advises Scully on examining the remains of the shattered forgery. “See, everything that exists vibrates and therefore sings. The street, uh, your internal organs, electricity, everything. Here, I’ll show you. You see, this is my voice bouncing around in the red here. And all this yellow is ambient sound that we habitually tune out. It’s the hum of my hardware, Mulder’s porn tapes on pause, the sounds from the street – everything we hear but we don’t know we hear.”

The lovely bones...

The lovely bones…

The episode hinges on the idea that the dead don’t actually care one whit for what the living think of them; they want to dance. The bones dance in the crypt for Mark Federman, while Mulder theorises that zombie movies always abandon the creatures before they get a chance to do what they really want to do. “You see, they’ve just come back from being dead so they’re going to do all the things they miss from when they were alive,” Mulder boasts to Scully. “So, first, they’re going to eat, then they’re going to drink, then they’re going to dance and make love.”

Again, Duchovny’s writing lends the story a beautiful allegorical quality. After all, what is the music that Chuck describes but the ambient sound of living, the vibrancy that gets drowned out by the demands of day-to-day existence? If that is so, then dancing becomes an effective expression of the desire to take simple pleasure in the mundane and the everyday. Hollywood A.D. proposes the possibility of joy and freedom to be found after death; whether “death” is a metaphor for the possible cancellation of the show or simply Duchovny’s decision to exit stage left.

"You know, you think there'd be better security back here."

“You know, you think there’d be better security back here.”

Producing television is a tough job; those who commit to twenty-plus hour seasons often find themselves working long days on tight deadline far away from their families and their lives. Doing that for a year is tough, doing it for seven (or more) is exhausting. Duchovny argued for the move to Los Angeles in the hope that it might afford him a bit more time with his young family. Even allowing for the move to Los Angeles at the start of the sixth season, his desire to leave the show is perfectly understandable.

Hollywood A.D. seems to suggest he hopes that the show (or his association with it) might die, but that death will offer its own freedom. After all, there is a recurring sense throughout the seventh season that the production team would be happy to let the show drift away gracefully into the cultural memory. Sein und Zeit and Closure also equated death with freedom, albeit in a much more morbid context. If the sixth season meditated on the show’s immortality, the seventh is fascinated by the divide between death and undeath.

Sniper zombies!

Sniper zombies!

Hollywood A.D. offers a nightmare version of The X-Files populated by zombies; these undead monster are something of a recurring motif across the season. There are the zombies that stalk Scully in The Sixth Extinction, the early draft of Hungry that featured Rob as a zombie who didn’t realise he was a zombie, the aborted Stephen King and George Romero zombie story, not to mention the literal zombies stalking the basement in Millennium. The “sniper zombies” of Hollywood A.D. join an illustrious “seventh season zombie club.”

Perhaps this was a fear of what the show might become, and a plea for the series to be allowed to die on its own terms. The seventh season seemed to exist in an ambiguous  state between life and death, with no real confirmation one way or the other as to whether it would be the final season of the show. It seemed like there was no way to know whether it would be the final season until Requiem arrived. With Hollywood A.D., David Duchovny seems uncomfortable with the possibility that the might become a shuffling zombie, crowing Mulder as “King of the Dead.”

Hey, Skinner even brought along Assistant Director Carter.

Hey, Skinner even brought along Assistant Director Carter.

The episode’s framing sequence is interesting. The X-Files was always a show that traded in postmodernism, with episodes like Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and X-Cops really pushing the boat out for prime-time television. Hollywood A.D. does something similar, affording Mulder and Scully the opportunity to visit “Stage 8” on the Fox studio lot. Of course, the production team don’t have to journey too far; the real Stage 8 had been used for the production of the show since the move to Los Angeles.

What is interesting (and perhaps slightly frustrating) about Hollywood A.D. is how little time the episode spends on its Hollywood setting. With so much of the episode given over to the actual investigation of the Lazarus Bowl, there is little time for Mulder and Scully in Hollywood. The pair get to share a single scene with Gary Shandling and Tea Leone before the episode cuts to the premiere. As with the fates of Micah Hoffman and Cardinal O’Fallon, these creative choices make the episode feel messy and disjointed.

Meta!

Meta!

The Hollywood section of Hollywood A.D. breezes by, feeling almost like a “blink and you miss it” whistle-stop tour rather than the plot point that gives the episode its title. Then again, the material in this section is good. Hollywood satire has become a somewhat tired and familiar genre, and it seems unlikely that Duchovny would have had the freedom to innovatively eviscerate the industry in a forty-five minute episode of television. Instead of extending tired jokes about Hollywood to fill an entire episode, Duchovny gets the gags in thick and fast.

Scully teaching Tea Leone “how to run in these [heels]” is one of the best visual gags in the show’s run. It would be a gag that could easily become overplayed, but Duchovny shrewdly underplays it. It happens in the background of Mulder’s uncomfortable conversation with Shandling, with an extra touch that Leone really isn’t that interested in watching Scully run back and forth across the sound stage. It is a gag that is both surreal and pointed, particularly considering the debate around Bryce Dallas Howards’ somewhat impractical heels in Jurassic World.

Bringing impractical women's footwear to heel...

Bringing impractical women’s footwear to heel…

The humour in Hollywood A.D. is less industry-scathing satire than light-hearted absurdity. One nice bit has a zombie extra complaining about how Tea Leone’s shoulder tastes funny. When the crafts people reveal that they put turkey in her shoulder for the extra, the performer freaks out. “Tofurkey!” he insists. “I asked for tofurkey! I’m a vegetarian! Half the zombies are vegetarian!” It is a gag that plays on the stereotype about liberal (vegetarian) Californians, but which really works because of the absurdity of vegetarian zombies.

Despite his cynicism about narrative and storytelling, Duchovny has little interest in skewering the movie and television industry. Hollywood A.D. is not The Player. It is much less interested in jokes about movie production than … Thirteen Years Later was on Millennium. It is worth noting that Mulder and Scully never actually interact with Wayne Federman once they get to Hollywood. The Hollywood setting is less about a systemic and scathing critique of Hollywood than it is a vehicle to explore the gulf that exists between the real and unreal.

Garry on...

Garry on…

This gap between the real and the unreal recurs throughout the seventh season of The X-Files. The show has always been interested in the gulf between perception and reality, but the seventh season repeatedly draws attention to its own unreality – whether through Mulder’s fantasy life in The Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati, the attention paid to artifice in The Goldberg Variation, the emphasis on magic and trickery in The Amazing Maleeni, the unreality television of X-Cops and the digital reality of First Person Shooter.

This resonates with a larger cultural trend at the turn of the millennium, as cinemas seemed to be flooded with movies questioning the very nature of reality itself. The Matrix is perhaps the most successful example, but films like The Thirteenth FloorDark City, eXistenz and The Truman Show encouraged audiences to question the nature of their reality. Chris Carter had already expressed an interest in exploring this theme through his work on Harsh Realm, although that obviously didn’t work out.

Feelings of unreality.

Feelings of unreality.

Unreality need not be virtual or illusory in nature. As Randy Laist argues, cinema of the nineties was fascinated with the idea of mediated reality:

Even though each of these cyberpunk narratives establishes its own mythology of how reality is structured, taken as a whole, the proliferation of these films suggests an increasing cultural inquiry into the phenomenological issues associated with a new kind of mediated reality. Another cinematic trend within which we can position The Matrix is that of ironic meta-movies, movies that self-consciously incorporate their status as pop-cultural products into their own thematic and narrative structure, such as The Brady Bunch Movie and its sequel, A Very Brady Sequel, Scream and its sequels, the Pierce Brosnan instalments of the James Bond franchise — GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World Is Not Enough, Die Another Day — and South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. The defining feature of this subgenre is that the films’ characters inhabit a reality that has the ontological status of a television show or film. These films reflect a situation similar to that depicted in Pleasantville and The Truman Show, in which human reality has become “televisualised”, depleted of the existential and humanist values associated with the classical understanding of reality and reorganised according to the values of mass-media culture. Encompassing both the cyberpunk films and the meta-movies is a wider cultural-cinematic trend of films that engage in one way or another with the Baudrillardian theme of the implosion of reality and representation. Seminal films of “the long 1990s”, such as JFK, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies , The Player, Jurassic Park, Natural Born Killers, Forrest Gump, Pulp Fiction, Face/Off, Fight Club, and Being John Malkovich, all engage with the problems and possibilities associated with the new style of reality that emerges following the collapse of the Cold War and the advent of simulacral technologies such as cloning, virtual reality and digitisation. Considered from within the context of these prevailing trends, The Matrix clearly holds a privileged place in the canon of 1990s hyperreality cinema.

Popular culture of the nineties seemed to intentionally blur the line between the real and the unreal.

Perscriptive...

Prescriptive…

In a way, the trend towards “the Hollywood episode” is just a logical extension of this trend. Towards the end of the nineties and into the twenty-first century, it become more and more common for fictional characters to encounter further fictionalised versions of themselves, often obscuring the thin line that exists between reality and unreality. Hollywood A.D. is one example of the trend, with Mulder and Scully witnessing one their cases adapted into a feature film. … Thirteen Years Later had done something similar with Frank Black.

The Scream series had begun as a postmodern exploration of slasher cinema, but the sequels increasingly incorporated Hollywood into the mix. Scream II opened with a murder at a premiere of a film based on the events of the first film; playing out in a cinema showing an alternate version of the opening scene from the first film. With Scream III, the characters from the film series took a trip to Hollywood to meet the actor playing their characters as the killer worked his way through the script.

Buried under his work...

Buried under his work…

The plot of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back found fictional stoners Jay and Silent Bob journeying to Hollywood to prevent an adaptation of a comic book inspired by their likenesses. Along the way, they drop by the set of a fictionalised Scream sequel; a fact that becomes all the more mindbending when one considers that the two characters also appeared as characters in Scream III. Reality was not just malleable, it could be fashioned into abstract shapes resembling a mobius strip.

Hollywood A.D. seems less interested in Hollywood as a real place with real politics than it does in the idea of Hollywood as the embodiment of abstraction and unreality. Duchovny seems to position Hollywood as a weird intersection between the real and the unreal, a twilight world where extras playing zombies can coexist with actual zombies and Mulder and Scully can cross paths with actors playing Mulder and Scully. It is an approach that is very much in keeping with Duchovny’s writing style, one that leans towards the abstract and surreal.

Oh, God...

Oh, God…

After all, even the basic plot between Cardinal O’Fallon and Micah Hoffman meditates on the thin line between the real and the unreal. In discussing the mysterious events surrounding the forging of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Hoffman compares himself to an actor getting “in character” as Jesus Christ. “But before I could write like Christ I had to become him in much the same way I imagine an actor who plays a part becomes that part.” However, Hoffman gets so in character that the line between real and unreal blurs.

“One day I was not just impersonating Jesus Christ, I had become him,” Hoffman boasts to Mulder and Scully. Similarly, the episode suggests that Hoffman’s “in character” chants made while sculpting the Lazarus Bowl might have held real power; so real, in fact, that even copies of the copy hold some latent power. The final sequence of the episode features a lone tree branch “playing” Mulder’s replica like an needle playing an LP. Although this is only a graveyard set, as Scully points out, the dead still rise.

The agents need some agents...

The agents need some agents…

This blurred line between “real” and “fake” plays through Hollywood A.D. Examining the recovered pages of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Wayne Federman wonders, “So, is this a forgery, or is this the real thing?” Mulder tries to clarify the matter. “Well, there is no ‘real’ Gospel of Mary, Federman. The original would be a fake.” Federman restates his question, “All right, so is this a real fake or a fake fake or…?” Indeed, Federman repeatedly stresses the difficulty in navigating the layers of reality.

When Federman confesses to watching the bones dance in the catacombs, Scully tries to convince him that he must have hallucinated. “No, I didn’t hallucinate,” he states firmly. “That was mechanical or C.G.I.” Of course, he is quite literally correct; David Duchovny did not literally raise the dead to shoot Hollywood A.D. Mulder responds, “Federman, that wasn’t a movie. That was real life.” Federman wither comically misses the point, or displays a deeper understanding of the episode than any other character, answering, “The difference being?”

Mixed signals...

Mixed signals…

Writing Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco commented upon the sometimes complicated relationship between real and unreal in the American popular consciousness in 1973:

This is the reason for this journey into hyperreality, in search of instances where the American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake; where the boundaries between game and illusion are blurred, the art museum is contaminated by the freak show, and falsehood is enjoyed in a situation of “fullness,” of horror vacui.

It seems like those boundaries have not strengthened in the intervening years. Umberto Eco’s observations were just as relevant (if not more relevant) in the context of the nineties.

Holy logic...

Holy logic…

Towards the end of the nineties, Ada Louise Huxtable made a similar argument about the increasingly hazy distinction between “real” and “fake” in American popular culture:

Distinctions are no longer made or deemed necessary between the real and the false; the edge usually goes to the latter, as an improved version with defects corrected — accessible and user-friendly. As usual, it is California that sets the trends and establishes the values for the rest of the country. Only a Californian would observe that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the real fake from the fake fake. All fakes are clearly not equal; there are good fakes and bad fakes. The standard is no longer real versus phony but the relative merits of the imitation. What makes the good ones better is their improvement on reality.

The real fake reaches its apogee in places like Las Vegas, where it has been developed into an art form. Continuous, competitive frontages of moving light and color and constantly accelerating novelty lead to the gaming tables and hotels. The purpose is clear and the solution is dazzling; the result is completely and sublimely itself. The outrageously fake fake has developed its own indigenous style and life style to become a real place. This is an urban design frontier where extraordinary things are happening.

Hollywood A.D. touches on these questions about what concepts like “real” and “fake” even mean when used in the context of an increasingly unreal and heightened world.

Admit it, shippers, you mentally remove that separating bar.

Admit it, shippers, you mentally remove that separating bar.

Again, there is sense that these ideas resonate with Duchovny as an actor and a storyteller. Working on a weekly television series, the boundary between real and unreal is of obvious interest to the writer. After all, everything that happens on The X-Files is – by definition – unreal. It is a scripted drama performed by actors working from scripts and augmented by special effects. More than that, The X-Files unfolds in a world quite clearly disconnected from that of the viewer; with mutants and monsters, The X-Files emphasises its artifice.

The X-Files is so profoundly and so proudly unreal that it has even even gone so far as to craft an alternate history of the United States, turning real events into fictional plot points. With all of that fiction and unreality, can The X-Files lay claim to being real in any substantive way? Is it possible that the heightened world of The X-Files can have some deeper resonance despite the fact it bears only the most tangential relationship to reality? Accepting that it is “fake”, is it possible for The X-Files to be “real” in spite (or perhaps even because) of that?

You should be dancing...

You should be dancing…

It is a very obvious question, perhaps. In some ways, it is the most obvious question that one can ask about a piece of art; particularly a piece of pop art. “What does it mean?” might be an obvious question when confronted with the ridiculous and the absurd. “Does it mean?” is an even more basic question. The answer should be quite apparent, particularly given the attention and discussion generated by this particular piece of pop art, but there is something very personal in the way that Duchovny frames the question.

Baking the question of meaning and reality into Hollywood A.D. allows Duchovny to tie his script back to the fundamental questions of The X-Files, existential queries that run deeper than aliens or conspiracies. Hollywood A.D. allows Duchovny to bring his romantic side to the fore, wandering off the soundstage (and out of the show) with a smile and a nod. Even if it all means nothing, even if the past seven years have been spent in state of heightened unreality disengaged from anything tangible or real, there is always time for music and dancing.

There are worse images to close on, too...

There are worse images to close on, too…

In the end, there are worse notes on which to end.

You might be interested in our reviews of the seventh season of The X-Files:

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4 Responses

  1. I’m glad for season 7’s multiple shortcomings just because they contributed to “Hollywood AD” happening!

    There was also the Richard Gere references: Mulder wanted Gere to portray the fictional Mulder, and in the real world Duchovny had been compared to Gere (and early on Gere had been rumored to play Mulder instead of Duchovny if XF were to become adapted to the big screen). The actor playing Micah Hoffman, to me, reminds me a lot of Richard Gere, and I thought it very meta as well to have a Gere lookalike in an episode that playes so much on wheels within wheels.

    • Now that you mention it, Micah Hoffman does look a lot like Richard Gere.

      I really love Hollywood A.D., because it’s clearly a labour of love for Duchovny. As cynical as his interview clips might sound, and as frustrated as he might have been at the time, I do genuinely believe that he loved the show. I suspect from reading Duchovny’s interviews that he is a romantic at heart. What’s that quote about having to really love something to hate it that much?

  2. How cool would it have been if this movie of Mulder and Scully was as a result of their public exposure on national television in X-Cops?

    I thought about that after watching X-Cops. If X-Files was a show on TV today it would be much more consistently serialized and episodes like X-Cops would have much more permanent and consistent repercussions. Perhaps a Hollywood writer got wind of these two characters on TV and though, “hey, they’d make a great movie duo.” Boom, Hollywood A.D. It would have been great to even have one throwaway line from Skinner saying, “My writer friend is going to follow you around. Remember, the FBI has nothing to hide.” Calling back that line from X-Cops.

    I’m rewatching the X-Files through for the third time now and the biggest thing I’m missing this time through are the character bits and pieces being more consistent like they are on modern shows. Those moments are certainly there, but there’s a lot of character stasis and resets throughout the seasons. I feel like Scully should have started showing signs of turning into a believer a lot sooner. In season 7 she’s still telling Mulder how things aren’t plausible. I do love Mulder’s recent line in one of these episodes, “How often have I been wrong, Scully? No, seriously? Out of every case?” Hanging lanterns like that help, but how hard would it have been to have Scully come around a bit sooner?

    • That’s a great point. Hollywood A.D. screams out for a two-parter, or at least a more experimental approach to storytelling. X-Cops would be a great fit, since you point it out. Similar themes about reality/performativity.

      I think Season Seven does a good enough job of showing Scully coming around, although – as you point out – it isn’t really a linear arc. Episodes like Theef certainly suggest she is keeping a more open mind this season than she had in previous years, which puts her in a nice position for the start of the eighth season.

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