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My 12 for ’18: The (Black) Power of Stories in “BlacKkKlansman”

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number nine.

At its core, BlacKkKlansman is a story about the power of stories. In particular, the power of cinema.

This is no real surprise. Spike Lee is an avowed cinephile with an incredible hunger and passion for the medium. Lee knows the history of cinema, and understands the historical context of cinema. BlacKkKlansman is alternately a loving homage to blaxploitation and a discussion of blaxploitation. It is a film that is fundamentally about the way in which the stories that people tell influence and shape the world in which they live.

At the heart of BlacKkKlansman is a sequence in which real-life Civil Rights icon Harry Belafonte plays a fictionalised activist. He recounts, in gory detail, the story of a horrific lynching that he witnessed as a child. He contextualises this attack by reference to the success of Birth of a Nation, which he describes using the (anachronistic) term “blockbuster.” This sequence is intercut with the induction of new members into the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan, while gleefully rewatching (and cheering) Birth of a Nation.

The most interesting idea within BlacKkKlansman is the implication that it might be possible to counter-programme this. If narratives of hatred and violence can be perpetuated through cinema, then perhaps stories about collaboration and empathy can also be spread in that manner. Clever and self-aware, BlacKkKlansman feels like an attempt to construct one such narrative.

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Non-Review Review: The Other Side of the Wind

It is still strange to think of The Other Side of the Wind as an object that actually exists.

The film has haunted film films for decades, the prospect and potential of one last Orson Welles film that remains to be found long after the iconic director’s passing. The footage had all been shot. The material was gathered. All that had to be done was to journey through those hours and hours of material, in search of something resembling a feature film. It evokes that famous story about how Michelangelo approached sculpting, except that instead of a lump of marble, this work of art is to be subtracted from mountains of film.

Of course, there is a valid debate to be had about whether the version of The Other Side of the Wind that has been screened can claim to be the real or actual version. After all, the film arguably only ever existed inside the head of Orson Welles. After his passing, the only thing that could be released was an approximation of his vision, an impression of his filmmaking. This is particularly true given the extent to which Welles relied on editing in his filmmaking. Welles famously boasted to Cahiers du Cinema that editing was more important than mise en scene.

However, watching The Other Side of the Wind, there is a strong sense that Welles himself would approve this ambiguity, that he would actively encourage it. The Other Side of the Wind is a knowingly twisty and slippery piece of work, a wry and iconic piece of film that somehow still seems avante garde more than four decades after it was originally shot. There is a sense in which The Other Side of the Wind feels like sly and biting joke, one told by a comedian with pitch-perfect timing. Only one question remains. Who is the butt of this joke?

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – Far Beyond the Stars (Review)

I am black, I have spent time in a mental hospital, and much of my adult life, for both sexual and social reasons, has been passed on society’s margins. My attraction to them as subject matter for fiction, however, is not so much the desire to write autobiography, but the far more parochial desire to set matters straight where, if only one takes the evidence of the written word, all would seem confusion.

– Samuel Delany, The Straits of Messina

Keep dreaming.

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The X-Files – Season 6 (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

The sixth season of The X-Files is notable for many different reasons. It was the first season after the release of The X-Files: Fight the Future. It was the first season following the move to Los Angeles. It saw the “end” (at least nominally) of the show’s conspiracy mythology in the massive Two Fathers and One Son two-parter. It was the first season to begin closer to the end of the show’s nine-year run than to the beginning. It was also the first season to open past the hundred-episode mark.

That last landmark is important, because it marks the point at which The X-Files could effectively be sold into syndication. One hundred episodes meant that a network could air the show five nights a week for twenty weeks, filling up almost half a year’s worth of broadcasting slots. Reaching the one hundred episode mark meant that a show was a bona fides success, and that anything else was really just gravy on top. The bulk of the work had been done. The X-Files would be a rare prime-time drama to pass two hundred episodes.

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Of course, times have changed. By 2011, the number of episodes required for a syndication deal had slipped from one hundred to a mere eighty-eight, with the goal being four seasons of twenty-two episodes. (This trend happened while The X-Files was on the air, with the show dropping from twenty-four or twenty-five episodes in a season at the start of its run to twenty-two or twenty towards the end.) Even then, streaming has changed the media landscape, making it more possible than ever to syndicate show with shorter runs, like Community.

So syndication beckoned for The X-Files. In fact, syndication would pose no shortage of trouble for the show in the years ahead. During the seventh season, David Duchovny would file a lawsuit against Fox alleging that the company’s syndication policy had cost him financially. After the show went off the air, Carter would find himself embroiled in a similar lawsuit over syndication rights, delaying production of The X-Files: I Want to Believe. There are worse ways to argue that The X-Files was a victim of its own success than to look at the syndication of the show.

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Nevertheless, it was clear that The X-Files had accomplished everything that it could ever want by the start of the sixth season. Chris Carter had his five seasons and a movie. Fox had a show they could syndicate. David Duchovny had forced the production to move to Los Angeles so that he could spend time with his family. Although nobody knew it at the time, the fifth season secured the highest rankings that a season of The X-Files would enjoy in the Nielsen Ratings. So going into the sixth season of The X-Files, there was only one question hanging in the air.

What now?

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Millennium – … Thirteen Years Later (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

… Thirteen Years Later is infamously silly. That may not be such a bad thing.

There are a lot of details that would seem to weigh against … Thirteen Years Later. It is the show’s first attempt at comedy since Darin Morgan left the staff at the end of the second season; any episode will suffer in comparison to Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” or Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me. It is an episode built around a guest appearance from the rock band KISS to promote the release of their latest album, Psycho Circus. It is also an attempt to do wry self-aware meta-commentary and Hollywood satire, which could easily become indulgent.

KISS was 'ere...

KISS was ‘ere…

To be quite frank, … Thirteen Years Later doesn’t really work. It is messy and convoluted. A lot of the gags are obvious, and a lot of its satire of Hollywood feels somewhat stock. The framing device builds to a pretty lame (and entirely predictable) punchline. Some of the best gags in … Thirteen Years Later are shamelessly poached from better second season episodes – the idea of Frank Black in Hawaiian shirt comes from Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” while the idea of Frank Black critiquing serial killer movies was hilarious in Midnight of the Century.

However, in spite of all that, … Thirteen Years Later has an energy and momentum that is sorely missing from much of the season around it. The third season has seen a return to the mood and aesthetic of the first season, which occasionally wallowed in gloom and self-importance. … Thirteen Years Later completely skewers that sense of self-importance. Its best jokes seem to be affectionate jabs at Millennium itself, demonstrating that the show still has a great sense of humour; even if it has gotten quite effective at hiding it.

The camera never lies...

The camera never lies…

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The X-Files – The End (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

The End is a watershed moment for the show.

There is a reasonable argument to be made that The End accomplishes very little in terms of narrative. It doesn’t really do a great job bridging to The X-Files: Fight the Future. It certainly doesn’t do a great job wrapping up any of the show’s long-running concerns. Indeed, it adds two characters who will go on to become major (if controversial) players in the show’s overarching mythology. Even the big dramatic twist at the end of the episode feels familiar, with The End closing on a more memorable visualisation of the cliffhanger to The Erlenmeyer Flask.

Burn, baby, burn...

Burn, baby, burn…

Nevertheless, The End does feel like an end of sorts. It closes out five seasons of The X-Files. Carter had suggested in interviews that he only wanted to do five seasons of the show before transitioning into feature films, and so The End marks the conclusion of the run that Carter had originally planned for the show. After all, The X-Files had crossed the hundred episode mark earlier in the year. It was ripe for syndication. It was at the stage where Fox and Ten Thirteen did not need to keep the show on the air to keep printing money.

At the same time, The End marks another more definitive sort of end. It would be the last piece of The X-Files to be filmed in Vancouver until The X-Files: I Want to Believe a decade later. Vancouver was a part of the show’s DNA. It had been the show’s production hub since The Pilot. More than two decades later, The X-Files would return to Vancouver for its six-episode wrap-up miniseries. Discussing the revival, Carter argued that Vancouver was “a natural place to make a show like The X-Files.” Certainly, the mood and atmosphere lent itself to the series.

"My video collection!"

“My video collection!”

So The End marks a fond farewell from the production team to a city and region that had served them well.  In that respect, it feels like a more definitive sort of ending. The End opens with a scene that is confident enough to let Canada be Canada. As with the opening scene of Herrenvolk, it is almost comical how hard The End flags its “and starring Canada as Canada” cred, to the point where a mountie rushes to the aid of an assassination victim. The closing scene of The End burns down the show’s most iconic and memorable sets.

While The End is not necessarily a satisfying mythology episode or season finalé in its own right, it does feel like a suitably big moment in the evolution of the show.

Smoking gun...

Smoking gun…

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Millennium – Jose Chung’s “Doomsday Defense” (Review)

This May and June, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the fifth season of The X-Files and the second season of Millennium.

Well, all’s well that ends well. Though that’s easy for Shakespeare to say – he’ll be around for another millennium. But what of our own millennium? Will it all end well? No one of course can know, but that of course doesn’t stop anyone from guessing. And the nature of these predictions always revolve around the usual suspects: salvation and/or self–satisfaction. With that in mind, I humbly add my own prophecy of what the dawn of the new millennium shall bring forth: one thousand more years of the same, old crap.

– Jose Chung

The write stuff...

The write stuff…

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