Thursday, October 10, 2013
The X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "The Post-Modern Prometheus" (November 30, 1997)
This award-winning segment of The X-Files, written and directed by creator Chris Carter, is one of its most daring and complex ventures.
In “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” Mulder and Scully experience a version of the Frankenstein myth, or more accurately, James Whales’ Frankenstein (1931) myth.
However, they do so not as -- strictly-speaking -- themselves but rather as fictionalized characters inhabiting a comic-book, one whose frames book-end the episode.
This framing technique -- of an X-Files adventure as seen through the lens of a comic-book -- is useful for a few reasons.
First and foremost, this technique allows viewers and fans to immediately put aside and dispense with any concerns about how the story at hand “fits” into the overall series, myth-arc or on-going character relationships. The comic-book framing makes one aware immediately that we are not in the canon universe anymore, but somewhere else entirely…an expressionist fantasy, perhaps.
So “The Post-Modern Prometheus” presents itself up-front as a work of fiction about the series’ continuing characters, and wisely never takes those characters’ outside that book-ended external structure, or even beyond the central locale of the episode: a small town in heartland America. “The Post-Modern Prometheus” never follows the protagonists back to Washington D.C. or into dialogue scenes with Skinner or the Cigarette Smoking Man, for example, because those places and those people don’t exist within the confine of this comic-book - “The Great Mutato.” Instead, this comic book was created by a character named Izzy, and how could he -- our author, remember -- know anything about Mulder’s apartment, Quantico, or the F.B.I. building, since he’s never been there?
Secondly, the use of a comic-book motif means that “The Post-Modern Prometheus” need not adhere to the series’ conventions regarding imagery or other visual presentation. Accordingly, the German Expressionism of Whales’ film seeps into many compositions throughout the episode, suggesting a connection not merely to that filmed horror story, but to the very grammar of dreams and nightmares. In other words, the comic-book “bubble universe” of “The Post-Modern Prometheus” permits Carter the freedom to experiment, and to delve into the visual language of the surreal, an aspect seen most clearly in the presence of town-folks who, strangely enough, resemble farm animals.
The notion of viewing Mulder and Scully through a new and singular lens -- that of black-white horror comic -- fits in well with the overarching, Post-Structuralist creative approach of “The Post-Modern Prometheus.”
To that end, the episode features not simply a story about a monster, but specifically about that monster’s relationship to and interaction with the American pop-culture itself. Throughout the episode, for example, allusions are made to The Jerry Springer Show, Cher’s musical oeuvre, and even her 1985 film, Mask.
Or to put it another way, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is an X-Files story by way of James Whale, set in the culture of Jerry Springer, to the tune of Cher.
This deliberately post-modern re-casting of the Frankenstein myth (and The X-Files itself) is not only audacious and fiercely unconventional in conception, but an approach that bears many remarkable fruit. “The Post-Modern Prometheus” daringly recognizes The X-Files as a creative work that exists not only in its own universe, but in ours as well. As such, it is a piece of a much larger, interactive puzzle, both impacting on other productions, and simultaneously being impacted by them.
Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, and bolstered by feature film quality visuals that take full account of the breadth of the frame, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” proves a brilliantly off-beat entry in the canon, and an unforgettable “monster of the week” program to boot.
I realize that some X-Files fans “cut bait” at this cerebral, multi-layered, post-modern installment, but it is always useful to remember that there are 200+ episodes of The X-Files, and therefore plenty of opportunities to countenance more traditional instances of horror or character storytelling. But in this instance, Carter seized an opportunity, stretched his creative vision for the franchise, and provided it one of its most unique entries.
In the comic-book titled “The Great Mutato,” Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) go to small-town America to investigate one woman’s wild claim that she has twice been impregnated by a two-faced monster…who also happens to love Cher.
The case takes the F.B.I. agents to meet Dr. Pollidori (John O’Hurley), an ambitious, reckless scientist who has unlocked a new genetic secret, and may have both the ability and propensity to create a monster such as the unusually-named “Great Mutato.”
But the truth is not what it seems, as Mulder and Scully discover when they defend the creature from angry townsfolk, and the Great Mutato finally has the opportunity to tell his side of the story.
The notion that governs a Post-Structuralist approach to drama is that no single thing, person, or quality determines the values that go into the forging of a work of art.
Rather, post-structuralism explores how multitudinous aspects of a particular culture -- from its most ordinary material details to its most abstract beliefs -- determine one another.
The intrepid Post-Structuralist thus connects observations and references from many wildly varying disciplines into a synthetic whole, and that’s the very task Chris Carter assiduously undertakes in the brawny and imaginative“The Post-Modern Prometheus.”
To wit, Carter pulls together that aforementioned “wildly varying” source material to express the details of his mad scientist tale.
He uses the burgeoning reality-tv/talk-show milieu of the 1990s (as represented in the episode by The Jerry Springer Show), Cher’s musical career (represented by “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine,” “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” and “Walking in Memphis,”) and the details of the movie Mask (1985), and folds them into a narrative about overreaching science, and its lack of humanity.
In visuals -- such as villagers brandishing burning torches -- as well as in theme, Carter reflects the details of Frankenstein (1931). Only in this case, the 1990s pop culture has “bled” into that old story, hence all the modern TV touches, songs, and mentions of 1-900 telephone help numbers.
“The Post-Modern Prometheus” thus leaves behind the classicism of the original Frankenstein characters in favor of a more contemporary, naturalistic group of individuals. His tale focuses on a lonely, overweight woman, Mrs. Berkowitz, who sits on the sofa and watches Jerry Springer. She yearns to be famous like one of his guests.
Another of Carter’s primary characters is a deformed boy who watches Mask, and registers that it is possible for him to be loved by not merely his family, but by society as a whole. He need not be alone, or lurk in the shadows.
And perhaps most importantly, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is about a geek fan-boy, Izzy, who realizes that he need not only be a consumer of the pop-culture. He can be a creator of it, as well.
Izzy creates the comic that we, as the audience, “read” during the course of the episode. He takes the step that his mother can’t, and that Mutato can’, either: he puts together their story (which includes the visit by Mulder and Scully) into a coherent whole. His Frankenstein-like comic-book story is an accumulation of his influences (talk-shows, comic-books, rock and roll), as Mary Shelley’s tale was an accumulation of her own context and experiences.
At the end of the story, when Mulder demands to talk to “the writer,” his comment could be construed in two ways.
It’s either a breaking-the-fourth-wall moment in which actor Duchovny, as Mulder, complains about the script written by Carter and demands a rewrite, or it is Mulder approaching Izzy -- the chronicler of these events -- demanding that in art -- in the comic-book -- Mutato be gifted the happy ending he has clearly earned and deserves.
This episode is a rewrite of Frankenstein for the 1990s, and its ending concerns a rewrite of that rewrite.
How's that for meta?
But what remains so delightful about Carter's re-interpretation of the Frankenstein myth is that he re-parses the monster as a feeling, human man, and the scientist as the truly inhuman monster. Accordingly, even the term "monster" must be reconsidered in terms of the larger culture, and 1990s values (as presented in talk show television).
What's rather amazing about this interpretation is that Carter hardly changes any details at all, from Shelley's Frankenstein. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, some of Mutato's dialogue is a direct transcription -- verbatim -- of the monster's dialogue in the novel. But our interpretation of that dialogue, based on our cultural position, has changed from the 19th century.
Even the obsession with Cher and her catalog seems appropriate in “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” because we have seen in Mask the star's “openness” to those who are considered outside society’s norms.
Therefore, Cher represents or symbolizes in her blanket acceptance of others a kind of safe harbor or sanctuary for those society wrongly terms monsters. She is a diva and a pop-icon, but Cher is actually the Madonna or Mary of "The Post-Modern Prometheus" too: a kindly, semi-divine mother figure whose acceptance is crucial to self-esteem and the necessary self-transformation from monster to man.
And yes, this element of the episode absolutely ties into the commentary on TV talk shows and fame. These days we don't seek personal validation from priests, or leaders, after all...but from celebrities.
You know you’ve made it to the big time when Cher brings you out of the audience to share the stage with her.
In fact, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” offers a happy "celebrity" ending for all the guest characters.
Izzy publishes “The Great Mutato” (which we’re reading throughout the course of the episode).
Mutato gets that dance with Cher.
And Mrs. Berkowitz finally does something -- giving birth to a mutant -- that gets her noticed by Jerry Springer.
What’s the point of vetting a story in this fashion?
Well, for one thing, the Post-Structuralist approach bursts the clichés or tropes of the genre. A straight-forward mad scientist tale had been done before on The X-Files (and done well, too...) in stories like “Lazarus” or “Eve.” Yet there’s not another story in the style or tone of “The Post-Modern Prometheus” anywhere else in the canon. This tale is about the mad scientist, yet also about the pop culture, whereas the typical mad scientist tale might only fit half-that-bill.
Secondly, “The Post-Modern Prometheus” is an explicit reminder that the human condition is universal. Our stories stay the same over time, but the way they are told -- and what qualities inform them -- can and do change radically. When Shelley wrote Frankenstein, the monster was an abomination and "evil" simply because of how he had been created, and Victor was simply a noble man who had, in a moment of weakness, succumbed to hubris
Today, we don't parse something "different" as innately or a priori evil.
Instead, what we consider evil is a man who does something cruel to another being just because "he can," and for his own self-glorification. Today, we don't (largely) blame people for how they were born or what they are, and that's why "The Post-Modern Prometheus's" inversion of monster/hero roles is so crucial. It reflects where were moving as a culture at the turn of the century.
As I’ve written before, this point is the very crux of The X-Files as effective horror: a re-casting of old horror stories into new and meaningful forms for the 1990s.
Perhaps no story expresses that value better than “The Post-Modern Prometheus,” which reminds us that monsters are people too, mad scientists can exist in the same world that enjoys Jerry Springer, and Cher, and that The X-Files, finally, is not too narrow or inflexible to accommodate the occasional Post-Structuralist re-frame.
In an age when horror movies were moving towards post-modernism in efforts like Scream (1996), and The Blair Witch Project (1999), The X-Files pioneered the same approach on television, and gave the series one of its most unforgettable, visually-accomplished hours.
Next week, our retrospective continues with "Schizogeny."