The Sun Is Out There

Tim Appelo is a writer based in Seattle

The truth is out there--and it's coming down here. "The X-Files," the half-billion-dollar TV series that just spun off a $60-million movie, is leaving its damp spawning grounds in Vancouver, B.C., after a half-decade and relocating in Los Angeles.

The movie is contrived to make sense to those who don't watch the show--two FBI agents are racing to disentangle a conspiracy involving a bombed Dallas office building, an extraterrestrial mutant virus, a dead kid in Texas, scary blobs of black oil, and a mysterious Antarctic fortress. And don't tell them to bring it to the attention of the authorities! The authorities are trying to blame it all on them!

But "The X-Files" film can also be read as a high-budget episode of the TV series. X-philes will be ecstatic, for instance, to see their old friends The Lone Gunmen show up to help Mulder out of a tight spot. Yes, folks--it's a dessert topping and a floor wax--a major motion picture and a sturdy bridge between two TV seasons' episodes.

That's the simple truth. But as any "X-Files" fan can tell you, there are deeper truths; and the one that concerns them is the future of the show now that British Columbia is history.

For months, the ominous signs of the impending change were as obvious as an extraterrestrial cadaver falling from the sky into a backyard wading pool. "I feel isolated and lonely. I'm not happy," "X-Files" star David Duchovny (Agent Mulder) told Movieline Magazine. "Vancouver is a nice place if you like 400 inches of rainfall a day. It is kind of like a tropical rain forest without the tropics. More like an Ice Age rain forest."

Duchovny was stuck in Vancouver for 10 months of the year while his bride, Tea Leoni, was stuck in L.A., and his co-star Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully) reportedly was restless to bust through the cloud bank, too. A headline in the Tacoma News-Tribune read, "That Blinding Light--What Is It, Scully? It's the Sun, Mulder."

Vancouver is not a town, it's a terrarium. And to make matters worse, border officials regard recreational drugs the way Ahab felt about whales and Gen. Jack D. Ripper felt about fluoridation. Duchovny told Movieline that border officials, who routinely threaten visitors with strip searches and drug-sniffing dogs, detained him and said, "You tested positive for cocaine."

Duchovny said he doesn't use cocaine--but, as he told Movieline, "It sounds just like what a guilty person would say." Duchovny evidently handed his credit card to somebody who had used cocaine in the past few days, and that was enough to freak out a nark-pooch whose nose was sensitive to the point of the paranormal. After a Hitchcock moment, Duchovny was permitted to go to work with no body-cavity searches.

Oh, Canada! You gotta love it--but not if you're making $4 million per film, and you anchor an entire network's business plan.

Perhaps that poor drug dog was under the influence of "The X-Files," a show that has 18 million viewers hooked on a paranoid high. As Thomas Pynchon wrote in "Gravity's Rainbow" (a novel that was to have been the subject of Duchovny's planned Yale PhD dissertation, "Magic and Technology in Contemporary American Fiction and Poetry"), "Paranoia! Even Goya couldn't draw ya!" But "X-Files" creator Chris Carter is a past master at it. "I'd be flattered if I could create a lot of paranoia," Carter has said.

He seems to have succeeded. Much of the world has embraced the worldview of "The X-Files," a milieu where vaccinations of children are all part of a government plot, and Scully doesn't just get cancer, we must entertain the highly entertaining possibility that the government gave it to her. Even Mulder's paranoia was apparently imposed upon him by a government plot--they hit him with paranoia gas.

"I was a child of the Watergate era," Carter testified to the World Skeptics Congress last year. "I distrust authority. I believe that the government does lie to us regularly and people are working against our best interests on an ongoing basis. So the conspiracy ideas in the show come as a result of my great belief that we're being suckered."

'The X-Files" wouldn't be scary if it didn't echo the headlines. "'The X-Files' has fanned out into the atmosphere," writes critic Joyce Millman in the Web zine Salon, "like a puff of smoke from Cancer Man's cigarette." Pick up the newspaper on any given day and read about mad cow disease and missing children and toxic-blood fumes and disappearing sperm counts. "X-Files" are all around us.

That creepy mutant fly with antennae sprouting out of its mouth on one episode was based on just such a real bug brought to Carter's attention by "X-Files" science consultant Anne Simon, whose book "Mad Cows, Clones and Chimeras: The Science of 'The X-Files' " is due out soon. We're waiting for a show about the actual mice with glow-in-the-dark ears formed by firefly DNA injections by actual scientists. "I'm trying to play with real scientific ideas," Carter told me, "like Crichton cloning dinosaurs."

And of course, the actual U.S. government often behaves like Duane Barry, the "X-Files" psycho who suffered an injury that destroyed the moral center of his brain: Uncle Sam has experimented on innocent people with LSD and radiation, and lied about it. Thanks in part to public servants who faked giving a syphilis cure to black men in order to study their suffering and death, a large percentage of black Americans now believe that AIDS was caused by your tax dollars at work.

"We are all suspicious and paranoid about our government, because we've seen enough to let us know that Big Brother isn't just watching--he's taping, filing, fingerprinting, and plotting against us!" says writer Alanna Nash, an "X-Files" expert. "It's the old, 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.' The only way to fight back is to be aware, hyper-aware, or hyper-afraid, of what is going on."

Nash found that "X-Files" fans--that is, a sizable portion of the country--are even more inclined to blame our leaders than they are to blame little green men who bleat, "Take me to your leader." Says Nash, "A woman I interviewed who works in a right-to-life clinic identifies with the show--and believes that Scully wasn't kidnapped by aliens, but by the government, which harvested her eggs. It's a scary time in an unsettling culture, [so] you find a large percentage of folks who reach for anything quasi-mystical that will explain it to them."

In fact, paranoia itself can be a comfort to the modern mind--Sean Lennon recently voiced dark thoughts that his father's murder was the result of a conspiracy. His spokesman later said that "Sean was speaking from his heart, not his head." But he is not alone. Americans are plunging heart-over-head into a mystical, paranoid mind-set.

Some "X-Files" experts are scared that the move from Vancouver and the new film could spell danger for the show. "I have major concerns about the movie," says James Hatfield, coauthor of "The Unauthorized X-Cyclopedia." "How can a movie that is going to resolve the fifth season cliffhanger [and involve the usual laundry list of 'X-Files' conspirators] be a stand-alone film that supposedly will entertain and not confuse moviegoers who have never seen an episode of the series? The entire strategy is a very risky move by Chris Carter, but if I was a betting man, I'd put my money with him. Fox needs the movie to do well to firmly establish a 'Star Trek'-like film franchise with a new film every two years."

So maybe "The X-Files" is well on the way to earning that second half-billion bucks. But even if the flick is a monster hit, something may be lost when the background changes from pines to palm trees. "The move from Vancouver to L.A. could be disastrous," worries Nash. "Filming in B.C. gave the show a different look. ... there's almost a vapor that comes across." New Yorker TV critic James Wolcott extols the show's Vancouver milieu, "where the low ceilings and low, damp skies keep a lid on a lingering fog that mildews and wilts the corners of every image with free-floating dread. Even the sunlight looks a little ill."

You can't find light like that where the sun has nothing but ordinary orange smog to cut through. And don't forget the human milieu of Vancouver. "The extras culled from the area, or the featured players like the twin girls in that episode where they're all cloned to kill their parents, just don't look like Hollywood actors," says Nash. "They have a legitimately different--I hesitate to say 'spooky'--look about them, and they're often quirky in a good sense." Will L.A.'s tanned, sculpted extras resemble the new "X-Files" Barbie doll?

If the film is any indication, we shouldn't panic just yet. It proves you don't need a Northwest location to shoot a handsome-looking "X-Files" show. Its denizens are indeed creepy. Antarctica, Texas, and Washington, D.C., look just dandy, as scary as Canada ever was, even though the light is perceptibly brighter.

Yet it's hard to tell how the new locations will affect the overall ambience of the show on the small screen. "The X-Files" was the last major manifestation of the cultural trend The New York Times' Northwest bureau chief Timothy Egan has called Northwest Noir. In an influential 1991 essay, Egan studied the wave of weirdness that swept pop culture in the grunge epoch: the work of Gus Van Sant and David Lynch, whose "Twin Peaks" anticipated "The X-Files"; the cartoons of Lynda Barry, Matt Groening, and Gary Larson; the dank mysticism of "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" author Tom Robbins, rooted in the work of the Northwest Mystic painters of the postwar period.

"The X-Files" evolved from the strange muck at the continent's sodden tip. "Northwest Noir has become a trademark of the show for the past five years," says Jim Hatfield, "enhancing the dark creepiness of the series' myth-arc and monster-of-the-week episodes. Season Six will have a different look and feel to it next year and I'm convinced it will be noticeable even to the casual viewer. I think Chris Carter and Co. have backed themselves into a corner that may prove impossible to get out of."

"People in the Northwest tend to be more eccentric than people elsewhere," Van Sant told Egan. "This place is full of folks who disdain the things that you might go to Los Angeles for--a big house, a lot of money, ego." Robbins summed up the region's appeal: "A dripping fir is a thousand times more sexy than a sunburnt palm," wrote Robbins. "It whispers in secret languages about the primordial essence of things. [It] turns a person inward, connecting them with what Jung called 'the bottom below the bottom,' the areas of the deep unconscious. It will rain dangers and pale eggs of the beast. Mossy-haired lunatics will roam dripping peninsulas. Vapors will billow from the troll-infested ditches. Legends will wash from the desecrated burial grounds, graffiti will run down alley walls." Concluded Robbins, "I believe in every drop of rain."

But "The X-Files" believes in more than mere rain, and its move to Los Angeles signifies a major turning point for that shape-shifter ghost, the zeitgeist. In the years since Northwest Noir took root and took over America like cultural kudzu, it also mutated beyond recognition. Groening, whose first cartoon, "Life in Hell," expressed a Northwesterner's reaction to winding up in L.A., lost his mossy side and adapted to Southern California (though he remains very much the teenager who helped to attach a pumpkin to a mannequin and screamed while hurling it from Portland, Ore.'s 100-ft.-high Vista Bridge one Halloween). Lynda Barry moved to Chicago. Gary Larson retired from daily cartooning, though he still writes best-selling books. "Twin Peaks" self-destructed, and Lynch's imagination relocated to his home in the Hollywood Hills, where his recent film "Lost Highway" was shot.

Van Sant came back from the suicidally bold Northwest Noir fable "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" to a more Californian state of mind. He retreated from the edge in two steps, first to the more conventional but still subversive Buck Henry script "To Die For," and then to the flat-out conventional romance of "Good Will Hunting." The distance from the unprecedentedly long monologues of "Cowgirls" and the long but not way-out-there monologues of "Good Will Hunting" measures the distance from Northwest Noir to the Oscar ceremony. And "Good Will Hunting" star Ben Affleck is now co-starring with degrunged Northwesterner Courtney Love in the film "200 Cigarettes." Van Sant still lives in Portland, as he has most of his life, but at the 1995 "To Die For" junket interviews, he cannily sniffed the change in the cultural wind and identified himself as a guy from the Northeast--"I just sort of wound up in Portland," he told journalists.

In this context, "The X-Files"' departure from Vancouver can be seen not as a sellout, but part of a larger imaginative migration. And besides, "The X-Files" is most profoundly rooted elsewhere than its ostensible locale. The first show was set in Bellefleur, Ore.--but this was just a stand-in for Chris Carter's hometown, Bellflower, Calif. Mulder and Scully have jetted all over the world in search of whatever is out there, and, say, the mysterious Anasazi digs in Arizona will be easier to replicate in L.A. than B.C., where X-Filers used about two tons of paint to make the brown dirt Arizona red.

Duchovny once wrote a novel titled "Wherever There Are Two," which refers to Jesus' comment that "wherever there are two people gathered in my name, there is the Kingdom of Heaven." "The X-Files" is really located wherever a fan gathers with Mulder and Scully to ponder a conspiracy conceivably extending from the local school board to the furthest wormhole in space. Carter wrote the show based on the stunning 1991 Roper poll showing that 3.7 million Americans think they may have been shanghaied by aliens. A full 40% think aliens have vacationed on Earth, and 70% agree with the "X-Files" Lone Gunmen that JFK was killed by a conspiracy. Bankers and flight attendants and airline pilots buttonhole Carter to tell them about their paranormal pasts.

"Abduction is tantamount to a religious experience," Carter told me. "We all want a religious experience," he told the World Skeptics Congress. "Even if we don't believe in God, I believe we're all looking for something beyond our own rather temporal lives here that is going to shake our foundations of belief. That's a personal feeling of mine, and it has sort of infused the whole show." Duchovny has observed, "It's a secular religious show. The time of miracles has not passed, it says. We're living in it."

Like the religious philosopher William James, we want to turn down the lights at the seance and give the miracle a chance to happen. It is not mere chance, for example, that "Star Wars' " reissue made it hotter than the original release--we are now a nation that worships The Force. "Titanic's" billion-dollar gross is surely related to the wallop of the romantic after-death reunion of its stars. More Americans believe in UFOs than believe they will ever see their Social Security money, says Newsweek. Last year, an MSNBC poll found that 39% of Americans think religion's influence is increasing, versus 27% who said so in 1994. Scholar Winnifred Gallagher told MSNBC that the poll represents a historic shift in our idea of religion. The new credo involves "the primacy of spirituality based on personal experience over religion founded on institutional doctrine."

Everybody sees their own beliefs reflected in Mulder's wide-open eyes. "At a deeper level," The National Catholic Reporter reports, " 'the truth is out there' expresses the sacramental theology that is at the heart of a Catholic response to culture. "The X-Files" in its own weird way can help build God's reign." But in fact, the MSNBC poll shows that 69% of us say our own direct, personal hotline to God beats any particular religion's offerings--and 19% prefer to combine them buffet style. Give me a dish of reincarnation with a side of telekinesis, please!

The key to "The X-Files"' success is that it won't let science stand in the way of faith--the FBI lab is the handmaid to faith. The Shroud of Turin has been exposed as a scientific fraud, but there it is on the cover of Time, whose writer puzzles over "the refusal to accept what under other circumstances would be considered a foregone scientific conclusion." In the same issue, Jim Crace's hot novel, "Quarantine," is hailed for a "portrayal of Jesus [combining] eerie realism with supernatural powers, sort of like a biblical 'X-Files."'

The religious impulse and paranoid personal convictions are coming together as our de facto civic religion. We should change the motto on our currency from "In God We Trust" to a quote from "The X-Files" film: "Trust no one, Mr. Mulder." No one, that is, but the persecuted secret agent within each of us.

We live in an age when fundamentalists slap footed fish bumper stickers reading "Darwin" on their cars and seize school boards to teach creationism to kids. John Travolta doesn't have to cram Scientology notions down American throats--in films like "Michael" and "Phenomenon," America gobbled up the mysticism and clamored for more. In the 1950s, the League of Decency was formed to fight Hollywood because traditionally religious folks felt it was "outside the moral sphere of American culture." In 1998, Hollywood is the moral sphere of American culture.

Chris Carter knows what we want, and gives it to us, despite his own skepticism. "And don't forget the other thing," says Alanna Nash, musing on Carter's probable billion-dollar payday, with potential "X-Files" sequels queuing up like so many clones of Mulder's kid sister. "We love to have the bejesus scared out of us!"

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