Cleanup on Aisle Three
by Sarah Stegall
copyright © 1997 by Sarah Stegall
“El chupacabra? Frankly, I’m confused by this story.”
Writer: John Shiban
Director: Tucker Gates
One of the primary functions of Art is to help us explain the world to ourselves; the explanations we come up with, like our ideas of art itself, depend heavily on the culture we are trying to interpret. It is an ongoing dialogue between artist and audience, in which art challenges or confirms our understanding of our world and ourselves. Since this understanding grows out of our culture and environment, it necessarily takes on political overtones. And precisely because politics and art grow out of culture, tourists in foreign lands would be wise to step carefully through the minefields of an alien social landscape. The X-Files has always been intelligent and visionary enough to incorporate mild political statements in its storylines–enough to push the envelope of mainstream television without getting network executives too nervous. A show whose premise is that the government is hiding something from the people cannot be said to be politically neutral, so it is no surprise when the political theme rises to the surface of an X-File a little more prominently in some episodes than others.
But there is an honest attempt at an intersection of politics and art–and then there is outright propaganda. “El Mundo Gira”, John Shiban’s third X-Files script, is a failed attempt at political relevance (I can’t quite say “correctness”) which is weakened not only by its thin premise but by its constant hammering on a feeble theme. Like icing on a cake, a political motif can enhance and intensify a good story, as Shiban’s first effort, “The Walk“, demonstrated. But when the political story is the story, or gets in the way of the story, we have polemic not too cleverly dressed up as entertainment.
Mulder and Scully come into a case set in a migrant camp in California after a woman dies during a suspicious “yellow rain”, which leaves her body covered in a weird proliferation of fungi. Almost immediately, they are caught up in a soap opera of truly operatic proportions, which owes as much to “Carmen” as to Mexican television. One brother accuses another of stealing his lover, and sets out for revenge. The second brother is the carrier of a deadly fungus (can we say “cultural contamination?”) which infects anyone he meets. A sardonic INS officer, played with his usual sang-froid by the excellent Ruben Blades, inserts several nuggets of tribal exposition into the mix, and by the time the confusing and unsatisfying conclusion lumbers to a close, we are dealing with illegal aliens, California politics, Mexican melodrama, the tendency for immigrant communities to prey on themselves, and the possible use of bioengineered agricultural products. Oh, and Fortean phenomena.
This storyline tripped all over itself. Excuse me, but if I was hit by hot yellow rain while out in a field, my FIRST phone call would be to the local airport’s waste disposal authority. Why didn’t Mulder and Scully even mention this? Plot inconsistencies abound: if Eladio Buente is so desperate to return to Mexico, why does he run away from the Immigration officials who are so eager to escort him, free of charge, to the border? Throughout the episode, the investigation is driven almost entirely by Mulder and Scully’s reaction to events. They ping-pong through this story like the pawns they are. As in “Hell Money“, the local-color law enforcement they rely on does all the work. Worst of all, the focus of the story is lost in the overstatement of The Theme.
Shiban has fallen prey to an unfortunate tendency in “The X-Files”–the attempt to make a metaphor concrete. In this case, to say that illegal immigrants and migrant workers (which seem to him to be synonymous, betraying a woeful ignorance of the political reality he is trying to incorporate) are “invisible” is a convenient political metaphor, but it is only a metaphor. In my middle class California neighborhood, illegal aliens are visible on every street corner every morning, soliciting work even as Eladio Buente does. These laborers are not “invisible”; certainly if one of them was covered in green fur, or was growing a goat’s head, it would be noticed, even in California. I found Shiban’s constant insistence on this theme of “invisibility” insulting, as if Anglo culture is composed solely of oblivious and stonehearted brutes. What is even more bizarre is that he then turns around and reinforces every single negative stereotype we have about immigrants: that they are unclean, disease-ridden, ignorant, childish and superstitious, living in a dangerous fantasy world to overcome the drabness and ignorance of their little lives. I cannot imagine a more offensive portrait of a people, especially since it is of the one-size-fits-all variety: similar charges were once leveled at the Chinese, the Jews, the Irish, and the Italians who came to this country. The basic fears about The Other do not change over time: fear of poverty, of psychic contamination, of disease, of uncleanness. The Other always carries cooties.
The heart of this soap opera is the Cain-and-Abel blood feud between the brothers Buente. The grossest insult of all is the bald statement that the vendetta, particularly among family members, is virtually sacred in Latino culture. To portray the Buente brothers as overblown soap opera characters out for one another’s heartblood is to indict a whole culture specifically built on family ties. This is not the Latino culture I grew up with in Texas and New Mexico, where family loyalty comes before all other considerations. Such a breakdown in basic family structure might make sense in second- or third-generation families, where urbanization has substituted the gang for la familia, but it makes no sense at all in recent immigrants.
The story was not helped along by the acting. Raymond Cruz, as Eladio Buente, is adequate in a role that calls for scenery-chewing of the first order, and Ruben Blades does his manful best in a role that casts him against type. But not even Blades can convince me he holds Latino culture in such contempt; his Agent Lozano was just puzzling. No one else in this soap opera achieved any more depth than a graffiti scrawl. Duchovny and Anderson strove to bring life to the cartoons we see here, and only partly succeeded. The one bright moment in Tucker Gates’ direction was the dissolve from the bald alien head on the graffiti wall to Walter Skinner’s head. For the first time I found the guitar score by Mark Snow to be intrusive.
Shiban may have been trying to ape the departed Darin Morgan, from his exaggeration for effect to his unreliable narrators to his turning the whole story into a “magical realism” fable related by Mulder and Scully to Assistant Director Skinner. Mulder and Scully function as storytellers to the rest of us, venturing into alien territory to bring us back amusing tales of mystery and wonder among The Others. This makes them culture spies, not investigators. Shiban has confused mystery with mystification, wonder with obscurity, and character with caricature. Nobody outside of Mulder and Scully were even slightly believable narrators or characters, and in this regard the waste of an actor of Ruben Blades’ talents is criminal. After the failure of “Teso Dos Bichos” and “El Mundo Gira”, perhaps it is time Shiban moved out of the Latino culture and into a more familiar one. And it would be wise to handle political themes, whether they be the integrity of native cultures as in “Teso” or the powerlessness of immigrants in “El Mundo”, like nitroglycerin. A plain tale simply told would have been preferable to this tangled bombast.
I want to be fair, and give Shiban the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that he strove to write in a style not his own, about a romanticized culture he did not understand, to bring us a story about love and loss and grief. I’d like to believe he was aiming that high when he fell so short. I want to believe this. In the end, however, I am left not with what he intended but with what he achieved, and that was regrettable. My condolences to John Shiban.
This episode gets one moldy sunflower seed out of five.