The Empty Heart
By Sarah Stegall
Copyright (c) 1999 by Sarah Stegall
Teleplay by Chris Carter
Story by Vince Gilligan and John Shiban
Directed by Kim Manners
“That is exactly your mistake, never to have guessed any of my sentiments.” — The Father, in “Six Characters in Search of an Author” by Luigi Pirandello*
It’s not like they didn’t warn us.
In the opening scenes of “Milagro”, a writer sits in front of a typewriter and a blank page, staring hopelessly at it while waiting for inspiration to strike. Over several dissolves, he paces, sweats, and waits for that dam to break, for the Muse to arrive, for a spark to fire his imagination. Failing, he finally pulls his own heart out of his chest and contemplates its useless, mindless beating. Macabre? Perhaps, but to anyone who has ever faced the horror of the empty page, a workable metaphor for the creative process. It signals to us that from here on out, everything we see is metaphor and metafiction, fiction about fiction. It’s not really about “the story”, it’s about storytelling, art, and knowledge. The inherent naturalism of photography—and its stepchild, television—lulls us into an easy, superficial acceptance of what we see onscreen; “Milagro” is a surprising and welcome experiment in expressionistic television.
More than seventy years ago, Luigi Pirandello rocked the theatrical establishment with his play, “Six Characters in Search of an Author“. A set of characters, invented by an author but not used, interrupt a rehearsal, seeking to tell their story without the intervention of the actors. Pirandello refused to bow to the theatrical conventions that distinguish the character from the actor, or to cut the story to fit the preconceptions of his audience. His purpose was not to entertain but to challenge us to look beyond the obvious, to push the boundaries. Likewise, Chris Carter, Frank Spotnitz and John Shiban challenge viewers to take a step back from the surface of a story, and consider the assumptions that prop it up. Everyone in “Milagro” is a both a character and an “actor”, perceived and perceiver. Philip Padgett (John Hawkes) writes a “real” woman—Dana Scully—into a work of fiction. He even writes himself into the story and calls himself, like Albert Camus’ anti-hero, “The Stranger”. He resurrects (metaphorically? really?) a dead Brazilian psychic surgeon as the central figure in a gothic horror story. But he comprehends none of these characters, not even himself. He may have “invented” them, but they are not his.
“When the characters are really alive before their author, the latter does nothing but follow them in their action, in their words, in the situations which they suggest to him; and he has to will them the way they will themselves—for there’s trouble if they don’t.” The Father, “Six Characters in Search of an Author”
The paradox of writing is that, the more depth a character assumes, the less easily manipulated it becomes. Human behavior has its own logic, which, if an author is honest, compels actions in the character not intended by the creator. Padgett’s “character”, Nascimento, gets away from him and threatens not only the story but also the “real” Dana Scully. “Dana Scully” herself gets away from Padgett when he realizes with disappointment that he has profoundly misread her emotional truth. Far from being the omnipotent creator-god of popular imagination, the writer is in the end destroyed by his own creation.
I had to wonder how often characters had “gotten away from” Carter, et al. It would be easy to pigeonhole “Milagro” as simply playful fun on the part of the writers, a vehicle for them to sound off about the writing process. The index cards stuck to Padgett’s wall, standard components in the writing of screenplays, call attention immediately to the link between creators and created. Carter, Shiban and Spotnitz (I am tempted to name this cabal “Chris Shibnitz”) even give us the cliched Writer As Alienated Outsider: Padgett is scruffy, wears a goatee, has no visible means of support, and is so socially inept he stares at people in elevators. This formula was old when “La Boheme” locked it into our cultural iconography 100 years ago; by now it is recognizable self-parody, another invitation to draw away from the canvas. Yet this Philip Padgett is a lie. The actual writers (I have met them all) are neither scruffy nor socially inept. Rather, Padgett is merely another “character” in a metafiction designed to point us not at a story but at a dilemma: the human heart. We can hardly know ourselves, much less hope to know others or learn anything about them. Only Padgett learns anything in this story, and only when his own creation reveals Padgett’s true motive to him. This is, after all, the true role of art: to hold up a mirror to ourselves.
“Even now, as she pushed an errant strand of titian hair behind her ear, she worried her partner would know instinctively what she could only guess. To be thought of as simply a beautiful woman was bridling, unthinkable. But she was beautiful, fatally. Stunningly prepossessing. Yet the compensatory respect she commanded only deepened the yearnings of her heart. To let it open. To let someone in.” —Philip Padgett, “Milagro”
The lavish rhetoric beloved of Chris Carter serves him well. Padgett’s purple prose signifies that this is Not Reality. Such mannered wording usually jolts me right out of a story—but that’s the point here. By calling attention to itself, the style breaks through the illusion of reality and dares us to look beyond the boundaries of the “plot” laid out for us in tidy little 3 x 5 index cards. Carter et al show us how we categorize, diminish, and distort “reality” in seeking to catch it in patterns we make up. He sends us looking not for “plot” but for motive, the dark seed at the heart of all action.
Director Kim Manners gets in some pretty fancy chops in “Milagro”. I particularly liked his theatrical staging of the argument between Mulder and Scully outside Padgett’s cell, where Padgett’s shadowy presence behind them balances their formal arrangement. The image of Mulder (whose apartment has been bugged, burgled, and videotaped) spying on his neighbor was witty. The gauzy, filtered light in Padgett’s room lent a surreal, operatic quality to the scenes set there.
“He wants to get at his complicated ‘cerebral drama’, to have his famous remorses and torments acted; but I want to act my part, my part!” The Stepdaughter, “Six Characters in Search of an Author”
David Duchovny played Mulder like The Manager in Pirandello’s play, who runs around seeking to paste these bits of plot together into a cohesive whole, but whose lack of perspective leaves him groping for answers. He even tries to block out Scully’s action for her, in the “business” about switching sides during their argument. If “Milagro” has one message about perception, it is shown in Scully, who is seen through everyone’s eyes (Mulder, Padgett, even Nascimento) but her own. Ultimately, we can’t know which one of these portraits of her character are “right”. Maybe none of them are. It’s a bravura performance from Gillian Anderson, well matched by Duchovny’s low-key Mulder, acting on his instincts.
Watching television, we expect naturalism and “realism”. We are startled by the rare experiment in avant-garde storytelling that “Milagro” represents. “Milagro” was not supposed to be taken literally, any more than “Post Modern Prometheus” or “Jose Chung’s ‘From Outer Space'” was supposed to be. This is not a story about a guy who does “psychic surgery”. It’s a story about how we can never really know other people, even when we invent them. We try, clumsily or elegantly as our powers allow, to express in words something that is at once larger and smaller than words. “I only knew what was in my mind and wished to express it clearly,” Padgett says. Only at the end of “Milagro” do we see the bitter irony in this statement: Padgett thinks he knows Scully so intimately, because he has “invented” her, written about her, yet in the end he really doesn’t know her at all, can express no truth about her. When we think we understand the limits of the writer’s craft, we find we know nothing at all. My congratulations to Carter, Shiban and Spotnitz on a daring experiment for commercial television. “Milagro” gets six sunflower seeds out of five.