The X-Files: One Shot

1x03: Season 1, Episode 4 (October 1, 1993)

(Director of Photography: John S. Bartley)

My friend and colleague Abbey Bender likened this shot to Last Year at Marienbad (1961), an apt comparison given that that film’s director, the great Alain Resnais, was an unabashed X-Files fan. In a November 2006 interview with Positif, he sang the praises of the series’ most frequent director, Kim Manners, who began his years-long tenure in Season 2: “[Manners] directed some 50 episodes of The X Files [1993-2002], and the virtuosity of his shot-breakdown technique and of his mise-en-scène, and the way in which he treated actors’ performances, all of it impressed me. He’s the best of the best.” Resnais would also collaborate with series composer Mark Snow on his last four features, Private Fears in Public Places (2006), Wild Grass (2009), You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012) and Life of Riley (2014).

Like many a Resnais film, The X-Files is about characters searching for an—if not the—ultimate unknowable. It’s always arguable whether they’re in control of the quest or running around like chickens with their heads cut off. The hope is that all the micro grunt work will result in a macro epiphany akin to the scene here in which a series of coded documents, laid side by side and end to end, begets a mosaic of abducted teenager Ruby (Taunya Dee), who is a stand-in of sorts for Mulder’s abducted sister Samantha. It more often feels like these people are playing perpetual catch-up, particularly with each other. At this early stage of their relationship, Scully and Mulder are very much at a distance, and Bartley and episode director Daniel Sackheim emphasize this numerous times throughout: a jesting invasion of personal space; decoupled glances; an exasperating walk-and-talk; an invasive shoulder-grab. At one point, Scully unconsciously bridges the gap with Mulder after the surreal appearance of a wolf that leads the pair to a shallow grave. They are most connected when the inexplicable manifests itself.

Scully’s climactic close-up in “Conduit”—as she silently listens to a tape of one of the regression hypnosis sessions in which Mulder recalls Samantha’s abduction—is one of Anderson’s major moments, maybe the first time in the series that she hits that perfect sweet spot between emotional expressiveness and enigmatic opacity (it won’t be the last time this happens). Freezing the image, I think the opacity registers slightly more, to the point that, bringing it back to Resnais, you can trace a line, if so inclined, from Delphine Seyrig in Marienbad to here. This also contrasts nicely with the ending scene in which a grief-stricken Mulder has a good cry in church. Duchovny doesn’t have the same up-close dramatic ability as Anderson. He works best in defensively comic-sarcastic mode or, like here, in long shot, as a mournful object in space. A space, not so incidentally, that has some of the similarly shadowy/suggestive nooks and crannies as the labyrinthine palace in Marienbad, where God, or Alfred Hitchcock, is in the details.


The truth revealed

Space invader

Decoupled glances

Walking and talking

Shoulder-grab and aftermath

Bridging the gap

Scully and Seyrig

God, and Hitchcock, in the details

Another mosaic

Two agents walk into a bar

’70s love groove, ’90s thirst trap