Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Mothman Prophecies: Paranormal Hybrid Vigor

I've posted dual book/movie review and discussion this on my Tulane page for some time (since 2003, I believe), but I figured it was time to move it, since I'll be leaving there in the coming year. I believe I'll be revisiting some of the issues raised in this review in the very near future.

The Mothman Prophecies: Paranormal Hybrid Vigor

You know what flying saucers are, right? Spaceships from outer space! They can be big, or small. They can look like clouds, or silent helicopters, or ice cream cones, or cigars. More commonly, they look like discs, or spheres, or VW NeuBeetles, something rounded to contrast them with all those long and pointy missiles and rockets the white(jumpsuited) guys in the Air Force and NASA send up. If fifty-one years of flying saucer movies are anything to go by, UFOnauts don't seem to be made of the "right stuff", either. Usually Zeta Reticuli sends us Attila the Hun, who trashes the place but is always sent packing by super-science, germs, or more recently, yuppie hackers. Other times, they send us Jesus (WWETD?), ready to give us the answer to atomic disarmament, the ozone layer, or whatever else the cover of Time magazine is trying to scare people with this week. Since the 1960s, we've been treated to a double-header of Dracula and Jack the Ripper, as the little gray men walk amongst us undetected, get their jollies making off with the blood and genitals of genetically hormone enhanced cattle, and mesmerize abductees for cold clinical sex. They've even brought their pet chupacabras along for the ride. Anyway, flying saucers are weird aluminum spaceships full of illegal aliens waiting to disintegrate, illuminate, or exsanguinate us.

The various Hollywood scenarios above are all variants of the Extraterrestrial Hypothesis (ETH) for UFOs, or the "nuts and bolts" paradigm. Simply put, UFO occupants are biological or mechanical, and the flying saucers are part of their advanced material culture. The Crashed Saucer legend, most famously the Roswell Incident, is the epitome of this philosophy. Believer or skeptic, most people around the world think of the ETH as synonymous with UFOs.
But there are other explanations. Skeptics cite the "Kook Hypothesis". More charitably, sociologists and anthropologists propose the psychosocial hypothesis, that these beliefs are a part of human culture, like religion or folklore (anthropology is the least religious of all academic fields in the United States). Evangelical Christians quote Genesis to show that UFO enthusiasts are actually worshipping demons. Militia members think the UFOs are all a ruse, which the New World Order will use to throw John Birchers into makeshift concentration camps in Nevada. New Age-y contactees remember their former lives as aliens on the planet Zeist.

And then there is John Keel. A freelance reporter and writer based in New York, Keel conducted some field research on UFOs in the 1960s before combining all of the above into a unique occult stew. He is most famous for The Mothman Prophecies, a jumpy collection of Keel's ruminations hung upon a framework of strange happenings in rural West Virginia throughout 1967. The Mothman of the title is the most unique element of the story, though not the most important. Alternatively described as a large man with wings, or a huge headless furry creature with giant glowing red eyes, "Mothman" lived to terrorize young couples in secluded lover's lanes.

But Keel was more interested in UFOs and those who were contacted by them than in nocturnal winged peeping toms. To hear Keel tell it, West Virginia, and indeed the world, was crawling with sightings of strange lights, extraterrestrial visitors with misspelled Biblical or Classical names, and Men in Black. Particularly Men in Black. Though he didn't invent the concept, Keel's books and writings solidified the Men in Black as strange beings in their own right. Flying saucer enthusiasts had reported intimidating visits from men in dark suits since the 1950's. These strange visitors were interpreted as government agents sent to intimidate the daring ufologists; more skeptical observers suggested that these tales made the teller "important" enough to be silenced by Them. But Keel's MIB's are far stranger. They can have unusual facial features (often classified as "Oriental", a term which seems to have no meaning the way Keel uses it), wear all sorts of clothes (not just the Reservoir Dog funeral suits), often with strange thick-soled shoes. They may talk too fast or too slow, often in the same conversation. Simple objects will puzzle them, yet they seem to have mastered the use of dark-colored sedans and flash cameras.

Instead of suspecting government spooks, Keel lumps MIBs with space travelers, mothmen, fairies, hairy monsters, ghosts, devils, angels, gods, spirits, doppelgangers, and other strange folk. From his perspective, they act in similar ways, through time and space. There is only a cosmetic difference between a beam of light striking Saul on the road to Damascus, hastening the spread of Christianity, and a flying saucer taking George Adamski or Rael on an interplanetary trip so that they can spread the word of the Space Brothers. Skeptics and rationalists would agree with Keel, and label all of these things part of the human tendency to create a rich supernatural world and populate it with wonderous and terrible beings. But Keel accepts some kind of reality for these beings, though he has no idea what they are. Because the same kinds of reports are recorded throughout human history, Keel proposes that these things have been here as least as long as we have, that they are a permanent part of life on earth. He calls them ultra-terrestrials, but I believe my favorite term for them comes from the title of a chapter in The Mothman Prophecies, "Games Non-People Play". As an all-encompassing unified field theory, the concept is overwhelming yet simple at the same time. If accepted, the explanatory power is intoxicating. Aztec blood sacrifice, UFO sightings, Bigfoot, Fatima, phone malfunctions, men with thick rubber-soled shoes, deja-vu, and Adam Weishaupt: IT'S ALL CONNECTED!

And because it touches so much, and encompasses so much, yet is still unexplained, it can't be disproved. One can question the behavior of aliens as bizarre, non-scientific, and irrational (what's with all the abductions?), traits that might not be expected of beings flying in spaceships. One can also ask why flying ships have changed through time, going in and out of style. Or why alien messages are always simplistic or pointless, as after all, an advanced intellect should be able to provide more of a direct clue to global problems than "Make peace and open your minds." But as Keel describes the strange behavior reported by eyewitnesses and experienced by Keel himself, the fragmentary non-logical patterns rule out ET astronauts. Instead, the vague prophecies and unusual folk are all part of the "Games Non-People Play", for an end we cannot fathom. God works in mysterious ways, after all.

And so we return to the Mothman. As stated above, the early focus of The Mothman Prophecies is Mothman. But non-people come in all shapes and sizes in Point Pleasant, and soon Keel is dealing with Space Brothers, MIB's, Mothmen, and UFOs of every shape and size (on a clockwork basis no less). Keel places all of this into the larger 1966 UFO flap (which also spawned the infamous Project Blue Book explanation of "swamp gas"), and begins to suspect that big things are on the horizon. He is prompted by the titular prophecies of local Woody Derenberger, who gets his information from a long-haired silver-suited spaceman by the name of Indrid Cold. While other Cold contactees both in and outside West Virginia begin to come to Keel's attention, Woody is the best source of information. As Keel begins to get an inkling of what terrible event Cold's messages might be foretelling, They start to apply pressure. MIB's tail and photograph Keel, his associates, and acquaintances not even connected with UFOs or West Virginia. Keel's phone begins to act up, with constant strange sounds and interruptions. People report calls from Keel that he never makes, and when he calls his own home, an unknown man answers on his behalf.

Finally, the strange events come to a head, and a horrible disaster comes to pass, but one only tangential at best to the contactees' prophecies. Keel counts the dead, and step quietly back into the land of the living, not much wiser than he had been a year before. There is no resolution, no hero's journey fulfilled. Unlike many UFO and Forteana books, The Mothman Prophecies has a setting, a cast of characters, a goody spooky author, and something of a narrative. But there is no mind-blowing final discovery, no smoking gun, nothing to show but speculation that perhaps the world is far wilder than we suspect (or that the author is mad, or just a good storyteller, or all of the above). Other approaches generally provide some answers: religion illuminates; science explains. If UFOs are flown by Space Brothers, the author imparts their wisdom. If a cover-up is found, at least things are under control, and the bad guys named. Even abduction accounts provide some closure, with memories recovered, and maybe patterns exposed to reveal an agenda. But no loose ends are tied up in The Mothman Prophecies, things just end, with no indication they won't start up again elsewhere or when.

Mothman Does Hollywood

The book The Mothman Prophecies is nihilistic, and if one accepts its assertions, disconcerting. Not exactly blockbuster material. And yet, in early 2002, a big-budget film version of The Mothman Prophecies was released. The movie wildly veers from much of Keel's book, fictionalizes much of the story (yet claims to be based on true events), adds some upbeat sentiments, and stars �ber-Buddhist Richard Gere. And yet, oddly enough, the film is able to capture some of the basic feel and ideas of Keel's book, ideas that have not really been explored in pop media before.

Instead of recreating John Keel's yearlong field investigation in Point Pleasant, the movie focuses on John Klein (Richard Gere), a famous reporter for the Washington Post. The events are also dragged into the present day (curious, since the one major public event in the book, a real disaster, is kept as the centerpiece of the movie). Klein is no Fortean investigator, but a happily married political reporter and commentator. The film opens with Klein skipping out on the office Xmas party to help his wife Mary (Debra Messing) view a potential new house.

WORD TO THE WISE: fast forward through the first 15-20 minutes. You and I will be the better for your discretion. Let me sum up: The Kleins see the house, have closet sex, leave, Mary sees some crazy CGI red thing in the street that runs them off the road, she cracks her head, cat-scans find a tumor (in the shape of a Y, just like the CGI Mothman thing) Mary starts sketching ominous Blair Witch knock-offs, she dies, John is sad.

Ok, now, you can start watching the movie again. Anyway, for reasons that are not entirely clear to him or anyone else, John gets sucked into strange occurrences around Point Pleasant, West Virginia. This is where the action really begins. The filmmakers pick and choose some of the creepiest and most evocative moments in Keel's book, and use them as the basis for the rest of the film. Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton) is clearly based on Woody Derenberger, and relays messages from Indrid Cold (now a menacing and ethereal presence instead of a Space Brother). Gordon hooks up with John at gunpoint, as he is certain Klein has been stalking him for days before he ever arrives in West Virginia. Time and space inconsistencies abound, as do phone hijinks. None of these events make much sense, and instead are played for a high creep factor. Which works perfectly well with the feel of the Mothman book.

Once in town, Klein pairs up with the pretty local sheriff Connie Parker (Laura Linney), and the two begin to investigate weird claims and occurrences. Inevitably, John and Connie develop romantic feelings for each other. If only I could find romance while spending cold nights staking out old haunted chemical plants, or questioning country folk who have seen a flying version of Bigfoot, but I digress. But as Hollywood loves a romantic triangle, John's dead wife Mary becomes entangled in the Mothman phenomena. Let me just say that while Debra Messing doesn't play live characters terribly well, she is great in this film as a corpse. John's desperate desire to contact, or at least understand the death of, his wife takes the weirdness to a personal level. The film jettisons the UFO's and MiB's in favor of a strange multi-dimensional ghost story.
As in Keel's book, Indrid Cold's messages begin to prophesize disasters. John decides (perhaps because of his inability to save his own wife) to take this opportunity to help people. He tracks down an author and expert on this phenomenon, Dr. Alexander Leek (Alan Bates), to help him decipher the situation. Yes, that's L-E-E-K, try holding it up in front of a mirror.

Now, may I say, I can only hope to be as cool as Alexander Leek when I grow up. After lecturing Klein on the prehistory and history of ultra-terrestrials (the word is never used, but the meaning is plain), he goes on to explain that he too tried to follow Mothman's prophecies to save people. He then stridently informs us that it landed him in an insane asylum for five years, and asks Klein "Do you know what that does to a man"? Damn. Mr. Bates plays Ke-, um, Leek, as just a touch mad yet with an insane insight into to the nature of the universe. He sums up Indrid Cold's incrutable messages by asking Klein if he, clearly superior to a cockroach, has ever tried explaining himself to one? The Mothman Prophecies may have it's problems, but any film that has an extended discourse by a madman on ultra-terrestrials, citing cave paintings and set in a library, gets my dollar.

Armed with this "wisdom", Klein must decide whether to embrace the madness of the Mothman Prophecies, potentially averting some tragic catastrophe, or wash his hands of the whole convoluted affair. I won't give away the answer here, but the filmmakers wisely adopt some of Keel's nihilism for the film's climax, only to throw a little of it away for the sake of Hollywood sentimentality.

On the whole, I was surprised at the performances and skill in this film, barring the first twenty minutes. The aforementioned first twenty minutes, all set in Washington D.C., contain most of the worst acting in the film. Most of the annoying bits in the film are here as well, most particularly film-school cuts and jumps that seem to have been added just to look showy, and to have "scary" bits for the movie trailer (indeed, much of the trailer is derived from these scenes). Once the film moves to Point Pleasant, we enter into another, much more interesting movie. Instead of the slick blacks and reds of Washington (and many Hollywood thrillers and horror movies), everything in West Virginia is gray. As a long-time resident of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, I recognize the desolate gray November scenery. Personally, I have even more reason, as the film was shot in and around Pittsburgh, where I lived for three years. Those familiar with the city should be able to identify a number of locations around Oakland (the University of Pittsburgh and the Carnegie Museum in particular), a few downtown, and one on the southern riverbank of the city. Regardless, the gray country landscapes, strange small town, and hypnotic ambient soundtrack combine to give a sort of "Twin Peaks East" feel to much of the proceedings.

Richard Gere is actually quite good here. Clearly he is a natural to play the successful reporter with everything going right in the world. But with the exception of a heroic act near the end, he also does a good job trying to regain some control over anything after the death of his wife. Gere's usual quiet, "Zen", slightly superior demeanor keeps him quiet and slightly taken aback as the rest of the cast tells him things. In essence, with the exception of his scenes with Laura Linney's Sheriff Connie, Gere's Klein acts as a near-silent proxy or avatar for the viewer, moving from clue to clue.

Klein's relationship with Connie is an interesting change from the book, but an unexpected one. Along with the specter of his dead wife, Connie gives Klein a stake in the phenomenon beyond curiosity. Linney isn't given much to do here, other than to comfort and occasionally skeptically ground Klein in his quest for the truth (shades of The X-Files here). In his book, Keel does have a female partner (a local newspaper reporter), but she is significantly older and less attractive than Laura Linney, and married to boot. Instead, Keel describes nearly all of the other women of Point Pleasant as young, lithe, and attractive, presumably doing much to further the cause of gonzo ufology.

The other two significant roles in the film are heavily inspired by Keel's book. Will Patton is excellent as Gordon Smallwood, an average man contacted by forces from beyond and forced into the role of a prophet. Alan Bates is a bit more over the top as Alexander Leek, a very different sort of man who tried and failed to deal with these forces. But both represent well some of the "High Strangeness" in Keel's book.

Lastly, there is the Mothman himself. Like Keel, the filmmakers use this apparition as a symbol and focusing point for their own explorations of the strange. Like the Flying Saucer, the Mothman stands for the strange, and potentially dangerous. Surprisingly, the Mothman is used for little else in the film. In Keel's book, there are several Mothman-related encounters and chase scenes (most interestingly, when it follows a bloodmobile) that are more exciting than those in the film.

In both versions, The Mothman Prophecies offers an alternative to more mainstream approaches to the paranormal in twentieth century American culture. The 2002 film version stylistically treads some of the same ground as The X-Files or Twin Peaks, but the focus on exploring the emotional and philosophical elements of an unusual take on paranormal phenomenon sets it apart from flying saucers and little gray men. Keel's book is much more out there, and while including UFOs and MIBs, spins these elements to much wilder ends. The film is a nice, stylistic, slice of weirdness with several unsatisfying elements (mostly involving Klein's relationship with his wife). Keel's book is a comprehensive smorgasbord of High Strangeness, one that is a bit of a mind-blower of insane inspiration, whether the reader believes Keel or not.

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