AUG 30-SEP 1


Tues, Aug 30

VIEW: X-Files, ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’


  1. BulletPeter Brooks, Reading for the Plot, 94-112

  2. Bullet“desire”

  3. Bullet“death drive”

  4. BulletPrimer on X-Files, ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’

  5. BulletTerms applied to the analysis of film

Thurs, Sept 1


  1. Bullet Brooks Module on Plot

  2. Bullet Brooks Module on Narrative Desire


  1. Bullet Hidden references in ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’


In these first four weeks, I will introduce students to the basic structures of narrative form, specifically the distinction between "story" and "discourse" and between the "proairetic and hermeneutic codes" of narrative. Students will also begin to analyze film, thus becoming familiar with those terms from film theory that we will build on over the course of the semester. Two pop cultural shows (Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files) and one experimental film (La jetée) will serve to help us in our exploration of the narrative limitations of human consciousness.




"The Final Repose of Narrative"

This week, we watched  the X-files episode, "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" (Winner: 1996 Prime-Time Emmy ®, Best Writing in a Dramatic Series). The episode allowed us to continue our discussion not only of film's discursive techniques (POV shots, subjective treatment, close-ups, montage, etc.) but also of the "scripted" nature of narrative. As the characters of the TNG episode "Cause and Effect" could be said to discover, narrative always already stacks the deck; narrative is never "sufficiently randomized," despite Data's claims to the contrary. This week's X-Files episode explored this same characteristic of narrative. As Fox Mulder states, "if coincidences are just coincidences, why do they feel so contrived." Later, when Bruckman and the murderer finally meet, they seem to be commenting self-reflexively about the very episode in which they find themselves: the coincidences that brought them to this meeting in the narrative seem, as the murderer says, "beyond the realm of believability." Fictional narratives are, indeed, concerned with the positing of possibilities that are believable even if fictional, and yet scripted nonetheless. What makes this episode of the X-Files significant is its self-consciousness about its own narrative form. The show could thus be said to be postmodern in its relationship to fiction since postmodern works tend towards self-reflexivity and self-consciousness but often (unlike modernist works) in a playful, self-parodic way that can still succeed on the mass market. Now for the specifics of our discussion:


Given the importance of beginnings for narrative form (as Brooks states in the first sentence of our reading for this week, "The sense of a beginning...must in some important way be determined by the sense of an ending" [94]), we
spent a good portion of the first  class discussing the opening two images (the hand/eye advertisement for the palm reader and an extreme close-up of the Stupendous Yappi on a trash tabloid), followed by the first murder, up to a camera shot through the inverting palm reader's crystal ball. Given the Brooks readings, we explored the fact that the hand/eye sign is a visual metaphor, a point suggested by Caitlin Stamper: it brings together two disparate things (a hand and an eye) to create a metaphorical linkage, which, as the class suggested is replete with meaning: 1) As I pointed out, the eye here is presented in an overdetermined way: it suggests the regular eye and its ability to see the world objectively (like the objective treatment of a scene by the camera lens); however, it is also evocative of the inner or third eye that can see beyond present time and space, as Ross Piedmonte pointed out. In proper postmodern fashion, the eye could also be aligned with the eye of the director or the camera. The hand is similarly a metaphor for action and free will, but through the palm-reader reference is here also representative of predetermined futures, with the palm's lifeline functioning as a lovely metaphor for narrative itself. Fictional narrative, by the same token, appears to be about people acting through free will but is actually structurally determined in such a way that characters and actions are largely determined by the need to create a well-structured, well-ordered whole, with a satisfying narrative closure. (One always feels, that is, not the hand of God but rather that of the director and script writer, a fact that will be underlined when we watch the X-Files episode, "The Postmodern Prometheus," since there Fox Mulder will actually ask for the writer from within the episode.) The two main characters, who believe they foresee the future, therefore worry about the fact that they do not have control over their lives.


This opening is thus closely tied to the first murder sequence, which ends with a shot of the murder through a crystal ball, with the image inverted as a result. There are a number of possible readings of this image: it represents the
position of the viewer: not only does the image remind us of the act of viewing but the inversion warns us that we will be played with throughout the episode (metaphorically turned upside down). What we are also given is a reminder of the camera lens, as Caitlin Stamper suggested (a “breaking of the fourth wall,” as she put it—the fact that we are reliant on this artificial technology for what we are allowed to see; indeed, we are even reminded of the frames—and thus the limitations—of viewing, including the frames of the televisual screen itself. As I pointed out, the crystal ball (and even the shards) are allusions to the famous opening of Kane, which we earlier analyzed to help us see the difference between story (here’s a castle-like house in which a light goes out, as Tahlib explained) and discourse (which led you all to foretell, based solely on discourse, everything that will happen in the rest of the film).


Such self-reflexivity is played out in various other ways throughout the episode. Examples include: 1) Clyde Bruckman's response to Fox Mulder's name ("Am I supposed to believe that's a real name?"); 2) the fact that both the murderer and Clyde Bruckman do not feel that they are in control of their lives, that they're puppets, almost as if they were conscious of their own scriptedness, of the fact that they are not real but fictional characters that are forced to play specific parts. (The murderer finally understands why he does the things he does when Clyde Bruckman tells him: "Don't you get it? It's because you're a homicidal maniac." Earlier, Bruckman also stated that the problem with the murderer is that he feels like he's a "puppet.") Similarly, the palm reader loses her accent (falls "out of character") when threatened early in the episode, as Vivian Gu and Ross Piedmonte explained; 3) In a previous version of this class, Jonas Moskowitz took this interpretation even further: what if the episode is also making a comment about us, the viewers, since we are, in fact, in the same position as the murderer, who could be said to be a spectator to his own crimes, both metephorically (he foresees the future) and literally (since we keep seeing him appear at the various crime scenes)? After all, are we not also scripted in our own ways: by the conventions we follow, by the ideologies we subscribe to, by the expectations that we fulfill, by the fact that our brains are constantly re-ordering the world we perceive in artificial ways, constantly imposing artificial meanings like narrative form itself? (Scully states, in the "white Nazi stormtrooper scene," that we are constantly imposing various meaningful structures on the otherwise heterogeneous, contingent events of reality, as Mary Komlofske pointed out in a previous version of the class.) 4) One could point to another element that makes a comment on this juxtaposition between "reality" and perception; that is, the opening shot of a trash journal article, which points to a real-life breakdown between real life and fantasy (or not, once you're in the alien-filled diegetic universe of Men in Black or the X-Files where such facts are acceptable), a breakdown made all the more uncanny with David Duchovny’s confession of being a sex and/or porn addict.  We thus find the real-life actor coming to act like his character Fox Mulder, who is so in love with pornography that Clyde Bruckman suggests his own death will be the result of auto-erotic asphyxiation.  5) The pixellated image in the first shot and the mise-en-abyme television screen in the last shot of the episode underscore the mediatization of the very tv episode being presented to us and the illusion that is film (itself based on nothing but a series of still photographic frames, as La jetée will remind us). 6) A similar degree of self-reflexivity occurs when the killer and Clyde Bruckman meet; here, they seem to fall out of character (by showing no emotion, despite the grave nature of their situation) and they comment on the improbable, though not impossible, nature of the plotting.


We also explored a number of structural issues concerned with narrative form. As I suggested, the reason these characters may not be in control of their lives is because they are being forced to follow the demands of narrative structure. That structure is underlined in various ways. I pointed out, for example, how the narrative creates a perfect circle—with the first image (an extreme close-up of Yappi's eye) repeated as the last image of the episode (perfect really since such metaphors are aligned with death drive and closure, according to Brooks). On the story level, we also have the fact that (as in La jetée and STTNG's "Cause and Effect"), effects continue to precede causes in the episode, a fact that is underlined in the first eye image by the fact that the word "death" is surreptitiously embedded in the newsprint. The opening scene's movement out from newspaper pixels to a shot of the Stupendous Yappi's eyeball also exemplifies one of the themes of the episode: not being able to see the forest for the trees, as Clyde Bruckman puts it later in the episode.

The episode provides us a number of metaphors for narrative form. Perhaps the most striking one is the close-up of a fiber of "chantilly lace," which Fox asks Clyde Bruckman to touch for psychic insight. As you pointed out, like the squiggly line Peter Brooks examines in Honoré de Balzac, the line is a lovely visual image for the dilations and deviations of narrative form. As Brooks puts it in your reading for this week, "Plot is a kind of arabesque or squiggle toward the end. It is like that arabesque from Tristram Shandy, retraced by Balzac, that suggests the arbitrary, trangressive, gratuitous line of narrative, its deviance from the straight line, the shortest distance between beginning and end—which would be the collapse of one into the other, of life into immediate death" (104). The image exemplifies the relationship of discourse to story and to the tension between pleasure principle and death drive given the importance of clues to the hermeneutic code. As in a detective story, we are given a clue by which Clyde Bruckman is asked to re-construct the story of the killer's murders, but a clue that itself is a metaphor for the story one wishes to construct, as well as the principle of the story's closure (both the end of the narrative and here literally the murderer's end). After all, it is the clue that, at the end of the narrative,
finally alerts Dana Scully to the truth and thus leads to the murderer's death. Indeed, when another such thread reappears in Dana Scully's hand at the moment of understanding, it is presented in close-up as a closed circle, as Ross Piedmonte pointed out, thus providing us with a metaphor for narrative closure (like the ourobouros image of a snake biting its own "tale"). By keeping us from figuring out how Chantilly Lace is tied to the murderer, however, the clue also keeps us watching, keeps us enjoying the pleasure of narrative, thus invoking the hermeneutic code and the pleasure principle.


We also discussed  the ways that the episode calls our attention to the coincidence behind having "Chantilly Lace" be at once the clue that leads to the end of the narrative and the song (by the Big Bopper) that in a sense led to Clyde Bruckman's prophetic powers. As Clyde Bruckman explains, in 1959 Buddy Holly's plane crashed the night before Bruckman was supposed to see him perform on stage. As Bruckman goes on, "Actually, I was a bigger fan of the Big Bopper than Buddy Holly; 'Chantilly Lace' that was the song... The Big Bopper was not supposed to be on the plane with Buddy Holly; he won the seat from somebody else by flipping a coin for it... Imagine all the things that had to occur, not only in his life but in everybody else's, to arrange it so that on that particular night the Big Bopper would be in a position to live or die depending on a flipping coin. I became so obsessed with that idea that I gradually became capable of seeing the specifics of everybody's death." It is not a coincidence that the song "Chantilly Lace" is actually about the pleasure principle:

        Hello baby, Yeah, this is the Big Bopper speakin

        Ha ha ha ha ha, oh you sweet thing

        Do I what?

        Will I what?

        Oh baby you know what I like


        Chantilly lace and a pretty face

        And a pony tail a hangin down

        That wiggle in the walk

        And giggle in the talk

        Makes the world go round

        There ain't nothin in the world

        Like a big eyed girl

        That makes me act so funny

        Make me spend my money

        Make me feel real loose like a long necked goose

What happened when Bruckman learned of the Big Bopper's death, then, is the death of what could be called the principle of the pleasure principle for Clyde, which left Bruckman with nothing but the death drive (no more "wiggle in the walk," no more wiggle in the narrative line).




There were numerous other Freudian and Brooksian interpretations over our days of discussion. After all, the entire episode is, in fact, about repetitions of its opening metaphor (with a particular focus on images of the eye and of the mind's eye). Indeed, the episode invites such Freudian interpretations even as it discounts them, as Clyde Bruckman tells Mulder before recounting his death dream:

    BRUCKMAN: You're not one of those people who read sexual symbols into everything, are you?

    MULDER: No, I'm not a Freudian

By the way, the rhetorical name for such a maneuver (saying something by denying you are saying it) is "apophasis" and it’s a good example of how postmodern works sneak in high-theoretical or high-cultural, avant-garde elements in pop cultural, mass-market forms (even while, at the same time, making fun of or playing with those elements in a way that does not threaten a largely anti-intellectual American public). As Bruckman's dream, indeed, does suggest, we are here given a character who is, in a strictly Freudian sense, predominantly driven by the death drive; as a result, the only dream he ever dreams is of his own death.  I mentioned the highly phallic tulips in the sequence, thus illustrating how this sequence once again collapses sex and death (pleasure principle and death drive). The fact that the killer keeps repeating the same dream over and over again also underscores the repetition compulsion associated with trauma.



A Freudian interpretation also helps to explain why the killer is not able to perform sexually, as is underscored when Clyde Bruckman is brought to the scene of the tea-leaf-reader's murder. Clyde also associates himself with lack of desire. As he says when Mulder asks him what's wrong, "it just seems like everyone's having sex except for me." The best explanation for why Clyde and the killer cannot perform sexually is because these are two characters who are completely driven by the death drive, which in healthy individuals always works in productive tension with both the pleasure and reality principles. I tied this discussion to narrative form itself by pointing to the scene where Clyde Bruckman tells Scully that he "foresees their end... We end up in bed together." Clyde appears to be making a sexual advance here, one that, in fact, functions hermeneutically to throw us off the scent. (It's a false lead, a false clue.) We are misled even as Clyde correctly does foretell the final scene (his deathbed scene). As Gabby Teter and Alex Reynaud pointed out, Brooks' association of the hermeneutic code with the pleasure principle is here literalized (the false lead keeps us watching, keeps our desire to continue watching alive: i.e., it is sexual). What is also literalized here is narrative's ultimate desire for narrative closure since what Clyde is actually predicting is the closural moment of the narrative and of his own life. I also suggested why the narrative has Clyde commit suicide: what Clyde is enacting here is one of Brooks' points: "If repetition is mastery, movement from the passive to the active, and if mastery is an assertion of control over what man must in fact submit to—choice, we might say, of an imposed end—we have already a suggestive comment on the grammar of plot, where repetition, taking us back again over the same ground, could have to do with the choice of ends" (98), or, as Freud states, "the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion" (Brooks 102).




We also explored the discursive complexity of the scene in which Clyde Bruckman sees the murderer's imagined killing of Fox Mulder. Bruckman appears here proleptically to foresee Mulder's fate at the hands of the murderer. As we discussed, the scene is incredibly complex on a structural level. What we have is an outside "objective treatment" of Mulder, Scully, and Bruckman in a room together. We then switch to the scene that Bruckman sees with his mind's eye: in technical terms "a subjective treatment"; however, we also learn from Bruckman that what he is in fact seeing is the "ravings of a lunatic," in other words yet another embedded subjective treatment from the point of view of the killer, which is in fact shot by the camera as a POV shot (thanks, Kailey Merida, for the right term!), as if we were seeing through the eyes of the killer himself (a favorite technique of the horror film). We thus have a POV shot within a subjective treatment (the mind's eye of the killer) within another subjective treatment (the mind's eye of Bruckman) within an objective treatment (Mulder, Scully, and Bruckman in a room in the diegetic present). The scene is thus exemplary of the narratological term, "focalization."



In the scene, Mulder steps in a pie and Bruckman interrupts his recounting of this chronological sequence by commenting on the type of pie. As Kailey Merida pointed out, the pie interruption is also exemplary of the discursive manipulation of story—how the time of viewing rarely (except in real time) corresponds to the time of the story action. A ten-second countdown in an action film can take 10 minutes to watch since narrative is interested in dilating the narrative in order to increase suspense. The scene also makes fun of the fact that we, as viewers, are not actually interested in seeing the story fully ‘realized.’ Ultimately, we don’t care what kind of pie is there because that’s not a significant detail with regard to the narrative as a whole. 


The class pointed out a number of other interesting discursive tricks and techniques throughout the episode. We finished our last class discussing one interesting discursive word play: the match cut from the Tarot reader's final card, "Death," to Scully's hand in a poker game with Clyde Bruckman: 3 Aces over 8s, what in poker is called the "Dead Man's Hand" (see the Primer for this episode). An alignment is made here on a purely discursive level (through a match cut), an alignment that is analogous to the use of metaphor in language (the bringing together of two disparate things, as in "a lion is the king of the jungle," which links a king to a lion). The discursive technique of the match cut aligns the two scenes and, thus, in one sequence literalizes the major thematic juxtaposition of the episode: fate/narrative (the Tarot) vs. chance/life (poker), a metaphorical juxtaposition that, of course, we also saw in the Star Trek: TNG episode, "Cause and Effect." (Thanks to Alex Reynaud and Caitlin Stamper for leading us in that discussion.)


Synopsis for Aug 30-Sept 22

ENGL 373H: The Theory of SF&F

INSTRUCTOR         : Prof. Felluga

OFFICE                    : HEAV 430

OFFICE HOURS      : T,Th 1:30-2:30 (or email me)

E-MAIL:                   :