Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Touched - Encounters With Alien Life Forms (movie review)

“There were times when I just wish I could have … closed my ears, closed my eyes, put my head under the covers and wish that it was just all a bad dream.  I’ll never be able to live … again in the illusion of safety.  I live in a universe so vast, I don’t even have a clue what’s out there.  And somehow it’s connecting with me, making contact with me” – Karin (Touched)

One of my favorite pasttimes as a young man growing up in the suburbs of Vancouver was to grab a couple cases of beer with some buddies, go down to Stanley Park after sundown on a warm summer night, hang out under a bridge like a bunch of trolls and argue about the existence of aliens until the buses started running again the next morning.  My views on the subject have shifted over the years … massively.  I found myself changing from someone who, in a very Mulder-ian fashion, wanted to believe to someone who no longer could for lack of all the right kinds of evidence and overwhelming abundance of all the wrong kinds.  It’s still fun to argue about aliens, I could do it for hours, years even, on and off.  Today, however, I find myself taking the stance of the skeptic, which isn’t nearly as fun, but it’s a stance taken only on the defensive, when the person I’m speaking to’s willingness to accept any idea based on wishful thinking alone clouds their judgment.  When they go too far down the rabbit hole and can’t reign in the enthusiasm towards an idea a bit, I have to become the grumpy old man who takes the hose to wishes upon stars.  Basically, the subject has become one of life’s little polemics, like politics and religion.  More distracting than mind-expanding and it’s … well, it’s a shame really, because as I said, I could talk to you about aliens for hours.

One thing ‘the alien debate’ has taught me, is that there’s a tipping point at which a person goes beyond having an open mind towards an otherwise strange idea, and then closes that open mind off at the opposite end.  The arguing and endless debating is no longer fun at that point, it just becomes two people fighting needlessly about a subject that neither of them could possibly know what they’re talking about in any definitive way and no longer an exchange of ideas.  Everybody’s got all the answers all the time these days.  I blame the internet!

And that’s what I love about this movie, Touched.  It doesn’t do the whole point-counterpoint paradigm or take one view or the other.  It simply allows alien abductees to tell their own stories of their experiences and how they’ve tried to incorporate this strangeness into their lives without interjecting a narrative opinion on the subject.  This is the only successful voice a documentary filmmaker can have, the voice of its own subject(s).

The filmmaker in question is one LAUREL CHITEN, who premiered Touched back in 2003 at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  It had escaped my notice entirely until I was on youtube, watching the new Valient Thorr video and it came up as a suggested video.


Probably the most interesting nuance of the discussion on aliens is the alien abductee phenomenon, a subject I’ve been interested in nearly my entire life.  It’s one of my absolute favorite things in the world to argue, spill beer over and just generally sit and think about.  What the hell’s going on here anyway?  How can so many people who don’t know each, from around the world share such markedly similar (remember that key phrase) yet bizarre experiences as being abducted by aliens in the middle of the night?  It’s always the classic question of the phenomenon and this internal thought is given voice in this film by the late, great Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Mack who put his impeccable reputation on the line many years ago by giving a shit about these earnest people.


The overall impression of this film isn’t one of unforgettable scenes, imagery or big moments. It leaves an overwhelmingly haunting impression of normal, everyday people who have suffered some unfortunate, confusing and ultimately humiliating experiences.  And no, I don’t believe these people were truly abducted by extraterrestrials but I do believe that they are telling the truth.  I wish we knew what triggered these experiences and I believe they are sleep related, akin to sleep paralysis and hypnagogic / hypnopompic hallucinations or other related parasomnias … but something different.  The film touches on this as Dr. Mack accurately declares that this is not sleep paralysis.  Of course there are clues, like when the film briefly touches the shores of Brazil and an interviewee basically describes a classic sleep paralysis episode minus the crushing weight on the chest and tells a bizarre story of alien surgery.  But I don’t know what the trigger truly is and neither did Dr. Mack, and that’s what’s endlessly fascinating about it all and the very reason the mystery endures and the beer-fuelled debate rages on. 

Also, I think it’s incredibly important to repeat myself here, I don’t think the people in this film are lying.  Jack and Jim Weiner and friends of the famous Allagash abduction:  I think they are lying.  As any rookie beat cop will tell you when multiple witnesses tell you the exact same story about a shared experience, you know they are lying.  Remember this lesson crooks, never get your stories too straight.  Whitley Strieber, I think had some genuine experiences but is lying about the majority of his claims.  He’s a sensationalist, and a damn good one.  Read his book Communion, it’s a vastly entertaining work of fiction (also watch the movie with Christopher Walken, it’s a classic!).  Karin and Peter, the subjects of this film are not sensationalists.  They are highly charismatic people in their own right but they don’t offer solutions, they are confused and they are genuinely interested in finding a down to earth explanation for what has plagued them.


Importantly, LAUREL CHITEN, the filmmaker was highly skeptical of the subject of alien contactees when Dr. Mack approached her to make this film.  In fact, she didn’t want to do it.  It wasn’t until after she had met with her subjects that she agreed to make Touched.  Once more, and this can’t be overemphasized, she keeps the narrative voice down to an absolute minimum and plays the role of neutral observer while these fascinating people tell their stories.  One of the key moments of this storytelling is when both Karin and Peter say essentially the same thing:

“This is who I am.  I have this practice, I’m married, you know I live in this such and such a town … but then, the other identity is that … I’ve been with these beings almost since childhood or at least as early as I can remember, and there’s a part of me that feels like at some point I’m going to be reunited with them or go home …” - Peter

Unfortunately, Peter starts to lose me after that point, as he begins fabricating events.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe he was tired of the perceived skepticism towards his story but he goes on to tell this tale of bringing three (unidentified) women to some cabin where they spend the night.  The next morning the three women go off for a walk while he stays behind and takes a nap.  He self-consciously throws in a reference to missing time as he must have done his research on the subject of alien abductions and its overarching narratives (also see the excellent book Missing Time by Budd Hopkins), waking just in time for these women to come running through the door asking whether or not he saw “the UFO”.  First off, watch the movie and study Peter’s body language and compare it to other scenes of him talking.  Watch his eyes and specifically his eyebrows.  See how they raise in an attempt to gain your sympathy.  He’s trying to convince you that he’s telling the truth.   But somebody who’s telling the truth doesn’t need to convince you that their story is true, it doesn’t matter whether you believe them or not because the teller is merely reporting his subjective experience.  Secondly, these mysterious women go unnamed and unseen.  Who were they?  What were their names?  How could one contact them for confirmation?  Chiten keeps her distance but it would have been nice to have had these questions at least raised.  But, most importantly, had this story really happened and had these women really existed, but he had lost the contact information for these corroborative witnesses, it’s simply too bad because the story can’t be used at that point.  The story should then go untold as the material witness (even one of the three) is nowhere to be found.  This is a logical and evidential dead end, but Peter’s narrative was probably brought on more by frustration than any kind of malice.


Brief encounters with a couple other subjects toward the end of the film are interesting as well, specifically the case of Luppa who speaks about beams of light entering his head and an alien presence that wants to take his life and use his body to come into our world.  “I really don’t care”, he says casually, “because he’s much more powerful than I am”.

Karin’s story is the most heartbreaking of all with a narrative thread of traveling across the globe chasing down a lost (imagined) love while being greeted by her own human-alien hybrid children, only to have them taken away from her.  One can’t help but think that her story really is one of mental and emotional illness.  It is obvious to the viewer that she is traveling halfway around the country, then halfway around the world to track down the family that she had never started, but perhaps wished she had, maybe not consciously, but at least sub-consciously.  Of course, it is only obvious due to what we have seen of her in the film and the piling up of facts based on her own testimony.  This is when the authorial voice of the editor and filmmaker do make their mark nine times out of ten, but one can’t judge the editorial work because the audience never knows what’s lying on the cutting room floor.  Still, full marks to Chiten for allowing Karin to tell her own story without dumbed down narrative interjection.  Karin’s story just makes you think, it’s incredible what people put themselves through for no good reason.

Anyway, it’s a good film, a successful documentary not for what it’s trying to say, but for the very fact that it’s not trying to say anything, it’s allowing it’s own subjects to speak for it and for themselves, which is all anybody could really ask for, which is a fair hearing.  The film’s an award winner so it’s got snob-appeal.  I thought I’d seen every alien abductee video to be seen but this one escaped my notice entirely for ten years.  If being late to the party is fashionable then I cut quite the dapper figure for this one.  Of course, it’s never too late to add a little extra kindling to a long smouldering fire and Touched, and its distant voice, is oxygen rich fuel for the debate indeed.


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