“Here come the Men in Black
The galaxy defenders;
Here come the Men in Black
They won’t let you remember.”
—Soundtrack for “Men In Black” (1997)
Here they come again, for a third round. “Men in Black 3” has been in theaters since the last week of May. It’s gotten reviews that are not altogether terrible, with praise for its “touching” ending. I’m gratified to see on the current film’s poster that the two Men in Black of the earlier episodes have morphed into the canonical (archetypal?) triad, immortalized in 1956 by Gray Barker’s book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. (Will Smith, flanked by Tommy Lee Jones and the Jones character’s younger self, played by Josh Brolin.)
All these movies are Barker’s children, alive and well nearly three decades after their progenitor’s tragic, conceivably preventable death. Or are they?
You don’t have to tell me: the dark-clad gentlemen have undergone a few transformations since Barker revealed their existence to the world. Back in 1956 they weren’t “galaxy defenders.” The clear implication of They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers was that the “three men in black” are sinister—perhaps extraterrestrial emissaries, perhaps government agents in one of government’s less benign manifestations. (“They were not too friendly,” Albert K. Bender recalled his encounter with them, in Bridgeport in the fall of 1953, which set the stage for all the others.)
In 1962, Barker’s “Saucerian Books” imprint published a tell-all book by Bender himself, Flying Saucers and the Three Men, identifying the three men as aliens from a planet named Kazik. Their luminous eyes glowing, they unfold for Bender what’s surely one of the few atheistic UFO philosophies ever imparted. God, they tell Bender, is “a creation of your people on Earth … growing like small children, [they] wanted to have an anthropomorphized idea to cling to.” Jesus Christ? “A great believer in the God, with miraculous attributes of great exaggeration. He could not save Himself from death, and even His own race did not believe in Him, yet they worshiped the same God.”
Barker contributes an epilogue to Bender’s narrative. He warns that however one evaluates the story, “there are real dangers involved in having truck with the three men.” In a wry, typically Barkeresque twist, he proposes identifying the trio as those habitual menaces to all UFO researchers, “Boredom, Frustration, and Disgust.”
That was 1962. Thirty-five years later, when the first “Men In Black” movie came out (with the UFO-obsessed Steven Spielberg as its executive producer), it still bore the traces of its theme’s birth within the UFO world. About midway through there’s a spoof on UFOs “really” being swamp gas, weather balloons, the planet Venus refracted through the atmosphere. The solemn-faced Jones tells his new partner Smith that, yes, the New York Times does sometimes get it right. But for real investigative journalism he must go to the National-Enquirer-style tabloids, with their stories of UFO aliens.
“We ain’t got time for this cover-up bullshit!” Smith (“Agent J”) cries out, recalling that cover-up was the essential business of Barker’s three Men In Black. Jones (“Agent K”) sternly retorts: “The only way these people get on with their happy lives is they do not know about it”—“it” being the penetration of human society by thousands of covert extraterrestrials. This merciful ignorance is what Hollywood’s ultra-secret Men in Black are here to maintain.
“Cause we see things that you need not see
And we be places that you need not be”
—to quote the soundtrack once more.
Not that extraterrestrials are necessarily a bad lot. Quite the contrary. Most of them, Agent K explains, are law-abiding creatures who’ve come to Earth to earn an honest living. But a few rogues among them menace the planet, must be kept under surveillance. Hence the MIB: “a secret organization that monitors alien activity on earth.”
But aliens can be human as well as extraterrestrial. It’s a fair guess that the space beings of “Men In Black” are stand-ins for real aliens within American society, to whom we respond with real uneasiness. Communications professor Barna Donovan is surely right (in his fascinating book Conspiracy Films: A Tour of Dark Places in the American Conscious): the subtext of the film is “multiculturalism, integration, and the problematic issues around immigration.” Confirmation: in the movie’s opening scene a truckload of illegal Mexican immigrants is stopped by immigration authorities. The officers are in the midst of browbeating the hapless passengers when Agent K intervenes. He speaks kindly to the newcomers, in Spanish; he welcomes them to the United States. The immigration police are thanked and told to get lost. These Mexicans are “good” aliens, aliens who offer no threat. There were of course aliens of other kinds, as we discovered one fine September morning four years after “Men In Black” made its 1997 appearance.
Am I reading too much into a mass-entertainment movie? Hunting for subtext in Hollywood trash? I don’t think so—at least as far as the original “MIB” film is concerned. Over and over, the theme of effacement of memory crops up in the movie, in such a way as to suggest it’s seriously on the filmmakers’ minds. Agent K, and after he gets the hang of it Agent J also, point a blinking tube called the “neuralizer” at innocent bystanders who’ve seen terrifying, uncanny sights that no one ought ever to see. Presto! their memories vanish, and they “remember” of the event only what our Men in Black tell them they should.
Vivid memories turn to fantasies.”
So the soundtrack, whose chorus pounds away at the refrain, “They won’t let you remember.” And—lest we forget—the 1990s were the heyday of the “UFO abduction” mythology, whose key themes were the loss of memory of the traumatic UFO event, and its recovery through hypnosis.
“The title held by me — M.I.B.
Means what you think you saw, you did not see …
But yo we ain’t on no government list,
We straight don’t exist, no names and no fingerprints.”
“The catch is”—so Agent K gravely warns Agent J as he recruits him for the MIB—“you will sever all human contact. No one will know you exist. Anywhere.” The MIB are a mighty brotherhood, but a profoundly lonely one. By definition, they will never be recognized for their work in saving and sustaining the planet. And they never, never get the girl. In all three of the MIB films, beautiful and tender ladies pass through their orbit. There’s attraction—reciprocal, requited. And hopeless. Ordinary earth-women are beyond their sphere; and in “MIB 3,” where the MIB are expanded to include Women in Black, fraternization within the organization is forbidden. Celibate as monks, unseen and unsuspected, they shelter us daily from horrors beyond our imagining.
Most of these remarks are based on the original “Men in Black,” which had a real impact on me when I saw it—an impact I attribute to the richness of its subtext. “Men in Black 2” (2002), by contrast, was a disappointment. I thought it a noisy bore, a spun-out shtick with little or nothing beneath it. (Though I must admit, there’s a haunting line about half-way through: “We are who we are. Even if we sometimes forget.”)
This year’s “Men in Black 3”? It’s an improvement. The introduction of the always fruitful time-travel theme—back to 1969, where Agent J encounters a younger Agent K—makes possible some poignant backstory to the first two episodes; I walked out of the theater feeling I’d seen a pretty decent film. But the roots in the UFO world, which gave the original film its power, are so attenuated in the sequels as to be barely detectable.
“If Gray Barker were alive today,” his one-time colleague John Sherwood wrote about Hollywood’s Men in Black, “he’d think he’d died and gone to heaven.” Maybe. I can see the Old Master in his mythmakers’ Valhalla, nodding and laughing and slapping his knee at the turn-of-the-millenium MIB action. But I can imagine also a different scenario. Barker’s ghost, in the darkened theater in the Elysian Fields, shakes its head sadly, No, no … while the spectral mouth silently frames T.S. Eliot’s words:
“That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”