Monday, January 15, 2018

La Casa de Papel

La Casa de Papel is a Spanish heist movie, broadcast on Netflix in 13 episodes, each about 45 minutes long.  I've seen five episodes at this point and have committed to the show -- if I look forward to streaming the show after work at night, I think I am warranted in recommending the program. 

Most TV shows of this sort contain lots of dead time -- the plot doesn't sustain the running time required for a 10 or 13 episode program.  This seems pretty clearly the case with La Casa de Papel, but oddly enough this series makes a virtue of its length by developing a number of extremely interesting and, even, moving subplots.  The characters are so interesting and their development so belated in terms of the narrative that we find the show compelling even though, at least some of it, feels like a long and complex delaying action.  La Casa de Papel works this trick in an obvious way but one that I haven't seen implemented too often in series TV shows.  The show charges into the narrative without any real plot or character development.  Almost all "heist" shows begin with establishing the team of criminals who will work together, or against one another, to engineer the theft -- this is the paradigm that we see in movies as disparate as The Asphalt Jungle and Riffi.  The script presents us with the characters, identifies their idiosyncrasies, and, then, lays out in detail the plan for the crime that will be committed -- again, Kubrick's The Killing is a good example of this style of film-making.  La Casa de Papel inverts this order of narrative -- with only a very bare sketch of the show's premises, the program advances into the complex heist.  By the middle of the first episode, the protagonists are engaged in their daring scheme to rob (or do something to) Spain's National Mint.  We aren't told the objective of the heist.  Similarly, we aren't afforded any clear understanding of the criminals involved in the plot.  The show moves forward in a kind of backhanded homage to Reservoir Dogs -- the eight criminals, acting under the direction of a genius mastermind, the Professor, are forbidden use of their real names.  Instead, they are told that they must select the names of cities and will be known by those appellations -- hence, we have characters called Moscow, Berlin, Boston, Denver, and Helsinki.  There's no plot development before the heist is inaugurated -- rather, the show makes the clever decision of using flashbacks to develop character as the narrative proceeds.  Similarly, there are 67 employees at the National Mint who are taken prisoner and, then, held hostage as the criminal scheme is developed -- we aren't shown much, if anything, about these characters as well; rather, the hostages are also developed as characters in the course of the siege of the National Mint which seems to last for the entire 13 episodes.  But, as the program proceeds, the plot takes all sorts of very interesting twists and turns and we become intensely enmeshed in the relationships between the criminals, the hostages, and the law enforcement detectives and negotiators involved in the siege.  The show seems to be very well written and is a combination of extremely ferocious and disturbing confrontations and a sort of queasy comedy.  There's nothing here, so far, that you haven't seen in other films -- in fact, one of the film's plot points, dressing both hostages and criminals in identical red jumpers (and masking their faces with bizarre  and identical Salvador Dali masks) comes directly out of an earlier movie, Spike Lee's The Inside Man (2006).  But La Casa del Papel ("The house of Paper" -- referring to the printing presses in the Mint) simply executes these motifs better and with sharper writing and more interesting characters.  By the fifth episode, all sorts of fascinating things have occurred:  the chief hostage negotiator, a weary female cop, is contending with her own history of domestic abuse and involved in a nasty divorce; her mother seems to have Alzheimer's although she is still vigorous and attractive, a kind of force of nature.  The Professor is boyishly attractive and tempted into a relationship with the hostage negotiator (a subplot that is a bit like Gillian Anderson's relationship with the serial killer in The Fall).  Told to execute one of the hostages, a young man hides the girl and seems to be falling in love with her.  She, in turn, is involved in a doomed relationship with the married Arturo, the director of the mint.  Arturo gets shot by accident and the father of the boy who has fallen in love with the blonde hostage -- Arturo's girlfriend, Monica -- tries to protect his son from the increasingly violent stand-off.  Spanish police are boring into the Mint through ventilation tunnels while the hostages are forced to drill a hole in the floor of the factory.  Berlin, one of the leaders of the criminals, seems to be degenerating into brutality -- the criminals were originally told that no one would be hurt during the heist, but Berlin seems to be some kind of sadist. Many of these elements in the show are presented in very sharp, effectively written, and, even, didactic dialogue -- there are debates about abortion, for instance, and use of violence, even terrorist violence, to make political points.  All the while, the criminals, who have become the de facto heroes of the show, are printing vast amounts of unmarked money in 50 Euro denominations.  Perhaps, the show will flag in the next few hours -- but, at this point, everything is moving along very effectively and the show is sufficiently exciting that I look forward to streaming an episode or two every night.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Duck and Cover

It seemed strangely auspicious to me to watch on Turner Classic Movies, the old civil defense film Duck and Cover on the same day that people in Hawaii, apparently thought that they were about to be incinerated by Kim "Little Rocket Man" Jim Un's ICBM missiles.  (It turned out to be a false alarm.)  Duck and Cover is a nasty bit of Cold War kitsch that can still send chills up your spine.  Bert is an animated turtle wearing a sort of World War II helmet -- when he is threatened with aerial bombardment, he retreats into his shell, thus, giving an example of how a victim of a nuclear bomb attack should shield himself from injury.  The film features interracial class rooms in which the kids duck and cover under their desks to avoid the blast of a nuclear missile detonating nearby.  We see various iterations of the primal scene -- an air-raid siren sounds and the kids "duck and cover".  In one sequence, in a playground, the children abandon their bats, balls, and jumping rope to run inside the building and "duck and cover" -- the camera takes still-lives of the bat, ball, and jumping rope eerily abandoned in desolate empty frames worthy of a film by Ozu.   In one scene, a family's supper is interrupted by the wail of sirens -- everyone ducks and covers under the table, leaving us with a good view of a 50's style meal complete with a bottle of Guelden's mustard on the table.  We see kids alone in corridors and walking along sidewalks surprised by the scream of the sirens and "ducking and covering."  "The attack may come," the narrator says reassuringly, "when there are no grown-ups around."  The kids crumple against walls or cower in door openings.  The eerie thing about the maneuver is that we don't really see the kids getting up after the exercise -- instead, we see people going about their daily activities, then, the shriek of an air-raid siren, and the actors crouching, putting knees to head in a fetal gesture, and, then, locking their hands over their necks.  But I don't really recall anyone coming up out of that position -- in other words, in a flash everyone is "changed", terribly changed, but the kids who have gone into the "duck and cover" position don't ever get up; they seem to have become motionless corpses.  This may not be literally true but it's the impression that the film gives -- once, you go into the "duck and cover" posture, there is simply no return from the dead.  The phrase "duck and cover" comes with a little radio-TV ditty, a little rhyming jingle or theme song intoned by Bert the Turtle who seems to have wandering into this very American film from a PSA made in England.  I can't see a picture like this objectively because it is part of my childhood.  I recall doing "duck and cover" exercises when I was in kindergarten and through the fourth or fifth grade of elementary school.  So what's on screen is entangled in lots of contractures, scar tissue and ligatures linking the images to other memories in my life. 

Inferno

Inferno is a 1953 thriller starring Robert Ryan and directed Roy Ward Baker.  The film is an excellent example of a low-budget B movie crime picture that succeeds on all levels.  Hollywood once produced these kinds of films in great numbers -- TV hasn't quite figured-out the trick.  

Inferno starts with a kick.  We see a desolate landscape and a sign warning that people should not travel in this country without adequate water and gas -- notably, the sign has been shot to pieces.  The camera pans and we see an elaborately dressed movie star, a big armful of early 50's pulchritude (the villainess Geraldine played by Rhonda Fleming).  The woman looks horrified, angry, and menacing all at one time and this nasty, ambiguous expression is the subject of the film and its central enigma, a riddle the movie tries to solve during its modest 85 minute running time.  Geraldine is involved in a love affair with a stiff, Joseph Duncan -- he's a good-natured, murderous clod who thinks he's smart enough to manage the murder of his boss and girlfriend's husband, Carson.  Carson has been left to die with a broken leg on a sun-blasted cliff-top sixty miles away from where Geraldine and Duncan are planting fake evidence and intend to leave Carson's vehicle.  (We see Duncan walking backward on the sandy road to leave tracks facing in the wrong direction and seeding the site with whiskey bottles -- Carson, who is said to be an irascible brute, has been known to go on two or three day benders.)  While Geraldine and dull-witted Duncan drink champagne and enjoy elaborate meals in her home in Los Angeles, we see poor Carson tortured by his shattered leg and desperately marshaling all his power of hatred to survive in the terrible, arid heat of the desert.  Ryan, of course, is the best thing in the movie and his torments in the desert are both frightening and weirdly inspiring -- Carson admits that he's not much of a boy scout and doesn't know anything about wilderness survival but he's rational, courageous, and exceedingly patient and, of course, ultimately he escapes his solitary ordeal to wreak vengeance on his cheating wife and her lover.  (The film is similar in some respects to the excellent picture written by David Mamet and directed by Lee Tamahori, The Edge -- in that man-in-the-wilderness picture, an industrialist like Carson finds himself leading a small group of survivors through lethal Alaskan mountains; Anthony Hopkins, who plays the hero in The Edge, says that most people who are lost in the wilderness panic and "die of embarrassment" and he's not about to let that happen to him -- his mantra is "what one man has done another man can do"; this is similar to Ryan, talking to himself in the boiling sunlight, about the fact that "if someone has done this, I can do it too.")  The film traffics in obvious imagery -- we see Ryan chowing down on moist sawdust-like cactus flesh while the two lovers, dressed in evening clothes (Rhonda Fleming sports an almost surrealistically beautiful emerald-colored gown) enjoy roast duckling and steak.  But it's successful and film barrels along at a breakneck pace.  As Robert Ryan hallucinates from thirst, the villain dives into a Santa Monica swimming pool -- it's the opposite of subtle, but effective nonetheless.  At times, the film is even grimly humorous -- in his running monologue with himself, Ryan says:  "I sure wish I'd kept in better shape", as he lowers himself down a twenty foot cliff toward a rattlesnake waiting on a ledge for him below.  The director said that he wanted to make a "silent film" and he nearly accomplishes this feat -- the film is all texture, image, and editing; it's entirely visual with not much in the way of dialogue at all.  Rhonda Fleming is convincingly vicious -- at one point, in the film, she even abandons her boyfriend in the unforgiving desert.  Shot in 3D, the film features a climax in which various detritus is hurled at the camera -- this is, perhaps, the weakest part of the picture, although it's certain fierce.  The movie is also very good in showing how the desert can seem to be a nightmarish inferno to one man while offering another a generous living.  An old desert rat tells one of the characters "the desert's got everything a man needs if a man just knows how to get it."  This picture is tough and realistic, boldly acted by Ryan and Fleming and highly recommended.  (A master of Southwestern desert photography, Lucien Ballard, shot the picture in glistening Technicolor.)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Black Mirror: Metalhead and The Black Museum

Black Mirror's two final episodes are "Metalhead" and "The Black Museum".  Both are fascinating and frightening, although not completely satisfactory.

"Metalhead" is a stripped-down chase picture, a sheer jolt of adrenalin.  In a post-apocalyptic future, two men and a woman drive across a barren landscape to a warehouse.  They are looking for something, a "replacement" that is never named, although it is shown in the final image.  In the warehouse, the trio encounter a metallic watchdog.  The watchdog is fleet and fires swarms of glowing darts that embed themselves in the flesh of its victims so that the automaton can track them.  The robot is also equipped with a high-powered and lethal weapon that simulates a shotgun blast.  When the drone catches you, it blows you to pieces.  In the first ten minutes, the robot-dog kills the two men comprising the trio.  The survivor, a tough-as-nails woman warrior, finds herself relentlessly pursued by the mechanical dog.  The last 35 minutes of the episode detail the woman's increasingly gory battle with automaton.  "Metalhead" looks great -- it is shot in high-definition black and white; the images are so detailed that they have a sort of cartographic, military beauty:  we seem to see every pebble and every leaf on the trees.  From time to time, the point-of-view switches to that of the mechanical device pursuing the woman -- we see the animal scanning the rugged and barren landscape for its prey.  The show is essentially silent -- after a couple exchanges of dialogue in the car, the two men with the woman are blown apart and she is alone.  (As with the Icelandic episode, "Crocodile", the characters speak in some kind of northern Scottish dialect that is literally incomprehensible -- I couldn't understand a word that they said.  Thus, the purpose for the raid on the warehouse was completely unclear to me.  As it turns out, viewers who could understand the dialect note that it's not necessary to hear what is said -- the show is essentially a tour-de-force of violent action deployed across an unforgiving terrain and the duel is conducted in entirely visual terms.  There is absolutely no back-story as to what has happened, why people have been reduced to this state, or why human beings are relentlessly hunted and killed by the mechanical hounds.)  The show is a naked example of "what you see is what you get" film making -- it's totally pure, a graphic marvel of motion, space, and the most austere of all motives:  simple survival.  It's as if one of Jack London's most desperate narratives -- for instance, "To light a Fire" -- were made into a short film.  The film's ending is a variant on Citizen Kane's  big reveal -- the camera glides away from the site of the movie's climax, roving over the terrain over which the chase has been conducted, and coming at rest at last to the warehouse to reveal what the characters were trying to steal when the mechanical dog began its relentless pursuit.  The "reveal" is underwhelming, I think, but the overhead shots of other mechanical hounds loping after the first dog and sniffing around places where the woman rested or hid during the chase is spine-chilling.  There never was any hope at all, a fact that we don't appreciate until we see the sheer number of automatons unleashed to track the woman. 

"The Black Museum" is more ambitious and, so, I think less successful.  The story splices together two ideas:  the first is that sensations of pleasure and pain can be transferred by electrical impulse from one person to another.  This part of the story is told in flashback -- a woman driving across a hideously arid and remote-looking desert stops to recharge her electrical car.  Near the abandoned gas station where she is parked for three hours to recharge the vehicle, she finds a motel building converted into something called "The  Black Museum", ostensibly a museum of crime.  The creepy and, clearly, half-crazed proprietor of the museum meets her and, while giving a zany tour of the exhibits, tells her the story that comprises the first part of the show.  The story, involving transfer of pleasure and pain through a receptor in the temple and a transmitter that is glowing electronic helmet, is gruesome and disturbing.  A feckless doctor discovers that he can diagnose ailments better if he actually suffers what the patient is feeling.  And so, he puts the transmitter helmet on the patient, feels their symptoms, and, then, successfully makes his diagnosis.  One time, however, the patient dies and he experiences the exuberant release of endorphins that accompanies physical death.  He becomes an addict for this sort of experience and, ends up mutilating himself horribly -- he is now a pain addict.  He ends up stalking victims, putting the transmitter helmet on them, and, then, torturing them to death so that he can experience all the pleasure of being both a vicious sadist and a hopeless masochist. 

The second story in "The Black Museum" is also narrated in flashback.  This involves a device that allows the consciousness of one person to be transplanted into the mind of another.  A young husband's wife is injured in an accident and becomes comatose. The husband consents to transplanting her consciousness into his mind.  This is initially a blessing for both of them, but, predictably, enough turns into a nightmare.  The wife is censorious, angry, bitter and she relentlessly nags at the husband from within.  First, the husband is given a way to put her on "pause" and simply "shuts her off" for months at a time.  Ultimately, he develops a relationship with a woman who is, justifiably, jealous of his former wife living in her lover's brain.  The new wife orders her husband to transplant the consciousness of the former wife into a teddy bear toy that is capable of only two responses:  "Give me a hug" for sadness and "I love you" for happiness.  The disembodied woman's child plays excitedly with the bear for a while but, then, simply discards the toy -- and his mother who is trapped inside the stuffed animal.  This tale morphs into a third story about a convict who is executed in the electric chair -- in this story, the bad guy, a mad med-tech expert (who runs the Black Museum), records the consciousness of the convict at the moment he is dying in agony in the electric chair.  He, then, creates hologram of the convict that people can continuously re-execute in his museum by flipping a switch.  The convict's spirit, accordingly, is trapped in a repetitive, endless hell of being continuously electrocuted -- this is the same general idea behind the first episode called "U.S.S. Callister" as well as other earlier programs in preceding seasons of Black Mirror.  The girl touring the museum turns out to be an avenger and she wreaks a horrible vengeance on the smarmy med-tech guy managing the Black Museum.  The show is rife with inconsistencies and logical problems and doesn't really work at all.  It's scary enough and there is a foreboding sense of queasy doom about the show, but it's disappointing in the end.  (At the denouement, for instance, we see that the girl who has avenged the bad guy's crimes against humanity driving home -- she has her mother's consciousness embodied in her brain.  That's how she had sufficient evidence and moxie to implement her revenge scheme against the villain -- her mother aided her.  The ending is supposed to be happy but we know that having someone else's mind inside your head turns out to be a nightmarish plight -- thus the "happy end" of the show is happy only if we forget what we were shown a half-hour earlier.)  There is an interesting question of the origin of "Black Museum"; the show's credits name Penn Jillette, the magician, as the source for, at least, part of the hybrid show -- Jillette wrote something called "The Pain Addict" that would describe the first of the three parts in the "Black Museum".  However, in Great Britain, the BBC TV presenter Karl Pilkington, is said to have originated the idea for the part of the show involving two separate consciousnesses embodied in one brain.  Describing that phenomenon, the husband in the second flashback says:  "I can't even masturbate.  It's like having a cop in my brain who is also my mother."  In fact, years ago a Harvard neurologist posited something called the "bicameral brain" to explain that the gods in the Greek myths were merely other parts of heros' brains communicated to them directives toward action:  The name of the book was The Origin of Consciousness in the Bicameral Brain by Julian Jaynes.)

Europa 51

Extremely earnest and strangely abstract, Roberto Rosellini's Europa 51 is defeated I think by its own seriousness and Ingrid Bergman's obvious discomfort with the part that she is required to play.  The film is important, I think, and very interesting but unsuccessful.  (The picture is also hard to evaluate because it is dubbed into English so very poorly -- the different accents make no sense at all.  For instance, Bergman's character is the daughter of a refined American woman with spectacularly undulating hair -- but Bergman seems to be speaking her part in heavily accented English while her mother talks with a British accent.) 

Rossellini's story, which the director wrote, is a parable that has the flavor of late Tolstoy.  A society woman living in Rome is grief-stricken when her 12-year old son attempts suicide and, then, dies, later, in the hospital.  The woman, Irene (Bergman), takes to her bed for several months and, then, associates with a Communist who preaches to her the need for revolution.  Irene works with the poor, buying medicine for slum children, and tends to a dying prostitute.  When her Communist friend, probably previously a lover, suggests the need for violent revolution, she abandons political solutions to human suffering.  Alarmed at her asceticism and generosity to the poor, Irene's husband, George, has her committed to an insane asylum.  There she devotes herself to helping the mentally ill.  At a hearing, representatives of the church, society, and the doctor in charge of the mental hospital, all urge that Irene be permanently committed -- she is regarded as irredeemably insane and some sort of danger to herself and others, although, of course, there is nothing wrong with her at all.  The Court orders her permanently committed.  Irene is locked away and, in the final scene, looks down smiling at a crowd of poor people who have come to visit her -- she smiles slightly and the final shot shows a group of children gazing up at her intently. 

Rossellini's approach to this material is austere and lucid.  I don't recall any camera movement and there is no expressionistic play of light and shadow -- with a couple exceptions (night scene filmed in Roman piazzas), the movie takes place in clear, clinical light.  There are some notable images of desolation but they are documentary in character -- some scenes take place on the edges of the city in the wastelands around gruesome-looking high-rises where the poor live; there is a river and industrial desolation and, at one point, a group of children play around a dead body fished out of the water.  An episode in which Irene works in a factory has something of the quality of Metropolis, there are vast atriums with sinister-looking figures engaged in surveillance of the workers and enormous spinning rotors.  (When Irene is asked about the factory, she is speechless; she simply bursts into tears recalling its dehumanizing nature.)  Rossellini has a habit of filming characters, particularly Irene, against bare white walls, creating an effect of sanctity -- the faces appear against a white void.

A film of enormous emotional integrity, Rossellini doesn't cheat -- his characters are mostly unpleasant and his heroine, also, seems deeply flawed.  Although Irene acts like a saint, I assume, that most saints were, in fact, deeply problematic people and there is no effort made to glamorize the heroine's conversion -- she is demanding and nasty as a society woman and negligent, self-centered, and irritating as a saint.  Her son, who's suicide attempt precipitates the crisis, is a spoiled brat -- like little Marcel Proust, he lies in bed during his parent's dinner party, repeatedly demanding that his mother come from the gathering to comfort him.  When his mother suggests that he needs to grow-up and "be a man", he impulsively flings himself down a stairwell to punish her.  There are hints, some of them none too subtle, that the relationship between mother and son is potentially incestuous.  The poor people that Irene helps are similarly demanding, loud, and aggressive in exploiting her.  Irene's  husband is selfish and suspects his wife of an affair with the brash and aggressive Communist -- in fact, there is a suggestion that Irene and the Communist have been lovers at some point before the story begins.  However, the husband misses the point -- Irene's affair with the Communist precedes her emotional crisis and she turns out to be as much a pain-in-the-ass and burden to the Communist as she is to her husband when she rejects his arguments that a social utopia, a paradise on earth, can arise from violent revolution.  The dying prostitute for whom Irene cares is similarly realistically conceived -- the rest of the poor people in the tenement despise her and she's a tough cookie:  some of her last words are to denounce her neighbors as being a pack of thieves.  (There's a good moment when a smarmy young pharmacist, who seems to have enjoyed the prostitute's favors, delivers some medication to her squalid apartment.  Irene tries to pay him, but he says:  "Around here, we do things on credit.")    Bergman herself is shot to look gaunt and exudes a sort of thin-lipped, taut reproach -- she is filmed to appear like a harridan.  Rossellini's larger point is that the spiritual crisis that Irene embodies is endemic to post-war Europe, hence the film's title.  Irene and her son have been traumatized by aerial bombardments -- indeed, the boy's clinging to his mother is a result of sleeping together in bomb shelters.  Europe is post-Christian and teetering between Communism and aggressive US-style capitalism; at a dinner party, Irene seats the "Marshall Plan," an American, across from the Communist. 

In 1950, Rossellini explored the themes in Europa 51 in a more felicitous film, Francis, Jester of God, a bio-pic about St. Frances of Assisi -- that movie, I think, addresses the post-war crisis of faith in Europe more obliquely and, therefore, more effectively.  The ambition motivating Europa 51 can not be gainsaid.  But the film is not wholly successful.  Nonetheless, it is an important picture -- a critic has noted that alone among the major European film makers, Rossellini emerged from the war with the idea that, although the conflict had been horrific, it should not be nihilistically dismissed as utterly futile:   until the end of his life, Rossellini hoped that a better world would come about as a result of the War and died in that faith. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Black Mirror: Crocodile and Hang the DJ

The real star of Crocodile is the landscape in which it is set -- apparently, Iceland at its most ferocious.  Similarly, the aspect of Hang the DJ that is most notable is the setting, a sort of High-Tech Isle of Cythera with posh, hushed restaurants, self-driving vehicles gliding soundlessly along sylvan lanes, carefully groomed water-features with follies set into manicured hillsides, and, of course, a vast wall as high as the sky sealing this pastoral realm of love and erotic delight from the rest of the cosmos.  Both episodes of the dystopian Sci-Fi anthology Black Mirror are intriguing, but not as exciting or horrifying as some of the best shows in the series.  And, in fact, neither show is intrinsically science fiction -- technology hovers around the edges of both shows but the dilemmas actually presented could be dramatized without recourse to science fiction at all.

In Crocodile, a glacially icy female architect finds herself threatened as a result of a crime in which she was complicit fifteen years earlier -- a hit and run accident on a lonely road in Arctic mountains.  The protagonist kills the man driving the car when the hit-and-run accident happened when he resurfaces and wishes to confess and, then, finds herself trapped in a situation in which she has to slaughter other people to keep them from learning her secret.  All of this takes place in a surreal landscape of formidable barren mountains and icy fjords -- the architect has an ultra-modernist house that sits perched on a hillside among absolutely barren peaks and glaciers.  The story feels ancient and, in fact, when the wraithlike, pale murderess is stalking her victims, carrying a claw  hammer with which to beat them to death, the show achieves a kind of stark, uncanny horror.  The only science fiction element in the plot is an electronic device that can be used to extract and screen memories on a computer.  The use of the device is subject to various legal restrictions since, after all, retrieving memories is the ultimate search and seizure and these rules seem pretty elastic -- they bend according to the plot requirements.  The show is na├»ve about how memories are constructed -- it shows them as simple fragments of film, but I think science has shown us (as well as personal experience) that memory has nothing like that character, that it is really a collage that is manufactured by the brain.  (If we could screen other people's memories, I think they would be largely unintelligible.)  The notion that memory is basically a camera poised to record the work drives the climax and denouement which is silly (it involves recovering the memories of rodent).  The episode takes a Psycho-type turn when the unassuming protagonist, an ethnic Indian young woman who is a claims adjuster, is beaten to death with a piece of firewood -- she is the character who runs the device used for screening memories and, accidentally, uncovers evidence of the architect's crime while investigating a personal injury claim.   (The nature of the personal injury claim and how it will be adjusted has not been thoroughly imagined -- we don't know for whom the claims adjuster is working or why she has to gather all the detailed facts that lead her to discover the crime committed by the architect.)  On reflection, the show is pretty stupid and its denouement irremediably silly but... the show is gripping while you're watching.  (Incidentally, the program features various iterations of a song performed in the first season in one of the most memorable and horrific episodes -- this song seems to haunt later programs and surfaces from time to time, half-heard, but very evocative.)  You may want to watch this show with subtitles engaged -- the characters speak in a dense Scottish brogue that I had trouble understanding.  The only words that I could decipher were obscene.

Perhaps, you wonder how computerized dating services work.  You identify your personal characteristics and, then, a match is provided -- some services, apparently, even specify the percentage of characteristics matched.  (In Hang the DJ, the young lovers enjoy something like a 99.8 % match).  So how is this feat accomplished?  The show suggests that these computer match programs create a simulation of the lovers, put them in a dating pool in an idealized garden-like environment.  Each lover agrees to tap a button on their control console simultaneously with his or her partner -- the console will display the length of the relationship, that is, it's expiry date.  This date may be as short as a couple of hours to many years.  The concept is to cycle the lovers through various couplings and uncouplings until a nearly perfect match is achieved.  Hang the DJ relies on various staples of Black Mirror narrative -- the lovers emerge from darkness and, ultimately, discover that the idealized environment of gardens and luxury restaurants and cottages for sex is unreal and that they themselves are simulations, phantasms created by a computer program.  The other aspect of the program that is characteristic of Black Mirror is distortion in time, that is, a disconnect between experienced time and computer time -- the lovers in the computer program cycle through a number of partners in what seems to be 14 or 15 months.  However, at the end of the program, when the episode finally reveals the real flesh-and-blood counterparts to the idealized characters in the computer program it seems as if the match has been made in a matter of seconds.  There are holes in the whimsical plot big enough to drive a truck through but the show is engaging and the eerie, vaguely unreal environment in which the lovers meet and interact has a strangely allegorical power.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Black Mirror: Arkangel

Arkangel, the second show in the fourth season of Black Mirror is plenty disturbing until it goes off-track.  Most TV shows are ruined by the absence of any thought at all.  When Black Mirror fails it is due to an excess of thought, too many good ideas clogging the esthetic pipeline.  The opening 15 minutes of the episode is the most frightening because clinging most closely to ordinary experience.  A single mother, living with her elderly father in the house, I assume, in which she grew up, becomes intensely protective of  her daughter.  The neighborhood in which the family lives looks tough -- it's a crumbling blue-collar enclave in what appears to be a crumbling industrial city, possibly a place like Allenstown, Pa.  The mother delivered her daughter by C-section and the child may have been distressed and, even, in danger of dying immediately after the procedure -- this is all effectively shown through the mother's eyes and we never really know what  happened.  (It's the phenomenon that most of us may have experienced in intensive care when a patient endures a crisis and is swarmed by doctors and nurses who quickly and efficiently screen the medical emergency from witnesses.)  Her daughter wanders off while playing in a tiny playground adjacent to a frightening railroad track and there's a menacing black German shepherd behind a cyclone fence a few houses away.  In order to protect her daughter, the mother participates in a test of surveillance technology made by a company named Arkangel -- her daughter has a chip injected into her brain which not only locates the girl on a map but, also, has two other dangerously invasive features:  the mother can access a mode that actually lets her see through her daughter's eyes and, further, when there is a excess of cortisol, (a hormonal sign of "fight or flight syndrome") detected in the young girl's system, the mother can press a button that "filters" out the scary stimulus -- a threatening dog becomes a mere blur of motion and the sound of the beast's barking becomes a faint whisper.  With her laptop, the mother can effectively hear and see what her daughter hears and sees and, further, modify her responses to frightening or dangerous stimuli.  There's too much here for an hour program and the show, after a frightening half hour, slides gently off the tracks.  When the girl becomes a teenager and starts dating -- of course, a boy of which the mother disapproves -- the mother begins intense and voyeuristic surveillance.  This ultimately leads to awful misunderstandings and calamity.  (One path not taken is the mother's possible voyeuristic involvement in her daughter's sex life -- this thematic element, too disturbing I think even for Black Mirror is carefully eschewed:  the mother is given a handsome boyfriend as well so that she is not tempted to live vicariously through her daughter.)  Various aspects of the show are not integrated:  the idea that the mother can limit her daughter's fear reaction to dangerous stimuli is not explored in a convincing way.  First, the concept is flawed:  it would seem that filtering natural reactions to fearsome events would make a person more, and not less, vulnerable to danger.  Second, it is suggested that the mother's hypervigilance has, somehow, induced a counter-reaction -- that is, the daughter is more interested in horrible and gory things than she would be if these had not been filtered.  At the climax of the film, the daughter violently assaults her mother but can't really see what is going on because of the filter -- but we haven't seen anyone turn the filter on.  And why wouldn't the mother quash her daughter's nascent sex life by simply "filtering it" to make sensations less intense.  There's a whole serpent's nest of nasty ways this show could develop but which are not explored -- of course, this is due to the brevity of the episode.  Most of what is on screen is brilliant but doesn't fit together -- a good example is the virgin daughter's first experience of sex which she enlivens with an enthusiastic filthy commentary.  This seems implausible and disconcerts the poor boy.  But he understands what is going on -- the daughter is a consumer of porn on the internet and her obscene "play-by-play" is merely her attempt to imitate what she has seen on her phone or laptop.  (The boyfriend tells her that she doesn't have to vocalize in that manner and she seems relieved.)  Ultimately, the film proposes this moral:  those who are hyper-vigilant about their children's safety, merely end up encouraging more risky and dangerous behavior.  Whether this is true is left to the viewer.  Jodie Foster directed this episode skillfully -- the film has a pseudo-documentary, neo-realist feel about it.