Monday, October 31, 2016

Westworld

HBO's series Westworld is certainly marvelous in many ways.  The show's title sequence alone sets a high standard for spooky ambience and a kind of macabre grandiosity that characterizes the show -- we see some kind of pale fibers being extruded to coat robot bones and, even, formulate hazy eyes that reflect the pillars and spires of monument valley; skeletal hands play a strangely melancholy melody; a player piano program slides across the screen in time with the music; an alabaster cowgirl on a cadaverous horse seems to gallop across the screen; a beautiful face is half-skull.  And, further, it may be that Westworld is dramatically successful in some way that I don't understand -- perhaps, there is a way of watching these gargantuan TV extravaganzas, becoming embedded in their fantasy worlds, and, therefore, intensely involved in the action that I simply don't understand.  For better or worse, I'm a product of pre-cable network television:  accordingly, I reflexively expect a TV show to establish a couple of plot points before the first commercial, another plot point deepening the conflict in the show's second segment before the mid-show ads, a reversal of fortune or plot happening in the third quarter of the show and the denouement tying things together just a few minutes shy of the one-hour mark.  By contrast, Westworld establishes one enigmatic plot point per hour-long episode, refuses any clues as to its ultimate narrative direction, and seems more interested in inserting enigmas into the show's circumstances (I hesitate to call the rambling, repetitive events a "plot") than in moving the action forward in any intelligible way.  Five hours into the show, Westworld feels like it is just beginning and I still have no clear sense for what the program is supposed to be about or how its characters interrelate.  Elaborate back-stories are suggested, but we are given only hints and whispers about them.  And, most destructively, the show's exceedingly lethargic and, even, retrograde pace gives the viewer too much time to speculate as to aspects of the proceedings that don't really make any sense and that seem to not have been thoroughly thought through -- to what extent are the robots allowed to harm the guests?  Certainly, we see them inflicting all sorts of mayhem on visitors to the park although, of course, none of the tourists ever get really injured.  How are the damaged, dead, and dying robots retrieved at the end of each day?  How are they restored to operation in the park?  Exactly how big is this park?  Does it encompass the whole world?  (I think this suggestion is increasingly being made as the show progresses).  What is the spatial relationship between the subterranean operating rooms sparsely populated by Westworld staff and the grandiose exteriors shot in Monument Valley,  Canyonlands, and Moab?  The premise of the program is that vastly wealthy people come to the park to indulge in their sadistic fantasies -- these fantasies apparently involve killing lots of people, torture of various kinds, and rape.  If satisfying these fantasies is the park's raison d'etre, then, why does the park have an Old West theme -- who watches Westerns anymore?  (The Old West theme made sense in Michael Crichton's original version of this story because middle-aged men with lots of money in 1970 had been raised on cowboy movies -- and, in any event, I think Crichton's theme park also had a Roman subdivision for people who wanted to indulge in sword and sandal sadism.)  But HBO's Westworld seems accessible primarily to those with the incomes of smarmy venture capitalists, High-Tech start-up gurus, hedge fund managers etc.  -- why wouldn't these kinds of people better enjoy GestapoWorld where they could prance around as concentration camp commanders or, perhaps, PlantationWorld where visitors could enjoy floggings, lynching, and hosts of compliant slave girls; and for that matter, where is AmericanPsychoWorld?  To be fair, the show hints that WestWorld is a relatively tame threshold to increasingly violent and sadistic story-lines in more remote parts of the park.  (Sweetwater, the fantasy world's gateway, is a fairly benign Old West village; but we know that there are, at least, two other cities a day's ride from Sweetwater that are exponentially more debauched and, at the fringes of the theme-park, some kind of nihilistic war is going on where, apparently, anything goes.  Why do we need the robots?  Why couldn't the same adventures be delivered in some kind of virtual reality format without the physical carnage that requires nightly reconstructive surgery on the poor "hosts" as the robot saloon girls and gunfighters are called.  Parts of the story make no sense.  At one point, a staff member is shamed and blackmailed because he has had sex with one of the inert robot women while repairing her.  But why should this be considered shameful?  In fact, since the guests are entitled to have sex with the robots, why would a staff technician not have similar privileges -- a sort of perq of employment or, indeed, an obligation to check the functioning of the female machine's innards?  And assuming that acting out violent and sadistic fantasies still carries some level of shame and moral reprobation, aren't the guests who go "black hat" -- that is, become villians -- running the risk that their conduct in the park will result in black mail or public exposure?  The viewer has literally hours to contemplate these questions because the plot doesn't advance at all -- indeed, each episode seems more or less duplicative of preceding show.

At heart, after five hours of WestWorld here is what we know:  something is wrong with the robots.  They are beginning to recall, if only dimly, previous atrocities inflicted upon them.  This causes the robots to become anxious and may, even, induce malfunction in them.  But so far nothing has been seriously broken and malfunctioning hosts have either been repaired or exiled to storage or, in one case, incinerated.  Two female robots are the center of this disturbance:   Dolores, a female programmed to be the damsel in distress and perennial rape victim, and a mulatto saloon girl and brothel-keeper.  These two hosts sense that something is wrong with the world -- that there is a pattern to their misfortunes and that, in fact, there is another subterranean world (the repair facility) lurking beneath the appearances available tot hem.  In effect, WestWorld seems to be the Emile of robotics -- the plot, so far as one exists, involves the education of the robots.  This education has a Platonic tinge -- Dolores and the saloon-girl are gradually led to the belief that they have selves, that these selves have endured countless indignities in daily reincarnations resulting in death, wounding, rape or other kinds of abasement -- their memories of these harms are supposed to be wiped clean after each day's plot-lines conclude, but this process seems to be inexplicably failing.  (The show suggests that several of the technicians, including a morose Black scientist, are, perhaps, subverting the system and, even, using techniques similar to psycho-therapy to guide the robots to recall their past lives.)   The show's principal miscalculation, as far as I can see, is that it focuses on the inner lives of the robots -- we are kept close to Dolores and the saloon girl and each episode adds a tiny bit of incremental knowledge to what these two characters know, or suspect, about the nightmare world in which they operate. Weirdly, the show is designed for us to sympathize and identify with the robots and not their masters or the tourists who so casually and cruelly make use of them.  But, of course, the robots aren't supposed to have any kind of inner life at all -- they have no psyches and no souls and, therefore, an inert blankness exists at the center of the show.  The park management are all either vicious or stupid; Anthony Hopkins has the thankless role of making various gnomic utterances that are posited as riddles that we aren't (yet) supposed to understand -- I am guessing that he has populated the park with various versions of himself (for instance, a small boy) and his lost loved ones, but this isn't yet clear.  Ed Harris plays a guest who has gone decisively "black hat" -- he rides around the park like Jack Palance butchering robots and scalping them.  The nature of his quest is also unclear -- it has something to do with penetrating to the center of the maze that the park represents.  (It's intriguingly suggested that Harris' villain is world-class philanthropist in the world outside of the park -- this is a wonderful idea but not one that the show develops since it's focus is primarily on the robots and their existential crises.)  The elaborate and majestic scenery featured in the simulated Old West is contrasted with the stark, stylized laboratories underlying the park, a series of glass cubicles in a black void where the naked hosts are repaired or interrogated -- this contrast is effective, if crazy from a practical perspective (why would the robot repair stations be starkly lit glass cells hovering in a great dark void?) 

Although Westworld is about satisfying fantasies, the show is surprisingly penurious with respect to providing pay-off to its viewers.  In each episode, the show builds to a point at which it seems that the robots are about to revolt.  All clues suggest that the robots are on verge of violent uprising.  And, when we see them repeatedly and viciously abused by the trashy tourists, the viewer desperately wants to see them revenge themselves on the guests.  But this satisfaction is delayed, subverted, and, it seems, indefinitely postponed.  Here is a bad sign:  I fell asleep in the middle of the fourth episode and, when I woke up, the plot had not advanced one scintilla.  The robots are programmed to complete what the show calls "loops" -- these loops are circular rounds of narrative that always return to the same point.  Westworld seems caught in an interminable loop from which it can not extricate itself.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Into the Inferno

Into the Inferno is a 2016 documentary, ostensibly about volcanoes, directed by Werner Herzog.  The movie is about ninety minutes long and can be seen on Netflix.  (Netflix is one of the film's producers.)   Although it is relatively short, Herzog packs a vast amount of material into the picture, so much so that the film's narrative thread is sometimes hard to follow.  Images of volcanoes trigger the filmed equivalents of footnotes to those images and, then, the footnotes expand and have footnotes of their own -- in effect, the movie is a sort of labyrinth.

Into the Inferno begins with a bravura shot, possibly accomplished with some kind of CGI or a camera-mounted on a drone.  We see a greasy-looking tarry pinnacle.  There is nothing to signify scale -- the pinnacle could be a heap of tar dumped at a construction site and eight feet tall or it could be thousands of feet high.  The black spire is veiled in sinister mist.  (At the beginning of Herzog's Fata Morgana, there is a similar shot -- a huge range of mountains in the mist accompanied by a burst of choral music.  On close inspection, or upon hearing Herzog's commentary, the viewer discerns that the mountains are just piles of sand and rock heaped up where a foundation is being poured.  While watching Into the Inferno, I immediately wondered whether a similar trick was afoot since the oily-looking black peak was not in good focus and seemed improbably steep and pointy.)  The camera rises to glide over the sheer slopes of the peak.  Suddenly, we see a half-dozen tiny figures standing in the soot at the top of the mountain.  The camera floats over them and, to our utter amazement, we see that the are standing on a knife-edge rim overlooking a deep chasm filled with a lake of molten lava.  The image is so extraordinary that it takes your breath away.  Choral music impresses upon us the solemnity of the image, its divinity, as it were.  Then, we see close-ups of the magma hurling forth flares of lava and writhing like a living being -- there is no doubt that we are in the presence of some kind of powerful god, a point that will be reinforced by later interviews and sequences involving the worship of volcanoes. 

This volcano is on an island in Vanatu and, soon enough, we meet the chief of the local village and his huge family -- he apparently has a fifty or more sons.  The chief is avuncular and talks a little about the volcano.  But he also wants to show Herzog a cannibal dance performed by his little boys who snarl and grimace at the camera.  This sequence is followed by images of Mount Erebus in Antarctica where Herzog met the volcanologist, Clive Oppenheimer, whose adventures the film chronicles.  The film, then, develops into a funky collage of anthropological exotica intercut with astounding footage of volcanoes erupting.  Two digressions bring us so far afield that, for a time, the film's apparent subject seems forgotten -- in one lengthy sequence, we see a paleo-anthropologist collecting bone fragments from a nightmarish rift desert in Ethiopia.  Herzog justifies the scene because the landscape is charred-looking and obviously volcanic.  But the scene exists as a platform on which a flamboyant, Klaus-Kinski-inflected scientist, dressed like an extra in a Mad Max film, can rant and rave.  (The scene is also justified, perhaps, because of its intrinsic historical interest -- we see the paleo-anthropologists collecting fragments of one of only three ancient hominids of this type discovered in Africa.)  The other lengthy digression involves a trip to North Korea; the sequence is justified, if only slightly by the fact that the ruling regime established its legitimacy by fighting the Japanese invaders in the vicinity of a misty volcano with a sinister crater lake at the border with China -- images of the volcano are ubiquitous in the Hermit kingdom and we see people making pilgrimages to a grandiose sculpture garden on the slopes of the peak.  (A group of identically uniformed students trots up to the rim of the volcano's crater and, then, sings a song as a tribute to the heroic mountain -- the men pump their fists in time with the music, and say what you want about North Korea, it's male choruses can really sing.)  Herzog is reticent in these sequences -- he presents the images without commentary and, of course, the extraordinary pictures speak for themselves in a variety of ways.  Throughout the picture, Herzog and his surrogate, Clive Oppenheimer, withhold comment -- they seem to be ideal listeners, completely sympathetic while also formidably intelligent.  (This being a Herzog film, a number of the performers seem to feel that they must exude operatic, larger-than-life fanaticism -- this is particularly true of the flamboyant anthropologist who seems to be acting as the star in a Herzog movie.)  From time to time, Herzog slides into self-parody, although this is also intentional in my view and intended as a sly kind of witticism.   Commenting on the magma rumbling beneath our feet, Herzog says in his husky voice:  "It pays no attention to scuttling roaches or retarded lizards or vapid human beings -- it is completely indifferent to us." -- Of course -- it is not sentient, but instead a roiling mass of molten rock. 

William Blake said that "Energy is Eternal Delight."  Herzog's Into the Inferno celebrates a quasi-divine energy that trembles in the veins and bowels of the earth.  This energy is both destructive and creative -- we see its lethal force and, then, its power to revivify the very terrain that it has devastated.  This vast energy must be accommodated to human meaning -- hence, the power of the volcano puts a halo around a pudgy North Korean dictator or inspires an Icelandic myth about the end of the world, a theme to which the film obsessively returns and on which note it ends, having traveled full-circle back to Vanatu.  In a sequence that is both sad and eerily apocalyptic, Vanatu islanders sing a kind of vehement blues, strumming on ukuleles and pounding on storage crates -- they are crying out for the return of John From, their Messiah, an American GI who has promised to return to the archipelago with cargo.  The people are crammed into a dimly lit warehouse, all of them sweaty and singing in unison -- the camera slowly tracks away from the warehouse and into the jungle outside and, there, in the distance we see the scarlet flares of an erupting volcano, a cataclysm far too close for comfort.   

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Kurutta Ippeji (A Page of Madness)

A Page of Madness is a visually extraordinary silent film directed by Teinosuke Kinugasa in 1926.  Lost for many years, the film was rediscovered in the seventies in a truncated 60 minute version.  (Originally, the film was about ninety minutes long.)  Apparently influenced by Wiene's The  Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the picture is wildly inventive and pictorially beautiful -- it is also maddeningly confusing.  As far as I can tell, the picture's story involves a janitor at an insane asylum.  The janitor seems to be in love with a catatonic patient.  There are images that I construe as flashbacks suggesting that the woman may be the janitor's wife.  Another woman, young and dressed in a traditional kimono, flits around the asylum and, sometimes, interacts with the old janitor.  Intercut with the asylum images are scenes showing the janitor and the woman, pictures of a boy with a dog, and a sequence involving some kind of procession with musical instruments and people in elaborate costume.  The viewer interprets the characters as family members, although the status of the young woman in the geisha outfit is unclear:  is she a ghost, a flashback to the catatonic woman's youth, or the janitor's daughter?  (Wikipedia information about the film clarifies that the janitor is, in fact, the husband of the catatonic woman; the girl is the woman and the janitor's daughter.  I don't who the boy and the dog and a baby briefly shown are supposed to be.)  The plot has something to do with the janitor attempting to free the catatonic woman from the asylum.  At one point, the janitor leads the woman from her cell to the gateway or door to the asylum, but she is terrified by the trees and space outside the place and refuses to leave.  The movie ends with the janitor wandering around with his mop in the corridors of the madhouse, the catatonic woman back in her cell, lying on the floor and motionless. 

Everything about this film is extreme:  the cinematography is either blinding with flares of light or so dark that you can scarcely see the figures moving through the gloom.  The editing is jarring -- either the camera is being pushed aggressively into frenzied mobs of crazy people or it is whipping violently right and left, briefly framing insane patients who stand like saints in lit niches.  Much of the editing is so fast that the images bombard the viewer and have only a machine-gun flickering and subliminal effect -- parts of the film involve montages of three or four frame images, much like some of the fast cutting in Abel Gance's films of the same era.  Many images are optically distorted:  there are multiple exposure -- the janitor seems to move through forests of iron bars in front and behind him.  Faces are distorted by funhouse lenses -- half of a visage will be swollen with enormous bulging eyes while the other half of the face is shrunken and wizened.  Mirror effects create weird symmetries in which bodies wiggle like Rorschach ink-blots melting into one another.  There are no intertitles and the entire experience, although fascinating, is remarkably disorienting.  Many of the images are simply beautiful -- but they blast by the viewer so quickly that you can't figure out what they mean or how they fit together.  At one point, we see a Marienbad-like panorama of the asylum's lawn, small figures exposed and motionless below us as if beheld from a tower.  A following shot shows us that we are seeing the grounds of the madhouse through the eyes of the janitor who is looking down from a window in an upper story of the building.  A film conventionally edited would first establish the point of view and, then, provide the perspective seen from that vantage -- in this film, we are disoriented by seeing the view from above first, an unmotivated bird's eye image, followed later by the establishing shot.  At one point, the janitor drags the comatose woman down the corridor while madmen in their cells cavort and leer.  He reaches the end of the corridor and, then, simply turns around drags the woman back toward the camera -- the image shows him coming and going over the same corridor.  We sense that the image means that the corridor is lengthy and that the motion must be in one direction although it is reversed in the middle of the shot.  The emotional effect is nightmarish -- the janitor and mad woman can not escape; they make no progress, space is expressionistically conceived.  A description of the film's bravura opening scenes demonstrates the movie's bizarre imagery and construction:  we see what looks like a stylized tree (it's shaped like an upright coat-rack) in an intense downpour.  This is intercut with images of wind-whipped trees as shadows moving across lighted window-panes.  We see waterfalls and vortices in rivers, water spewing over boulders, rain pouring down on rocks.  Then, we see a goddess dressed in sparkling raiment dancing in front of a bulging disc of scintillating light.  This image is intercut with shots of a mad woman wearing a ragged smock dancing with the same histrionic gestures.  The camera whips down a corridor showing the Arabic numbers on the cells:  20, 19, 65 -- the numbers glower against darkness.  It the pitch gloom a figure moves pushing a broom, rim-lit against lightning flashing in the typhoon at the windows.  Later, we see huge close-ups of slack-jawed, gaping madmen -- some of the crazy people look like images of emaciated hungry ghosts in Buddhist mythology.  The film is wildly politically incorrect -- madness is exploited for its horror:  we see crazy people standing like statues, gyrating, making weird gestures:  one woman keeps picking up a button putting it on her head and, then, when it drops inevitably, to the floor repeating the process.  Much of imagery of the madmen looks like images from Peter Brooks' Marat/Sade -- we see people leering and grimacing.  A riot occurs at one point and the screen fills with groping hands. 

Apparently, A Page of Madness, like many Japanese films of its time lacks intertitles because a Benshei or professional storyteller would have stood next to the screen narrating the movie.  This explains some of the weird narrative disjunctions and lacunae that characterize the film -- we are also seeing only 2/3rds of the picture; the rest is lost.  In the seemingly naturalistic procession scene, we see a kind of marching band and, then, people moving ceremonially in the courtyard of what may be temple.  Three huge and impassive trees loom in the foreground, mute and ominous spectators to what may be a wedding march.  The trees are like the bars in the asylum -- even in this film's scenes that objectively document the world everything seems askew, uncertain, and eerie.

Kinugasa worked slowly and made only about a dozen or so films.  He directed the first Japanese color film in 1953, Gates of Hell, often characterized as one of the most ravishing films every made.  Gates of Hell is a staid pageant-like costume drama.  By contrast, the lurid and horrifying A Page of Madness shows us a film avant-garde that will be perpetually new and astonishing to viewers, but, like Dr. Caligari, a dead end, a way of making movies that could not be sustained. 

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Deepwater Horizon

Director Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon is mildly interesting, but completely pointless.  The film details events leading to a catastrophic "blow-out" and fire on an oil drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, a true story involving plenty of perfidious behavior by British Petroleum.  Berg's movie involves grim, stiff performances by Kurt Russell and Mark Wahlberg as working class technicians on the Deepwater Horizon and SNL-style turn by Jon Malkovich as a nasty BP boss.  The film seems to have been so thoroughly vetted by lawyers fearful of BP reprisal that the picture makes no real points at all -- despite all of its gargantuan explosions, the film is strangely muted and inconsequential.  Like many modern directors addicted to big close-ups, Berg doesn't have any idea how to stage action sequences -- he uses screen-filling sweaty faces, quick cutting, and shots so short as to have a subliminal effect: usually a fireball or something falling or a body hurtling through the air.  Berg fails to establish the topography of the oil rig and how its various rooms and functions are related to one another.  This yields weirdly paradoxical sequences showing spectacular catastrophes in one location that don't even register as thumps or bangs in other parts of the rig.  I assume that the rig was so huge that the isolation of control portions of the machine from other areas is plausible.  But in the earlier sequences leading to the catastrophe, Berg stages a lot of shots as "walk and talk" scenes similar to something we might see in an Aaron Sorkin show like West Wing -- these shots lead the viewer to conclude that everything is compressed and that the drilling areas are adjacent to the bridge where the control consoles are located.  But, as the movie progresses, vast explosions in the drilling area involving enormous geysers of oil and mud are not even sensed in other  parts of the rig -- how is this possible?  We are not given any clear picture of the nature of the failure -- it has something to do with burping bubbles on the sea floor and the film is replete with images of sludge traveling up and down tubes.  But, at no point, can we figure out exactly what is happening or why. (This seems a consequence of intervention by lawyers to avoid BP defamation suits.)  Malkovich's character, who talks in a rich, husky Cajun accent, is conceived as a villain but we really don't have any sense at all what he has done wrong.  Because the part is played by Jon Malkovich, we suppose that the BP executive is supposed to be a bad guy, but the film is very skittish about the decisions made by this character and all of them seem rational in real time -- in fact, at one point, Wahlberg's character agrees that Malkovich is probably right when he decrees the cement sealing the system to be adequate.  Further, complicating the picture is the fact that the workers on the rig seem to be associated with different contractors -- the drill workers are employed by Schlumberger (pronounced weirdly as Schlum-bar-geray); in the closing credits, we learn that the hero doesn't even work for BP -- he is employed by Transocean.  Accordingly, we can't even tell who is responsible for what.  At no point was I able to figure out what was actually going on -- there are huge fires and lots of things falling from the air, but I couldn't figure out what triggered the disaster or who, if anyone, was responsible for it.  There is a scene in which someone heroically moves a crane or some big equipment in the midst of the firestorm and keeps the rig from falling on the life-boats.  This man, apparently a hero, pays for his courageous act, with his life.  But Berg's direction is so poor, we can't tell what the man is doing, or where he is working, or what is at stake.  The subject of the film is so intrinsically fascinating that the movie is somewhat interesting and the early shots of the rig and the logistics supporting the operation are intriguing.   It's a picture that makes you yearn for a first-rate documentary about this tragedy.





















Black Mirror (Series 2)

As expected, the BBC sci-fi anthology show, Black Mirror, in its second year, doesn't sustain the high level of provocation and brilliance apparent in its first three episodes.  Nonetheless, the series, available on Netflix remains remarkably compelling and, certainly, worth watching.  Black Mirror airs three episode a year -- not an ambitious amount of programming, but the shows are very well scripted, with excellent acting, and cinema-quality visuals. 

Be Right Back is robot sci-fi, a variant on the ancient tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, and similar to recent movies such as Her and Ex Machina.   (As usual, Stanley Kubrick, the great pathbreaker, explored this territory previously in his indelibly tragic script for A.I., the film ultimately directed by Steven Spielberg.)  In Be Right Back, a young married couple moves into an isolated house -- it seems spooky and remote and a weakness in the story is that we are not told why they have chosen this place to live.  The husband leaves on an errand and is killed in a car crash.  At the funeral, another widow tells the grief-stricken wife that there is an ap for her phone that searches her late husband's messages and emails and that can simulate both his voice and characteristic means of expression.  The widow, who has now discovered that she is pregnant, uses the ap reluctantly at first, emailing her husband who seems to respond.  She calls him and hears his voice, although slightly distorted, on the phone.  Later, she learns that she can experience a simulation of the dead man in the flesh -- the medical profession has perfected "artificial flesh."  She sends away for the robot and the dead man is delivered to her in a crate full of ice, tucked into a fetal curl.  She carries the body to the bathtub, pours some enzyme salts on it, and, then, the dead man seems resurrected -- he stands naked before her.  Of course, a palpable aura of doom hangs over the whole enterprise and the program is surprisingly disquieting.  But, ultimately, things go wrong only "sort of."  There is no violent denouement.  The robot husband is too accommodating, too gentle, too completely subject to the heroine's whims.  (The robot has watched porn films and is a much better lover than the original that he simulates.)  At the end of the show, the robot, who is creepily inert when not engaged by his mistress, has been exiled to the attic -- he hangs out with the dead man's daughter, now 8 or 9.  The show is deliberately understated, autumnal in its effects, a kind of elegy.  At one point, the widow takes the robot to a cliff and tells him to jump off -- he is all too willing to comply and this, further, enrages the young woman.  The film's point is typical of science fiction -- the genre traffics in wish-fulfillment and shows us that the only thing worse than not getting what we wish is getting what we wish.  The essence of a human encounter is a slight friction, the sense that the other person is real and can push back against our desires -- the robot doesn't have this capacity and, in the end, only infuriates the young widow. 

White Bear is a violent revenge fantasy.  The film has an uncanny aspect and is quite frightening.  A young woman awakens, apparently after a suicide attempt.  She finds that her home is empty and that the adjacent properties in the Estate where her flat is located are all occupied by people who refuse to talk to her, but continuously take pictures of her with their cell-phones.  She is pursued by an ominous figure in a mask with a shotgun.  Another young woman appears to help her and they flee their attackers.   Throughout this ordeal, the protagonist has flashbacks -- she keeps seeing a fire, a man who seems familiar to her, and a little girl.  This show exists only for its surprise, twist-ending -- accordingly, I shouldn't really reveal the program's outcome.  It suffices to say that nothing is what it seems to be and that, during closing credits, we are shown the sequence of events from an entirely different perspective.  The show's implicit moral is that we are all nasty voyeurs, taking pleasure in the torment of others, and that we use of cell-phones to capture images of cruelty and violence because we enjoy spectacles of that kind.  The show is a bit over-complex and not completely  convincing, but it has a dank, eerie November-sort of pall and is reasonably exciting -- it's like some of the films made by M. Night Shymalan.   As is the case with all of the shows in the series, there are remarkable images -- in this episode, the heroine is dragged through crowds of people who taunt and shout at her, hurling tomatoes, I think, at an illumined glass box in which she is confined.  Later, we see the side of the glass box, still glowing from inside, but its glass walls smeared with what looks like blood -- apparently the detritus of the tomatoes.

A dystopian view of politics, Waldo prefigures some of the pathologies afflicting the presidential election in this country in  2016.  Waldo is a wise-cracking blue bear, an animated puppet operated by a failed stand-up comedian. When the character engages in some vulgar satirical observations about an upcoming election, the TV station with proprietary rights to the figure decides to run Waldo in a tightly contested election for Member of Parliament.  At first, the comedian demurs, making the sensible argument that he doesn't really know anything about public policy and that it may be pernicious to trivialize the election by injecting Waldo's obscene humor into the fray.  The comedian has a brief sexual encounter with the Labor candidate and, when she rejects him, agrees to stand for election.  Projected on a larger-than-life size TV screen on the side of panel-truck, Waldo patrols the streets, mocking and denouncing his opponents.  Although he stands for nothing at all, Waldo's vicious insults enthrall the public and when he bursts into a rant at a debate, the animated bear is widely acclaimed as the most authentic of candidates running for election.  Ultimately, Waldo comes in second after the incumbent Tory M. P., routing the lady Liberal with whom the comedian had his brief, but consequential liaison.  Stricken by guilt, Waldo refuses to continue as a politician and, also, refuses to cooperate when the TV station licenses the use of the bear for other, international advertising and political campaigns.  In the last scene, the comedian is sleeping in the gutter, while huge images of Waldo flicker on the sides of buildings next to Japanese kanji -- Waldo has gone viral, world-wide.  The themes exposed in this program certainly have direct application to the present plight of the American electorate -- Waldo is a "chaos candidate", a nonentity who stands for nothing at all but savage denunciation of the conventional, corrupt political culture.  The outrage of the electorate is such, however, that Waldo can easily defeat less effective, and more conventional, politicians.  The show's points are pretty obvious, although, perhaps, were less apparent prior to Donald Trump materializing the cynical values that Waldo embodies.  Curiously, the show can be read as a commentary on an American election three years in the future.  The strength of Black Mirror is its acknowledgement that, even, characters exposed for mockery have their own particular kind of intelligence and, sometimes, express a valid point of view.  In Waldo, the Tory candidate is a tight-lipped, pallid-looking man with a constant privileged smirk on his face.  But he makes an important statement:  "I know the system is corrupt and absurd.  But we're riding on a road that it built."

Season Two of Black Mirror ends with White Christmas, a sort of infernal Christmas special.  The show features Jon Hamm in dialogue with a morose Brit.  The two men seem to be in a shack in Antarctica, an old kitchen in the middle of a white wasteland.  This program reprises themes developed in earlier shows and acts as a kind of synopsis of the previous episodes.  Hamm says that his compatriot in the isolated shack has not spoken to him "more than three sentences in five years" and tries to draw the man into a conversation while frying potatoes for their Christmas dinner.  Hamm tells two stories:  in the first, he recounts how he used a device called "Eye-Line" to see through another man's eyes for the purpose of assisting him in a seduction.  The seduction seems to be successful until the woman targeted turns out to be psychopath who murders the would-be Lothario.  Hamm's character tries to destroy evidence of his complicity in the murder-suicide, but is discovered by his wife.  She is appalled and "blocks him" -- that is, uses a push-button device to turn him into a hazy shadow of static and white noise (she appears in the same way to him).  The story doesn't encourage Hamm's interlocutor to say much of anything and, so, he tells another -- the viewer has the sense that this episode is a bit like the last ten minutes on Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a portfolio of good ideas not fully developed but too good to simply abandon.  In the second story, Hamm talks about a process that allows a person to make a copy of themselves -- these copies are treated as electronic slaves, bullied and tortured into doing mundane, menial labor.  The sinister aspect of this tale is that the original who has authorized an exact electronic copy seems to have no compunction about savagely abusing the copy in order to force that simulacra to serve its master or mistress.  The other man begins to talk and tells an extremely disturbing story that mimics the last episode of Season One (with a little admixture of 15 Million Credits as well) -- the story involves jealousy, marital infidelity, and, ultimately, the death of a small and helpless child in terrible circumstances.  Once the man confesses by recounting this terrible tale, Hamm is extracted from the shack.  Then, we learn that Hamm's copy has been interrogating an electronic copy of the other man in order to secure a confession -- the frame for the stories is a kind of electronic Hell, an imaginary space where the two digital copies confront one another.  Hamm's character, because of his crimes, has been blocked by the entire world.  When he leaves the police station, we see that his whole world is populated by silhouettes of static and emitting white noise.  The show ends with a classic "mind-fuck" -- we discover that the interrogation has taken place in a miniature house in a snow globe; the house in the snow globe contains the kitchen where the men have been talking and, in fact, the snow globe and, in the show's final seconds, the camera slowly pans back from the gibbering villain through a window revealing that we are in a house in a snow-globe, the tracking motion, further, showing us that that the snow-globe is sitting on the counter in the kitchen which is, of course, in the house in the snow globe in the kitchen and so on -- a disturbing endless Escher-loop.   The show's recursive structure embraces references to earlier episodes in Black Mirror, including a repeat of the song in 15 Million Credits, a strangely familiar-sounding tune with some bizarre chord changes.  The viewer's sense is that the Christmas show reshuffles various themes previously developed in earlier episodes -- it's a bit too dire, however, to be funny and, certainly, the Twilight Zone snow-globe prison is sufficiently nightmarish to abolish any Christmas cheer.  

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Black Mirror (Season One)

Black Mirror, available on Netflix, is a British anthology series modeled on The Twilight Zone.  On the evidence of the 2011 series, the programs are cleverly written and stylishly produced accounts of dystopian effects arising from interactive and computer technology currently existing -- the hour-long films extrapolate existing pathologies of technology to their logical, if absurd, conclusions.  As a result, the shows waver in an unsettling way between closely observed and cogent satire and the grimmest of nightmares:  all of the shows are both very funny and, also, horrifying.  The first show, The National Anthem involves political perils arising from the 24 hour cable news cycle and instant social media connectivity.  Fifteen Million Credits is a savage critique of electronically-based consumer economics and the television reality shows closely allied to that economy.  Electronics that allow us to document every aspect of our life for the delectation (or horror) of others are the target of the weakest of the three films, The Entire History of You --  although this show is not exactly up to the standard of the scarifying previous episodes, it is also estimable and contains one of the most memorable shots in recent media.  The shows are all graced with excellent production values -- indeed, Fifteen Million Credits is pictorially stunning -- and the acting is strong on all levels:  although the programs are highly conceptual and abstract, they are, nonetheless, rooted in real human dilemmas that are powerfully presented.

In The National Anthem, a terrorist has kidnapped a princess, a member of the royal family.  The British prime minister, a chubby hale-fellow well-met sort of figure (he seems modeled on Tony Blair) finds himself at the center of the crisis.   At dawn, the terrorist says that the princess will be murdered at 4:00 pm of that same day unless the Prime Minister has "full and unsimulated sexual intercourse with a pig," the sex act to be broadcast on all networks.  Of course, the Prime Minister rejects the demand and orders that the video-taped threat, showing the writhing bound Royal, be suppressed.  But the video demand was first released on You-Tube and everyone in the nation is aware of the princess' peril and the terms of the demand.  At each stage, the Prime Minister and his team are conspicuously slower than the internet news -- for instance, when the PM dispatches a SWAT team to rescue the Princess, the cable news networks broadcast the abortive effort live.  An attempt to simulate the intercourse with a porn actor similarly runs afoul of ubiquitous social media -- selfies taken with the porn star tip off the terrorist and he responds by apparently cutting off the princess' finger as evidence of his determination.  Ultimately, the Prime Minister is forced into live sexual congress with the sow, something broadcast world-wide.  The Princess is returned unharmed and, in a brief coda, we see the Prime Minister returned to his political activities, none the worse for wear, although his relationship with his wife has been irretrievably destroyed.  (Even before the sex act is filmed, the PM's wife notes that the electorate "are already picturing you doing it" in their minds.)   The National Anthem is both intensely disturbing and very, very funny -- the film maker doesn't shirk the nasty details of the sexual act with the pig and, when the people gathered in pubs or around their tellies to enjoy the spectacle, see the actual intercourse, they are repelled, sickened, and turn away from the screen with disgust.  (At one point, the PM tries to strangle to death his steely female advisor; he almost kills her for ordering to have sex with the pig, but, later, agrees that it's the only course and she seems to forgive him for the assault.)  The movie manages to generate a substantial amount of tension and suspense and there is a sickening nightmare logic to the plot.  Indeed, I would think most heads-of-state would be horrified by the show's premise, a premise that seems fairly easy to implement. 

Fifteen Million Credits is set in a world where the working class pedal exercise bicycles to earn credits -- there seems to be no other economy.  The laborers are constantly bombarded with electronic stimulation that is not only free of charge, but will result in deduction of wage-credits, if you try to turn off (or look away) from the ceaseless bombardment of advertising and propaganda images.  The story involves a hapless prole who falls in love with another comely bicyclist -- he hears her singing in the communal toilet and thinks that her voice is good enough to win an American Idol (or The Voice) sort of televised competition.  When the young woman goes on the show, she is bullied into agreeing to appear in sex-videos produced by a porno-station called Wraith as a so-called "Wraith-Girl." The hero is appalled.  He contrives an appearance before the TV judges, a nasty panel including a Jamaican thug (he is the head of Wraith), a patrician beauty, face tight with plastic surgery, and a cynical and cruel commentator with a five-o-clock shadow -- I don't watch singing competitions on TV and so I don't know the originals for these caricatures, but I have seen enough flashes of these kinds of shows to judge the accuracy and perspicuity of the satire.  When the prole threatens to kill himself on stage, the judges find his rage refreshing and he is hired to host a weekly "stream", a sort of pod-cast in which he holds a shard of broken glass to his jugular and rants about the cruelties and inequities of the system.  Someone named Euros Lyn directed this picture and it is graphically stunning -- the proles live in tiny cells with childish cartoon animated landscapes for windows.  They have Lego-style simulacra that interact with one another and, in fact, fill an amphitheater for the voice competition, although we see the originals of each stylized cartoon figure sitting in his or her tiny cellswatching the show on TV.  The program imagines a world that has no outside, no nature -- we are in a hellscape of multiple gleaming and mirrored levels all stacked on top of each other, equipped with chambers full of exercise bicycles pointed at monitor screens; the people eat from vending machines and spend their free time watching reality TV, atrocity-shows involving torturing fat people (to be fat is be issued lemon-colored jumpsuits and, then, forced to do janitorial work) or, even, shooting chubbies down as zombies in nasty first-person shooter video games.  In this world, work is completely meaningless, the accumulation of credits by pedaling on bicycles that can be used to purchase respite from the endless diet of porno movies and trash TV -- you can also buy things like toothpaste and shoes.  The extraordinary aspect of this show is the depth and complexity of minor characters -- there are the vicious and cruel judges mugging for the Lego-figures in the huge audience, the other contestants desperate for their chance to perform on the game show, a girl who secretly likes the hero but is too shy to approach him, and the other bicyclists near the hero's work station. The film is Swiftian satire about the way that the working class is complicit in its own oppression and the show demonstrates exactly how expressions of political rage are coopted by the coercive power of the media and become, in the end, just another form of TV entertainment. 

The Entire History of You isn't necessarily science fiction.  Rather, it is a study of how we use memory, a sadistic combination of Othello and Marcel Proust.  A young lawyer suspects his wife's fidelity.  In this dystopia, everyone records their memories as real-time sense impressions that can be screened on TV for the amusement of others or re-run for self-edification.  At a dinner party, one of the protagonists says that he enjoys "re-dos of my hot times in earlier relationships" and, even, masturbates to them.  This comment leads the hero to conclude that his wife previously had an affair with this man and that the dinner guest is "pulling himself off" to recorded memories of that encounter. The program chronicles the unraveling of the hero's hitherto satisfactory marriage as the protagonist first searches his own memories and, then, violently forces others to "redo" their own histories to provide evidence of his wife's infidelities.  Of course, once that evidence is conclusively established, the hero's marriage is ruined and we see him morosely "redoing" tormenting memories as to his own savage and futile jealousy until, at last, he uses a razor blade to carve the memory chip out of his own throat.  Although this episode isn't as brutally innovative as the others -- after all, it is basically about the torture of remembering happy times when we are miserable (and about jealousy) -- the show is gripping and disturbing.  Particularly disquieting is a scene in which the husband and wife make love while both of them are "redoing" memories of their previous passion that has now leaked out of their marriage.  It is one of the most depressing things that I have ever seen.