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.  

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