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 naïve 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.

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