Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits (2011)

My fingers were, indeed, crossed.  After TheNational Anthem I was dreading what might come.  Deliberately, I’d kept clear of the television guide, for fear that once more the plot of Black Mirror would come down to a single idea; inescapable as a ACME ton weight.

Within the first five minutes, my fingers unclenched and straightened.  Within the first thirty minutes my jaw had dropped a little.

But this time there was no disgust.  No horror.  And certainly no anger.  Black Mirror: Fifteen Million Merits was, it’s fair to say, the best piece of dystopian science fiction I have ever seen.  What made it so good?

Well, like The National Anthem, it had an appreciation and understanding of technology.  Where it departed from TNA, though, was its prescience.  Good SF takes concepts and grows them as surely as if they were genetically modified apples in laboratory trays of bio-gel solution.  Great SF does that and injects a metric ton of emotion.  FMM did that...with extra emoticons.

Characterisation was superb.  Every figure was deftly drawn and strongly acted.  We understood motivations, dreams and fears.  We empathised.  The key tragic plot points, therefore, were devastatingly effective. 

The narrative had light and shade, not to mention genuine humour.  The whole thing felt organic and true, especially when placed against the blindly single-minded concept of TNA.  Its conclusion may not have been the one I’d have chosen, but it certainly felt like a genuine, worthwhile tragedy – something that released emotion and stimulated thought.

In my review of TNA I suggested that it wouldn’t have been made if the main character had been female.  I felt that her resultant rape would not have been broadcast.  FMM disproved that to some extent.  I should perhaps now fill you in on the general story just in case you don’t intend to watch it.  But really...why wouldn’t you?

--- spoiler ---

In the world of FMM you pedal on an exercise bike to earn ‘merits’ through generation of electricity.  Everything you use in a day costs merits (so, for example, we see our main character ‘pay’ for toothpaste, lunch etc).  All the time you’re bombarded with television on huge screens (your abode is a seamlessly covered box of screens, you pedal in front of a screen, and even the urinal has a banner screen running along at head height).

Our main character is a pedalling chappy (played by an actor I’ll always think of as Tealeaf, Daniel Kaluuya) who falls in love with a girl (Jessica Brown-Findlay)...a girl who has a heartbreakingly beautiful voice.  Something fragile and true amongst the ‘black mirrors’ of the omnipresent screens.

The tragedy begins, however, when boy gives girl the funds to allow her to enter the not at all veiled SF version of the X-Factor.  Thrust into this particularly soulless section of a soulless world, girl is taken under the wing of the judges –not to become a famous singer (that’s so last season), but to join the biggest pornography network there is.

Alone in his room, the boy is haunted by the adverts which now feature the girl he loves become headline act for a porn channel.  He no longer has the merits to skip them.  If he looks away he’s bombarded with noise until he looks again.

So he pedals away, earning merits to allow him to confront the judges (and, of course, the millions of viewers) and vent his spleen, heart and assorted viscera.  Their response?

“You’ve got something real.  Something true.  I like you’s where I am....”

And so he’s swallowed up by the world against which he raged.  And that is as satisfying a tragic outcome as you could ask for.


So, we see that FMM did effectively show the rape of a female character.  I still argue that TNA was a very different story and much more problematic.  Although effectively raped by her society en masse, the love interest of FMM is not shown on anything other than adverts after the audition.  We are not shown her functioning normally after her public rape.  We see her die a little on screen, and know that there’s no turning back from this.

The use of advertising was also particularly clever.  Not being able to escape it really struck a chord with Deb, who is much more affected by advertising than I.  I am able to let these things flow over me, and although I may end up whistling music from the catchier examples, in general I’m not aware of what’s going on (as in most things, really...).  It’s as if Deb has a particularly sensitive and aware brain that’s forced to swallow all of these images.  Spotify, for example, is running an advert by Garmin which takes the beautiful Carol of the Bells and turns it into ‘Give a give a give a Garmin...give a give a give a Garmin...’.  Every time it starts playing, she turns a certain shade of puce and looks ready to headbutt the nearest wall.

Of course, being show on channel 4 there was another level to this entirely, as suddenly they would cut to a real advertising break.  Seeing young kids prancing around in front of an x-box, and to be force fed the message ‘if you love someone, buy them this’ made us shiver.

As much as I didn’t like TNA, I’d still like to praise the use in Black Mirror of the ‘one-off drama’ format.  Indeed, Charlie Brooker wrote about it here and it is true that the thing that this format does so well is introducing something fresh and different.  It is, of course, not the cheapest or safest means of making television.  You cannot reuse sets as easily, and you cannot create a hook by playing around with the long-running lives of characters (often in ways that make no narrative or human sense).  But that is exactly why they are worthwhile.

So yes.  Of course, I still can’t bring myself to admit that my love-rival did good.  Instead, I shall put all the praise firmly in the lap of Konnie Huq, Charlie Brooker’s wife and co-writer.  She honestly seems to have taken Brooker’s caustic wit and razor-sharp-satire and mounted it in a beautifully wrought handle.  The resultant safety razor has achieved its job of stripping the numbing fluff of ignorance and apathy from the chin of society whilst drawing as little blood as possible.  Beautiful, powerful and entirely appropriate.  I loved it.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Inside the Petri Dish

"You must be warned, sweetie," she said to me, flashing a look of care, "You might get some abuse if you write it, calling you 'gay' and so on."

So, I better point out from the start that I am both male and heterosexual.  I like girls, cider and automotive technology.  I know the difference between a mole grip and a half blood knot.  I have enough chest hair to render an ECG impossible without the aid of a safety razor.  I am straight man, hear me roar.

What subject might elicit such a stream of abuse?  Well, Deborah was showing me an article about the language used by so called 'Lad's mags' and how it relates to that used by sex criminals.  Two universities in the UK have worked together to find out what normal people (thus ruling me out as a test candidate) think about portions of text taken from the like of FHM et al, and some taken from the mouths of rapists.  The results were surprising.

It seems that people expected the more extreme examples of sexually violent and degrading language to come from sex criminals.  It'd be a comforting thought, really, if the mouths uttering such sentiments were locked up behind nice thick walls with little chance of parole.  But no - this language is for sale on shelves across the nation for anyone, no matter their age.

Scary, isn't it?  Take a look at these I've copied from the Jezebel article Can You Tell the Difference Between a Men's Magazine and a Rapist? (FYI I was wrong three times out of sixteen)

"Filthy talk can be such a turn on for a girl . . . no one wants to be shagged by a mouse . . . A few compliments won't do any harm either . . . ‘I bet you want it from behind you dirty whore' . . ."

"Escorts . . . they know exactly how to turn a man on. I've given up on girlfriends. They don't know how to satisfy me, but escorts do."

"Girls love being tied up . . . it gives them the chance to be the helpless victim."

Can you guess which of these was the voice of a rapist?  None of them.  They were all what I am in no doubt would be described as 'light hearted banter'.

I vaguely remember as a kid the launch of numerous Lad's Mags.  They were billed as something a bit racy, a bit naughty, something to allow men to be men.  It's the same, people would say, as the Sun and Page Three Girls.

I must admit here and now that, although I am a red blooded male, I'm not keen on Page Three.  I have no objection to nudity, but there's something massively depressing about some young girl with no clothes on printed on poor quality news sheet.  I vividly remember walking to school with another boy on a cold and rainy winter morning.  Page Three of the sun was plastered onto the dirty tarmac of the road, portions of Suzi/Traci/Melinda's face washed away, her body become a palimpsest of the sodden layers of print.  Like I say - depressing.

So the magazines were never going to be targeted at me.  But, then, neither is Golfer Weekly or The Complete Basket Weaver.  I respect both skills, but have no interest in subscribing, if you get what I mean.  If, however, they wrote about the correct way to murder a vagrant with a nine iron, or how to weave the intestines of a recently gutted child into a handsome log basket, then I would have objections.  And so I remain qualified to write about this subject.

I mentioned 'light hearted banter' before.  I believe that these magazines have grown up in a petri dish shared with the likes of Top Gear and too many comics to mention.  It's a dish both fed and protected by a sickly coloured gel formed from the notion that 'just having a laugh' forgives anything up to and including genocide.  Any bacteria grown in this dish are safe from harm.  No one can attack them with a suitable detergent, because anyone who tries 'just doesn't have a sense of humour'.  And what's more, the disparate groups of mould within the dish gain mutual support by sharing with each other how put upon they are.  In the case of the kind of stuff mentioned above, it's often painted as an attack against masculinity.  We're just being men, right?  If things carry on like this, we won't be able to fart during the queen's speech and headbutt random pensioners in the street.

Of course, this is an entirely faux fear created to sell whatever they're peddling.  If you're a put upon group in the playground of life, you need your mates around you to keep you safe.  This wouldn't be such a huge problem if the reality-challenged publication had a small output.  Conspiracy theory stuff isn't much of a threat to society's sanity when it's just a couple of fan produced publications.  But when something bills itself as the magazine for all young men and has the production values to pull that off?  Well, that's suddenly a massive threat.  And it's not just the magazines, of course.  All the other groups - the Clarksonites and lovers of 'Northern Funny Men' all live their lives with the same 'you just don't have a sense of humour' shield against any kind of moral question.

I know very few jokes.  I've taken one and honed it into a thirty-seven minute masterpiece of doom.  Before that I knew a few...and one day told my wonderful Mad Cow Disease joke in a medical chat room.

Two cows in a field.  First cow says to the second cow 'Aren't you worried about BSE?'.  Second cow says 'Why would I be?  I'm a helicopter.'

I'll just give you a second.

Recovered?  Well, after I delivered that joke in the chat room there was deathly silence.  Then someone wrote to inform me that they'd recently had a close relative die from CJD.  If only the world could have swallowed me whole...

And there it is!  There is that normal human reaction!  I'd not said something terrible - certainly nothing on a par with the quotes above.  But I'd hurt someone with a meaningless joke and that upset me.  At no point did I feel I should say 'some people just don't have a sense of humour' and bimble on with my life, occasionally scratching some bodily crevice or other.  I felt remorse and empathy for someone who, at the time, I didn't know at all.  But that's the great thing about being a member of the human race - you don't have to buy a magazine at over £5 a time to be a member.

It's funny, really, that I find hope for British men in a programme whose key presenter hails from the Clarksonian stable - namely James May's Man Lab.  Although not perfect, this programme focuses upon teaching practicality, appreciation and, I think, just a little enthusiasm and wonder.  In this last run, they encouraged teenaged rock bands to reform as adults, created an Eden of their office toilet block, and sent the ashes of two beloved family pets into the heavens via a pair of balloons.  Silly it may be, but there was no troublesome language.  People were treated with respect.  To be a man was not to limit ones' interaction with the world to the images sold by heartless caricatures of humanity.  To be a man, says James May, is to interact with music, literature and history, to value the ideas and skills of others (even if they are female) and to be creative.

Deborah shared with me this wonderful blog post which makes a very good point.  If we are to like something which is problematic to other people, we have to acknowledge that problem and be willing to discuss and learn from it.  If we do not, then we are twits.

Talking of which - a good example of this can be seen in the recent Ricky Gervais debacle.  If a human being had said 'mong', only to be met with upset folk asking him not to, the human reaction would have been to acknowledge the upset and open a dialogue as an opportunity for mutual growth and understanding.  Instead, Gervais informed those people that the meaning of the word had changed.  They'd just not kept up with the real world.  Society had changed and they hadn't.  In other words, not only had they not got a sense of humour, they were lost to reality.

I'd argue that it is the other way around.  A reality has been created in the minds of all these people.  This reality is covered by the 'sense of humour shield'.  They can and will say anything they like, thriving on their mutual appreciation.  In reality, of course, they are confined and alone in their petri dish and have no knowledge of normal human life and its joys.  It is our responsibility to live our lives well and to monitor the size of the dish.  It's gotten scarily large of late and I think it's time we did more to define what it is to be male and, more importantly, what it is to be a member of the human race.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Black Mirror: The National Anthem (2011)

A few weeks back, the adverts for Black Mirror caught my eye. I’m a lover of anything a little different and clever. I’m one of those irritating people who enjoy David Lynch and (to a lesser extent) Lars Von Trier and am quick to bore any too incapacitated to flee about their use of allusion, symbolism and so on. Yes, I really should be shot.

I am not, however, a fan of Charlie Brooker. This is down to pure jealousy – Deb enjoys his work and many’s the time when I’ve been talking to her about genuinely riveting subjects (like the benefits of AC over DC motors) only to realise she’s zoned out, eyes wide, pupils large, gazing into the glorious writings of her Charlie.

When asked what she particularly likes about the Brook-meister, Deb says that it is because he recognises the immensity of his subjects (television, for instance) whereas so much of what she normally reads deals with minutiae (albeit important ones). This appeals to me – so much of what I love about Greek Literature, not to mention science fiction, is the concept of meta-text. Brooker gets this. He is also able to write about his subjects with a visceral strength and bravery which is powerful to say the least.

I liked Dead Set, his Zombie meets Big Brother mini-series. He was able to take on board all the elements of reality tv and meld them beautifully with the best bits of Romero. I had problems with a few of the characters and, although there were comic elements, the entire thing felt a little flat*.

Even so, I was excited. I had no idea of the subject of the piece, but the advert looked bright and punchy and raw. Deborah and I decided to watch it. Then I read the review in the Radio Times.

Hmmm. It definitely was the first time I’ve read anything about bestiality in a TV guide before. And the shock was enough to put my back up. I couldn’t see how the narrative could possibly work, and I feared the inevitable messages and their depressing presentations. Even so, we gave it a chance.

I must point out here – I am not a prude in any way, shape or form. If I had been, I’d have not survived my degree. I’ve read and analysed literature involving paedophilia, rape, incest and more scatological references than we’re used to in our society. Bestiality isn’t exactly new to Greek myth either – Pasiphae’s story was only different because she really wanted to get jiggy with a farm yard animal. So I wasn’t upset because of the subject matter being presented. Whether I felt it was appropriate that it was being shown at 9pm is another matter, but one I won’t be going in to.

So what did I think? Frankly, I was angry. I didn’t expect to be so angry. I’m quite a calm person usually. But this really hit nerves. It was designed to hit nerves. Again, I don’t object to that – that’s the point of good narrative. Poliakoff’s Shooting the Past hit nerves and that’s one of my favourite pieces of television. Why, then, was I angry?

When you set about hitting nerves, you have a responsibility. I would classify The National Anthem as a tragedy. The Prime Minister is a tragic hero – fighting the great power of fate, blind to the conclusion we can all see coming as soon as we looked at page 62 of the Radio Times. And this is a good thing. Society needs tragedy. The drama festivals of Athens looked after the mental and spiritual health of its audience – draining them of badness through the emotional turmoil and release. A reduction in the quality of tragedy becomes part of the reason for a reduction in the status of Athens as a whole in Aristophanes’ Frogs. This means that tragedians have a huge responsibility to wield their pen responsibly.

Firstly, I have to say, I found the subject matter distasteful. This was a story about rape (not of the pig, I must clarify, although I did look at my bacon sandwich with more sympathy this afternoon, I can tell you) and I feel that because the subject of the rape was male and because he was not penetrated, the care that would otherwise have been taken, was not. If this had been a story about a female prime minister forced to commit a sex act on live television, then I don’t think it would have been filmed.

Proper tragedy follows rules. People make mistakes and pay for them. There was none of this. Although not particularly likeable, the PM character was not well developed. We were meant to fill in the back-story by viewing him as a parallel universe version of Dave. The Radio Times review even went so far as to describe the PM character as ‘reptilian’. Subtle.

Aristophanes did political satire. Some of the politicians even went so far as to sue him. His satires, though, were brave and open, very clearly pointing out the wrongs perpetrated. This was done in comedy genre, though, and although The National Anthem was described as a comedy/drama, I just could not find anything other than the thinnest dribbles of comedy. I’ve been horrified to see so many people saying how funny it was. Deb described it as an Emperor’s New Clothes deal – if you’re going to describe it as a comedy and make it shocking enough, people will see humour where it is not. And if they did see so much comedy, well, is that appropriate in a narrative about rape?

The ending, though, was what really did it. Tragedy is all about the release. It builds and then BLAM 10,000kw of pure emotion flows from every pore of your body. It should be almost audible. Then, emptied, you can be filled with comedy (the Athenian festivals were composed of three tragedies followed by a comedy). The nature of the ending, then, is vastly important. I am sure Brooker looked at the ending and wanted to try something different. The Radio Times called it a ‘logical’ conclusion – laughable though that statement is, it’s not comedy as needed in this situation. The ‘logical’ conclusion was one that dismissed the extreme damage caused by rape and replaced it with an increase in popularity and a bit of domestic disharmony. I believe if you take the story and switch genders it becomes clearer how absurd and damaging it becomes. Imagine a year on, the woman, forced to commit a sex act live on television, having a kick around at a school and waving to the media. This is where the wires of his meta-text have got crossed. 

Brooker knows TV. He’ll have seen the parallels with Rebecca Loos on The Farm, not to mention all the identikit blonde reality show contestants indulging in sexual behaviour live on air. But this is where the difference between consenting behaviour and rape become so important.

A person tortured in such a way would not recover. An ‘artist’ who felt this was an appropriate act would not kill himself, thus avoiding any sort of appropriate punishment or, more importantly, investigation and understanding. The conclusion was as far as it could possibly be from logical, and so any chance of a healthy finale was lost.

It’s a shame that such a well paced and well acted piece of television should be lumbered with such a warped and sickly narrative. Going back to the Radio Times review (have you worked out yet how unimpressed I was with it?), I thought it telling that there was no mention made of the magnificent Lindsay Duncan, who outshone all the other actors and who was the only real warmth in the entire piece. I must say, however, that RT were right in one respect – The National Anthem was perhaps the first piece of on screen fiction (Catfish achieved the same thing, but was a documentary) in which technology sat absolutely comfortably with the narrative.

Will I watch the next episode of Black Mirror? Almost certainly. With my fingers very firmly crossed in the hope that all the strands of the great meta-text of television don’t inadvertently send Brooker down a problematic narrative pathway.

* Whenever I think about Brooker, I am drawn back to a particular day on the cold landscapes of Dartmoor, and a particularly sodden patch of ground which gave way; my be-wellied foot plunging into murky nothingness. Brooker’s philosophy has something of the feeling of a wet sock inside rubber footware. You know that it’s pretty miserable and it’s not going to get better any time soon.