Saturday, 31 December 2011

Watching Black Mirror

This will contain spoilers and in particular discussion of the twists, turns and endings within the episodes. And also much rambling/ranting.

This has definitely been a series that provides food for thought that I've felt the need to digest since the last episode was broadcast a few weeks ago. So on a day where people start to make up and or start resolutions they have no hope of achieving, I'll give my thoughts on what this series has taught us about ourselves; messages that aren't as obvious as we would assume, or rather are so obvious that we dismiss them when in fact they should be ingrained into the very fibre of our being. (Yes a bit melodramatic I know. Doesn't mean it's not relevant.)

This is a series that is very obviously produced by Charlie Brooker as anyone familiar with his hilarious complaining about the world will recognise that his arguments are occasionally repeated here. It is also an extremely dark comedy, presenting us with a disturbing scenario that bears many similarities to our present world. Brooker is the master at making us laugh, squirm and learn simultaneously. However the messages do not stop the writers from creating interesting characters that you genuinely care about, even though all of the protagonists have some flaw - the PM fails in his attempts to be a strong leader, Bing is bad at social relationships (note his ignoring of a co-worker and then using her advice for him to chat up Abi) and Liam is obsessive about every factor of his life.

Allegory, fable, moral tale: these stories could easily fit into these labels if updated. This can mean that the plots are straight forward but they still remain unpredictable and gripping despite the dominating cynical message - there is a very fatalistic tone to the stories; the characters cannot escape their fate.
Anyway, the stories themselves:

News coverage as the video is leaked
The National Anthem

By far the most harrowing of the three, this is based in a contemporary world rather than a science-fiction dystopia, as the prime minister is forced into humiliating himself on television by having sex with a pig, or a princess will be murdered. Even though it is essentially a typical scenario from Brooker's various '-Wipe' shows lengthened to an hour, it still packs a punch by showing the very worst aspects of the power technology, to be specific social networking, has given to the general public. Throughout, both the government and the journalists are under threat, not from each other as they believe, but from Internet contributions from everyone else. Initially this is used to defuse the tension and create humour: as the PM is briefed on the threat, he becomes even more distressed when he is told that it had been on YouTube for hours previously.

Having already demonstrated his exceptional ability to dissect and parody modern news reporting, it comes as no surprise that the news coverage is disturbingly accurate, commenting more upon the responses of the public than from anyone of importance or authority. As the deadline looms, this footage becomes all the more worrying, climaxing in the PM's fulfilment of the act. But, correctly, the focus is not on the bestiality; what is truly upsetting is that everyone just watches, judging everyone but themselves. It is clear they don't care about the princess, they don't care about their leader's reputation: they care that they are watching him fuck a pig. This desperation for sensation is further reinforced with the 'One year later' coda. It may seem anti-climatic but it in fact crucially shows how quickly we move on from what was hyped at the time as "the most important moment in history" - it is so easy to look at the past events and laugh at what went wrong, feeling superior that we would have done better even though we were there. The benefit of hindsight has become an excuse to be smug.

Nevertheless, as well as providing a criticism on the primal desire for audiences to crave any excuse to feel better about themselves, there is also a very human story centred around the Prime Minister. Rory Kinnear is the beating heart of the piece as he is stripped off any form of protecting himself from scrutiny, whether it's his advisers, his citizens or his wife. What he is forced to undergo is distressing and then some, but it is still a sympathetic situation. It is not the act itself that is so upsetting, it's that everyone is lining up to scorn. We have all had that horribly embarresing moment that no-one will let us forget what happened, makes you constantly the punchline for jokes. It is these same people that forget why it happened, the circumstances and whether it was unavoidable: theu just remember the what even if we had no choice.

15 Million Merits takes a very different approach, going out for a full on attack on X Factor, Britain's Got Talent and it's ilk. The artificiality of the contenstant's soundbites is swiftly followed by a forced swig of Compliance before being shoved under the scrutinous eyes of the judges, hiding under the illusion of balanced opinion with names like Hope, Charity and Wealth. It is clear that Brooker and Huq enjoyed creating this grotesque parody as this is the longest of the three stories but it never feels dull, even when the opening 10 minutes or so contains almost no dialogue, simply showing us how constrained Bing and his compatriates are. We get snapshots of their world which eventually form a horrific portrait: they are contantly warned to 'Resume Viewing' if they so much as close their eyes; not watching or avoiding these shows in any way is wrong and a punishable offence.

Modern television as a whole is criticised as various popular shows are reduced to being even more ridiculous as they already are. The casual frequency of porn and sexual images in everyday shows remains a constant threat and demonstrates how women are treaed in the business: if they're not attractive, they won't linger in the memory. However these attacks are not always lingering as we are briefly shown the horrors of the programmes on offer, such as Botherguts, a clear parody of Total Wipeout, which Brooker has described in the past as 'fat people falling over'
Bing and Abi
But of course, as Brooker is keen to point out, it's all our fault really. This is a very bleak tale that shows how desperate we are for fame, even if we don't think we want it. With an audience of avatars, their reactions are exaggerated to the extent that it is obvious how important this has become for society. Even though Bing has been shown how fame corrupts and will not reward you if it can help itself, he is tempted by the complimenting judges. Their nauseating praise becomes as predictable as it does on the actual shows, but here Brooker and Huq use this for devastating effect. Just  glancing at the eyes of the judges, we know Bing is going to be swayed towards an easy life, even if it means he becomes idolized by a shard of glass.

It is interesting how there is some debate about the ending, as Bing drinks a glass of orange juice and looks out onto a group of trees. This seems like a straightforward scene, but there are some who argue that this yet another trick, it is an aritficial screen like the ones we have seen him forced to wake up surrounded by every morning. I would agree with this, as it is the greatest irony in the story: he is desperate to gain a shred of reality having spent so long surrounded by graphics and technology and is rewarded with a glass and drink, but he is still trapped, a subject to the producers of the programmes.

Liam on the edge as he tries to resist his obssession
And so the series ends with The Entire History of You, which is the only story not written in some form by Brooker - Jesse Armstrong, whose previous works included the superb 'Four Lions' which is one of the only things that I feel comes near the black comedy we have witnessed thus far in this series. It also reinforced the horrors of terrorism but also highlighted how stupid they really are. There is a notably different tone for this stroy as it combines the realism of  'Anthem' and the science-fiction of 'Merits' to create a devastating warning about technology within a simple story of a man obseesed with his own jealousy.

Armstrong is essentially tackling a sensitive subject, perfect for a twisty and frightening moral tale: memory. A fact that sticks in my head because it is so disturbing is that whenever we look back at a memory in our head, it becomes less accurate of what actually happened and just what we perceive it to be. However, in comparison to this alternative it's harmless. To be able to look back on your memories and know exactly what happened in scrutinous detail is chillingly protrayed by Toby Kebbell. There is a tragic inevitability in his actions and yet, we still care as we watch him destroy everything he loves.

Unlike the other stories, this is a future we may wish to happen - to be able to look back on our memories with a click of a button - and so arguably packs more of a punch than the previous commentaries and exaggerations of what is wrong with modern society. By bringing it down to an emotional level, as the others have done, means that we really consider what we would do in their own situation with worrying results. It helps that the performances are so naturalistic, even when they are discussing the technology. By far the best thing about the story is the ending, which is the most ambiguous and intelligent of the series. In desperation Liam carves out the earpiece that contains his memories that have become increasingly traumatic. As he carves it out, there are fleeting flashes of memory and as he completes the deed the screen immeadiately goes black. This is not an obvious unhapy ending as Liam may well have acheived some freedom at last, but cutting to black made me think about how much our reality is based on memory and association - could we live if this was removed?

There has been a definite attack on us, the audience, throughout these stories - we feel we have the right to make important decisions, from politics to life and death. But it doesn't take a genius to look around themselves and realise how accurate it is. I admit to feeling deeply discomforted by the end of each and every episode and thus felt the need to tell my friends via Twitter, Facebook...and this. Clearly this is not going to spark an immediate revolution, but if it informs those who would rather watch a comedy-drama than Brooker ranting for half an hour, then I feel Brooker should be satisfied. Nevertheless, in it's own right, Black Mirror is a fine collection of dramas, of such diversity and innovation that isn't as common as it has been. I have to admit I've always had a soft spot for 60, 70s and 80 television for it's sheer variety within it's schedule: Doctor Who was the beating heart of this ideology with every episode being set in a completely different location and having little restraint on imagination, but around it there was the likes of Play for Today, Tales of the Unexpected, the Twilight Zone and so on. Now, there is pretty much the same show on every day or at least the same type - I honestly don't know what makes X Factor better or worse than Britain's Got Talent, or what differentiates The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea or Desperate Scousewives. Admittedly it doesn't help I don;t watch these shows so is an easy target, but drama in general is susceptible to this as well: a slew of crime series trying to be innovative (The Shadow Line, Case Histories, Hidden); scabrous satirical shows telling the same jokes (Mock the Week, Have I Got News For You); even Doctor Who these days has occasionally been worryingly predictable, setting up an extravagant plot or scenario, and resolving it with gibberish technobabble.

Nevertheless I still enjoy these shows and just because they are sometimes a bit too predictable does not mean that they are inherently bad, because at least they think they are trying to be original. But it is because of writer's general aim to "play it safe" that Black Mirror seems so extraordinary - it sets out to challenge the audience. Unfortunately it is very easy for those who like Black Mirror or anything similar such as Inception to take a stance like "If you don't like this, you are stupid and incapable of understanding intelligent entertainment." These people exist: I saw a comment for a YouTube video of Irma Thomas' Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (used for powerful effect in '15 Million Merits') that said
There are two kinds of people in the world: those that have seen Black Mirror, and those who dislike this.
Wrong. There are infinite kinds of people, with different tastes and perceptions, capable of independent thought - when they are allowed to. Basically, Black Mirror is the perfect example of a show asking the audience to think; whether they liked the show or not is irrelevant, but if they are aware of how the media tries to manipulate them for their own ends, then maybe they will resist. The signs are there: the heartfelt Military Wives anthem beat X Factor to number one at Christmas. Yes, there is an argument that says this is itself manipulation, but it wasn't Nirvana, it was a group of women who miss their husbands. Emotion triumphs over commercialism, the beating heart beats away the  itching hand - that's what I see and to me, that is better than anything.

And yes, it is that good.

And yes, this whole post may seem incomprehensible but I like it that way. Just ask if confused.