Thursday, January 22, 2015

Geek TV: Black Mirror

I did not intend to neglect my blog for over a month. Stupid Holidays. Stupid germs infecting my family. Stupid novel that needs to be revised and is so almost done I can taste it!

Wait, no. I don't think my novel is stupid. I actually quite like it today.

During that lull in the TV season when "The Walking Dead" was already on its mid-season hiatus but "Downton Abbey" hadn't started back up yet, the hubby and I needed a show to keep us amused/depressed/frightened/creeped out. It's hard for us to find shows we both enjoy: he likes character-driven dramas with a lot of people talking about things, and I like good shows.*

*That's not entirely fair to him; hubby got me into "Breaking Bad." But after two legitimate efforts, I just can't get on board the "Wire" train, a show my husband loves so much that, if it were a woman, he would leave me for it.

We found "Black Mirror."

I was in ninth grade when "America's Funniest Home Videos" exploded in popularity; shortly after, MTV's "The Real World" became the first "reality" show. I remember saying back then, "America is obsessed with watching itself." Now, I don't want to call myself a prophet, but if you want to say it...

Much has been written on "reality as entertainment," most of it in the form of finger-wagging critique. From Stephen King's 1982 novel "The Running Man" to the more recent "Hunger Games" trilogy, the topic of complicity via passive observation is a tremendous topic of cultural zeitgeist, even as we all continue to willfully partake in it. I, too, listened to the "Serial" podcast, and I, too, talk about it with friends and have opinions on it, as if anything I think or say could ever be in any way relevant to the murder of a young girl.

Enter "Black Mirror," the latest entry in the complicity-through-passive-observation canon. Each episode stands on its own; it's not a series of continuation. Each episode has an entirely different cast, characters, and world. Most of the episodes feature either a critique of a specific form of technology (that furthers our complicity and obsessions) or a critique of our collective apathy in the face of reality as entertainment.

"National Anthem" (S1E1) follows Britain's Prime Minister as he's given a repulsive ultimatum by an unseen kidnapper who has taken a beloved princess hostage.

"Fifteen Million Merits" (S1E2) takes place in a near-future dystopia where the working class pedal exercise bikes to provide energy to the city, and their only hope of escape is to win an American Idol-like television talent competition.

"The Entire History of You" (S1E3) is about another near-future in which everyone is implanted, at birth, with a digital memory device known as a "grain," which records and stores every experience you have in your entire life.

"Be Right Back" (S2E1) follows a grieving young woman as she becomes more and more obsessed with a technology that allows her to communicate with the avatar of her deceased husband.

"White Bear" (S2E2) starts off with a young woman with amnesia, who wakes up to find herself stuck in a world in which everyone either records her with their phones, or chases her and tries to kill her.

"The Waldo Moment" (S2E3) examines what happens when the public takes a comic character more seriously than it takes politicians.

I'll get to my two favorites next. Of all the episodes, I liked "The Entire History of You" the least. It took me a while to figure out why I didn't like it, and the next day I finally realized why. All of the other episodes of the show deal with Big Issues like selling out ideals and schadenfreude taken to a disgusting, public extreme. But "History" took what could be the source of a mind-blowing sci-fi examination -- digital total recall -- and showcased it in a man's suspicion that his wife is cheating on him.

Now, if "Black Mirror" had wanted to stick with that premise, they still could have done so in a way that felt relevant and made the audience care. As it is, the main character is wholly unsympathetic, and not in one of those "hate to love him" kind of ways. He's basically a big baby, a paranoid and privileged white dude who, were I married to him, I'd probably cheat all the time because he's so annoying and selfish. By the end of the episode I was kind of glad he was so miserable. If we had seen the couple more in love, or seen how devoted the character was to his wife and baby, or seen him being a good guy, this might have worked.

Off the top of my head, though, I can think of several ways to write a 45-minute episode about this topic: because people can stream events from their "grain" onto a TV for others to watch, I can't help but think of all the legal, ethical and criminal possibilities this brings up. In fact, in the episode a pretty young woman mentions that her "grain" was forcibly ripped out of her head by a black marketeer who sells them to rich older men. Right there is a rich topic for TV: the black market of "grains" being taken from pretty young women to be sold to those who can afford to pay criminals for them. And then what about the issue of privacy? At what point must parents stop demanding that their children show them their memories? Or teachers? What about employers and employees? What about hackers who specialize in "Photoshopping" your memories if you are guilty of a crime? What about multiple witnesses to a crime who all only see part of it, and from various angles?

OMG I want to punch him in the face so hard.

See, right there, off the top of my head, and yet "Black Mirror" went with an asshole who thinks his wife is cheating on him. Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

Now, "National Anthem" also deals with a privileged white dude, and one in a position of extraordinary power: the Prime Minister of the UK. But I actually did feel sorry for him in that episode because he was caught in an impossible situation at the mercy of an unseen terrorist. Here was a man put in a terrible situation because of his position and not because of himself personally. Technology and his job worked against him, not his own shitty personality.

My two favorite episodes are "Fifteen Million Merits" and "White Bear," both of which, like "National Anthem," deal with public access to technology and our increasing reliance on social media. In "Fifteen Million Merits," our hero Bing falls in love with a young woman named Abi while they both work the bikes in a dark, bleak, "Brazil"-like atmosphere. Bing convinces Abi to go on the show "Hot Shots" to sing her way to a better life. When Abi gets there the three judges (one of whom is played with dead-on sliminess by Rupert Everett) bully her, with the help of the audience avatars, to accept a spot on their porn channel instead of stardom through singing. Enraged, Bing works his way onto "Hot Shots" in order to rant about the state of things and bring the judges and audience to account for their terrible behavior. Instead of learning their lesson, the judges offer Bing his own show, thus using their insidious methods to undermine and co-opt the very thing he was there to undo.

They're on the road to nowhere.

I love everything about this episode. I love it's slow buildup, I love the lingering moments, I love the little details in the background, I love the idea of being quite literally surrounded by entertainment at all times, I love the characters having to pay hard-earned credits to avoid having to watch commercials, I love Lady Sybil from "Downton Abbey" as Abi. I love the acting in this one: Daniel Kaluuya, whom I've only ever seen in an episode of "Doctor Who," controls his emotions brilliantly, taking the audience from Bing's resigned apathy at the start, to his lovestruck mooneyes when he meets Abi, to his screaming, sweaty outrage live on "Hot Shots." I hope Hollywood and British producers are paying attention, because this man has enough talent to light the world on fire.

I LOVE YOU BING!!! <3 <3 <3 xoxoxoxo

Then there's "White Bear," by far the darkest and most disturbing of the episodes. I can't get into all the details without spoiling the ending, but I can give you the opening gist: a young woman wakes up in a chair in a room. Her wrists are wrapped up and there are pills on the floor. The TV is on with a strange symbol. She clearly has no idea who she is or where she is. She goes downstairs; the TV there is broadcasting the same strange symbol. She drinks water, puts on a hoodie and shoes, and runs outside. People in houses nearby stare out their windows, seeming to film her with their cameras. Then someone in a mask bearing the same strange symbol comes after her with a shotgun. She runs for her life, still confused, while members of the public joyfully follow and film her every move without saying a word.

Oh, girl...

That's where I'll end my synopsis. All I'm going to say is that this episode, too, turns the camera back on the audience in a highly critical way, making us all complicit in what happens to this woman. This isn't just passive audience; this is audience as active participant in torturing a single human being for our own pleasure. This is "National Anthem" and "Fifteen Million Merits" taken to their ugliest extremes. When the truth of what's really going on in "White Bear," and why, comes out at the very end it's a gut-punching twist-on-a-twist that even I didn't see coming. (I had my suspicions but they weren't quite on the mark, and the reality of it was far more disturbing than even I had thought. And what I had thought was already pretty damn sick.) This is the episode that lead to the longest conversation between me and my husband about what the show was saying and the truly terrible and dark parts of the human psyche we all possess. This is a case where I found the ending repulsive and every character in it truly reprehensible, and yet I thought it was a brilliant statement on our -- the public's -- sense of righteousness and moral indignation.

Just keep hiding, lady.

And that's where I have to stop, lest I give away "White Bear's" delicious and revolting twist.

In all, I did find "Black Mirror" to be very "Twilight Zone"-esque, from the way it shows us the nastier aspects of ourselves (thus the unsubtle title) to it's hit-or-miss episodes that could be rather heavy-handed at times. ("The Waldo Moment" had me until the last scene, and "Be Right Back" was just plain silly.) The show is nothing if not compelling. Even if you are sickened by certain episodes, you'll keep going back for more...which is the point. We all go back for more, we all do. Even when that mean black mirror is aimed right at us, we still can't get enough.

If you are a fan of "The Twilight Zone," I highly recommend giving "Black Mirror" a chance. With just six 45-minute episodes it's easy to binge-watch. You'll certainly never text message, post on Facebook, or watch YouTube in the same way. Just...don't watch "National Anthem" or "White Bear" right before bed. Trust me.

What do you think? Have you seen "Black Mirror?" Which were your favorite/least favorite episodes?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Movie Review: The Babadook

There are a few reasons why I don't see a lot of horror films anymore: my husband is not a fan of the genre, and since I see most movies at home these days that means he and I have to agree on what to watch; and I feel that, in general, there are few really good horror films out lately.

Thankfully, both those reasons could easily be set aside when I took a day to myself over the weekend to go see The Babadook, something The Mary Sue called "The Best Horror Film of 2014." I generally agree with The Mary Sue -- not always, but mostly -- so I trusted them.

And boy, am I glad I did.

Now, let's be clear from the get-go: There isn't a whole lot of originality in The Babadook. Some tried-and-true horror tropes are trotted out (cockroaches to symbolize the mother's increasing madness; disbelieving police; a concerned neighbor; a creepy phone call), but they are put to excellent use. There are a few well-placed and well-executed jump scares, suspense to spare, and enough disturbing imagery to make you uncomfortable but not enough to seem graphic. The story, too, is unoriginal: a paranormal explanation for a mother's grief and anxieties (see: Rosemary's Baby; The Others). But, again, this one is done really, really well. 

Most of why the movie works is the Hitchcokian style in which it is shot. There are a lot of pauses, a lot of close-ups, a lot of still shots of doors, walls, the kitchen, that, in context, go from creepy to sinister. The story is slow to unfold, and the camera work reflects that. For the first 3/4 of the film I thought to myself, "I bet this is gonna get really weird soon," and I was right. Like Rosemary's Baby it lulls you into a false sense of security; unlike Rosemary's Baby the climax is violent and terrible to watch. 

But the bulk of the reason why I like this movie so much is because it felt deeply personal for me. The story of The Babadook goes like this: Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow still deeply in mourning for her husband even though he's been dead for nearly seven years. She is raising their son Sammy (Noah Wiseman) alone. Sammy's dad died in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital to give birth, therefore Sammy's existence is a daily reminder of Amelia's loss and his birthday is his father's yahrzeit. Because Amelia has never dealt with her grief or put her mourning behind her Sammy is an extremely anxious 6-year old. When the movie opens, Amelia is called at her job as a nursing home caretaker to come pick Sammy up from school, where they offer to provide Sammy with a private monitor to take care of him. Amelia does not want Sammy singled out, so she pulls him out of school. Now she's home all day with her anxious son. All by herself. Sammy is obsessed with going into the basement, where Amelia still keeps her dead husband's things. Amelia tries to keep him out with varying degrees of success.

One night, Sammy chooses a bedtime book to read, called The Babadook. Neither he nor Amelia have any idea where the book came from. It just sort of appeared in Sammy's room. They read the book (always a good idea to read a mysterious book right before your child's bedtime), which warns that the Babadook shows up with a friendly face that it tears away to reveal a monster who will make you wish you were dead. (Side note: I would have loved that book as a child.) Amelia sets the book aside, but now Sammy is obsessed. His anxiety increases exponentially until he and Amelia manage to alienate the only friends they have left. As Sammy's fears grow, Amelia's patience drains until she lashes out at her son.

"Where did this scary-looking book
come from? You don't know? OK, let's
read it at bedtime."

You can maybe see where this is going.

Amelia tears up the book and throws it out; the book returns to her doorstep, pages stuck back together, and with new wording that warns that the more you deny the Babadook, the stronger it gets, with new graphic images of Amelia killing their dog, her son, and herself. Amelia burns the book then goes ahead and loses what little sanity she had left. By now even she can "see" the Babadook until, one night, it takes over her body. And that's when the movie stops being calm and starts getting really, really fucked up.

The reason this resonates with me personally is because I suffered post-partum depression (PPD) after the births of both my children. I had some thoughts about them and myself I knew at the time were not rational but still couldn't shake. I watched myself as if from the outside, appalled at my lack of gentleness or compassion for my own babies, but helpless to do anything about it. Despite being surrounded by loved ones I felt isolated and cripplingly lonely. Thankfully, my husband recognized me as not being myself and made me get the professional help I desperately needed, but even that was an enormous amount of work: mental health is not a priority in this country, and many of the doctors I called didn't take insurance and we couldn't afford to pay out of pocket for therapy. There was also the burden of what to do with my baby while I went to therapy; I didn't have friends or family who were home during the day to watch them. I finally found a doctor through a university program who would take insurance and I took my baby with me to my sessions. It wasn't ideal, but it was a start, and I got put right away on medications I desperately needed to help balance me out and get me through the worst of it.

Four years of therapy and many anti-depressants later, I can honestly say that I'm not cured but I'm better.

But Amelia, in the movie, needs help and, by turns, can't or won't get it. In one scene a co-worker tells her, "It's ok to not be fine." She's so busy holding herself together by threads, though, that she refuses to admit that the fragile reality she's built for herself and Sammy is already starting to unravel. By the time she figures it out it's far too late.

"I do not like the new edits to this book."

Watching Amelia deal with all of this hit the nail on the head for me. That is exactly what PPD felt like as I was living through it: like something evil had taken over my body and was going to hurt my children if I didn't figure out how to make it go away. The Babadook looks like what I felt like, dark, evil, foreign, and utterly my own fault for not doing more to keep it from taking over. Amelia goes through a vicious cycle of anger, guilt and bitterness that I know all too well.

Essie Davis does an amazing job of portraying Amelia's struggles. Even her voice changes from the beginning of the movie to the end. And Noah Wiseman is absolutely adorable as little Sammy, with his wide eyes and his floppy hair and his earnest smile. My own oldest child, the Juban Princeling, is the same age, so at times I physically cringed while watching Amelia yell at Sammy things I've though in my head, and at watching Sammy wince away from his own mother the way the Princeling does when I snap at him. (FYI, I always apologize.)

So, yeah, The Babadook is one of the few horror movies I've seen lately, and the first horror film I've seen in theaters in a very long time. But it was totally worth it. I highly recommend.