‘Who do you think is powering that spotlight?!’
Some reflections compiled during a seminar screening of ‘Fifty Million Merits’ in 2013
(episode 2 of Black Mirror, season 1)
There’s something remarkable in the moment when the last frame of a film fades to black, the credits begin to roll, and the audience is dead silent in the stillness; when there’s no immediate movement for the door as everyone sits still in their seats, half stunned and half pondering the world… Not many films achieve this. Mostly, the herd of viewers rustle toward the door, crunching popcorn underfoot that’s soon to be swept up by anonymous and ignored cleaners. The crowd then dissipates, heading for the car or the boutique coffee shop or the nearby store to buy a new hat… maybe a real one, maybe not.
Although it wasn’t screened at a cinema, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror is one such production. When I screened the episode ‘Fifty Million Merits’ to a class yesterday, the students were at first (and only at first) speechless – and I dare say the present screening will have the same result. This is perhaps predictable on the one hand given the expert building of tension within the tightly wound plot, combined with the unsentimental and anti-redemptory lack of closure. Plus the film begs far more questions than it answers. But I think the silence stems from something else too. The episode hits hard, implicating its audience in a dystopian scenario that offers a sharp and wide-ranging critique of present day digital screen culture through a depiction of a not-so-distant ‘future’.
From the humiliation of people as ‘fake fodder’ on Reality TV; to the absurdity of the consumption of virtual goods for aesthetic purposes; to the bullying of people with large body sizes who have been demonised by violent computer games; to the blurred dividing line between pornography and celebrity culture; to the reliance of identity construction on ‘buying shit’; to the reinforcement of sexist, racist, and classist ideologies through both the media and the very structures of society; to the fundamental undermining of conventional conceptions of ‘truth’ and ‘reality’; ‘Fifty Million Merits’ has it all, and then some.
The protagonist Bing (played so powerfully by Daniel Kaluuya, also of the 2010 drama Chatroom) tells Abi: ‘It’s all just stuff. It’s… stuff. It’s confetti… When I look around here, I just want something real to happen. For once…’ Nothing is real for Bing anymore, and even his climactic act of subversion is neatly packaged, commodified and filtered by the inescapable structures that govern his life. The ‘reality’ of the imagery in the last frame remains ambiguous, for all time. Yet when we consider aspects of ‘our world’ – the program ‘options’ in prime time slots on our television schedules, or the ethnic origin of the ‘enemies’ in the latest combat console game, or the YouTube advertisements that can only be skipped after a short time or not at all – this film is clearly very ‘real’ (whatever that means…)
We might leave Black Mirror once the credits roll, but it might also choose to stay with us. Perhaps if we earn enough merits we can set it aside and forget about it. Why not take another cup of cuppliance and stress less? That spotlight won’t power itself…
One last thought (from 2014)…
I’ve seen this episode at least a dozen times now, and the significance of its wide-ranging critique continues to grow on me. Are the young people who ride those bikes, who power the entertainment ‘machine’, who seem to (at least in the vast majority of cases) unthinkingly devour problematic ideological messages through their ever-present screens, the ‘Digital Natives’ or ‘Generation Next’ conceptualised by political leaders, journalists, universities, industry employers, and those who promote a Media Studies 2.0 approach? Are they the produsers or prosumers that we’ve been trying to be throughout ALC201 Exploring New Media? Or are they just consumers – those who do not create, share, participate, and collaborate? We’ve seen a variety of student activities across the consumer-prosumer spectrum throughout the year… What have you been?
And what will you be in the future…?
With this question in mind, I strongly suggest you watch the following video: