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Thursday, October 30, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 25: The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968)

Written by Nigel Kneale
Directed by Michael Elliott

Tony Vogel:  Nat Mender
Suzanne Nerve:  Deanie Webb
Leonard Rossiter:  Co-Ordinator Ugo Priest
Martin Potter:  Kin Hodder

The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. --Attributed to Socrates

I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland. -- Newton Minow, chairman of the FCC, to the National Association of Broadcasters

TLC ‘Reassessing Future’ of ‘Honey Boo Boo’ After Star's Relationship With Convicted Child Molester Surfaces -- Headline from, October 23, 2014

As much fun as it would be to just throw a few thousand words of mass-media quotes on this page and call it a day, I'm going to do a review instead. But since this is a dystopian satire about mass media made about three generations ago, it's probably a good idea to give people a few signposts about culture and entertainment before I start the synopsis and the cheap jokes. First up:  It's nothing new for older people to gripe that the younger generations are enjoying life inappropriately and that things are getting worse. Second:  Television is super bad for your soul and your culture. Third:  Things aren't that bad yet. They may not be good, but at least we're at the point where even the networks pandering to the lowest common denominator imaginable are capable of some level of shame, or at least more worried about getting sued out of existence for child endangerment than they regret lost ad revenue.

Today's movie is set "sooner than you think", which is almost as cool as Streets of Fire occurring in "Another Time, Another Place". And it's only around to watch in black and white because the BBC--guardians of culture that they are--never saved a copy of the master tape used for broadcast, and only the accidental discovery of a black-and-white recording made it possible for the commentary to be released and viewed at any later date. Somehow I think that makes the movie even more relevant. The warning about media culture being deliberately wiped by the mass media makes a certain amount of sense, wouldn't you say?

The film drops the audience right in their dystopia--workers at a television studio are starting a broadcast called Sportsex, talking in impenetrable slang about how they hate the slack-jawed morons in the audience but have to watch them watch television to get the equipment calibrated correctly for the broadcast. All the performers on the show (and the people in the Future BBC Command Center) are wearing clothing with patterns and what were undoubtedly loud colors, while the numbly staring audience members are in white smocks; for that matter, the people on the show itself--men and women--are wearing jewels affixed to their faces in addition to Vegas-style costumes. Perhaps they're not just showing off conspicuous wealth with their adornments, but also giving the people watching them something shiny to look at moment-by-moment.

Nat Mender--the guy who takes his job very seriously even as he finds himself repulsed by the audience he's tracking--gets teased by announcer and television personality Misch (I guess she's got one name, like Cher or Madonna); some of the audience members he's looking at have to be thirty years old, if you can believe that, their skin shiny and worn compared to the youthful directors in the command booth. Then it's time for the broadcast to start, with Misch dropping tidbits about the competitors while teasing the upcoming event and reminding the Sportsex audience that the winners of the national events go on to the next Sex Olympics. This scene really suffers from the black-and-white transfer; it looks like the announcer and most of the competitors are wearing garish makeup that doesn't translate at all when it's in B/W.

The film shows its prescience when Nat gets a call on his wristwatch while at work and gets distracted. Then the starting buzzer sounds and the contestants (heard but not seen) go to work; another man in the broadcast booth starts critiquing everyone's technique while moans and gasps flood the soundtrack. Tellingly, none of the three workers in the broadcast booth are aroused by anything; they're just trying to get the show sent out without any technical hiccups. The test audience of proletariat are being monitored for their reactions and one of the teams gets disqualified and dropped from Sexsport for being too appealing to them. Nat states that the guiding principle for the show is "apathy control", though exactly what that means is currently not explained. The other man in the control booth says their job is to keep things cool:  "Cool the audience, cool the world". I'm not certain that a live sex show would have that effect on its viewers, but if they're used to it then perhaps it's just boring audiovisual wallpaper.

Nat clarifies what the apathy control principle contains a moment later--the future BBC is showing impossibly beautiful people making love perfectly as a way to get their audience to think of sex as something to watch rather than to perform on their own (or, perhaps more accurately, with someone else). The audience-monitoring camera screen shows a bunch of people bored and chewing gum, looking out at the viewer as they catch another episode of Sexsport, so it looks like Nat knows what he's doing.

When Ugo Priest, the department head of Future BBC Thing, shows up to complain about the poor showing from that disqualified team and learns that Misch picked them to perform and Nat didn't go through all the proper channels with his boss before putting them on the air. He brings Nat outside of the control booth for a friendly boss-to-subordinate chat and we get a little more information about the future society when there's a free dispenser of some kind of drugs called "Brighteners" in the hallway and both Nat and Priest partake while on the job (and the long shots reveal that both men are wearing what could best be described as Nehru jacket dresses; apparently the most decadent thing that the BBC could think of in 1968). The Brightener packet is a marvel of production design--it's a little tube with a baby bottle nipple on the end so a user has to suck the goo out of it to get whatever effect they're supposed to get. But it also looks amazingly incongruous to have two grown men sucking on baby bottles while discussing their jobs (and we learn from Nat that "vice" is a word that's distinctly out of fashion in the year Sooner Than You Think; apparently when everything is permitted, nothing's considered particularly immoral). Two other words that Turner can't ever recall hearing before in his life come up in this conversation:  "pornography" and "censor".

Priest also implies that concern about overpopulation was one of the principles behind apathy control, and that "watch, not do" would be a guiding philosophy that would keep the second-tier humans of the future from causing too much trouble for their society or their betters. While musing about the past that he can remember and Nat never knew, Priest also points out that there are "old-style" words with too many syllables and too much nuance to them, explaining "vicarious" as "this for that" when the younger man--who has shown himself to be smart and capable in an amazingly difficult and high-pressure job--doesn't have the faintest idea what it means. The future society isn't entirely dystopian, though, another word that Nat can't define further than "a kind of tension" is "war".

Priest is protecting one of his own interests during this chat--he's the one who got Nat placed into the job he's got, and with the Sex Olympics coming up that year he wants to make sure that his subordinate doesn't make him look bad in front of a global audience. Nat gets another call From Deanie; their son is sick and he begs off from his boss to go take care of his child (with, surprisingly enough, Priest's blessing). Then the camera cuts to "The Hungry Angry Show", with two shirtless fat middle-aged men scooping pie filling up from massive piles and either eating it or throwing it at each other. I expect this would get at least a half-season order on TLC in 2014. Deanie's the one in charge of the pie-throwing and eating show; the audience sampler shows a crowd that looks just as bored watching slapstick pie fights and gluttony as they did watching attractive people having sex.

Nat reveals more about the world while he's talking at Deanie; the proletariat outnumber the elites two hundred to one; at least some of the reasoning behind keeping them placid and watching television all the time is to control overpopulation and protect the people running the world. Watching it in 2014, I do think I'm possibly watching a play about how the 1% would view themselves, though I find it hard to accept that Roger Ailes would willingly rock a minidress and medallion while he's telling his employees what to do. We also get a piece of Nigel Kneale-created NewSpeak while Nat talks about his feelings for the audience:  The placid dupes that watch TV and get taken care of are "low-drives" while the people who run the government and media are "high-drives". This appears to be inborn in the film's universe; Deanie says that the child she had with Nat is testing low on the metabolic scale and she suspects they've produced a low-drive daughter. Nat's furious; he can't conceive of that possibility playing out. During a talk with Deanie's new man he says they were "picked", but not what for; the new guy understands instantly so there's either a fertility lottery in the future or some kind of selection process.

Kin Hodder, the new guy, is experiencing a crisis of conscience without the vocabulary or introspective nature to understand what's happening to him; he asks Nat to give him a reason to keep working on the second-tier show Artsex and to keep propping up the system with his efforts. He's also had about a dozen Brighteners and causes a minor stir when he says he wants tension, as opposed to the society that he works to maintain (which avoids all possibilities of any kind of "tension", all the time). He's also got a barely articulated idea that making some kind of fixed art rather than flickering televised image might soothe his soul. By implication, this means that the only arts in existence are the ones shown on TV to keep the world docile and stupid. And Kin also finds that he wants to share whatever new art he's able to make with the world, including the low-drives--who might or might not be able to appreciate it, or even understand why someone would make a picture that doesn't change or flicker.

Kin stops by Nat and Misch's place and intteruptus their second attempt at coitus that evening; he's brought some pictures he's drawn that he wants to show off (Misch:  "But how can they be pictures if they're not moving?"). They're all portraits with screaming mouths and bulging or hollow black eyes; Misch is appalled and Nat finds that he wants to see more of them--he describes viewing them as "like something you remember, but you've never seen". But he refuses to help Kin set up a viewing for other people to look at the artwork, at least partly because he thinks that Misch's reaction would be shared by anyone else who looks at the pictures, high-drive or low.

The next day Nat and Misch meet with their nine-year-old daughter Keten after the governmental aptitude test that's probably meant to suggest the General Certificate for Education; she's overjoyed at the thought of having tested so low that she's done with math forever (not that she understands exactly what anyone was telling her when she got this news); Keten also says she likes listening to stories more than making them up for herself and generally comes across as a bit dim, but very enthusiastic and kind. Nat's incensed; for one thing, if his offspring is considered defective it goes on his "record", and one can safely assume that just as the high-drive and low-drive populations are kept in a strict hierarchy, there are stratifications among the high-drive as well.

Later on, Nat's in a funk while Misch does a burlesque dance along with that day's Artsex broadcast, asking the distracted and distant Nat whether or not he thinks she'd be better at the show than the talent currently on the screen. This gets interrupted by one of Kin's paintings, which distresses Misch enough that she has a screaming fit (and the low-drive audience gets interested and upset by it as well, with their levels remaining upset for another full day after the pirate signal break-in). The picture's plenty creepy in black and white, but I do wonder what it looked like in full color.

Priest stops by the control booth to gently question Nat about whether or not he told Kin to put his pictures on display--and Deanie's there to replace Misch, who is still in shock after getting a look at the picture on her wall-sized TV screen (but not so catatonic with fear that she can't narc on Nat as someone who saw the artwork before Kin broadcast it). Good news for Nat--his boss believes that he had nothing to do with the signal hijack. But unfortunately Priest cannot have missed Nat's enthusiasm for the pictures. And it's absolutely bad news for Kin that the Co-Ordinator gets told by Nat that the artist said he wanted tension. Which is, of course, the one thing the world society is managed in order to minimize.

His later talks with Priest show Nat struggling to articulate what he feels when he's never learned any of the words that would help him describe what's going on in his mind. And Priest, for all his experience and wisdom, can't help Nat because he doesn't have the firsthand experience or emotion that the other man is feeling ("I remember--well, I don't, but I remember the people who did remember before we got apathy control"). He gets a soliloquy about how desperately the world needed to be taken in hand and all the tensions of life diluted, where it's explained to Nat (and the audience) that the process of lowering tension worldwide was done gently, gradually and without coercion. So at least the brave new world that Nat and Priest are in was one created without killing or imprisoning those people that wouldn't go along with its creation. They just got seduced by the numbness of the new system, one by one.

Priest stops by the control booth for Sportsex to explain a new finding from the computer (that he happily agrees with). It turns out that the low-drives do need some kind of stimulus, but one that won't lead to tension. They need to laugh--which is also low-key abdominal exercise. But they don't find the slapstick excesses of "The Hungry Angry Show" worth laughing at, so something new is going to have to be developed. The first attempt is just a bunch of people in clown makeup throwing pies and dumping buckets of water on each other, with the occasional pratfall. The low-drives aren't having any of it; they're just as uninterested in the frenetic zaniness as they were in watching people screw or throw pie filling around. I did crack a sour smile at the protective gear that Priest and Deanie were wearing while filming it; their suits made it look like they might have thought clowning was contagious or radioactive.

In the control booth for Sportsex, Priest drops by before a show and winds up talking about humor and why people laugh with Nat (who has Misch and his other coworker pegged--Misch finds anyone that isn't like her ridiculous and amusing, while the other guy in the broadcast booth likes to see someone other than him get inconvenienced or embarrassed). Priest says it's the "fruit skin" principle. When you see someone else slip and fall on a fruit skin you laugh because it wasn't happening to you. Misch's attempt at wordplay and silliness fails to stir any kind of reaction from the low-drives as well. But when Kin Hodder tries to break in live and show his artwork to the viewers, he slips and has a fatal drop from the rope he was hanging from; it's caught live by the cameras and sent worldwide instantaneously. And, finally, something gets a laugh out of the low-drives watching as the test audience. Ugo Priest says, ominously enough, that they just found the fruit skin to amuse the proles.

In the wake of the fatal broadcast, Nat is stricken--he thinks he helped get an innocent man killed, while Priest thinks that they've found the next great leap forward for apathy control. The low-drives saw something unexpected and fatal, are glad it isn't them, and they have a great big laugh. The perfect solution to the problem of trying to get the brain-numbed organ bags to have a big giggle, and Kin Hodder had to die in order for the solution to present itself. While discussing how to duplicate that reaction without killing someone off on TV every night with Priest and the others in the control booth, Nat comes up with a possibility:  Putting people in an old-world situation where nothing was planned and anything could happen. The audience watching it would be amused by any mishaps and subtly educated about the old ways and why they needed to be abandoned during the lulls in the action. And somewhere along the line it turns out that Nat and Deanie have decided they want to be the "performers" for this brand new type of show (much to Misch's dismay).

Priest runs the pertinent variables through the computers and comes up with an island location that's not too hot or cold, but where both Nat and Deanie will have to work for their survival--building fires, making shelter to keep the weather out and growing or hunting their own food (at some considerable risk; without the danger, the program will be worthless to the network because the low-drives won't want to watch it). Nat is thrilled, since he's got a way to try something utterly new and also channel his growing discontent with his society into helping it. Priest does try to warn the pair that the isolation from their society and comfort will be something they won't know how to deal with at all. But as Nat points out, in the regimented world that's been built for them, nobody knows anyone else. Or even themselves. For the chance to really connect with Deanie and with his own soul, Nat's willing to take the risk.

The preparations for the show are made; it turns out that Nat's second in command (whose name will eventually be revealed as Lasar Opie) will be in charge of things on the technical side. The island's going to be wired for picture and sound with multiple hidden cameras, and once the pair of "performers" are living on their own they won't be in contact with anyone back in the advanced world. It'll be called The Live Life Show and it's going to broadcast continually, 24 hours a day, on its own special channel. Nat and Deanie pick up their daughter and try to explain to her that they're all going to be leaving for somewhere else, and that their living arrangement is something that can only be explained with an old-time word that nobody uses any more:  "family".

On the island, there's an old stone house provided for the trio to live in; they take a moment to marvel at what grass looks like on the ground, and Nat leaves to haul all their necessary gear inside. A small audio device gives Nat instructions about how to set a fire (which he's never had to do in his life) and other ProTips on living out on his own for the show. He's thrilled at things like feeling the wind on his skin--which he's also never experienced--and doesn't quite have the words to explain what the clear glass panels on the wall are, or why the view from them never changes like all the other screens that he, Deanie and Keten have seen at every other point in their lives.

The first night, Keten can't sleep because the wind outside is making her anxious, and Nat and Deanie talk about their finite and dwindling supplies; neither one of them knows how to make more candles, for example, and they need to plant their vegetable garden if they're going to have anything to eat once their rations run out (I also think this part of the planning was pretty slapdash; on the other hand, it's not like the network won't be able to tell if the family's going to need another supply drop and it isn't in their economic interest to watch the three starve to death). Deanie finds herself thinking about the main camera in the ceiling and dislikes being watched all the time; Nat and her retire to bed and snuggle for warmth. And Deanie expresses her faith in Nat as well as her own abilities to make things work before they drift off.

The next morning Nat surveys the area, finding a flock of sheep placed on the island for their eventual use as food and skins; the audio instructions tell him to kill them, which is a word that makes Deanie melancholy and Keten's never heard it before. The trio explores the island, which has steep rocky cliffs at one point (and a really great shot, where the camera keeps pulling back and back and back to show the family as tiny little specks on the outcropping; whatever percentage of the film's budget went into that one shot, it was worth it--after seeing the three claustrophobic city sets for more than an hour it's a breathtaking sight). When they get back to the cabin, Nat points out the vegetable plot that's been started, and Deanie's delighted to think that they can feed themselves without having to kill rabbits or sheep.

And back in the cabin there's two people waiting for them--a man named Grels and a woman that doesn't get properly introduced; the man says he lives on the other side of the island and saw the film crew setting things up for The Live Life Show. The man promises to teach Nat how to catch seafood and survive in their situation, but when the pair leaves Nat accosts the main camera and tells Lasar that they had a deal, and nobody else was supposed to be on the island. In the control booth, Priest asks Lasar what's going on and the showrunner tells him that something has to happen on The Live Life Show in order to give it a sense of narrative; Grels is the setup for that. Both Nat and Priest mention that there was a deal in place; looks like Lasar doesn't particularly care about that.

Grels and Nat work together to harvest crabs and edible plants and pick up driftwood for the stone house's fireplace; their activities would be as new to the studio audience as they would be for Nat, which means that in a way the low-drive audience and the high-drive performer would have something in common. Back in the cabin, Keten's been injured. She saw something--or someone--outside and fell against the rocks while trying to find out what was going on. The wound is too severe for anything that Nat or Deanie can deal with, and Nat smashes the ceiling camera in rage when he realizes that his daughter's injury and possible death is a laugh for the audiences at home.

Which is why it's so worrying that Lasar switches to the secondary, hidden cameras in the house and tells Priest that the real show can start now that Nat thinks he's not being observed. Back at the house, Grels is nailing boards over the windows and telling the woman with him, Betty, to boil crabs for everyone. Grels says he's been on the island for as long as he can remember and for all the viewer knows he's telling the truth. He's certainly handy with his gaffer hook and strides around like he owns the place.

At night, Keten wants a story from her father, but his life has left him utterly incapable of telling one, or making up a fiction. He gives it his best shot but tapers off when he realizes he can't figure out how to make a narrative. But he does tell his daughter "I like you" over and over--the closest thing that the language of his society has for how he feels. She drifts off to sleep as he keeps repeating the simple phrase.

Back in the control room, Lasar is watching the audience watch the show, and realizing that the low-drives are fully capable of handling "tension"--that for the first time, they look engaged and interested with the program rather than just bored. He's got a certain mad-scientist gleam in his eye as he realizes that they might not just tolerate tension in their televised narcotics--it looks like they actually want it. And they'll have plenty to work with--Keten's wound is going bad and she's got a fever. The only thing Nat knows to do is build up a fire to keep his daughter warm and when Deanie goes outside to get water she gets startled by Grels, sleeping in their doorway. Nat is happy to see the other man, because he's utterly out of his depth with Keten's fever but when he asks Grels for assistance he just gets a blank stare in return. When Grels finally does speak, it's to say that Betty's gone, and that she might have fallen down to the rocks while gathering gull eggs. But when he's saying this, it sounds more like he's trying to come up with a plausible story than to explain something that happened.

And when we get another look at the control room, we find out what Grels' story really is. He killed his partner in the Sex Olympics a dozen years ago and was exiled onto the island for lack of any other ways to deal with him. Both Priest and Lasar have a stiff, nervous chuckle about how unfortunate it was that Grels didn't commit rape and murder on camera, because it would have been a massive boost for the ratings. And Lasar exults in the emotions on display in the cabin, with Deanie displaying rage, terror, despair, worry and pain while watching her daughter get sicker and seeing Nat incapable of helping her. And, as Lasar says with a TV-megawattage grin, it looks like soon enough they're going to see an old-time emotion called "grief". And he's right; as Keten doesn't make it through the night and Deanie and Nat struggle to articulate their feelings to each other--they might be high-drive but they were raised in a society that never prepared them for the situation they're in.

The audience finds it hysterically funny, though, so at least their child's death wasn't a total loss. The camera zooms in from afar while they're digging the grave for Keten, the frame intruding on their grief voyeuristically. The audio device says after filling in the grave there's nothing more to be done, but Deanie silently places a driftwood marker for her child. And during the impromptu ceremony they hear rocks clattering; Deanie returns to the house where Grels is waiting--and the door slams shut once she's inside. She screams as Nat tries to break the door down with the firewood-cutting axe, and when he finally makes his way inside he strikes Grels dozens of times, leaving him a blood-spattered ruin on the cabin floor (and the blocking of this scene is amazing--the attack is shown via the viewscreen in the broadcast control room, so it's framed in a way that diegetically prevents the audience from seeing the axe actually strike another person and lets Tony Vogel let loose with insane fury without having to worry about hitting anybody else during the shoot).

His homicidal rage and grief are the absolute funniest thing that the low-drive audience has ever seen, but better than that, the high-drive people in the control room are laughing just as hard. It's a smash hit, the ratings are at their peak, and Lasar announces via voiceover that another series of The Live Life Show will be starting soon while Priest shivers and mutters to himself, wondering what they've done.

What an amazing film, and what a way to absolutely not deliver on that title in the best way imaginable. Nigel Kneale, from what this movie tells me, must have absolutely hated his job writing for the BBC. Or, at least, he hated the aspects of it that had to be made accessible to the lowest common denominator. I can see how that would give him ulcers--the creator of Bernard Quatermass having to write scripts that the original audience for Benny Hill would like is making me a little nauseous just from thinking about it. It's a damned shame that I can't see what the goofy-ass costumes all looked like in color, but even in its bonsai form on DVD it's really worth checking out. I hope the people who tuned in back in 1968 expecting something titillating got their feelings hurt SO BAD. It's a scathing, brutal indictment of the loathsome tastes of the television audience out there, and an even more excoriating look at the professionals who pander to them for money. I thought I was going to be watching 100 minutes of Nigel Kneale griping about youth culture and wanting people to get off his lawn. He was much more interested in burning every bridge between him and the television industry that he could reach. I hope he enjoyed the taste of the hand that fed him.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for movies beginning with today’s letter are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  You're Next

Yes, I Know:  The Yellow Sign


  1. That sounds AMAZING. It sounds as if there's almost a drinking game to be made out of spotting which current pop culture trends Kneale got within spitting distance of.

  2. If you want to check out some more dystopian British SF from this period, either STAND ON ZANZIBAR or THE SHEEP LOOK UP, both by John Brunner, will horrify you with the things he managed to get right (THE SHEEP LOOK UP is the earliest work I know of that mentions the problems associated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, for example). And they're fascinating books on their own.