Orange is the New Black: Season Four
After a lacklustre third season, OITNB returns with fire in its belly and a renewed sense of purpose for its fourth season, arguably the best yet. The problem last time around was that there was very little antagonism between the different groups of inmates, which meant that there was very little tension propelling viewers through each of the episodes, and the major storylines were primarily intended for comedic appeal but fell flat (Piper’s used-panty business and Norma’s miracle-working were the key culprits). This time, the writers and producers have clearly listened to the show’s critics, and they use the influx of new inmates and subsequent overcrowding of the prison as a catalyst for greatly intensified action. Moreover, a theme that has always been lurking in the background is thrillingly hauled kicking and screaming to the fore: race relations.
There has always been racial segregation in Litchfield, as Piper was made painfully aware of from the start when she unsuccessfully tried to sit with the black inmates, but in this season outright war breaks out between the different groups: Piper unwittingly starts a gang of neo-Nazis, the Dominicans form a drug cartel, the African-Americans face a tragedy that brings them together in rage, and the prison staff overwhelmingly represent a white male privilege that threatens the peace of the entire institution. These opposing factions confront and antagonise each other across the span of the thirteen episodes, building up to a finale of such explosive proportions that it cannot help but represent our worst fears about the American dream of integration turning sour, or far worse than that – dangerous and violent.
This comes at a time, of course, when there really is a racial war occurring on the streets of that famous melting pot, in which African-American communities are facing off against predominantly white male police officers in the streets of its poorest communities, and Donald Trump is winning political points by stoking the flames of prejudice against the Hispanic population. So OITNB’s confrontation of these issues, its examination of the Black Lives Matter movement and the frightening state of race relations currently existing in America, feels urgent and, for the first time in the show’s history, switched on and keyed in to very contemporary concerns. That it does so with compassion and complexity, refusing to sentimentalise any of the racial groups by depicting them as helpless victims, yet equally refusing to demonise any group by depicting them as caricature villains (even the Nazis experience conflicting feelings of compassion towards the other inmates at times), results in one of the most incisive and insightful deconstructions of race relations since Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a great deal of comedy to enjoy in this series also: primarily, there is the wonderful Blair Brown portraying TV chef Judy King, a new inmate and celebrity who is given the special treatment in Litchfield and is willing to exploit every moment of it – as well as other people – for her own amusement and sexual gratification. Then there is Caputo, the assistant warden still struggling to balance his need to be the ‘good guy’ and his attraction, quite literally in the case of one of his bosses, to success within the bureaucracy of the prison’s corporate management – he is compassionate and yet also pathetically turned on by manipulative women in power, and as such he always brings big laughs and an ever-compromised heart to the show.
It’s a unique and frequently quite brilliant series, full to the brim with terrific characters and a superlative ensemble cast portraying them. Structurally, it is starting to come together more, although still somewhat chaotic in its balancing act of the multiplicity of storylines and subplots; the scripts could sometimes do with tightening up to draw the various strands thematically together in each episode (using The Wire or Mad Men as outstanding examples). Still, you really do care about these inmates, and the last episode, which uses flashbacks to allow a major character to reappear shortly after her death, has a poignancy that is unmatched in any show that I’ve seen this year. Season Four is a great achievement, and one with a strong political purpose that I hope will be renewed in later instalments.
The Neon Demon
Nicolas Winding Refn is, in my eyes, an incredibly frustrating young director. He clearly has remarkable talent and, crucially because it is so rare to find, a distinctive visual style and voice. Yet he is so determined to be perverse and provocative, at the expense of any humanity or complexity, that he consistently undermines the beauty of his films with a harsh, unforgiving, and stubbornly one-dimensional tone. Shock is his primary aim – not in a schoolboy, shop-of-horrors type way (he is far from commercially minded), but in an intellectual sense, delighting in offending the bourgeois moralists that he presumes dominate the critical establishment. His films are routinely booed at the Cannes Film Festival, a fact which I’m sure delights him.
I appreciate the morbid humour and anti-establishment motivation behind this drive, and accept that he is in a long tradition of great filmmakers with an insatiable desire to shock the public out of the complacency of their daily lives: Hitchcock, Buñuel, Lynch, Cronenberg, von Trier, Tarantino etc. all fall into this category. But those directors have so much more going on in their works than mere shock value, whereas Refn’s output leaves one cold and with little to ponder once the films have finished. Drive had its admirers, but I was not one of them – it left me with no lasting impression beyond the meticulously staged scenes of violent retribution. Only God Forgives had few admirers, and again I was not one of them – it appeared to me to be Freud-on-steroids, all style and very little substance.
In contrast, I am at least a partial admirer of his latest feature, The Neon Demon, about a virginal young girl who attempts to make a modeling career for herself in L.A., only to cross paths with sinister and sadistic businessmen and women that are happy to abuse her. The standard objections to Refn as a director still apply, including the most grievous of all: he has little time for actors, abandoning Elle Fanning in her struggle to bring the lead role some depth, and permitting Keanu Reeves and Christina Hendricks to walk on and off set again, leaving the barest of impressions. Refn has always preferred to focus his attention, with the intensity of a close-up lens, upon the set, costumes, colour schemes, camera movements, chilly synth soundtrack – the mise en scène as opposed to the human beings.
But there is a decent attempt here to contribute to the conversation on one of cinema’s greatest overarching themes: the fetishistic voyeurism that the presence of a camera both implicitly and explicitly encourages. The first shot of this film is of an apparently dead woman, her throat seemingly slit, sprawled out on a sofa in an unquestionably erotic manner, as a camera flashes, repeatedly capturing the moment (at twenty-four frames per second?). We soon discover that this woman is a prospective model, and that the blood adorning her is only make-up. It’s just a show: she’s alive. Or at least she’s alive to the other characters on the screen – is she any more alive to us? After all, this woman remains an illusion. She is an actor playing a character that doesn’t exist. Crucially, we can see her, but she can’t see us. And doesn’t that remind you of something? A corpse, perhaps?
With a devilish persistence typical of his perversity, Refn explores the relationship between the modelling industry and necrophilia throughout this film. Photographing women turns them into inanimate objects, corpses if you will, unseeing objects upon whom we can project our sexual fantasies. So it is also with cinema (highlighted magnificently in Vertigo). Yet of course, as we watch these models and actors, we may occasionally notice that they do have eyes, that they are real people, that they could have the ability to look right back at us, if only they were not separated from us by a screen – or by death. That perturbs and unsettles us: the thought of inanimate objects or corpses having the ability to come to life is the stuff of nightmares, not dreams. So this film progresses with a frightening inevitability, concluding with grandly realised scenes of true horror. Look out for the final scene, one with truly memorable bite, in which the onscreen dead looks right back at us, in a particularly grotesque fashion, forcing us to question the nature of cinema and voyeurism in the process. Are you enjoying what you’re watching?
Death, destruction, sex, bloodletting: they are all entwined in our movies, and we continue to pay to watch these events displayed before us onscreen. Only the best directors are aware of the frightening implications of this complacency, and that our deepest desires, our voyeuristic obsession with onscreen objects (which explains the popularity of pornography), could be more menacing than we tend to realise. The Neon Demon is not the first film, and it won’t be the last, to confront us with these disturbing issues, but it is a welcome sign that Refn is growing in maturity. If he only allowed himself to explore a little more of human nature beyond what he has learnt from watching films, then he would have the potential to become one of the truly great filmmakers.