– By Allan Lear
Doubtless I am merely the latest in a long line of people to inform you that the governance of the entire planet has comprehensively gone to shit in the past year or two. The failures of the existing political class, subsequently dubbed “the elite” by people who have either no idea of what an elite is or, more perplexingly, no desire to be part of one, to deal with the economic fall-out of the disaster they caused in 2008 has given rise to a new breed of have-a-go politicians. On the superficially plausible basis that they couldn’t make things any worse, a class of political untermenschen have risen to a prominence that they could not have dreamed of only ten short, painful years ago.
When the Referendum Party was around in 2000 it was hard to pick a person off a crowded thoroughfare who had even heard of them, let alone had any idea what they wanted a referendum on or why. Now Nigel Farage is invited onto the squawkbox to comment on any issue, no matter how tangentially aligned to the EU, despite his never having won an election to any constituency in Britain and UKIP’s having a parliamentary party with precisely no MPs in it. In Europe the far right has been on the march barely a single lifetime after that continent received possibly the clearest warning in history that the far right is not the party of stable prosperity and man-management skills. And the less said about the US, where a subhominid minority of the electorate successfully catapulted a tangerine babyman to the highest office in the land for no better reason than because they were sick of having a president who was visibly cleverer than them, the infinitely better.
So now we have a situation where human rights are in retreat across a continent that’s been civilised for two thousand years while, on the obverse hemisphere, two countries led by spoilt children who have never been denied a thing in their lives and have the consequent ill-discipline normally attributed to rabid badgers are threatening nuclear war with each other. The other one’s North Korea, by the way.
As always, the utter collapse of world politics has been good for one thing only, and that has been the rise of dystopian fiction in popular entertainment. The fuse has been fizzling for some years now, with the runaway success of half-decent The Hunger Games leading to multiple aborted film franchises of kiddy-dystopias like Divergent and The Maze Runner, where adults are naughty and children are good. But as the edifice of all world organisation teeters like Phillipe Petit with a nasty dose of labyrinthitis, these have been augmented by real dystopian fiction like Atwell’s seminal (so to speak) The Handmaid’s Tale and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, marginally updated and spread out by mass media in a way they have never previously been despite high regard in the circles of the dyscognoscenti.
Transmission is a short film by production company Parallel Madness in which a political prisoner is subjected to a pretty thoroughgoing Room 101 experience by a pawn of the state going by the moniker Dr Sam. That’s Room 101 from 1984, of course, not the much-revived panel game format in which various local celebrities endeavour to pitch personal bêtes noir and micronuisances into a fictive purgatory.
The short wears its influences on its sleeve in a way that, in a longer format, would attract the epithet “slavish”. After ten minutes of Orwellian trappings it transpires that what we have been watching is, in fact, a very loose adaptation of a short story by Ambrose Bierce, and the direction owes so much to David Lynch that it may end up selling its body on street corners to repay the debt. There is no doubting, however, that this decision lends itself to the hallucinatory nature of the plot, so we are at least in the territory of stylisation that works with the content rather than against it.
One frequent failing of Lynch’s oeuvre is that he populates his work with so many oddities, freakazoids and weirdlings that he forgets to include any actual people. On this front Transmission surpasses its inspiration, providing in its short running time two likeable protagonists for whom one feels genuine sympathy. This is particularly impressive given that one of them – Michael Shon as a quasidissident journalist bone-crushingly caught in the mechanisms of state – has very little to say indeed, and the other one is only a flashback anyway. Kelby Keenan plays the journalist’s girlfriend, whose memory he cherishes in a way Winston Smith couldn’t manage with Julia, and has a natural and charming presence in her short screentime.
Scenery-chewing duties are left to James Hyland as the capering demon Dr Sam, whose mantra for the revised state – “Together we stand alone” – could easily have slipped from the pages of V for Vendetta or a George W Bush address on the Special Relationship. Here we see the Lynchian non-human in full flight, Hyland’s tittering head-butcher a far cry from the sober, rational O’Brien of 1984 or Michael Palin’s friendly bedside torturer in Gilliam’s wonderful Brazil. Dr Sam is a psychiatric Josef Mengele, representing the forces of rationality perverted by obeisance to cretinous kneejerk emotionalism, and he clearly has a thoroughly good time as he gibbers like a pantomime devil. In a longer film he would surely have worn out his welcome, but in a ten minute slot it’s fun to watch him have fun.
Transmission is a good example of a short film that makes a virtue of its brevity. All hallucinatory filmmaking runs the risk of spitting out a garbled, self-indulgent, tortuous mess. That it avoids this fate is a factor of its strict run-time, which prevents the un-naturalistic presentation from wearing a hole through the viewer. Walking a tightrope between the forced abrasiveness of the direction and villain, and the affable magnetism of the two protagonists, Transmission traverses above the pit of curate’s eggs.