The “Kill the DJ” episode of Season 4’s Black Mirror was probably the stand-out entry this year for a number of reasons, not the least of which the tender way it presents the concept of “Simulation vs. Reality” shaped in the context of “Dating is Really Hard and Frustrating”. More than anything, thought, it put me in mind of Yorgos Lanthimos’ 2015 The Lobster, a movie everyone in the world liked more than I did.
In “Kill the DJ”, a young couple joins a society in which they are paired up with multiple partners for specific, computer-determined lengths of time in order to collect preference data and find them their “Perfect match”. The program boasts, continuously, of 99.8% accuracy. There is no opting out of this program, no chance of escape, and you have to accept the partner you are assigned on your “Match Day”. In an early example, our hero is trapped with a humorless termagant for a year; the heroine is matched with an okay businessman-type, but she becomes immediately bored with him and has to trudge through nine months with a guy who isn’t a jerk, but isn’t for her. Those versed in narrative construction can probably guess where it’s going, but there are still surprises along the way.
The Lobster has a similar premise: you join a society and you have to find your perfect mate within a short period of time or else you’re turned into an animal. During the course of the program, from which you can’t opt out, you are required to journey into the woods and hunt down folks who have attempted to escape this program. The “Society” is just as strange as those living outside of it—there is no masturbation, and if you’re caught, they stick your hand in a toaster; you can’t have sex, but they make sure your sexual tension is wracked way up first thing in the morning courtesy of maids working in the complex; in the wilderness, if you’re caught kissing another person, your lips are mutilated via “The Red Kiss”. There is also something called “The Red Intercourse”, and you can guess at the ramifications of that.
Colin Farrell, in sad-sack mode, shows up with a border collie who used to be his brother, but failed the program. Should he fail, he chose to be a Lobster. No explanation is really offered for this choice, no more so than any explanation for joining the program in the first place, other than “it’s better than being alone.”
Interesting set-up. A lot of avenues to follow. Lots of different paths to take towards the conclusion.
Not that Lanthimos takes any of them.
It’s not that I believe Lanthimos is ignorant of narrative structure. I think, based on The Lobster and his previous head-scratcher, Dogtooth, he holds narrative structure in contempt. Not a single concept introduced in The Lobster is explored to any great degree, and nothing has a pay off. The brother is a misdirect and is quickly dispatched. The “Red Kiss”/ “Red Intercourse” has no bearing on the plot. Neither, ultimately, is wanting to be a lobster.
While The Lobster was heralded by critics and fans as a masterpiece of surrealism, I found it nasty and off-putting. There isn’t a single sympathetic character to be found, nor, most importantly, is an interesting one. Lanthimos seems to hold his characters in contempt as well. And what he’s set up: uninteresting characters in a rigidly structured situation with absolutely no where to go and no desire to see them arrive. It’s a story about overcoming loneliness and eschewing what society has deemed a “healthy relationship,” as if there is such a singular thing.
From a narrative standpoint, what we have here is a two-hour Chekhov’s Gun, which is often referenced, but never fired.
Throughout 2015, more than a dozen people would continuously grill me, asking if I’ve seen The Lobster. “Well? Have you? HAVE YOU???” When I did, I walked up to the first co-worker who recommended it and punched him in the arm. He then accused me of having no patience for non-traditional storytelling. I asked him if he had elderly relatives.
He replied in the affirmative.
“Do you enjoy long, rambling stories about people you don’t know or care about having adventures going to the dentist, the hair-dresser, and the post office, either on a Tuesday or, no, it was a Wednesday. I remember because my neighbor was watering her lawn and the mail had come early that day…”
That’s the narrative structure of The Lobster.
I spent the majority of the movie rewriting scenes in my head so they would make some sort of compelling argument for continuing on this interminable journey. From the premise, I worked up a quick conclusion—one the movie did not have to follow, but was at least a concrete path made of the stepping stones I’d been given.
Farrell chooses a lobster because he sees himself as a bit of a bottom-dweller, but one that’s usually desired by people with money. Lobster, after all, is usually the most expensive dish on the menu. The restaurant didn’t name itself Red Tofu.
He can’t find anyone within the compound he connects with. When is brother is dispatched, he escapes, meets equally-uninteresting Rachel Weitz in the woods, and they pair up out of necessity. She is also a failure of the compound. So they have that in common.
Weitz explains the concept of the “Red Kiss/Intercourse”, which horrifies everyone and seems really counter-productive to escaping the fascist compound runners.
Weitz and Farrell, brought together out of desperation, have sex in the woods and get caught. Just as they are about to have “The Red Intercourse” inflicted upon them, new recruits from the program show up and gun everyone down but Weitz and Farrell.
Captured, they are brought to the compound. Since it’s a first offense for both, they will be made into the animals of their choice. Farrell asks what Weitz’s choice is. She replies, “A lobster, of course.”
End shot: two lobsters dropped into a boiling pot for the consumption of those running The Program. Credits.
Again, that the movie didn’t follow my threads wasn’t what bothered me. I just built the building with the bricks given. The problem is the movie gives the audience bricks, then goes and digs a hole in the ground to live in. It doesn’t make any sense. We have all these bricks. Build a fucking roof! I can appreciate a willingness to subvert expectation. What I can’t abide by is being told, by the filmmaker, that I was an idiot for watching the film in the first place. I was guaranteed lobster. What I got was interpretive dance about food that left me confused and still starving. When was the meal arriving?
Which is, of course, my long-winded way of saying “Watch Black Mirror on Netflix and learn what it’s like when your expectations are subverted honestly.”