Filmed through yellow and brown filters in an evocative late eighties Warsaw, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1988 film is a feature-length expansion of one of the shorts in his Dekalog sequence, juxtaposing a young man (Miroslaw Baka as Jacek Lazar) and his senseless murder of taxi driver for money with the state and its own brutal killing of Lazar in the name of just retribution.
I’m sure it’s all serious points being made about anomie or alienation or existentialism or whatnot, but fucksakes, this Lazar dude is a fucking muppet, so it’s no surprise when he gets picked up by the Polski radics so sharpish. Inarticulate, scared, stupid, Lazar’s fate was written in the spilled blood of his victim, and there is nothing his state defender (Krzysztof Globisz as Piotr Balicki) can do except provide a poetical stage from which the young killer can exit, left (or rather, down, and quick about it)…
So that’s where the piss tray comes in – Kieslowski likes the grubby little details of a good socialist death as much as he likes 6th form playwright-style dialogue debating individual versus collective agency of killing. Some solid shit, but not exactly uplifting. Never quite figured out the whole business with the West Brom fans rampaging through the town, though…
I only started watching Oz at the very end of the first series. I was visiting my chumnik M down in that there Lunnon, plotting all manner of naughtiness, and through the snow blizzard shone this dark hearted beast of a show, flickering and fuckering and cocksuckering out the tube, back in those pre-multichannel analogue days when Channel 4 (or to be more precise, 4Later) actually broadcasted worthwhile braincandy.
“Watch this,” said M, skin turning grey as the Guinness sank, the windows all locked tight and the air turning stale with smoke and central heating. “It’s fucking brutal.”
It was fucking brutal. The season finale was a big prison riot. Random people shanked. Bad things happened. It didn’t end on an upbeat note. M was right, and after this I stuck with Oz, through to the sixth and final season.
In a fashion similar to Tour Of Duty, Oz was a soap opera about the platonic (and not-so-platonic) love affairs, shifting alliances, and the struggle between good and evil within themselves of men in exceptional circumstances. Unlike TOD, there were no easy platitudes, no free rides, no white hats and black hats.
The set-up is simple: It’s a high-security gaol, Oswald State Correctional Facility (né Oswald Maximum Security Penitentiary). Within that prison is an experimental unit, Em City, were manager McManus tries to imbue in the inmates a sense of community and belonging, and values of respect and responsibility. We meet the cons, old and new, and see how they rub along together in this goldfish bowl. All pretty same-old, same-old so far.
Except we’re not following the standard trope playbook here. This is not a triumph of the human spirit. This is not the plucky underdog winning in the end. This is tragedy. Dark and cold shit happens, and it’s inevitable. Men pursuing righteousness are laid low by their own hubris. Bad deeds do go unpunished, and good deeds do condemn their doers.
Oz first aired in 1997 on subscription channel HBO, as an hour-long, commercial-free show. The HBO model meant it did not have to rein in the language or the content to avoid pissing off advertisers, because there were no advertisers (something which paid off big time with the subsequent show The Sopranos). The producers certainly made good use of these creative freedoms.
The rhythm of the show jumps between staccato sequences of jokes without punchlines to long arcs of slow character development, all interweaved with sudden, and often meaningless, acts of extreme violence. Integral characters are brutalised, tortured, killed, without warning and without mercy. It’s disorientating, but compelling. You find yourself rooting for some serious nasty-arsed motherfuckers – and we know just how nasty they are because all the principal characters get little how-they-ended-up-here flashback sequences, and none of them were convicted of unlicensed flower-sniffing. Yet despite all this, you never lose sight of how the system of incarceration they endure now, and the society from which they have been removed, is in itself a destructive and coercive instrument of control and brutalisation. Good men are turned bad, and bad men are made worse. Ultimately Oz is a killing machine. A conveyor belt through the abbatoir.
Of course, many a fine idea has been ruined by letting loose fucking morons to do the legwork; fortunately that’s not something that’s happened here. Created and mostly written by Tom Fontana (he of the multiverse), the show is packed full of thoroughly convincing actors, many of them familiar to you from the various Law & Order shows (amongst other things), and many of them with strong stage backgrounds. There’s JK Simmons (Dr Skoda in L&O) as Vern Schillinger, the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in Em City; Harold Perrineau (Michael Dawson in Lost) as wheelchair-riding chorus Augustus Hill, Kirk Acevedo (Hector Salazar in L&O, Joe Toye in Band Of Brothers) as Latino inmate Miguel Alvarez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Mr Eko in Lost) as smacked-up Nigerian man mountain Adebisi, Lee Tergesen (L&O, Desperate Housewives and Wanted) as drinkdriving killer Tobias Beecher, Eamonn Walker (Justice, Unbreakable, The Bill) as Muslim imam Kareem Saïd… There’s even Ernie fucking Hudson on board, as warden Leo Glynn, and 50s/60s starlet Rita Moreno as prison shrink Sister Peter Marie. What more bang do you want for your buck?
Well, as well as all them, plus a revolving door policy on high-quality bit-parts (Eric Roberts turns in a career-best performance as a whacked-out serial killer… Yes, that Eric fucking Roberts), you also get Dean Winters as Ryan O’Reily, the resident Irish hoodlum. O’Reily is one of the greatest TV characters of all time – conniving, plotting, merciless, compassionate, caring, violent, witty, often all in the same scene – who jumps between the ever-shifting tectonic plates of inter-group rivalry within Oz. Machiavellian is a word too often thrown around, all too often inappropriately; but O’Reily is a prince of princes, constantly playing off both ends against the middle, and lingering long enough to make a profit off the blood of all (virtually every death in the first season is attributable to him).
So round we come, back to HonkWatch. Midway through season two, O’Reily discovers he has breast cancer. He has surgery and undergoes chemotherapy. He blows chunks. Peas appear to be involved. Enjoy. (And if you’ve never seen Oz, hunt it down and do so.)
And so to complete our trilogy of bodily functions-meet-moving pictures features, I introduce to you this fine example of onscreen scatology, stemming from the Beeb’s 1999 adaptation of Alan Partridge’s desert island book of choice, Bravo Two Zero.
In case you are completely unaware of it, ‘Bravo Two Zero’ was the callsign of a British SAS unit sent behind Iraqi lines in the 1991 Gulf War, tasked with finding and disabling mobile Scud missile launchers. Of course, it all went Horribly Wrong, and the invincible warriors of the Special Air Service were forced to flee. Of the eight-man team, only one escaped, four were captured and three died.
A couple of years later, the team’s leader wrote a book about it all, using the pseudonym ‘Andy McNab’. It became a bestseller, and somewhat implausibly (given how the story pans out) something of a favourite for taxi drivers. Adopting a thoroughly readable (if hardly memorable) style of prose, McNab relates how the mission goes tits-up early on, forcing the unit to kill possibly hundreds of Iraqis as they make a break for the Syrian border. On the way they are split up in bad weather. After much walking and a car hijacking, McNab’s group is forced to try and shoot their way across the frontier when they get stopped at a checkpoint, but to no avail: our breezily racist hero is thrown in the jug, where he is interrogated, tortured and isolated. Eventually he is reunited with a couple of his mates, who have also been captured, and a while later they are repatriated after the ceasefire. The end.
Except the only member of the mission to actually escape Iraq disagreed with he read in McNab’s account, and wrote his own version, snappily entitled The One That Got Away, under the nom de plume of ‘Chris Ryan’ (never was quite sure why he chose to name himself after the short bloke out of The Young Ones). In it Ryan describes the various incidents of derring-do in McNab’s book in somewhat different terms – tanks and armoured personnel carriers and hundreds of heavily armed troops become a bunch of militia and some armed civilians – whilst also berating McNab’s leadership (which, unsurprisingly, McNab himself thought was pretty damn good).
So it came to pass that in 1996 ITV produced a film of The One That Got Away, directed by a pre-big budget blockbusting-helming Paul Greengrass and starring, um, noted screen hardman Paul McGann as Ryan. I guess getting pipped to the post by the opposition is one of the reasons why in the BBC film the Ryan character is painted as such an effete and narcissistic dill. It’s not even as though the Michael Asher (The Real Bravo Two Zero, 2002) or ‘Mike Coburn’ (Soldier Five, 2004) books, which have a go at both the McNab and Ryan versions, had been published by this point. Still, at least there’s some attempt at throwing a bit of moral depth into the Ryan film; it’s rather disarming when you realise that the somewhat flat and simplistic Bravo Two Zero script was knocked up by none other than Troy Kennedy-Martin, who gave us one of television’s most complex and conscious dramas of the last twenty years, Edge Of Darkness. This, on the other hand, doesn’t come even close to the gangster-glamorising wit of The Italian Job. It’s just gung ho shit.
Talking of which… So, McNab – played by Sean Bean, no stranger to Motion Picture Motions – has been captured, and his chainsmoking mate Dinger has been thrown in the cell with him. In order to satiate his pal’s need for nicotine, Andy takes to amusing their gaoler in exchange for fags. And, as is often the way in such circumstances (so I’m led to believe – I have no direct experience of it myself), this involves complimenting the turnkey on his Boney M and Michael Jackson covers, and then eating the shit off his own hands after emptying the chamberpot down the down. Bish bash bosh, job’s a good’un, pass me the matches, goodnight Vienna.