'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Friday, February 02, 2007

Film Notes: Children of Men 

Fridays strike me as a good day for Film Notes, so this may become a weekly or biweekly feature. After all, how many times can anyone post comments about the latest jingoistic pronouncements of people like presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and John Edwards?

So, let's proceed: Children of Men is a adaption of a P. D. James novel published in the early 1990s, and, as with the visually and narratively very different film, V for Vendetta, it exploits a dystopian vision of the future as a means of forcing us to confront the present. The plot is straightforward: Theodore Faron, the protagonist, convincingly portrayed by Clive Owen, is going about his business in London in 2027.

In a world that has become increasingly violent and autocratic, the middle-aged Faron sleepwalks his way through work, drinks and visits with his apparently only close friend, Jasper Palmer. a friendly, charming eccentric. Engagingly played by Michael Caine, Palmer reminds us of the recent, more compassionate past. It is yet another of Caine's fine character performances in which he deepens the emotional content of the film, without overwhelming the leads.

At the beginning, we learn why the world is in such disarray. Humans are incapable of reproducing, and the plot is set in motion after Faron discovers, through his terrorist? armed resistance? ex-wife (Juliette Moore, very good as well), that a young, West African woman named Kee has become pregnant. Over the course of the rest of the movie, Faron is drawn into the necessity of secreting Kee away from the horrors of 2027 Britain to a utopian science endeavor in the Azores known as "The Human Project".

There has been much comment on the technical proficiency of the film, and the critics are right, as a political suspense thriller, it is riveting from beginning to end. The director, Alfonso Cuaron, his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, and the camera crew, are equally proficient in presenting scenes of emotional intimacy as well as extended takes of violent action. They consistently, and deliberately, avoids closeups and fix the characters within the foreground of wide-angled shots of the world around them. They do not manufacture false sentiment, instead an authentic feel emerges from our observations of the characters interacting with one another, others and the physical environment. The camera moves, either slowly or rapidly, as the plot requires, most impressively during an ambush in the early part of film, and, then, later, near the end, in a large refugee camp for deporting undocumented people.

For these reasons, Children of Men found itself listed on quite a number of "Top Ten" lists. All the more unfortunate that, despite all this, and a great deal of contemporary political quotation, it remains lifeless, as soulless as Faron in the opening scenes. After one strips away the strong performances, the good script and the masterful visual storytelling, we are left with, at the end of the day, an old, shopworn Hollywood genre film, the jaded white male protagonist, adrift in world that he seeks to evade and ignore at every opporunity (and, can, of course, easily do so, precisely because he remains, despite his bohemian rejection of society, part of the privileged class), a world in which he has severed almost all emotional attachments, until someone comes into his life again to prompt his stopped heart to start beating again and try to save someone he cares about, and, in the process, change the world as well.

Yes, you've got it. As strange as it sounds, Children of Men is really just a more violent, contemporary version of Casablanca. Even more pernicious, the movie is classic neoliberal fare, and this is no doubt one of the primary additional reasons that it finds itself on so many "Top Ten" lists. Any attempt to understand the world in terms of political ideology and collective social action is unrelentingly described as either impossible (the terrorist cell? the resistance movement? is riven by mistrust and personal ambition, the undocumented refugees splintered into numerous groups of armed combatants), or, worse, the actual source of autocracy and impersonal violence.

Of course, there is the rejoinder: it's all true! Leaving aside such a subjective contention (haven't there been, in fact, successful social movements in the last 30 years, despite the march of neoliberalism?), I wouldn't find it so objectionable if the intention was, reminiscent of Fassbinder, to show us the world as it is in order to compel us to recognize and aspire to better alternatives, but the movie lacks this sophistication. Instead, the future of humans of earth hangs by the thread of its individualistic, Stakhanovite hero, updated as a nihilistic loner for contemporary audiences.

By contrast, V for Vendetta treats these subjects in disquieting ways that ensured that it made few, if any, "Top Ten" lists. V, the protagonist, is an ambiguous figure, seemingly well-meaning, but emotionally scarred by past abuse, and recalls some of the great tragic creations of the silent and early sound cinema, which, in turn, were derived from 19th Century literature. V for Vendetta references an alternative film history that is more challenging for critics than Rick, on the runway, watching Ilsa fly away with Victor Laszlo.

Most troubling of all, V insists upon the right to the individual to confront the violence of the state with violence, if necessary, and the film suggests that existing systems of oppression generate the violence that bring about their demise. Audiences find it easy to identify with Faron, who only shoots after being fired upon, but V is much harder for them, he's scary, he compels the audience to think about things it would rather not.

V, also unlike Faron, implicity recognizes that there is a power elite that controls the social order, instigating fear and social unrest among the populace to perpetuate themselves, and seeks to destroy them, while Faron gives the question only passing interest, or, perhaps, more accurately, treats it, consistent with neoliberal thought, as an immutable condition. V inspires the populace to rise up against the British government and blows up Parliament, the symbol of its fascist turn; Faron tries to spirit Kee out of Britain.

Finally, as an aside, it is important to note that V for Vendetta is also more subtle in its understanding of the instruments of social control and how they are carefully utilized. In Children of Men, undocumented people are seized at underground and train stations, and whisked away to nearby cages in public view. This is simplistic to the extreme, as if the authorities have learned nothing since Hitler and Stalin. Conversely, the Wachowski brothers, well aware of how neoliberal governments rely upon stealth to intimidate, present a world of outward normality in V for Vendetta. The police, the Fingermen, much like the current practice of rendition, grab people when they are alone, either at home or in the street, hood them, and take them away to torture and kill them, understanding that the rumors associated with such disappearances are a far more effective way to frighten the public and instill compliance than performing their duties out in the open.

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