Friday, January 26, 2007

Children of Men (2006)

We saw Children of Men nearly three weeks ago, and I've attempted a couple of passes at writing about it, with little success. The short version is that it was the most visceral movie-going experience I've had in many years. I was emotionally affected by this film to an extent not at all typical for me. (In what follows, there may be some spoilers, if you're worried about that kind of thing, but not too many, I hope.)

Matt Zoller Seitz, in his mixed review at The House Next Door , wrote that the movie is "superbly crafted and compelling throughout, and filled with note-perfect performances", but that, finally, "it stops being about what it purports to be about and becomes a paean to its own proficiency". Needless to say, I disagree with the latter. But I bring up Seitz's review because he also describes the movie as "not so much an allegory as a depressive leftist projection". There is some truth to this. The movie, as any preview will tell you, takes place 20 years in the future, in a fascist Britain and a condition of world-wide (and unexplained) longterm infertility. Immigrants and political prisoners are rounded up and kept in camps or ghettoes. City bombings are so routine as to be virtually ignored. People go about their business while the world around them has already fallen to pieces. There are references to disasters: nuclear attack in Africa, "catastrophe" in New York, a flu pandemic. England itself looks like a constant warzone.

In various ways, then, the movie seems to embody many of the worst fears and nightmares we on the left (myself included) often have about "the way things are going". Economic instability, environmental degradation, political imbecility, current and projected resource shortages: all of these and much else contribute to a sense of hopelessness, that the problems the world faces are simply too huge, and the political will too lacking and elite power too overwhelming, to do much of anything.

The movie is often said to be about a "dystopian future", but my first instinct in describing the images is to refer to those we can see on the news or internet every day. In a comment to this Lenin's Tomb post (which is not about the movie but about "the death of liberalism" and is excellent; I highly recommend reading it), Richard Estes invoked the movie, writing that the post "highlights a curious aspect about the way the film has been reviewed. Critics consistently describe it as a dystopian vision of the future, while it is fairly evident that there are many people around the world who live in such conditions right now. [emphasis in original comment]" Indeed. Instead of merely being a "leftist projection"--except insofar as most of the privileged West largely does not currently face the conditions shown in the film--the film is about the problems of the world today. Images of prisoners with black hoods over their heads, of checkpoints, of references to "homeland security", make this point more explicit (too explicit for some).

So, the movie is political, but not in the sense that it attempts to articulate a coherent program for change.

A brief run-through of the story: Former activist Theo (Clive Owen), now largely apathetic, gets dragged into a plot by his ex-lover, Julian (Julianne Moore), who works with a group called the Fishes. They want him to procure travel papers for a young woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), who it turns out is pregnant. There hasn't been a live birth in more than 18 years, so this is huge. Julian's plan is to get Kee to a shadowy group called The Human Project, which may or may not exist. The Fishes as a group have their own plans. Intrigue and action ensues.

As I mentioned, the movie appears to nod in the direction of present-day left-wing concerns, but its images of left-wing activity are problematic. The Fishes are just as murderous as the government, just as bad as the fascists. They are depicted as nothing more than an extreme radical faction, willing to use Kee and her baby for whatever political aims they may have, which are never really articulated. We don't know what their aims are, and it doesn't appear that we're meant to care. The apolitical Theo--the former activist, now a successful professional--emerges, with the death of Julian, as the only character with a functioning moral compass and the strength to take any positive action. So the film appears to scoff at the notion of any kind of collective solution to anything. Also, Kee's guardian is a woman named Miriam (Pam Ferris), who is a figure of ridicule, spouting New Age mumbo jumbo about everything happening for a reason, mocked in a scene where she stumbles trying to do T'ai Chi. And yet, she does sacrifice herself for Kee and the baby.

Some critics have complained that no explanation is given for the inability to procreate. Others have taken issue with some of the logic of the film. If the population is dwindling, for example, what reason would the government have to lock up immigrants? Would there not then be an excess of resources? (See this thread at Cinemarati). I don't think questions like these ultimately matter (though they are interesting). The movie makes no attempt to answer the many questions that it raises. It offers the idea of hope, in a world that appears utterly hopeless (in which people believe, with reason, that there is literally no future), but this hope is tentative, potentially illusory. For all we know, the much-anticipated Human Project doesn't exist.

A minor closing observation: all the music in the movie is "oldies", from 50 years ago to today. We clearly hear radio stations refer to classics from 2003, for example. I wondered about the role of music in a society and nostalgia. The society of the movie has no future, so nostalgia for the music of the past (when the future existed) is strong. Who makes art when there is no future? Does the question make sense? In the movie, the character who Theo visits to obtain the travel papers collects famous art or artifacts (Picasso's Guernica is on one wall; the floating pig from Pink Floyd's Animals tour can be seen outside the window). He seems to be protecting it from destruction (if memory serves), as if society no longer had any use for it. All the pop music, anyway, is old. Obviously, even those songs that are new now would be old then, but the movie seems to treat all of the music as nostalgia. No youth, no pop music, it's all looking back.


brandon said...

"As I mentioned, the movie appears to nod in the direction of present-day left-wing concerns, but its images of left-wing activity are problematic."

I just finished 'Children of Men' and immediately thought of your comments on it. If my own blog does not make it clear, I'll "come out" and say that I'm not as leftist as most of my fellow rap bloggers or perhaps bloggers in general. The trailers for 'Children...' got my excited about the movie but reading about it made me think it was indeed some kind of weirdly propagandistic movie. My opinion was that it was significantly less absurdly left-wing than the plot suggests and critics have further suggested.

My question is, do you mean that the portrayal of the left makes them look problematic or do you mean that you find it problematic? I'm just curious.

I found one of the more intriguing aspects of the movie to be the way it made the government and the "radicals" look like idiots. As in, the left-wingers are equally as opportunistic. I'm obviously not fishing for you to agree, but if you have the time or interest, I'd love to further discuss this.

I'm just sorry I didn't see the movie when it came out so I could have posted this months ago.


Richard said...

Hi Brandon. I meant to flesh out that observation more, but I found myself going further afield than I meant to, so I removed it. Let me see if I can say something smart about it nearly three months later!

In the movie, you're quite right, I think, to say that the "radicals" appear just as opportunistic as the government. I was going to note that it's certainly not difficult to find throughout history all kinds of self-described radicals behaving in exactly the manner shown in the movie. (And of course the extreme factionalism of the left has been one of its biggest problems.)

I find the portrayal problematic, then, not because it doesn't have historical counterparts, but because I think (as a definite leftist) that useful common action is going to be the only way out of our current predicament (which I think only the left diagnoses with any fullness or much accuracy). In the movie, it seems that Theo is the hero--only he seems able to make the right decisions at the right time. So in this sense, I think, it undercuts some of what it sets up. (I think it sets up the notion of common/communal solution.) However, I don't know that it completely undercuts it. I'm not sure. Julian, for example, seems to be aware of the fact that she is among people who might not share the same goals. So I think this might be why she brings in Theo.

I don't know. I'm kind of rambling, so I'll stop there for now. But I need to see the movie again, that's for sure!

By the way, I haven't really noticed anything in your writing that would be a major tip-off that you're "not as leftist". I did notice the link to Christopher Hitchens--someone I used to like reading, but who I now find so intellectually dishonest (and sometimes just plain dishonest, not to mention icky) that I find him to be no longer worth reading.

brandon said...

I see what you mean. The movie in many ways, sets up a "dystopia" that particularly resonates with those leaning to the left (which would include me). However, it then undermines those a bit by making everyone an idiot, a jerk, or both other than Theo. So, Theo isn't as much pulled-back into the politics he tried to run away from as he is sucked back in and then finds himself involved and does or finds "right" where no one else can. So, yeah that is weird. Ha. I see what you mean.

Perhaps this is me projecting, but in some ways, isn't Theo right when early in the movie he tells the group they should just "go public" with the baby?

But yes, where does that place the movie? The DVD has among its special features, a "documentary" by Cuaron that verifies many of the left-oriented images and ideas going on in the movie, but as I see and you suggested, the movie itself is not totally in-line with those same beliefs...

But yes, like you, I found the movie viscerally exciting (particularly the long-takes) and was emotionally affected by it greatly.

As for Hitchens, I don't see him as being quite as dishonest as many but some of his stuff on Iraq and the President seems disingenuous or purposefully muck-raking. However, if one has read his writing "pre-911" his opinion of Islamic fundamentalists has not changed too much; this of course relates to his very good friend Salman Rushdie.

I guess for me, I relate to Hitchens' approach that many other things do not matter because a bunch of crazy Muslims might blow us the hell up. That's where I'm not really "leftist". I'm also okay with calling them "Crazy" which makes me a bit less sensitive about it. I find Hitchens' "about-face" similar to my own. However, I also understand the disdain for his "about face" and can see why he and his approach to things is not commonly held. Hitchens described it as not "a difference of emphasis" but a "difference of principle." But I'm willing to see why I might be totally off-base. Hitchens and Richard Rorty would probably be my "political heroes", so maybe I just don't make sense.

Akmat Nzamad said...

I've been looking at your blog for a few weeks now after having stumbled upon the triangular nexus of this, no trivia, and already half naked. I had meant to comment on the Z magazine post to ask what exactly the site update offers in the way of functional improvement. It kind of looks like the index of a software program now as opposed to a collection of articles. It had touched upon my guilt for never having contributed to Zmagazine, or thoroughly read it beyond some articles on Israel and researching Chomsky, who's views on Israel are frustratingly ambiguous, at least in the context of his libertarian socialism and his past views on the country.
I like this article though because it makes note of the critical reception of the movie as comfortably distanced by the notion of dystopian futurism as opposed to direct engagement in the present.
I was in Israel staying on a kibbutz during the war on Lebanon, and caught a screening of it two months in advance of its american release date (israel was up to date on european releases) and the film instead felt like a window as opposed to a a screen projecting a manufactured image. I think it was during the sequence in the ghetto when some of the denizens appear in Hamas like getups that the film's lack of exposition was perfectly justified. Most of it was self-explanatory and that shot was the clearest sympathetic portrait of how reactionary fundamentalism is birthed. And the lack of difference between England and the rest of the world felt like a clear example of what happens when the chickens come home to roost, our foreign policy washed ashore. The film felt like a diagram of the consequences of resting the entire solution Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a separatist, ethnically homogenized border state.
I'll stop here, but I'd like to say I like your blog.

Richard said...

Hi Akmat - thanks for reading. I appreciate the the kind words.

First, the Z magazine thing. I have to admit that I do not love their new web design. My concern with advertizing their need for support was that they do a lot of good work in general. They are big on community building, so they have blogging features, and "ZSpace", which appears to be a MySpace sort of deal, etc. I haven't done much with that so far. They also do a lot of educational activities offline (forums, conferences, workshops, fillms, etc). So my support for them is for all of that. I haven't had a chance to spend a lot of time with the new web design, to see what it really offers. I think it looks sort of unattractive.

As for Chomsky on Israel, I think he holds to the two-state solution. But I think he talks about that only because it's been the position of most of the world for about 40 years, actively obstructed by Israel and the US. (And of course his focus tends to be on the discrepancy between what is reported in the US, and what actually happens; he doesn't spend a lot of time expounding on what he thinks should happen in such places, to the frustration of many!) I personally think a two-state solution is untenable. For me, the only solution would be one-state, but that would require a lot of changes in Israel and in the US to be tenable itself. (I'm not an expert on Hamas by any means, but I believe there is evidence that there is room to maneuver with them. I think your point about the emergence of "reactionary fundamentalism" actually leaves this open too. If the conditions on the ground change, one's extreme positions soften as well.)

I really need to see this movie again! Your comments, and re-reading my post and Brandon's comments have brought it alive for me again...

Akmat Nzamad said...

haven't read the whole thing. My mom made me look it up because she saw the author interviewed on an Israeli news show. I didn't expect to find this, interesting.