Monday, January 29, 2007

"Children of Men," anyone?

I don't have time to do justice to Children of Men, but both Joseph Kugelmass at The Valve and Mark at K-Punk have written long, excellent posts on the film, and I would recommend you to them.

The film is, visually, extaordinary -- it led to one of those rare nights where I couldn't sleep, not because the baby was waking up every couple of hours (though there was that), but because I was haunted by the film's spectacular cinematography.

My one reservation with Children of Men comes from the slightly-too-heavy Christian flavor of the humanism in the film. The filmmakers definitely distance themselves from fundamentalist Christianity (the ‘repentance’ cult is seen as deluded), but it’s very hard not to read the Birth of a Child as enabling the Redemption of the Human Race in anything other than Christian terms.

Perhaps it’s possible to deemphasize this because the film brings in so many secular progressive/liberal themes-—the totalitarian overtones of the War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security, the persecution of immigrants/minorities, and the potentially devastating consequences of pollution on both the environment and on human health.

But all that couldn’t help me from feeling a little confused during the scene where Kee and Theo were walking down the street and soldiers were making the sign of the cross—as if the film’s ideology was shifting under my feet, and I was being offered a Communion wafer when I had thought I was eating Junior Mints.

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Anthony Paul Smith said...

This is complete crap of me to say, as I'm hardly literary, but perhaps you would be able to say if I'm on to something or deluded - I felt like the story was a bit like Melville and religious in that Melville way that Moby Dick is. Even the fog at the end is a bit of a white wall.

11:40 AM  
tamasha said...

I'm definitely not a film expert by any means, but I saw it with someone who is a filmmaker, who was amazed at the often several minutes of uncut film.

I dreamt about this film for weeks after having seen it.

11:41 AM  
Taj UK said...

I saw this last year when it came out in Britain. It surprises me that it seems to have been ignored at the major film awards (but then I don't really need them as barometer of my personal taste - I just wish more people would go see it).
Several things struck me:

1) The wonderful set design - a subtle future Britain that doesn't scream sci-fi, but feels eeriely prescient.
2) The script. Although packed with action, it never fell into a bombastic mode with the dialogue. Instead, in parts, it had an almost improvised ad-hoc quality to it (I'm thinking here particularly of the ping-pong ball scene).
3) The polarised reactions towards it I've come across. Some people have condemned it as miserabilist (I'll agree it isn't hugely cheery, but, artistically, it's hugely uplifting). Others have disliked those qualities in the script that I picked up on.
4) Clive Owen. I'm not a huge fan of this actor. I watched his breakout film, Croupier, and found him monotonous. However, his style suits the broken and jaded Theo perfectly. It's a performance that kind of reminds me of Harrison Ford's Deckard in Blade Runner.
5) Peter Mullan as Syd. This actor has a peerless ability to be both funny and scary at the same time.

I think Children of Men will stand the test of time. Seems the kind of film that rewards repeated viewings, and will probably make it onto the syllabusi of many a university film course.

3:26 PM  
Anonymous said...

I suppose that since there are also audible "Allahu-akbar"s in the same scene I took the soldier's gesture as an expression of awe, personal to the soldier, like the protective gestures made by the Roma character.

10:42 PM  
Mendi O. said...

I'm surprised at the level of devotion to this film, especially given the tacky, played, and disturbing disrobing of the black girl in the trailer. You all are so positive about other aspects of this film I am almost ready to overcome my trailer trauma and see it in the theater, but honestly I don't know if I can do it.

12:33 AM  
Amardeep said...

Mendi, now that you mention it, it is kind of icky the way Cuaron works with Kee's (Clair Hope-Ashitey) racial difference.

It's not that she's the only black character in the film. In fact, the leader of the "Fishes" (the militant immigrant uprising movement) is played by the amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor -- clearly a rising star (and he's actually pretty good here, as a rebel who's gone overboard with ideology).

But I do think that Kee's black femaleness does seem tied to the image of her as abject -- in need of care. She's somehow mythological -- the Virgin Mary as Earth Mother, where earthy isn't necessarily a compliment. (Just like Lauryn Hill was always called "earthy" by the mass-media back in the 90s -- instead of, say, "beautiful")

* * *

Anthony, I take your point. This question of Christianity as metaphor vs. crypto-proselytizing is actually something I worked with in the introduction to my book (which I've put online, click on "Literary Secularism" on the sidebar). For a long time as I was working with it I couldn't quite decide whether it mattered, but then I read James Wood's "The Broken Estate," and he pretty much convinced me that the distinction between the two categories is real and significant.

The sense I get from the discussion on The Valve is, P.D. James's book is even more direct about its theological subtext than the film -- not religion as metaphor, but religion as "message" (or "signified," if you will).

There is, admittedly, a gray area there between the two categories -- and writers like Melville are in it.

I have to admit that I tend to let it go when I'm listening to, say, Bach (clearly not intended as "secular" music), or, for that matter, the kind of Appalachian Bluegrass/gospel music Garrison Keillor often plays on "Prairie Home Companion" (yes, I know, an embarrassing reference point). I'm more picky about the secular "signified" of more textual & verbal forms of art -- films and novels.

9:32 AM  
Anthony Paul Smith said...

"I'm more picky about the secular "signified" [message?] of more textual & verbal forms of art -- films and novels."

Sure, but why?

9:45 AM  
Anonymous said...

What about Kee's initial protector figure -- the white woman with dreadlocks who kept chanting "shanti, shanti?" Who also happened to be named Miriam (the protector of Moses, protector of life)?

Does this character's "multiculturalism" read as integrative or appropriative? Which is the stronger signifier -- her Judeo-Christian name or her repetition of the Hindi word for peace?

Curious to know what you thought of her role in the story.

5:42 PM  
Anna Levine said...

I, too, found the ambiguity of earlier parts of the film attractive, and the increasingly heavy-handed Catholic imagery toward the end kind of a bummer/turn-off.

A big part of the explanation is that Cuaron's film is a (partial) secularization of P.D. James's explicitly Christian novel by the same name. The title of the book (and film) comes from Psalm 90:3, "You turn man back into dust/ and say, 'Return, O children of men.";

It strikes me as difficult to interpret the film's plot and script without understanding the way in which the underlying material (which I've never read) has been adapted. A plot synopsis (I have no idea how accurate) is available on wikipedia:

For example, the name the "Fishes" struck me in the film as having potentially Christian overtones. In the novel these overtones are clearer--Luke is a former priest, and the Fishes are good guys, in the Star Wars against Evil Empire mold, not bad or mixed guys, in the Notes from the Underground mold.

The follow up questions for me would be what part of the original material drew Cuaron? To what extent was he trying to universalize the message, and to what extent camouflage a Christian message? Of course, as a non-Christian, I can still accept that there is a universal resonance-- not to wax too Jungian-- in the imagery and myths of religions in which I don't believe, but as a movie consumer, I kind of resent subliminal advertizing.

6:36 PM  
Anonymous said...

Can't wait till it gets to Japan and I'm in a situation where the grandparents can watch the kids.... Just wanted to recommend Wax Banks and Quiet Bubble's readings of CoM. You can get to them on your own or through Mostly Harmless's blogroll. If you choose the latter, you might also like our Unofficial Carnival of the Blogocalypse. We're shooting for April 1 (of course) to make it official.

12:18 AM  

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