Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)

Children of Men--what can I say? Easily the best mainstream film of the year. Would make an interesting double feature with A Prairie Home Companion--where Altman's final opus is all lighthearted hijinks disguised as an elegy, Children is all death and destruction and despair disguised as a Nativity parable--a story of hope (a livelier, far more passionate one than the ossified version staring Keisha Castle-Hughes). You come out of both moved and elated, but in radically different ways.

I've read dissenting opinions on the film--was the reference to Guantanamo opportunistic? I don't know; all I can see is that the atrocities at Guantanamo and the anger against illegal immigration seem to come from the same wellspring of emotion, a kind of rabid, incoherent hatred that can't be bothered with being logical, only effective (or as effective as its blinkered way of thinking will allow it to be). It's no more arbitrary or inconsistent than some of the classic dystopian visions--say, Blade Runner with its elaborate psych test (when the bounty hunter has photographs, for crying out loud), or Brazil where the hero's such a moron that the whole thing is doomed from the start (of Brazil, I've said before that I see it more as an examination of a repressive bureaucracy than of a fascist regime, and better yet a canny portrait of the impotent liberal. It's hardly the definitive portrait of fascism--the novel 1984 and its most recent adaptation have it all over Gilliam's picture in that respect).

All that matters, I submit, is that it feels right--the kind of hate directed at 'fugees' might also conceive a Guantanamo-cum-concentration-camp type prison system. It's not supposed to be logical, only believable; I don't see any inconsistency in that.

And it's not as liberal-leftist as you might think; the rebel group is as bad if not worse than the fascist regime--Owens and his precious cargo have to negotiate a delicate path between the two warring groups. That final scene, of the ship picking her up--is it such a happy ending? Maybe, if she weren't so alone. As is, it's open-ended; those men could just be another group out to exploit the hapless girl, only this time no dark knight in tattered armor will save her. Either that, or the ship is a construct of a fevered mind, dreaming its way out of a hopeless situation. A quick cut to black is no way to put such questions to rest, though Cuaron does tease us with the cries of children bubbling up from behind the black screen (a token of hope, or yet another sadistic tease?).

As for the question of all those long takes--frankly I hope the film puts to rest the question of whether or not suspense is better served by quick cuts or long takes, and that future action filmmakers will give this film a closer look. Brian DePalma is a passionate advocate of such shots, partly out of sheer perversity (aside from Cuaron, there are precious few others doing it), partly because of the possibilities they offer--of complete and immediate immersion in a created world, of pinning all elements of a sequence quickly and firmly in a viewer's mind (instead of having him construct it from different shots stitched together), of giving the viewer the luxury of seeing something happen in real time, with no cheating (the pursuers are really this close, and quickly catching up).

Do they belong in this film? They should belong in more films, I think; take away Tony Scott's license to direct while we're at it.

I don't agree that the shots turn the film into an elaborate video-game, either; I think Cuaron is careful to keep us empathizing with Owens (something videogames never do--can't look at Owen's scene by a tree and think the man has no feelings), with Moore (the conversation over their child), with Caine (his farewell to his mute wife), with the young heroine (by turns sassy (she's a virgin--yeah, right), scared, ignorant (she doesn't know enough to breastfeed a crying child--but then no one taught her to)). If we don't see close-ups of Owen and company's reactions as they flee, it's no more than what we might expect in any film that values a more open-ended view over a more directed one--shots Renoir or Tarkovsky might appreciate, though I'd imagine they would be amazed at what Cuaron achieves (I'd add Sokurov and Angelopolous; even Noe, only I loathe his work--like Von Trier he seems more a gimmicky sadist than anything else).

As for the film's substance--well, one might call the picture a parable reminding us what it's all about, what we're all fighting for or defending, or protesting the destruction of--basically hope, and the simplest and most effective incarnation of said hope. Along the way we see the reaction of various people to this hope, including the soldiers in the aforementioned battle scene. Are their reactions believable? Partly it depends on how willing you are to swallow such risky imagery, I suppose; I submit that Cuaron helps it along with a few details: the soldiers that kneel (religion, rearing its spiky yet still impressive head again), the moment carefully prepared for by all the 'fugees' reaching out in murmured awe; the fact that the rebels wait only so long before launching yet another rocket at the tanks (a miracle may have walked by, but we can only wait so long before it's business as usual).

It's a combination of the aforementioned Nativity story, an atrocity exhibit, a headlong chase and a Grail quest, where only the worthiest pass and the rest are left slumped on the wayside, monuments to their own sacrifice (Owens, in particular, seems to represent some kind of forlorn Lancelot, and his story of attempted redemption takes up most of the film). It's an action movie with an outsized heart and the cojones for risky imagery (the aforementioned kneeling, for one); an entertainment that pushes buttons, only this time the right kind of buttons, infuriating the right kind of people; a testament, finally, to what is (or should be, anyway) most precious to us, and what we are prepared to pay to keep it safe, or get it back.

Wonderful film, I say. Liberal wankfest, unabashed occasion for celebrating the excesses of the far right? Maybe, and maybe it's about time.


Patrick said...

I just saw it weeks ago, and I was incredibly moved and stunned throughout the entire film. I agree with you as well, it is easily the best film of 2006. Though my experience was slightly dampened by the two teens sitting behind me in the theater. Just as the film cut to the end credits they were like "That's the ending? What the hell?". Talk about buzzkill.

Regarding the long shots, they were actually shot in separate multiple takes and seamlessly edited digitally to create the illusion of one interrupted scene. At first glance, I thought the blood in the lens was dried up by natural light. It turns out it was painstakingly erased digitally. It's probably the best practical use of visual effects I've seen of the past year after The Science of Sleep.

I think a perfect companion to Cuaron's film would be his compatriot Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth, that is if you finally get the chance to see it.

I would also recommend this comic book series (unless you're familiar with it already) called Y: The Last Man, which carries a similar theme to the film.

Noel Vera said...

Those teens need to see more films.

I was reading about the digital erasure--no easy feat, that. People ooh and ahh about what they see there (usually digital constructs lacking apparent mass and weight), but rarely talk about what's not there (Sinise's legs in Forrest Gump being a case in point--the dead givaway was that the thighs always seem to be in the wrong position, as if they were still attached to feet and lower legs).

Y sounds interesting. If I get the chance I'll read it.

Paul Martin said...

I have mixed feelings about this film. On the one hand, I felt it was innovative and full of energy. It was technically accomplished, great attention to detail in the sets, didn't spoon feed everything to the audience, had relevant political messages and more.

Yet somehow it didn't fully satisfy. I felt Cuaron compromised himself with different aspects. The acting, the use of music, various plot contrivances and irregularities, and the ending.

Still, a film can be important because of aspects of it rather than its overall achievement. I'd say this film fits into the former rather than the latter.

Noel Vera said...

I'll give you the music, of which I confess I know little of, and perhaps the plot contrivances (though I can't see how the plot can be any simpler); I do disagree about the acting--Owen, Moore and Caine cannot be improved upon, in my opinion.

Ronald said...

Noel, OT, what's your take on Cuaron's first film? SOLO CON PAREJA?

I'll catch CHILDREN OF MEN this week.

Noel Vera said...

Afraid I haven't seen it. I'm not up on early Cuaron.