Friday, February 21, 2020

Children of Men

CHILDREN OF MEN           A-                   
USA  Great Britain  Japan  (109 mi)  2006  d: Alfonso Cuarón

Lord, thou hast been our refuge: from one generation to another.  Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever the earth and the world were made: thou art God from everlasting, and world without end.  Thou turnest man to destruction: again thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men.  For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday: Seeing that is past as a watch in the night. ⸺Psalm 90, Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662)

⸺Alfonso Cuarón interview with Kim Voynar from Cinematical, December 25, 2006, where He says:
What I was attracted to was the concept of infertility as a premise.  I was not really interested in doing a science fiction film, so I had completely disregarded it.  But the premise kept haunting me.  It was not until I realized that the premise of the film could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope, that it could be a point of departure for an exploration of the state of things that we’re living in now, the things that are shaping this very first part of the 21st century, that I wanted to do it.

From the outset, this bleak, colorless, futuristic world reminds us of the nightmarish, apocalyptic vision of the end of the world in Danny Boyle’s 28 DAYS LATER (2002), a survivalist zombie flick, as the sheer look of the film is amazingly similar, even the original use of music, which in this film balances King Crimson, Deep Purple, John Lennon, and some uncredited yet very effective use of the Kills against the transcendent choral music of John Tavener, Fragments Of A Prayer - YouTube (15:02).  This is based on a P.D. James story that originally contains Biblical implications, namely a miracle birth, coming at a time when inexplicably no babies have been born anywhere in the world for the past 18 years, giving the population the desperate feel of a world with no hope of survival.  The film, on the other hand, is more ambiguous and open ended, using post 9/11 modern day maladies as an entry point, a portal to the future.  Here entire societies have already collapsed, Britain has closed its borders to hordes of refugees who are migrating to the wealthier nations, which are run by police states that reflect a virulent anti-immigration bias, rounding up immigrants in Guantánamo-like concentration camps that become so overrun, they begin to resemble the Warsaw ghetto in WWII, a dumping ground where unwanted, neglected people wait to die.  Underground rogue protest groups offer limited opposition, but the state controls all media outlets, so it controls the mindset of the nation.  In this chaotic surge of lawlessness and anarchy, the inexplicable birth of a child completely changes the landscape with a renewed sense of purpose. 

Much like Christian Petzold’s 2018 Top Ten List #3 Transit, these futuristic worldviews resemble the current political climate characterized by the terrifying xenophobic rhetoric of nationalist governments that has left fleeing refugees more desperate than ever, with nation states persecuting the weak, rounding them up and placing them in detention camps while professing to still be freedom-loving countries, turned into little more than police states.  Like many futuristic stories, they look very much like the present, using T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land to personify an alienated modern world that has lost their way, as governmental hierarchies fail to protect or even offer assistance where it’s needed, but instead set a course hellbent on bringing about their own destruction, with exaggerated use of force to overreact to any cause of alarm, used instead to suppress the will of the people, treating human life with an arrogant brutality and disdain.  And they look very much like a Biblical story from the past, as from some small corner of the earth an ordinary person rises to dispel all prevailing beliefs, labeled a threat, a traitor, or a terrorist by a government whose myopic, tunnel vision prevents them from seeing the larger inference, that the dwindling world is only for the benefit of a privileged few who are protected by mightier military forces.  Clive Owen stars as Theo, a weary, disheveled bureaucrat in 2027 London, who as a former social activist has long since stopped believing in causes, sought after by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore), who hasn’t seen him in twenty years, not since they lost their only child to illness.  She leads an activist militia group (described by the government as terrorists) and recruits him as a man who can be trusted to act as a protector for a pregnant African refugee named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) and guide her through the various police zones to safety, to the ship of a reputable scientific organization, a secret mission, as no one outside her organization knows of the woman’s pregnancy.  But plans to save her go awry, leading to a gateway through Hell to find providence. 

Full of simplistic Christian themes like hope and salvation, this film is anything but simplistic, yet it does fall into the category of overreach on several occasions, such as the setting where the pregnancy is revealed, a barn surrounded by cows which closely resembles a manger, or again as we witness the mindless devastation in the streets, which suddenly fills with a flock of sheep, or even roosters, well known Buñuelian images that seem out of place here, where so much of the film is guided by the visceral effect of Emmanuel Lubezki’s handheld cameras, by the jostling physicality of the experience, which adds an immediacy to every moment.  There are several amazing moments, such as a riveting action sequence shot from inside a car attempting to flee from an armed mob, Children of Men car scene - YouTube (4:56), a sequence that matches the stunning intensity from earlier films such as MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981), but with a shorter, more focused version that jolts us out of our seats, or the sequence where Owen leads the girl from the heart of the police zone into a netherworld run by outlaws on the “other” side of the zone, Children of Men 2006 Long Take 3 - YouTube (6:28), the setting for the birth scene, which on a dime shifts into surprising tenderness, Children of Men - Born scene (3:10), also each scene with Michael Caine, Owen’s aging pot-smoking friend Jasper living in a remote secluded area under cover of a forest where a unique calm prevails, Sugavision - Cannabis Props - Children Of Men (3:16) underscored by an eerie cover version from Franco Battiato of the Rolling Stones song “Ruby Tuesday,” Franco Battiato - Ruby Tuesday HQ - YouTube (3:33), and finally a long, drawn out sequence where Owen has to zig zag his way through machine gun fire, caught in the middle of a fire fight, pinned down right in the heart of a ravaged war zone in search of the woman and her child, a bloody sequence, perhaps the longest in the film that slowly materializes from a bombardment of bullets and explosions into a mysteriously fascinating moment of utter silence, Cease fire miracle scene (Children of Men 2006) (Full HD) (4:27).

The extent to which this film resembles the current Brexit crisis is stunning, with the world seemingly falling apart, while the division between the rich and poor has never been more apparent, now criminally neglectful, with military forces serving only the wealthy while routinely rounding up the poor who are forced to fight for the scraps left behind, where a majority of the world’s population are losing out to the promises of capitalism, with the government using cliché’d mantras on billboards about how aiding illegal immigrants is a crime, placing them in cages in the street where they are routinely spat upon by common folk with police brutality essentially a sanctioned form of hate speech.  Human values have tanked, personal freedoms have been relinquished, as self-preservation is all that matters, with one group fighting against other groups, each one infiltrated by the government, identified as terrorists, all blaming the other side in a world where chaos and confusion has become the new normal, with such a weakened government that offers no plan for the future, allowing hopes to fade while fear runs rampant.  The film is notable for the extraordinary work behind the camera from Emmanuel Lubezki, last seen in Malick’s The New World (2005), displaying on occasion a virtuosity that is simply dazzling to the eye, the film retains a grim fascination with police abuse and military suppression, envisioning the world’s reliance on ever more expensive weaponry, which, as far as one can tell, only kills people at a faster rate.  It’s all a matter of convenience.  Much like STAR WARS (1977), films are currently feeding audiences large doses of killings with a video game-like instant gratification, which begs the question, why do audiences continue to endorse this methodology as acceptable family entertainment?  And the answer, of course, has something to do with the dazzling virtuosity that quickens the pulse.  Not sure exactly when movies began relying upon bullets as entertainment, but it’s been going on for at least 100 years, now relying upon military overreach to provide that extra heart-pumping adrenaline-racing action sequence that is so prevalent in movies today, where at some point we become saturated with the body count in THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (2001 – 2003) or the near pornographic love affair with that BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001) virtual reality experience of physically being there.  All those bullets, and so little time.

In an increasingly global world, with marketplaces merging into international conglomerates, it’s perhaps not surprising that nations and individuals retreat back into the safety net of nationalism, promoting their own historical record while distrusting the motives of others, falling back into poisoned vitriol that lauds the notion of their own superiority.  Utterly bleak, descending into a disturbingly dark abyss of lawlessness and race hatred, Britain somehow perseveres, viewing itself as the last champion of civilization, as so many others self-imploded, extolling the virtues of their Churchill-like ability to adapt and survive, eradicating all forms of resistance while deporting the entire population of refugees, becoming that lone city on the hill that somehow manages to survive.  What it amounts to are constant references to Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, mass deportations, a refugee crisis, fear of immigrants, and nationalism run amok, all blended into a Nativity story that offers some version of hope, mostly shot in long takes that add an element of time and contemplation, a sharp contrast to the rapid-fire editing techniques that have become the standard in Hollywood, becoming a first-rate thriller that raises important questions.  Yet more than anything, the film remains immersed in a heavily stylized chaotic violence where you can’t tell the good guys from the bad, as they’re almost entirely viewed as bad guys.  Theo is a reluctant anti-hero, playing what amounts to a last man on earth, in nearly every shot of the film, who eventually comes around and finds a purpose in what he’s doing, even as everyone he knows is dead by the end of the film, becoming a macabre expression of futility and faith, marking the darkest of times of death and disillusionment when faith is nearly entirely lost.  While it may have modeled itself after the Holocaust and Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1965), the searing realism of that film surpasses anything seen here, including a novelesque style of multiple characterizations, while this film is more content to follow a sole figure through a dehumanized maze-like wasteland of war, prejudice, and paranoia that has become engulfed almost entirely into a military zone, with bullets whizzing by at an alarming rate, yet there are key moments of emotional poignancy.      

According to Lenin, “Ethics are the aesthetic of the future,” which seems to be one of the guiding principles of the film, reconfiguring a world that has lost any tangible hold on human values, moving recklessly into the future, brazenly using guns instead of ideas to evoke change, where the rest of the world has vanished, with Britain the last bastion of hope, yet their borders remain closed.  Defined by their anti-humanist identity, their approach suggests narrowing interests, where there is no attempt to reach out to or even include the rest of the world, yet the nation is a battleground of differing interests.  Nearly every shot of urban street life includes barking dogs on short police leashes jumping out and attacking ordinary people, even those contained inside cages, much like the Nazi’s herded people using similar fear tactics, personifying how those in power constantly threaten the lives of others, while the aggressive profanities continuously shouted at them are shrouded in racial hatred.  Democracy is no longer a land of opportunity, or a safe haven, but the voice of hysteria and military repression.  The anti-immigration frenzy is met by starkly unethical methods used by the so-called liberating militia group, and while the two forces are pitted against one another militarily, neither one offers a hint of promise for the future, as both are undermined by their own inherent systematic flaws, where neither one can be trusted.  This mirrors the Mary and Joseph scenario at the birth of Christ, as forces conspired against them, but an inexplicable miracle birth altered the course of history.  The same thing happens here, without the religious overtones, where most of the background information remains clouded in ambiguity, forcing each viewer to fill in the blanks as to what kind of future is possible afterwards.  The soundtrack over the end credits of children’s voices playing can provide an affirmative vision, yet it could also be a flashback to earlier times, accentuating the essential void in the human condition.  More likely, the void in Theo’s life that came from losing his son at an early age to a cruel act of fate seemed to take the life out of him, affecting his will to live, mirrored by the world around him when it appears they will be the last generation on earth, but this opportunity with Kee has reinvigorated his outlook and renewed in him a sense of purpose.  For the world’s salvation to be connected to a dark-skinned, illegal refugee is no accident, cutting through all the pre-conceived, stereotypical notions of bigotry.  The film’s immersion in perpetual anguish and strife give very real expression to the many horrors in life, only to give way for a new and as yet unheard voice, leaving an exasperated audience exiting what has come to resemble the devastation of Dante’s Inferno, hopefully anticipating a new vision or aesthetic where profound grief may transition to a more equitable world.  

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