Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Film Review: Children of Men

I was so unpleasantly astonished at the high production values and comparatively poor thought value behind Alfonso Cuaron's putatively-critical 2006 film, Children of Men, that I decided to write a quick review:

We all know that concerned, critical-minded people the world over want to see film better portray the problems of our world. And many of us know that the Hollywood film industry functions, for the most part, as a form of indirect propaganda (as opposed to the direct form of propaganda with which most are familiar) that reaffirms many of the establishment's viewpoints and ideological underpinnings. Those dissidents among us eagerly wait to see the gem of critical thought and subversion that slips through here and there. Hollywood sees that segment of the population (particularly after wildly successful response to films like "The Matrix"), and, as always, attempts to capture our "demographic's" collective hearts and minds with more recent films that have some of the characteristics, and some of the grittier content, of subversive art, but none of the subversive conclusions and implications.

In other words, Hollywood has been quickly seeking to do to the burgeoning independent film industry what it did with the 1960s-70s counterculture (and what the establishment naturally seeks to do to all culture); capture its flavor, distill it of undesirable political content, and commoditize it into profitable form that crowds out content by the less-ideologically-reliable independent film scene.

Children of Men is a highly, highly overrated piece that is indeed ideologically-reliable, and joins the chorus of voices in the establishment-approved film set encouraging us to adopt a deep, individualistic, to-hell-with-everyone cynicism, all the while stroking the egos of the burnt-out 60s-generation dropouts.

In terms of its storytelling and vision, it's hard to describe exactly how it falls flat. Beyond its very loaded message (more on that below), it is technically superb, with a cinéma vérité-ish feel, but it seems the filmmakers were, well, trying too hard. Trying too hard to fit in everything they could, with plenty of contemporary references stretched to the point of incredulity. Trying too hard to clone every intense scene taken by war photographers from Vietnam to the U.S.'s most recent imperial adventure in Iraq. Trying so hard to make it disjointed and senselessly random, which of course is how war really plays out, but in such a way as to bring it to the point of looking artlessly (as opposed to artfully) disjointed, and, well, rushed. Indeed, the whole film felt altogether rushed, with every possible shortcut taken to establish a depth that can only be false depth.

Politically and socially, it really seems to seek to appeal to burnt-out, cynical and (again) to-hell-with-it-all baby boomers, and is in places almost fawningly flattering to their self-view. Yes, here we have it: escapist baby boomers save the world, or humanity or whatever. After all, we're shown what we are encouraged to interpret as the foolishness and futility of political organization and action, and that, in the end, those resisting tyranny (the Left, of course) will always be just as bad as those they fight, and thus that just getting away from all those messed up people to some far away place (or, again, dropping out) is the solution.

Indeed, overall, the vision behind Children of Men seems to highly support a very denunciatory view of humanity, like those old hysterical nuclear war films that portray people descending on others and themselves in riotous, crazed frenzy, because, well, you-know-how-people-are. When disaster strikes, people's real nature comes out and they show their self-interested true selves.  The film's message is rather traditionally conservative in that regard.

Films like this "doth" protest too much. They are supportive of the old, self-serving conservative view of human nature. After all, if humankind tends toward whatever we define as evil, then social justice is silly and we should just accept injustice, firm social control, and a militaristic and exploitative social order as "necessary." But if humankind is more complex than that, and is not how the worst of us like to portray all of us, then such an order becomes a tragically self-fulfilling prophecy. It's a point to be considered with more political maturity than that shown in this film.

And if you felt more cynical and defeated, with a more dismal view of mankind's prospects for some better form of social existence, after watching the film, rest assured that such is no doubt the filmmakers' intent. It is, in the end, a political argument, and one that, as expected in any film that strives for mainstream legitimacy, attacks those who organize and resist the evils depicted in the film with as much disdain as it attacks those who perpetuate it.


Sideon said...

Where oh where in the world is Gluby?

Inquiring minds wanna know!

And hey - you two need to give a buzz or shoot me an email with your phone number :)

JulieAnn Henneman said...

We misses Gluby an' readin' his thots...

:) what's that brilliant mind of yours up to these days, Glub? Shoot me an email and say hi...


Andrew said...

Dear Mr. Gluby,

I have read several of your blog posts today, and there is an overlying theme to your blogs that is terribly tragic. For example you state:

"Children of Men is a highly, highly overrated piece that is indeed ideologically-reliable, and joins the chorus of voices in the establishment-approved film set encouraging us to adopt a deep, individualistic, to-hell-with-everyone cynicism."

Watch it again. Realize how confused the world would be if we thought everyone was going to be extinct soon, and particularly how confused the world is now. The themes of the movie are reminiscent of the moral panics, and religious fundamentalism we see every day on the news. However, Clive Owen's character retains what most would refer to as humanity, and personifies the struggle of that genuine element in a society that has lost it's identity to fear.

Have you ever considered that it is ironic to be excited by a steady cam shot in a war zone? It's a great work of cinematography, but nobody sees it and thinks,"If only I could be there too." People are getting herded like cattle, yet you state that this is encouraging? Again, the only encouraging aspects of "Children of Men" are the humanity and gentle understanding displayed in moments of doubt.

Now I also read your blog about Mr. Wayne Boss, and you totally missed his point as well. I am not a fan of LDS and I am agnostic on a good day, but he was saying that as responsible adults we need to consider the fact that vocalizing our opinions to our children may impact them more than we would like. For example, you may not like the government at times, but does that mean you want your kid to be even more pessimistic?

However, you choose to take the bad without the good and state that he is encouraging parents to canonize civic leaders so as not to damage the reputation of the church. Even if that were true, your statements are at best, unfounded, as I sincerely doubt you have ever met the fellow yourself.

I had the pleasure of learning from him in a university setting, and he never once mentioned God or Joseph Smith. He asked us to explore how honest we are with ourselves and how that impacts our relationships with others; his lessons resonate to this day.

In each instance you choose to focus on the literal circumstances and use that for your own arguments. Maybe you disagree with a person or movie, but if there's a good message there then suck it up and realize that life isn't black and white. It's a swamp of confusion with no foreseeable end, so if you find a nugget of truth, then don't just leave it just because it's muddy.

With all due respect as a fellow blogger,

Andrew Katz

Anonymous said...

This is me, Gluby, but it's been so long since I've done anything with this blog that it's more difficult than it should be to remember my login.

Andrew, I am not quite sure how to respond here. There are some comments that seem, to me, a little off-base, but I'll take it piece by piece.

I understand what you see as the eternal human (and humane) element shown in this or that character in the film, but it is quite irrelevant to my argument. I said this film was produced well (if some of it shows the ill effects of haste), and that includes appealing characters with admirable features and, to paraphrase your characterization, gentle and thoughtful ambivalence. The film is a vehicle for philosophical and political cynicism, and compassionate cynicism is no less cynical. So, as much as I hate to echo your own words, I do believe you've missed the point.

Continuing to the next point, I don't think it follows from what I wrote that anything in the film is "encouraging," though I did write that it is encouraging of certain positions. Indeed, as I basically argued in my conclusion, the film is likely to be very discouraging overall.

As to Wayne Boss, you'd be better to do a bit more research to ascertain the nature of what you so hastily impute an undue level of normality. While I've ceased to consider Mormonism worthwhile of extended attention and interest, I don't think your reading of the cited passage from the Bosses' book is due the mild, reasonable characterization you give it. And if you know Mormonism, you know this is an extremely mild and gentle expression of its overall teaching in regard to leadership, obedience and "murmuring." It's apologetics and doublespeak; a palatable expression of something far more insidious than you or the authors make it appear. It is gagged, irresponsible obedience prancing around as moderation and virtue.

I won't address your comment on government, children and pessimism much further than to say that I disagree with the labeling of critical thought and skepticism as "pessimistic." Indeed, "pessimism" is one of those words used to cudgel dissenters into blunting and muting their attempts to raise consciousness of very valid, and often urgent, problems.

As to your characterization of my position as stating that I am "encouraging parents to canonize civic leaders so as not to damage the reputation of the church," I think you have seriously misread the plain text of my argument. Please read it again. (Also note that canonize is a strong concept way further than what I am describing. Indeed, rather than arguing that this phenomenon canonizes political and religious leaders, I argue that it de-canonizes them, instead making the field of religious and political leadership an essentially fragile one that can be derailed by irresponsible questioning. "Just leave it alone and things will be okay -- criticize and murmur and the destruction of this or that leader will be on your hands," they could almost say.

Either way, whatever you think of Wayne Boss in a university setting, I can assure you I could not care less about his personal characteristics or what he is like as a person. My commentary is on what he wrote and its organization context and meaning.

An important thing for responsible thinkers to learn is to separate ideas from people, and, concomitantly, criticism of people's ideas from criticisms of people. Hell, I might like the fellow. But I'm talking about his writings and credentials as found in the book, not his deep, inner soul and what the Wayne Boss who likes puppies and children is like in a gentle moment.

So, whatever his lessons that resonate with such mild folks as yourself were, his lesson in this book is the velvet-covered-but-iron-fisted shut-the-fuck-up-and-do-what-you're-told of Mormonism -- but the velvet is admittedly soft and pleasant here.

Finally, I choose simply to suck nothing up that is changeable, Mr. Katz. And, in regard to nuggets of truth, remember the words of V's father in V for Vendetta: the artist uses lies to tell truth; the politician uses truth to tell lies (paraphrased, and surely it comes from some more legitimate source, but I don't know it). I am simply not content to "suck up" bad ideas and bad philosophy simply because they contain elements of truth. If you persist in this way of judging things, I've got quite a few pieces of real estate to sell you.

Whatever the "tragic" themes that run through my writing, it is clear that you disagree with them, and that is fine. But to merely dismiss them as "black and white" and call me pessimistic is begging the question of your own worldview. This -- who is the "cynic" or "pessimist"? -- is precisely the question at issue, and we have opposite positions. My precise argument is that the message of this film is bad, and yet you argue that "if there's a good message there," I should "suck it up" and take the muddy truth instead of, well, whining. (My characterization of your final paragraph, but it's hard for me to interpret it in any other tone.)

Don't assume your opponent's entire argument away, and then complain that he is discarding yours unduly. I said it's a bad movie, bad message, not that it is a good movie with a good heart that is flawed.

Chino Blanco said...

If you've yet to join the conversation re X-Mormon of the Year over at Main Street Plaza, this here is your official invite! ( And all apologies for this spamalicious OT comment ! )