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Thursday, January 25, 2007

word on the street: Children of Men

Word on the street: spoiler-free brief comments on new films and exhibitions.

People are making quite a fuss about Alfonso CuarĂ³n's new film Children of Men, but they ought to be complaining about its squandered potential rather than gushing about its supposed greatness. It is, in short, an action film pretending to be Something Important.

The 1970's were the heyday of the genre of the recognizably near-future dystopia: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Soylent Green (1973) at one end of the decade, and, less impressively, Escape from New York (1981) at the other. Back in the day, New York typically featured as ground zero for the downfall of western civilization. If the genre is making a comeback, London, improbably, will be the new New York. So far we've had 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead (a bit of a stretch, but the zombies are caused by GM food), and now Children of Men. Why does the new confidence in British cinema translate into a bleak future for London?

I wish Children of Men had a better screenplay. It begins with the disheartening prospect of a world where women can no longer reproduce. The UK is apparently the last country still in one piece, or at least that's what the ubiquitous government propaganda claims. The cost of its security: wholesale oppression and deportation of immigrants.

Its direction, cinematography, and script make Children of Men the art film of the action genre, literally: not only does the film rely on some very long takes (one shot reportedly lasts nine minutes) and a tightly controlled palette of colours, but Picasso's Guernica and other artistic treasures of Europe appear in the film, 'saved' by the British. Unfortunately, that's all there is to it. Despite some moving early scenes showing all that we stand to lose in a biologically and legally catastrophic future, the film abandons all of its ideas for a final hour of fugitives on the run. Will they make it out alive or not? becomes the film's central question. Had the writers written more than half of a screenplay, this might have been a great movie. With all the narrative and moral potential it squandered, it is only a great frustration.


Anonymous Panic said...

I don't entirely disagree with your assessment of Children of Men. I would say that it is not so improbable that London should figure as a modern dystopia. Certainly, it lacks the grime and grit of 1970s New York, but there is a similar falling from grace, both culturally and politically. New York in the 1960s saw a blossoming of urban folk, the boho and beat movements, fashionable art, risque comedy, rock'n'roll in Madison Square Garden - in the dawning era of modern American hip, NYC was the sun. New York culture was promiscuous and lively, drawing on anything from San Francisco hippies (in Ginsberg and "Hair") to post-war European fine arts. This all tumbled into the gloominess of punk nihilism and the jaded cynicism of the 1970s. Similarly, but less spectacularly, London was, in the mid-1990s, the centre of fashion and pop, and Cool Brittania reigned. The decline of Britpop's global hegemony and the somewhat graceless aging of the YBAs left a cultural void - except for the stale smell of leftover optimism and the sour aftertaste of too much irony. Thus, like the New York of the 1970s, it is a perfect venue for the irritation and disappointment of the post-apocalyptic.

Now, whether or not any of these characterisations (of New York or London) are true is beside the point: they are popular conceptions, often media-fueled, and prevalent in the cultural imagination.

On a slightly sadder note, the promise of the Blair revolution and its New Labour utopia has toppled; the possibility of a savvy left in a position of global leadership seems even more remote, and the squandered promise of Blair's youth and ambition has been squandered in a pact with a bland, evil man. Onto this, it is not so hard to map a dystopia.

8:03 PM, January 26, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

That is well said and persuasive. I have quite a bit to say in response, but I am going to hold it for a front-page entry in the near future.

On the sadder note, I share Panic's lament about Blair and experienced it quite keenly last fall when I saw The Queen, Stephen Frears's current film. It hurt to be reminded what hopes we had for Blair and what hopes he had for himself.

At the time I attributed the success of Michael Sheen's portrayal of Blair to his physical resemblance. Since then, I have seen his performance onstage in Peter Morgan's play Frost/Nixon, where he was equally convincing in the role of David Frost. Helen Mirren deserves the world's acclaim for perfecting the illusion of showing us the queen as she truly is. But truly, what do we know of the woman behind Elizabeth Windsor's real-life performance? Likewise, Michael Sheen somehow embodied the real figure he played, yet he in fact looks like nothing our fallen prime minister. It is the force of his acting that has convinced us otherwise, and he deserves much more credit for his performance than he has received so far.

11:28 PM, January 27, 2007


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