It's rare that I see a film more than once in the theater, but this year I was able to catch my two favorite movies of the year, Children of Men
and Inland Empire
, a second time on the big screen. With each film I found a unique experience, different from my original viewing, that radically changed my understanding of them.
(MAJOR SPOILERS ahead)
Children of Men
The first time I saw Children of Men
, it's one of those few experiences where I might actually use the cliche phrase, 'I was on the edge of my seat.' Between the barrage of sets that make up the pre-apocalypse, yet hauntingly familiar, production design to the bravura with which Lubezki and Cuaron guide you through the elaborate action sequences, I was nearly breathless. Between the long takes, the handheld camera, and the many scenes in which characters are being transported by vehicles from one dangerous situation to the next (often out of their control, note the metaphor), I kind of felt like I was on some horrifying nightmare version of Disney's 'It's A Small World' ride. I was genuinely afraid for the characters.
I saw the film as making a vitriolic statement about the current condition of the world, disgusted that our reality would allow such a future to occur. I wondered if Cuaron (or any of the five writers) even thought it was worth bringing a child into a world where an immigrant could go into labor on a prison bus, while outside the window Abu Ghraib style atrocities occur. I marveled at the technical prowess required to execute the long-take action sequences, and felt smugly assured that Cuaron and company were just as cynical as I. I declared it my favorite film of the year.
The second time I saw Children of Men
, I did not find the action scenes as terrifying. Knowing exactly what happens in each scene took some of the suspense away, and left me open to exploring other aspects of the production. I made sure to pay close attention to the subtle characterizations, the peculiar sound design, the nuanced settings, and what it is exactly that the movie is trying to say, because many of the reviews, even the positive ones, seem to feel the movie was a mess and lacked the focus to say much of anything over the volume of its special effects and gunplay.
What I found was something so different than what I experienced the first time it was almost shocking. Whereas before I read the film as angry and cynical, I now saw that underneath the immediate danger, terror and horror of the surface laid a profound sadness. Is it a fault then of the film that it took me a second viewing to read beyond its explosive and angry surface? Certainly saying that a film bears re-watching is no insult. I would say it's a testament to the greatness of Children of Men
that it was satisfying both on a visceral and an emotional/intellectual level. It's a film that never slows down to explain things to you. The details, of which there are many, are all in the mise en scene
. Cuaron has proven himself a talented visual stylist, and here he definitely shows more than he tells.
A pervasive feeling of unrecoverable loss and mourning is manifested immediately in the film by the news of the death of the youngest human being, Baby Diego, later by the revelation that Theo (Clive Owen) has a dead son, and most blatantly by mankind's inability to reproduce. It's a world where elementary schools sit vacant and derelict, the frightened cling to extremist religious and political groups for security, and people have forgotten just how small a baby is. Nearly every sequence contains an animal, pets being the natural substitute for children, and the wild animals being the immediate inheritors of the earth once the humans die off. The world is in chaos, Western society is unable to reclaim its former glory, though 'Only Britain soldiers on.' To what end, is dubious.
Fellow Scarecrow employee Matt Lynch pointed out to me the significance of a particular conversation between Julian (Julianne Moore) and Theo, in which Theo is still recovering from being mere feet away from the bombing of a coffee shop. She asks him, 'You know that ringing in your ears, that eeeeeeeeee'
? That's the sound of the ear cells dying, like their swan song. Once it's gone you'll never hear that frequency again.' This line is a perfect summation of the grief that shrouds this film and haunts its characters. It is punctuated by a ringing in the soundtrack that is heard after the aforementioned bombing, at moments when Theo's son is mentioned, and most prominently again after Julian and later Jasper (Michael Caine) are killed.
The sadness and horror would be overwhelming, were it not for the hope instilled in Theo. In the opening shot of the film he shoves past a crowd of shocked people watching the news, more interested in getting his morning coffee (black, which we later see him add alcohol too) than taking part in the public mourning of Baby Diego.
He spends large parts of the film in the passenger's seat or backseat of a vehicle, on commuter trains and prison busses, content to remain powerless and numb in an out of control world. However, the finale of the film has Theo at the oars of a rowboat. Everything in between is building to this act of selfless courage, and it's faith in Theo that anchors the film and gives the audience hope in the face of such adversity.
There's a certain reactionary critic (following a method sometimes used by Jim Emerson
I will not legitimize said critic's opinion by citing his name) who accused the film of espousing the idea of the 'white man's burden.' While it's true that Clive Owen is white, and the character he plays is charged with protection of Kee, a black immigrant, I think that's a shallow reading of the film, and it would be hard argument to support with any examples from the film other than skin color of its characters. I think more to the point is the fact that Theo is in a position of power (middle class, political connections, access, etc) and chooses to remain ambivalent. Though he was an activist as a youth, the loss of his child and the irreparable state of the world have driven him into an alcoholic haze from which he only surfaces to opine such things as 'Baby Diego was a wanker.'
It's hard not to think of Theo as the stand-in for the majority of us, black or white or whatever. The daily news is full of atrocities, and yet Starbucks has not suffered any decline in sales. We feel powerless, at the mercy of governments and corporations who 'know better' than us and will guide us into the future as they see fit. The counterculture activists of the 60s are soccer moms and stock brokers, or in any case they're not out in the streets in the same numbers. We are told our problems come from outside, not from within. And so Theo finds himself apathetic in the midst of a dogmatic, xenophobic culture on the verge of complete and utter downfall.
It is only reluctantly that he agrees to obtain transfer papers to smuggle Kee out of the country. After Julian's death and the revelation that Kee is pregnant, however, we see the first major changes in his character. Emboldened by the gravity of the situation as well as Julian and Kee's faith in him, Theo stages a daring daybreak escape, pushing, and for a bit steering, a malfunctioning automobile. That the scene is set at dawn, I think, is no coincidence. A nearly spiritual reawakening in Theo is accentuated visually by the sunrise and aurally by the sounds of roosters crowing.
(Superman in socks)
The same critic who found the film condescendingly racist, also accused it of pandering to doom-saying liberals. Perhaps he went to get popcorn during the scene in which Jasper, saying almost too much, lays out the thematic motives of the film. While Theo stands in the foreground in focus, opened bottle of alcohol in hand, Jasper sits with Kee and Miriam (Pam Ferris), out of focus in the background, and explains the dynamics of 'faith' and 'chance.' It is by no means a subtle scene, but it gives the film a center, a point-of-view more complex than politics or racial commentary. If anything the film, which I would argue is apolitical, sees little hope in organized politics or religion. In the future of the movie such groups are seen as neither part of the problem nor part of the solution, but simply turbulent, bickering and violent. The major catastrophe at the center of the film is a natural (perhaps even supernatural) one. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to put in a cheap potshot at Bush or Blair, but everything in this film is at ground level. From the limited, yet intimate point of view (basically Theo's) the film grants us, all that matters is the actions of individuals.
("Theo's faith lost out to chance." )
Through their reciprocal faith in each other Theo and Kee struggle through numerous insurmountable situations which, by chance, they survive long enough to reach their goal. The real heart of the film is this faith in humanity, a belief that ordinary people will do the right thing. In Theo we find a hero that never picks up a gun and spends a large part of the movie barefoot. And of course, in the end he sacrifices his life to deliver Kee to the Human Project. Christian interpretations of Theo are inevitable, but I must reiterate, I think the film is spiritual, but not necessarily religious. Instead, I would say we are to find hope in the fact that this alcoholic curmudgeon can become
Christ-like in his actions. The similarities to Christian tradition seem to me more an attempt to create new heroes in the tradition of classics than a simple reiteration. Perhaps the description of 'adult fairytale' is just as suited to Children of Men
as Pan's Labyrinth
While Theo may be white, and his role is important, the future of the whole human race depends on the fate of a little black baby girl. Surely Cuaron, Mexican himself, has every bit of trust and sympathy for the 'foogees.' Theo may be necessary in transporting Kee to safety, but her miraculous pregnancy and her faith in him are necessary factors in propelling him to do the right thing. And in their actions I think the filmmakers display a hope that a better future than that of the film is possible. The final test of hope and faith, however, falls on us, the audience. Though much maligned by critics and audiences alike, I found the ending of the film absolutely perfect. It's not subtle and it's certainly ambiguous, but it's also one of the most indelible and poetic images I saw on the screen all year: a little row boat adrift on a foggy ocean. The rower passed away, the fate of humanity lies with this woman and child bobbing up and down with the current. The giant ship Tomorrow arrives, but nothing is certain. As the title of the film displays on the screen again, the sound of children playing can be heard just before John Lennon's 'Bring on the Lucie' kicks in and the credits roll.
(Who knows what tomorrow will bring?)
Within the next week or two, I'll post my thoughts on re-viewing Inland Empire