Friday, March 16, 2007

Children of Men, from affect to allegory...

I saw Cuaron's 'Children of Men' back when it was released in January, but find myself appreciating it more on reflection - but for completely different reasons, interestingly enough.

Briefly, 'Children of Men' takes place in a world where no human baby has been born for decades, and so the pressure to locate the source of the problem and its cure has led to widespread hopelessness, anarchy, and the partitioning of Britain - our setting - from the anyone that would seek to enter it and disturb their precarious balance. The movie's selling feature is, of course, the unbelievable cinematography. While it seems the apocryphal claim that several long sequences were done in one continuous take was pure myth or outright deception, the hand-cam-wielding pseudo-documentary shots are impressively visceral - even in an industry where this is becoming increasingly common. From Wikipedia:

It took fourteen days to prepare for the single take where Clive Owen's character searches a building under attack, and five hours for every time they wanted to retake it. The take ended with blood splattered onto the lens, which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki
convinced the director to leave for the final cut.

In the Bexhill refugee camp - where the shot that this quote specifically refers to occurred - the movie reaches perhaps its highest and most disturbing point of simulacra. Where the movie had been a dystopian possible-future and so somewhat distanced, it now resembles something all-too familiar: civil war footage from Afghanistan, Iraq, or the former Yugoslavia. The hand-cam effect also manages to more or less 'embed' us in the action - the screen rumbles and bobs up and down as the camera chases Clive Owen's Theo through the streets and ducks behind walls.

This sort of affect is hardly unique to "Children of Men", though. What brings the film into relief, for me, is the subtle ways in which it rewrites one of England's most foundational myths - King Arthur. This is most obvious at the end of the film, where a dying Theo and Kee - the world's first pregnant woman in decades and a black refugee in a country that has an aversion to both - escape England in the hope that they'll be found by members of The Human Project. (I'd also add that Clive Owen has played King Arthur in the past. Though I can't imagine that he was cast for that reason, it's a wonderful and nonetheless meaningful coincidence.) Appropriately, the Human Project is an entirely speculative organization that, like the mysterious Avalon, may or may not exist and purportedly operates a utopian community from an island somewhere off the coast.

Though this final scene recalls the slain Arthur being cast into the mists of Avalon upon his death so that he might be healed and returned to England in a future time of need, there is a subversive twist to this iteration of the myth. As this is not a myth, we know that Theo/Arthur will not be returning. Instead, Kee's baby - who she has told Theo will be named after Theo's dead son and so maintains some connection to the metaphorically Arthurian line - will be the one to grow up in our pseudo-Avalon and eventually return home. In a way, this is a more faithful interpretation of the Arthurian legend than most; it's generally agreed that Arthur was of Roman birth or decent, and so he himself was a foreign conqueror. It takes a particularly good film to tap that kind of hope and anxiety simultaneously.

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