Children of Men

Films in which the future of the human species is at stake tend to be problematic; the commodification of despair is tricky stuff. Alfonso Cuarón’s adaptation of P.D. James novel is certainly a very entertaining, emotionally and intellectually powerful film with one of the best endings of the year. And it is beautiful to look at. But that’s kind of ironic, yes? Here the landscape of broken, bombed-out buildings (shot in muted, blue-grey tones) approaches something best described as rubble-chic (the art direction is superb, but one questions if the end of the world should be reminiscent of early mornings at Hogwarts). That’s cinematic dystopia for you. But I’ll not labor the point; Clive Owen looks appropriately grizzled and that will do.

I have a lot of questions. What exactly do the Fishes want with Kee’s baby? What does The Human Genome Project do? When will the Beatles and the Stones no longer be relevant (and Arnab, where is my Revolver disc)? Why must a white man’s redemption narrative relegate those immigrants confined in cages and shunted off to detention camps to the dramatic sidelines not to mention upstaging the young African refugee who appears to be the one hope for the future of the planet (I’m so reminded of Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia: the mother does indeed need a rest). Here’s what I liked: Michael Caine. He just keeps getting better delivering two excellent supporting performances this year. I also liked the really strange scene with Danny Huston; his autistic boy toy, his appropriation of Michelangelo’s David and Picasso’s Guernica not to mention the power to look out his windows and see Pink Floyd’s Animals lp cover brought to life for what I can only imagine to be his amusement (the choice here is intertextually confusing at best). I would have liked a bit more of Huston and his lot but mostly I got a lot of gypsies avoiding bullets. I liked the Hamlet reference (Quietus) in the latest pharmaceutical wonder cure. I liked the camera work and the editing and, yes, the art direction. Mostly, I think this film to be the best anti-Iraq War film yet. Its smart and disturbing vision of western civilization retreating behind its borders at a moment of dire crisis turns notions of globalization on its head. As the British round up illegal “fugees” in busses manned by the forces of Homeland Security, it’s hard not to reflect on the events taking place in the world today. In Children of Men the entire planet has turned into Baghdad and hope for the future is slim to none. Reynolds, you saw it, yes; hell we may have attended the same screening. Tell me why it is the best film of the year?

49 thoughts on “Children of Men”

  1. i agree with everything jeff says. while interesting, disturbing, and powerful, children of men left me strangely underwhelmed. part of it is that NO VISION of what the world is going to be like in 20 years can even approximate what my diseased and terrified mind is picturing to itself all the fucking time. there is no dystopia that is dys enough to equal the dys-representations of my waking nightmares. i’m not disclosing some personal piece of paranoid madness. the ice cap will be water (sweet, sweet water) by 2040. the futuristic narrative that captures this bleak prospect best for me is t.c. boyle’s a friend of the earth. and of course everyone who lives in the tropics and subtropics (where, by the way, i live too) will want to emigrate en masse to the north, so something of what alfonso cuaron is imagining will doubtless happen. but, what can i say, seeing clive owen and julianne moore telling each other that they are ‘old farts’ seemed a bit outta touch to me. they look, of course, absolutely beautiful.

    i’m not saying that this is not a beautiful, powerful, maybe even important film. but i’m not even sure it’s the most powerful anti-iraq movie ever made, as jeff proposes. the “fugees” are too much in the sidelines (as jeff also points out) — savage, teeming masses of undesirables just about as sympathetic to the american viewer as the equally savage and teeming masses that cross the rio grande thousands of time every year, against whom we are oh so desperate to build walls and recruit vigilantes. humanizing these people and their terrible plight requires small intimate stories, not unlike prime suspect 6, which seems more relevant and powerful to me with each passing day. talk about making you feel the despair that drives people to lives in the west that are guaranteed to be miserable, dangerous, and unrewarding, and yet feel like paradise compared to what they are leaving behind. and helen mirren is so good at showing the equally desperate impotence of the westerner who is willing to do the decent and compassionate thing and, still, has nowhere to go.

    but back to this film. what is it with the baby savior? the black baby savior? this is a soteriological fantasy with clear religious overtones, and the fact that our beautiful child is a girl reminded me (lehavdil) of the da vinci code. but i don’t know what to do with this. we are not going infertile. we are becoming global monsters. no single little child will save us. no single anything will save us. not even someone as pretty as clive owen. i’m also rendered not a little uncomfortable whenever a single male and a single female of similar age and physical attractiveness spend so much screen time together and not a single sexual spark flies. the good good look in clive owen’s eyes in the last scene is certainly inspiring, but i have to wonder whether that good good look would not have been a bit tenderer, a bit sweeter, a bit more desperate if kee had been white instead of african.

    listen, i cannot but applaud cuaron for having put on the screen so many reminders of what the bush/blair reign has brought us, but his story leaves me a little too cold for such a beautifully crafted film.

  2. Well, you both make some sharp stabs, but I’ll refute some of ’em thus:

    I take your point about the “commodification of despair” to suggest a challenge to the inevitable ways the spectacle of disaster (in a war film, which this is, as well as an apocalyptic film, which this also is) is thrilling, seductive, a pleasure. I’m always suspicious of these arguments, given that all narrative commodifies affective responses — I don’t see why an end-of-the-world film should be viewed as more suspect than a personal tragedy, but let’s accept the premise as a particular obstacle this film must address. I think it explicitly smashes into, foregrounds the problem of such commodification.

    Gio prefers a narrative where we “feel” more strongly the despair and motivations of individuals…. but I tend to think such identifications are cathartic as often as catalytic. I think the tendency toward chilliness in this film foregrounds an intellectual engagement that resists BOTH the aesthetic and emotional comforts & pleasures that the film definitely provides. Despair may be commodified, but it is not packaged sweetly for easy consumption.

    I think there’s a reason why the film opens on a (white, obviously middle-to-upper-class audience) watching the death of Baby Diego, tears in everyone’s eyes, as they wait for their lattes. In fact, isn’t the first shot of the film that audience staring at us, from a Starbucks? I think the film explicitly critiques our tendency to commodify despair, our ability to swallow and feel sad about images of death and stories about individuals — and it’s trying, in its ambitious art and cinematic design, to make us grapple with the pain of masses. With the idea of a systemic destruction and failure (that, see my argument below, is not in the future but is now).

    The depiction of the fugee camp at film’s end is never, never mere image and spectacle, and I differ quite strongly with Gio’s reading of them as “savage” or inscrutable masses: even though we do not get many individual stories, we are explicitly shown that each of these people huddled together has her and his story. For instance, the camera pans over the photographs in a room where Kee and Theo take momentary refuge, before cutting from a portrait to the woman now, singing to Kee’s child. Marieka carries her dog about with a sensitivity and care that isn’t happenstance; the wounded African(?) woman singing in the hall of the hospital…. And before that–even early in the film, the camera persistently stops following Theo to linger on a particular person in one of the refugee “cages,” she or he urging the camera–urging us–to pay attention, to do something we can’t understand. We do not get the stories–but we are never allowed to ignore their humanity, those experiences we do not see. This may be even more pointedly precise and politically provocative: we want either undifferentiated masses OR Baby Diego, and the film carefully avoids either commodity.

    I think the film’s “holes” and ambiguities — the cousin-official played by Danny Huston, the particularities of the political affiliations — are explicit tactics to resist–or at least recognize the limitations of–a Baby Diego-like simplicity in narrative. We may identify (with Theo, with Kee, around that salvational body) but the film’s spectacle and images and storylines resonate outside of, beyond what we actually know. The film’s excess demands our interpretation, our confusion — in this way I think it provokes political reflection in a way that a cleaner narrative (whether of disastrous apocalypse or desperate personal experiences of oppression) might not. (And in the adaptation, from a novel by P.D. James, one reviewer in the Times noted that much interesting stuff gets lost, like the figure of the cousin played by Huston. I would suggest that the movie explicitly seeks a kind of narrative ambiguity, that more information would undermine its moral force.)

    In short, I think the film is more than its story, and to boil it down to the story makes for easy carving but misses what is so damned effective here. Like the best dystopias, and this may be among the best ever filmed, it’s an allegory, and allegory works far better insofar as it resists our attempts to reduce it to a precisely-paraphrased system of symbolics. It’s not a future world; it’s our world, through a glass, and maybe not even more darkly than it really is. (The camp’s explicit Abu Ghraib imagery made the audience I saw it with — in a big suburban mall multiplex — literally gasp.)

    (And I could go back to other points raised: I have no problem with the lack of sexual tension between Kee and Theo, because I think *she* does register some desire, a familiar father-figure/lust-figure confusion, but Theo’s in another world, still grieving, seeing NOTHING but a child with child. Which suggest another set of slams and salvos, aimed at the film’s gender politics, but I can’t help but see far too much self-awareness, beginning with the explicit gendered irony of the title …)

  3. M. Dargis writes with passion about Children of Men today in the Times and she says the Pink Floyd reference actually references George Orwell’s Animal Farm which takes us back to the barn (people as chattel, etc). I buy her “connect the dots” theory, but it still doesn’t tell me why Huston wants his penthouse view to resemble a fifty-year-old album cover. Perhaps the art director got a little too excited about the dystopic possiblities.

  4. If Children of Men is not the best movie of the year, it is pretty damn close (not that there was much competition last year). Almost everything about this movie worked, and especially the little stuff: the graffiti that flashes by in an instant but when you see a glimpse of “Human Project Lives” or “Uprising” it tells you more than a thousand words of exposition; the easy relationship between Caine and Owen (the joke about the stork captures Caine perfectly); the intensity and realism of the violence, from the initial bomb, through the bullet to Julianne Moore, to the streets of the refugee camp; the pig over Battersea Power station; the way the pictures, flowers and candles to baby Diego deliberately echo the public reaction to Princess Diana’s death (this is an intensely English movie), where the emotional reaction is more a desire to be a part of a public experience than any genuine sadness; Owen’s entirely natural and believable transition from burned out bureaucrat to a person willing to sacrifice his life for this pregnant woman; the opening long tracking shot as the camera circles around Owen. Above all, it is such a pleasure to be treated as an intelligent adult, with events alluded to rather than endlessly explained and waved in your face. Repeatedly, the viewer is invited to interpret some development through their own knowledge and experience without being forced to interpret it in a particular way. The passing reference to how Danny Huston got the Goya immediately led me to think of the Madrid train bombing, but the film never imposes a privileged version of events so I am free to fill in the blanks as I wish.

    I have gone back and forth (since I saw this movie this afternoon) about the scene when all the action stops as people hear the baby crying, and I can see it crossing a line to the overly melodramatic. But I think it is the emotional core of the movie. A world that has seen no births for 18 years, suddenly hears the cry of child, and it just stops. The soldiers, Fishes, refugees, all experience a moment of disbelief and hope… before it starts all over again. Linking that scene to the one in the abandoned school, when the midwife tries to describe a world where you never hear the laughter or the cry of a child, is really powerful stuff, for me at least.

    I’ve read that this is dystopian, and several comparisons to Bladerunner, but the power of this movie (Like V is for Vendetta) is just how similar Britain in 2027 is to Britain in 2007. The changes are very subtle, and all take aspects of current life and exaggerate them just a little. Refugee camps, the BCC (rather than BBC), checkpoints and earth mothers in resistance movements, all capture something true about the present, not the future. The scene as the bus pulls into the first stage of the Bexhill Refugee center and (mostly) men are lined up, naked, dead, hooded, caged, is more powerful than any movie, or even documentary about Iraq. That one montage alone puts this movie ahead of all political movies this year. And Reynolds is surely right about the centrality (not marginality) of the refugee experience to this movie. This is Orwell: “The future belongs to the proles.” A child born to an affluent, or middle class white family would (as the Fishes recognize) have quite different political implications; it would not offer any hope at all, however slim.

  5. As mike said, “It’s not a future world; it’s our world, through a glass, and maybe not even more darkly than it really is.”

    This is what I found most unsettling about the film. And as Chris said, the Abu Ghraib scene in Bexhill made my stomach drop, and made me flinch as if I’d been pinched.

    I don’t have the time to write anything else at the moment, but didn’t want to let this thread fall back too far. I’ll cotribute this:
    An article about the value of the “unedited” shot in the film.

  6. i also wanted to add something that i’ve been thinking of. this has come up before on this blog, though i don’t remember when. i’d like to go back to the conversation we had above about stories one can identify with (mostly stories in which individuals we get to know and like are involved) and stories that keep us at a distance, like stories involving groups of people we perceive as formless and undifferentiated.

    we all know about commodification of despair, but — heck, i wish i could say something theoretically savvy and concise about this — well, we can tell the difference, can’t we? when CNN comes up with a slogan for the latest tragedy, the commodification of despair hits you between the eyes like a rotten egg. i don’t find that this film commodifies despair — how would that be the case? because we spend money to see it? it’s an austere, unflinching film, and it would be hard to claim that it is manipulative or cheap in any way. am i missing something?

    but i’d like to try and sell the value of art that promotes stroger emotional identification with individual characters. mike says:

    Gio prefers a narrative where we “feel” more strongly the despair and motivations of individuals…. but I tend to think such identifications are cathartic as often as catalytic. I think the tendency toward chilliness in this film foregrounds an intellectual engagement that resists BOTH the aesthetic and emotional comforts & pleasures that the film definitely provides. Despair may be commodified, but it is not packaged sweetly for easy consumption.

    as is often the case, our theorerical preferences may reflect here our emotional and psychological idiosyncracies. i have a hard time feeling anything, even intellectual engagement, when presented by undifferentiated, grey masses of people. on the other hand, i positively feel spurred into action by personal stories. by personal stories, clearly, i don’t mean the “cheese and filter” offered to us by exploitative filmmaking and television. when i see monster, i want to give money to, and sign petitions for, amnesty international. when i see harlan country USA, i want to volunteer for the local unions. when i see children of men, which, pace mike, fails to engage anyone individually except for our beautiful and privileged protagonist(s), i don’t want to do a thing. seriously. i don’t care.

    maybe my mistake is in thinking that everyone feels this way. clearly, all of you were stirred by the film a lot more than i was. since i identified with the protagonist, it was for me much more a film of personal awakening and political martyrdom (on the part of theo) than about the tragedy and subsequent abuses of mass migration. i cared only for theo, but i didn’t care for theo very much at all. and i just couldn’t identify/empathize with kee. she remained excluded by the circle of desire: the desire the characters have for one another, the desire we have for them — their well being, their bodies, their friendship, their love. the film doesn’t ask us, it seems to me, to project desire onto kee (okay, so we are rooting for the baby to be fine, but, well, not very much — or at least i wasn’t), but only onto theo. and theo is not very worthy of that desire. he’s just a well-off white boy who decides to do good. that’s very meritorious, of course, but when you see people in cages the white boy become redundant.

    [SPOILER] as for julianne moore’s early demise. what’s with that? if you want to kill off the girl, how about hiring a lesser known actress? i felt betrayed. you don’t kill of julianne moore in the first 20 mins of a film, no way.

    maybe this is when the film lost me, come to think of it.

  7. “i don’t want to do a thing. seriously. i don’t care.”

    Isn’t this a major theme of the film? Isn’t it what Theo’s cousin answers when Theo questions hiim about salvaging artwork? Maybe he says, “I don’t think about it,” but I’d say there isn’t much difference between the two.

    When Theo leaves work early because he was “More upset by the death of Baby Diego” than he thought, it’s a terrible lie. He obviously couldn’t care less about the death of Baby Diego. The camps, the cages on the street, the police state all occur because people don’t care.

    I didn’t feel particularly invested with Theo’s character, but I completely related to his “Once Upon a Time” activism that has given way to just trying to survive, and blocking out the worst of it with booze, a good friend, and systematically ignoring the horror.

    I liked the early exit of Julianne Moore. At that point in the film, I no longer feared it would go cheesy on me. I’m not trying to mock your sentiments Gio (I think Dayna felt the same way you did in fact), but at that point I knew there was not going to be the two of them standing on a shining hill with a new day dawning at the end of the film. I also really liked how Theo wanted so little, even in this awful world. Right down to how desperately he needed nothing more than a simple pair of shoes.

  8. Gio — this is a great point, but for me it comes down to a suspension of disbelief and the different functions of documentaries and movies. You are comparing documentaries and movies and dissing the movie because it is not as authentic as the documentary.

    I am empowered, paralyzed, find myself screaming at the TV, balling my fists, all those things, when I watch Harlan County (or, even better, American Dream), Waging a Living, Out at Work, Harvest of Shame… all documentaries that I show in class. Sometimes, esp. during American Dream, I sit there in the dark surrounded by students trying not to show my tears.

    But that is quite different for me from watching a movie, not least because I know it is fiction. I never yell at the movie screen (though I might leave). I am looking for something different from a movie. I don’t go to the movies in order to be reminded that the world is terrible. I go because movies can sometimes make me understand how terrible it is in a way that reality cannot. They stimulate different ways of processing information. I leave a documentary, and I can list the pros and cons of the case being made in classic academic fashion. But I leave a movie trying to process my emotions in quite different ways.

    If I went to a documentary about immigration and the lead was a white guy like Clive Owen, I’d have the same reaction you did. But Cuaron is not making a documentary. Clive Owen is us, the audience, mostly middle class white people. We process this world through his eyes, and we can because we are him. We are bewildered, torn between fear and hope, still in love with Julianne Moore… that gives me a quite different way of thinking about immigration, terrorism, population explosion, revolutionary movements, etc. than any documentary.

  9. Julian’s untimely death was one of my favorite moments in the film. Not because I wanted to see her dead (I didn’t) but because I was surprised, jolted actually. That particular sequence was one of the highlights (it had heat and energy and confusion and we were invested in the character’s demise as opposed to the hordes of unknown being tortured or, more cynically, actors asked to “quote” recent atrocities by Americans in Iraq; isn’t that a little too easy). By the way, I do think the film is forced to confront/engage how filmmakers work through dystopian visions. The commodification of despair is tricky stuff. I feel less inclined to analyse such creative choices in filmmakers who don’t glam up their despair with lots of “spot on” art direction (de Sica, Bresson, Soderbergh’s Bubble, Monster, Haneke), but I look at something like Schindler’s List or The Pianist or Children of Men or Hotel Rawanda or The Constant Gardener and I simply ask the question. When do aesthetic choices get in the way of showing the world at its worst?

  10. When do aesthetic choices get in the way of showing the world at its worst?

    lars von trier’s and jorgen leth’s the five obstructions, which i’ve mentioned here somewhere, is exactly about that.

    gotta go wash the dog.

  11. these are all good points: that theo represents our distance from/distaste for the painful political situation of his/our world; that movies occupy different theoretical/emotional spaces from documentaries; that the aestheticization of children enhances its commodification potential.

    but, going back to the question of desire: isn’t the filmmaker responsible for where he/she asks us to place our lust? isn’t she/he accountable for that, regardless of whether the film is a movie or a documentary? that’s why movies are subject to ethical and political discussions too, no? we don’t question the politics of documentary makers alone; we question the politics of movie makers too. isn’t a movie that makes us identify (lust after) the bad guys (and i don’t mean a bad guy like jack nicholson in departed, i mean a film in which we walk out thinking, yeah, those bastard mexican immigrants had it coming!) a movie by which we feel wrongly manipulated? i don’t see how documentaries and movies should be different in this respect: you, chris, cry when you see american dream. how would it feel to cry at a documentary in which, say, the beautiful pre-olympics nazi parade of leni riefenstahl is ruined by rain? those would be difficult tears to imagine at this point in time, but it’s not hard to imagine equally misplaced tears provoked by more timely, equally wrong-headed documentaries.

    if documentaries relate to our desires too, what is the big difference between them and movies?

    so yes, by identifying with theo and ‘non caring,’ i’m led to a position in which i question my indifference and political disengangement today at immigrants/tortured people/displaced masses/hungry multitudes. but what to make of the politics, the ethics of a movie (and i’m not stating this to be one, merely that this is what this movie did to me) that leaves me cold and unengaged in the face of unspeakable tragedy?

    which brings us to jeff’s point: what is all the amazing display of art direction trying to do? make us feel the bleakness of a world gone seriously wrong? it’d be hard to claim that cuaron doesn’t even try to get us to feel (lust after) the dispossed, kee, the gyspy woman, etc.. if i don’t feel anything, and i am not a psychopath — if, say, most people don’t feel anything — has the movie been unsuccessful? if i come out of the movie declaring, with the pre-conversion theo, “i don’t care,” hasn’t the film failed to reach me in a way that says something more than about just me?

    so let me ask the question again: why don’t we lust after kee?

  12. Two not-so-quick points:

    –I recall sitting in a graduate seminar discussing Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” and a few people in the room said they could not and did not identify with anyone in the plays. It wasn’t just that they didn’t see themselves (and questioned the texts’ portrayal of women), but also that the intellectualizing of the characters–and the play’s steadfast engagement with dialectic, rather than a specific precisely-named moral purpose–seemed to them abstracting, aestheticizing, and apolitical.

    Identify was the exact word they chose. My skepticism about identification is not meant to be a wholesale dismissal of how it can and does work powerfully and politically, as Gio carefully spells out. But I don’t just question but passionately challenge the notion that identification is some easily-defined process which necessarily, through the production of sympathies with a particular subject on screen (or in any text) reproduces such sympathies in the interpreter. Identification became a way to put texts into categories, rather than engaging with the complexities of the text.

    Worse yet, failing to engage with the complexities of reading. I tend to think that identification can produce an eradicating “sympathy”, in many instances, and this is what I was getting at in my challenge to the commodification of despair. My college just asked students to read Khaled Hosseini’s _The Kite Runner_ as a first-year text, and I heard from numerous students that they identified with the protagonist. And in so doing they consumed the specifics of that character’s situation, reconstructed them in relation to their own very different worlds (and worldviews), and in large part subordinated if not outright subsumed any “difference” into their already familiar approaches to the world. They identified in a manner which saw some connections with a character and eradicated–literally consumed–the difference, so that all that emerged from the reading was their own self, perhaps touched by but mostly unchanged in the act of reading.

    I don’t say this to mock bad readers. I say this because I believe that this is how identification tends to work, period. Can it be more complicated? Sure. But at base, identification is often a violent act, one which incorporates desired elements from an “other” into one’s already-structured sense of self.

    I might note that I *did* lust after Kee. And Theo. And Jasper. And mourned with Jasper for his wife. And wondered what his wife stared at (and felt adrift & terrified by the implications–from some of the newsclippings we see before first seeing her–that she’d been tortured into her condition by the government.) I felt horrified for all of the wild-eyed and terrified people in the cages, even when the German woman, imploring the guard (and us), makes a passing reference to the “Schvartze” next to her, and I wonder as a non-speaker if she’s busy, even as she’s being imprisoned for difference, drawing lines between her and these other “others.” I found myself enraptured by Mariecka and her love for her dog, and her selfless dedication to Kee and the child and Theo. I was struck dumb when Luke notes how he’d cried in the stairwell with the child, even as he’s threatening to shoot Theo and steal that child–I finally understood that his motivations were as heartrendingly complex as any others’ when, upon learning that the child is a girl, he says, just before he shoots Theo and is then shot, “I had a sister.” There’s worlds there, in that past tense. I could go on.

    Identification when I watch a film isn’t with one, or in one way. It’s a fucking mess. Like Chris, I get moved to tears often at the drop of a hat–Barney Fife and Beloved can both do it to me. Moving me, making me identify with a character — easiest goddamn thing in the world. (To tie to another thread, and Chris’ good point about revenge movies–he’s right that we do identify with the avenger, so perhaps her or his gender is less an issue. On the other hand, I think what is crucial to recover as we make sense of revenge films is that we also are asked to identify with the perpetrators of violence, with the people degrading, abusing, even raping the protagonist. That’s, for me, the useful HORROR and complexity of such films. And even in Children, when the soldier gets on the bus and brutally picks out who’ll be black-masked and beaten at the gates of Bexhill, I flash for an instant into his shoes. I gasp because my fear, and my righteous reaction to such fears, makes Abu Ghraib happen.)

    Maybe I’m an oddity. But I don’t think I am. A film that resists a ‘caring’ central protagonist is a film or text that, for me, never lets us fall into the excluding habits which all too often swallow up difference and reinforce our takes on the world. Despair may still be a “commodity,” but it isn’t one-stop shopping in Children‘s world: everyone in the film, everywhere, all around despair seeps out and demands my attention and my engagement.

    –But, sure, I do often feel cold or unengaged with a text. (E.g., Bridget Jones’ Diary and Crash come to mind.) But what I find myself resisting is the bullying manipulations of identification. Which gets us to aesthetics: a film that is glossy can, surely, make me feel a bit pat, even patronizing about or disinterested in, any brutality it shows. I still wonder about my reactions to most Kubrick. And in another thread, on another day, I think it’d be worth analyzing this question of Jeff’s (“When do aesthetic choices get in the way of showing the world at its worst?”) which I usually just scratch my head over. (It’s like asking me “Why would anyone laugh at the Marx Brothers?” I don’t even understand the question’s premises, they seem so alien.) I always see the world, and don’t feel it’s lost, even when the filmmaker is busy covering it over. Even fucking Bridget Jones got me thinking about Thatcher and Major and Blair. I might change the question to: when do we let aesthetic forms block our relation to the world, rather than opening it up? And why? I hate to get all Jim-Kincaidy, but I don’t think this critique ought to be aimed at texts, I think it ought to be aimed at viewers.

    –And, last thing, to call Cuaron guilty of chilliness was perhaps a mistake on my part. He’s not Kubrick, even as the film cites Kubrick; he’s a humanist, but I think he believes–as do I–that our approach to the human is terribly limited by the simplicities of our representations. We can (to reiterate my claims from above) identify with Baby Diego, even as we round up anyone who looks like Diego. We love _Kite Runner_, and think the lefties are gonna let us go soft on Iran. The film’s astounding aesthetic foci (in long takes and elaborate design) immerse us in an often brutalizing world in ways that never let us consume the plot, feel ‘kindred’ longing or lust or sympathy in any one direction for too long. Theo’s not-caring is not just a bid to capture and exploit for political ends the identification of a certain kind of viewer (although it works well that way); Theo’s not-caring is a way to refute a too-neat, too-easy, too-easily-forgotten and too-exclusive connection with just one character. He’s hard to relate to, in some ways, because that’s the point: why should we relate (only) to him?

  13. My point about movies and documentaries was not that we can evaluate the politics of the latter and not the former. We have had long discussions of the politics of Munich, Syriana and Constant Gardner, and I tried to talk about the gender politics of Heading South. My point was that we (or perhaps it is only me) process the information from a movie, and respond to it, differently than from a documentary because we know at some level that one is fictional and the other is not. When I watch American Dream I know that real people — the people on the screen — are actually suffering and my emotional and intellectual response is to that suffering. When I watch Children of Men something much more complicated happens: I am being asked to suspend disbelief and at the same time compare that story on the screen to what I know about the world around me. So every moment of Children of Men involves making that comparison, asking questions about how the characters respond, about just how dystopian this future is, and so on. This presumably is why art can sometimes be so powerful in giving us new and different perspectives on reality.

    I know I’m drawing too stark a distinction between the two forms — movie and documentary — and I know that crossing lines between them is hardly unknown. But the fact remains that when I settle down to watch a documentary, I do so in a different frame of mind, with a different purpose, than when I watch a movie. It may also be why I have never watched a documentary in the all enveloping cocoon of a movie theater. But that’s just me.

    So Gio, what is your answer to your own question? Why don’t we (to the extent that we don’t) lust after Kee? I rather like a film that doesn’t expect its male and female lead to fall into bed together. Does it have to be racism? Might Owen still feel something for his ex-wife who just got her brains blown all over the car seat and not be able to move on in a heartbeat? What is the politics — for Owen or for us — of being more attracted to Moore than Ashitey?

  14. There are so many good points to address from your various posts but for now I just want to make one point that feels essential. The film IS a commodity; it’s not a matter of cultural interpretation or debate over whether it “commodifies despair” or not. It does; in its circumstances of production and distribution it can’t do otherwise. I think the film makes a knowing wink acknowledging this status in its quick disposal of a major star like Julianne Moore, just as Hitchcock did in Psycho when Janet Leigh gets killed twenty minutes into it. The feeling of “betrayal” at the violent elimination of a character played by a major star (a viable commodity in the film industry)plays off the processes of identification we expect from films (the films that make it to the multiplexes at least). I think it goes to Mike’s point–that the film would like to break some of the conventional forms of identification, even as it necessarily uses them. As a product, the film is “doomed” to commodification, but at least within its narrative–whose content is irrelevant to its status as commodity–it can play with this status.

    Films like The Constant Gardner and Hotel Rwanda are commodities, whose content is the representation of despair in remote locations, mainly for audiences unfamiliar ideologically and experientially with the circumstances creating that despair. It seems to me in cases like these films it’s necessary to accept the film’s commodity status (and fight this “commodification” of despair on the levels of production, distribution, access, etc.–for instance, why not promote the making and global release of African films that come directly from those who experience these circumstances?)–then, to take on the role that most of us, based on our training, are well qualified for, asking the question of whether the film challenges conventions, confirms or overturns ideology in its identifications, narrative moves, formal strategies, etc. A film like Children of Men can’t help but be “compromised” in a larger sense,while still offering many political possibilities in other ways.

    I haven’t really come to terms yet with those possibilities–I have to give the movie more serious thought and think about these posts. But I think we have to assume that aesthetics ALWAYS gets in the way of the representation of political despair—thankfully so, or we’d have something called “realism”–and that “for us,” every representation is a commodification. Then we can fruitfully distinguish between and undertake two important activities: challenging the commodification at the necessary levels (as I mentioned,say, making it possible for African films to mingle with films about Africa)and delineating the workings of ideology within texts/with audiences (I don’t think we can dispense with the notion of texts in favor of audiences,only work with them together–[I wish I didn’t end with such a lame paranthetical comment])

  15. Some great points, Michael–though I think some would take issue with your reading of Psycho. Feminists in particular would contend that the disposal of Marion Crane is not a betrayal. On the contrary, it is essential insofar as her sexuality is deemed as a threat. The licentious and eroticized coupling of Marion & Sam must be replaced with the romantic, de-eroticized coupling of Lila & Sam. It is over Marion’s corpse that this new narrative is set in motion, and, by the end of the film, both the law and the family are restored.

    Sorry for such pointless comment, but I am so far behind you all in terms of viewings. I’m compelled to contribute, but have nothing to offer up. Maybe tomorrow I can catch a few flicks and do more.

  16. Two points:

    1) I like Chris’s having made the distinction between fiction and documentaries. This is a distinction which the “everything is a text” approach would certainly see as irrelevant and/or artificial. But it’s an important distinction, for the reasons that Chris says.

    The reason why I mention it here is this. I have noticed, over the last few years, that among those who have, I believe, tended to play down, if not ignore altogether, the distinctions between fiction and documentary, science and literature, truth and falsity, etc. etc. (I know I’m mixing up a lot of different things here), there has been a welcome backlash owing (wait for it) to the Bush administration. Bush and his cronies have co-opted these elisions for such obviously nefarious purposes that people of good conscience who were formerly tempted by them have been moved to say: there is a difference between truth and falsity; there is good science and bad, and the two must be distinguished by the (more or less) traditional canons of reason.

    So, I’m curious to know whether Chris’s remarks about fiction and documentary (which, as I say, I endorse) would have sounded odd if made 8 or 10 years ago.

    2) On the commodification front. Michael says, rightly, that all films are commodities in virtue of the ways they are produced, distributed, consumed, etc. If “commodification of despair” just means that films, which are commodities, portray despair, then it’s a trivial consequences that films that portray despair commodify it. But why take “commodification of despair” in that way? Just because a film is a commodity, it doesn’t follow that *it* commodifies the things it represents. To insist on that assimilates the medium of the representation and its object. Perhaps they should be assimilated, but, if so, I’d like to know why they must be.

    On the other hand, if we don’t assimilate them, then I’m not sure what it means to say that a film commodifies something. Presents that something as if it were a commodity (i.e. makes it look attractive)? Represents that thing as a commodity (i.e. is about people buying and selling that thing)? Or what? And is a film’s actually being a commodity itself likely to promote any of these things?

  17. John–regarding Psycho, I would have to take issue with those critics, as the ending of Psycho seems to me very far from restoring the family and the law. I get the impression Hitchcock is more interested in exploring the disruptive sexuality of Marion than he is in restoring order–the only thing that displaces Marion is the even more disruptive sexuality of Norman/Mother (the family in the film is already hopelessly shattered and certainly can’t be repaired). looking forward to more of your comments.

    Simon–You’re right–perhaps the “postmodernists” played into the hands of the conservatives? But, I’d say that even if the distinction between documentary and fictional film is a useful one, it would be impossible to align the one with “truth” and the other with “falsity.” I think they are two modes of apprehension, with great similarities, rather than objectively distinct ways of seeing.

    The commodification issue problem requires some clarification. I don’t know if I’m capable of making the clarification, but here goes. When any catastrophe is represented, the representation necessarily involves a distancing from the situation and a lessening of its impact–even in a powerful representation, the catastrophe is made more manageable and the purely barbaric–say the holocaust or the Rwandan genocide–is annexed by form to a reason it lacks. That’s a problem it’s impossible to avoid–though we can still distinguish between representations that are more or less ideological (maybe your distinction between “truth” and “falsity” comes into play here? though the distinction wouldn’t necessarily be tied to a specific mode?)So the first problem is in representation itself–next more specifically we have to get into “commodification” ….but, hell, I’m tired and can’t think much anymore and the TV calls….more later, Bat fans.

  18. Michael, I think what’s missing in your reading of the ending of Psycho is that Norman-as-Mother is literally institutionalized. Disruptive sexuality is indeed explored, but it is ultimately contained. Lila and Sam, our new coupling, visit a chruch (where they are invited to a nice family dinner), visit a hotel room (where none of the shenanigans that open the film occur), and finally a police station (where they sit very quietly as everything is put in its proper place).

  19. Simon’s point one has sat in my figurative craw all night long.

    It struck me as odd to, in one breath, applaud the maintenance of useful distinctions between fiction and documentary (and truth and fiction) then in the next to collapse distinctions between academic arguments about textuality and the impossibility of defining capital-T “Truth” (made to a sea of mopes at the MLA) and political arguments (& subsequent policy) which assume a capital-T “Truth” and purposefully and sanctimoniously disregard truth-telling in order to accomplish the ends assumed by that Truth.

    But I’ll step back from my pomo emo defensiveness and stipulate: hell yes it’s crucial to define the distinctions between kinds of texts & their work. I’m even willing to toss around evaluations of good and bad…. However, I will stick to my figurative guns (and, regarding guns figurative and literal, see above re useful distinctions to be drawn between postmodernists and Bush foreign policy) that our notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are bound up in ideological systems that demand our attention, so that the naming of the “good” can be carefully interrogated.

    I would note, in passing, that eugenics was grounded in very good science. Its badness emerged not by challenging the failure to follow scientific method but through changes to the social contexts in which science works. To say all science is the same, or that science is merely fiction, is stupid. But the smart postmodernist can not have her cake and eat it, too; attention to textuality does not leave you hanging in a reasonless relativism, as Michael demonstrates in his point about documentaries and fictions.

    To tie this more directly to the film, Children visually cites a number of real-world horrors; its Abu-Ghraib tableau or the deployment of the term “Homeland Security” have referents no contemporary viewer could miss or mistake. One argument might be made that such citations make mere text out of those referents; in the service of an art & production design aiming for spectacular aesthetic and emotional assault, such visual signs make us feel (about what’s happening “in” the movie) while also dissociating the signs from their referents. We then consume these markers of power and despair, feel something, and leave the theater unmoved and/or unmotivated. (Or, worse, as likely to read the next round of photos from Iraq or beheadings on YouTube in a similar, disconnected fashion, as mere signs of horror.)

    I see that critique. I just don’t agree that it applies to this film. In a more conventional film, one more comfortably attentive to those formal structures which please (and appease) the audience, such markers and signs are tied/linked to central figures and plots with which we identify. The protagonist’s horror, for instance, mirrors ours. And then the protagonist overcomes, reconciles with his hot rebel leader ex-wife, saves the black girl and her savior baby and the world seems brighter. And we walk out, having felt but now relieved (from the burden).

    I find even that critique too mechanistic. I think audiences are neither that homogenous in their interpretations nor texts that effective at controlling and channeling audience reactions. But as an example of the “bad”der film, a version of Children I’d feel comfortable attacking (while still holding on to my pomo street cred), it’ll do for now.

    Luckily, this isn’t that Children.

  20. will there be a pomo/idealist smackdown here? If so, I want the concessions contract.

    John–perhaps we should establish a separate thread on hitchcock (not a bad idea because most people have some experience and knowledge of his films)—but here I’d just say that I think the signs of authority indicate to me just how unruly the disruptive forces are, because so much has to be brought in–psychiatry, the church, the police, etc.–to contain them. But I think the narrative sympathies are usually with the disruptive forces and the containing forces always appear too late and with the same ineffective rhetoric.I think of the end of Shadow of a Doubt, which also invokes the police and the church…but what’s left is a profound feeling that Uncle Charlie’s influence has not left and the ideology of small town Santa Rosa will not be so easily repaired. Lila, Sam, the psychiatrist–all barely register in the face of Norman’s pathology and its repercussions for the family. The narrative (of a specific sort) demands its conventional closure, but Hitchcock seems to often unsettle the authority of that closure, often by highlighting how excessive its claims are.

    I wanted to say more about commodification. I think the activity of representation itself creates a distance from the catastrophe it gestures toward. That happens, both to commodified and uncommodified representations. But under our current circumstances, commodification is unavoidable, so a film like Children of Men must necessarily suffer from an additional alienation, just as any film now does (any film that participates in the conventional network of circulation–though even a film that doesn’t might be said to participate in it, because it is defined by its ‘outsider’ status, its relationship to that network).

    I feel like I have labored mightily to give birth to a little mouse of a point. squeak! oh well.

    but I would say that the commodification is not a trivial or external matter (we say, oh yes all films now are commodities but we can leave that aside and attend only to their narratives, structures, etc.). I’d say the commodification has profound implications for the form/content of every film–it just strikes us most sharply for films that address political situations directly. So, as I said, any film is “compromised” and it’s worth making the point repeatedly, however tiresome, that when we confront a film like children of men we are getting it at the cost of the suppression of other kinds of films, other narratives, other possibilities. How does that suppression take shape within the narrative itself and in its relationship to its audience, some of whom take away a sense of political engagement while others don’t…well, I don’t know..what am I, the damn Shell answer man? I only wanted to expand the idea of commodification beyond the film’s individual choices of representation and thereby maybe open up a fruitful debate about the film as both commodified object and political narrative (and, hence, the tension between the two).

    But I will step aside and let the Truth/Culture Rumble begin!

  21. Michael, thanks for these thoughts on commodification. Just to get it straight, what you are saying is a) all representations create a distance from what they are representations of (and hence, in some sense, betray what they represent); b)when the representations are commodified, as in a film like C of M, the distance from (and hence betrayal of) the object of representation is enlarged. If that’s it, then I think I agree with you.

    Mike. I plead guilty to conflating a whole lot of different battles. I was trying to signal some things in short-hand, but you’re right that it may have involved some unfairness. I tried to reply more substantively to what you said but deleted a large passage. I’m gonna have to think on this more. Sorry, Michael, to rob you of your fun.

  22. Michael, I think I agree with you about Hitchcock (and yes, why not a separate thread, Arnab?). The point I was making was not my own–my reading of Psycho, like your own, is that the “cleaning up” we must do at the end of the film (“he’s a transvestite” “not exactly” “that set off a jealous mother and MOTHER killed the girl,” etc.) mirrors the cleaning up that Norman does after Marion is murdered, thus suggesting almost explicitly the violence of the post-Marion narrative with which have been complicit. I’m only now sort of working through these ideas, so if what I just suggested is unclear, don’t I know it! But I assert the feminist reading (which is Barbara Klinger’s reading, really) because it insists that we not forget that woman’s corpse, which the second half of Psycho seems to do–until that final shot. What do we think of when we see that trunk being pulled out of the muck? Do we think of Marion’s corpse? I take your points, Michael: I think Hitchcock is acknowledging that no matter how hard we try, we’ll never be completely clean. Once the film’s narrative is wrapped up and everything is put in its place, Hitchcock is determined to remind us of the mess. The final shot is of muck–and we leave the theater with our hands dirty again.

  23. Simon–take your time, and rest assured that, while I like a good smackdown, I wasn’t trying to smack. While passionate, I wasn’t angry — I think the conversations generally on this site, even when silly and sniping, are great fun and truly challenging and useful for me. I *liked* your post; I enjoy the range of different passionate responses above. But I do look forward to you spelling out some of your points, when time and computer voodoo permit.

  24. my students are writing down their personal narratives of 9/11, and michael’s point, that memories get shaped by reason in representation, and that choices are necessarily made, gave me something to focus on in reading them. i’m particularly struck by how important it is for the narrating subject to attach horror to reason. a lot of horror is really pretty unreasonable — fickle, chancy, silly, coincidental, petty. but we have an overwhelming, i dare say irrepressible need to tidy up things, make them work for us, give them larger purposes, finalities, causes, etc. We can’t accept the randomness of tragedy.

    also, on another point michael made, interesting how films like chidren of men literally displace other, similar-themed films. it’s not just that this director has made his choices. it’s also that another film about the same subject won’t be made/produced/distributed/mass-advertised for a long, long time. think of schindler’s list, the last word on filmic holocaust. hotel rwanda. the constant gardener. blood diamonds. we seem able to take on world tragedies only in all-in-one compendiums, while we are quite happy with rehashing some subjects (see john’s post on little miss sunshine about the perfect american story) over and over and over. the cultural self needs constant buffering; it needs to take its prozac day in and day out.

  25. John–your point about “cleaning up” is excellent. I’d say that, like a good obsessive, Hitchcock is preoccupied with the rituals designed to give order to a chaotic world. of course, the mess of murder is a perfect metaphor–what strikes me as a great companion piece to Psycho is Frenzy, where messiness is even more apparent, and the film itself is in form and content a war between the “tidy” tradition of the English murder mystery (where the body’s materiality rarely intrudes)and the slasher/psycho killer genre where the vulnerability of the body is primary.

    I agree with Gio’s points. what is amazing is that we consider certain historical events to be “settled” by some kind of authoritative representation. to get back to the “commodification” question, does that really mean that we have ceased to be troubled, or even interested, in these events? once the holocaust is sufficiently distant and irrelevant to most people it can be finally polished off by a “decisive” film? that’s done, next….

  26. I think Gio’s points about how a single (and seemingly singular) narrative can displace others–productions vying to be the first to hit the screen (so Oliver Stone gets to make JFK while John Malkovich’s funding for Libra falls through), certain ‘monumental’ memorials (like Schindler) seeming to dwarf or just outright damage any other interpretation.

    But it strikes me that such certain strong narratives can also liberate, allow proliferation. In terms of production, the first 9/11 film to really capture an audience will likely spawn a plethora of follow-ups; like zombie pictures and westerns, the minute a story really sells, the knock-offs, sequels, alternatives will emerge …

    Similarly, I look at the history of JFK narratives. It took a little time for anyone to seek a monumental account (William Manchester), but once his massive “full” (complete, sober, singular) history sold, an industry was born. And in that industry, counter-narratives, alternative takes, a whole slew of complicated and multiplicitous versions of the assassination began emerging.

  27. mike, yes. but the JFK assassination, like 9/11 (may the dept. of homeland security forgive me for saying this) are not “unspeakable” (this word… it haunts trauma studies, and i don’t like it) tragedies like the holocaust, hiroshima (when will we start confronting hiroshima?), rwanda, darfur, even iraq. our attitude to such horrors is, i think, not very dissimilar from our attitude to physical disability as michael has described it in textualities, in a thread initiated by brilliant insights by mike “the” reynolds. we recoil. we are repelled. but at the same time we feel like it behooves us, as decent human beings, as people of conscience, not to brush them aside. our piety in watching the clean filmic reconstructions of atrocities pacifies the part of us that feels we have been spared (it’s not me). the horror, the revulsion, the desire to be done with it all, touches that other part, the part that knows we are only a hair’s breadth away from the same destiny (it’s me).

  28. That’s a fair distinction–the “unspeakable” versus the traumatic.

    It gets confusing/complicated in some other ways, though:
    –Rwanda and Darfur strike me more as neglected, not-spoken-of more than unspeakable; a different set of problems of representation attend to these events, don’t they?

    And thus it strikes me that representations–like Philip Gourevitch on Rwanda, or the recent spate of films, autobiographies, and fictions on the recurrent horrors in Southern Sudan–might be necessary.

    –It’s not equivalent, but the above is complementary to my point about Children: where our approach to representations is reproductive of the conditions which produce the reality, how might representations disrupt our reading of reality in necessary, political, complicated fashion? I’m almost astounded I’m about to say this, but: isn’t the distance of representation a potentially vital, provocative force? And while subject to the kinds of possible cleaning-up you note, also (always?) forcing us to look once again at what we don’t feel comfortable examining? (In re disabilities: some argue that better to exploit the ‘spectacle’ of disability for political ends rather than try to find the ‘right’, correct, proper way to represent…)

    –Even where more horrifically resistant to (adequate? accurate? any?) representation, representations still emerge. For all the singularity of the monolithic List, how many subsequent documentaries, films–and even academy-award winning films–have emerged after Spielberg?

  29. Once again, I come to this post too late to add anything of substance to what’s already been said about this film. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And after having carefully read through these comments just now, I can’t say I like this film any more or less than before. But I find it even more provocative. Gosh you guys are smart.

    But a few comments about commodification: when I read reynolds’s defense of of the film in light of Jeff’s (and later michael’s) points, my first thought was to make the point that Theo does become one of the Starbucks consumers– it’s just that Baby Diego is replaced with a different baby. In fact, the name-changes of the baby chart Theo’s own increasing interest in this new story. First, the baby’s name is Froly, a name that resists any empathic projection (Theo’s response upon first hearing the name suggests as much). After leaving the Starbucks, there’s a powerful explosion, and Theo turns around to see a woman emerging from the rubble, what’s left of the Starbucks, carrying her own arm. This is significant because it reveals that as much as he wants to tell himself he doesn’t care about the death of Baby Diego, he will care if the explosion is powerful enough (he admits as much to Jasper). Hence the baby’s name change: Bazooka. And finally, of course, Dylan (his son’s name).

    And yet, I think reynolds’s argument still holds, in that the newborn child, Dylan (Dillon?), will not make headlines. This story will not circulate, will not be consumed. And it is Theo who ensures this–it is he who voices his unsolicited opinion at the Fishes leadership council meeting that the mother and infant need medical attention, not media attention.

    As far as the point about “rubble-chic,” I think there’s no getting around it. This film is gorgeous to look at, the despair I see is, in Benjamin’s phrase, “the phony spell of a commodity” (though he was speaking of the cult of the movie star–though this certainly applies too, in Clive Owens’s case). And we should take Benjamin’s final words from his essay on mechanical reproduction seriously: “Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” It seems to me that reynolds is making the very strong argument that the film critiques us, “our tendency to commodify despair.” But does it critique itself?

  30. I think we have to pay some close attention to the conditions of those representations–as I said before, their circumstances of production and distribution. Let’s take Africa. Africa is a complete blank for most Americans—a kind of undifferentiated landscape of starvation, chaos, disease, wildness, etc. Those who make representations for us don’t find Africa of much interest. However, it becomes of interest after experiencing some horrific political event that is typically represented in a well-intentioned film that, even in spite of its own intentions, reinforces the idea that political horror in Africa is a kind of natural event. A natural disaster typically witnessed by Americans/Europeans who “interpret” the experiences of the Africans. Even where the main figures in the film may be Africans themselves, the interpretation occurs in the process of filmmaking, by making a film “appropriate” to the expectations of its audience (a name actor will figure prominently, a “message” will be delivered, etc.).

    I’d like to keep an open mind about the possibilities Mike suggests; certainly someone may very well be enlightened about an event after viewing a film and use it as a mean to make complicated political/moral/ethical meanings.

    But I am also skeptical, given the control over representation by a few corporate interests, who are inclined mainly to the repetition of successful formulas, including those for the representation of “unspeakable” or otherwise traumatic events. To get back to Africa–for them, it is a source of a particular kind of narrative. Typically the representation comes long after the events depicted–therefore, there is no question of the film promoting an active intervention. The events unfold tragically–inevitably,as appropriate to a naturally afflicted region. Even the depiction of fairly recent events gives the impression that no intervention was possible. For Africa, we get mostly tragedy, not politics or history.

    as for Schindler’s List your point is well-taken–it may have generated a host of explorations of the Holocaust. But has the representation explored the event or replaced it? Why isn’t the actual footage of the camps as readily available as Spielberg’s film? I certainly don’t want to give up on popular representation or start to consider its audience simplistically, but I wonder, when it comes to the representation of political trauma, of “unspeakable” events that are nevertheless created by human activity, if we don’t often get a spectacle that promotes disengagement (in Gio’s terms, more of the “not me” than “me”)?

  31. John–you and I must have published our comments at nearly the same time. The Benjamin quotation is great–though I wonder if this kind of pleasure didn’t exist in some form prior to the commodity as well. But it brings up a good point concerning Children of Men –that the dominance of the commodity makes even more important those moments in a film where it signals some self-awareness and critique of its own unavoidable status.

  32. I think I agree with that, though I also wonder if it takes some doing to reveal those moments. Or are these moments immediately apparent? And if so, do we aestheticize those moments? Do we consider them noteworthy not in their socially critical function, but because they are aesthetically pleasing? In other words, do we fetishize these moments? I think this is Adorno’s critique of Benjamin, right, that he exhibited an uncritical and immediate fetishization of moments like the ones to which we allude? This is why Adorno preferred Schoenberg to Brecht–the former produced works of art that refused to be enjoyed.

  33. Those who make representations for us don’t find Africa of much interest. However, it becomes of interest after experiencing some horrific political event that is typically represented in a well-intentioned film that, even in spite of its own intentions, reinforces the idea that political horror in Africa is a kind of natural event.

    I think this is an instructive example, Michael. It reminds me of a conversation I overheard in a restaurant in Savannah, Georgia. This was right around the time that Kofi Annan was facing charges of corruption. Some fellow said something to the effect of “What do you expect? He’s from Africa. It’s part of the culture.” And this was going on, if you will recall, when those big swifties DeLay and Abramoff had become nightly news stories. We circulate the most ridiculous ideas rather than make the critical observation that corruption might be endemic to all forms of institutionalized power, including (gasp!) the U.S. Congress. No, we take that bit of news to reinforce the stereotype that African nations (well, Africa really. Notice that Annan was said to be from Africa, not Ghana) are naturally corrupt.

  34. I’m not familiar with Adorno’s direct criticisms of Benjamin, but I get the impression from elsewhere that he believed it was impossible not to aestheticize those elements and that it was necessary to include a formal undercutting of them within the work of art–your point about Schoenberg is apt, he also made similar claims about Beckett. Though I wonder if now, once many of the aspects of modernism have been absorbed, if it’s now much more possible to fetishize the difficult moments of these artists or if the modernist critique can retain some of its power.

    on a bit of a side note, I have been exploring African music lately–it goes a long way to dispelling some of the mythology surrounding “Africa.” The sheer diversity and intricacy of the many forms of popular music gives the lie to the concept of a monolithic and torpidly corrupt continent. Any place (Zaire at the time) that can produce Franco (please see the album “Omona Wapi” and the collection available in the “Rough Guide” series)has something going for it. And isn’t it a growing assumption on the Right that the UN is hopelessly corrupt, simply because it includes other nations? contact with the “foreign” itself taints the US?

  35. Well, setting aside that Children isn’t an “African” film in almost any of the senses she named, we still have her strong appreciation for that film. She’s more on my side of the court about Children.

    And, as she says in that review, praising Cuaron, “[t]here are . . . different ways of waking up.” While I take her points–and Michael’s–about the way certain kinds of representations can fail to work, or can displace other work, I also see a recurrent failure in that thesis to differentiate both the kinds of texts being lumped together (for instance, Tears of the Sun is surely a very different kind of text than, say, The Constant Gardener) and the many ways audiences might open up to works. I don’t think popcornish consumption and actual action are the only two sites for viewer engagement, even as I take her (and Michael’s more nuanced) point about the way we may (to return to the terms that got us going) commodify despair even as we aim to represent and address it.

  36. I’m not sure I like the way Dargis refers to an African director as “the real deal”—she brings out the name of a long-accepted “third cinema” director,Sembene, rather than making the broader point that corporate representations of Africa actually discourage the production and distribution of films made in Africa, by Africans. I agree with Mike that her conception of audience response is one-dimensional but I think the problem goes beyond audience reception–to the conditions of production and distribution, before audiences get a chance to see anything at all. The range of audience response is often stunted by seeing only the same kind of film–the conventional narrative–too often. Witness students–and we’ve all had a few–who do not want to see black and white, read subtitles, see anything older than 3 years, etc. That’s not to say that audiences react to everything by either mindlessly chewing popcorn or rousing themselves into activism–but that it’s broadly true that film becomes identified with only a single mode of presentation because of the suppression of other kinds of films.

    I don’t advocate the “real” over the “false” a distinction Dargis seems to accept (but maybe I should give her the benefit of the doubt—she is writing a popular piece that can’t pause to ‘unpack’ these categories)..but to take a single example, why not a film from Uganda about Amin, with the Last King of Scotland. “Globalization” is nothing but a corporate catchword, until we actually start hearing from other parts of the world.

  37. I’ll second that heart for Michael F. as well. His posts always make me think and they are always so damn clear–theoretically complex yet articulate and concise. Plus, he threw me a lifesaver on the “singular” debate and for that I will always heart Michael.

  38. Because Michael threw Jeff a lifesaver, he is my sworn enemy. Is there a word representing a symbol representing another word we use for antipathy?

  39. I have more hearts than antipathies (thanks Jeff), Reynolds–so beware. perhaps that little poison control guy, the green face with the X over it…what would we call it “I poison control you?”

  40. finally got around to watching this film and i was disappointed to see that the post-apocalyptic world will include no zombies or fey killer-punks. and a world without children is terrible? free sex, baby! yeah!

    more seriously, i enjoyed this well enough as a thriller but didn’t find it particularly thought provoking. you’ve all stolen from my observations about the politics of films like hotel rwanda and the constant gardener, and yes, those objections apply here as well. what also bothered me here is how the film refuses to recognize any group politics as feasible, focusing entirely on the cult of the good, redeemable individual. the regime is bad, the resistance is bad, but here comes john the baptist, leading the baby jesus to the water. and if that isn’t bad enough, apparently we’re still going to be listening to donovan in 2027. no wonder women don’t want to have babies anymore.

    but hey, any film that disposes of julianne moore so early can’t be too overrated; it would have been better if they’d similarly hired and offed kevin spacey.

    i imagine mike liked this because he likes all movies about the end of the world that involve children in peril. it gives him an excuse to weep, which is something he is inordinately fond of doing.

    (does anyone still want me to split the psycho stuff out? i wasn’t reading earlier as in didn’t want to read any spoilers.)

  41. I want you to split your comments out. Put them under the heading “Arnab’s Wisdom” and wait for our thoughtful comments to follow.

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