Friday, January 05, 2007

children of men and a reflection on current affairs

I went to see Children of Men last night. It reminded me a good deal of Apocalypse Now: A cynic on a weird redemptive journey through apocalyptic weirdness and violence. Unlike Manolha Dargis of the NY Times, I'm not naive (or unobservant) enough to think that there is no ideology behind the movie. It does sort of masquerade as mere reporting. But as with V for Vendetta (which I found intensely irritating in this respect), the clear implication of the movie is that the policies of the governments of America and Britain (today) are on a path leading civilization to the brink. This is implied mainly by the ubiquitous stylistic and thematic elements of Children of Men that were taken directly from the news media's coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, in Children of Men, the cynical protagonist (Theo played by Clive Owen) is caught in the crossfire between a misguided government and a misguided resistance. We are left to guess at the particulars of what drives the resistance, apart from their vague and vaguely benevolent concern for immigrant rights (in the movie, immigrants are distractingly referred to as "fugees"). Moreover, the resistance is a make-believe group called "The Fishes." By contrast, the implied continuity of the government with its real world counterparts is more than evident in constant references to "The Department of Homeland Security" (this time in Britain), whose thugs dress like American soldiers and parade around with vicious German Shepherds, rounding up immigrants, beating them indiscriminately, and dressing them à la Abu Ghraib torture victims (complete with sacks over their heads, etc.). Further continuity with reality is implied by little touches like anti Iraq war memorabilia in the home of one of the movies unambiguously good guys: an old hippy played well by Michael Caine.

Technically - and overall - the movie was impressive. Certainly much better that 90% of today's cinematic schlock. One action sequence in particular, which has Clive Owen running through an urban battlefield while bullets and rockets zing around him, is very impressive indeed - it felt real, and really violent, without being especially gory. And the actual theme of the movie (overlying its Bush-critical subtext) is taken straight from the pages of our culture's Christian mythos: a child is miraculously born in disadvantaged circumstances, and brings with it to the world the hope of peace, righteousness, joy, etc. And you can't help liking a protagonist (Clive Owen) who's only motivation is to protect a helpless mother and child. Who doesn't like helpless mothers and children?

Okay, so what's my problem? Its not that I am a big fan of the Iraq War or of some particular set of immigrants or immigration policies. What I do dislike, however, is ham-fisted criticism of any of the above, though it be implied. The challenges facing contemporary society (particularly the challenge of Islam - what is called in public "radical" Islam) are multifaceted and incredibly deep and complex. Does this mean the Bush Administration is engaging them wisely? Not necessarily. But I don't see a cultural or political consensus on a viable alternative. I see myriad potential alternatives (e.g. more troops in Iraq, fewer troops in Iraq, no troops in Iraq, etc.), the viability of any of which are to my mind far from demonstrable. And over and over again I see in the media reductionistic accounts of the conflicting ideologies which, in their grossest form, usually go something like this: the American government wanted to steal oil, so they invaded Iraq; this has provoked radical Muslims to rage against the West.

Piffle. The media occasionally reports with indignation that many in the American Government don't know the difference between Sunnis and Shiites. I don't doubt this, and its a horrifying fact. But who in the media knows the difference? You can't begin to understand the West's conflict with Islam until you understand something about Islam. And no one seems to. It looks to me like Alfonso Cuarón (the director of Children of Men) is buying into the notion, pervasive in Western culture, that prophecy consists of one part recognition that there is, in fact, a conflict going on, and one part inculpation of our side's leaders for their role in it. Again: piffle. Mordacious criticism, to my mind, is made credible only in being accompanied by a constructive alternative to the object of criticism.

But in the meantime, notwithstanding its subtextual punditry and minor flaws, Cuarón has made an interesting, compelling, and visually very impressive movie. Go see it.


Timothy (formerly "Garland") said...
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Timothy (formerly "Garland") said...

The new wave of hip Mexican directors--which includes Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu (the director of 21 Grams and Babel)--specialize in heavy-handedness. I suppose their earnestness is why people admire them, that and their politics are up-front and to the left. But it strikes me--and I should say that I have not yet seen Children of Men or Babel--that their work may not amount to much more than propoganda. No doubt that this is intentional: sensationalize, polarize, then cut and run. (Plus, there is a venerable tradition of art-propoganda in Mexico dating back to the first half of the last century. The Mexican muralists and radicals, Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco, revived fresco painting and put it to the service of the Mexican Marxist ideology.)

Generally, I dislike this sort of art production. First, it is invariably inconsiderate and condescending to its audience: It seems to assume that we are not intelligent enough to tie our own shoe laces let alone string together plot, character and theme into a coherent message. Secondly, this invariably makes for a dull and plodding movie. (WB obviously doesn't think that this criticism would apply, but I'll have to see for myself.) Thirdly, it tends to produce the audience it assumed: lazy and mentally blunted, no longer interested in rising above itself.

People will no doubt disagree with me when I say that the US has been mercifully free of propoganda, but I think it has. We have not escaped, though, the more pernicious cousin of the agit-prop bureau, the advertising agency, and this has equally contributed to our fat and sassy indifference towards all things not mercantile. The blessings of capitalism (and they are legion) come with the curse of apathy, especially when Eternal Viiliance lapses (as it has).

The issue is urgent, especially since Babel and Children of Men may ultimately--if indirectly--exert more influence on the course of the 2008 election than the stump speeches or even the policies of the individual candidates.

All this is to say, that while it is good that the culture mavens are taking on the important issues of the day in their work, if they don't color them in all their nuance, then they perpetuate the very moral condition they ostensibly critique. In this regard, I rate Munich the highest of them all. It's moral ambiguity (as WB would have it) is its strength because it effectively strikes something like a neutral stance and forces the viewer to construct his (or even her) own response to the complex situations that compose national and global politics. Propoganda blithely covers over the fear and trembling that should characterize our relationship to the world. It perpetuates the moral and mental laziness rather than corrects it.

(Readers of this blog may object to my saying that our relationship with the world should be fearful. But don't misunderstand me: Christianity takes a decidely pessimistic view of the state of things and does not offer much hope for the here and now [cf. Fr. Cantrell's recent post, linked below]. We should work for good, knowing that not much good is likely to come of it on this plane.)

Alas, once art is no longer considered a viable avenue to intellectual and moral enlightenment, propoganda will be all there is to take its place. And this is borne out, I doubt not, in these movies. It has become a foregone conclusion that intellectual and moral enlightenment is part of a bourgeois strategy to subjugate women and minorities. This claim has yet to be effectively demonstrated, while the effect it has had is indigence and immorality. Until this issue is addressed, I don't think that there is much hope for any worthwhile movies in the future.