I’m back from the World Universities Debating Championships in Vancouver. Maria and I finished on 13 points over nine rounds, the minimum of the range I expected (floor: 13; ceiling: 15), based on our performance on the third day and the knowledge that we had 10 points after the sixth round. Live coverage of the Grand Final can be found here and, over multiple posts dated 3 January, here. It appears I was not alone in thinking Oxford D (Closing Government) should have won, upon an initial assessment, though I discovered afterwards that I generally had a much higher opinion of the final round on the whole than most others did, thanks to the clarity of the argumentation, which could have very easily been mired in economic jargon. (The motion: “This house believes that economic growth is the solution to climate change.”) Unfortunately, those who actually have a clue about how economics work subsequently informed me that the participants in the round were evidently not of their tribe, and convinced me that nobody really knew what they were talking about. So let’s concede that I’m unqualified to offer a proper adjudication.
Scores by team here. Scores by speaker here. Scores by round MIA.
Since I’ve obviously been preoccupied this holiday, there hasn’t been much time to catch up on cinema. That said, let’s make another attempt at offering a few capsule impressions of what I’ve seen since the last film post, though I do want to engage in a more thorough discussion of Children of Men, which I saw tonight.
The Fountain: I’m usually reluctant to call something the best film of the year until I’ve seen it twice. So I reluctantly offer that The Fountain is the best film of 2006, noting that I still have a lot of catching up to do. This is Darren Aronofsky’s most digestible film, and probably his finest. Its tripartite structure delivers storytelling of the finest visual intricacy, and its mythic ambitions to be a tale of life and death undisplaced – a mortality play, if you will – elevate its soft, human underbelly to transcendent heights of splendour. While there isn’t anything quite as iconic as its predecessor, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the cosmic imagery (a microbial visual effect) is more emotionally grounded. After reading the online impressions of others, I have to say that I’m quite surprised at their fixation with what’s “real” and what’s not, as if that were central to understanding how the movie fit together. Personally, I don’t see how what the diegetic realities are or aren’t have any effect on the experience as a whole: besides, so much of The Fountain is about writing yourself into a fiction, and living it. I can’t wait to see it again.
The Queen: An admirable production, fuelled by a quintessentially British dignity. I feared it would take the easy way out and simply subvert the relevance of the royal family by humanizing them in the name of populist social critique. Instead, I find myself questioning the state of the Great British Public if their media-driven obsession with the former Princess of Wales empowered them to exert so much pressure on their fragile monarchy. Is this the result of a commanding manoeuvre to show that the Queen is only human for the subtle purpose of sympathizing with her threatened position of isolated privilege? Or is it evidence of an unintended failure to make a bold republican statement? It’s hard to tell. At any rate, historical dramas – good ones – have a way of making a news item, or an entry in a chronicle, a much bigger deal than you remember. To me, it is an interesting experience as a filmgoer to see events from my youth pass into historical subject matter, as they do in The Queen.
The Good Shepherd: I’m not at all surprised that Eric Roth’s screenplay drifted in the flotsam of development hell for over a decade before Robert De Niro picked it up, because this is safe, old-fashioned Hollywood filmmaking. I never say that as a pejorative, so don’t take it as one. The Good Shepherd is a film replete with gripping moments that stay with you long after the credits roll; De Niro is a capable visionary, and Matt Damon’s performance carries the day. It does, however, encounter some serious and perhaps crippling problems. The first is the shallowness of its supporting characters, which is not, by all indications, the fault of the cast. As for its complexity, there comes a saturation point when the plot’s capacity to baffle is no longer, I suspect, solely due to the audience’s interpretive inadequacies. Most problematic is the movie’s willingness to reduce history (the failure of the Bay of Pigs, for instance) to a coincidental series of individual happenstances that all conveniently lie within the main character’s personal orbit. It’s fiction, of course, and I’ll buy it if it’s done within reasonable bounds of plausibility. I bought it in Forrest Gump, where it was more of a joke.
Children of Men: I used to go on and on about how Terry Gilliam would be a great choice to direct one of the Harry Potter films. Then Alfonso Cuaron came along and made what is far and away the best of the Potter movies, The Prisoner of Azakaban. In Children of Men, Cuaron enters the realm of dystopia, which is very firmly Gilliam territory (please refer to Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, both of which I cherish). However, he does it quite differently. The film that Children of Men is closest to is, in many respects, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds: there’s the same logistical marvel of extended tracking shots that immerse you in a gritty anarchistic spectacle, and the same backgrounding of man’s destruction, self-destruction and miraculous renewal to a secondary concern that occupies little to no exposition. This movie is sublime in virtually every aspect of filmmaking technique.
But like War of the Worlds, it’s not enough for this movie to be sublimely visceral when it has to present the argument that a few individuals’ struggle for survival is a microcosm for the salvation of all mankind. The former must happen before the end credits, and the latter almost certainly can’t (though we are meant to believe it eventually will). Does anyone remember Reign of Fire, where we were meant to believe a global infestation of fire-breathing dragons would just bugger off and leave us alone as soon as the main characters blew up a particularly important dragon? Children of Men comes dangerously close to doing just that.
Like most dystopic speculative fiction, the science of Children of Men – an unexplained eighteen-year cataclysm of global infertility, redressed by a miraculous and similarly unexplained birth – disappears into a corner and pleads for suspension of disbelief. We’re implicitly told that we are not to concern ourselves with scientific causes, but political effects. That’s okay by me, mostly because everybody else does it. And in many cases, perhaps no explanation is preferable to a bogus one. It’s a concern, yes, but a relatively minor one.
It’s very easy to fall into the trap that the Turkey City Lexicon calls “As You Know, Bob”: since there is no need for the characters to speak to each other at length about the state of the world, which they already know and take for granted, the story’s speculative history has to be presented by other means. Indirectly, we are given a state of affairs in 2027 where widescreen LCD panels are cheap and ubiquitous, but man has made no other discernible progress because everyone is too busy rioting in the streets and making life miserable for everybody else, given how the species is going kaput anyway.
Do we buy this? Can we accept the idea that a two-to-three-generation extinction warning is sufficient cause for the human species to go completely bonkers? Children of Men never attempts to establish a causal connection, but I think it does so implicitly: if there’s no model of cause and effect, there’s no reason to put the infertility problem, the oncoming global apocalypse and the nightmare of a fascist Britain in the same movie instead of three separate ones, one of which is entitled V for Vendetta.
The logic, as far as I can discern it, is that as soon as people realized the human race was doomed, they did one of two things: a) without any long-term obligations to the prolongment of the species, they could act out of immediate self-interest alone, which does not entail happiness, but rather, the seizure and consolidation of power; or b) they turned to the eschatalogical reassurances of religion, which inherently devalues our material existence and therefore condones the collapse of earthly societal order. This is my own interpretation, but Children of Men comes off as a film that is intelligent enough to be conscious of it, if only just.
What about Britain’s sudden turn to fascist isolation and its refusal to accommodate the refugee crisis of the end times? If the Nazis proved anything, it’s that no government is incapable of abruptly becoming unimaginably horrifying. There are no limits to the political plausibility of what a reign of terror will do. However, we are also asked to buy the notion that the far right is so preoccupied with stuffing illegal immigrants into cages that the survival of the species is nothing to them, and a refugee baby is no baby at all. Then again, when the palace guards have traded in their bushy hats for the pointy hoods of the KKK, this isn’t so far-fetched. Autocracies are not known for making plans for long-term sustainability.
I haven’t read the P.D. James book on which the film is based, The Children of Men, but I’m quite interested in what it has to say on the subject. Obviously, Cuaron’s film is equally informed by what I would begrudgingly call post-9/11 politics, and overtly so; the novel, published in 1992, is not.
Since I only saw the film a few hours ago, I can’t guarantee that any opinion I harbour will still be true in the morning. Naturally, I recommend it quite highly; it remains to be seen how much. The scope of imagination in the visual narrative outstrips that of the actual content, and I think this is primarily responsible for my ambivalence. Children of Men dismisses considerable avenues of exposition in favour of confining itself to the perspective of Clive Owen’s character, Theo; I at least appreciate that this is done consistently. Like Theo, we can very easily get too caught up in the frantic action – which is terrific, by the way – to concern ourselves with the details of how and why.
Does it all make sense? And if the movie does just enough to open up a universe of causal possibilities, but too little to explicitly commit to anything, does it matter?
You’ll recall that upstairs in my capsule gushing over The Fountain, I said it didn’t. With respect to Children of Men, I haven’t decided yet.