A personal response to Children of Men

Another movie night with the family. So, every time a dog barked in the film, which seemed to happen frequently, our dog barked, and the baby, our baby, had a hard time getting to sleep and kept crying. That was part of my experience in watching Children of Men (2006) for the first time the other night. I keep running into people who either have seen the film or have been planning to see the film and just haven’t got around to doing so. I think that is true of many “must see” films. People often intend to see them but don’t do so for a long time. Maybe it’s the felt pressure of knowing one is going to see an “important” film that such films get temporarily pushed aside for lighter fair. My wife rented it and, although I had planned on finishing Viridania (1961), we watched Children of Men. Anyway, I finally saw the film and I liked it very much, although I was not “blown away” as I thought I might be.

Rather than a review I want to make a couple of observations. The first has to do with fascism. I am inclined to think Children of Men has less to do with science fiction or infertility than it has to do with the human heart and humankind’s tendency towards fascism in the face of dire social conditions. The story in the film takes place in the future, but there are visual references to our own time and then to another darker period in our not too distant past. In a very visual and layered film, such as Children of Men, one often finds many interesting juxtapositions and subtle references. That is certainly the case here. Take for example this image:

Here we have the final image of a series of images that has told us a fair amount of backstory, especially regarding Jasper Palmer’s (Michael Caine) past as a political cartoonist, and the torture (by the British government) of his war photographer wife, who is now catatonic. The camera has been panning across these visual nuggets as the camera did in Rear Window showing us who Jimmy Stewart’s character was. But with this image we now see something of Theo Faron’s (Clive Owen) past life – namely his wife and child. But notice the references to Tony Blair and to the protesting of the Iraq war. One wonders if Alfonso Cuarón is intending for us to make a connection with the world we live in now, including the choices of our governments, and this grim world of the future. I cannot help but think that is the case.

Next consider this image:

Here our hero, and somewhere ahead the woman Kee with her miracle baby, are being herded towards the Bexhill refugee internment camp. Notice the sign above Owen’s head. It reads Homeland Security. I believe this reference is not a cheeky wink wink to the audience, but a chilling statement (in the context of the film) on what the present U.S. (I don’t know if there is a British equivalent) version of Homeland Security fundamentally is based on and where it will logically lead. I remember when the name “Homeland Security” was first rolled out publicly. My first thought was, “Doesn’t that sound a little too close to ‘fatherland’? And wasn’t that a favorite invocation made by Hitler and his cronies?” My second thought was a sinking feeling in my gut. But again, I digress.

I must say that none of this information is hidden within the film. It is designed to be noticed. I am also not the first person to comment on these things. (see the Children of Men link above)

Then consider this image:

Here we are now in the Bexhill refugee internment camp. Bexhill-on-Sea, or just Bexhill, is the name of a sea-side retirement community in Southern England, actually having the highest retired population of any town in the UK today. In the film Bexhill is a town/city that has been converted into a prison for immigrants, somewhat invoking Abu Ghraib prison or Guantánamo Bay detainment camp, as some have argued. In an extremely nationalistic country being an immigrant is not a positive situation. Bexhill, in this context, makes sense given a world in which no one has been born in 18 years. If it is a retirement community today, it may likely be a largely unpopulated community in two decades. But I digress. Notice the graffiti on the wall: “THE UPRISING.” Immediately I thought of another walled off city (or portion of a city) used to imprison unwanted foreigners and one that had its own uprising. I am thinking of the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. Modern references to Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo Bay make some sense, but not as much as the Warsaw Ghetto, which was an even fuller expression of fascist terror (assuming Abu Ghraib prison and Guantánamo Bay are examples of modern fascism, which they may be), and included a brave uprising on the part of the few remaining Jews. I see the image below of the Jewish fighters (soon to all be dead) and the next image of German soldiers standing watching the buildings of the Warsaw Ghetto burning and I see something much more like the ghetto in Children of Men than a modern political prison.

So here we have references to a growing fascism today and a full-blown fascism of our past within a story set in a possible(?) future. The question for me is, what am I to make of this? I believe Cuarón is asking me to make these kinds of connections, to see that the future is born out of the present, and to be aware of the darker implications of the choices we make or accept today. I fear the world we live in is bordering on fascism again. Remember fascism as we think of it – Hitler, Mussolini, etc. – was not a local thing. Fascism was popular around the world in those days. It was popular in the U.S. as well, especially before it was “tainted” with associations with our enemies and later with the Shoah. But fascism is not all Nazi flags and jackboots. Fascism tends to emerge when times are tough, when economies are poor, when immigrants pose a threat, when nationalism and patriotism seem noble, and when the world seems out of control and scary. One of the biggest boosts to a growing right-wing fascism in the U.S. was 9/11. But, let us not forget that the threat to jobs from immigration is a boost to a kind of left-wing fascism. Some have said fascism is neither right or left politically, but is proposed as an alternate third way. Regardless, fear and uncertainly is as much a tool in the hands of political opportunists as it is something to solve. I am reminded of that famous quote from Nazi leader Hermann Goering: [T]he people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

The ideas in that quote were, in a sense, famously (and earlier) countered by FDR in his first inaugural address in 1933, made during a time of great fear and uncertainty. In that speech he had the line: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. FDR helped to keep fascism somewhat at bay in the U.S. while it flourished in Europe and elsewhere. Fear is a powerful corrosive. People often make decisions out of fear that they regret later – like locking up people without charges, without representation, and even without a trial. Or throwing away habeas corpus. Or like going hastily to war and then denouncing those who oppose the war as being unpatriotic and unsupportive of the troops.

As I see it, if the fundamental elements of fascism are nationalism, authoritarianism, militarism, corporatism, collectivism, totalitarianism, anti-communism, and opposition to economic liberalism and political liberalism, then only an opposition to economic liberalism is absent from U.S. society. And even that is not entirely true. Economic liberalism largely means free trade and open markets in order for the haves and have-nots to grow farther apart. It is also a foundation of the modern form of aristocracy known as the divine right of capital. I don’t mean to rant, but to me this is all rather frightening. It is no wonder that the rebels portrayed in the film look somewhat like some of the protesters we saw in Seattle in 1999, and at other similar protests around the world. I fear the crazy future world depicted in Children of Men is not as far fetched as it seems. My desire is that I don’t let my fear rule my choices, and that I don’t cavalierly throw the word “fascist” around without truly considering its meaning and implications.

So, back to the film…

The second observation I want to make has to do with cinéma vérité and camera/digital trickery. Children of Men is a wonderfully photographed film. Much has been made of the virtuosic use of camera, staging, and mise en scene. One scene in particular is the long, uncut episode where Theo is working his way through the rubble and gun fire of the Bexhill uprising to try and find Kee and the baby. This scene is several minutes long (I did not count) and is presented as though it was shot in one long take. In fact it “was filmed in five separate takes over two locations and then seamlessly stitched together to give the appearance of a single take.” (from Wikipedia) If this is true, that is just about as remarkable as if it was actually filmed in a single take. But what I want to discuss is the blood splatter on the camera lens. It begins here:

Theo has just run into a broken down bus to avoid gun fire, but the shooters see him and spray the bus with bullets. A person next to Theo is hit and blood sprays (à la Kurosawa in Seven Samurai) from the bullet wound. The spray of blood is barely visible in the left half of the image above.

Then we get this image:

Droplets of blood are now visible on the camera lens. And those droplets remain on the lens as the camera follows Theo through the war torn landscape:

Eventually (minutes later, blood still on the lens) Theo enters a building. Bullets are still flying and he cowers momentarily near a stairwell:

You can still see a drop of blood on the lens. All this you have likely noticed.

I am a big fan of cinéma vérité in general. I should note, however, that nowhere in Children of Men do we see any “complete” use of cinéma vérité, but we do see strong elements, not least of which is the brilliant use of hand-held camera and, in this scene, blood splattered on the lens. My first impression was “that’s cool!” Later I had second thoughts. Sometimes it makes a lot of sense for a film to draw attention to itself; think of Don’t Look Back (1967) or Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) – both used cinéma vérité techniques to underscore the intrusion of the filming process into the world of their subjects. This makes sense in some documentary filmmaking – a tilt of the hat, so to speak, to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle put into ethnographic terms. But cinéma vérité is a little more tricky in fictional narratives. Here, in Children of Men, the filmmakers have gone a little to far. The blood on the lens only draws attention to the fact that someone is holding a camera on their shoulder (or a steadycam) and following Clive Owen as he follows the complicated stage directions. Now this would not be such a bad thing if the rest of the film had the same aesthetic. But it doesn’t. At times the films is quite conventional. But in this scene suddenly we are watching a “documentary” that draws attention to its own existence. The audience is now not in the film with Theo, they are watching a film being filmed, they are “unsutured.” In other words, this little piece is “coolness” helps to undercut an otherwise brilliant and almost uncanny bit of filmmaking.

But that’s not all. Notice the last image above. Why does it have less blood splatter than the previous images? Where have those other blood droplets gone? Interesting the blood droplets have been gradually and subtly disappearing from the lens as the scene has progressed.

Now consider this image:

Notice the one last blood spot just slightly off-center right. This shot is in the middle of a whip-tilt up from Theo to the stairwell.

Now look at this image:

About one or two frames later the blood spot has disappeared. It disappears when the spot passes in front of the dark line of the handrail. Then we pan back to Theo:

Not a single blood spot left. This got my attention and it got me wondering. Were these spots added in later for effect? Were they digital creations? Or did they start as real splatter, then gradually get changed, maybe digitally, over the course of the scene until they are conveniently “disappeared” so as not to interfere with the remainder of the scene (when Theo finally finds Kee and the baby). I find it interesting that this change is the opposite of cinéma vérité.

So what does this all mean? Obviously no film exists apart from its creation. Films are created artifacts, and questions of truth, reality, verisimilitude, artifice, etc., abound. Films are also spiritual to the degree that they tap into and reflect both the spirit of the age and the human spirit. In narrative film there is always a tension between what is up there on the screen (the plot) and what is going on in one’s head (the story). Stories are universal, to some degree, but films as artifacts are particular. Children of Men tells a universal story of fear, cruelty, the will to survive, hope, and salvation (Theo, Kee, and the baby are a kind of futuristic Holy family. The birth scene is powerfully remeniscient of classic Nativity stories). In this sense the film is spiritual. Sure, the film is a fantasy about the future, but it also highlights important ideas about our present and our past, issues that are more important than this particular film. The film, as plot, however, presents that story in such a way that questions are raised regarding the honesty of the film’s (or filmmaker’s) intentions. I say this because I am always suspicious of communication that is full of rhetorical and stylistic flourishes.

Children of Men may be a film as much about virtuosic filmmaking (and about drawing attention to itself as such) as it is about deeper themes of fasiscm and fear. My contention is that the film’s deeper messages may have become clouded in the whirlwind of intense faux vérité and the foregrounding of its own artifice. In other words, just at the moment when the viewer should be thrust into the film’s thematic climax, a little flag (read: blood splatter on the camera lens) is waved saying “don’t forget how brilliant this filmmaking is and who made it!” For me that is why, when the credits rolled at the end of the film, I felt the film had let me down, just a little.

16 thoughts on “A personal response to Children of Men

  1. >Excellent “review” of Children of Men, Tuck. You’ve given me a lot to think about the next time I view the film. When I first saw it, I also picked up on a lot of the connections to fascism that you mentioned here, but didn’t analyze it nearly so well as you have done. In fact, I’ve almost come to simply accept the fact that any vision of the future in a sci-fi film anymore is going to have elements of fascism in it. Fascism is a term that is thrown around so much nowadays (a lot of times by people who don’t really understand it) that one almost becomes “de-sensetized” to it and its implications I think. Incidentally, another film that came out last year which takes place in a futuristic England and also contains a lot of fascist imagery, though not quite as “subtle” as Children of Men, is V For Vendetta. have you seen that film yet? really quickly, I also noticed the blood spatter on the lens and, like you, I tend to feel that in a narrative film (that is not engaging in any sort of meta-cinema) such a gesture is a mistake.Anyway, I’m glad you got a chance to see it. I was fortunate enough to catch Children of Men in the theatre and actually was “blown away” by it. I thought it was a very good film, one of the best I saw last year. Then again, I went into it not knowing what to expect. I saw it before there was a lot of the “talk” surrounding it, so I wasn’t aware that I was seeing an “important” film. Thus, its many strengths (the amazing camera work, incredible staging of action sequences, etc) were pleasant surprises to me. Also, one of the things I know about you is that you are a very discriminating aesthete, much more so than I am. So, if you say that a film only lets you down “a little,” that’s actually quite a compliment.

  2. >Yes, very nice review. I also felt this film was largely about fascism, and where the ‘west’ is heading at present. Nationalists the world over are using immigration and refugee crises to use fear campaigns and create scapegoats, much like the Nazis did.What people today don’t often recognise, is how insiduously and subtly fascism infiltrated a modern society like Germany in the 30s. There’s not a lot of difference with how western governments are doing it today. It starts off innocuous enough, but ends up very nasty. I felt Children of Men was an exploration of where it could all end – an extrapolation of what we’re seeing today.You may be interested to check out my review.

  3. >Damian,Thanks for the post. I’ve had a hard time getting back to folks in a timely manner because of life. Oh well.I decided to do a little research on fascism for this post (relying mostly on Wikipedia). I, like many people, immediately jump to images of Hitler, etc., when I think of the word fascism. But it is much more subtle at times, and can grow rather quietly within a society. I certainly don’t see our country as fascist, but this film raises some excellent questions about the roots of fascism that just might be present in our world today.As for the film, without having seen all the films from last year (which is, unfortunately, typical for me), I do think it is rather amazing, probably one of the best of the year, and on many levels it is amazing. I was left a little “so that’s it?” at the very end, but overall all a good film – with some flaws.

  4. >Paul,Thanks for the response. I know my observations about fascism were picked up by a lot of viewers. My hope is that people don’t leave the theater, or pop out the dvd, only to say, “ah yes, well we all know about fascsim, but that won’t happen here.” Even though the film is a fantasy, it is rooted in real human tendencies. Thanks for your comments. I’m with you there.I will check out your review.

  5. >Re: the blood. the reason why that happened is that virtuoso shot was actually three extended camera takes, spliced together digitally. If you look closely, you can see the edit right when he runs into the building. So the blood probably was a “happy accident” – a squib hitting the camera.

  6. >withnail,Thanks for your comments. As I understand it, and as I stated in the post: In fact it “was filmed in five separate takes over two locations and then seamlessly stitched together to give the appearance of a single take.” (from Wikipedia) So it was five takes, not three, if what Visual effects supervisor on the film, Frazer Churchill, says is true.My contention is with the choice to have the blood on the lense in the first place, regardless of whether it was by planned choice or by directorial acceptance of an “accident.” I believe there are no true accidents in fictional film. So the question for me has to do with the way the blood on the lense affects the viewer’s experience and whether, no matter how “cool” it may be on one level, it helps to serve the ultimate goals of the film, or is a distraction. My contention is that it is a distraction and that it has to be gradually “removed” by the filmmakers as the scene goes onward so as not to continue its distraction later in the scene. Of course, my position is debatable and personal.

  7. >Personally, I thought the blood speck was very effective, and didn’t have a problem with its disappearance. I conceive of the cinematography as being consistent with ’embedded journalism’ and the speck’s appearance then disappearance worked well with that.

  8. >Laird: thanks for the comments. I read your review – very good! You had me laughing at the comparison with the “It’s a Small World” ride. Very funny, and quite insightful. Plus a lot more there as well.Paul: I can see where you are coming from. I do think it is somewhat a matter of personal taste. I also tried to see it as a kind of “link” to embedded journalism, but it still distracted me.

  9. >I think when all is said and done, and we get over our reeling with the virtuoso filmmaking, we’ll see that it serves the story. The long takes are terrific for building suspense. I’ve seen hundreds of battle scenes over the years, but nearly none of them were as thrilling as the one in Children Of Men.By the by, that Wikipedia article doesn’t cite a source for the long take as three short takes, but there is a fascinating article about how they filmed it as one take, including an explanation of why the blood showed up and where it went. http://www.accessatlanta.com/movies/content/mo vies/stories/20 06/12/28/1229MMscene.html(You’ll have to delete the space in “movies” and “2006” in that url.)

  10. >Reilly,Thanks for your comments, and thanks for the link to the article. Sometimes I am wary of how directors described the filmmaking process for there is often a lot of myths propagated, but this article seems like it’s probably all true. One passage interests me a lot:Keen-eyed moviegoers can be forgiven for thinking there’s an invisible cut somewhere in those nine minutes. After all, at the end of the scene, the blood on the lens has vanished.Well, not really. “The blood was great, but after a while it started to feel like it was on your face,” Cuarón says. “It started to feel distracting.” So he hired a computer-effects artist to digitally erase the blood from the final image, a very painstaking job.This is exactly what I proposed. Although I cite the wikipedia article which does argue for 5 takes carefully edited together, I am willing to go with one. Either way it is an amazing feat of filmmaking. It also makes sense that they would not want to shoot the scene another time. I just find the blood splatter, as I argue, kinda cool at first but then distracting, and ultimately too distracting – even Cuarón admits that. The main issue for me is really that in this scene we have a different style of filmmaking than much of the rest of the film. Not a lot different, but different enough to make me notice I am watching a film and wondering about its style, than being completely immersed in the story. I say, pick one or the other, for example, make it cinéma vérité throughout. I guess I’m just picky that way.

  11. >I felt the graphic nature of the violence was not needed. Certainly not the blood splatters on the camera lens. He should have re-shot that.During this film, I felt I’d already seen this plot a millions times before in other (better) films.

  12. >Anonymous, I normally don’t respond to comments made by “Anonymous” but…I’d like to know what some of those films are, even if only a handful of titles.There are many films better than this one, and it certainly got more hype than it deserved, but I can’t think of any with exactly the same plot, let alone millions of better ones.So just a few titles would be appreciated. Thanks for your comments.

  13. Your photo of “Jewish fighters” is actually a photo of Polish partisans of the Armia Krajowa fighting against the Germans during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.

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