Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Critique as memoir (Children of Men)

Fun fact! (Note: not actually all that fun) It took almost exactly a year for my wife and I to conceive our first child, coinciding dang near perfectly with the calendar year 2007, and it was not a year which gradually evolved from "let's just be neutral and see how nature takes its course" to "hopeful yet impatient". It was a year that started with "we are GOING TO DO THIS" and (maybe too) quickly became frustrating, discouraging and demoralizing. Obviously everything turned out fine, but it was an emotionally bumpy road.

By somewhere in the middle of 2007, Children of Men had gone through its U.S. theatrical run and been released on DVD, and one day my wife and I were sitting in the living room watching tv and a commercial for the film came on. I very offhandedly mentioned that I kind of wanted to see it, which immediately earned me a (well-deserved) hostile sidelong glance from my wife, who simply said (and I may be paraphrasing here), "A movie about a world where no one can have a baby? Are you %@$#ing kidding me?"

So after that I did not exactly run out to rent it. And then time went by, and our (relatively brief, drop-in-the-bucket compared to what some couples go through) experience with infertility ended as my wife became and remained pregnant (though that was no walk in the park, either). And we got to be parents, and knew we wanted another child, and that took some doing but eventually we made that happen too, and now we have three happy healthy little children and a movie like Children of Men now seems at least as benign as any other imaginary, allegorical story. In the meantime its reputation, as well as that of its director Alfonso Cuaron, has stayed strong, among other things meriting inclusion in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, so the other week I finally made a point of checking it out for myself.

I find it all but impossible to render an objective assessment of the flick at this point, though. I liked it a lot, on numerous levels: cinematically, there's the rightly lauded impossibly long takes in various scenes; philosophically, there's the provocative questions raised by the premise and the message embedded in the narrative (or at any rate the message I took from it, but more on that below); for the geek in me, there's an amazing feat of world-building in portraying dystopian, verge-of-collapse Britain circa 2027; for anyone who adores Michael Caine (myself included), there's Michael Caine as the stoner hippie wise fool. Even the soundtrack is brilliant (or soundtracks, since there's an original score as well as a lot of well-deployed rock standards, and the descriptor applies to both).

I've mentioned probably a half a dozen times here on the blog how becoming a parent means that Everything Is Different Now (here's the first time I explained it, scroll down near the end) and the experience of watching a movie like Children of Men is no different. To explain the plot of the film in broadest terms, humanity has become a barren race and everyone is doing an end-of-days freakout. The main character, Theo, winds up tasked with helping a young woman, Kee, get out of the country, because she is pregnant and might give birth to the first baby in the world in 18 years. Kee is a refugee from Africa and if the baby is born in Britain the shady government will no doubt seize the child for nefarious ends, whereas if Theo can get Kee to the independent Human Project the baby and mother will be in benevolent hands and might help cure mankind's infertility. Unfortunately the path to the Human Project leads through a refugee interment camp which also ends up being the site of the first battle in a violent uprising of the oppressed against the government, and both sides want the baby in order to control what it symbolizes. So Theo and Kee end up in a warzone with gunfire on all sides and tanks blowing up buildings and so on, and the moment of truth comes when they are trapped in a building full of revolutionaries and surrounded by soldiers, and Theo decides to just stand up and walk out with Kee and her baby (who was born the night before) in full view. And everyone on all sides simply stops fighting and lets them pass and stares in awe at the baby. The spontaneous ceasefire lasts just long enough for Theo and Kee to get clear, and then a revolutionary takes a shot at a soldier and the violence erupts again, but by then Theo and Kee and the baby are on their way to their rendezvous with the Human Project.

I reckon there are two different valid reactions to the span during which all the fighters temporarily lay down their arms and recognize the newborn for the miracle that it is. One would be that it is incredibly convenient for the plot and insanely unrealistic as a reflection of human psychology and ideology. The other would be to regard it as the most logical, natural thing in the world. Obviously I fall into the latter camp. The concept of a "last baby on Earth" is a sci-fi curiosity, but really all babies are precious, aren't they? All babies have the capacity to stop people in their tracks, to tilt the world on its axis and bring sudden, searing clarity to what's really important in life. Even before Theo decides to gamble everything on his grand gesture (and perhaps this is the turning point that inspires him to try it), he comes face-to-face again with Luke, the leader of the revolutionaries who had previously expressed no qualms about keeping the pregnant Kee prisoner to his own agenda, and who even abducted Kee in the firefight earlier. Pinned down by the incoming military attacks, Luke confesses to Theo that he was walking Kee and the baby through the camp but when he looked at the baby he started crying. "I had forgotten what they looked like," he laments, heart-breakingly. "I had forgotten how beautiful they are." All the credit in the world to Chiwetel Ejiofor for selling the hell out of those lines, but that was the moment that moved me the most (just sitting here days later typing it up has choked me up a bit).

But of course I would think all that and feel that way, because I've been overwhelmed by that feeling myself in a very personal way. I've seen the (arguably subjective) perfection of grace in a sleeping newborn's face and I've felt the nearness of tomorrows I'll never see when I've held my sons or my daughter in my arms. And I've had my own fleeting taste of the senseless, hellish pain of longing for a child, and thankfully the joy of having that longing satisfied. These things speak to me, profoundly. Would they have six years ago? If these themes are universal to anyone who's ever been a parent, does that make them universal enough?

I'll go out on a limb and assume that it does, that they are fundamentally common to the human experience. We're talking about faith, hope and love here, after all. If you can't recognize or relate to those precepts in any way, you might want to rethink your life choices somewhat. I have no choice in the matter, myself; such are the transformative powers of my little brood of three. And so I can't help but feel that ultimately Children of Men is an optimistic movie for recognizing that even at our darkest hour we have the ability to generate something pure and true that may outlive us, and that even if we fail to reach what we set off towards, we can at least give the next generation a head start to keep trying. And there always will be a next generation, as sure as there will always be a tomorrow. It's a tiny bit ham-handed, but the ship the Human Project sends to rescue Theo and Kee is called the Tomorrow, and when Theo and Kee are in a rowboat out at sea and surrounded by fog, it seems like the Tomorrow will never come. Until it inevitably does. Faith and hope for tomorrow, and love for our children today, if that's not what life is supposed to be about then I surely don't know.

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