Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Critical interventions in Children of Men

As a long time admirer of Alfonso Cuaron (his 1995 adaptation of A Little Princess stole my movie-going heart at an early age, and it's held up magnificently over the years), and a passionate advocate of the intellectual virtues of an exquisitely rendered post-apocalypse, it seems almost as though Children of Men was made specifically for me. However, after popping in the DVD and perusing the extras over the course of a 36-hour train trip this weekend, I've become entirely convinced that this is, in fact, the DVD I was meant to own.

I'm not usually the type of film-goer who is interested in the technical details of the movie-making process. Because of this, the bonus features disc of most films I own often lies unused in its case until I'm truly bored enough to think that re-watching the whole movie with the director's (usually pseudo-) philosophical pontificating overlaying it is a good idea. I have exceptions to this rule, of course; there are directors I think are smart and interesting, special effects that I'm curious about, and historic and narrative details I'd like to know. But overall, I'm usually content with the film as a complete piece of art on it's own.

Children of Men made me rethink that position. Accompanying the film is the 20-minute documentary The Possibility of Hope, also directed by Cuaron. Featuring such eminent thinkers as Slavoj Zizek,  sociologist Saskia Sassen, literary critic Tzvetan Todorov, and political philosopher John Gray, The Possibility of Hope provides a critical framework though which we can better understand the thematic centres of Children of Men. While almost none of the interviewees discuss the film specifically (Zizek is the exception, and his examination of Cuaron's cinematic vision is offered as a separate bonus feature), they all engage in an exploration of the pressing social issues that form the backdrop of Children of Men's strange realism. Globalization, climate change, migration and mobility, membership and identity are all taken up as issues worthy of discussion -- not by the actors or Cuaron himself, but by leading figures in the field:

One of the things I like best about Children of Men is that it is not, in the end, a film about Theo (Clive Owen) and the emotional journey he takes. Theo's internal struggles are intentionally left out of frame--this is particularly evident when we see the scenes Cuaron decided to leave out of the final cut of the film--leaving the viewer free to be overwhelmed by the oppressive vision of a post-apocalyptic world that looks strangely like our own. With the inclusion of the documentary bonus features, Cuaron continues on this trajectory; again the individual and idiosyncratic interpretations and experiences of the actors and filmmakers are sidelined in favour of a broader critical intervention that links Children of Men's disturbing vision with the burgeoning risks of contemporary life. I should be so lucky if all films that I enjoyed came with such stimulating commentary. In lieu of that, I am happy that a filmmaker whose work I admire has turned his camera away from himself and onto voices that are not regularly heard by the general movie-going public.

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