Friday, April 11, 2008

In praise of Children of Men

Spoiler warning*

I advise you not to read this post if you haven't seen Children of Men. If indeed you have not, and enjoy watching challenging movies, rush out and get it -- be careful as you cross the street, but don't look at the DVD cover, avert your eyes when the menu loads (both of which tell you things you might not want to know about the story), darken the lights and enjoy. Then, if you like it, come back and read the rest of this post.

* My spoiler policy is, I should confess, somewhat strict. Despite my passion for film, I don't follow the trade papers or read about movies currently in production. If someone whose opinion I value recommends a film to me, I'll usually try to change the subject before their enthusiasm leads to any proverbial bean-spilling. If the thing turns out to be good, I'll certainly want to know all about it after I've had the filmgoing experience, but not before. Consequently, for the weekly classic movie program that I run at the East-West Center, when I publicise the show I include little or no plot info -- just something about the actors and director, the genre and reputation of the film, plus a link for people who insist on finding out what they're about to watch!


In January 02007, with Jake Dunagan on a research trip in New York City, we went to see Children of Men, which had just been released and about which I knew nothing, except that Clive Owen was in it (I'd been impressed with him, going back to Croupier in the late 90s) and that it was directed by Alfonso Cuarón (whose Y Tu Mamá También and dark Harry Potter effort both led me to believe he'd be a worthwhile filmmaker to follow).

More than a year later, I can say without fear of hyperbole that it was one of the most electrifying filmgoing experiences I've ever had. The opening scene, of a few short minutes -- the breaking news of "Baby" Diego's death in the café, followed by the glimpse of London streets both rickshaw run-down and teched up -- interrupted by a sudden explosion, was enthralling. It also took me through an experiential arc that operated, I now think, precisely the way an encounter with a future artifact should unfold. To begin with, I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing, then pieced together the scenario's premise -- that twenty years had passed and babies had ceased to be born. The reality of the hypothesis, or put another way, the plausibility of the scenario (the mechanism of which is never properly explained in the film) was asserted with such fluidity, confidence, and integrity of detail -- just the way we encounter the real world, which is crammed full of people accepting complete absurdities as wallpaper -- that I found myself drawn in, having to meet the story on its own terms.

The movie was thoroughly compelling, and for the duration held me spellbound. I won't attempt a review here -- Dana Stevens at Slate did a far better job, well over a year ago, at saying the sorts of things I'd want to say about it as a film. But the point is, walking in, I'd had no idea about the premise -- I'm not sure I knew in advance even that it was set in the future -- so the whole thing hit me with full force: it was the kind of experience that helps makes a film fanatic out of an ordinary moviegoer.

This also reinforced my preference not to know about movies before I see them, because that "blank slate" quality has preceded some of the most exhilarating cinema experiences I remember, including Sneakers (01992 -- I was twelve), The Usual Suspects (01995), Gattaca (01997) and Donnie Darko (02001). Looking at a map of the rollercoaster before getting on, to my mind, defeats its purpose. And that sensibility informs the creation of futures experiences, and, I suspect shapes the philosophy of FoundFutures -- because it seems to me that the unexpected, unscheduled encounter can have much more impact. It certainly wormed its way into the setup for our presentation at South by Southwest Interactive in Austin last month, too.

Anyway, enough about that.

The proximate reason for this post is that last week, while trawling futures consultancy Pantopicon's blog (mentioned here), I found a showreel of design work made for Children of Men by London-based design firm Foreign Office.

[[Update 10jan12: Also at Youtube - via @johnpavlus]]

This is simply stellar material, in my view. Not only is it really nice design work in its own right, but they are beautifully embedded in the context of the film -- which is not "about" the things shown, yet it incorporates them, holds them together, as organic pieces of what feels like a fully imagined universe.

As the movie plays, we glimpse these fragments of Cuarón's nightmarish Britain in 02027 -- and they vary enormously in terms of visual and storytelling importance on the central/incidental spectrum -- yet all the pieces matter, I think. As Brian Eno says of ambient music (a genre he invented), the key feature is that it must accommodate multiple levels of attention. Similarly, we could say that it is ambience (i.e., atmosphere, depth, mood) -- to me the most ineffable and yet crucial ingredient (or perhaps emergent property) of film -- that is created with these jigsaw puzzle pieces to which we can attend at multiple levels. That is, they are enjoyed at one level during the telling of the story, and at another in appreciating the artwork after the fact. For example, one British blogger commenting on the showreel astutely points out:

The adverts for pampered cats and dogs may seem to offer a little comic relief in a dark movie, but it also makes a lot of sense plotwise. That in a society with no children a lot of misdirected love would fall onto pets. It also taps into that great cliché about what a nation of animal lovers we are, worrying over the comfort of pets while people are being rounded up in cages.

~The Londonist, 5 March 02007.

Happy was I to find, then, when the DVD was released, that it included a nine-minute short about the production design dimension ("Futuristic Design"). These are quotes I've transcribed from interviews featured there.


Rule number one in the film is recognisability. We don't want to do Blade Runner [link] -- actually, we talk about being the anti-Blade Runner in the sense of how we were approaching reality. And that was kind of difficult for the Art Department, because I would say, "I don't want inventiveness, I want reference. [...] And, more important, I would like, as much as possible, references of contemporary iconography that is already ingrained in human consciousness.

Jennifer Williams, Set Designer:

What we thought was that we would take it [...] to 02010, and then everything would just start getting old and tired-looking, because there's no money coming into the infrastructure, therefore that would start disintegrating.

Jim Clay, Production Designer:

The whole style of the movie which Alfonso wanted to make is very documentary in its style. It's not a job where a production designer comes with a big visual concept and says, "Look at this world, isn't this exciting". It's providing a world and an environment full of texture, full of reality, which can allow the action to take place.

One of the most impressive things to me from the very first viewing was the newspapers lining the room in the scene where Julianne Moore interrogates Clive Owen. Says Williams:

[We realised that the newspapers] would have to be generated, because it's 02027, and therefore what was happening in 02027, or 02026 if they had some old newspapers. And then we really needed a timeline of what would happen from present day to the year 02027.

Aside from stunningly assured direction, flawless performances, and a fascinating premise, this level of attention to detail is a major part of what earns Children of Men, in my view, gold-plated MRP status ("most repeatable programming", Steven Johnson's phrase).

To clarify: Children of Men, to me, portrays a horrifying world -- not a future I like in any way. However, as a compelling presentation of a possible future in a narrative film, it is without question one of my favourite things.

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