Rightwing Film Geek

For your a-hatin’ needs

martin_lutherLuther at the Movies sees CHILDREN OF MEN and says …. ANATHEMA SIT.

Great minds thinking alike — we even both made analogies to Hitchcock’s Macguffin. Actually, I think Luther’s piece an even better rant than the one I wrote last night (HT: Peter Chattaway … and thanks for linking to me also).

Luther describes exactly what’s wrong with the Michael Caine character (which I didn’t address), though Caine himself doesn’t have how to give an unfunny, undroll performance. The fallen-away monk also amplifies such matters as the changes in the characters played by “Chewy” Ejiofor and Julianne Moore; the clearing away of James’s Christian worldview and the damage it does to plausibility and point of what Cuaron keeps.

One broader point about adaptation-itis. I obviously don’t speak for Luther but he seems of a mind with me on this point. It’s not simply that Cuaron wasn’t faithful to James (which would be a retarded point to score against a movie). But rather that he was faithless to it, and dragged her novel into a film he already wanted to make, without any need to do so. Find a different premise for the dystopia and retitle the film 2027 or somesuch, and I at least would not object (or at least not in the same way). And what’s even worse is that this film has now become the definitive film text for CHILDREN OF MEN. It’s not the novel I’m concerned about — it will survive (or not) on its own merits as all badly-adapted novels have. But now, CHILDREN OF MEN is off the table as a film. It cannot be made anytime soon by a talented film-director who is more in tune with James. And that is just a crime.

UPDATE 1 (hat tip to Peter again): The New York Times compares the James novel to the Cuaron film. And as with our initial reactions to the film, I have a much more harshly negative reaction that Peter. Yes, “no one should have to choose between Clive Owen and P. D. James,” to cite reviewer Caryn James’s opening sentence. But what is simply silly is saying that “Those prescient social themes” … C. James refers only to immigration (poor P.D. James could not have foreseen “Homeland Security”) … are what “give the book its resonance.” Particularly in a piece that, as Peter points out, makes no mention of religion. Zero, zip, nada … not even a mention, followed by a pooh-poohing pat-on-the-head rejection of religion as fundamentally an epiphenomenon of raceclassandgender — which might be explicable, even reasonable, as a matter of reader preference. But this is the New York Times, you understand. Xan is seen by C. James solely as a political signifier about “the intoxication of power” (Is there a more hackneyed theme in this day and age than “power bad”?)

UPDATE 2: Jeffrey Overstreet at Christianity Today liked CHILDREN OF MEN way more than I did. But what I’d most like to draw attention to is a post in his combox by “Richard”:

Sacramone (who reposted the review at Luther at the Movies on the First Things blog here) seems to have a “thick” conception of what constitutes a morally serious work of art; Jeffrey’s, on the other hand, seems to be rather “thin.” What I mean by this is that Sacramone would likely insist that a work be–in the tradition of Dostoevsky–be suffused with Christian assumptions; provided that these assumptions are present, full exploration of the psychology of evil is possible without becoming prurient. Jeffrey’s take seems to be simply that any work that doesn’t actively endorse evil–and that treats moral issues with sufficient ambiguity–is (or is capable of being) morally serious. I’m open to the possibility that Jeffrey’s right, but color me skeptical: perhaps I’m insufficiently post-modern in my approach to artistic works, but it seems as though all Jeffrey’s approach requires is that the work be sufficiently ambiguous to allow the viewer to bring his own worldview to the work and to project it, as it were, onto the screen. And that strikes me as a bit naive–not to mention failing to give the work the respect it’s due.

I find this interesting because I split the ticket on this one. My general critical approach is what “Richard” describes as “thin” — i.e., I tend to give great liberty for works of art to depict bad conduct in a neutral way, as long as the work doesn’t exclude a moral stance.¹ Or even if the “thick” stance is merely implicit or can be inferred extratextually, rather than as an explicit textual matter. But I think even the “thin” critical approach can’t defang the (near-identical) criticisms of CHILDREN OF MEN made by “Luther” and myself. Cuaron’s film is an adaptation, not an original script, and that very fact precludes “the viewer [from bringing] his own worldview to the work and to project it, as it were, onto the screen.” In the case of CHILDREN OF MEN for a Christian, P.D. James’s worldview has always already been scrubbed off the screen in the adaptation process. We know that whatever else may be on the screen, a Christian worldview is not. So to pretend that one can bring that worldview to bear on the film of CHILDREN OF MEN is, in this case, a delusion that does violence to a text that we can know from the adaptation process was specifically produced to preclude such an understanding.
¹ As an example of what is still possible under the “thin” approach, here (HT: G-Money) is Steve Greydanus giving a really strong ‘dis to THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. Though one would generally describe Mr. Greydanus as of the “thick” school, notice how he uses the “thin” approach here, giving every liberty to incomplete or imperfect truth about subject matter, in the admittedly extreme case of the depiction of Jesus, fully divine and fully human (which is to say, something impossible in our experience). And still he can find the film wanting and indefensible.


December 27, 2006 Posted by | "Martin Luther", Alfonso Cuaron, Jeffrey Overstreet, Steve Greydanus | Leave a comment

A gelded orphan


CHILDREN OF MEN (Alfonso Cuaron, Britain, 2006, 4)

What a disappointment.

There’s no doubt that this adaptation of P.D. James’ Christian dystopia is thrilling in pieces … particularly, the single-take escape as the camera goes into, out of, through and around a fleeing car. But by the time we got to the bravura closing scene (already dubbed “Fireman, Save My Child” by some wag), I was in such intellectual rebellion that I had long ago emotionally checked out of the film.

ChildrenJamesWhat caused this intellectual rebellion is that Cuaron made the material incoherent by completely secularizing P.D. James’s themes and characters, and decoupling them from what concerned her. He soft-pedals her judgment of the contemporary culture of death in order to make a politically-correct presentist smirkfest against Bush, Guantanamo, immigration, fascist jackboots, etcetera, etcetera, et-bloody-cetera. P.D. James as rewritten by LULAC.

Let me be explicit about one thing. It’s not that immigration might not be a valid topic for a movie, or even a liberal take on the subject.¹ But rather that it doesn’t belong in an adaptation of P.D. James’s CHILDREN OF MEN. In her plot (thanks, Matthew), immigration is actually encouraged (albeit on morally dubious terms) because of the labor shortage; there’s no widespread and deadly campaign against immigrants or the constant public exhortations against them that Cuaron imagines (and even if there were, **under these dystopic conditions,** why would they not be justified — lifeboat ethics and all).

Then there are all the ways Cuaron secularizes James’s text — Julian is no longer a Christian, nor are the Fishes identified as such, Julian no longer carries the miraculous baby, the baby isn’t baptized, a Wiccan midwife is added, there’s no reading of the title Psalm from the CofE Book of Common Prayer, and religion itself is shifted to a “Repent Now” cult glimpsed on the side, like in Stanley Kramer’s ON THE BEACH (which CHILDREN OF MEN resembles in some ways). And maybe worst of all, the wholesale killings of the elderly are re-presented as a voluntary suicide kit.


For James and many other Christians and conservatives, collapsing fertility rates in the West are the ultimate sign of hopelessness — a self-hating culture of death contracepting itself into oblivion (and the basic demographic data are pretty much beyond dispute, as is the response — to import more immigrants). Western Civilization (Europe especially), the argument goes, has put itself on the road to extinction through its embrace of radical selfdom, feminism and sexual hedonism (and the consequent rights to frustrate fertility and then murder babies). So the novel’s premise is simply a radicalization of what already is going on on these matters. It doesn’t make sense as anything else.

What trips Cuaron into thinking this is detachable from the “no child has been born for 20 years” premise is that he misunderstands the nature of hope, or at least the nature of Hope, the theological concept. He says:

What I was attracted to was the concept of infertility as a premise. I was not really interested in doing a science fiction film, so I had completely disregarded it. But the premise kept haunting me. It was not until I realized that the premise of the film could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope, that it could be a point of departure for an exploration of the state of things that we’re living in now, the things that are shaping this very first part of the 21st century, that I wanted to do it.

He has it exactly backwards. Sure … obviously the material is about the Death of Hope, with infertility as a metaphor for that. But the Death of Hope isn’t neatly separable from infertility. To have a child is the ultimate irrational act of hope, both a vote of confidence in the future beyond one’s own life, and the participation in this future’s creation. To lack all hope is to sink into depressive who-gives-a-damn torpor. Indeed, there are scenes from ON THE BEACH that resonated much more with me than anything in CHILDREN OF MEN — the auto races.² This is why James’s dystopic England is so terribly tranquil with low crime, rather than Cuaron’s Hobbesian war. Indeed, in a perverse way (and obviously whatever else might be said of them), the guerrillas and terrorists and fascist jackboots that Cuaron peoples this film with don’t lack hope — indeed, they have little else.

In short, by short-shrifting James’s religiosity and taking infertility as merely a “point of departure” for matters of today, Cuaron makes the situation’s central premise completely incoherent. A non-signifier that drags the film down because it makes no sense, even as a mere Hitchcockian Macguffin. If you want to rant about U.S. treatment of immigrants or terrorists, you don’t need to set it in a world like James’s (nor is it very helpful to do so). I don’t know how any film of CHILDREN OF MEN could have adequately handled or made explicit James’s background concerns. But Cuaron just wasn’t interested, and as a result has made a sci-fi dystopia that doesn’t hold any water.

And it’s not as though the immigration material that Cuaron DOES add is even really handled all that well. Because it has nothing to do with infertility, it just feels clunked on top of what would otherwise be just an elaborate chase scene like THE NATIVITY STORY or APOCALYPTO. It’s just, as Cuaron almost says, a bid to provide a veneer of topicality. I once wrote a piece on LEGALLY BLONDE 2, where I compared that film’s liberalism to product placement. That’s exactly the level at which Cuaron deals with practically every topic in the film. We see out the side of our eyes some people in hoods, and the liberal viewers and reviewers solemnly cluck “Abu Ghraib” as if they’d just a sublymonal ad for Sprite. Those images have nothing whatsoever to do with contemporary immigration, much less the economic logic of a society short of youth and workers. But why let the facts interfere with a good inflammatory smear? The film has bumper stickers and badges and old newspaper headlines against the Iraq war on walls and desks and other places where such things show up. But if the world has gotten this screwed up in the 25 intervening years, shouldn’t there be fresher protest icons — maybe a “to hell with Hillary” over her nuking Pakistan, say? There are vague ones, sure, but nothing that anyone could derive anything from. But no … not when the real audience for these ads-from-the-future is contemporary liberals and their fantasies, wish-fulfillments and self-vindication.³
¹ Though I will admit a pretty thoroughgoing contempt for Mexicans who bitch about how mean and inhumane are US immigration policies and practices. They are a model of charity and humanity compared to Mexico’s policies and practices.
² I’m tempted to just come out and say ON THE BEACH is the better film. But then I remember Fred Astaire trying to act, Anthony Perkins trying to act, and Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck “spreading fertilizer” in the wheat fields. And I’m cured of that temptation.
³ Greatest irony: Behind all the “fuck Bush” product placement in the movie, you would never guess that apropos the film’s major concern, i.e., immigration, that Bush is one of the “good” guys — pushing for a major amnesty for (potentially) more than 10 million illegals and that he is widely distrusted among non K-Street/Wall-Street conservatives, i.e., we fascists, on precisely this score.

December 26, 2006 Posted by | Alfonso Cuaron, Religion in movies | Leave a comment