“And therefore I looked down into the great pity of a person’s life on this earth. I don’t mean that we all end up dead, that’s not the great pity. I mean that he couldn’t tell me what he was dreaming, and I couldn’t tell him what was real.” – Denis Johnson, Jesus’ Son
It’s easy now, isn’t it? Almost too easy. Today, there is a clear and topical reason to discuss the film beyond just its upcoming ten year anniversary. Do a Google search of the title with the words “relevant” or “accurate” any time over the next few weeks, as we move toward an inauguration of a president whose anti-immigration platform might have been pulled directly from transcription of the background news footage within Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian sci-fi masterpiece, and you are likely to discover dozens of published essays, lists, and thinkpieces about the relevance of Children of Men within today’s culture. For many in the fear-crippled half of the American population, Children of Men is too accurate, too real. That is why it is now worth talking about. It is also worth thinking deeply about.
But then, again, wasn’t it always?
What might slip through the cracks of conversation this time around, however, is how Cuarón’s story lacks specificity in a way that does not prohibit it from feeling intently specific. There is no real evidence to suggest that Children of Men’s world is built of the precise hate of today, no concrete proof that it was meant to be read as the pointedly prophetic text that we are about to give it credit for being. The version of the United Kingdom in Children of Men stands as one of the last functioning government nations within that speculative fictional future, a future in which global infertility has all but assured the end of the human race. In response, the civilization has collapsed into a violent and hopeless police state. But the xenophobia that drives the oppressive and dehumanizing anti-immigration efforts here is not focused in application—there is none of the racism or bigoted nationalism that runs rampant in our new, non-fictional world, just a loose tribalism dictated by who is already legally within the borders and who is not.
That isn’t to say that Children of Men should not be read that way, but returning to the text chiefly to examine it through a hyper contemporary lens exemplifies a larger apocalyptic mistake against which that same text also offers warning.
At heart, Cuarón’s film follows a rather standard sci-fi formula—a conceptual equation that removes a singular key component from the world that we know and, through fictional ruin, highlights our imperative to preserve that missing element.
And Children of Men, more than most films that apply that formula, makes this intent clear with Emmanuel Lubezki’s curious camera as it haphazardly follows the film’s central nativity pilgrimage with panicked self-interest and wandering empathetic curiosity. The film moves continually forward through chase scenes and escape sequences as sidelong shots become distracted by the world through which our heroes travel. The camera slows and turns to catch media clips of propaganda and disaster, dead bodies and caged imprisonments, armed militants fighting armed insurrectionists and the splatter of their blood across the screen.
But Cuarón and Lubezki’s now highly-revered participatory camera perspective and long, uninterrupted single take sequences serve more than just novelty-in-aesthetic. This isn’t all just to build a recognizable first person experience. To recognize within Children of Men the prophecy of our destruction and then wait for the real destruction to unfold before measuring its cause is a disservice to the effort of complex and epic storytelling art. It’s not enough to observe the state of ruin when the film also provides subtext with which to decipher how we can avoid the same ruin. We have to sift through the rubble and find and apply the translational key provided by the plot’s deviation into the Ark of the Arts.
In the cleanest physical space and perhaps the brightest sequence of the otherwise dreary film, Theo (Clive Owen) visits his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) in a museum built to preserve artistic artifacts against hope. Michelangelo’s David stands at the entry, an inflatable pig floats in an industrial space in recollection of Pink Floyd, and Handel’s War, He Sung, Is Toil and Trouble plays over their conversation. But even in the pristine halls of the museum, it does not feel like art. It’s all so slick here, empty, devalued, like skins ripped by the knife of commercialism and pulled from the body.
When Theo arrives at the Ark of the Art, Nigel meets him at the door and says “We couldn’t save La Pieta. Smashed up before we got there.” He’s speaking literally about Michelangelo’s famous marble sculpture of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son Jesus. Later in the film (as pointed out in this outstanding analytical YouTube breakdown from Nerdwriter), Lubezki’s camera slows its pursuit of Theo and Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) to close in on the peripheral image of a mother wailing over the body of her dead son on the side of the muddy road. This split juxtaposition of the beauty within the artistic expression (recalled only by allusion to its absence) and the heartbreaking, mud-smeared ugliness of its real-life subject works to distinguish the removed element within Cuaron’s sci-fi storytelling equation and offers a reconsideration of Nigel’s greeting.
Translated, “La Pieta” means “the pity.”
Even after this sentence is spoken by Nigel in regret, Kee and Theo move without a missed step past the mourning mother in the street. “We could not save the pity,” or, paraphrased, “We lost that basic sense of empathy for others’ suffering.”
There is a balance to human life that has always held, an intersection at which two unspoken existential behavioral influences have pressed their backs against one another to create a structure of blind support. At the root, each of us individually and all of us collectively are socially and philosophically motivated by two things. The first, the inevitability of our own death, the subconscious and hyper-rational constant awareness of our temporal conscious occupation of this body on this planet in the center of this perhaps infinite universe. The second, the necessary hope that we must find to stabilize the perpetuity of our species, that inherent determination to leave our best knowledge for the next generation. The first motivator we respond to with information, by building the best and most comfortable civilization we can to host life now. The second, we nurture with love and art, we build culture to carry the best of us forward. Between civilization and culture, there is a certain gravity that has held all societies together.
But, in Children of Men, both are presented in a failing state—the cultural art cold and gutted in the Ark of the Art and civilization violently imploding in every other scene. You can see the lifelessness of both in two mirrored shots. When Theo and Nigel dine together, Theo sits in front of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, a mural depicting the 1937 bombing of a Spanish village by German and Italian fascists. When Theo is kidnapped by ex-wife activist Julian (Julianne Moore), he sits in front of a wall covered in newspaper headlines. In both instances, Theo is framed by war, the artistic abstraction of it and the concentrated information element, but Picasso’s masterpiece (art and culture) feels reductively decorative, like wallpaper, and the newspaper clippings (information and civilization) feel meaningless in their chaos.
In Children of Men’s world, the degradation starts with an event. Global infertility leaves the world hopeless, orphaning culture and leaving its sibling civilization to fall under its own weight. But, infertility can manifest in many different way and forms. The useful warning here is drawn back from the second step, presented not in narrative, but in the context. In fact, the exposition that outlines the narrative-driving situation—global infertility and the subsequent immigration reform—is provided in the background of the opening sequence, while in the foreground, the visual point of focus, we see the doe-eyed, mind-muted, screen-facing stares of a crowded collection of folks disinterested in those around them. Seconds later we see their obliteration. And then just after that, we move to lucky survivor Theo’s office and see more of the same, a straight line of desks occupied by his coworkers, each hypnotized by videos on computer screens, no one person acknowledging the other. Most of what we see on the screens-within-our screen are condensed bytes of information, edited largely because the society left by the catastrophe is one whose existential panic is numbed by the soothing immediacy of emotion and statistics reduced to single dose data. This mass intoxication is antithetical to how philosophers have always liked to think of life, and it is observable in every scene thereafter. Everyman Theo, life-giving Kee, and all of their captors and allies along the way press forward, against, and through a broken stream of mobilized bodies, our screen so densely populated with extras that the film often feels like it takes place in the middle of a never-ending death parade, everyone marching toward and anesthetized to the inevitable nothingness, a more solemn chronological extension of Bergman’s hillside troupe dancing against the skyline in The Seventh Seal. And behind them a world recognizably ours, if just a little less cared for.
And this, the controllable element, is what we really risk. This is a textual warning of a different sort of infertility over which we do have control. Children of Men may be as sacred as any text we have seen written in the language of cinema, one of those rare films whose richness deserves description with terms like “biblical” and “epic.” And returning to such a substantial and watermark work only as an anniversary celebration or chiefly to discover contemporary allegory fails to elevate the art in the ways we have managed to in former eras. On the whole, movies are more celebrated now than they have ever been by a consuming audience larger than any storytelling form has ever enjoyed. But the same consuming audience is part of an information addicted culture, a people whose inter-personal communication often comes with a character limit, who prefer emotion-confirming headlines to empathetic investigation. As such, the critical media surrounding the art becomes an inadvertent river of marketing and a label-maker for collectivist consumption. Too often, particularly when handed a work of transcendent cinematic art like Children of Men, we do not give ourselves time to meditate on it beyond its initial release schedule. Our best critics write deeply about the film only for as long as the headlines will sell, and we adhere to our mode of speed-dating films where we should be maintaining, at least, more of a pen pal relationship. And, as Children of Men teaches us, if we neglect our culture in this manner for too long, it is not just our culture that suffers collapse.
Standing at the window at the Ark of the Arts, Theo asks Nigel what he feels is the point in keeping art when there likely will not be anyone around to witness it within a hundred a years. “You know what it is, Theo?,” Nigel smirks in reply, “I just don’t think about it.” And maybe that’s the problem.
Because sometimes, it certainly seems like it might be ours.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures