The final sequence of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men offers an example of film-making at its finest. Theo Faron, played by Clive Owen, frantically guides refugee Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) and her newborn through a hellish internment camp to an ostensible escape by sea. Kee, her name symbolically overdetermined, is the first person on earth to become pregnant after a generation of sterility.
Children of Men is set against the backdrop of militarized dystopia (Slavoj Žižek has suggested that this background is the essence of the film), a vile, clamorous police state that its hero Theo mutes with alcohol. Theo has yet to come to terms with the grief of losing his son, a plot conceit that mirrors the infinite loss figured in humanity’s sterility (and looming extinction). The film’s thrilling final third sees Theo convert his paralysis into radical action, as he ushers Kee and her newborn through the dystopic background, a violent blur the ideological details of which the audience is free to ignore.
Cuarón strips meaning down to raw, simple, archetypal impulses—Theo is a stand-in for any parent, Kee and her daughter emblematic of genetic futurity. The film sublimates its underlying existential discourse into a gripping narrative fueled by its audience’s own anxieties. The drama culminates in a final sequence in which Cuarón amplifies and extends the existential anxiety by refusing to cut his shots for minutes at a time. The audience finds a surrogate in both Theo and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who moves us physically through violence and disaster.
While directors like Chris Nolan and Michael Bay produce anxiety in their films through frenetic editing and rapid jump cuts, Cuarón’s long takes force the viewer to engage the drama directly. The payoff is that rare creature: A film with an ending stronger than its beginning—a film that goes, that moves, that grips its audience right up until the credits.
Cuarón’s newest film Gravity follows this same template. For ninety minutes, Cuarón—again working with cinematographer Lubezki—forces the audience into a propulsive and sustained anxiety trip. Gravity features astronauts as its heroes, but its technological milieu (space stations, shuttles, astronaut suits) belies its radical simplicity. This is a film about survival that questions why there is indeed a human impulse to survive.
Like Theo of Children of Men, the hero of Gravity Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) has also lost a child. She too has yet to come to terms with her grief. While Children of Men used a dystopic, politicized backdrop to highlight its character’s grief—and, significantly, the specter of infinite infanticide—Gravity offers up an existential void. The film’s near-perfection is that it refuses any other plot elements, giving us only Ryan’s literal attempt to save herself paired with the film’s overdetermined but singular metaphor: outer space as a beautiful, nihilistic abyss.
Gravity has been out for a few weeks now and has done gangbusters at the box office. I take this as a positive sign. This is the kind of blockbuster we need more of, a personal spectacle, a huge film in a minimalist mode. I could pick on a few things, maybe—the score is heavy-handed and obtrusive (and could probably be dispensed with entirely) and some of the dialogue falls clumsily—but I think that Cuarón has made the film he intended to, a sequel of sorts to Children of Men, and one worthy of that film’s climax.
I can’t end here though without addressing Richard Brody’s negative review of Gravity in The New Yorker. Brody is admittedly hard to take seriously after his opening claim that the film is simultaneously “viscerally thrilling and…deadly boring,” a statement that immediately highlights Brody’s biggest critical failure: He wants the film to be something that it is not trying to be.
Brody at length:
Cuarón has done a formidable job of piecing together a plausibly coherent material world of space, of conveying the appearance of that setting and the sensations of the characters who inhabit it. But he has created those sensations generically, with no difference between the subjectivity of his characters and the ostensible appearance to a camera of those phenomena. He offers point-of-view images that are imbued with no actual point of view. The movie, with its near-absolute absence of inner life, presents a material fantasy that flatters the studious humanism of critics who honor the attention to so-called reality—as an aesthetic endowed with a quasi-political virtue.
I’ve included the hyperlink in that last phrase to a confused essay in which Brody decries what he perceives as the failure of contemporary directors to address the imaginative capacity of their characters. For Brody, Gravity has to be a failure—by design, it is a thoroughly concrete transmission of events, a causal chain of consequences. Brody wants flashbacks, moments of introspection; he explicitly calls for the “moral forthrightness of a foregrounded speaker bearing witness.” In Gravity, Bullock’s Ryan is agent and surrogate for the audience, who process and bear witness to her choices and changes. The film’s minimalism strips her choices down to an extended but focused exploration of the problem Hamlet voiced centuries earlier: “To be or not to be.” And Cuarón has offered a moral forthrightness and a clear point of view, even if Brody is uncomfortable with the mechanisms through which Cuarón would have us access it: Gravity chooses To be.
Newt Gingrich, a sour, puffy-faced man who somehow retains a platform for his regressive ideas, ruffled a few metaphorical feathers this weekend when he proposed that failing schools (populated mostly by poor children) should fire their janitorial staffs and replace them with child labor. In Newt’s bizarre Dickensian vision, giving these poor children an opportunity to scrub toilets and mop floors (overseen, of course by one non-unionized “master janitor” ) will offer them, I don’t know, bootstraps by which they might pull themselves up. Notice too that his idea also works to eradicate the notion of a free and equitable public education system in this country. And while plenty of folks have called out the sheer regressivism inherent in Newt’s comments, there are far too many people in this country who think it’s not just a solid idea, but a viable plan.
Gingrich’s comments came the same weekend we witnessed police at UC Davis casually dispersing pepper spray into the faces of unarmed, peaceful students. Who were sitting down. Sitting down. The nonchalance that characterizes this particular violence against the students is particularly egregious, but it’s simply part and parcel of a greater wave of police actions targeting dissent in this country. The police themselves are not the ultimate culprit though—they are merely a tool of a corporatacracy that intends to enforce the status quo — namely, the continuing class disparity in this country that will disenfranchise the young in particular. The attitude that allows Gingrich to casually suggest reintroducing normalized child labor is the same attitude that allows one human being to casually spray poison into the face of another human being. Dehumanization underwrites all master-slave relationships.
Dehumanization in political rhetoric is nothing new. Still, I was particularly shocked while watching the Republican Presidential Candidate debate in Las Vegas last month. What shocked me was not necessarily the sentiments (or lack thereof) of most of the candidates (I’m too cynical for that), but the nakedness of their rhetoric. They made absolutely no attempt to rhetorically gloss over their dehumanizing ideas; instead, to the cheers of an audience, they trotted out one dystopian idea after another. (Read the transcript)
Herman Cain hemmed and hawed over whether or not he would build an electrified fence between the United States and Mexico. Perry insisted he would use unmanned predator drones (like the ones we are field testing in Pakistan) to, uh, “patrol” the border. Bachmann bragged about the pledge she’d signed to “build a double-walled fence with an area of security neutrality in between.”
What would a double-walled fence look like? (Especially an electrified one monitored by predator drones?).
What would that area of “security neutrality” look like?
It might resemble the refugee camp in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian film that engages the fascist future head on.
It’s easy to suggest that this is a hyperbolic vision of amplified grime and violence, an extrapolation of what happens when “security neutrality” becomes the normative space. But consider Ciudad Juárez, the violent Mexican twin city of El Paso, Texas. According to some sources, there have been over 1,500 murders in the first ten months of 2011 alone. Simply put, dystopian spaces similar to the ones we see in Children of Men already exist along the nebulous edges of our country.
Dystopian fiction isn’t solely predictive; rather, its job is to comment on contemporary society. Consider Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. There’s a robot in the movie, sure. But at its core, this is a film about a divided world, a world where an underclass is deeply alienated from the product of their labor. Metropolis depicts a world split into two distinct classes: workers who live underground and managers who live in luxurious skyscrapers.
The manager class in Metropolis (is it too much for me to call them “the 1%”?) exploit the underclass from the comfort and safety of their greenzone. The “greenzone” is an essential component of any good dystopian fiction: this is the place not only of safety, but also of leisure, and hence, the refinement of culture that that leisure can help produce. Again, Children of Men is visually instructive here, in a scene (set to King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King”) that moves from the gritty streets of London (this is the middle class!) up to the gates that protect the aristocracy (notice that there’s a double-wall there folks)—
The great lie that our own “leaders” like to sell us is that we will all share in the greenzone, that we—the prosperous, culturally-normative “middle class”—will all be kept safe from the dirty, dark other that would otherwise seek to overtake our precious space. This is one way that leaders monopolize popular sentiment and consolidate power. We’ve seen this power-grab evince for years now in nebulous unending wars on abstract nouns like “drugs” and “terror,” and it will only continue.
Neil Postman is probably right—our contemporary society is more Brave New World than 1984. Again, the concept of the greenzone is instructive here. Simply put, greenzoning is far more prevalent in BNW than it is in 1984 (along with rigid and hierarchical class distinctions — “Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse”). And it is not so much the greenzone but the idea of getting to share the greenzone that we will latch on to, distracted as we cede hard fought freedoms. We will convince ourselves that a double-fence (electrified and monitored by predator drones) will protect our freedom to be comfortable, even as other walls are built to keep us—and our children—out.
This is why dystopian fiction is invaluable: with one hand, dystopian fiction offers us the technological progression that we have come to identify with the imaginative space of “science fiction”; with the other hand, dystopian fiction shows us that technological progression is never a good in and of itself. The human position—which is to say humanity itself—is always under threat, and not from technology, but from other humans. How far removed is Newty’s plan for child labor from indentured servitude for debtors? At what point does a “security neutral” zone echo a concentration camp?
I’ll end by contrasting two dystopian visions. One I loathe and one I love.
The one I love is Adam Novy’s 2010 novel The Avian Gospels, a take on power and torture and greenzoning and undergrounding and dehumanizing and rehumanizing. (And birds. Great big flocks of birds). Novy’s novel features children at work, or at least kids of an age Newtykins would have swabbing the proverbial deck, teenagers from both the privileged greenzone and the awful underworld. The Avian Gospels explores the deep humanity of all people and the possibility inherent in all children (don’t worry, it’s never shlocky or sentimental, and deserves a better description than that last treacly sentence). At the same time, Novy’s novel shows the dramatic stakes at heart in the kind of world that dehumanizes children. You probably haven’t read Novy’s novel but you should. I highly recommend it.
You probably have seen (or at least are aware of) the dystopian vision I hate, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight. I’ll concede upfront that the film seems to endorse some level of cooperation between citizens and “noncitizens” in its silly “prisoner dilemma” scene. This scene is the closest the film approaches to representing moral civic behavior, but ultimately it’s more or less another manipulative faux-moral tactic employed to manipulate the film’s audience (the first manipulation being, of course, that they are seeing a “superhero” film, and not a dystopian horrorshow). In truth, the scene invites the audience to identify with the film’s villain, the Joker, or with the fake protagonist, the fascist vigilante Batman (who is, of course, the deluded “alter-ego” of 1%er Bruce Wayne). There’s no moral dilemma; the people are not real people. The Dark Knight is a dark dystopian endorsement of fascism, one that tacitly asks people to kowtow to violent authority even as it pretends to present its “hero” as an outsider. Nolan’s Batman is an extension of Bush’s Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay (just as Obama’s Guantanamo Bay extends GB’s GB). Nolan’s Batman is an extension of the Bush admin’s legacy of surveillance on private citizens. Most of all, Nolan’s Batman is an endorsement of the fake war on terror. The entire movie is predicated upon the idea that justice is relative and can be corrupted (or, in the film’s terms, normalized) by concrete events. The film’s greatest trick is its depiction of the Joker as a terrorist, as an inhuman monster who cannot be understood, who exists outside of the psychological plain of humanity.
Once a human isn’t a human it’s easy to endorse or elect or prescribe or suggest (or ignore) a fascist program for that inhuman human. Like making that inhuman human shut up because you don’t like that inhuman human’s ideas. Or spraying poison into that inhuman human’s face. Or locking up that inhuman human in a zone of vague laws. Or torturing that inhuman human. Or indenturing that inhuman human. Or denying that inhuman human an equitable education. Rhetoric like Gingrich’s is just rhetoric until it worms its way into brains and souls, supplanting human decency, at which point it becomes its own dystopian nightmare.