Children of Men and the Monster Movie

Recently, I was reminded of the Alfonso Cuaron film, Children of Men and the novel by sometimes mystery writer, P.D. James. What I realized about the story was that, really, James (and, brilliantly, Cuaron) presents us with a horror story, or, more specifically, a monster story.

Now, I know, there aren’t any monsters in Children of Men, unless you count the mindless mob. But what I mean is, the idea of a lack of children that we’re shown really serves to highlight a fear in ourselves. That’s what any monster worth its salt does too. Let me prove it to you.

Monsters 101

Frankenstein’s monster: a creature created from the remains of dead people. Shelley’s story confronts our fears of death, our fears of the Other, and our fears of science and the occult. The film versions emphasize the science and the Other quite a bit more than the book, but it’s still basically the same story.

Dracula: again, fear of the occult/evil, fear of death/the dead. Here though, you have an actual predator. Dracula wants to kill people, and being hunted is a pretty basic fear. Plus, there’s the leech aspect. A vampire doesn’t just prey on its victims, it takes energy from you and uses it to feed itself. Terrifying.

The Wolf Man: the one I think is the big one. In my opinion, this is the same trope that slasher movies and most psycho-killer movies use. A violent man-beast without human compassion that only has primal urges to kill, eat, and violently attack. Sure, you’ve got silver bullets, curses for the victims, and all that, but basically, it’s about man becoming animal.

Zombies: ehh…that one’s a little complicated. I’ll come back to that in another post. But at its most basic, again, we’re looking at death/undead/the occult (or, more recently, a virus).

So what do we have? At the most watered-down level, we’ve got:

  1. The occult (the word I’ll use for anything evil and/or supernatural)
  2. Death
  3. Vampirism (getting the life sucked out of you)
  4. Being preyed upon (any ideas for a simpler way to say this?)

That’s not an exhaustive list, but you get what I’m saying.

Children of Men screen cap

Something to Remember Us By

So what about Children of Men? Certainly it doesn’t fit into any of those four all that well. I mean, yeah, it’s got the fear of death factor, but what movie doesn’t? What I think makes CoM fit well into the horror genre is its reliance on the impotence of all the world’s women (all men in the novel) to horrify us. Notice I don’t say frighten or terrify. We’re not meant to jump or scream while we watch, or get the heebie-jeebies while we read. We’re supposed to be chilled by the idea that this generation is it.

Now think about that. Think of the youngest person you know, and imagine that no one will ever be born after him or her. What would that mean for their future? What would you do knowing that you could never have a child, or, if you’re a parent, that your children could never have a child? What about a baby’s laugh? Its cry? Gone forever. That horrifies me. And I think it’s supposed to.

The fact that the world is in such disarray is really secondary to the film. The haunting scenery, the violence, the disregard for the immigrants to this supposed utopia is all a result of an absence of children. I think that this idea is a much more fundamental fear even than death. Even people that don’t want children (except for a select few) assume that the human race won’t die with them. We assume that, even if we don’t have kids of our own, there will be someone around to remember that we were here. Or at least someone to forget us.

In addition to the excellent photography by Emmanuel Lubezki, which, I’ll admit, practically makes the film by itself, Cuaron wisely keeps the themes of the book (fear and hope) and cinematizes it. How he does that, I think, is by co-opting the tropes of the horror genre while giving us a solid action movie.

My Life in Books

I’ve always loved stories. When I was a kid, my dad read me the entire Chronicles of Narnia a few pages at a time before bed. That was the beginning of my love affair with books, even before I knew how to read.

I remember at age five or six, picking up one of those Walt Disney Winnie the Pooh Probably not the book I picked up.books with the cardboard covers and opening it. My little sister, ever the killjoy, informed me that I couldn’t read. I said I knew, but soon I’d be able to. Even the idea of reading excited me. Once I finally learned to read, I was off. The first book I read with chapters in it (as opposed to those early reader things with a single story in 10-15 pages) was Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson.

It was an old copy I’d picked out from an antique bookstore in Wabash, Indiana when my family took one of our semi-regular trips. It was green and it was so old that the spine had gotten brittle and it broke off at the top while I read it. My parents assured me that this was OK. It was just old. That Christmas, my dad had found at a small bookstore in Muncie a book called The Original Adventures of Hank the Cowdog, by John R. Erickson. Unlike Old Yeller, Hank talks to us. He’s the narrator of his adventures (of which there are now close to 60) as “Head of Ranch Security” on his master’s ranch in Texas. They were absolutely fantastic. Funny mystery stories, told by a bumbling sherriff-type narrator. They somehow managed to combine the Western feel with a jokey version of the hardboiled detective voice.

I read probably 15 of these before moving on to greener pastures.
By nine or ten, I was reading adult books because I thought I was cool. I had A Wrinkle In Timesomething of an identity crisis since I was a kid reading at an adult level and didn’t know what to read. Thankfully, after some confused hopping back and forth from adult to kid books, I found a home in fantasy. I read The Chronicles of Narnia for myself (twice), The Hobbit and the The Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time and picked up the Harry Potter series sometime before Book Four came out.

In 7th or 8th grade, I saw my dad reading Have Spacesuit–Will Travel, by Robert A. Heinlein. Here was something new. I’d watched Star Wars and Star Trek for nearly as long as I could remember, but science fiction in print? What a great idea! As soon as he was done with it, I read it as quickly as I could. Here was a story I could get into. A boy – older than I was, but so what? – who was a bit too smart for his own good wants to go to the moon and does, using his own intelligence, determination, and a healthy dose of luck, and ends up convincing a galactic court that the human race deserves to live. At the time, it seemed like the most novel idea ever.

From Heinlein, I picked up Asimov’s I, Robot and the rest of the Robot/Foundation Have Space Suit -- Will Travelseries, Orson Scott Card’s Ender books, followed by his other books, then occasionally back to fantasy with Raymond E. Feist, Robert Jordan, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, and many others.
When I was 16, we moved to a new state. I had some friends who kept in touch, and as grateful as I am to them, it was the great network of libraries connected to my tiny local one that got me through the day-to-day troubles that only a lonely 16 year-old boy can have.

I gave up on reading for a while in college. My first two or three years, I read just three or four books for myself each year. I started focusing on film, and discovered some incredible movies. But it just wasn’t the same. I was missing something. Last summer, I worked a job away from home and had very little free time, so all I had time for was reading. I read a chapter or two a night during the week, and a few dozen pages each weekend. I loved it. I knew after that I had to make time for personal reading. Reading’s come back for me in a big way. I’d missed it and didn’t even realize it.

Not surprisingly, I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I’ve known that was a profession. I gravitated toward English lit and Journalism/Communications in college, and got my degree last May.

My whole life has been about stories. I think of myself as a storyteller at heart, and most of my family tells stories. In the mid-90’s, my great-grandma wrote me a handful of letters telling the adventures of Sammy the Squirrel, which I always looked forward to. Both of my grandpas tell stories too. My life so far has been one of stories and words. I’m applying for jobs now. Some of them have to do with writing, although most don’t. I still want to be a writer. Maybe that means I’ll just have to keep up this blog in my spare time and keep writing short stories. I’d love to get published. Have a novel with my name on it, or a magazine with a story of mine in it. Science fiction, mysteries, or fantasy, of course. You’re not surprised, are you? You’ve read my story. What else could I write?

A Wizard of Earthsea

Last night I finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and I’m quite impressed. It’s one of those books that I’ve started and stopped reading three or four times in the past (once even getting halfway through it) but have only just really read. This is surprising because it’s really a very short novel (192 pages in my edition).

What threw me off I think, was, first, the writing style. It isn’t written like The Hobbit, probably my favorite of these modern short fantasies. It doesn’t have that knowing warm, grandfatherly narrator telling about a little hobbit going off on some crazy adventure. It’s written like an old fashioned folk tale, or maybe even the most interesting history you’ve ever read. Le Guin is almost journalistic in her tone here, by which I mean she packs a lot into a short amount of space. I realized at one point that when I had picked up my book after setting it down, I had skipped a paragraph that took up about half the page. In that half page, I had missed the main characters landing on an island, being received coldly, and setting sail again before the day was over.

Like I said, pretty packed.

The second thing that through me off the first few times I tried to read it, which was when I was 17 or 18, I was too old/too young for it. I was too old to enjoy a the simplicity of it. I remember I thought it was very childish. But I was too young to hear what it was trying to say about responsibility and pride.

Part of what made the book so good was that it was such a powerful morality tale and it never tried to hide that. So often stories try to sneak in the moral as if the reader, especially if the target audience is children, were too stupid to notice. But it also treated me, the reader, with a level of respect that I don’t always see in contemporary young adult literature. I tried to read China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun a while back and it drove me nuts. He decided to throw out everything he knows about prose (and if you’ve never read him, he’s an excellent writer), apparently because he felt his audience was too stupid for the “Show, don’t tell” rule. I was told everything explicitly over and over again. I couldn’t get away from it. But Le Guin avoids that because she respects her readers, young and old alike.

I’ll recommend the book to anyone who likes a good tale, although I imagine that many people will, like I did, have trouble if they’re introduced to it between the ages of, say, 16 and 20. And for those who don’t feel like they can stomach learning about patience and the dangers of pride, I’ll suggest Le Guin’s equally great novel, The Left Hand of Darkness. Very different, but it contains a world just as exciting and wonderful to read about as Earthsea.

Spoilers

I’ve always been that guy that turns to the end of the book to find out what happens. I did this with every Harry Potter book, from the first one when I read it at 10, to the last one which I read at 18. In between, I was constantly scouring the web for information on what happens in the next book. I look for information about movies that are coming out that I’m excited for, and I avidly read reviews of books and movies before I buy them.

It’s a sickness. Really, I need help for it.

But in case you haven’t guessed it, one thing I don’t mind is spoilers. 99 times out of 100, I love them. Every once in a while, there’s a movie or book that I just don’t want ruined. And most short fiction I don’t need a blow-by-blow because, probably, the author will tell me better than you and in less time. But because of that, I’ve always been a little insensitive to people who are just scared to death of spoilers.

I just don’t get it. Who cares? But people apparently do. And according to a UC San Diego study, spoilers can actually make people enjoy stories more. This makes total sense to me. If I like a movie, I’m going to watch it again. And if I enjoy a movie better the first time than I do the second time, I don’t think very highly of that movie.

Books too, but because of the more time-consuming nature of reading a novel (time-consuming is not a negative in this case), I don’t reread things as often as I rewatch movies. But again, if the only thing a book had going for it was its element of surprise, that’s kind of a weak book.

Maybe a better example would be mysteries. I love mystery movies, TV shows, books, everything. But what I love about Holmes and Nero Wolfe and Castle are the way they interact with their colleagues. I’m interested in the intellectual mystery that’s going on, sure, and I want that to be good. But really, every storyline in each of those is the same. Detective encounters crime. Detective collects clues. Detective solves crime. I’m often surprised by the twists and turns, but I’m not looking for shock and awe.

I think what the NPR article says about a lot of the spoiler-heavy nature of modern drama being the fault of Lost is probably pretty close. Lost changed the way a lot of things are done in that sort of long-distance storytelling. But you’ve got The Sixth Sense and The Usual Suspects to blame too. (And by the way, without the twist ending, The Usual Suspects doesn’t hold up too well.)

Personally, I think it’s much more important to let ourselves fall into whatever plotline the artist has for us, whether that’s a filmmaker, TV writer, or novelist, and see what we can do. You don’t need to go spoiler-crazy like me, but calm down when we tell you that Planet of the Apes takes place on a future earth. Seriously, I knew before I saw it, and it’s still one of my favorite science fiction movies.

Sidenote: I totally have that shirt at the top of the NPR article. The “Snape Kills Dumbledore” business pissed off so many people before the Half-Blood Prince movie came out. Take that!

Farewell, Hero

Jim Emerson and the British Film Institute ruined Christopher Nolan for me.

Well, OK. In all honesty, Christopher Nolan has more to do with my opinion of him changing than either of them, but they were the ones who pointed it out to me. So…here’s the deal. A few days before The Dark Knight Rises came out, I read Emerson’s “Preparing for The Dark Knight to Rise.” In it, he points out the flaws in Nolan’s filmmaking thus far. He says, “Nolan (in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight) has dared to aim for ‘thematically ambitious’ superhero movies… that also, unfortunately, don’t have a very rich or sophisticated cinematic vocabulary. There’s no reason somebody can’t make a serious work of art using a superhero as a major figure, a comics-inspired movie that’s also a complex and resonant piece of filmmaking — or that it can’t be challenging and rewarding and fun and popular all at the same time. It just hasn’t quite been done yet.”

And that bold portion (emphasis mine) is what hit me like a ton of bricks. Nolan does the same thing with nearly all of his scenes. They’re static. Not the camera. The scenes. Picture any non-action scene from any one of Nolan’s movies. Now tell me, would it be difficult to perform that on a stage? And this in itself isn’t a huge problem. Look at 12 Angry Men! It’s 12 men in essentially one room for the whole film. But there is interplay between characters. Their faces matter, their posture, the things they do. The last scene when they all turn their backs on the angry juror is powerful in the way they all move away from the emotional center of the scene. But when does anything like that ever happen with Nolan? If there is action, the camera is moving with it, most of the time.

So I thought, Well, let’s see what happens tomorrow night when I see The Dark Knight Rises. About what you’d expect visually. But worse, I realized that it was just a superhero movie. The Dark Knight was incredible because of the nihilism of The Joker, and that intense dilemma that all of the main characters face of whether or not the truth is good enough. And I went in expecting something similar here. It had such potential, too. The Joker broke Batman’s moral code nearly to its breaking point, and Bane is well-known as being “The Man Who Broke the Bat.”

But I went in expecting the philosophical and moral dilemma that Nolan showed me he could produce with The Dark Knight and Memento. Instead, I got an admittedly satisfying and thoughtful conclusion to a wonderful superhero franchise.

Then a couple weeks after TDKR, I read the BFI article on Christopher Nolan, in which they call his movies, “superior airport novels with complex structures….” They speak as if his greatest strength were his dedication to bringing quality blockbusters rather than the painful Battleship-type crap Hollywood likes to give us. And you know, I think that’s about right.

Look, Inception wasn’t as good as you think it was. Don’t believe me? Think about the “big” blockbusters, the ones that started it. Jaws, Star Wars (the original), E.T., Indiana Jones, even Jurassic Park. Now tell me, strip down the shifting narration and unconventional plot structure, and is Inception really that much better than those movies? If those five movies had come out at the same time as Inception or The Dark Knight or The Dark Knight Rises, would they still look as great? I don’t think so. I think it’s an above average techno-thriller with some inventive and admirable narrative choices.

As the BFI points out, if you’ve seen one Nolan movie, you’ve seen them all. And I have seen them all, from his short, “Doodlebug,” to TDKR. They’re the same. They’re movies about how careful we have to be, or else reality will slip through our grasp and, by the way, sometimes you have to do things you don’t like.

I don’t hate Nolan. But the Coen Brothers are back to being my favorite working directors. He’s still a good filmmaker, and I’ll still watch and rewatch his films. I just don’t think I’ll look at them as if they were the only novel thing in movies the way I used to.

Why I Chose not to Take Part in Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day

A lot’s been said about this, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on anything that has happened in the last few days. I don’t have a great deal of theological training, though I have had more than some. I don’t know everything about Chick-fil-A, and I haven’t received any special revelation from God about how to put all of the complicated pieces of the homosexual issues surrounding Chick-fil-A with a comprehensive view of the gospel of Christ.

What I do have is (hopefully) a generous portion of common sense and a love for my friends and family (straight and homosexual alike), the church, and yes, those that I don’t know within the LGBT community. While my first instinct was to join the throngs of people at Chick-fil-A yesterday (and get a delicious chicken sandwich and sweet tea), after some thought, I decided I did not want to be a part of that scene.

First, the facts. Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, when asked if he supported a biblical definition of marriage that he was, “guilty as charged.” All right. Fine. But, this sparked controversy in the LGBT community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) and its supporters. One difficulty lies in the fact that Chick-fil-A as a corporation has given money to the Family Research Council (FRC) and organizations that try to promote a Christian approach to “curing” homosexuality.

The FRC is viewed by one group as promoting hate speech because of the false claims they’ve made, such as saying that homosexual men are very likely to be pedophiles, that life expectancy is decades lower among homosexuals, and other claims that have no factual basis.

But even the idea that corporate funds go to promoting a one man, one woman definition of marriage comes at a bad time. A couple weeks ago, astronaut Sally Ride died of pancreatic cancer, leaving her partner of 27 years, Tam O’Shaughnessy without the benefits that would be given to the husband of an astronaut. This already had people upset and many have seen Cathy’s comments as being emblematic of the mindset that prevents the O’Shaughnessy from being treated the way a heterosexual partner would be. While there is not an actual connection, that is one of the things that has become tied up in the Chick-fil-A controversy. As so often happens, it is not just a simple matter.

Aside from the specific issues, it must be understood that coming out still causes children and adults to be mocked, bullied, and discriminated against as if they were less of a human being because of their sexuality. I believe that my Christian faith calls me to turn against that kind of treatment. If my words or actions contribute to one person’s self-hatred, or causes their lives to be worse in some way, then I am not showing them Christ’s love. The people at Chick-fil-A yesterday believed they were standing up for the 1st Amendment rights of the Cathy family or standing against political support for gay marriage, but many people on the outside heard, “Homosexuals are lesser humans than heterosexual humans.” This isn’t what was meant (I hope), but it was heard that way because neither side seemed to take the time to truly understand what was being said.

But I do not believe that homosexuals are less than any other people. So, because of those factors, and because of the issues with Chick-fil-A, I decided I could not in good conscience join in Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day. It came down to this for me; what was more important, supporting a growing, multi-billion dollar business because they are run by Christians and possibly hurting my witness and hurting the feelings of my friends in the LGBT community, or avoid it and find a way to calmly discuss my views? I admit I failed yesterday at being calm while explaining my thoughts to my dad. I’ve apologized, but it still happened. Hopefully though, this is a better explanation that more people can read.

In summary, I believe that the Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day, while carried out with good intentions, was actually provoking a battle unnecessarily. This is a hot-button issue, and it causes people to turn away from Christians and our message anyway, but getting excited by supporting a business that isn’t struggling because they happen to agree with Christian culture doesn’t seem like a very loving attitude to me. Maybe I’m wrong, but like everyone else, I can only do my best when making decisions like this.

My message to Christians: don’t forget that gay marriage isn’t an abstract political and moral thought experiment. It’s an issue that affects millions every day. And while it may seem that our rights to disagree with modern culture are disappearing, we need to be careful not to cling to those rights more than we ought. If that goes away, it’ll be sad for America and for us, but remember, “if God is for us, who can be against us?”

Peace Review

This review was previously posted on March 6, 2011 on my old blog. I never did much with it and hated the URL, so I started this one, but even though this isn’t the best thing I’ve ever written, and aside from a few (corrected) repetitions, it’s not a terrible review.

When I sat down to write this (my first) blog post, I had planned to write a review of the novel Peace, by Gene Wolfe. After thinking about the novel for a while though, I realized that this is going to be more of a response and a discussion of the book than an actual review.

The reason for this isn’t that I’m lazy or especially dumb, but just the way the book is laid out. In some respects, it is a simple story. It is the memoirs of a man, Alden Dennis Weer, who is writing about his life in the small Midwestern town he has lived in his whole life. He tells about his wealthy parents who fled to Europe after a scandal at Den’s fifth birthday party; his eccentric aunt he lived with during that time and her four suitors; his uncle and the orange juice processing plant he started which Den later inherits. Seems simple enough. But with Wolfe, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Den is not the most straightforward storyteller, and his senility or his stroke or his metaphysical displacement causes him to jump around from story to story, sometimes jumping to three different time periods all on the same page. In this way, it is similar to Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The smell of sulfur causes Den to think back to something in his childhood, and a fairytale he read as a boy reminds him of a conversation he had in his office in the 50’s, and so on.

Within all of that, Den hides things from us. He is purposefully vague and doesn’t like to conclude his stories when you expect him to. For example, at a party thrown by one of his Aunt Olivia’s suitors, two people tell a story (with many interruptions by the party-goers and by Den himself), and three quarters of the way through the second story, Den gets sidetracked and moves on. Nearly 100 pages later, a side-character off-handedly tells us the end of the story and the reader is expected to put the pieces together. In another example, the story of the young boy who fell down the stairs is never adequately explained. “How did Bobby Black fall down the stairs?” is a question that should be on everyone’s mind as they read through the book. The answer, never explicitly stated, adds a whole new layer of creepiness to the story.

The book is labeled a fantasy on the cover of the edition I have, and while there are certainly stories of fairies, banshees, genies, and mad scientists, they are only ever told as tales by other characters. It is quite possible to interpret this book as nothing more than the odd, rambling reminiscences of a senile and lonely old man. I don’t hold to that interpretation, but I think you could make a decent case for it.

I have to confess, Gene Wolfe is my favorite author. This is the eighth novel I’ve read by him, I’ve read probably two dozen short stories of his, and I have one more Wolfe novel waiting on my desk in my dorm room when I get back from Spring Break. I love Wolfe. But this book is good for anyone. Whether you enjoy science fiction or fantasy, or if you just like a challenging novel, I highly recommend this. It’s complex and difficult to get into for the first 30 pages or so, but it’s very rewarding in the end (though it lacks a bit of “payoff”). Sadly, it’s out of print now, but buy it if you can. It’s completely worth the read. Besides, I want to know what you think.