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.

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.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

This post contains mild spoilers for the plot of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Nothing too major, but be warned.

There are few things I love more than movies. Like a lot of people my age and younger, film was my first real exposure to fiction. Sitting down and watching Indiana JonesAladdin and The Lion King as a little boy are some of my earliest memories. But one huge advantage I had in growing up in a house with parents that were both movie buffs and conservative Christians is that I was exposed to old “Classic Hollywood” films at an early age. Westerns, detective movies, Disney’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (still a movie I enjoy to this day), were as familiar to me as Jurassic Park or anything that came out in the 90’s.

But one of my favorite movies since my dad brought it back from the library is John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The movie has a little bit of a Western feel, although it takes place in the wilderness of Mexico in 1925. Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston (John’s father) star alongside Tim Holt (whose work I’m not familiar with, although a quick look at IMDb tells me I’ve seen him at least two other movies) on a quest for gold. The gold unsurprisingly changes the three men and their relationships with one another, and leads to some dire consequences for everyone involved.

Like I said, it’s a personal favorite, and I don’t know that there’s anything about it I would change. Bogart starts out as a lowly down-on-his-luck American begging a wealthy American (John Huston in a white suit) for some money and meets Curtain (Holt). They both get cheated out of some money, meet Howard (Walter Huston) who tells them about prospecting for gold, and with a sudden and unexpected bit of luck, Bogart wins the lottery and is able to fund the expedition to find gold in the Mexican wilderness.

But that’s just the introduction. What follows is the story of greed and the lust for gold. We see Bogart change from a man who would only dig for as much as he set out to get to one who convinces Howard to split up the gold three ways every night out of fear of one of his two friends stealing it. Bandits play a part, and we get to hear the famous, “We don’t need no stinking badges,” line. But what’s really striking is how impressive the whole story is. The plot doesn’t have the kind of structure you expect from a Hollywood film, especially one that came out in 1948. The “introduction,” as I’ve called it takes a significant portion of the film. And just when you think things are winding down, our heroes have to track down a character to regain their lost treasure, another character might be dead, and who knows what’ll happen to those poor stolen donkeys?

There’s a scene most of the way through the movie that takes place completely in Spanish, with no subtitles. I’m able to pick up a word here and there, but for the most part, I don’t know enough of the spoken language to keep up. But the emotions on the actors faces and the language of Huston’s camera clearly tell us what’s going on, and without feeling like we’re being

At the end, Howard tells us, “the Lord, or fate, or nature, whatever you prefer,” gets the last laugh, so to speak. The bulk of the events in the film occur because of chance, and the lottery ticket, and the finding of the gold are really the result of chance. The final scene helps to show the audience this by showing just how crazy the world can be.

I think what really draws me to this movie is the way it handles its characters. The film doesn’t focus on the set pieces and it doesn’t have this, then this, then this, then this plot structure because Huston understands that the story really works because of what happens in the hearts of the characters. Everything that happens, happens because of their actions and because of their greed or distrust, but never at the whim of filmmakers.