Things here at Armond Dangerous are moving fast and furious. Not only are we receiving more comments than ever before and having a difficult time responding in kind (don't worry, Mark Asch, we'll get to you soon), we're also receiving more notice. Why, just last week The Reeler gave us a major holler and then, with the release of the new Press and Armond White's "Better-Than List" therein, did so again yesterday.
But The Reeler and others (such as GreenCine Daily and Mr. Asch at the L Magazine) who want to hear our say about the "Better-Than List" will have to wait a bit -- we just attended Children of Men for the second time Wednesday evening, and since the film is fresh in our minds we'd rather look at Armond's New York Press review of it. This is one of those cases where we don't quite know what to make of AW's decision to review a film after most critics sent out copy. Of course, critics can write about films whenever they want to (Jean-Luc Godard once suggested -- to Pauline Kael, no less -- that critics might think of reviewing films while they're in production), but Armond does this often, and sometimes we wonder if it's in order to gauge a critical consensus and then form his opinion in reaction to it. This is pure speculation, but we know others have wondered the same. Anyway, White's opening paragraph:
Alfonso Cuarón is not a virtuoso, although his Children of Men style might convince the politically obtuse that a decorative illustration of their social alarm is a visionary achievement. Below the garish surface of this paranoid fantasy lies political antipathy -- not the sort of soulful detritus of Tarkovsky's Stalker tableaux or Spielberg's hallucinogenic War of the Worlds, but Cuarón's cheap specialty: fashion. By distorting contemporary social fears into facile apocalyptic imagery, Children of Men does little more than rework the ludicrous, already-forgotten V for Vendetta.
Just because it stuck out to us, we'd like to address White's use of the word "hallucinogenic." Where were the Press editors on this one? According to the American Heritage Dictionary "hallucinogenic" means "a substance that induces hallucination." Does AW mean to say War of the Worlds causes its viewers to see or hear things that don't exist? We haven't learned of anything like this happening with Spielberg's film, although it would be pretty neat. We're pretty sure Armond meant "hallucinatory," which means "of or characterized by hallucination," instead of "hallucinogenic" -- it's probably a minor mistake, but it says a lot about the Press' editorial overview and White's tendency to play fast and loose with language.
White establishes in this opening paragraph what he thinks of Children of Men's aesthetic: a "style [that] might convince the politically obtuse that a decorative illustration of their social alarm is a visionary achievement," "below the garish surface of this paranoid fantasy lies political antipathy," "fashion," "facile apocalyptic imagery." In other words, shallow filmmaking imparting false ideology. How does this work?
Here, Cuarón uses the canniest youth bait -- focusing on the near-future.
Huh? How's that? We're not sure what age demographic White is referring to with "youth," but we know "near-future dystopia" films like Strange Days and Gattica flopped across the board. And did Spielberg "use the canniest youth bait" by "focusing on the near-future" in Minority Report? Without following through on this statement, AW goes on to explain Children of Men's machinations:
Instead of the cartoon jokiness that vitiated V for Vendetta, Cuarón caters to cynicism about global conditions. Those who felt that the world slipped away from them after the 2000 presidential election and later with the events of 9/11, will see their dread visualized here. Journalist Theodore Faron (caffeine-haggard Clive Owen) embodies their fear and sanctimony as he traverses the trash-strewn, gang-filled streets of Cuarón's London, walking past neo-concentration camps, evoking WWII or Bosnia or the United States-Mexico border—take your pick. He's witness to sly evocations of both al-Qaeda terrorism and Homeland Security crackdowns, and underground rebels abduct him and ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore)—who may be either illegal-immigrant freedom fighters or fascist henchmen. But then Cuarón adds a sanctimonious twist: a mock virgin-birth by a Third-World woman named Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), whose delivery and protection becomes Theo's neo-white man's burden. You can't get more Lefty sentimental than that.
Ugly ending, echoing the same one-liner that capped the previous paragraph. A good review doesn't necessarily have to be smoothly written, though, and Armond makes some good points. Or does he? We're not sure how Cuaron "caters to cynicism about global conditions" any more than Spielberg (since White's the one comparing Children of Men to War of the Worlds and Minority Report) caters to the public's fear of large-scale catastrophe and of government surveillance. Both filmmakers seek to create cathartic, thought-provoking entertainment inspired by traumatic events and controversial issues, only the latter gets the benefit of the doubt as to his intentions while the former is deemed opportunistic. In fact, the word "cynicism" seems somewhat inappropriate in this context considering one of Children of Men's themes is how "faith" wins out over "chance." Granted, it's a simple theme, not incredibly well-developed, but it still offers a vague hope against the vague cynicism White suggests. The ostensible evidence supporting this suggestion is that Children of Men visualizes the dread of "those who felt that the world slipped away from them after the 2000 presidential election and later with the events of 9/11." Alright, but how? Armond ticks off a list of the film's evocative imagery, making it sound jumbled and not thought-out. Which it very well might be -- a solid case might be made for that -- but AW never spells out how except to throw out the adjective "sly." Earlier another adjective, "sanctimony," was used to describe Theo and, presumably, liberals whose qualities he embodies, but no explanation is made as to how this is so, no examples of Theo's behavior or worldview being provided. The description of the film's blatant Christ symbolism as "sanctimonious" is perfectly apt, however, which got us on Armond's side for a moment until he blew it with that "neo-white man's burden." How is Theo's redemptive heroism any more of a "white man's burden" than Ray's in War of the Worlds? White yet again fails to back up his statements.
Now, we understand that due to space constrictions reviewers don't always get a chance to expand on their ideas. But a little more than half the page on which White's piece ran in this week's Press featured a production still from Children of Men featuring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore -- including the enormous pull-out quote and the margins, White's review takes up only about a quarter of a page. Did the Press force this short review on Armond (who also got a full page spread for the "Better-Than List") or did Armond just phone it in? We'll never know.
And we'll never know -- unless he chooses to elaborate on it elsewhere or at some late date -- what exactly Armond means when he describes Children of Men's aesthetic as "resembling the surreally distanced, uninterrupted viewpoint of a videogame." Which videogames? Certainly not first-person shooter videogames (which Elephant mimics at one moment in order to make a connection to the fps games the teenage killers play at home) because the film's celebrated long takes are not pov shots. The long takes' panoptical surveys -- with action occurring on multiple planes and often disappearing beyond the scope of the lens -- would only resemble videogame aesthetics for the most unsophisticated and -- dare we say -- cynical viewer. For one thing, the moviegoer cannot interact with the image in the same way a videogame player can -- an obvious point that White conveniently ignores. For another, the film maintains spatial integrity in presenting and exploring its realistic environments, an integrity that stands in sharp contrast to the comic book nonsense of V for Vendetta, the film that Armond White compares to Children of Men without properly explaining thier distinctions. It seems to us that Elbert Ventura of Reverse Shot has far more interesting points to make in this regard:
It's somehow telling that two of the best films of the year are defined by death and the long take. Both Children of Men and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu capture man's dilemma eloquently, pinning him to his environment without the respite of a cut. Tracking death—of one man in the former, of the human race in the latter—both movies express with unique power the inescapability of the physical world. This anxiety about the world we live in is further illuminated by a pairing with a natural partner: V for Vendetta. An incendiary piece of agit-pop, that film stages its call for revolution in a recognizable dystopia, much like Children of Men does. Ghosts from our pixilated nightmare populate both: detainees in black hoods, snarling dogs in prison camps, martyrs calling for revolution. V for Vendetta's irresponsible politics finally complicate its critique. Children of Men, on the other hand, charts a path to the future that looks depressingly familiar. Cuarón makes us see how we can get there from here.
The last lines (especially "depressingly familiar") would only seem to confirm Armond's ideas about liberal "sanctimony" even as they go against his point that "Children of Men never explains how the world got this way and so its dread is convincingly sophomoric." In one sense, White is right here: Children of Men's scenario -- that women for eighteen years haven't been able to have babies -- doesn't account for the details of civilization's decline into anarchy and, in Britain, an isolated police state. This insufficient understanding of the causes of "social collapse," one might argue, proves Armond has unmasked "Lefty sentiment" which wants to see its worst nightmares and thus its righteousness about the "exagerrated state of the world" realized and confirmed in the most simplistic cinematic terms. But when Ventura states Children of Men's aesthetic "express[es] with unique power the inescapability of the physical world," he complicates this notion by giving deserved credit to Cuaron's directorial approach. What sort of entertainment is Children of Men? The film's violent and decayed surroundings (the film begins with a terrorst bombing, with a person stumbling out of the wreckage burnt and armless) surely aren't meant to be experienced in the conventionally thrilling way V for Vendetta's superhero fantasy is. If anything, Children of Men has much more in common with a blockbuster like War of the Worlds, a big-budget film steaming with death and despair. If wanting to be honest with oneself, one would recognize that these films, while trafficking in the sort of "thrill-ride" format palatable to mass audiences, sternly question that mass audience's relationship to spectacle by creating a realistic experience of violence, death, and survival. That's a responsible, perhaps even "political" strategy far from the "game" pejorative Armond levels at Children of Men.
But White dismisses this line of inquiry, upset as he is over the film's political iconography:
The political antipathy of Iraq war protestors and War on Terror skeptics is what drives this pretentious action flick. It panders to a decadent yearning for apocalypse as if to confirm recent fear and resentment about loss of political power.
Iraq war protestors and War on Terror skeptics don't corner the market on a "decadent yearning for apocalypse." Audiences of all stripes have for decades been getting their eschatological jollies from films Left, Right, and in between. But if Armond White despises Children of Men because it alludes to contemporary issues from a liberal perspective, that's his business. In failing to critically evaluate the means by which Children of Men boldly does so, however, he not only cheapens the discourse on a genuinely provocative, if compromised, film, he also fails to generate a cogent discussion on the ways in which cinematic aesthetics, politics, and representation actually work.