Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

Children of Men by Katherine Follett

Children of Men by Katherine Follett When I was thinking about my choices for best movies of the decade, I realized something: many, if not all of my favorites, are “mainstream” movies. And it got me thinking about and, more generally, our goals as thoughtful consumers of film. The next paragraph says a few things that are sort of obvious and certainly not hard to figure out, but I think they’re important enough for us to remind ourselves of them once in a while.

Why do we value independent and cult cinema? At the bottom, it’s because film is one of the most expensive artistic media ever invented. It’s so expensive, in fact, that the only ones who can finance it on any kind of scale are major corporations. A major corporation is only sustainable if it makes money. And when a major corporation invests millions in what will be, in the end, a consumer product, it wants some assurances that that product will make money. Assurance, in the case of motion pictures, means betting on proven ideas, formulas, and people; predictable plot arcs, fixed genres, and bankable movie stars. Varying from these proven formulas is inherently risky, and corporations inherently want to minimize risk. To some lovers of independent film, this conservatism can seem like a moral failing. But fortunately or unfortunately, it is simply the reality generated by the extraordinary cost of producing feature-length motion pictures; it is not moral, but simply economic.

We value independent cinema because artists outside the major corporations often have a bit more freedom to take risks, to introduce new elements, and to challenge audiences. Much of the cinema we review is low-budget; in fact, “low-budget” in some circles is a shorthand for “artistically daring.” But on the other side of that very desirable coin is the fact that if you’re going to make cinema outside the financial privilege of the major studios, you are necessarily going to have to limit your tools. In many cases, this can lead to a wonderful resourcefulness. But the simple fact stands: if you have only so much money, you can do only so much on film.

During this past decade, we have been lucky enough to get a several exceptions to this dilemma: major studios that took risks and allowed bold, creative artists access to some of the most powerful, pricey tools of cinema. Though there are several examples (There Will Be Blood, which I must say I admired, but didn’t enjoy; Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and most of Charlie Kaufman’s work; and showing an astounding consistency of quality, originality, profitability, and sheer enjoyability, nearly the entire output of Pixar), but the one that hit me the hardest, and that most impressed me with the capabilities and power of combining money with daring and ambition, was Children of Men.

Some of the accomplishments of Children of Men were of subtlety and imagination—the kinds of things that could have been accomplished on a low budget. In general, the world-building of the dystopian-but-still-normal near-future is pitch-perfect. Director Alfonso Cuarón made the wise decision to keep much of our present world intact – houses look the same, clothes look basically the same – and allowed tiny changes (signs, touches of technology, urban planning) to unsettle the audience, letting us know that humanity was treading down a dark path. The acting is seamless. The issue of Theo’s (Clive Owen) and Julian’s (Julianne Moore) son is treated with subtlety and care. But most of the conversation about Children of Men, and certainly a huge portion of its budget, went to cinematography.

A.V. Club writer Mike D’Angelo endured a particularly fetid shitstorm when he criticized one of Children of Men’s most technically complicated scenes as show-offy, self-conscious, and ultimately undercutting of the story. I don’t want to specifically answer D’Angelo’s opinion, but there’s pretty much a one-to-one correspondence of all the things he thinks undercut the scene and all the things I think make the scene, and the rest of the film, daring and powerful. During the scene he discusses and several others of similar action and intensity (a sudden attack on a moving vehicle, a woman giving birth, and a protracted urban battle), the camera never cuts or blinks. Or, rather, appears never to—some digital trickery compensates for what was probably physically impossible. More on that later.

D’Angelo – and surely others – watched these scenes and saw the camera itself. I don’t like to think of myself as an unsophisticated viewer, but it was only on my second viewing of Children of Men that I was able to force myself to pay attention to the camera’s moves. While I didn’t consciously track the cinematography at first, I was aware of it, and certainly felt the change of tempo and point of view during these extended takes. My initial experience was that the camera seemed to mimic the human fight-or-flight response, when our pupils dilate, our focus narrows to what is happening now, and our brains take in and process everything at the level of, like, the spinal column, reacting before we’ve had a chance to consciously process. Possibly the most technically difficult shot, the one in the moving car, is a prime example of this fear-response camera technique. It’s reinforced by the suddenness and ruthlessness of the attack, interrupting what was a relatively idyllic trip. While it is certainly possible to depict the same events using traditional multiple shots and cuts, the feel of painful awareness and inescapable helplessness wouldn’t be there without that endless, time-dilating shot. I thought the results were extraordinarily moving, and found myself in tears when Kee carried her crying baby through the silently staring soldiers—and I hate kids.

The one moment when the camera does make itself unambiguously present is during this battle scene, when a spatter of blood hits the lens and stays there. Normally, a director aims for an audience to either wholly accept the film as its own reality (intact 4th wall) or to see it wholly from the distance of knowing it’s a film (broken 4th wall). I don’t quite accept D’Angelo’s thesis that Cuarón intended to make the viewer notice his camera throughout—for me, at least on my first viewing, the 4th wall was intact until the spatter of blood on the camera suddenly broke it. Given how much technology and perfectionism were clearly on hand, it’s highly unlikely this was an oversight. So is it an unmistakably self-conscious move designed to make us notice just how amazing the camera work is? I don’t think that’s quite what’s going on, and here’s my evidence: this is one of the shots in which the “single take” effect was actually digitally stitched together from multiple takes. At some later point, the blood spatter disappears. Do you remember when it goes away? Me neither. I didn’t even see it happen. The blood stays just about until the point when we start ignoring it, and then it disappears when the shot is stitched. Cuarón could have chosen to add the blood to the rest of the shot during post-production, preserving the illusion of a single, impossibly long take. Removing the blood risks the audience noticing the digital stitch, revealing that the filmmakers cheated on the much-lauded single-shot virtuosity, and/or it wipes away our one unambiguous cue to notice the camera.

A different thought is that Cuarón wants us to notice the camera, but not in order to notice the filmmakers and the fiction of it all, but conversely, to notice ourselves, and to find ourselves engaged even more fully and personally with the reality of the film. If you, like me, watched Children of Men with the experience of an intact 4th wall, the blood spatter felt at first not like, “Hey, look! The camera is doing a great job!” but more like, “Holy shit! That was a close one!” The blood spatter allows the viewer a moment in which to take conscious notice the intensity of the scene, to take a breath from the spinal-level immediate panic before returning to the action, which we do by the time the blood spatter disappears. Allowing the 4th wall to be broken in the midst of the most intense scene in the film without breaking the intensity, and in fact, only enhancing the intensity by allowing the audience a moment to register it, is a massive accomplishment. In the end, the achievement of the cinematography in Children of Men is not the expert trickiness of some camera guy, but the sheer audacity of imagination to create such a sequence in the first place, and to ask for such a commitment from the audience. For some people, it didn’t work. But that’s what happens when a filmmaker takes a risk: he risks that he won’t appeal to everybody, that he’ll even piss some people off. It’s the type of risk most major studios are loathe to invest in. It’s the type of risk most of us who watch independent cinema live for.

Children of Men leaves me feeling hopeful, almost loving, toward big-budget Hollywood studios. You can’t do this stuff on a shoestring, and I would like to think that people do want this stuff done. Here's hoping that the success of big, daring films will encourage more studio execs to fund projects with similar vision, ambition, maturity, reflection, and guts. Here’s to the next ten years, Hollywood!


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