Children of Men

by mikeyzjames

This quarter, I’m lucky enough to be able to teach two film classes (really, the same class but two times). It’s something I’ve wanted to do since I graduated, but the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. The classes meet once a week for nearly 4 hours. During that time, I will lecture, we’ll view a film, and then we’ll discuss it together. One of the major, ongoing assignments of the quarter is to respond to at least 4 of the films we watch together. In solidarity with my young charges, I thought it only fair that I try to write a little something about each of the films as well. I’m really hoping to get into why I picked that particular film and some of my general impressions having watched and discussed it in a group. Generally, I’m a solitary watcher. Most of the conversations I have about films happen in my own head, so it should be interesting to see how this translates to a group setting.

First, before I get into the film, a little bit about how I’ve set up the class. After talking with a couple teachers and looking through the book, I had to determine an angle for the class. Technically, the class is labelled “Film History and Appreciation”, so I knew I wanted to organize things chronologically. But the book is broken up by film techniques (cinematography, editing, acting, etc.), so I tried to come up with a way to sync these. I spent way too much time debating what to screen or not screen, and what to pair with what readings. Some films were obvious (as you’ll see), but I also realized I needed to put my own little spin on things (which will also be obvious). I guess for me, by the end of the class, I want 3 things: 1) for the students to have a basic understanding of film history and how it has developed, 2) for the students to have the technical knowledge to discuss and analyze films in a serious way, and 3) for the students to be exposed to forms of cinema that challenge their conceptions of what movies are or can be. For #3, I guess I was working under the assumption that most of the students’ relationships with film would be casual and Hollywood based. For the most part, having met the students, this is generally true.

So, let’s get into it. For our first class, I screened Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men. This was one of the first films I put down on the list, but I only decided to open with it a few days before the quarter actually began. I’ve used this film in my classes before, and I often show the opening sequence in my English classes as a way to talk about introductions. When I shut it off after that opening few minutes, they usually groan and beg me to let them keep watching. It’s a film that grabs you instantly, throws you into a fully realized world, and escalates the tension and emotion until it nearly bursts. It sucks you into its story in the way a good Hollywood movie can. I wanted the first film to give my students a more traditional movie-going experience, something they could accept within their normal viewing habits. At its core, Children of Men is a very conventional film. The narrative is fairly straightforward, with the twists and turns you would expect from any modern thriller.

But the way it presents that narrative is anything but ordinary. One of the major themes I want to get across in the class is that all films have a specific idea of their audience, and as a result, as viewers, we should be very conscious of ourselves in the viewing experience. While Children of Men tells a fairly conventional story, it does so in a radical (relative to 99% of sci-fi/thrillers) way because it has a faith in its viewers that most films don’t. Unlike any Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich (although you know I love you, buddy) film that begs you to turn off your brain for the running time lest you realize how empty it truly is, Children of Men encourages and rewards careful attention.

The primary way it does this is through its justly famous cinematography and set design [our first two classes are covering cinematography as a technique, so it just makes sense]. Working with DP Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón employs the floating, documentary-style style that he used in his previous film Y tu mamá también. Like that film, the camera in Children of Men has a mind of its own. It often wanders off from the main characters to focus on something happening in the background that it finds more important. Early in the film, as Theo, played by Clive Owen, walks through London, the camera lingers on the enforcement of Britain’s radical immigration policies: the ransacking of a project and the cages used to hold people speaking unfamiliar languages. Theo ignores them, but the camera refuses to [of course this works thematically: eventually, the camera won’t have to wander off to show us these things because Theo will be unable to avoid them]. In overtly stopping to show us what’s happening in the background, the filmmakers are encouraging us to do some investigating on our own.

The best way that this investigation pays off is through the use of the screens and newspapers that proliferate in the background. There are two great examples of this: first, after Theo is kidnapped by the Fishes, he is held in a cell that’s walls are plastered with newspapers. Through the newspapers, we learn of the widespread nuclear war, scientific experimentation, and obsession with youth that has impacted the globe. Each viewing, I see a new headline that brings the larger setting into clearer focus. Second, when Theo first visits Jasper (Michael Caine), the camera focuses on a wall of newspaper clippings. Through these, we figure out who Jasper is, a general timeline of the infertility, and more interestingly, the cause of his wife’s catatonia: she was tortured by the MI:5. Her condition is never discussed or even alluded to; if you miss that newspaper clipping, you might be totally confused why this silent woman is present at all.

Before screening the film, I emphasized the need to pay close attention, take diligent notes, and to engage critically with the film. That’s a skill that will be important throughout the class, and because of its richness (I haven’t even scratched the service of allusions, references, artwork, advertisements, or propaganda that populate out this movie) Children of Men makes the perfect first-class film. I was happy because my classes caught a lot of stuff, but I think they were all shocked at how much was really available to them on the screen that they flat-out missed. Hopefully it can be an object-lesson as we move onto films that are perhaps more subtle and nuanced in their approach.