Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Blog That Time Forgot: Bite-Sized: Exploitation and Shock Value

Since I'm still on the mend, but feeling awfully guilty about not keeping up to date, I'm trying out a new concept: little quick posts where I keep you all up to date on what I'm doing.  (I swear, one of these days, I'll comment!  I mean it!)

So, I watched Children of Men. How's this for a contentious, blanket statement: Children of Men is an absolutely beautifully directed film with masterful technical directions and magnificent visual design, which is regrettably bogged down by some of the most exploitative, blatant, backbreakingly unsubtle political pretensions I've seen in a film. There's a fascinating science fiction story at its core about a world where humanity has become infertile, and indeed it does dwell on some of those great questions. It also has some strong ideas. Unfortunately, it's also one of those films that just doesn't know how to do subtlety. From the choice of songs (want something to be poignant? Why, pick a melancholy tune to accompany it! Want an ambiguous and politically motivated ending? Go with John Lennon!) to the dialogue, it's a film that holds your hand all the way through, not daring to allow the viewer to make up their own mind.*

It's also one of the most galling exploitation films I've seen in a while.  People die in brutal and matter-of-fact ways, rows of shrouded bodies are seen, crying innocents are packed into what are obviously concentration camps, surrendering protesters are gunned down whilst waving white flags. This seems to be a thing for Mexican** filmmakers: Cuaron's compatriot Guillermo Del Toro did the same in Pan's Labyrinth, where he had no qualms in showing acts of brutality which make it difficult not to hate those enacting them - it's just unfortunate it's done in such a cartoonish and obviously exploitative manner.

It's like having your villain kick a puppy or shoot a kitten: you're obviously going to hate him by default, unless you have a particular aversion to kittens.  Thus it's easy to make a villain hateful when he does something so monstrous.  It's the same thing which bothers me about A Serbian Film: it's just so easy to shock people with profoundly shocking images, but it doesn't make you think about the characters, film or themes, you just can't help but think about the image. Or, more succinctly, it's like the jump scare. Surprising someone is easy, you just say boo and make a scary face, but that doesn't make you a grandmaster of horror - in the same way, showing a man committing unspeakable acts doesn't make the man despicable, just the act.

Speaking of which, it's not the violence which I found the most exploitative (though it was very exploitative).  No, what was worse was the politixploitation.  As surely as sexploitation is filled with scenes of carnality and blaxploitation is suffused with black stereotyping, this film is full of pandering to a particular viewpoint .  The British government is shown as the most odious caricature liberal Britons think of the goose-stepping conservative Middle Englanders: the police are brutal and aggressive thugs; the news is the sleaziest this side of Fox News.  In contrast, the heroes are composed of long-haired ganja aficionados, New Age holistic midwife, and a young black woman who is the Saviour Of Our People.  Not a single one of them felt like a character, so much as a proxy for a designated political argument.  Michael Caine is defined by his love of marijuana and little else; Pam Ferris is a caricature of alternative medicine adherents. Only Clare-Hope Ashity had anything resembling depth, and even then, her accent was barely tolerable.

Now, I'm not getting into the politics of this, but this film was so obtuse about its political leanings, and particularly its duality (one side is wrong and the other side is right), that I felt insulted by it.  Half the dialogue was clumsy exposition, the other half political filibusters.  It's frustrating, because even ignoring the nauseating political "subtext" (or, rather, supertext), Children of Men is a really good film.  I just wish the script was handled as well as the direction.

*I'm going to get into spoiler territory here, so you might want to watch out here: the film just doesn't understand the idea that viewers might be able to get things for themselves without redundant clarifications.  For one thing, there's a certain revelation which turns the film's narrative upside down, and the ramifications of said revelation are right there. Here it is:

All through the film, the heavy handed commentary on immigration is hard to miss, so when it's discovered that one such refugee is pregnant, the most obvious irony is clear: the key to humanity's salvation lies in a woman who would normally be rejected entry into the last functioning society.  It's so obvious that you'd think it speaks for itself - but no, because the writers assume viewers are idiots, they actually have one of the characters point out that very irony in dialogue.  It was effective as an unspoken idea, but having a character outright say "isn't it ironic that the first person to be pregnant in 20 years would be a refugee?" removes all the eloquence and power, pushing it right into preachy, pretentious melodrama.  It's like "did you get it audience?  Do you see what we did there?  Oh, my stars, aren't we clever clogs!"

**Kike kindly points out that Cuaron & Del Toro are in fact Mexican, not Spanish.  I have no excuse, but I have an explanation of sorts.  My train of thought was mixed up, since Pan's Labyrinth was set in Spain and Y Tu Mama Tambien had Spanish characters: ergo, because I tend to make leaps like that, I mistakenly "remembered" that both directors were Spanish.  I knew it was one of the two, I swear!


  1. I've heard the book is better, but I haven't read it yet. The best books make you work for the payoff by using your imagination.

    People seem to think that just because everything is already visualized on screen in a movie, no imagination is necessary, and that's why they prefer movies to books. But the best movies make you work for the payoff by using your imagination.

    There's a connection here, and I think it might have something to do with mind power, but I'll need to think on it some more; it doesn't seem to have been spelled out well enough.

  2. I actually didn't have any interest in the film until I found out about one bit. The bit with clive owen ducking and weaving the Challanger Tank.. which is like a 8 minute long sequence.. was filmed as a single shot.

    There is a similar 5 minute long shot in Atonement showing the beaches of Dunkirk...

  3. Cuaron and Del Toro are not spanish: are mexican. That's a beginner mistake, Al!!

  4. I think I had a similar reaction to the film - technically well-made but it really fell down on the scripting. I think Del Toro's a good filmmaker, although he seems to be declining a bit, but Cuaron leaves me cold (I wasn't crazy about his Harry Potter movie either).

  5. When I saw it the, eh, postapoxploitation wave had just gathered some real momentum, the way I remeber it, and it was still really nice to see a movie like this well done and taken serious. If I saw it today (I got the dvd actually) perhaps it would not hold as well, but I bet it would be far superior to movies like "the book of Eli" and other downhill fall of society movies stuffed with all the cliche canibals and those booring "kicking the puppy villains". Its funny, I dont remember most of the critique you have for this movie, but I see just those same flaws in lots of new movies I dont like. Guess its time to see this again now.

    Always nice to read your thoughts Al, you dont settle with notions (even if it probably start there), it always thought through and aim to find a solid base to explain the initial (and oh so important) notions.

    PS: The Azkaban movie was one of the best pottermovies in my oppinion, and also one of my favorites among the books, Cuaron was in no way put to shame there.

  6. The thing that struck me watching it was that the whole immigration angle seemed tacked on. The film's central conceit is that human race will be extinct in, say, 100 years due to complete reproductive failure. That being the case, why is everybody attempting to immigrate to the UK? Was any rationale given for this in terms of the film?