As the initial email and the first post seem to have scared people I will try to brighten up this blog by throwing around some thoughts regarding contemporary film. Seems like people have a limited sense of humor when it comes to their individuality–much like the Budweiser donkey. Didn’t mean to scare you off.
Be that as it may:
I recently saw two films that I a) actually really liked and that b) made me further think about some arguments I am proposing in my dissertation. Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (interestingly produced by Alfonso Cuaron) seem to function in very similar ways regarding the interconnection of their political project and nostalgia.
My general proposition is that it seems impossible to make a film that presents a commentary on fascism/totalitarianism/resistance to repression etc. in the present or future without having to rely heavily upon a nostalgic evaluation of previous revolutionary moments that have become etched into the US/international left’s imagination as representations of the “last good fights.” Specifically, I would like to propose that it seems quite curious that Children of Men, which is set up to be a dystopian narrative of a near totalitarian future (based on P.D. Wells’ novel that in itself presents a mix between, say, George Orwell and Octavia Butler), is entirely unable to envision a political project for this future.
Much like other recent filmic engagements with totalitarianism in the future, Children of Men seems to find its main merit not in the totalitarian narrative on the surface, but in the representation of an absence of the progressive left’s clear and unifying political program for the future that is not weighed down by a nostalgic engagement with moments in political history and cliche debates surrounding revolutionary programs that have no applicability for a situation of globalized capitalism. See here especially V for Vendetta, which is ideologically very close to Children of Men and presents a similarly nostalgic evasion of contemporary political reality. Both films must envision a future in which we have returned to a centralized leadership situation against which a traditional revolutionary project can be formed. Children, however, at least seems to do this in a self-conscious manner, which is precisely what made me really like it: the film is very self-conscious about its own nostalgia for the political activism of the 1960s (beautifully performed by Clive Owen and especially Michael Caine)–see the soundtrack, the relationship between Theo and Julian, the 60s paraphernalia and lingo, etc. It also mixes hippie and SDS elements in the character of Michael Caine, two elements that were quite contradictory in the political project of the 60s but that in combination add to the impression of the dangerously de-historicizing effect of nostalgia. The film then seems to engage less with a depiction of totalitarianism proper but seems to transport us back into the discussions surrounding the 60s regarding the nature of a progressive political project and the role violence should, or should not play in it (making this less a sci-fi film than a film working in close proximity to the classic engagements with the mentioned problem in the 60s and 70s, notable examples being of course Alice Walker’s Meridian and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time).
But here’s my real beef with the films mentioned above: both Children and Labyrinth transport us back to either the 1930s/40s, or the 1960s, which seems to be the only way in which we can imagine progressive political change. Contemporary cultural productions seems to have lost the ability to actually imagine a politics that responds to the present situation that is simply more complex than it used to be in the 30s and 60s. One can hence see in the mentioned films a general inability to address contemporary political complexity without having to simplify it via operations of nostalgia. The Wachowski brothers do so, as usual, without any regard for subtlety. Through their desire for the spectacular they (as usual) end up bordering on the demagogical in ways that in fact replicate the logic of the system of domination they are trying to critique. Children, however, is quite interesting to me in this respect (intentionally, or not, I am not sure). While criticizing both the totalitarian right, as well as a Stalinist, vanguard, leftist terrorist project, as totalitarian, humanism seems to appear briefly as the answer to the problem, obviously making me cringe. As the two main characters carry the baby out of the building, which presents the site for the final struggle between government militia and revolutionaries, everyone is silent for a minute, admiring the baby, which seems to have the ability to unite everyone. This humanist moment, however, only lasts for a little while and then everyone returns to the killing. Interesting. Is this a moment of gesturing toward a critical anti-humanism? Is this a part that ideologically makes the movie fold upon itself and undercuts its previous ideological narrative? Is the fact that the Human Project, the organization representing political and human salvation in the film, is never shown, that its political project remains entirely unknown, to be read as a representation of the fact that humanism is just not a real, tangible, concrete political project and often remains nothing but an inconsequential, lofty ideal? We only see what we are supposed to assume is the Human Project in a brief shot of one of their ships called “Tomorrow,” but how positive is the outlook the film seems to present really, as the entire narrative is precisely about the inability to concretely think a political tomorrow? Are there films left that are able to think such a tomorrow? What are they? Isn’t all we have resignation (as in Children), or outright nostalgia for the last good fight in Spain (as in Pan’s Labyrinth)? And is this really all the progressive left can do within cultural production at the moment–idealize accomplishments of the past? Let me know what you think and give me films that do present a more complicated engagement with present and future politics that can do without nostalgia for past accomplishments (preferably US films, shows, etc.)–my dissertation will thank you, as its argument will then potentially become politically less bleak.
P.S.: strange casting choices that may, or may not make sense politically (they are doubtlessly supposed to make somewhat of a statement): Chiwetel Ejiofor is the leader of the terrorist group in Children (who are willing to use the refugee’s baby for political purposes), as well as the doctor helping illegal immigrants in Dirty Pretty Things. Interesting. And: Stephen Rea, the police detective hunting the terrorist V in V for Vendetta famously played the lead (as an IRA terrorist) in The Crying Game. Also interesting. Any substantial thought behind this, or just the same kind of principle that structured the second and third installments in the Matrix series? Welcome to the desert of the logical.