“Apocalypse Now” Small Group
For Lent — from February 25 (Ash Wednesday) to April 11 (Easter is the 12th)
All Saints United Methodist Church


COMMENTS

Apocalypse Now Links:
Introduction
Part One – Volcano
Part Two – 28 Days Later
Part Three – Children of Men
Part Four – The War of the Lamb
Part Five – Revelation

Part Three — Children of Men
Showing at the All Saints UMC Ministry Center, 7 PM, Friday, March 20

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Produced by Marc Abraham, Eric Newman, Iain Smith, Hilary Shor, Tony Smith, Thomas Bliss, Armyan Bernstein

Written by Novel: P. D. James, Screenplay: Alfonso Cuarón, Timothy J. Sexton, David Arata, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Clive Owen (uncredited)

Starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Charlie Hunnam, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Pam Ferris, Danny Huston, Peter Mullan, and Michael Caine

[All quotes and images are employed under Title 17, “Fair Use” law, and no portion of this study is for profit.]

*

Note (1)

Before reviewing the film itself, lets hear what Ivan Illich (from The Rivers North of the Future) had to say about renunciation, a key theme for Lent as we prepare ourselves at the end of Lent to re-live into the story of the Passion.

I think I would start a little bit too high if I began now to speak about Jesus absolute request that, if you come from the solid, middle-of-the-road, practicable Judaism into this little sect, you renounced the freedom to separate from your wife. You renounced an opportunity which the Jew had [in the parable of the Samaritan]. You renounced the need to belong to the we in order to fine your I. The place outside of Jerusalem, Golgotha, where the cross was put up, became the symbol of this renunciation. As in the Temptation, he renounced changing the world through power. Christians who imitate him soon discover that little practices of renunciation, of what I wont do, even though its legitimate, are a necessary habit I have to form in order to practice freedom.

What a beautiful, innocent world it was when people could still practice this renunciation by not eating chicken soup on Friday. I still remember that world. It made no sense in Europe during the Second World War when meat was rationed anyway, and I forgot about it. But when I came to New York, I found that people really were concerned about not eating meat on Friday. And, during the six weeks of Lent, they would give up something that was hard for them in order to learn how to give up other things. I remember my boss on the first days of the first Lent which I spent in the United States. When we sat down for breakfast, and he was grouchy as anything. And I asked him twice, Sir, did I do something wrong? No! Did I offend you? No! Do you feel badly? Yes, its Lent, and Ive given up my cigar. Well, punishing me was a funny way of going about his renunciation, but I love to think of it because it reminds me of the things which, in the modern world, we can give up not because we want a more beautiful life, but because we want to become more aware of how much we are attached to the world as it is and how much we can get along without it. These unnecessary tings have now multiplied to such an extent that you cant easily give a social shape to them. Some people will give up writing letters on a computer not because its bad, and not because they dont like to have to answer letters at the speed of email. Others will give up the services of physicians or, as somebody whom I know has done, guaranteeing that each of his children will get a college degree.

The certainty that you can do without is one of the most efficacious ways of convincing yourself, no matter where you stand on the intellectual or emotional ladder, that you are free. Self-imposed limits provide a basis and a preparation for discussion of what we can renounce as a group of friends or a neighborhood. I have seen it, and I can witness to it. For many people who suffer from great fears and a sense of impotence and depersonalization, renunciation provides a very simple way back to a self which stands above the constraints of the world.

And such renunciation is especially necessary in the world in which we live. Tyranny of old was exercised over people who still knew how to subsist. They could lose their means of subsistence, and be enslaved, but they could not be made needy. With the beginning of capitalist production in the spinning and weaving shops of the Medicis, a new type of human being was being engendered: needy man, who has to organize a society, the principle function of which is to satisfy human needs. And needs are much more cruel than tyrants.

*

Note (2)

Movie Review

By Gregg Tubbs (for the United Methodist Church – link here)

(UMC.org)—The Bible says, faith is the assurance of things hoped for (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV). But what is left to believe in when you remove all hope? What is there to strive for when there is no future ahead? In director Alfonso Cuaróns dark and dazzling futuristic thriller, Children of Men, we see the results of a world stripped of hope. Here, the death of a single 18-year-old is devastating world news, not because he was a prince or pop star, but because he was the youngest person on the planet. The film introduces us to a future without children or the hope of children in a world where all women are infertile and where just one birth could change everything—even the soul of man. This is definitely a nativity story of a different kind.

Based on P. D. James dystopian novel, and directed and co-written by celebrated filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), Children of Men transports us one generation into the future when mass infertility has plunged the world into despair, paranoia and chaos. Rioting and anarchy have overtaken the globe, with the exception of England. Although wracked by violence between warring political and racial factions, Britain has marshaled on by instituting a series of progressively repressive measures. The government installs a brutal Homeland Security force, closing borders and detaining foreign refugees (derisively called fugees) in squalid, dangerous compounds.

As the film opens, disillusioned political activist Theo (a beautifully understated Clive Owen) is in a London coffee house watching the news of the death of the earths youngest person at only 18. News of this unexpected death sends a grim ripple throughout the world, adding a final punctuation mark to humankinds death sentence. Theo, like millions in England, sleepwalks through a hopeless, meaningless existence. As one character eloquently put it, Once the sounds of the playground faded, the despair set in.

Then Theo is confronted with the one thing he could never have expected—a lone pregnant woman named Kee (newcomer Clare-Hope Ashitey).

Kee is a wanted woman, pursued by groups determined to claim her and the miraculous child for their own political purposes. Shes also a hated fugee from Africa, and Theo knows that the wildly nationalistic government would never accept that the child who could restore meaning and hope to the world could be anything but British. Theo and his aging, hippie friend Jasper (Michael Cane) must wage a desperate race against the clock, and perhaps even fate, to deliver Kee to safety with the mysterious Human Project.

Despite its sci-fi trappings, Children of Men succeeds by portraying a fully realized and completely believably alternate reality, one that echoes current reality. Cuarón eschews Hollywoods current penchant for frenetic editing and instead builds his action around intricately staged, extended shots where the camera never cuts, weaving in and out among the characters, putting the audience in the center of the action. Far from empty showmanship meant to impress film buffs, this technique has a startling, visceral impact and helps add to the storys almost overpowering emotional wallop.

No empty-headed action flick, this film is rife with social and spiritual subtext. Its theme is hope: how we thrive in its presence and wither in its absence. Theo undergoes rejuvenation—even redemption—when his hope is restored through the promised new birth. The change in his character is powerful, as is the change in everyone who encounters the pregnant woman, Kee. Her very presence-the tangible symbol of a future—restores their faith and inspires them to kindness, courage and sacrifice. The symbolism is not lost, as she walks, Christ-like, through a crowd and the people clamor to touch even the hem of her garment.

The film explores a number of societal and social ills. Mass infertility functions as a catalyst for the story, representing any cataclysmic event that shakes a society loose from its principles and shared humanity. We see how a climate of fear and despair can drive a society (and individuals) inward, erecting walls in its desperation for protection and sacrificing true freedom for perceived security. We are shown how easy it is to slip into us and them thinking-dehumanizing and demonizing those who are different in appearance, speech or beliefs. Issues of immigration, racism, terrorism, the environment and rampant nationalism all come into play.

It was fitting that this film opened on Christmas day because it represents a kind of post-apocalyptic nativity story—a rebirth of hope and new life for a lost people. And although it focuses on the birth of one miraculous human child, Children of Men also powerfully reminds us that we are all children of God.

Gregg Tubbs is a freelance writer living in Columbia, Md.

*

Note (3)

The ECP Triangle, ecology-culture-personhood, is on stark display in this film. In the human ecology of fascism and civil war, we see how each of the characters has her or his personhood bent or broken, how each person has adapted within the cultural role available or assigned or chosen out of this milieu. As a mental exercise, choose three characters, and for each of them imagine what they might have been like had the infertility and social chaos not happened. How is each affected by the impending extinction of humanity? Is this condition of extremity re-creating them into something they were not, or is it magnifying something that was latent in each personality?

What about that dissipated character, Nigel, Theos cousin the bureaucrat, who arranges for the travel papers? What do you make of the scene in which is ensconced in a palatial suite, with his pharmaco-cyborg son, surrounding himself with iconic world-renowned art, exotic animals, and extravagant furnishings? Does his character say anything pertinent to our own actual condition? Are there Nigels among us? What makes them?

Try another mental exercise. Describe the culture, as culture: what is the music, the economic activity, the religion(s), the fashion, the media, etc.? Then, describe the ecology, as a physical surrounding objectifying and externalizing it describing other people as simply another species that has behaviors. How does this kind of dissociation, this objectifying detachment, do to you as you practice it? Does it give you some relief, some distance from the implication of responsibility that resides in empathy? Some rest from the effort of concern?

*

Note (4)

The original author of the novel upon which the movie is based is Phyllis Dorothy James, Baroness James of Holland Park, P. D. James being her nom de plume. The Wiki entry for her says:

James began writing in the mid-1950s. Her first novel, Cover Her Face, featuring the investigator and poet Adam Dalgliesh of New Scotland Yard, was published in 1962.

Many of Jamess mystery novels take place against the backdrop of the UKs vast bureaucracies such as the criminal justice system and the health services, arenas in which James honed her skills for decades starting in the 1940s when she went to work in hospital administration to help support her ailing husband and two children. Two years after the publication of Cover Her Face, Jamess husband died and she took a position as a civil servant within the criminal section of the Department of Home Affairs.

James worked in government service until her retirement in 1979, and her experiences within these bureaucracies add a complex stratum of insiders knowledge to her writing. Her 2001 work, Death in Holy Orders, displays a grasp of the inner workings of church hierarchy: she is an Anglican and a Lay Patron of the Prayer Book Society. Her later novels are often set in a community closed in some way, be this in a publishing house or barristers chambers, a theological college, an island or a private clinic as with her latest work. Her prose is very clear and precise. Her new Adam Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient, was published in August 2008 in the U.K. by Faber Faber and in November 2008 in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf.

During the 1980s, many of Jamess mystery novels were adapted for television by Anglia Television for the ITV network in the United Kingdom. These productions have been broadcast in other countries, including the USA on its PBS channel. These productions featured Roy Marsden as Adam Dalgliesh. In 2003, the BBC adapted Death in Holy Orders for a one-off drama with Martin Shaw as Dalgliesh.

Her 1992 novel The Children of Men served as the inspiration for Children of Men, a feature film released in 2006, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Clive Owen, Julianne Moore and Michael Caine. Despite its substantial changes from the book, James was reportedly pleased with the adaptation and proud to be associated with the film.

James once said of writing Children of Men, When I began The Children of Men, I didn’t set out to write a Christian book. I set out to deal with the idea I had. What would happen to society with the end of the human race? At the end of it, I realized I had written a Christian fable. It was quite a traumatic book to write.

*

Note (5)

Ralph Wood, writing for Theology Today, said:

The key to P. D. Jamess fiction, especially her later work, is her Christianity. She regards our cultural malaise as having theological no less than ethical cause. The murder in A Taste for Death occurs in a church, for instance, and the murderer is not only a sadist but also a nihilist who revels in the god-like power inherent in the threat of death. He kills in order to prove that the cosmos is empty of divinity. Like Dostoevsky, James is determined to ask whether, if there be no God, all goodness is vacated and all evils unleashed. As a Christian, James knows that the answer is yes. But as a novelist, she has sought to make her faith implicit rather than overt. . . . James is an artist whose moral instruction is conveyed indirectly through aesthetic appeal, not a prophet who seeks our conversion by directly declaring the divine Wor

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

*

Note (6)

In director Alfonso Cuarons words:

[I]nfertility we use just as a metaphor. In a science fiction movie you would have gone into the whys and the mystery of infertility. We decided to not even care about it and just take it as a point of departure. So based upon that, taking that as a point of departure, to try to make an observation about the state of things. [Someone mentioned the story in terms of its connection to] Homeland Security and stuff, but the movie is not about that. That is part of the observation of the reality that we are living. The whole idea with that is to try to bring the state of things, what is happening outside the green zones that we happily live in and what happens if we bring the world into the green zones. We experience for an hour and a half the state of things, and then try to make our own conclusions about the possibility of hope.

What does Cuaron mean by Green Zones?

Here is an article I wrote two years ago about Suburbia as Green Zone, though not in those terms, but as Dark World and Safe World. This was before my conversion, but definitely well down this present path. A short excerpt:

The media have assumed a totalizing role in our lives. Evidence of how effective this role has been is the fact that most of us still believe that the “reputable” media (NYT, Washington Post, CNN, etc.) merely reflect (imperfectly) the realities about which they “report.” Yet the Finkel hagiography is a perfect example of fitting a narrative to cultural conventions (especially the conventions of the film script) in ways that actively participate, and invite the audience to participate, in the reproduction of the racism and patriarchy inherent in those conventions. The Safe-World is somewhere in the suburbs, ringed with layers of defense: lawns, fences, homeowners associations, bands of strip malls, interstate highways, contract security, cops, the oceans, the aircraft carriers and nuclear armed submarines….

Outside the layered defenses of Safe-World, surrounding it, are dark, unpredictable, primitive Others. Inside Safe-World, when stability reigns, men can provide and rest at the hearth. But the real rite of passage for Men is to leave the safety of the hearth to confront this Dark Otherness outside Safe-World. Having done their duty disciplining the teeming periphery, they can return to the hearth, where Woman stands by, waiting, appropriately grateful for her security to this bloodied Man. In exchange for his security (also against other men), she is dutiful.

And one more excerpt for the media who still feign surprise at our current financial debacle (remember, this was written two years ago when reputable economists still denied the existence of a housing bubble):

As our cultural distinctions have collapsed under the onslaught of megamerger monoculture, we have seen wholesale uniformity imposed on our constructed environment. All the distinct cultural meanings of past communities have gone under the wheels. But human beings cannot live without meaning.

Meaning-making is a distinctly human need. We are the only species that can see the cosmic abyss that surrounds our incandescent islets of awareness. With the enclosure of Middle America™ into the constructed spaces of the work cubicle, the strip mall and the suburban living room, meaning-hunger is being answered in exactly the same commodified way as actual hunger: with taylorized, mass-produced cultural meanings, disseminated as “entertainment.” Journalism has been swept up in this process, now obliged by The Market™ to be “entertaining.” (Big-money journalism has always been generally obedient; it’s the adoption of glitz that has changed it.)

Life, at last, must imitate art. And with only one monocultural art, we will be truly one in our imitation.

That’s the danger to stability of cultural criticism. It identifies the patterns, mapping and deconstructing them until they are drained of their authority.

The durability of these norms and conventions is the constant Nemesis of social change agents. They still think a simple, well-constructed argument should be enough to “change one’s mind,” such a pale linguistic marker for what this proposes. Enough to begin demolishing the foundational structures of one’s entire worldview, and with it every decision taken on behalf of that worldview, every emotional attachment developed within its framework, and every single thing that gives them meaning as a safety rail along the Abyss. The Big Dark-World. Infinity that swallows us up. This is always the preoccupation of those who understand themselves as simply individuals

The beauty of this new Panopticon is not that it simply takes our eyes off the real war, the real plunder, the real system; it is that it stations a pernicious little watcher inside our individual brains. We become aware that we are under surveillance all the time, and this surveillance constitutes not the one discipline of the edict, but the implanted discipline that a complex society requires of its subjects to police themselves.

Finkel is not a dupe, any more than Judith Miller or Wolf Blitzer. They are all active agents of the war establishment. They are collaborators. It is this disciplinary process with which they collaborate. They teach us that Dark-World is real, and there we might be, but for our protectors: the cop, the soldier, the mercenary, the prison guard, the surveillance camera—the rat mentality that urges some of us to police others for conformity.

But suburbia is not safe. This is the central illusion.

While suburbia has had its eyes fixed on threatening images of Arabs and Persians and Latinos and deepest, darkest African America, the same establishment that makes war and builds prisons and gazes into our lives has picked suburban pockets with one hand and gripped the �?burbs as loan sharks with the other.

Suburbia is not being protected; it is being saved for dessert.

It is this sector with its fragile, technological, disembodied living standard that will now come under attack. In the short term, that is already happening through financial manipulation and the further disappearance of living-wage jobs. The tremendous personal debt burden that is mounting in the American “middle class,” fueled by past low interest rates and cash-out equity loans, was the latest maneuver to prop up this sector’s role as global consumer—a time bomb that will explode directly under Suburbia’s feet.

Meanwhile, the liquidation of the commons—from Medicare to Social Security to public services—constitutes a massive transfer of wealth saved by these working people directly into the speculative money pit that is Wall Street. Suburbanites are workers in the truest sense, even though they seldom stand on the factory floor now. They don’t know it, but they are weak, dependent, high-maintenance workers in a consumer mill.

The bill for the United States from Treasury loans to other nations—already impossible to pay—grows exponentially to support the cost of the military now conducting the war, those we see as the guardians of civilization. Our children are inheriting this impasse. We have witnessed what happens when the suburbanites are fleeced; with the taxpayer bailout of the savings and loan criminals, the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund, these burdens will invoke the “too big to fail” principle. From Chrysler to Enron, the so-called middle class will pick up the tab.

The real threat will not appear as an Arab with a bomb or a 16-year-old with brown skin and a Glock. It is already present. It has appeared as pension funds disappearing in strategic bankruptcies. It has appeared as sub-prime lending and subsequent foreclosures.

“Thank you for buying all these houses,” the banks are already saying. “Now we can take them back and rent them to you.” [and the government will bail us out, because we are too big to fail]

As Suburbia works harder and faster to keep up with the mounting debt, as it is forced to further ingratiate itself to Suburbia’s employers, as it learns to kiss more ass, get personality makeovers to fit itself heart-and-soul to the boss, it is obliged first and foremost to purchase the bare minimum of status markers (like stage props) that validate this new personality. To call narcissism in this age a “disorder” is a cruel pun. It is a cultural mandate—the norm.

Outside the �?burbs, the treatment of the others as Dark-World has become a kind of local self-fulfilling prophecy. Blending of police and military functions corresponds to an increasingly uniform (urban, unemployed, young) and crisis-ridden global human ecology. Nonetheless, the imposition of a garrison state on people who have been previously privileged as a core political base (like Suburbia) is no simple matter.

If an openly warlike state is to impose control without the middlemen, it requires Spectacle as camouflage.

Soldier and SWAT spectacle soldier and SWAT reality. They are not the same, the spectacle and the reality.

Spectacle conceals reality.

Spectacle requires publicity and amplification.

What better publicity, what better amplifier, than Finkel’s crude reduction of this war to an adolescent docudrama for The Washington Post? Ever since the neocons came to power, most of the so-called reputable press has been so craven in its collaboration with our government that it might as well be assigned a formal position on the Pentagon staff.

The Dark-World set of establishment publicists like David Finkel and political consultants like Karl Rove is like a movie in one other respect. The light you see is on the screen. The story you see is framed in shadow. Remain passive. All will be well.

*

Note (7)

Since the financial crisis hit this year, calls to suicide prevention centers have risen by 40%. In Children of Men, there is a ubiquitous ad in the background with a Madison Avenue-style ad campaign for Quietus, a pharma-corp engineered suicide pill, available on demand. How might the very original (in two senses) story of Children of Men be an aspect of new (and very old) cultural conventions that simultaneously (1) look fearlessly at the depth of brokenness of the world and (2) maintain a disciplined hope in the midst of it?

*

Note (8)

In our last biological apocalypse film, 28 Days Later, there was a small band surviving in a world where society disappeared in very short order. Tempo tasks drive the films action from the very beginning. In Children of Men, humanity remains by the billions, now to slowly die off into a hopeless future. Protagonist Theo (played by Clive Owen) is not involved in any tempo task at all. On the contrary, he seems a resigned, cynical bureaucrat riding out the end time with a bottle in his pocket (and some good ganja from his friend) and a caustically foul mouth. His involvement in the intrigue of the plot comes only when he is offered money. His emotional investment an investment he has avoided since the death of his own child happens only when he finds out the shocking truth that a woman has been discovered who is pregnant.

It is interesting that Theo does not display courage as Jim did in 28 Days Later through some form of redemptive violence. In fact, the fishies, the revolutionaries who are harboring Kee (the pregnant women), are devotees of redemptive violence (even as absurd as it seems in the face of human extinction) and will become his hostile pursuers.

Remember the scene where Theo uses the contents of his precious bottle of booze to sterilize his hands for the babys delivery? This is one of those turning points (Theo has several). How does this compare with Jims turning point in 28 Days Later, where he resorts to the violence he had heretofore eschewed?

When we read Revelation critically, we will find that the core message of that series of visions is for Christians then a persecuted sect to hold fast to their non-violent mission of proclamation in the face of a hostile world.

Yet the images in Revelation are brutally violent thousands of corpses being eaten by vultures in the fields and the like.

How does Children of Men compare to this message of proclamation (of the sole sovereignty of God)? Does the violence of Children of Men serve to contextualize any such message? Is Theo in the end a saint?

In the stories of saints, it is quite common for them to be extremely dysfunctional and broken characters who are called by extremity to perform a service for God. Martyrdom is frequently part of those stories.

*

Note (9)

Jasper (played by Michael Caine) develops a touching relationship with Kee in a very short time. What does each of them see in the other that makes this a credible relationship inn the story? Is Jasper himself a kind of saint? After all, he grows and smokes weed and farts after having people pull his finger.

He also cares lovingly for his catatonic wife.

What is a saint? We belong to a church called All Saints. Our pastor frequently calls members of the congregation saints. Is this hyperbole?

What if we define saint simply as a human being who has been called to holiness?

What can we possibly mean by the word holy?