Incidents and Accidents, Hints and Allegations

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Faster, Louder; Slower, Quieter: Emotion in Horror
dresser, Montano, 2006
bruceb
This week I've caught up on several movies I've been meaning to see for a while now, and as it happens, both of them got me to thinking about ways of conveying emotion that ring true to me in the midst of fantastic (in the sense of "being fantasy" as opposed to "being naturalistic") situations. Spoilers will be all over this, so you'll have to dive below the cut tag to find what I'm thinking in the wake of seeing Children of Men and 28 Weeks Later. By the way, none of what follows is an effort to justify my overall opinion of the films. I've got links to some of Sean Collins' comments on each and you can go read those for the rest of my thoughts, since (as usual) we agree on all the major points. (Sean and I either line up within about 10 degrees of each other or we veer 150-plus degrees away. Always fun to try to guess where the divergences will come. "Not with these films", it turns out.)

First of all, these are both amazingly good movies. In some ways they have no right to be as good as they are, particularly in the case of 28 Weeks Later, which could easily have been a tower of suck as most sequels launched by the studio without the involvement of the original creators are. But no, here are two jewels.

As with a bunch of my thoughts of this sort, it's Sean Collins' fault. He linked to some criticism of Children of Men that boils down to saying that nothing so smooth or with such long shots can be emotionally honest. Sean wasn't convinced, to put it mildly, and I agree with him. But it's not just that I think the criticism is wrong. It's that I think it's exactly and precisely the opposite of the truth.

Some emotional states, in my experience, do in fact flow on and on without relief or interruption. In particular, grief does this for me, particularly when it's a situation over which I just don't have any control. The moments of greatest loss and mourning are so awful partly because they just keep going, with no emotional or intellectual break of the sort a film edit can represent. So when I saw the long, long, long shots in Children of Men, where moments of consummate tragedy unfold with the same steadiness and persistence as real vision, I felt very profoundly moved. This quality of enduring through the endless moment is a true thing, in a way that not much in film-making is to me. It is art in the service of a very direct evocation.

I was surprised, and very much pleased, to find how little Children of Men gets into explanation either of the major McGuffin elements. This stopped and that started and people really don't know why. That also felt true to me - the older I get, the more corners of the world I find where stuff is going on that I don't understand and realize that I won't understand. Some of it's big, some of it's small, but that quality of "things that just don't fit in anywhere obvious" is one that colors a lot of my experience these days. And this element of the situation goes well with this style of cinematography, I think: there's a mirroring of macro and microcosms in the endless march to ever find out what's going on or what can be done about it, whether it's the five of them in the car or the world at large and the loss of fertility. Reflections and echoes, things I love in structure.

One setting note: Sean felt that in an environment of guaranteed labor shortage, it was stupid to push out immigrants so vigorously. Well, yeah, it was stupid, but then that's life. Setting aside our government's spending multiple trillions of dollars and not capturing the guy responsible for the 9/11 attacks, I immediately thought of some of the responses of medieval towns to the Black Death. Driving out doctors and clean people, mounting pogroms against this group or that, hitting at any available target just because it's there - very depressingly common stuff, that blighted some regions for decades and even centuries to come. And in the 20th century we had everyone from Stalin to Pol Pot to Hitler killing off intellectuals and then trying to modernize. It's stupid in the way people are stupid when they have power, are confused and desperate, and regard any action as preferable to admitting weakness.

For the big picture on 28 Weeks Later, I just say "Go see Sean's review." Like him, I think that the movie brilliantly straddles the line of bleakly and anti-humanistically showing how good intentions can lead to complete doom without ever seeming to suggest (at least to me) that we ought to stop trying to do the right thing. It's just that we also have to think fast and often about consequences, and also that sometimes it just is gonna suck. Sometimes a lot. But what I want to talk about here is its portrayal of stress, where it follows the original in going from jerky quick shots, often out of focus, to moments of intense clarity.

This is more or less the compositional opposite of the big pieces in Children of Men. But it also feels true to me: this is how it feels when I'm stuck in an awful situation where I have to do something, rather than just watching it. It's the trauma next door, so to speak. The shifts in color palette and all the rest, yeah, that also feels true to life to me.

That's really the thing I wanted to note, I guess: as in other areas, I find the truest rendering of (at least my) experience in "unrealistic" treatments.

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I'm really glad you enjoyed Children of Men. I saw it at the cinemas about 12 months ago and thought it was a fabulous movie. I really should sit and watch it again sometime.

I agree with you about the longevity of emotions like grief. They do tend to go on and consume a large part of your brainspace for a great length of time. Over the past 18 months, I've realised that sometimes you just need to let it run its course and that the feelings will subside eventually.

I find it highly interesting that you're thinking about ways of conveying emotion to, as that particular topic has been occupying my own thoughts of late. In fact, I'm about to write up a post of my own about it.

Have you read the P.D. James novel by chance?

I haven't. I've been thinking about doing so. Do you have an opinion as to whether it'd be a good use of my time? :)

Hard to say. It's very different from the movie. About all they share is the same basic Maguffin and some character names, but they're otherwise largely separate products. I liked the book a lot, so that's probably the best I can say about it without going into detail.

Fair enough. I can hit the library.

As I mentioned in my review, its a very British novel.

"First, no one quite does this kind of dystopic future better than the Brits. There just seems to be something a little more sad, more grey and more resigned about the British Isles in these kind of stories. The US produces stuff like the movie Red Dawn, Australia gives us The Road Warrior, and the UK produces Children of Men or V for Vendetta."

I found it emotionally deadening, somewhat depressing in it view of the inherent evil of mankind, and flickering with the hope that trying to do to the right thing, even if futile, still can give meaning to a life wasted.

There are time I'm in the mood for that, if it's done well. If I don't like it, I can always stop - I've gotten very much better in recent years at bailing out of unsatisfactory reading.

I wholeheartedly agree with this (and Sean). I found the films amazingly powerful when I saw them, and I've been trying to push them on people ever since. :)

I was distracted by the length of the oners in Children On Men to begin with, admiring them as art rather than engaging with the story right away, but it wasn't long before it pulled me in.

The reaction to immigrants is, of course, a classic political low blow. The Conservative party here seems to regard "tough on immigration" as directly equivalent to "tough on crime". The only false note in the entire sequence was the restaging of the rightly infamous photo of a hooded Iraqi prisoner being given electric shocks, which was a bit too on-the-nose for me.

Clearly I should get around to seeing 28 Weeks Later.

I really liked Children of Men as well. The idiocy of the government rings very true with me.

Children of Men was a horribly depressing movie and normally I hate that type of film, yet this one played out just enough hope to keep me engaged and the cinematography was riveting. It's true that the Brits seem to do better at dark, depressing, stories, sometimes with a form of black humor to them that makes them so wryly cynical that you find yourself enjoying it more than you might otherwise. I don't know if its the constant rain, the number of times that they have been invaded, or what, but I love British writers.

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