March 6, 2009

"We spend our years as a tale that is told"


1) Why is Julian in the movie Children of Men named Julian? It's not exactly a common woman's name. Might audiences think that they're somehow mishearing the name of the actress, Julianne? Maybe. But it's not that. The clue is in the original novel by PD James. At one point, Theo -- another meaningful name, really, in the context -- wonders if she was named for Julian of Norwich.

The James novel is steeped in Christianity. It's split into two parts, Alpha and Omega. The very last word in the book is "cross". The title is explained as a reference to Psalm 90. Appearing almost 15 years ahead of the movie, the James novel has the same basic premise: in the year 2021, a fertility crisis has left the human race without children for close to two decades. This is international, but our focus is on England. In his film, Alfonso Cuaron imagines this as a hectic, distressed, fearful dystopia -- the end of the world coming with guns and explosions -- but the mood in James's novel is much more gentle, more melancholic. She doesn't give us models for Cuaron's astonishingly fluid war scenes. Indeed, she sets most of her action in a bookish, subdued Oxford. Her Theo is an academic not a public servant played by an actor with the grit and obvious strength to have been taken seriously as a possible James Bond. The novel's not-so-distant future is a society that is barely limping on, not coming apart so much as winding down: you picture weeds growing through cracks, buildings falling into ruin, each day slightly quieter than the last. What passes for terrorism is pretty minor -- some pamphlets dropped in letterboxes -- but there are apocalyptic cults and clear religious symbolism, suggestive of a build-up to a second coming. There are flagellants in the streets -- voices in the wilderness -- and a group called the Fishes, dedicated to opposing the Herod-like leader, Xan, a slightly bland tyrant James wouldn't have found hard to dream up in 1992, towards the end of a long, tired stretch of Conservative rule. There is martyrdom and sacrifice, temptation and betrayal, the stuff of Christian stories. But the general mood is a tranquilised hopelessness: if the human race is slowly coming to an end, whether the cause was divine or biological, what is the point of fighting? What could you fight for? That's the same fatalism you find in the psalm that James namechecks: one way or another, all this is out of our hands.

2) All right, but who was Julian of Norwich? A 14th century female mystic concerned, as others were then, with an idea of God as Mother. From Wikipedia:
As part of her differing view of God as compassionate and loving, she wrote of the Trinity in domestic terms and compares Jesus to a mother who is wise, loving, and merciful. (See Jesus as Mother by Carolyn Walker Bynum.) Similarly, she connects God with motherhood in terms of 1) "the foundation of our nature's creation, 2) "the taking of our nature, where the motherhood of grace begins" and 3) "the motherhood at work" and speaks metaphorically of Jesus in connection with conception, nursing, labor, and upbringing. She, like many other great mystics, used female language for God as well as the more traditional male pronouns. Her great saying, "...All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well", reflects this theology. It is also one of the most individually famous lines in all of Catholic theological writing, and certainly one of the most well-known phrases of the literature of her era. It was quoted in TS Eliot's Little Gidding, the fourth of his Four Quartets, and served in its entirety as the title of Tod Wodicka's first novel.
In the novel but not the film it is Julian who is pregnant with the first child to be born in approximately 20 years, breaking the drought or ending, to the religious mind, the plague of infertility. It's a restoration of hope in another sense, too -- years earlier, Julian and Theo had a child who died in an accident (this is alluded to in the film but isn't vital to its plot), so the second chance for humanity is also a second chance for them, or just her, or just him. In the film, this Julian is the messenger but she's not the mother: she's closer to a John the Baptist figure, and is appropriately killed early in the story. She enables the birth to happen but doesn't carry the baby. But both the film and the book privilege the idea of motherhood, or pregnancy, and not just as a novelty but something more than that. Something possibly miraculous. One of the film's jawdropping moments comes when Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) shows Theo her pregnant belly in -- appropriately again -- a stable. This privileging of the pregnant woman is what gives Children of Men, the film, a kind of tenderness you don't expect from the genre. How many sci-fi action movies have had a midwife as a central character? Not even Terminator: Salvation.

3) Now, Thomas L Long, from here:
But as an extensive body of scholarship since then has shown, in the Middle Ages the image of Christ as Mother was by no means unique to Julian of Norwich. Valerie Lagorio, for example, has examined the extent of the Divine Motherhood similitude in Latin and vernacular works of the 11th through 15th centuries, which she attributes to multiple family relationships, the iconic Motherhood of the Virgin and of the Church, and the ancient image of Wisdom as Mother. She notes that the maternal image conveys Christ's role as nurturer (in which his breasts feeding souls is prominent) and disciplinarian.
A question: so, are we really in the middle ages? The film gets this better than the book: the flagellants are part of the apocalyptic backdrop with the piles of cows burning in fields, the immigrants in cages, sometimes hooded and humiliated like the inmates of Abu Ghraib. There is a constant state of anxiety. Cuaron compressed all of the unease of the early 21st century -- in my original review, "the same sullen crowds, the same Tube stops, the same terrorist bombs in the city" -- and spread it thickly across the background of the film. In the foreground, characters that James devised more or less perform her plot. Behind them, there is a kind of apocalyptic wallpaper in which the world is as threatened as it seemed to be in, say, The Seventh Seal -- a time of the Black Death and peasant revolts, a time when the European population halved. In an interview on the film's release Cuaron said, “The truth of the matter is I didn’t respond to the material. I was not interested in doing a science fiction film and also the book takes place in a very posh universe. I respect, I love PD James. I enjoy the book, but I couldn’t see myself making that movie. And, nevertheless, the premise of infertility kept on haunting me for weeks and weeks and weeks ... It’s when I realized that the premise could serve as a metaphor for the fading sense of hope that humanity has today, that’s when I said, ‘Okay, this can be the point of departure for talking about the state of things today."

On the DVD's bonus disk, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek urges us to pay attention to the background in Children of Men, as we did in Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien -- in the foreground of that earlier film there was an older woman love triangle; in the background, a travelogue through the poverty of Mexican peasants. Zizek: "I think that [Children of Men] gives us the best diagnosis of the despair of late capitalism, of a society without history."

It's not a society without history in the novel; history is everywhere in Oxford, almost too present. But it is a society without history in Cuaron's film -- as Xan's ransacking of Picasso's Guernica and other art treasures shows -- and also a society without religious hope. No one in the central plot sees the pregnancy as a religious sign; no one picks up on the second coming symbolism, stable or no stable. No one thinks that they are within that story. But it could be said that Cuaron's skilful evocation of a society in a constant and increasing state of crisis and unease corresponds more exactly to both the medieval period of Julian of Norwich and the urgency of the first century Christians than the more refined world -- "posh" to Cuaron -- of PD James's novel; by getting a state of deep hopelessness and despair so well, he reminds us why they felt that the Christian story was even necessary in the first place. As Pasolini showed in his classic The Gospel According to St Matthew, sometimes leftist radicals make better Christian films than Christians.