9/11 and other entertainments

Some of the better critics have had their fun dressing down Alfonso Cuarón over the technical splendor and supposed empty soul of his latest and most interesting film, Children of Men, based on a P.D. James novel about a mysterious, world-wide loss of fertility and the social collapse that accompanies it. So, for example, Slant’s Keith Uhlich zings Cuarón for his use of long takes, saying:

Obsessed with the power of the master shot… Cuarón neglects the equal importance of the edit, whether actual or implied.

It’s hard to argue with a criticism like that — sort of like saying that by concentrating on the guitar and voice, Bob Dylan neglected the possibilities of the symphony orchestra. I think Cuarón does just fine with edits — he jumps, for example, from the vast cool space of an art gallery dominated by a David with an artificial leg into a tight framing of an ancillary character, showing both his tattoo and his cybernetic connection to something that looks a lot like a Rubik’s Cube filtered through a Wii. But there’s no denying that Cuarón’s interest lies in the single take, and I think this is to his credit — it seems that part of his obssession, if it is such, is in denying the familiar cinematic language of “coverage” — talking heads stitched together in alternating shots. There is a case to be made that conventional editing provides a certain relief from perspective — as though the longer we stay in a single shot, the more real and therefore the more disturbing a scene becomes. Editing away returns the film to the page, swapping emphasis back and forth in neat pieces, as dialogue is neatly divided between characters in a screenplay. Cuarón refuses to give us that relief, and his ways of moving from one element to another within a single shot border on the miraculous. One can say his unwillingness to yield, his insistence that we stay with the shot until he’s ready to cut away, is egotistical, a kind of technical flamboyance designed to attract attention; but in fact, the lack of cutting here is far more subtle than in more celebrated sequences by, say, Tarantino, Scorsese, or Welles. Cuarón’s long take call attention to themselves primarily by the tickled sense that we have that we’ve been in a single perspective for too long — but this strikes me as a worthy provocation, motivated less by self-aggrandizement than by a genuine desire to enter into a largely unconscious dialogue with the audience about how reality is constructed on film.

But perhaps the most surprising thing about the film is its willingness to engage in low comedy in a fashion wholly inappropriate to its overall dystopic spirit. This is a serious-minded, potentially weighty film which visually or verbally touches on such current topics as terrorism, xenophobia, and the loss of civil rights — yet it consistently reminds us of the humor implicit in even the most horrific situations. There is, of course, the ironic, Brazil-style mocking of fascist sloganeering: a PSA which runs on TVs in the background of several scenes intones, “He’s my cousin… she’s my plumber… he’s my neighbor…” and so on over a series of brown faces, before solemnly reminding viewers to report illegal immigrants. But this kind of thing is expected in the genre, and anyway it’s easy sniping. I was far more charmed by the sight of Clive Owen trying desperately to pop-start a car while in the middle of a low-speed chase down a country road. There’s a recurring element of slapstick in this film: Theo (Owen) loses his shoes early in the film and is forced to proceed in socks and, later, flip-flops, suggesting that perhaps he is not quite the action hero he ought to be, and later, when he is forced to midwife the first human born in eighteen years, he’s more John Ritter than George Clooney. This is a profoundly risky strategy in a film which mirrors and exaggerates the grimmest elements of contemporary life — consider the repugnant flippancy of Life is Beautiful. But I think it pays extraordinary dividends for Cuarón, enriching the film and making its hero’s travails more poignant and significant without depriving it of its potential thematic gravity.

I’d also like to give a brief recognition to Cuarón’s absolute mastery of sound editing; not only is his use of pop music (including a recurring cover of “Ruby Tuesday”) brilliant and occasionally devastating, but by isolating or de-emphasizing sounds, he frequently challenges us to decide for ourselves what elements of the scene are most important. Is it the cry of the child in the foreground, or the man being shot in the background? When they are given equal weight in framing but unequal volume on the soundtrack, he seems to be asking us, “Are you going to accept my interpretation? Or will you decide for yourself which lives are important?” It’s nice to be given that option.

I suspect no such subtlety will hamper Peter Berg’s new actioner, The Kingdom, whose trailer is available here. Berg’s previous directorial credits, the odious Very Bad Things and the amusingly stupid The Rundown, hardly suggest a man of great political depth and sensitivity to foreign culture, so it’s perhaps no surprise that The Kingdom, about U.S. agents investigating the bombing of an American enclave in Saudi Arabia, comes across as Syriana by way of Rambo: First Blood Part II. Not only are we given clear direction from the film about who the good guys are (“There are a lot of bad people out there,” Jamie Foxx’s character tells his young son, “but you’re not one of them.” “Neither are you,” replies the boy), but there doesn’t seem to be a single sympathetic, or even visible, Arab character. Still, the film has Chris Cooper and Jason Bateman, which leads me to think there might be depths to the script unsounded by the awful trailer. And even if that’s not the case, it’s probably a good thing that we are now far enough away from the memory of 9/11 to make bad movies about terrorism. It’s an indication that perhaps we are no longer gripped by that tragedy; our minds are no longer held hostage to the terror of that day.

Of course, if you’re looking for a good exploration of Islamic radicalism and its antagonism to the U.S., such a thing is available on an ongoing basis thanks to Showtime’s unlikely series Sleeper Cell, perhaps the best thing on TV right now — better than the grand guignol, at a safe historical remove, of HBO’s Deadwood, with more grit and depth than Lost and more soul than The Sopranos.

I wavered for a couple of months before buying this show on DVD — I dearly wanted to believe it would be good, but cast almost entirely with unknowns and appearing on a cable network I don’t have access to, it was a complete gamble. Nonetheless, I was curious; Islamic terrorism has become something of a professional specialty for me in the past two years, and I wanted to see if it could be effectively and realistically dramatized.

I’m pleased to say that the writers of Sleeper Cell demonstrate a nuanced understanding of Islam — both its pure form and its more recent, sickened strains — and that Islam is allowed to set the moral tone for both the heroes and the villains of the series. Surely this is a first in American television, perhaps American cinema as a whole — when have we ever before been asked to root for a hero whose sense of moral justice is rooted in Muslim theology? In a show whose major characters are all unrepentant terrorists with grudges against America, undercover FBI operative Darwyn Al-Sayeed is our only link to sanity and humane virtue, yet he is the most faithful Muslim in the show, a man who agonizes about having premarital sex with his girlfriend, who can quote the Quran in English and Arabic, and, critically, who believes that he is conducting his own just and holy war by combatting these vicious killers. When, in the final episode of the first season, each of the terrorists leaves a video testimony praising the worldwide struggle against the infidel, Darwyn craftily leaves a final testament that secretly condemns the whole enterprise and calls other Muslims to resist the bloody and soul-stained interpretation of Islam that sanctions the murder of innocents:

Today, my actions are a message to Muslims here in the United States and all over the world. My fight is your fight, and together we must stand strong. And to my Muslim brothers who don’t understand my actions — everything I’ve done, and everything I’m about to do, I do for Islam.

His “actions,” of course, include undermining and defeating the concerted efforts of three jihadist cells, and so this testimony implicitly links Islam to justice and the protection of the innocent. Nor is this the only place in the series where Islam’s true teachings are allowed to set the conditions of, and inspire our hero to, heroism. In what may be the most compelling episode of the season, a Muslim teacher from Yemen issues a fatwa condemning terrorism and is promptly murdered by the cell for it — but we see, at the end, his disciples risking their lives to continue his work.

The mere acknowledgement of any kind of positive Muslim spirituality on TV is still practically non-existent, yet this show has leapfrogged all tentative steps and brought to the American public a whole and just picture of Islam today — both its bright guiding stars and the clouds of deceit which have obscured its heavenly aspects from view. This is such a precious gift that we can hardly expect more — say, a cracking suspense tale or richly developed characters. But Sleeper Cell is the gift that keeps giving, and it turns out to be not only a morally square work but a complex one, vigorous and compelling and exciting to watch.

(The second season will be available on DVD in late March.)

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