“What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?”
The leader of a pro-immigrant political group and sometime terrorist organization called The Fishes, Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore) faces death by firearm quite early in Children of Men(Alfonso Cuarón, 2006), ambushed in a silent copse of trees outside London, year 2027. Somehow escaped from human hordes pouring rabidly out of the brush, her compatriots consecrate her body amid the thick foliage: “shantih, shantih, shantih,” the New Age-y Miriam (Pam Ferris) chants, before they leave the body forever.
This call of faintest hope ends T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land,” published in 1922 as Europe repaired the damage of the worst conflagration in its long history. Eliot, like Cuarón, foresaw a terrifying future in the ragged present, one of dusty earth cracking and buckling under the weight of civilization’s imminent collapse. Years of unwavering prosperity came to a sudden end in the summer of 1914, when the semiotics of war, once relegated to mental compartments with exotic names like Boer, Fashoda and Japan, were disrupted by the unfamiliarly familiar: Germans outside Paris, Russians traipsing through Poland. Defenestration in Sarajevo of an unpopular Austrian by Serbian terrorists led, against the flow of Victorian logic, to Flanders Field and the Somme, to tanks and mustard gas and muddy trenches where once French flowers bloomed, to the first air raid on London, American doughboys and communism in Russia, to Woodrow Wilson and the Big Four signing papers at Versailles, to war guilt, Depression and an even larger war.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
A world only twenty years in the offing, as envisioned by Mr. Cuarón, would descend from prosperity into insanity in similar fashion, taking cues from Eliot’s poem in the process. The Internet bubble long burst, the towers long fallen, the London of the future feels barely out of reach, like present-day Tokyo for a Kansan: believable not from a giant leap but from an elongated series of tiny technological steps. The video billboards of today’s Times Square, Piccadilly Circus or Ginza shine forth from tomorrow’s every bus; the “independent” media serves as a governmental propaganda arm only slightly more unthinkingly patriotic than Fox News’ Iraq jingoism. Corporations deal in death as fleetly as they once did in preserving life: “Quietus,” a box set of serum and syringe for you and your loved one(s), customizes death itself, in the ultimate extension of consumer choice. The focus groups, one imagines, were a riot.
Cuarón ties the film’s politics to the present day to justify the giant leaps he does deign to take. From the watchwords of CNN emerge the harshest fascism and xenophobia: a locked-and-loaded military police, replete with the foreboding garb once seen only during Rodney King or Katrina, herds illegal immigrants into cages, spewing malevolent curses at the “filth” and “trash” they are forced, by duty, to touch. But how far is it, really, from Lou Dobbs’ invective to endemic fear of outsiders? The chain link fence topped with razor wire that will, in this country, wall off the poor and unwanted and brown, may well shift, if another tower topples, into “refugee camps” smacking of Auschwitz or Buchenwald. If “Jap” means “internee,” and “Muslim” means “terrorist,” then who is to say that “Homeland Security” and “illegal immigration” will not someday mean, as in the film, the conflated reasoning behind mass murder? The signs, Cuarón suggests, have long ceased to point in any meaningful (or peaceful) direction; the codes — “enemy combatant,” “winning” in Iraq, “crusading” against terrorists — no longer match up with reality.
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way.
Such an analogy of historical circumstance, of collective ailment, might seem forced (or, as Alan Vanneman has suggested, “sentimental, manipulative [and] dramatic”), and to some extent it is. But through the vast set of acknowledgments to Eliot that Cuarón melds seamlessly into the film, infertility, whether from genetic testing or polluted skies, suggests the biological side of cities festering with cultural impotence.
“April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain,” Eliot’s poem begins, birthing a new world with inordinate pain, culling something — the first child in eighteen years, perhaps — from nothing. At the news of the death of “Baby Diego,” youngest person in the world, the populace sinks into despair. Faces grow long and tears slide down dirty cheeks in front of flat screens relaying the life story of the Prodigal Son, the last human born on Earth. When birth becomes impossible, so too does life, even the leading of it.
We depend on our forebears, and to a much heavier extent on our descendants, for meaning: in Baby Diego, in Kee’s pregnancy, burgeoning life mixes memory and desire, a nostalgia for simpler times and a hope for brighter days ahead. The revelation of infertility, of apocalypse (from the Greek for “lifting of the veil”), leaves only the acrid taste of helplessness. “Last one here,” a scrawled message in spray paint cries out to passing trains, “turn out the light.”
The Fishes, then, are aptly named, attempting to play the role of savior. Conjuring Christ’s symbol of plenty, of magically multiplied loaves and fillets, they also call to mind Eliot’s Fisher King, sitting “upon the shore / Fishing, with the arid plain behind” (lines 423-4). In the legend, the Fisher King suffers a wound to the groin, his impotence spreading to the crops and turning his Kingdom into a barren wasteland — giving the poem its title.
Biological and political infertility are here inextricably linked; the dwindling ranks of fresh faces, of new ideas, lead inevitably to stagnation, chaos, death. It may be sentimentalism to make the first child of this brave new world a black one, but the symbolism of such a figure makes sense. We came from Africa and will return there, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The baby girl is a punishment, a rectification of Western wrongdoing, a cleansing flood. Imperialist and patriarchal hubris leads, in 2027 as in 1914, to “dry sterile thunder without rain,” to war, to apocalypse. The tenuous hope of Children of Men resides in the child’s counterpoint to the imploding West, her embodiment of a truly fresh start.
Imperial impotence (the Fisher King languishing, a pitiful absurdity, in a boat sailing on scorched earth) is not a matter of ammunition, necessarily. The government’s invisible hand in Cuarón’s nightmarish vision exerts its “power” mercilessly, through gun-bearing proxies and barbed buses jitneying along with human cattle. But such force succeeds only in arousing suspicion as to the government’s solvency. Concentration camps and sedition laws and Patriot Acts are for nations afraid of their citizens. Even the Fishes fall victim to the corrupting influence of politics. It turns out that Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Fishes’ second in command, has had Julian assassinated because she refused to use Kee’s child as a uniting flag of “the Uprising.” Revolt against authoritarianism very quickly takes on its own insidious forms, its assassinations and death squads, its language of control. “The Uprising,” an armed revolution in the Bexhill Refugee Camp, has the same dark vague violence as “Homeland Security.”
Cuarón seems to be performing a difficult political balancing act here. Even leftists in the West cannot condone terrorism. By villainizing the Fishes, “the Uprising” becomes yet another in a series of dangers for Kee to endure, something else to escape. Only the nonviolent leftists — Theo and Julian, who met at a war protest; Theo’s stoner friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a political cartoonist; frumpy Miriam, practicing a dodgy bit of yoga and going on innocently about yin and yang — can aspire to moral superiority in this political stew.
The film thus shrouds its tensely balanced politics in the personal. Kee’s fertility, her cheeky independence, come to symbolize a rest cure for a society succumbing to a case of Victorian (or postmodern) neurasthenia. Children of Men crinkles like old parchment. Gloomy London fog, heavy with precipitation, has become “the brown fog of a winter dawn,” a citywide hangover from years of debauchery (61). Buses and scooters belch forth their scummy tales. The sun hides, almost permanently. And the search for water, to quell these purifying, sermonizing fires, is at the crux of the film: to reach the sea is Kee and Theo’s endgame. After that, all they can do is sit in their creaky rowboat and hope.
From brown smoky fog to Kee and Theo awaiting the flood requires a painful cycle of wet and dry allusions: the Ark of Arts, with Picasso’s “Guernica” (another emblem of total war) hanging solemnly above the dinner table; the charred remains of diseased livestock crumbling by the roadside. Similarly, the poem’s images of aridity and hydration are in flux as though they were historical, not meteorological, forces. The “dry sterile thunder without rain” (342) that plagues the poem is not just the shriveling of crops on the trampled fields of battle, but also the shriveling of discourse in favor of war fever, the death of the new under the stifling watch of Lytton Strachey’s old Eminent Victorians. The generality of the desolation signals a failure impossible to pinpoint, or, less fatally, the change in human character Virginia Woolf saw in 1910. The thunder’s booming voice comes after a series of images floodlike in their vigor, as though critical of nineteenth-century decadence: “fear death by water,” the clairvoyant Madame Sosostris warns (55).
History’s turning points, as Woolf implied, are sudden, sometimes terrifying, unpredictable except in retrospect, and rooted not only in wars or political shifts, but also in the very fabric of human character. Once innocence is miscarried, aborted, it is irrevocable. This is what Eliot calls “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender / which an age of prudence can never retract” (403-4). There are no intermediates in the poem or the film, no compromises. There are but two choices, death by water and death by fire.
From the parched earth rises, in the poem, a frightful sound and sight: a “murmur of maternal lamentation . . . hooded hordes swarming . . . Cracks and reforms and bursts in violet air” (368-73). A synopsis of the film (infertility, xenophobia, war) could be left at that. But what does one make of all this sound and fury, this overload of literary modernism?
Apocalypticism in literature and film, though nearly always set in the future, emphasizes a realism of the present. 1984 would be nothing without Stalinism. By allowing us to see ourselves in the future, the genre promotes the fear of misery and extinction that plagues our view of forward movement. For every Utopia there is a dystopia. For every hope, there is an “it wasn’t supposed to happen this way.”
Children of Men is, like other apocalyptic fictions, a prophecy — an educated, dramatized guess about where we are going based on where we have been. Where we have been is where Eliot comes in: his sexual and spiritual dystopia of the last century’s first fire sermon, coupled in the film with images of Nazi atrocities (cages and train stations and camps) from the second, creates a language for postulating the impossible. America in September of 2001 was like no other country in history, except perhaps Pax Brittanica in 1914, where the sun never set. But decline, like shifts in character, comes suddenly. The war that could not have happened between prosperous states; the attack that could not have happened on the American mainland. The analogy, without Eliot, remains shallow — a constructed coincidence of historicity. But with him it becomes instructive, tying together not just the series of events that preceded and followed each disaster, but also what we are to make of them. Being set in Britain makes Children of Men no less American, at least in the sense that American politics dominate (for better or worse) the world stage, and that those politics emerge as the target of Cuarón’s sharp portrayal of a futuristic Britain saddled with a government poisonous in its policies and devoid of humanity. If Cuarón’s vision of the world in 2027 is uncomfortably close, it may be because the decline has already begun.
That is not to say, however, that the decline cannot be stanched. The film climaxes with an eight-minute shot of cinematographic virtuosity — blood even spatters the lens — and reaches, in a slummy tenement crumbling under the weight of riot and reaction, its moral core. Mortar rounds and gunfire leave puffs of smoke to dance amid the shadows of women suffering, as always, at the hands of men. The children of men, it seems, are given guns too readily. “What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?” Eliot writes. “Son of man / You cannot say, or guess, for you know only / A heap of broken images” (19-22, emphasis added). Children of Men depicts a world of broken images, ruled by the men who broke them.
When the cut comes, it makes for an important, albeit brief, formal shift: after Theo dashes and ducks the eruption around him, pulling Kee from the wreckage, everything seems to stop. The sight of the newborn child garners wails of affection from the immigrant women, tears of angry joy from Luke, awe from the British troops bombarding the building’s façade. If there is a moment in cinema that adheres to Eliot’s own definition of “shantih shantih shantih,” “the peace which passeth understanding,” then this is it. The silence is fleeting, but it carries a power that lingers long after the credits have rolled, long after the children of men have been left to burn and the ark of “Tomorrow” has arrived.
Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land and Other Poems. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Vanneman, Alan. “Dude, Where’s My Suicide Pill?” Bright Lights Film Journal 55, February 2007:brightlightsfilm.com/55/children.htm.