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February 06, 2007

One Weekend; Two Movies

Last weekend I went to the movies for the first time in 2007, and I went twice: to Venus on Saturday and Children of Men on Sunday. Although the two movies were about as different as could be, there were some interesting similarities.

Venus was definitely the lesser of the two movies. I saw it with David and Ken, and it left us all a bit disappointed. Ken rated it "not bad," I said it was "pretty good," and David even went so far as to call it "good." Peter O'Toole was excellent, but the plot was a bit hard to believe. Why would an elderly actor fall in love with an 18-year-old girl with no redeeming qualities? About five minutes into the movie, I realized that I had seen a preview for it a while back, and had thought at the time that it looked pretty lame. Granted, the movie was better than I had expected from the preview, but still nothing to write home about (though I guess that is exactly what I am doing).

I liked Children of Men quite a bit, despite the over-the-top violence and the fact that I didn't entirely get the premise. It was directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who did Y Tu Mama Tambien and Harry Potter #3, both of which were excellent. I didn't realize until the credits that Children of Men was based on a book by P.D. James. It is set in England in 2027, by which point all the world's women have become infertile and the world is suffering from a dearth of hope, which has led all governments to fall apart except Britain. Britain has instead turned into a police state, trying to protect its natives from the flood of refugees who have left other failed states. The plot centers on the first woman to become pregnant in eighteen years, a refugee who must be smuggled to "The Human Project," which may or may not actually exist.

What the two movies had in common was their English setting and the fact that both movies present England pretty realistically. In fact, the most chilling thing about Children of Men is that, even though it was set in a post-apocalyptic future, its portrayal of England was not very exaggerated. I remember the first time I was there, being appalled at the paranoia about "asylum seekers" and at their treatment as less than human. See Dirty Pretty Things for an excellent look at the desperate living conditions of refugees and illegal immigrants in Britain. The trash everywhere? Again, not so far from reality. And in one of the first scenes, a bomb tears through a coffee shop for no apparent reason, which again resonated with my own experience of England.

I appreciated both movies for not romanticizing England, the way that American movies tend to do. Watching Wimbledon and the two Woody Allen movies set in London just drove me crazy because they play right into American stereotypes about England and the English people. They portray London as clean, grand, and beautiful, and the English as uniformly wealthy, intelligent, and well-mannered. While the English upper class are very wealthy and intelligent (because only they can afford higher education), and live in posh, clean, grand environs, they make up probably less than one percent of the population. Everyone else lives in dirty, cramped housing with shared bathrooms and few proper kitchens. And nobody is well-mannered, with the exception of my dear friend Niall and his friends.

I can think of two reasons off the top of my head why Americans almost uniformly romanticize and glamorize England. First, we are obsessed with the royal family and assume that they represent the English people. Second, we see England as this Eden that we have been exiled from into the frontier wilderness of the New World. Granted, we claim that this frontier wilderness has ultimately made us better people (see Frederick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis), but we romanticize the image of our "Motherland" as being everything that we are not -- ie clean, intellectual, and well-mannered -- even as we make fun of the English for being effete in contrast to our American ruggedness.

Posted by eklanche at February 6, 2007 07:22 AM


I think it also may tie in to the fact that we are so hellbent on believing that everyone in this country has an equal chance at excellence (viz. Prop 2), and we need somewhere foreign but not too foreign to direct our starstruck energies. So we fix on the English upper classes.

Posted by: esik at February 6, 2007 09:47 AM

"We are obsessed with the royal family...."

Where do you get this "we" stuff, kemosabe? If it weren't for the Prince of Wales' interest in old buildings and hostas, I'd say bugger the lot of them.

Posted by: dmerch at February 6, 2007 09:59 AM

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