In the very beginning of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), before we are introduced to characters or any images, what we first experience as an audience is sound. We hear the voice of newscasters describing tragic incidents in the day’s news. “Day 1000 in the siege of Seattle.” “The Muslim community demands an end to military occupation.” “British borders remain closed, the deportation of illegal immigrants will continue.” Without accompanying images, we need no further detail; it is as if the rhetoric of emergency already forms the narration of our social experience, and the words themselves recall still-charged political slogans, such as “the clash of civilizations.”

An image finally appears: a TV screen reports the untimely death of Baby Diego (Juan Yacuzzi), the youngest born individual since the world became sterile. A crowd of café patrons watches, rapt and tearful. So captivated are they by the tragedy that not one of them seems aware that Diego himself may have caused his own death by refusing to sign an autograph. “Witnesses at the scene say that Baby Diego spat in the face of a fan,” says the newscaster, “before he was stabbed outside a bar in Buenos Aires.” The speaker goes on to mention, off-screen, that on-lookers later beat the fan to death. This opening sequence memorably ends with a long-take tracking our protagonist, Theo Faron (Clive Owen), outside the café so he can pour whiskey into his cup of coffee. Moments later, the café explodes into flames. The camera strays forward to view a severely injured victim stagger into the street holding her maimed arm, helpless. Cut to black.

Theo look away

The sequence has been admired for its technical virtuosity, but my immediate interest lies in the way that the seemingly innocent act of viewing images suddenly culminates in a deadly explosion, killing nearly all of the spectators in the café. Rather than neutrally “showing” forms of violence such as wars, rioting, and natural catastrophes, Cuarón implicates modern visual techniques for their capacity to inflict violence in themselves. In this shocking sequence, Cuarón elevates the age-old problem of attention to images– and the related choices we make about what we see, who we see, and how we see– into a political, life-and-death issue, entangled in the larger, abstract processes and effects of globalization. Significantly, not only does the news story about Baby Diego refer to an event outside the immediate narrative space, but the emotional response to the café bombing is not registered by the central character, as we might expect it to be; instead, we see Theo unfazed and back at work, watching his co-workers grieve for Diego, showing little concern for what just happened.

In a future world where society itself seems to have forgotten how to see, Cuarón provides the audience with a restless camera, a set of eyes that provides no explicit judgments on the world at large, but that only persistently investigates the fragments, the dead, the poor, and the lost stories that seem impossible to fit within the space of the larger narrative. From the film’s early moments to the somber finale, the unusual camerawork exists in uneasy tension with the protocols of classical narrative space, opening up questions around reflexivity, visibility, and filmic storytelling, while revealing the hierarchy of character (and the accompanying social values) that exist in classical representation. The following analysis of Children of Men thus considers how awareness to “narrative asymmetry” – on the part of a film’s narrative discourse and visual style – can reorient the critical conversation away from well-trodden binaries of “political” versus “non-political” film (which surround Children of Men’s critical reception) by delving more deeply into crucial questions of character and narrative attention.

Metacinematic tendencies in narrative discourse and filmic visual style

Alfonso Cuarón has recently entered the critical conversation on camerawork as an artistic tool and signifying mechanism with the appearance of his later films, Y Tu Mamá También (2001) and specifically Children of Men. What joins these otherwise disparate films – the former being a coming-of-age/road film set in present-day Mexico, the latter a science-fiction blockbuster set in futuristic England – is the unusually self-conscious and virtuosic camera movement. The camera is identified by continuous long takes and a shaky, documentary-like mobility that constantly roves the filmic mise-en­-scene, demonstrating a remarkable degree of autonomy from standard narrative goals. Particularly in the case of Children of Men, the camera has been singled out in numerous critical articles and has been described by various critics as “subjective”, “dialectical,” “megarealistic” and “anamorphic.” (1)

In the literature about the film, two major strains have formed around the camerawork. For some critics, the movie is noteworthy for its ‘anamorphic’ visual style: namely, the camera’s indirect but artful association of infertility with capitalist excess in a globalized age. This argument has been promoted most forcefully by Slovenian scholar Slavoj Žižek, who asserts that the film’s visual aesthetics play with the tension between foreground and background, in order to reveal grim truths about real-world life under contemporary capitalism that otherwise would not be representable to viewers in a more “direct” fashion. (2) Meanwhile, according to the other, less favorable camp of critics, the “real” infertility of the film has to do with Cuarón’s unsuccessful critique of Hollywood filmmaking, narrational practices and capitalist ideology of which the film is a part.(3) This more skeptical argument advanced by feminist scholarship concludes that the ambiguous aesthetics of the film, dubbed “megarealist”, ultimately dehumanizes women and ethnic/racialized Others, and thus hold very little to no progressive political value.

Both groups attempt to deal with the problem of filmic visual style as either a symptom or critique of capitalism in a way that reaches outside the narrative discourse of the film itself. In particular, these critics fail to acknowledge that the film at no point puts forth a specific cause of the infertility epidemic (whether pertaining to Hollywood production or more abstractly to ‘global capital’). Even when scholars attempt to break with ‘topical’ readings by turning to aspects of form, such as sound design or the aesthetics of the long take, they end up framing otherwise penetrating analyses within parameters of Marxist-Lacanian ideological critique of economy, a model used by the film’s proponents and detractors. (4)

More specifically, few arguments to date have addressed the metacinematic tendencies of the film’s narrative discourse and visual style, those barely perceptible features which reflexively foreground the politics of cinematic narration itself by creating tension or attention around the relationship of the characters and the camera device. The problem with previous criticism, in short, is that both camps have an either/or orientation to the politics of film aesthetics. For one group, politics derives from the knowledge (content) disclosed by the film; for the other, politics is determined by production context, and therefore Hollywood film and the like will always be politically conservative. In fact, Children of Men provides an opportunity to rethink the conceptual presuppositions that arise any time critics seek to establish the political implications of a filmic artifact. By Cuarón’s example, we find that the arrangement of character and self-reflexive narration indicate that politics in narrative cinema has as much to do with the composition of the film as it does with the knowledge it puts forward or the context/production circumstances in which it was created.

In order to address how such an ideologically and commercially overdetermined a film as Children of God has any insights into the politics of film aesthetics, the argument of this article considers narrative space and the apportioning of that space to different characters, to be politically loaded concepts. Additionally, to argue that narrative space and attention to that space entail certain political relationships, it is necessary to unite two traditionally separate and enclosed fields – political philosophy and narrative theory – as both fields have in recent decades posited the concept of “attention” and the subject’s presence in a particular delimited space as crucial problems that determine political effects.

The function of camerawork and character hierarchy in classical/realist film

While many critics have approached the jarring, virtuosic camerawork in Cuarón’s most recent films, Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También (2001), many accounts proceed in ad-hoc fashion. Few contextualize the disruptive status of the camera as a narrational device in relation to the critical discourse surrounding classical narrative cinema as a whole.(5) Indeed, one of the foundations of my argument is that the disruptive character of Cuarón’s camerawork results from its frequent deviations from a still-present classical tradition of representing space and time, a tradition that relies on a handful of psychologically articulated characters as the locus and boundary for narrative. (6)

In the classical Hollywood cinema, David Bordwell asserts that the visual style of classical films tends to be structurally subordinate to the narrative aims of the story. Typically, both the narrative and style of the classical film get oriented around two points: 1) the development of the psychologically based characters – namely, the specified protagonists who have some kind of central struggle that becomes the dominant plot – and 2) the presentation of narrative information, plot itself. In most cases, the function of technique, whether it be mise-en-scene, camerawork, editing –tends to be codified in such a way that style appears to be “invisible” to many viewers (even when editorial narration becomes “overt”, as in montage); in other words, films made within the classical narrative paradigm tend not to call attention to their devices.

Thus serving as storytelling tools, visual technique such as camerawork leads us to focus on the main characters, care about what they are experiencing, and make observations about what is happening to them.(7) Within the classical narrative paradigm, visual style therefore belongs lower on a hierarchy of priorities than narrative: visual form acts as a vehicle or a container through which narrative content is rendered as perceivable, visible and enticing to the spectator. Many scholars have observed along these lines that the classical film camera creates idealised viewing positions with which to observe the characters and receive cues by the film about what may or may not occur to the characters next. (8)

Alex Woloch’s recent study of character in the early realist novel, The One Versus the Many, builds upon Bordwell’s classical hierarchy by suggesting a political dimension exists in the construction and arrangement of characters in fictional works, including Hollywood narrative film. In every narrative, Woloch believes, fictional characters represent both a real person “who exists outside the parameters of the novel [or story]” and an artificial device “within the definitively circumscribed form of the narrative”, serving a particular role or purpose with respect to plot development. (9) Woloch observes that in 17th and 18th century realist novels and extending into art and film, authors of ‘realist’ narratives became aware of the ways in which “narrative attention”— the space and time distributed in the discursive totality of the text— is unequally shared by different entities within the fictive universe. Thus, in a realist text, there remains the classical dichotomy between major and minor characters, but there is also, Woloch argues, a high degree of “narrational awareness.” This awareness foregrounds the lack of visibility given to minor characters and points to their abstract exploitation within the plot, their comparative lack of interiority and emotional depth as imaginary beings.

In the case of classical film, it is rare to find such self-conscious “realist” technique that foregrounds the distributional matrix, though it is not unheard of. Bordwell writes of films that make use of “artistic” narration or incorporate visual “excess” to strategically foreground narrative attention as a central concern, but he admits that these exceptions are permitted only by genre. Realism in the classical paradigm is generally considered to be one element of narrative motivation among others, referring to “the representation of the story in terms of verisimilitude and plausibility applying a set of rules considered to be ‘realistic.’” (10)Nonetheless, Woloch asserts that the distributional matrix that underlies a narrative work, by its very nature, “always entails a series of choices: each moment magnifies some characters while turning away from—and thus diminishing or even stinting—others.” This would suggest that, whether or not classical narrative film displays realistic motivation, any character’s “structured position within…the narrative space he occupies” acquires political implications.

As early as the epic poem, the classical protagonist typically symbolizes a core of humanity, while the minor characters that exist around him or her serve only to elaborate or nuance the interior humanity and psychological depth that the protagonist embodies. As such, to recognize a character as “human” or as significant within and beyond the fictive totality, rather than a cog in the narrative machine, is to depend upon “his [or her] textual position and the descriptive configuration that flows out from this position.” For Woloch, the mark of a truly “realist” narrative, then, is one that reflexively highlights and problematizes the ethical dilemma of granting humanity and importance to some imagined beings over others, while “the ‘human aspect’ of a character is dynamically integrated into, and sometimes absorbed by, the narrative structure as a whole.” (11)

If what Woloch describes as “the asymmetrical structure of characterization” (12) is both a structural and political problem constantly at play in other narrative forms, such as the classical Hollywood system of representation, then the concern for politically self-conscious narrative film would seem to be how to develop a set of devices within the narrative as well as visual armature which would consciously register the socially marginalized elements of the narrative order. The disruption of narrative asymmetry would, in turn, break with the classical norm that unconsciously marches through plot and lavishly bestows attention upon heroes without a second thought.

Cuarón’s may seem an odd choice for such an analysis of realist poetics in film. Children of Men clearly borrows elements of science fiction and action cinema, while demonstrating adherence to classical narrative tendencies (character and plot remain key foci throughout). And yet, at key moments the film foregrounds classical hierarchy of character, marking it as radically unstable and thematically significant. This occurs through the film’s realist and self-conscious use of camera and character presentation.

In order to push against unselfconscious narration, the film deploys unusual camerawork – a formal aspect that has been well documented, though under-theorized in the context of the film’s narrational principles and purpose. Becoming a mode of visual narration that tells more than the characters themselves know, Cuarón’s camera creates tension between characters and film-viewers, both in order to register the gap between character knowledge and the filmic narrator’s knowledge, and to dramatize the inequality of attention given over to a limited number of character-spaces in any act of narration.

From protagonist to minor character, and back again

As stated above, Cuarón’s film adheres to many aspects of classical representation (character and plot remain key foci throughout); however, Children of Men deliberately attempts to break with the classical paradigm at several decisive points, turning toward a Wolochian conception of realist self-consciousness at the level of the story and visual style. As in the case of realist novels, several major characters in the film are initially offered to viewers as the source of narrative information but are then devalued at different points in the plot, if not as narrationally insignificant, then as unreliable sources for the viewer’s information (and, in some cases, they are killed off). The central figure on which the film destabilizes the primacy of classical character is the protagonist Theo Faron.

The principal distinguishing characteristic of Theo is by far the skepticism he has toward the utopian projects that struggle around him, attempting to preserve what little life exists before humanity’s inevitable extinction. The utopian cause that receives the most interest from the people of futuristic London is the “Human Project,” a rumored group of scientists trying to find a cure for infertility. Theo treats this rumour with characteristic cynicism: “‘Human project.’ Why do people believe in this crap?” We later see Theo wake up in his apartment, alone. The stark mise-en-scene of his bedroom resembles a darkened cave, with only a single window showing a foggy and empty city below. The noticeably jerky, hand-held camera nonetheless gives us a static, painterly composition: Theo is placed in the centre of the dark room, standing between the window and a television set – his alarm-clock –showing an ad for the “Quietus,” a self-administered suicide kit (“You Decide When”). In a single image, Cuarón thus presents the self-destructive logic of London society as a whole, a choice between life or suicide, and evokes the film’s larger problem of viewing: what do we see, from where do we see?

So what sustains Theo in his unglamorous existence, where each day for him is the same (empty) as the last? Theo’s humanity emerges in Wolochian fashion with reference to other minor characters. As Woloch notes, the audience of a realist narrative is never privy to the entire spectrum of motivation and action, to the very “soul” of any individual character. However, we do gain an “inflection” of implied humanity depending on that character’s presentation within the larger character-system. “None of these characters gets elaborated in a vacuum,” Woloch writes, “even if the particular configuration of a character can tempt the reader to consider him outside or extract him from the coordinated narrative; [rather] the space of a particular character emerges only vis-à-vis the other characters who crowd him out or potentially revolve around him.”(13)

Importantly, several scenes indicate that the critical attitude on Theo’s part is dependent on his ability to exploit others, minor characters, who evidently do not see the world for what it is. For instance, while he no longer participates in political activism, he supports his self-image as a lone resistor by carrying out micro-subversions against his workplace. After Theo sees co-workers distraught by the tragedy of Baby Diego’s untimely death, he pretends to be too upset to stay at work for the day, even though he views Diego as another undeserving celebrity. An astute spectator, he knows how to “act” from seeing others act first. He gets what he wants out of his co-workers and his boss; he makes a lot of jokes and puns to give him the upper hand in a situation.

To borrow Woloch’s terms, other people “revolve around him,” not the other way around. Or, to put it another way, Theo somehow sees himself as a “character” who achieves autonomy by a certain disregard toward other human beings, the masses of people that form a background of unknowingness for his superior knowingness. A consummate protagonist, Theo stands out from multiple character-spaces, manipulating the attention of those around him. However, as the plot moves forward, the camera begins to assert more autonomy and, at various points, decouples itself from his superior-critical gaze. The model of the critical-interpreter/protagonist, detached from the social world, thereby becomes a foil to the alternative model of seeing offered by the camera.

The tension introduced by the moving camera suggests that Theo’s critical vision conceals more than it reveals. We come to understand that, in contrast to the classical and dependable hero, our protagonist’s perspective is lacking as a means for story data. The camera’s ability to decouple itself from Theo, to pause and focus on other objects of interest with no apparent narrative motive, serves also to “test” Theo’s claims (inward or outwardly expressed) about his indifference and superiority, showing contradictions he has with the social world around him. At one point in the film, right before the Fishes terrorist organization kidnaps Theo, he leaves his apartment and wanders in the streets of London. A police officer wipes graffiti off the wall, while a group of people – poor, foreign-looking – are seen kept in cages, standing in long lines, being mistreated by the police officers. Theo briefly looks at what is going on, but then one of the police officers says turn away, which he does. At this crucial moment, the camera breaks with his action.

wandering camera

If the narrative exposition so far sets Theo up as smug, unethical, asleep-at-the-­wheel, a shell of his former self, Theo here becomes the object – not subject – of the camera, as the device becomes a more active observer. Rather than merely be a passive recipient of what is going on, as Theo can be with others around him, the camera finds an object of its own attention, while also highlighting its inability to see everything. At the same time, the camera points to what lies beyond the protagonist’s gaze; typically, what lies beyond is a poorly treated human being, blocked off by some kind of border –a prison gate, walls, a closed window. The camera focuses its attention on what is outside, beyond the boundaries of any character’s limited worldview; it shows, it contradicts.

The effect of the camera capturing Theo act submissively toward the police, despite his claims to oppose the status quo, deflates the critical-interpreter’s desire for resistance. Hence, in spite of his deft manipulation of certain character-spaces, Theo clearly offers no alternative to the exploitation around him. The critical-interpreter standpoint creates a vicious cycle of superiority and capitulation, and, later on, it is revealed to be unsustainable: the symbolic violence that it produces comes back for the interpreter.

Theo loses any singular “symbolic core of humanity”, as in Woloch’s sense of the classical protagonist. He becomes more and more what we might call an “unreliable character.” Theo’s self-image as an observer who lives outside ideology and refuses to go along with the masses is, in fact, the very same myth shared by the film’s least dynamically “human” characters. Theo gets aligned with his cousin Nigel (Danny Huston), whose unique character-space is defined by the safe, almost sterile, confines of the government-subsidized art facility featured later on. In the ultra-modern and high-security apartment that overlooks the decay of modern London, Nigel collects the last remaining Picasso and Michelangelo artworks, the wondrous signs of an earlier time.

Our entrance into his world is, however, decidedly unromantic. Once Nigel and Theo embrace, the viewer misses the intimacy (if any) that passes between them. The film then immediately cuts to an extreme close-up of a zit located on the face of Nigel’s own son (or possibly lover), Alex. We then cut to a wider view: Alex playing a video game at the table. He barely moves, besides twitching his hand to control the game console. Alex here resembles a human vegetable, barely alive. After eating, Theo asks Nigel how he can go on with himself. Nigel tells him bluntly: “I don’t think about it.”

The vegetable-like Alex, much like L.B. Jeffries in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, haunts Cuarón’s entire picture. A representative of the “bad spectator,” Alex is so submerged in a bubble of consumer bliss, so enslaved to a manipulative regime of looking, he appears to us as if in a trance. His alienation and elite status disqualifies his character as socially disengaged and ethically unreliable. In another reflexive cue, the boy’s passivity and Nigel’s willful blindness are depicted in relatively static shot/reverse­shots and the rotation of camera to wide shots that frame the scene. Such visual choices stand in stark contrast to the fluid, handheld camera movements that seem characteristic of so much of the film. The viewer is asked to question the seeming clarity provided by the sharp white décor of the apartment and by the tremendous height with which the building towers over London. Looking back on Theo’s apartment, the scene asks: “What type of view onto the narrative, onto the wider character-system, does this provide?” By attempting to exit the character system, the pair of characters shows how in the realist text, an elitist character trait tends to be figured as a negative, rather than positive, value.

The vertical relationship afforded by the apartment therefore provides a visual “clarity” that is ultimately illusory upon further inspection. As Theo and Nigel drink wine beside the wall-sized dining room windows, we cannot help but feel cheated if we, too, gaze outside, as they do: the world below appears in a kind of impenetrable fog. Only the hazy skyline and some architectural flourishes of the “Ark of the Arts” facility are visible from this high position, along with –significantly– a massive, floating piggy bank, surely a piece of art owned by the facility and Cuarón’s own allusion to the broken dreams of Pink Floyd. Nigel’s anti-social elitism corresponds with Theo’s tendency to turn away whenever foreign character-spaces filter into his own; through this scene, Theo becomes unreliable or un-singular by association with Nigel, in whom he shares significant traits.

Theo piggy bank

This rich, but empty, composition suggests that the type of vision afforded by such social power is, in the end, only self-referential to that power. In other words, the window is less a window than a mirror through which Nigel can have reflected back at himself the referents of status and influence: financial wealth, signified in the ever-present floating piggy bank; and social stratification, implied in the impossibility of the gazer to ever literally see what is “below.” What supports this privileged vantage point is the multitude of character-spaces, the brutal sociopolitical realities on which the film’s mobile camera focuses its gaze throughout. It is this mode of stasis, this vision of literal unseeing, embodied in the static facility, that the film repeatedly attacks by various acts of perceptual violence, inflicted on both the characters and the film’s own spectator.

By observing and ignoring certain of Theo’s actions, the film camera renders him both an inadequate protagonist and (later) an inadequate spectator. This sets the “realist” foundation for the latter half of the story when, importantly, Children of Men does not install a new protagonist to replace the first, but instead opens the narrative space to “invisible” characters, revealing the problem of unequally distributed narration. Following realist narrational principles, the only way that the viewer can locate symbolic humanity in Theo’s character is by virtue of not being attached to his point-of-view, but by seeing Theo experience injustice, first-hand, in the socially entangled world around him. The camera points to the social exclusivity of filmic narrative space in those brief moments when it rejects classical protocol of subordinating visual style to the protagonists.

Camera movement and the appearance of a ‘supernumerary’ group

In contrast to principles of classical Hollywood cinema, the camera in Children of Men does not remain wholly subordinate to the presentation of Theo; rather, it asserts the necessity of recognizing what he and other characters refuse to see. The moving camera seeks out the contours of the character-system, “the arrangement of multiple and differentiated character-spaces;” in turn, the rejection of classical protocol transforms the unified narrative structure into something more contingent, only partially organized.

We thus begin to doubt Theo’s critical diagnosis of the world around him, while the narrative space of attention begins to widen and allows the spectator more choice in what to see, freed from the protagonist’s gaze. In an early scene, Theo rides the train home from work, falling asleep by a window. As before, the window in Cuarón’s films tends to be a symbol for a viewing screen; its presence acknowledges, meta-cinematically, that the diegetic scene on the train resembles a viewing situation like our own. However, by falling asleep, Theo cannot use the frame before him: if the train window becomes a sort of frame onto the world he fails to look through, we are meant to notice this ethical failure. While he dozes off, a mass of unidentified young people – hooligans? – run up along the train tracks and throw garbage at the window, startling Theo awake. As it happens, we glimpse graffiti on the walls beyond the train tracks: a scrawl of handwritten letters proclaims the mysterious “HUMAN PROJECT” that is so important to the plot.

The reappearance of the words “Human Project” helps to establish the sense of deep social conflict, the multiplicity of character-spaces that have failed to make their relationships with each other fully visible, but have in the process troubled the closed unity of the narrative space. In the same maneuver, the camera gives space and attention to unrepresentable beings, the mass of hooligans, who serve but to attack Theo’s narrative authority, self-consciously calling into question narrative attention in the first place. Such narrational intervention does not “give voice” to the traditionally neglected, but rather indicates two-fold agencies of the seeking camera in Cuarón: to interrupt and to (re)distribute narrative attention within a wider spectrum of objects and human beings.

As manifestations of the anonymous crowds that populate Cuarón’s film, both the hooligans and the babbling old woman foreground the instability of the filmic viewing space in which narrative action unfolds: they have no traditional dialogue or functional relation to the protagonists, beyond simply that of disrupting the closed unity of that space and interrogating the ‘properly’ subordinate relation of camera to specified agents. They therefore exist outside the spectrum of ‘humanity’ and ‘utility’ that generates both major and minor characters. In effect, if anything (inanimate objects, text) or if anyone is free to interrupt the steady progression of plot events by capturing the camera’s seeking eye, then we, as an audience, have trouble determining who or what should occupy our narrative attention at all. Or, as Woloch writes of Dostoevsky’s similarly realist poetics, “all characters are potentially overdelimited within the fictional world and might disrupt the narrative if we pay them the attention they deserve.” (14)

The audiovisual presence of these imaginary beings who, contrary to Woloch’s paradigm of literary character, do not strictly serve as either human personalities or as artificial devices that reveal information about the plot or protagonist, calls to mind the fundamental division of “noisemaker” and “speaking subject” that remains a problem for political philosophy since Aristotle’s Politics.(15) As noisemakers, the unnameable beings intrude on social asymmetry without being added or “counted” as speaking or acting participants of that space. In the political writings of Jacques Rancière, it is significant that the appearance of a “supernumerary” people, the group that cannot be accounted for by the dominant parameters of the community, represents the properly political act: “politics comes about solely through interruption, the initial twist that institutes politics as the deployment of a wrong of a fundamental dispute.” (16)The dispute put forward by “noisemaking beings” within the film’s narrative discourse, then, has to do with the initial classical hierarchy or “mis-counting” around narrative point of view: the separation between speaking and nonspeaking “characters,” the separation between camera and narrative aims as a creative collaboration within classical style, and the relationship of the viewer to all the elements contained in and outside the film frame.

Such formal reflexivity, I argue, attempts to move beyond comparatively “infertile” or unselfconscious classical representation that would allow imaginary human beings to be exploited by narrative asymmetry. As a result of visual style, many narrational strategies of classical cinema become newly conspicuous, displaced onto non-normative devices, such as minor characters, objects or mise-en-scene, taking attention away from the psychologically based characters so the viewer is able to perceive differently and imagine further hypotheses about the narrative as it develops. The film presents characters as viewer-characters, while the narrative arc itself moves from one ‘stultified’ norm of viewing to a decidedly ‘emancipated’ one. For these reasons, the realist aspect of the film occurs around seeing and narrating from different points of view, as in those key moments where the visual style comments on narrative discourse as well as invites the viewer to recognize the imaginary beings as viewing agents similar to themselves, in effect, treating acts of viewing as the central dramatic element.

Toward the “socioformal” study of narrative asymmetry in realist film

The preceding analysis of Children of Men considered how awareness to “narrative asymmetry” – on the part of a film’s narrative discourse and visual style – can reorient the critical conversation away from well-trodden binaries of political versus non-political film by delving more deeply into crucial questions of character and narrative attention. By way of conclusion, I would like to clarify the larger implications of this study.

The purpose in juxtaposing these fairly distinct and currently under-synthesized thinkers – Bordwell and Woloch – was to show how the formation of character, alongside the use of camerawork, functions as an important dynamic in differentiating classically and realistically constructed film narratives. Bordwell and Woloch’s insights reveal that the narrative architecture of a particular film is fraught with value judgments and strategic choices that encourage spectators to evaluate content, people, places, and things within (and beyond) the frame in particular ways. In this sense, the distributional matrix of the classical cinema has a vertical relationship of narrative and character at the expense of visual style; however, once perceptible camera movements cannot fit into the classical guidelines, the realist film highlights the inequality of character-space that gets produced when visual style is rendered “invisible,” along with minor characters, only to prop up the protagonists. To be sure, making the system of social representation “visible” does not lead to narrative unintelligibility, but it does foreground questions of character agency and the ethics of privileging one viewpoint overwhelmingly to the exclusion of others.

Moving forward, film scholars may be able to unsettle well traversed problems in the field if we insist on analyzing narrative film from within the critical standpoint of what Woloch describes as “socioformalism”, in which the analyst explores the rapport between artistic form and the exterior social inequality to which it corresponds, and “the referenced social conflicts and relations between posited or implied persons within the imagined world of the story itself.” (17) In a “socioformal” approach to film studies, the formal techniques associated with Bordwell’s classical paradigm – even those as seemingly banal as the choice of shot distribution, the camera’s subordination or relative autonomy to characters, distinctions between major and minor characters, etc. – would be shown to carry important implications around questions of community and belonging.

In order to expand critical discourse on Children of Men and narrative cinema as a whole beyond “political-film” versus “unpolitical-film” oppositions that have dominated the film’s reception so far, the socioformal approach usefully rethinks the relationship between politics and aesthetics in the cinema around narrative point of view, in addition to production, economic, and ideological considerations. Doing this leads us to another set of terms and questions: How does any film embody a political structure in its narrative discourse? What filmic narrational devices can be used to politicize the act of storytelling? How does the use of camera movement trouble audience expectations of character identification? Finally, what image of the spectator are we left with?


1. See: Slavoj Žižek, “Children of Men: Comments by Slavoj Žižek.”; Kirk Boyle, “Children of Men and I Am Legend: the disaster-capitalism complex hits Hollywood.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 51 (2009). 13 Nov. 2009; Terryl Bacon, and Govinda Dickman. “‘Who’s the Daddy?’: The Aesthetics and Politics of Representation in Alfonso Cuarón’s Adaptation of P.D. James’s Children of Men.” Carroll, Rachel ed. Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities. London, Continuum, 2009.

2. In the supplementary material of the Children DVD, Žižek borrows the psychoanalytic term “anamorphosis” to characterize Cuarón’s attention to objects in the foreground as well as in the background of the diegetic space. For Žižek, such an anamorphic technique is a suitable means for representing the “Real” of unrepresentable structural violence – a reading that evokes the Lacanian-psychoanalytic notion of the Real-as-stain that pervades the subject’s symbolic field, yet cannot be encountered directly. Similarly, film scholar Kirk Boyle, whose analysis of Children borrows heavily from Žižek’s insights, argues that the camera “focuses a critical eye on ‘real world’ social crises by foregrounding Children’s background”.

3. See “‘Who’s the Daddy?’: The Aesthetics and Politics of Representation in Alfonso Cuarón’s Adaptation of P.D. James’s Children of Men” by Terryl Bacon and Govinda Dickman. Contrary to Žižek’s suggestion that anamorphic film technique subverts ideological complacency, they believe the use of overly immersive camerawork and ‘remediated’ images of TV stereotypes, consisting of nameless immigrants and decontextualized masses of Muslim protestors, is in fact highly typical of the Hollywood blockbuster tradition, masking the complex reality of geopolitical crises in order to literalize the reactionary white-male fantasy of the threatening, non-white Foreigner.

4. William Whittington,“Sound design for a found future: Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.” New Review of Film and Television Studies 9.1 (2011): 3-14. Whittington’s otherwise astute analysis of the close association between character subjectivity of Theo and the use of sound techniques, such as frequency loss and audio alarms in the film, still tends toward the dominant anti-capitalist ‘topical’ reading. For a less sympathetic, technically-oriented account of Children, see James Udden, “Child of the Long Take: Alfonso Cuarón’s Film Aesthetics in the Shadow of Globalization.” Style 43.1 (2009): 26-44. Udden cites industry interviews with Cuarón’s cinematographer to expose the widely celebrated “documentary-style” long-takes as, in fact, not documentary-like at all, but artificially composed with complex CG editing and elaborately designed set pieces. Such production-focused treatments of Cuarón’s cinematic style nevertheless reduce the function of camerawork to simple illusionism and historical convention; no more than a strategy of Hollywood product differentiation. Also see Zahid R. Chaudhary, “Humanity Adrift: Race, Materiality, and Allegory in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men.” Camera Obscura 24.3 (2009): 73-110.

5. See Paul Julian Smith, “Heaven’s Mouth.” Sight and Sound. April 2002. 13 Nov. 2009. Smith faces the difficulty many popular as well as scholarly critics have in situating the political status of the camera work in Cuarón’s filmography. Smith notes: “Cuarón himself is eager to disassociate himself from what he calls a ‘cinema of denunciation’ – the explicitly political output of an earlier generation of engaged auteurs such as Felipe Cazal’s Los Motivos De Luz (1985)…or Paul Leduc’s Dollar Mambo (1993)”. Smith ends up equivocating between criticism and admiration for Cuarón‘s “artfully artless” film, concluding that perhaps the most noteworthy aesthetic achievement of the film is its fresh sense of confidence: “Cuarón is willing to risk being branded as superficial because his film is entertaining, treacherous because it draws on US culture, and reactionary because it deals with bourgeois characters.”

6. In recent years, a number of critics have called into question the enduring descriptive value of the “classical narrative cinema” concept that was popularized in film studies by the scholarship of David Bordwell. Eleftheria Thanouli argues in Post-Classical Cinema: An International Poetics of Film Narration for expanding the taxonomy of narrational modes beyond the handful that Bordwell identified earlier in his career (historical-materialist, artistic, classical, and so on). Such a limited number of narrational modes, in Thanouli’s eyes, seems inadequate for capturing recent trends in film. I have chosen not to adopt Thanouli’s terminology to explore Children of Men because it would seem to assert a coherent, unified and relatively stable aesthetic norm from which the narrative and visual aspects flow out and inform each other. In the case of Children of Men, I argue that audiences only register the destabilization of the narrational matrix by the camerawork as significant technique if it is seen as anamolous deviations from a more stable classical paradigm.

7. The possible uses of the film camera, much like other visual technologies afforded by the film form, tend to be restricted in practice according to certain widely used and historically resilient narrational principles and procedures. In critical circles, Hollywood classical style tends to be described with such terms as “transparent,” “smooth,” or “invisible,” words that help us understand that the style itself strives for narrative clarity, not wanting to call attention to itself but to present story data in as efficient and timely a manner as possible. Bordwell notes further that the camera should be considered as distinct but obviously privileged material for the construction and presentation of story information, as a device among others that aims to generate a bounded and coherent space and time for the narrative to organize and develop itself. If, Bordwell observes, “on the whole, classical narration treats film technique as a vehicle for the syuzhet’s transmission of fabula information” (emphasis mine), then the primary aim of the camera in classical style would be both to attract and manage the viewer’s attention toward the characters who struggle to complete a particular task over the course of the film, and more indirectly, to generate a viewing position of “the ideal invisible observer, freed from the contingencies of space and time but then discretely confining itself to codified patterns for the sake of story intelligibility.” David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, p.24-26

8. In “Classical narrative space and the spectator’s attention,” Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson note that the classical notion of the spectator as the ideal invisible onlooker has its roots in, among other things, Renaissance linear perspective, a style of visual composition in which “the space of the scene, both in the painting and in the classical film, is organized outward from the spectator’s eye.” Classical film and traditional media (namely painting) have reinforced this impression of the all-powerful, mythic spectator, whose gaze is privileged as totalizing and God-like, implying that humanity occupies the center of the universe. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985, p. 215

9. Alex Woloch, The One Versus the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. p. 13

10. Quoted in Eleftheria Thanouli, Post-Classical Cinema: An International Poetics of Film Narration. London: Wallflower Press, 2009, pp. 31-2

11. Woloch, 14

12. Woloch, 30

13. Woloch, 18

14. Woloch, 13 (emphasis in original)

15. Aristotle states, “Nature, as we say, does nothing without some purpose; and she has endowed man alone among the animals with the power of speech. Speech is something different from voice, which is possessed by other animals…Speech serves to indicate what is useful and what is harmful, and so also what is just and what is unjust.” (Quoted in Jacques Ranciére, Dis-Agreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, p. 1)

16. Jacques Ranciére, Dis-Agreement: Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, p. 13

17. Woloch, 17