This brings us back, then, to my initial question, and I think that there are three reasons that Children of Men is so contemporary.
Firstly, the film is dominated by the sense that the damage has been done. The catastrophe is neither waiting down the road, nor has it already happened. Rather, it is being lived through. There is no punctual moment of disaster; the world doesn’t end with a bang, it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart. What caused the catastrophe to occur, who knows; its cause lies long in the past, so absolutely detached from the present as to seem like the caprice of a malign being: a negative miracle, a malediction which no penitence can ameliorate. Such a blight can only be eased by an intervention that can no more be anticipated than was the onset of the curse in the first place. Action is pointless; only senseless hope makes sense. Superstition and religion, the first resorts of the helpless, proliferate.
Secondly, Children of Men is a dystopia that is specific to late capitalism. This isn’t the familiar totalitarian scenario routinely trotted out in cinematic dystopias (see, for example, V for Vendetta, which, incidentally, compares badly with Children of Men on every point).
If, as Wendy Brown has so persuasively argued, neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism can be made compatible only at the level of dreamwork, then Children of Men renders this oneiric suturing as a nightmare. In Children of Men, public space is abandoned, given over to uncollected garbage and to stalking animals (one especially resonant scene takes place inside a derelict school, through which a deer runs). But, contrary to neo-liberal fantasy, there is no withering away of the State, only a stripping back of the State to its core military and police functions. In this world, as in ours, ultra-authoritarianism and Capital are by no means incompatible: internment camps and franchise coffee bars co-exist.
In P.D. James’ novel, democracy is suspended and the country is ruled over by a self-appointed Warden. Wisely, the film downplays all this. For all that we know, the Britain of the film could still be a democracy, and the authoritarian measures that are everywhere in place could have been implemented within a political structure that remains, notionally, democratic. The War on Terror has prepared us for such a development: the normalisation of crisis produces a situation in which the repealing of measures brought in to deal with an emergency becomes unimaginable (when will the war be over?) Democratic rights and freedoms (habeas corpus, free speech and assembly) are suspended while democracy is still proclaimed.
Children of Men extrapolates rather than exaggerates. At a certain point, realism flips over into delirium. Bad dream logic takes hold as you go through the gates of the Refugee Camp at Bexhill. You pass through buildings that were once public utilities into an indeterminate space – Hell as a Temporary Autonomous Zone – in which laws, both juridical and metaphysical, are suspended. A carnival of brutality is underway. By now, you are homo sacer so there’s no point complaining about the beatings. You could be anywhere, provided it’s a warzone: Yugoslavia in the 90s, Baghdad in the 00s, Palestine any time. Graffiti promises an intifada, but the odds are overwhelmingly stacked in favour of the State, which still packs the most powerful weapons.
The third reason that Children of Men works is because of its take on cultural crisis. It’s evident that the theme of sterility must be read metaphorically, as the displacement of another kind of anxiety. (If the sterility were to be taken literally, the film would be no more than a requiem for what Lee Edelman calls ‘reproductive futurism’, entirely in line with mainstream culture’s pathos of fertility.) For me, this anxiety cries out to be read in cultural terms, and the question the film poses is: how long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?
Children of Men connects with the suspicion that the end has already come, the thought that it could well be the case that the future harbours only reiteration and repermutation. Could it be, that is to say, that there are no breaks, no ‘shocks of the new’ to come? Such anxieties tend to result in a bi-polar oscillation: the ‘weak messianic’ hope that there must be something new on the way lapses into the morose conviction that nothing new can ever happen. The focus shifts from the Next Big Thing to the last big thing – how long ago did it happen and just how big was it?
The key scene in which the cultural theme is explicitly broached comes when Clive Owen’s character, Theo, visits a friend Battersea power station, which is now some combination of government building and private collection. Cultural treasures – Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Geurnica, Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig – are preserved in a building that is itself a refurbished heritage artefact. This is our only gilmpse into the lives of the elite. The distinction between their life and that of the lower orders is marked, as ever, by differential access to enjoyment: they still eat their artfully presented cusisine in the shadow of the Old Masters. Theo, asks the question how all this can matter if there will be no-one to see it? The alibi can no longer be future generations, since there will be none. The response is nihilistic hedonism: ‘I try not to think about it’.
T.S. Eliot looms in the background of Children of Men, which, after all, inherits the theme of sterility from The Waste Land. The film’s closing epigraph ‘shantih shantih shantih’ has more to do with Eliot’s fragmentary pieces than the Upanishads’ peace. Perhaps it is possible to see the concerns of another Eliot – the Eliot of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ – ciphered in Children of Man. It was in this essay that Eliot, in anticipation of Bloom, described the reciprocal relationship between the canonical and the new. The new defines itself in response to what is already established; at the same time, the established has to reconfigure itself in response to the new. Eliot’s claim was that the exhaustion of the future does not even leave us with the past. Tradition counts for nothing when it is no longer contested and modified. A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all. The fate of Picasso’s Geurnica – once a howl of anguish and outrage against Fascist atrocities, now a wall-hanging – is exemplary. Like its Battersea hanging space in the film, the painting is accorded ‘iconic’ status only when it is deprived of any possible function or context.
A culture which takes place only in museums is already exhausted. A culture of commemoration is a cemetry. No cultural object can retain its power when there are no longer new eyes to see it.
« A fragment of Japan’s ‘Ghosts’ washed up 14 years later, on Tricky’s first single, ‘Aftermath’. Here it wasn’t sampled, but cited, by Tricky’s mentor, fellow Bristolian Mark Stewart. In the background of the track’s loping-shanty rhythms, you can hear Stewart speak-sing the lines ‘just when I thought I was winning, just when I thought I could not be stopped…‘ The use of the Japan reference and the presence of Stewart – a major figure in Bristol postpunk since his time with The Pop Group in the 1970s – were already powerful clues that Tricky’s positioning as a ‘trip-hop’ artist was reductive and misleading. Too often, the label trip-hop would be applied to what was in effect a black music with the ‘blackness’ muted or excised (hip-hop without rap). »
« On the face of it, Tricky’s ra(s)p could be heard as the British answer to hip-hop, but, on a more subterranean level, what he was also taking up and renewing were strands in postpunk and art pop. Tricky counts postpunk acts like Blondie, The Banshees, The Cure (‘the last great pop band, I think’, he says) as his precursors. It’s not as simple as opposing this lineage to the soul, funk and dub references which were so obvious in Tricky’s earliest music. Postpunk and art pop had already drawn substantially upon funk and dub. ‘I grew up in a white ghetto,’ Tricky said when I interviewed him in 2008. ‘My Dad’s Jamaican, my grandmother is white. When I was growing up, till I was about 16, everything was normal. When I moved to an ethnic ghetto, I had friends there and my friends would say, “Why do you hang out with those skinhead guys, the white guys?” and my skinhead friends were like, “Why you hanging out with those black guys?” I couldn’t get it, I couldn’t understand it. I could always go to both worlds, I could go to a reggae club and then a white club and not even notice it because my family is all different colours, different shades. So at Christmas, you got a white person, black person, African looking person, Asian looking person…we didn’t notice it, my family are colour blind. But all of a sudden things started moving around, learning bad habits, people whispering to you, like, “Why you hanging around with those white guys?” These are kids I grew up with since five years old, the guys I grew up with saying “why you hanging out with those black guys?” Then I see The Specials on TV, these white and black guys getting together.»
« When Maxinquaye was released in 1995, Tricky was immediately anointed as the voice of a mute, depoliticised generation, the wounded prophet who absorbed and transmitted a decade’s psychic pollution. The extent of this adulation can be gauged by the origin of the name Nearly God: a German journalist had asked him ‘what’s it like to be God? Well, nearly God?’ Instead of taking up his assigned role as the imp of the perverse in 90s mainstream pop, though, Tricky sidled off into the sidelines, a half-forgotten figure. »
« On Maxinquaye,’ Ian Penman wrote in his landmark March 1995 essay for The Wire magazine, ‘Tricky sounds like ghosts from another solar system’. The spectrality of Tricky’s music, the way it refused to step up or represent, the way it slurred between lucidity and inarticulacy, made for a sharp contrast with the multicoloured brashness of what Penman called ‘the Face- cover/Talkin Loud/Jazzie B nexus of groovy One World vibery’. What’s so significant about the version of multiculturalism that Tricky and Goldie proffered was its refusal of earnestness and worthiness. Theirs was not a music that petitioned for inclusion in any kind of ordinariness. Instead, it revelled in its otherworld- liness, its science-fictional glamour. Like art pop’s first pioneer, Bowie, it was about identification with the alien, where the alien stood in for the technologically new and the cognitively strange – and ultimately for forms of social relations that were as yet only faintly imaginable. Bowie was by no means the first to make this identification: loving the alien was a gesture that self-mytholo-gizing black magi – Kodwo Eshun’s ‘sonic fictional’ canon of Lee Perry, George Clinton, Sun Ra – had made long before Bowie first did it. Identifying with the alien – not so much speaking for the alien as letting the alien speak through you – was what gave 20th century popular music much of its political charge. Identification with the alien meant the possibility of an escape from identity, into other subjectivities, other worlds.
There was also identification with the android. ‘Aftermath’ includes a sample of dialogue from Blade Runner: ‘I’ll tell you about my mother’, the anti-Oedipal taunt that the replicant Leon throws at his interrogator-tormentor before killing him. ‘Is it merely coincidence that the Sylvian quote and the Blade Runner lift converge in the same song?’, Penman asks. »
« Ghosts’…Replicants? Electricity has made us all angels. Technology (from psycho-analysis to surveillance) has made us all ghosts. The replicant (‘YOUR EYES RESEMBLE MINE…‘) is a speaking void. The scary thing about ‘Aftermath’ is that it suggests that nowadays WE ALL ARE. Speaking voids, made up only of scraps and citations… contaminated by other people’s memories…adrift… »
« When I met Tricky in 2008, he referred unbidden to the line from ‘Aftermath’ that Penman picks up on here. ’My first lyric ever on a song was ‘your eyes resemble mine, you’ll see as no others can’. I never had any kids then, so what am I talking about? Who am I talking about? [My daughter] Maisie wasn’t born. My mother used to write poetry but in her time she couldn’t have done anything with that, there wasn’t any opportunity. It’s almost like she killed herself to give me the opportunity, my lyrics, I can never understand why I write as a female; I think I’ve got my Mum’s talent, I’m her vehicle. So I need a woman to sing that. »
« When I first heard Burial a decade later, I would immediately reach for Tricky’s first album Maxinquaye as a point of comparison. It wasn’t only the use of vinyl crackle, so much a signature of both Maxinquaye and Burial, that suggested the affinity. It was also the prevailing mood, the way suffocating sadness and mumbling melancholy bled into lovelorn eroticism and dreamspeech. Both records feel like emotional states transformed into landscapes, but where Burial’s music conjures urban scenes under Blade Runner perma-drizzle, Maxinquaye feels as if it is taking place in a desert as delirial and Daliesque as the initiatory space that the characters pass through in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout: the land is scorched, cracked and barren, but there are occasional bursts of verdant lushness (on the queasily erotic ‘Abbaon Fat Tracks’, for instance, we could have strayed into the ruined pastoral of Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden). »
« Your eyes resemble mine…’ From the very beginning, speaking in his dead mother’s voice, a semi-benign Norman Bates, Tricky was conscious of his (dis)possession by female spectres. With his predilection for cosmetics and cross-dressing, he looked like one of the last vestiges of the glam impulse in British pop: his gender ambivalence a welcome antidote to Britpop’s lumpen laddishness. It’s clear that gender indeterminacy is no pantomime mummery for him, but something that goes right to the core of his music. Saying that Tricky ‘writes from a female point of view’ fails to capture the uncanniness of what he does, since he also induces women to sing from what seems to be a male perspective. »
« I like putting women in a male role, to have the woman play the strength and the man be the weak. I was brought up, one of my uncles was in jail for 30 years and the other for 15 years. I didn’t see my dad, I was brought up by my grandmother and my auntie so I’ve seen my grandmother fight in the street. I’ve seen my auntie and my grandmother have fistfights, I’ve seen my grandmother grab my auntie’s arm and close it in the door and break her arm fighting over meat. So I see women as tough. They fed me, they clothed me, my grandmother taught me to steal, my auntie taught me to fight, she sent me to boxing when I was 15. If men go to war, you stand in one field, I stand in another, we shoot each other, but what’s the hardest is when you are at home and you gotta listen to kids cry and you gotta feed ‘em. That’s tough, I’ve seen no men around, I’ve seen my uncle go jail for seven years, then ten years, my other uncle; my Dad never rang. Women keep it together, keep the food on the table, defend us, defend the children, like if anyone fucked with us they would be down the school. I’ve never seen men do that for me, I’ve never seen men there for me like that. All I know is women. »
« Gender doesn’t dissolve here into some bland unisex mush; instead it resolves into an unstable space in which subjectivity is continually sliding from male to female voice. It is an art of splitting which is also an art of doubling. Through the women who sing for/as him, Tricky becomes less than one, a split subject that can never be restored to wholeness. Yet their voicing of his incompleteness also makes him more than one, a double in search of a lost other half it will never recover. Either way, what Tricky unsettles – both as a vocalist and as a writer/ producer who coaxes singing from an Other – is the idea of the voice as a rock solid guarantor of presence and identity. His own weakened, recessed voice, all those croaks, mumbles and murmurs, has always suggested a presence that was barely there, something supplementary rather than centred. But the main – usually female – voice on his songs also sounds absented and abstracted. What the voices of his female singers – flat, drained, destitute of ordinary affective cadences – most resemble is the sound of a medium, a voice being spoken by something else. »
[My gawd, i’m almost quoting the whole chapter (not nearly), stopping there…]
— Fisher, Mark. « Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures. »