Why the Long Take: Cuarón’s Audience As an Active Bystander
Amidst the hellish happenings of 2017, I found hope where I never thought to look: 2006's Children of Men.
Uninterrupted by a single cut for 48 seconds, the opening scene begins with news channels announcing the death of the world’s youngest human at age 18 and ends with a woman screaming and holding her severed arm after a bomb midway through the shot exploded onto Fleet Street. The words, Children of Men erupt onto the screen over a stark black background, inviting the viewers into the dystopian world of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 box office flop. Despite the financial losses, the film was a critical success and has become a modern classic as the recent nationalistic upswell in both the governments of the U.S and Great Britain skyrocketed the movie’s relevance.
The 2027 setting paints a dark and disheartening future where childbirth has been non-existent for 18 years. The plot that unfolds, revolves around ex-activist, Theo (played by a gloomily lumbering Clive Owen) and his involvement with his ex-wife’s mission to smuggle an African refugee, Kee to the ocean. After the unholstering death of Theo’s ex-wife during a tumultuous additional long take shot during the events before-and-after a car chase, Theo comes to find Kee is pregnant. She stands amongst livestock in full biblical fashion. From here, Theo and Kee traverse a gritty and childless Great Britain in hopes of safely delivering mankind’s only saving grace.
After Donald Trump’s election win, Vulture.com was prompted to catch up with Cuarón 10 years after the movie’s release. While the article often refers to the societal relevance of the movie, “Future Shock” by Abraham Riesman also speaks deeply of Alfonso Cuarón’s visionary cinematography. “Cuarón and Lubezki put together some of the most technically daunting and aesthetically stunning action sequences in modern cinema,” Riesman praises. Except, the film never indulges in grandiose explosions or battle-halting duels. Rather, Cuarón engages his audience by constructing tumultuous action sequences that raise both the tension and the stakes of every encounter. These scenes stand apart from the blockbuster cheese because as Riesman noted, the movie was shot, “almost like a documentary: with wide shots and long, continuous takes without a cut.” Montages exist all over the internet compiling every shot that lasts over 45 seconds, like the opening sequence mentioned earlier.
With the average shot in Hollywood cinema falling somewhere in the 5–6-second range, it takes a lot of choreography and teamwork behind the scenes to pull off long takes. Most directors rely heavily on the use of quick cuts during action sequences and focus on what looks coolest on-screen. Caurón wanted to depart from this trope. “It was this whole idea of being there in the moment with the character and experiencing violence,” that makes the cinematography so unique. His camera not only works as a window between our reality and the frighteningly similar one of the film but also as the audience’s eyes and ears throughout the experience, planting ourselves in the scenes alongside Theo and Kee.
“It was this whole idea of being there in the moment with the character and experiencing violence”
By immersing the audience in the film, Cuarón enlists us as active bystanders. Those looking for the escapism of a simple action flick in Children of Men are going to be sorely disappointed, but those hoping to open their minds up ever-so-slightly will be rewarded for their efforts. Here, you are Cuarón’s employee, tasked with searching his world for the themes evoked by the story.
Long periods of time are spent in each setting, and no detail is to go unnoticed. The task of filling each shot fell between Cuarón and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki. Riesman was told Lubezki declared, “We cannot allow one single frame of this film to go without a comment on the state of things,” and it shows. Every screen grab is chocked full of commentary, and every shot is infused with these frames. As the bystander, we pick apart exactly what Cuarón is trying to tell us. But it wasn’t until repeated viewings and after reading Riesman’s article that I found out exactly what Cuarón wants us to find hidden among all the grisly violence, muted bleak backdrops, and biblical references: hope.
In the final digest of the Vulture article, Riesman speaks of Caurón’s feelings about hope. “For him, it [hope] is not a passive thing,” much like the role the audience plays in Children of Men. Riesman quoted Cuarón, ‘“The hope is something that you create,” he says. “You live by hoping and then you create that change. Hope is trying to change your present for a better world. It’s pretty much up to you.”’
It’s quite literally up to the audience to find hope in Children of Men. In times like these, it’s important to take notice of these frightening realities that are so similar to ours, and I hope more films like Children of Men strive to do so.