Saturday, 9 January 2010

Cinema: The Road

Every generation gets the apocalypse it deserves; when it comes to its realisation in the arts, that is. Back in the eighties when I was tramping the streets beneath a banner made of broom handles and a sheet, it was nuclear war that had us on the edge of our seats. You'll be pleased to know the demonstrations were successful and nuclear war never happened.

Environmental apocalypse is the disaster movie du jour, although cinematic license is required; a slow-warming or cooling world not having the impact on screen atom bombs have. As a consequence, recent efforts have either had to accelerate the science or keep matters vague, 'The Road' pursuing the latter strategy in book - written by Cormac McCarthy - and on screen. You know that something bad has happened - everything and almost everyone is dead, trees are dead in the earth, conflagrations are spontaneous and the horizon wreathed with smoke - you're just not quite sure what exactly. Whatever it was, it's left a landscape so devastated it could only be filmed in Pittsburgh and New Orleans in a palette of ash greys, char blacks and dirt browns.

My generation was so hitched to the bride of the apocalypse, we played role-playing games in which we imagined ourselves as post-war survivors, our only objective to keep our alter egos alive as we raided ruined supermarkets for food, seeing off mutoid gangs of desperadoes, or attempted to set-up a  fortified homestead and grow us a living in the wasteland in which we found ourselves. The man and boy of the story pursue the roaming route to survival - homesteaders rear their meat human; a single dog has survived the great whatever; there is not a bird in the sky or rodent alive - and this gives the movie its momentum. The flashbacks distract rather than enlighten, man haunted by wife who stepped out into the cold, abandoning both to a life of death. What matters is the journey south -  the reverse direction of travel for  the desperate of the contemporary Americas -  although most viewers will harbour a hunch from the start that what they find there may not be worth the effort of dragging their skin, bones and shopping trolleys down the abandoned highways that stretch between one grim scenario and another all the way to the blankness of the ocean.

Let me be frank: I am as childless as the boy is friendless for most of the film. The prospect of roaming a barren post-apocalypse landscape alone is almost tolerable to those of us who romance the dark side: with a young son in tow - sometimes literally - the congealing of love and dread with tumours and gangrene would be too much to bear. But I have lived with children and witnessed the parental instinct at close quarters: wires previously barely powered becoming the mainline of life. And it is the relationship between man and boy that propels this film and holds the attention, no matter what trials are thrown its way by that vindictive God of the Old Testament who licked his chops on Job. 'I'll kill anyone who touches you - that's my job,' the patriarch says, and the son trembles like Isaac.

Yes, man lives but humanity has died. In such extremes, is anyone still a good guy? The only moral dividing line the movie could draw was in separating those who had eaten human flesh from those who were still resisting that temptation. Living our everyday lives, we prefer not to contemplate how interdependent our lives have become; how little it might take to knock the blocks from under civilisation. If in 'The Road' the why is never explained, it doesn't matter: the what has bled trust from the world, except from those with blood ties, father bound to son. The sudden death of the former takes even those who know what's coming by surprise; his replacement by a wandering nuclear family, fulfilling boy's need for child and canine friends, is a little too convenient to contain even emotional truth.

I read the book stranded overnight in an American airport with fourteen members of my family. In the USA, when something goes wrong, you're on your own. Witness New Orleans and then look away. Compare hurricane procedures there with those employed by the ideological enemy just across the water and you'll see the different value sets at play. Obama has his work cut out, turning a country round in which a substantial minority consider the ideals of universal healthcare unholy, immoral and anti-American while a good number of their poorer immediate neighbours suffer worse outcomes than many in the developing world south of the border.

This is an American movie. The cult of survivalism is more marked there than elsewhere, millenarian tensions persisting while beyond the turn of the last century, many a back-woodsman still drunk on the hot toddy of Revelations-based evangelism and shoot-thy-trespassing-neighbour commandment today. Even I found the book a little too bleak and starkly written to get under my imagination. The movie has its haunting moments, but I never entered its world as it required me to do. Perhaps it was the voiceover and soundtrack, maybe the digressions into flashback, but white noise got in the way of the silent contemplation that might have stranded me there. I am a purveyor of words and a lover of music but when it comes to cinema of the post-apocalypse, it turns out I'm a purist. When the End Times come, God will sort the men from the boys, without the prose of McCarthy providing running commentary or the piano and violin of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis to serenade us to our fates on Judgement Day.

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