(originally published in The Outreach Connection in May 2007)
If movies are in any way a barometer for the pervasive concerns of our times, we will surely see many more movies like 28 Weeks Later. We had another one a few months ago – Children of Men. That one had a greater veneer of respectability, but the basic vessel is the same: a recognizable Britain of the near future, teetering under a cataclysmic peril, in which the recognizable settings and artifacts and attitudes of our time become derelict. In Children of Men it was mass sterility; in 28 Weeks Later it’s a virus that turns people into zombies. That sounds like it gives the first film the edge on plausibility, and yet I found the zombie movie more uncomfortably immediate.
28 Weeks Later
It’s a sequel to 28 Days Later, where the virus escaped from a chemical lab and spread exponentially; it’s perhaps best remembered for the stunning scenes of Cillian Murphy walking alone through an intact but deserted London. The film’s masterstroke was in confining the outbreak to Britain, so that one could imagine the rest of the world watching in horror, counting their blessings and computing the new global balance. In the new film the epidemic seems over and the American army has moved in, starting to repatriate Britons who survived abroad; it focuses on a survivor played by Robert Carlyle, reunited with his two kids in a central London quarantine zone. Of course, the virus reemerges, and then we’re (to cite yet another echo) in a Land of the Dead-type set-up, with a fragile, beleaguered stability collapsing traumatically on itself.
It’s an extremely gripping, scary film, directed to the hilt by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo. The biggest flaw is that even by genre standards the plot turns on a staggering amount of coincidence, but it is about zombies after all. And it draws on what I personally rank as the most legitimate paranoia of our time – that all this infrastructure simply can’t be sustained. Whether through slow environmental degradation or something more dramatic, there’s a staggering realignment ahead, in which the piddling preoccupations of our time will seem with hindsight as classically misaligned as any amount of fiddling while the city burns. Some people have compared the film – mainly by virtue of the American occupation – to a parable on Iraq, but the implications seem to me much worse than that.
John Carney’s Once is a movie with just about no implications. People love this film. The New York Times’ excellent A. O. Scott says that it “understands…everyday pop magic about as well as any movie I can think of” although he also shrewdly acknowledges “some danger that the critical love showered on Once will come to seem a bit disproportionate.” Take for instance The Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips: “Once may well be the best music film of our generation.” Well, I’ve written before about the parched state of that genre.
Once is a nice enough little picture. A struggling street musician/vacuum cleaner repairman meets an equally hand-to-mouth Czech immigrant single mother – he plays guitar; she’s a pianist; they start making music together; but will it amount to more? It lasts less than a song-crammed hour and a half, and it’s very freshly observed. I especially liked the way it shows their living spaces and the daily calculations of survival – you hardly ever see this kind of deglamourized (without being aesthetically over-deglamourized, if you know what I mean) stuff in movies.
But much of what people like about the film just didn’t click with me. I didn’t much like the songs for one thing – they seemed to me nice enough, but in a strained, writerly kind of way (they all have titles like “Falling Slowly” and “If You Want Me”). Lead performer Glen Hansard, despite an intriguing air of suppressed pain, equally seemed to me to be trying a bit too hard. And the air of realism evaporates at the end, with both characters pulling relationship rabbits out of a hat that seemed impossible based on information we were given earlier, and an extravagant financial outlay that equally makes no sense. Of course, even the greatest musicals committed greater sins of realism than that, but I think they were going for a different formula of artifice and connection. Once is an easy film to watch (once, anyway), with lots of nice moments, but yep, the critical love is disproportionate.
Talking of the eternal appeal of watching people fall in love, William Friedkin’s Bug is another story of two unfulfilled people finding each other. And there the similarity ends. Friedkin is of course the Oscar-winning director of The French Connection and The Exorcist, who’s plodded since then through thirty indifferent years (the low point perhaps being The Guardian, which is about a killer tree). Bug scores pretty high in the Friedkin oeuvre, if only because it’s the most sophisticatedly rancid material he’s been handed since The Exorcist. Those two unfilled people, played by Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, quickly evolve move past their initial tentative, grateful connection, as he reveals himself bug-obsessed: in particular, he’s convinced that he’s a big walking incubator, as a result of government experiments. With nothing better to do in life, Judd soon goes happily along.
This may be an obscure reference, but one of my occasional guilty pleasures is a 60’s Japanese movie called Blind Beast, in which a blind sculptor kidnaps a fashion model and imprisons her in a remote warehouse decked out with giant moldings of female body parts; things evolve in a weirdly sado-masochistic direction and by the end you just watch with your mouth wide open. The bare bones of Bug have a fair bit in common with Blind Beast, but it’s nowhere near as aesthetically interesting, since Friedkin opts merely for a grungy realism. This works well when the characters are accessing the apparently endless American mythology of conspiracies and allegedly misunderstood folk-heroes – everyone from Jim Jones to Timothy McVeigh gets a name-check here, and it’s just about possible on the basis of what’s shown that Shannon isn’t completely delusional. Ultimately though, it’s a pyrotechnic festival of derangement. Judd gives herself to all this as though sensing Oscar chances.
You can probably tell that I’m one of the few people who places Bug ahead of Once, although it’s not something I’d spend a lot of time arguing. But 28 Weeks Later wins the week. I’ve forgotten the context, but I remember David Thomson disparaging Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre as a meal in which the participants don’t even eat their food, let alone each other. So let’s go with that valuation scale: in Once they gaze across the table; in Bug they gnaw at each other; in 28 Weeks Later they feast!