Lloyd Bradford Syke is a Sydney-based theatre critic whose prolific and voluminous reviews can be found on Crikey’s theatre blog Curtain Call. As a long-time fan of Syke’s work, it is a pleasure to have him contribute this piece to Cinetology, an on-the-scene account of Undergound Cinema‘s first Sydney screening. For those unfamiliar with the concept, Underground Cinema is “a secret immersive film screening event held in undisclosed locations throughout Melbourne and Sydney” that combines film exhibition with live performance. The theme was “hope” and Syke was there, waiting in line, holding his papers, suddenly contemplating what it would feel like to be a refugee.
Lloyd Bradford Syke writes: It’s a novel concept. I don’t know that it has any equivalent anywhere else in the world. It’s secret cinema. Which is to say, if you sign up, you get clues. What to wear, for example. Finally, a couple of days before the screening, you get a location. Even that won’t be too explicit. It relies on mystery, intrigue, a sense of fun and adventure. You have to be open to it, spontaneous and do your homework. You have to go to a little bit of trouble. It’s participatory, which is something new for cinema, unless you’re in on it as a maker. Yes, it’s a good idea, this Underground Cinema. It’s been kicking around Melbourne for a while. Now Sydney gets an in as well.
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Each event has a theme. For the inaugural Sydney screening, it was “hope”. I received my transit papers. All of a sudden, I had an inkling of what it feels like to be a refugee. Since numerous in my family were refugees, it was a way to make that experience slightly more palpable. And it could hardly be more topical, politically. It was a provocation to think, again, more deeply, about the plight and experience of refugees. It’s a pity, perhaps, that some of our poetical masters and mistresses didn’t receive invitations.
I arrived at the designated address having sussed it as The Factory Theatre, Marrickville, home of the Sydney Comedy Festival and a multifarious venue that plays host to many an international touring act. The Factory Theatre, as the name implies, is an ex-factory, or warehouse. What better place to herd and harangue a bunch of would-be reffos? And herded we were. Like sheep, or cattle. From the moment we arrived, ordered by black-clad, helmeted officers to ‘get in line!’ Even amidst our amusement, there was the spectre of ‘what if this was real?’ It was disturbingly difficult to pretend that, even as theatre, the uniforms, shouting, and arms weren’t intimidating. There were echoes, for mine, of my family’s past, in Hungary, and being Jewish under the jackboot of Nazism. There was, on the one hand, the temptation to submit; to surrender to this new, suddenly imposed authority, out of fear and apprehension. On the other, a more visceral bidding to rail, resist and revolt.
Several of these oppressors had British accents. They had all the tried-and tested methods of manipulation, intimidation and torture down pat. There was even a rampant German Shepherd patrolling the gate. They made us stand, queued like animals, for a long time. I was not only uncomfortable about my voluntary compliance. Something much worse was going on. I was bored, irritated and restless.
Eventually, after being approached by a gypsy bearing oranges, we were assigned numbers and, from that moment, we were to stay coupled to our designated partner. Then, in small groups we were processed; allowed through the gate and subjected to a series of deliberately confusing, if simple, instructions. Step forward. Step back. Line up against the cage. ‘You’re just one step away from being in the cage.’ One poor blighter, who couldn’t follow instructions, was assailed; brought to his knees; humiliated. He was, of course, one of the crew, but a good one. For each new group pushed past the checkpoint, he repeated the routine quite convincingly.
Some time later, we were filed through another checkpoint, to have our papers validated. Suddenly we found ourselves released from the senseless discipline, free to wander. And even drink beer. But all was not well. A man with a balaclava, screaming threats, pointed a gun at my face. It was a near thing.
Tired and traumatised, we waited, patiently, anxiously, to be admitted to the main event which, not soon enough, we were. We filled the main space of The Factory, reading projected tweets, profound, mostly, only in their inanity. By and by, the film itself began, with sound pumped through the PA. But something went wrong and the gypsy, now divested of oranges, had to ad lib.
So you see, this isn’t merely cinema, but an immersive experience much more akin to live theatre. Whether typical or not, I’ve no way of knowing (this being UC’s Sydney debut) but the whole act needs to be tightened up. A lot. Even though, in this case, all the waiting around might’ve been sheeted home as part of the act, it seemed to be more down to loose ‘stage management’.
But yes, it’s a good idea. Not only does it contextualise and enrich a good film, it can bring salient sociopolitical questions right to the fore and thrust them in your face. It’s a powerful idea. Of course, if some of the crowd was anything to go by, it’s going to be derailed and devalued by mere ‘oh, cool!’, hard-drinking, noisy partygoers, looking for a diversion from their usual Friday night routine. But yes, it’s a good idea.
The film? Well, minutes in, the relevance of the precursive theatre began to coalesce. Harry Potter director Alfonso Cuaron’s dystopian global vision of a future not far removed. In Children of Men, Britain is a hellhole. Well, more of a hellhole. Paranoia reigns. And for good reason.
The paranoid’s worst fears have already come true. This is Mad Max without the mullets and, most scarily of all, it’s largely credible. Oddly, the film been criticised for its lack of special effects, yet this is one of its primary strengths. As a feat of traditional filmmaking, where filmmaking means superlative direction, cinematography and editing, backed by a taut plot, well-developed, colourfully idiosyncratic characters and robust performances, in that order, it’s virtually insurpassable. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have flaws. There are one or two Indiana Jones-style comic lines or two which break the tension, but whereas this might be acceptable in the fantastical contrivance that’s Indiana and while in themselves they appealed strongly to my black sense of humour, they’re a spoiler insofar as jolting you out of a palpable alternative reality. In Cuaron’s world not far removed, women can no longer conceive, so the most sought after commodity on the planet isn’t oil, food, water or the latest iPhone, but fertility.
The human world is, thus, dying on the vine, or umbilical cord. So when a pregnant African woman turns up, she’s much in demand by forces ranging from relatively good to downright evil. The biggest news story, which opens the film, is of the youngest person on Earth dying, at eighteen, and with him, all hope. The chaos that already prevails on the streets is intensified. Xenophobia yet again becomes magnified, such that refugees are hoarded in cages, in plain view. (It’s more honest than a hidden-from-public-view detention centre, I s’pose.)
The circumstances of the young woman’s impregnation aren’t explained, which leaves a gaping hole in the script and affords all manner of rampant speculation, including the possibility of the God squad construing an impending virgin birth. And Clive Owen’s transformation from mild-mannered bureaucrat, Theo Faron, back to his supposed radical guerilla self entirely lacks believability. In fact, it’s laughable, especially when we see him reborn, virtually overnight, as a hard all-round action man, but with a heart of pure gold. This is where an otherwise complex and well-developed character starts to unravel and fall apart at the seams. Similarly, the cliched ‘can’t live with him/her, can’t live without him/her’ relationship between Owen and his ex-wife, Julian, played by the endlessly-versatile and always compelling Julianne Moore is tedious. Happily, the tedium is relieved by her brutal, premature death, a scene so convincingly staged it stands as one of the most horrifically affecting slayings I’ve ever seen on-screen.
While the ageless Michael Caine pus in a good turn as ageing crackpot pothead hippie Jasper (whose relationship with his turned-vegetable wife raises the spectre of euthanasia, to complicate things further), it’s probably Claire-Hope Ashitey, as Kee, who steals most of the scenes; she rivals Moore for sheer screen presence.
Cuaron has conceived something wonderful in this adaptation of P. D. James novel, but has made too many side trips down well-worn roads, seemingly trying to make what might otherwise have been a truly great and enduring classic into all things to all people. A crowd-pleaser it is, but it’s sold out on itself. So much promise squandered. That said, Children of Men is still a viscerally uncompromising film, more than worth seeing, as I said, for gritty, realist cinematography, tight editing and glimpses of that grand promise.
Underground Cinema enriches and vivifies the cinematic experience, turning it into something participatory and theatrical.