JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Children's glimpse into the collective future of disaster apartheid.

The guarded entrance of the “green zone” in futuristic London.

The rich stroll through St. James’ Park.

Burning bodies in the “red zone” of futuristic Bexhill.

The Uprising incites urban warfare that is reminiscent of the Iraq War.

Combat stops as the soldiers stare in awe at Kee’s newborn.

A moment later, the fighting resumes.

In Legend's first lockdown scene, Neville shuts steel doors that cover the windows of his daughter’s former room.

God’s eye view of Neville during the second lockdown scene.

Neville’s last line of defense.

The relentless dark seekers climb the walls of Neville’s Washington Square townhouse.

Legend’s citation of Shrek includes dialogue about walls and resettlement areas, themes pertinent to the disaster-capitalism complex.

In reading Legend as an allegory of the War on Terror, the dark seekers play the part of jihadists (although all of them appear to be white).

“Savior? Soldier. Scientist.”

Anna and Ethan must pass through customs before gaining admittance into the survivor’s colony.

What former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin might call the “real America.”

New Jerusalem for neoconservatives.

The leader of the dark seekers. The film hints at but does not pursue his intelligence to avoid contradicting its neoconservative agenda.

At the end of Children, the boat separates Theo, Kee, and the baby from the oppressive social dimension, represented in the background by the flashing light of an airstrike.

Viva la Revolución!

Jesus and Lenin.

More Lenin .

I Am Conservative-Corporatist

In The Shock Doctrine, Klein claims that the neoliberal era ushered in a “capitalist Reformation” that doubled as a counterrevolution to Keynesianism and Third World developmentalism (Klein 2007b: 53). Like Harvey, she views neoliberalism as a theory of political economic practices that seek to restore class power through deregulation, privatization, and cuts to social spending, a free-market trinity bent on redistributing wealth as much as generating it. Put into practice, neoliberalization morphs into corporatism, a vast collusion between Big Government and Big Business to transfer public wealth to private hands while an ever-widening chasm opens up between “the dazzling rich and the disposable poor” (Klein 2007b: 15). The recent $700 billion financial bailout of banks by the U.S. government provides a clear example of this collusion.

Klein charts how the rise of corporatism spawned a disaster-capitalism complex that at once extends and supersedes the military-industrial (and congressional) complex President Eisenhower diagnosed in his 1961 farewell address. With the emergence of the disaster-capitalism complex, the latent “creative destruction” that fueled the engines of capital since its inception surges to the surface to become the recognized modus operandi of the economy. Today, crisis opportunism entwines superprofits with megadisasters to the point where

“all conflict- and disaster-related functions (waging war, securing borders, spying on citizens, rebuilding cities, treating traumatized soldiers) can be performed by corporations at a profit” (Klein 2007c: 50).

Although “disaster capitalism” has been part of neoliberal policy for over three decades, it did not develop into a full-scale complex until after 9/11 with the War on Terror. As Klein writes,

“Although the state goal was fighting terrorism, the effect was the creation of the disaster capitalism complex — a full-fledged new economy in homeland security, privatized war and disaster reconstruction tasked with nothing less than building and running a privatized security state, both at home and abroad” (Klein 2007b: 299).

Under the auspice of fighting terrorism, the disaster-capitalism complex insidiously developed into a fully articulated state-within-a-state, a corporate shadow-state, that carries out the normal functions of a nation-state but at a heftier price.

While the disaster-capitalism complex is not unprecedented — the fear was always that the military-industrial complex would wage wars for strictly monetary reasons — its emergence represents a new phase in globalization. Klein points out,

“For decades, the conventional wisdom was that generalized mayhem was a drain on the global economy. Individual shocks and crises could be harnessed as leverage to force open new markets, of course, but after the initial shock had done its work, relative peace and stability were required for sustained economic growth” (Klein 2007b: 423).

The disaster-capitalism complex upturns this belief in political stability by thriving “in conditions of low-intensity grinding conflict” (Klein 2007b: 441). Worldwide wars on terrorism provide the perfect ruse for the disaster-capitalism complex, where

“the point is to create ‘security’ inside fortress states bolstered by endless low-level conflict outside their walls” (Klein 2007b: 441).

The next logical leap is to expand the market of the disaster-capitalism complex from war-torn and disaster-struck countries to everyday civilian life. Instead of building green zones to protect military operations, residential green zones are being built to shelter those who can afford them.

Klein envisions the endgame of this burgeoning complex as “a collective future of disaster apartheid” where the super-rich reside in the gated green zones of hyperserviced states completely segregated from the ultra-poor surplus people who struggle to survive in the red zones of failed states (Klein 2007c: 54). In this future corporatist dystopia, the world will be partitioned into the armored suburbs of contract, or stand-alone, cities on one side of the fence and a post-apocalyptic no-man’s-land of FEMA-villes on the other.[19][open endnotes in new window]

All of this is to say that Klein prophesizes the world Cuarón creates in Children. More accurately, Cuarón imagines Klein’s “collective future of disaster apartheid” by transposing the conflicts of recent history in places like Iraq, Palestine, Bosnia, Somalia, and Northern Ireland — his admitted references — to 2027 England. As Hurricane Katrina exposed a disaster apartheid already at work within the U.S., Children confirms that the future is now.

In one poignant scene, a Bentley chauffeurs Theo into the inner circle to see Nigel about obtaining transit papers. As “The Court of the Crimson King” plays, the car passes through Admiralty Arch, which is guarded by a troop of soldiers, two gates, two tanks, and a sentry tower. Inside The Mall, Theo witnesses the absurdity of the Household Calvary Mounted Regiment parading down the street, and the Band of the Scots Guard performing “The Spirit of Pageantry” as the wealthy stroll through St. James’s Park with their pet zebras, poodles, and camels. After driving through another guarded checkpoint outside of the Ark of Art (Battersea Power Station), the Bentley drops off Theo inside where he must walk through a metal detector. 

Nigel lives tucked away in this fortress for the super-rich with Picasso’s Guernica decorating the wall, attendants who serve multiple-course meals, and wine, pills, and video games at hand. This is “England as a Green Zone, a comfort zone,” as Cuarón puts it.

“[T]he characters feel they’re lucky to live there, but there’s a big percentage of outsiders waiting to get in” (Busack 2007: unpaginated).

In Children the state rounds up these outsiders and deports them to cordoned off areas on the opposite side of the green zone’s walls and fences. The crowded, chaotic, and grimy streets of Bexhill provide the film’s red zones. Here “the other half lives” in slums comprised of makeshift dwellings and ramshackle buildings as roadside garbage and corpses burn alike. Here the Fishes stage the “Uprising,” an insurrection against the state, which reveals that red zones often double as rubble-filled war zones when tensions erupt.

Children artfully illustrates the dialectical disparities between green and red zones that Klein theorizes, but only after Legend was released could the ideological stakes of filmic representations of the disaster-capitalism complex be grasped in their entirety. In the interests of detailing Legend’s allegiance to neoliberalism in the previous section, I ignored one important element of the film: the imminent threat posed by the dark seekers. These vampiric zombies represent the sole impediment to Neville’s consumerist freedom. When the sun sets, Neville must barricade himself in his Washington Square townhouse to prevent his becoming their next meal. In the first lockdown scene, Neville fastens a crossbar security lock on his front door and shuts seven windows outfitted with retractable steel doors. The montage-quick succession of this lockdown repeats later in the film as rolling steel doors and shutters close on another five windows. In this latter scene, we also witness the elaborate defense system Neville has installed in case of an emergency. Powerful lights form a perimeter around his fortress home to deter the photophobic vampires. Parked cars rigged with remote-controlled explosives provide a last line of defense.[20]

Essentially, Legend and Children represent the two faces of the disaster-capitalism complex but from opposing perspectives. Children’s red zone population of “fugees” and illegal immigrants mutate into Legend’s feral dark seekers, and its green zone population of ministers (Nigel) and bureaucrats (Theo) become Greenwich Village’s resident military scientist. These character transformations entail a shift in the audience’s empathy and point of identification. While the progression of Theo and Kee’s journey leads the audience to empathize with the plight of those barred from a privatized security state, the hellbent dark seekers who threaten Neville elicit empathy for his imperiled one-man gated community. While Children invites us to identify with those who are critical of the disaster-capitalism complex, Legend solicits the opposite allegiance with those orchestrating it.

The conflicting character loyalties in Children and Legend can be explained by their opposing conceptions of political space. To understand the films’ diametrical conceptions of political space, I refer to Žižek’s often cited example from Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Structural Anthropology of the spatial arrangement of buildings in the village of the Winnebago tribe. When asked to map their village, the Winnebago’s two sub-groups draw the ground-plan as a circle:

"...but for one sub-group, there is within this circle another circle of central houses, so that we have two concentric circles, while for the other sub-group, the circle is split into two by a clear dividing line. In other words, a member of the first sub-group (let us call it 'conservative-corporatist') perceives the ground-plan of the village as a ring of houses more or less symmetrically disposed around the central temple, whereas a member of the second ('revolutionary-antagonistic') sub-group perceives his/her village as two distinct heaps of houses separated by an invisible frontier....The central point of Lévi-Strauss is that this example should in no way entice us into cultural relativism, according to which the perception of social space depends on the observer’s group-belonging: the very splitting into the two 'relative' perceptions implies a hidden reference to a constant — not the objective, 'actual' disposition of buildings but a traumatic kernel, a fundamental antagonism the inhabitants of the village were unable to symbolize, to account for, to 'internalize,' to come to terms with, an imbalance in social relations that prevented the community from stabilizing itself into a harmonious whole." (Žižek 2007: unpaginated)

Žižek reads Lévi-Strauss’ story of the Winnebago tribe as an allegory of the difference between conservative and radical politics. Contrary to the typical social scientific understanding that locates Right and Left on two sides of a political spectrum, Žižek argues that the Right and Left view the political field in mutually exclusive ways. As he puts it, a Leftist and a Rightist

“not only occupy different places within the political space, each of them perceives differently the very disposition of the political space — a Leftist as the field that is inherently split by some fundamental antagonism, a Rightist as the organic unity of a Community disturbed only by foreign intruders” (Žižek 2007: unpaginated).

Leftists recognize an inherent imbalance in social relations (the map of a circle divided by an “invisible frontier”), which eludes Rightists who symbolically efface this imbalance (the map of two concentric circles). (As President George W. Bush said about his 2003 tax cut plan, “I understand the politics of economic stimulus. Some would like to turn this into class warfare. That’s not how I think.”)

Instead of acknowledging what Leftists call the “class struggle,” Rightists displace the fundamental antagonism inherent within society to an antagonism between homeland and foreign intruder. Instead of the “invisible frontier” of the class struggle, Rightists perceive a “visible frontier” that divides society from an extrinsic agent who threatens to compromise the integrity of the organic community — Jews for fascists, blacks for white supremacists, Communists for U.S. cold warriors, “Welfare Queens” for Reaganites, terrorists and illegal immigrants for neoconservatives.           

I contend that Legend and Children conceive of political space in an analogous way to the two sub-groups of the Winnebago tribe. Where the conservative-corporatist Legend imagines a harmonious society vulnerable to external enemies, the revolutionary-antagonistic Children depicts a society at odds with itself, one internally divided by an “invisible frontier.” In Legend, Neville barricades himself within his townhouse. Encircling his green zone fortress is a Manhattan-sized red zone of abandoned buildings, each potentially occupied by vicious monsters who jeopardize his otherwise unbridled consumerism. In Children, “only Britain soldiers on” by viciously excluding foreigners. Children’s red zoners are not blood-sucking vampires, but refugees who suffer from a serious imbalance in social relations. They are homo sacer, Giorgio Agamben’s term for those whom the state refuses to recognize as political subjects. By detaining them in internment camps, the state strips them of their rights and reduces them to their biological existence (what Agamben calls “bare life”).

The different antagonisms each film envisions imply divergent solutions. In Children, salvation lies outside the green zones with those who do not enjoy capital returns and whose very exclusion makes possible the surplus enjoyment of the privileged. In Legend, when Neville gives his life to restore humanity, he becomes the source of salvation. These are two different species of salvation. In one, the underclasses and those class traitors who conspire with them save humanity. In the other, a military man saves humanity with the aid of an ethnic woman’s faith. Anna’s closing military-style eulogy praises Neville because “he gave his life to defend it,” “it” being an indefinite pronoun that refers to the cure but also brings to mind instances when the phrase applies to “country” or “nation.” Neville dies in the line of duty, a hero defending the homeland from infidels.

The ideological implications of Neville’s patriotism were not lost on one reviewer, Bob Mondello from NPR’s All Things Considered. In his rather gracious review, “I Am Legend a One-Man American Metaphor,” Mondello reads Lawrence’s film within the context of the fall 2007 season of “War-on-Terrorism, Rendition-for-Lambs-In-the-Valley-of-Elah movies”:

"I mean, it’s still a sci-fi blockbuster, but take a look at that plot: Western medicine takes a virus (a bad thing) and manipulates it so that it can fight cancer (a worse thing). Sort of like Western military forces arming jihadists (which they regard as a bad thing) so that they’ll fight communists (which they regard as a worse thing). And then the built-up virus — the bad thing — mutates into something much worse than the cancer, and it turns on its creators. And this starts where? That’s right: In New York, which everyone in the movie keeps calling Ground Zero. And some poor schmoe who didn’t start the problem has to try to fix it. But even if he comes up with a cure, a way to make the nasty infected guys human again, they’re just going to keep coming [as Neville echoes, 'They’re not going to stop. They’re not going to stop.'], banging their heads against plate glass, destroying the civilized world and — here’s the kicker — either killing everyone they come into contact with or converting them into monsters just like themselves. And the only solution is to shoot them dead — or withdraw behind metal walls, into a fortress-like homeland. And that’s not working." (Mondello 2007: unpaginated)

While I concur with Mondello’s general political reading of the film, I find his characterization of Neville as a “poor schmoe” suspect. Neville is not poor in any sense of the term, nor does Lawrence depict him as a schmoe. In one scene, Neville opens his refrigerator to provide the audience with an anamorphic gaze at a Time magazine cover graced by his picture. The caption reads, “Savior, Soldier, Scientist.” Although Neville has appended a question mark, the shot establishes his place in a neoconservative movement that mollifies the detrimental effects of its disaster-capitalism complex by appealing to fundamentalist “knowledge.” In addition, the shot invites the audience to share in the mythos surrounding Neville’s (and Smith’s) public celebrity: surely a military man (and star Hollywood actor) who works in good faith can save us from the forces of evil.

I also question Mondello’s claim that according to the film, fortressing the homeland fails as a viable policy for combating “Islamo-fascist” dark seekers. Although the terrorists successfully invade Neville’s home, the walled-in fortress town that is the survivor’s colony seems impenetrable. When Anna and Ethan reach its steel gates, a scanner system confirms that they are not infected, i.e. illegal immigrants. The gates open to two armed soldiers guarding an idyllic Small Town, U.S.A. The bells of a traditional white-steepled Protestant church ring while the stars and bars wave in the wind. A bird’s-eye shot reveals that this privatized security state is a self-sustaining farm powered by wind turbines.

The linked images of soldiers, church, flag, defense walls, farm, and green technology provide a perfect dialectical image of the neoconservative utopian vision. In Bethel, apparent contradictions are reconciled. Under God, one nation lives indivisible, with liberty and justice for green zone residents only. A fundamentalist moral order integrates the latest scientific discoveries of the eco revolution. And dark seekers the world over are miraculously cured by a Eucharistic vaccine (and, of course, by the liberal democracy and free market capitalism spreading across the globe).

The 2008 DVD release of Legend confirmed the existence of an alternate ending in which Neville peacefully returns the uncured female test subject to the male leader of the dark seekers before safely escaping Manhattan with Anna and Ethan. In this ending, Neville apologizes for abducting the female test subject (and perhaps for attempting to “save” her), the butterfly imagery is profaned (the male leader uses it to identify his partner), and Bethel remains an off-screen hope instead of a reality. This nonviolent ending utterly alters the politics of the theatrical release.[21] Instead of a suicide bomber’s sacrifice based on fundamentalist “knowledge” that leaves no room for belief in the human rights of the dark seekers, the alternative ending proposes a diplomatic resolution to the antagonism between two equal families. Although this ending is also ideological, it does not support the neoconservative agenda of stimulating the disaster-capitalism complex through aggressive foreign policy acts like preemptive wars.

The disparity between Legend’s endings may tempt conspiracy theorists to speculate that an apparatchik in the Bush administration hijacked the film in post-production and instructed Warner Brothers to produce a “why we fight” conclusion for theaters. Klein suggests a more banal but no less evil explanation when she raises the specter of a disaster-capitalism-culture industry complex[22] :

"The homeland-security sector is also becoming increasingly integrated with media corporations, a development that has Orwellian implications….The creeping expansion of the disaster-capitalism complex into the media may prove to be a new kind of corporate synergy, one building on the vertical integration that became so popular in the Nineties. It certainly makes sound business sense. The more panicked our societies become, convinced that there are terrorists lurking in every mosque, the higher the news ratings soar, the more biometric IDs and liquid-explosive-detection devices the complex sells, and the more high-tech fences it builds. If the dream of the open, borderless 'small planet' was the ticket to profits during the Clinton years, the nightmare of the menacing, fortressed Western continents, under siege from jihadists and illegal immigrants, plays the same role in the new millennium." (Klein 2007c: 58)

The culture industry, Klein warns, is evolving. Beyond selling us products or even consumerism itself, films like Legend now push corporatism, that unholy “mutually supporting alliance between a police state and large corporations,” which the neoconservative moment appropriates Christianity to help sanctify (Klein 2007b: 86). Legend may fail to induce panic or nightmares because its CGI villains are unconvincing (a popular criticism). Nevertheless, it delivers verbatim the chilling neoconservative agenda of a neoliberal utopia of unfettered disaster capitalism justified by the fundamentalist “knowledge” of an apocalyptic Christian teleology.

Legend and Children herald a new phase in disaster films, one related to what Gill Branston, in his reading of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow (2004), calls “issue event blockbusters.”[23] Instead of exploring the representability of a hot button political issue like climate change, however, Legend and Children operate as political allegories of the Anglo-American neoconservative moment.[24] If, as Ian Buchanan writes, “all texts are political allegories, symbolically working through and provisionally resolving a variety of social and cultural anxieties,” then these two films do so with the social and cultural anxieties provoked by the disaster-capitalism complex (Buchanan 2006: 61). It is no exaggeration to say that Legend and Children could not resolve these anxieties more differently.

******

Žižek applauds as a “solution” the floating boat at the end of Children, which he reads as a metaphor for cutting one’s roots. Reminiscent of all emancipatory struggles, the boat represents the utopian moment of separation from an oppressive social dimension. Children’s unmoored boat contrasts with Bethel, the literal shining city upon a hillin Legend. Children posits utopia as the desire for a radically different social order and the foray into the abyss to create it rather than a realized harmonious social order whose antagonistic sources have been eradicated.

Although the utopian moment is important, we should not forget to register the discipline, collective effort, and individual sacrifices that set the stage for this utopian moment. The foreground story of Children tells the story of a motley crew whose rejection of the unacceptable state of the present — its draconian immigration policies, xenophobic border controls, unwarranted military campaigns, inter- and intra-generational inequities, ecological deterioration, etc. — unites them to carry out the trying and sometimes dangerous work of bringing about an indeterminate, yet radically other future.

One scene in Children, in particular, represents the patient work of revolution. The scene titled “Reasonable Accommodations” on the DVD version takes us into a house of revolutionary-antagonists.[25] A gypsy woman named Marichka (Oana Pellea) — a variation of “Marina,” Russian for “sea” — leads Kee and Theo to a former bank whose residents now include an elderly Georgian couple. The couple feeds Theo and Kee and provides them a much needed respite in their apartment decorated with Byzantine icons of Christ and busts of Lenin. The elderly woman sings to Kee’s baby and presents her with a swan sculpted from an orange. Sirdjan (Faruk Pruti), a middle-aged man from the Balkans, gifts Theo a much-needed pair of shoes, procures a boat for them to meet the Human Project, and later dies helping them get to shore. Here, in the ironic setting of a former English bank now occupied by an aged couple from the former Soviet Union, the Russian Revolution sprouts to life like a weed through the cracks of capitalism’s foundation. This is an image of Jesus the Left can live with, a Christ worth imitating — one who perseveres in working for reasonable accommodations for all.

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