Saturday, November 6, 2010

All You Need is Love: Reflections on Never Let Me Go

The Beatles had it right: All you need is love.

Perhaps not in those exact terms, but love is the secret of the universe, the philosopher's stone that so many have sought to attain. Occam's razor: the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Yet, love? It just seems too simple, too trite. Love? Cheesy!

While the notion of love is simple enough, enacting it on a daily, continuous basis is complex and frequently, difficult work. If one can truly master the art of loving, not a la Kama Sutra (although I'm sure it helps), but more in the mode of Erich Fromm, one has figured out this game of life.

So how could we have got such a simple concept so wrong? 

Such are the questions that arise upon seeing the excellent British film Never Let Me Go, based on the novel by Japanese-born, British author Kazuo Ishiguro. The Brits have a cinematic history of doing sci-fi social dystopia very well, and Never Let Me Go can proudly take its place beside such classics as Village of the Damned based on The Midwich Cuckoos and Joseph Losey's The Damned (no relation to the former). That some of the best of British sci-fi were made during the height of the cold war when H-bomb anxieties were particularly high is made clear by the prominence of radioactive children in those scripts.

Good science-fiction has always used a fictionalized future to examine problems and anxieties in our society now. That the children of Never Let Me Go are bred solely for the future utilization of their vital organs suggests a current deficit of humanity in our society, where individuals are not seen as enchanted, unique souls. If they are seen at all, it is for utilitarian purposes. While thankfully --hopefully!-- we may not feel this attitude is the prevalent one in our neighbourhoods and communities, many do sense this cold disenchantment coming from government, big business and the dying institutions that surround us. At this war-torn and uncertain time in history, the fact that humanity is facing a massive spiritual and ecological crisis is hard to deny.

What is the value of one human life in an alienated world? Can the expression of love and creativity reenchant a soulless universe? Tommy, played by Andrew Garfield, asks this question of Miss Emily, the headmistress played by Charlotte Rampling, and her response provides one of the most chilling --and infuriating-- moments in the film, because the audience knows that the ones who have souls are the ones who got the short ends of the sticks.

There is bargaining in this film. While these children have been raised not to question their fates or the fairness of their short lives, of course, they do, and the answers don't come easily. The audience is left to grapple on their own with these difficult issues, which undoubtedly is the reason Never Let Me Go split audience opinion. Furthermore, the heartless society of this film is a reflection of our own, which is a recognition that may be too unsettling for some to countenance. Personally, I can't regard films as powerful as Never Let Me Go in such a dismissive and repressive way. Rather, I welcome the opportunity to sit with these questions, because the issues raised by Never Let Me Go are many. Watching this film, you'll find yourself thinking of all kinds of injustices and inhumanities, some of which you may have experienced, or even, enacted.

The film's title comes from a torch-song sung by Jane Monheit, a song of love and longing and the human desire to feel needed, to love and be loved. Such a simple concept, the inspiration for countless songs, and yet, perhaps because of its simplicity, so easy to get wrong.