Friday, May 27, 2011

Family, God, and Creation in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

In...I guess it would have been early 2006, Terrence Malick revealed the cinema to me. I had seen Badlands and The Thin Red Line already (Days of Heaven would come later), and though I'd liked both (particularly Badlands...still struggle with TTRL to be honest), I was completely unprepared for The New World. Maybe it was the difference of experiencing it first on the big screen; I don't know. But my reaction to The New World was completely unlike any I'd had to any film prior. I felt, for the first time, I had seen a vision of this art form that I didn't know was possible. No, not just a vision - a total realization. With just one movie, the cinema had become so much bigger and grander. More exciting, more alive. A friend I saw it with needed only to look at me before saying, "you loved it, didn't you?" I struggled for words, tossing out " is too small..." Walking out of it I felt both more enlightened to the world around me and numb, for it didn't always feel as grand as the vision Malick presented.

I've been waiting ever since for a new Terrence Malick film. Trust me, I was prepared to be bowled over, wowed, enlightened, enthralled, numb, and completely and totally in awe. And still The Tree of Life completely took the wind out of me. I sit and hope and pray that the movies can make me feel this alive, and so often I settle for less declaring something a "great film." Malick redefines that, shows that the standard by which we typically judge greatness is too often inadequate. I'm not saying I don't still love Never Let Me Go or Fantastic Mr. Fox or Synecdoche, New York or any of the other films I've called the best of their year, some of which are starting to become the best of the decade, and will eventually go onto be our new classics. I'm saying this to call attention to one of the greatest accomplishments I've ever seen, not just in cinema, but in all of art.

To give you a limited outline of the story, The Tree of Life is about a family in a small Texas town in the 1950s, largely as remembered by Jack, the oldest of three children, who now works as an architect (or so I gather) in a large metropolitan area. On that level, it's a totally involving family drama, a fascinating exploration of oppression, the limits of ambition, the small things we do to hurt the people who mean the most to us, and the inevitability of forgiveness. It just also concerns the moment of creation and the evolution of life, and for the purposes of this piece, that's really all you need to know.

Malick has been working on this story in various forms since the 1970s, and it still comes across with such incredible clarity of vision, such distinct purpose and vulnerability. The press likes to call Malick a "recluse" because he refuses to speak to them, or to any other public forum, but I can't imagine anyone watching The Tree of Life and not fully understanding who he is. Every other director hits the publicity trail, but what do we really learn about any of them? Can you say you've gained a greater understanding of James Cameron because he was interviewed constantly surrounding the release of Avatar? Malick puts all of his hopes, his fears, his curiosities, and his artistic ambition onscreen, and somehow that remains insufficient. There is plenty from what little we know of his life to draw comparisons to the film, but even without the advantage of a biography, can't you see it all? The search for God in all living things, the questions about why life even exists and how small we are in the grand scheme of things and how truly tragic that is on a personal level.

Malick's camera, guided by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, wanders the world, at once searching for meaning and finding it in everything. Malick has the most improvisational camera style of any director, willing to send it in any direction on a moment's notice to capture the way light fills a room, a bird in flight, a shadow, a leaf, or a tear. Too often criticized for creating beautiful images that back up nothing, in The Tree of Life they directly underline his central philosophy - that all of this matters ("All things shining," as he says in The Thin Red Line). Everything is an expression of our importance.

Malick proves that one need not treat the universe's indifference to us with a similar mindset. He expresses our infinitesimal smallness in the context of time and the universe while acknowledging how monumental our lives feel. Each moment, each touch, each action, every run down the street or argument or failure is the stuff that can shake the foundation of God himself, and yet this too shall pass. God, or at least the fundamental idea of Him, has always been a presence in Malick's films; even Badlands, albeit to a smaller degree. In Days of Heaven, Linda reflects on the apocalypse just as harvest begins, and notes the presence of the angels and demons wrestling inside all of us. In The Thin Red Line, much of Private Witt's voiceover could be read as prayer, and much of the film seems to ask what place war has in God's plan. The New World is almost a retelling of the Garden of Eden, the fall of man, and the search for redemption (in spite of the studio's attempts to advertise it as the the greatest love story since Titanic).

God (or, again, the fundamental idea of Him) is almost a character in The Tree of Life, inhabiting both the natural world, a common concept in Malick's work, and, more uniquely, the world we have built on top of it. So much of the voiceover sounds like a prayer, so much of the yearning an ache to find something at the heart of existence. All of the characters grew up in the Church, and their expression of that is varied. Both Mr. (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. (Jessica Chastain) O'Brien accept God; Mr. O'Brien on uneasy, if devotional, terms, and Mrs. O'Brien on a deeper level she probably couldn't express.

Mr. O'Brien (neither of the parents have first names) is the product of an earlier era - he would have grown up through the depression and almost certainly fought in World War II. Almost all of the adults in his childhood would have seen World War I firsthand. He's seen the cruelty of the world, and works actively to prepare his sons for it, regardless of what opinion of him that creates. And yet he yearns for love, constantly asking for them to affirm it while being unable to keep his frequent disdain for them hidden. He is the expression of the Old Testament God, certainly, in that he seeks the best for his children by huge, forceful, sometimes violent gestures that come from what he must see as a loving place. He once wanted to be a musician. He still believes that with enough hard work he can create something lasting and fruitful. This stands as perhaps Pitt's best performance to date - there exists not a trace of ego nor grandstanding. He simply inhabits a cold, cruel man with overwhelming sympathy and understanding, and through his performance I found the greatest sadness in his character.

Chastain is, like all Malick women aside from Holly in Badlands, the ultimate expression of goodness, and the God of the New Testament - loving and forgiving, she believes the postwar world will be a beautiful and good place. She is pure, curious, and in a constant state of awe, eager to pass that feeling along to her children, who sometimes lash out at her but always come back with adoration. Chastain, like Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World, often feels unleashed in this film, free to simply exist rather than perform, a defining trait of Malick's later works.

Jack (Sean Penn) seems to still be searching for God (or any meaning to his life), and while we're not given much time with the adult Jack, we understand everything very quickly. Penn is an actor who so often gives too much to his performances, so it's nice to be reminded here that simply one look at his face tells you everything about his emotional state - constant search and doubt. The product of the modern age and a steady career, he has the luxury of curiosity and no immediate need for the certainty his parents had. He wanders around his house or office in a daze, despite Malick's camera telling us that these places can be just as full of wonder as the childhood stomping grounds he remembers with equal parts fondness and trepidation. And if he'd look deep into those memories, he'd find the purest expression of faith - his relationship with his brothers. Their actions gave their churches and faith meaning - in one shot of the boys playing amongst the pews, Malick restores majesty to a building so often diminished and institutionalized. Their faith is established when their parents tell them stories, or teach them about the world around them before they're even able to speak. It is instilled in fundamental steps of forgiveness, trust, and the bond of brotherhood. They naturally came to understand all of their teachings, and in doing so, found God.

And yet I don't think of this as fundamentally a Christian film, or at least a film only people of faith will find value in (its critical championing, which includes Richard Brody's declaration that God isn't in the film at all, is enough to buoy that anyway). I think anyone who asks questions about the nature of existence and believes in the profundity of the human experience will find The Tree of Life a welcome expression of those concerns. It is simply that the character's search for meaning, along with Malick's by all appearances, come from a Christian upbringing and are explored through that foundation. Its conclusions, suggestions, and remaining questions are human ones filtered through a specific mindset but ultimately, fundamentally untethered to any specific religion.

After all that, I'm still not making any claims to understanding everything in The Tree of Life. I know some are confronted with a lack of comprehension and scoff at it, but I don't need to totally understand The Tree of Life to recognize its magnificence, to know that it deeply affected me at my very core. I spent the whole film on the verge of tears, not overwhelmed by any particular tragedy (though the film does explore that) or sadness (though the film is most definitely immersed in the sometimes unbearable sadness of existence), but by the beauty of what was onscreen and the outpouring of emotion. Many have criticized Malick's later-period films (this, The New World, and The Thin Red Line) for being terribly on-the-nose with the voiceover dialogue, but that seems more to me a reaction to the emotionally guarded landscape we now live in. Malick's prose is not only beautiful, often poetically written and so earnestly expressed by his actors, it is the complete outpouring of its author. As a society, we reject emotional authenticity as "cheesy" and "sentimental," which I find to be an immense tragedy, especially in approaching art. Emotional authenticity should be the ultimate goal, a sign of greatness, in all artistic pursuits, especially when it expressed this adroitly.

I loved The Tree of Life, and I suspect you will, too. For anyone who cares about film, it's essential viewing. For anyone who cares about art, it comes highly recommended. For anyone who wonders about the nature of existence, it is and indispensable conduit. It is an overwhelming, profoundly affecting artistic experience, one that expresses how essential our lives are all the while giving us something to live for.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

On the Other Hand, Men Are Incapable of Being Funny at Times

Well, the parallel worked, anyway. I'd be lying if I said I never laughed during The Hangover, Part II, or that it was an awful movie or any of that. It just doesn't hang together all that well, you know what I mean? If you don't, I reviewed it for Battleship Pretension.

By the by, I'm bringing back "A Movie a Day" very soon. I realized that I'd just started watching a movie every day, so I might as well write a little somethin'-somethin' about them.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

*Sigh*...Yes...They Can Be Funny, Too

Bridesmaids is the funniest movie I've seen since Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and one of the best movies of the year, period (I'd still put Certified Copy ahead of it, because Certified Copy is so very wonderful). And I don't want to hear any crap about how women star in it. Seriously. I thought we all understood that women were people, too, by now, but I am astounded by how many people are like blown away that a movie with women in it could possibly be good, and how even if it is good they don't really know if they'll end up seeing it because, you know...women. Good Lord. A movie is either worthwhile or it is not, and Bridesmaids is seriously awesome.

And I explain why in my review at Battleship Pretension!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Short Film Shout-Out

Last Monday I had the pleasure of attending the premiere of The Character Project, a series of short films produced by the USA Network. This is an odd undertaking for a non-premium channel - each film totally stands alone, and they all vary in length. The project's goal is to present "the character of America," and while each film sort of falls into the stereotype of what you would expect a corporate entity to see as "the character of America" (mostly white, save for a black kid with a disability, all with fairly lofty struggles), one of them absolutely knocked my socks off.

That film was Lauri Faggioni's "Wyckoff Place," a short film about a group of kids who all live in a Brooklyn apartment building. And yes, they all play together and through them we can learn lessons of togetherness and so forth. And yeah, I'm the first (or maybe second) person who would find this sort of thing totally hokey. But as with all great things, it's all in the presentation.

Faggioni's film feels like a modern-day, documentary version of "Peanuts," oddly enough. Her subjects - the kids - are just as broadly drawn and well-defined as anyone in Charles Schultz's classic strip, and except for the occasional instance when we can hear Faggioni's voice, she presents their world as totally adult-free. Her interest is solely in the society these kids have created for themselves, and the strange politics of gender and rules of play that I had completely forgotten about. Her film perfectly captures what childhood is like with idealizing it and without injecting adult struggles into it. Too often when we see kids struggle in films, it's an extension of whatever problems their parents are having - money troubles, divorce, etc. Faggioni's kids struggle with being well-liked, wondering what the other kids think of them, having control of whatever game is taking place, or trying to ditch an unwanted nickname.

In the Q&A afterward, Faggioni said she set out to make a film about how the kids see race barriers (almost all of the kids are first- or second-generation immigrants), but found that the kids didn't think about that at all, and to her credit, she didn't force her original intent. She found something else, and made the film about that. The result is a far more universal portrait of a specific period in grade school when all that mattered was what game was being played, what the rules were, and the extent to which boys or girls were included.

Her aesthetic is fairly low-key, but totally spry. It's very difficult to keep up with kids, but Faggioni and her camera operators never fail to capture the right action at the right moments. The result is a wonderful, poetic version of a home video that just captures life as it is with little interference. It's uncommonly funny and touching in a genuine, unforced way. I really hope she's able to make a feature from it, and I greatly look forward to whatever she does next.

"Wyckoff Place," and the other films in this series, will play in San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles again, but are becoming available online here. I cannot recommend enough that you catch "Wyckoff Place," and if you have the time, give "The Fickle" a look. It's the shortest of the films, and it's a clever execution of a simple concept; that's all I'll say.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thor (dir. Kenneth Branagh)

The true measurement of Thor is not known until the end, when the credit "Based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby" comes up. It'd be one thing for Thor to succeed on its own terms, as the latest in what is now a long line of comic book adaptations, but for Thor to truly be special it has to either break totally free of its legacy and be its own weird little thing (like Ang Lee's Hulk, of which I am a fan), or be the perfect live action embodiment of what the character was created for (like Sam Raimi's first two Spider-Man films).

You can count Thor in the latter category, if only by accident.

Stan Lee is sort of a brilliant mind, specifically in the realm of inventing and identifying instant archetypes in his own work. In a modern media environment that seems structured against innovation, it seems impossible for anyone to come up with Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Fantastic Four, or The Incredible Hulk, much less for all of them to come mostly from one person. But Lee was not then, nor is now, a great writer. It was the ideas that provided the hook, and the incredible imagery that artists like Jack Kirby built around them.

And in that way, Thor is kind of the perfect Thor film. The plot is forgettable to the point of being disposable, and since the only world in jeopardy is the one we were introduced to five minutes ago, the stakes are shockingly low. The characters function as archetypes and nothing more, in spite of whatever flavor the actors give to them (and they give quite a bit). And setting the majority of the story of a Thor film in the New Mexico desert is pretty weak - you can say costumed superheroes always look ridiculous, but the fact is they just do look way more ridiculous in small town America. It screams "low budget."

But Asgard is spectacular. The bridge they travel across to pass between worlds is a stunning thing to behold, and in rare moments one does get the sense that this was the world Jack Kirby imagined. Thor, as played by Chris Hemsworth, is a spectacular screen presence. And Kenneth Branagh's direction is so outlandish, so over-the-top, and so perfectly suited to his bold source that the film is so much better than the script deserves. Branagh never saw a conflict that wouldn't be better settled with screaming, and a simple set-up that wouldn't be better suited to outlandish cranes and dutch angles. I love big, silly direction in my comic book movies, and I so wish the screenplay was as willing to be as theatrical as the film Branagh ended up crafting, because ultimately the plot and storytelling do drag the film down.

Thor, as a character, is barely one at all. He has an arc, eventually, and so we're told, but we never see him engage with any internal struggle at all. And again, I'm fine with Thor having no internal struggle. He is THOR after all. But the film presents a change in his character that isn't developed so much as occurred. Can't have it both ways, fellas. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Odin (Anthony Hopkins) are allowed some depth, but aren't terribly present in the film. Everyone else - Jane (Natalie Portman), the Warriors Three, etc. - are all background material. Every summer film needs a romance, and this one has Natalie Portman, but the Oscar winner's talents are put to even less use here than in Your Highness.

After an early, kind of great battle between Thor, his companions, and the Frost Giants, the action also takes a backseat. Sure, Thor eventually has to break into a government facility and stuff, but this is a Thor film without much THOR in it - most of the time he's stripped of his powers and is just a guy. And that would work in a sort of deconstructionist way if the film were at all thinking on that level. It'd also work in a sequel when we already know the character (Spider-Man 2, Superman 2). It'd also work if he had any kind of personal journey, but he's mostly the same guy at the end as the beginning, and what does change is too sudden to fall under the realm of "journey." As it is, it just robs us of what we paid for.

In all, it feels like an odd middle chapter to a slightly more interesting story. The beginning would have epic Thor action as he pillages and plunders. The end would show him returning to Earth to bring the thunder. This just has him moving sort of listlessly about, "learning about himself." If only we were to benefit. Branagh's direction of the camera and the actors is commendable, and nearly makes a good film from a lousy script, but there's only so much one can do with the words on the page.