Friday, June 10, 2011

The Tree of Life, 3 Intelligent Gentlemen, and Me

A few days ago, Aaron of The Code Is Zeek and I were discussing The Tree of Life, and he invited me to be part of a round table discussion of the film on his podcast, Out Now With Aaron and Abe. Having a chance to discuss the film with Aaron and his other guests, Mark Hobin of Fast Film Reviews and Jordan Grout (of a blog whose creation is imminent), was great fun, and the conversation proved enlightening. Below, you'll find the podcast in its entirety. Beware, spoilers abound!


Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tree of Life – Looking Through the Eyes of the Almighty

To watch The Tree of Life is to look through the eyes of god. For a being like that, time would have no meaning and even less value. To see the beginning of the universe would be of no more difficulty than to look at the life of one person or onward to the end of days. The truth of what people are feeling and thinking would become apparent, even as they express the opposite. To describe the narrative, I cannot get around the fact that the film is much more like a poem than a story. Poems use language to try to burrow inside of an emotional reality. This is not the same as the way things actually “are.” In the world you and I live in, people can’t fly, the Light Brigade is long dead, and we don’t have the chance to talk with people who have died. But in a poem, you can say anything that you need to say, and you can do it in any way that you want to.

Terrence Malick is clearly very, very sincere. This is a personal film above all else, and I mean that as a compliment. It takes courage to put one's deepest emotions out for all to see as explicitly as Malick has done. Normally, when discussions begin of cinematic bravery, they relate to an artist’s commitment to tackling material that’s widely thought of as difficult. I wonder, however, if there is any material more difficult than the honest exploration of what one truly thinks and feels about the nature of love, life, death, spirituality, and the universe itself. These are the deepest things that a person can hold within. It is so easy to laugh and poke fun at someone when he/she is being sincere, and the vulnerability with which Malick has opened himself is something that has my deepest admiration.

The Tree of Life tells the story of the lives of the O’Brien family in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s, that most misunderstood of modern American decades. Mr. & Mrs. O’Brien (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) have three boys and very different ideas about how to raise them. Mr. O’Brien clearly loves his family, but has no idea how to properly express it as a husband and father. He’s never done this before, and it’s heartbreakingly obvious. There are a number of times where he’s shown playing with his sons, but I think they’re already so resentful and/or scared of him that it’s too little, too late. At the same time, he’s undoubtedly a passionate person. He truly wants his children to learn the things that he felt he never did or learned too late, and his love of music is the most tangible of any of his expressions of love. While Mrs. O’Brien loves her children and is clearly their emotional center, I think they resent the fact that she lets her husband do what he wants without standing up for them. There’s only so much a person can stand of being told how much he/she is loved to his/her face without it being proved when it matters most.

While the family has five members, the narrative revolves mostly around Jack (Hunter McCracken/Sean Penn), the oldest son. His transformation is something that resonated with me. I can clearly remember the day that my internal life changed forever. Overnight, I went from being a carefree kid to an adolescent dealing with thoughts and emotions much too complicated for him. Like Jack, there was nothing I wanted more than to get back to where I’d been before, to somehow find a way to navigate myself back to the space I’d occupied where the only thing I had to worry about was whether or not I’d like what was being served for dinner. I was so desperate then. What no child ever realizes at first is that one cannot go back. There is no way to unlearn, barring illness or senility, what it is to be an adult and to have to deal with things heretofore relegated to the “grown up” and “mature.”
The Tree of Life is a study in mirrors, types, and shadows. At the outset, the family learns that their middle son is dead. It’s a devastating moment in their lives, both individually and collectively, and I don’t think it’s one that they ever fully recover from. From there, the film moves into dazzlingly abstract territory to the formation of the universe. It’s beautiful to look at, and I’ve never seen VFX used in quite this way before. Some shots are so beautiful as to appear to be footage taken by the likes of the Hubble Telescope. After the creation of the earth, the long-awaited (and til this point rumored) dinosaurs emerge. Yes, you heard right. Dinosaurs. It’s all right. Go with it. Then, the meteor strikes, and life on earth is irrevocably changed. After that, things shift to the formation of the family. We see the birth of the children, and we get a sense of the rhythm of their daily lives. The only difference is that we already know what their meteor will be. We know exactly what will change their lives forever.

So much of the film is a conversation with god. Even as Jack is saying his nightly prayers, with the obligatory “make me a good boy” and so on, we hear his heart. “Where are you? Do you see me?” One of the most significant bits for me occurred when he says “I’m not going to try and be good. You aren’t.” As the universe is being born, we hear Mrs. O’Brien asking god why it has allowed evil to befall those who try to be righteous. That most ancient of questions. A preoccupation of some of the surviving members of the family is speaking with their deceased son/brother, and there’s an interesting malleability of names and subjects at work here. At times, it’s unclear if who’s being addressed is the dead boy or god itself.

The way that Terrence Malick and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, have shot the film is dazzling, even virtuosic. The camera (and, by extension, the film’s rhythm at times) is so fluid as to seem to be alive. It flies, swoops and swirls like a force of nature all its own. There are a half-dozen directors I’d like to make study Malick’s work here to learn how to create a sense of motion without cutting every 2 seconds. There are some gorgeous shots that make better use of a crane than just about anyone I’ve seen. The camera glides down hallways, often turning to look at the scenery with a mind all its own. But motion, endless motion, is what Malick seems to be striving for here.

It didn’t strike me until a little bit after the film was over, but the “dramatic” climax of the film occurs so early in the film as to sneak right past the viewer. It’s a few words spoken over the phone in an elevator that become a brief moment of connection in an attempt to rectify the past. It’s a rare moment of near-irony in a piece that exists almost completely in the absence of insincerity.

In The Tree of Life, fantasy and reality collide, the past, present, and future are interchangeable, and the inner lives of a few common people are expanded in bright, bold relief. Ultimately, Terrence Malick is using the lives of one family in Waco, Texas as a microcosm of the life and death of the universe itself. I know that it sounds incredibly pretentious to put it like that, but it’s true. People are born and they die, often for no discernable reason. What’s left is for the living to go on, treasuring the memories they have, picking up the pieces that are left, and making the most of every precious fragment that remains.

One of 2011's best films.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Midnight In Paris - A Landaulet 184 Is Just As Good As A Pumpkin Coach

Unlike many, I’m the guy who’s enjoyed many of Woody Allen’s recent films. There’s a large number of folks, critics and regular janes alike, who think that, with a few fingers worth of notable exceptions, his post-2000 output has really sucked. While I don’t think that much of his recent work (Vicky Cristina Barcelona aside) is on par with his work in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, there’ve been some really fun pieces in the bunch.

Regardless of one’s position on the post-millenial Woodster, Midnight In Paris is a delight, filled with laughs, beautiful photography, and surprisingly valid insights into human behavior. Per one of his usual aesthetics, the hero is an insecure writer in an unfulfilling relationship. Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful screenwriter with very real insecurities about his literary ambitions. In Paris with his fiancĂ©, he’s forced to spend time with her unfriendly parents and insufferable friends until a fateful moment at midnight where he finds himself in a random classic car headed for a party (well, a BUNCH of parties) in 1920’s Paris. Suddenly Gil’s spending his days with a bunch of people he likes less and less, and his nights with his literary heroes.

Crazy setup, right? Wrong! Surprisingly, the whole thing really works. Wilson’s “aw, shucks. Me?” schtick is really effective when he starts running into Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, and Stein. (and a wonderfully funny Adrien Brody taking a turn as Salvador Dali) He can’t believe he’s meeting these people, and we can’t believe our good fortune at getting to see him meet them. Over and over, just when he doesn’t think it can get any better, it does just that.

Additionally, Woody’s dialogue is just the kind of thing you’d expect. What’s wonderful about it (well, one of many such things) is that Woody doesn’t look down on his audience. Will you know who everyone is that Gil meets? Unless you’re smarter than this writer, which is a real possibility, probably not. Despite that, much as in the case of Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, knowing everything about these people isn’t the point. When Hemingway starts to wax eloquent (as he often does here) about bravery and courage, it’s funny. When he gets drunk and asks Adriana (Marion Cottilard) if she’s ever shot at a charging lion, you laugh out loud.

One of the things I love most about Midnight In Paris is the good, solid look it takes at the human tendency to ignore the good things to be found in the present because of a belief in the glory of an idealized past. See, when we look back, the rose-colored glasses come on. We don’t remember going to bed hungry. We remember that “times were hard, but we were happy!” So, for Gil, the artistic community of Paris in the 20’s is exactly where he thinks he wants to be, but what would he actually do there? Would you really be willing to throw away (because, yes, that’s exactly what you’d be doing) your life if you could go “back?” I think that, a few days after arriving, we’d realize that we were in a place just as crummy as the one we came from, albeit with a far less efficient plumbing system. I’d also argue that we’d want to get back to where we once belonged as soon as possible, but not because of penicillin and Facebook. Nope. We’d want to be there because of the people in our lives that give meaning to the often lousy situations we find ourselves in. I might regret not having valued things in my past like I should have, but if I went back, far too much would be lost in the transfer. Now, if you’re wanting to send me back about 30 years with enough money to do some investing in some little companies called Microsoft and Apple . . . well, then we can talk.

I’m very pleased to see such a strong piece of work after the limp, blandly uninteresting screenhog that was You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. In many ways, Midnight In Paris is closest to The Purple Rose of Cairo in the Allen canon, but that’s a topic for another day. I did feel that the ending snuck up on me, much like the case of The Social Network. In both cases, I would have happily stayed in my seat for another half hour to see where the story might go. With Midnight In Paris, I felt that there was a bit more that could have been explored in the end, but, in the days since seeing the film, it’s bothered me less and less.

Currently, Midnight In Paris is in limited release, but I’d recommend that you make the effort to seek it out. You won’t be disappointed.

4 stars (out of 5)