Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life
Dir. Terrence Malick, 2011.

Terence Malick's extended meditation on life and nature is expressionistic, oblique, and hard to unravel.  The ideas are interesting -- at least, assuming I have fathomed them correctly -- but in the end the film is far less deep than its visuals suggest, and too artsy-fartsy for its own good.

There are no opening credits, just mystical and mystifying images suggesting flames and light, cut with scenes of a middle-class American family from the 1950s.  Gradually the story of evolution emerges, big bang to ocean life to dinosaurs, finally manifesting itself in the birth of a baby.  This is Jack, later Sean Penn as an adult.  Each baby's birth, the film seems to say, is a microcosm of the birth of humankind.  Interesting idea, although hardly novel (I think it dates at least to Dr. Spock).  What would have been more interesting would be to build upon this -- if one accepts this premise, what does the baby's growth into boyhood, adulthood, and death mean for humankind?  Alas, the film doesn't seem to get that far.

What it does get into is the dilemma cited in a direct voiceover at the start of the film.  There are two ways to live -- in a state of nature or a state of grace, or words to that effect; which should one choose?  Again an interesting idea, assuming "grace" implies some sort of spiritual dimension.  Sadly, we are never really given the choice.  The film starts exploring the state of nature, as directly observed in Jack as he grows up, and even more directly in beautiful, but ultimately hollow and unsatisfying, nature shots; rivers, trees, grasses and skies.

Brad Pitt as Jack's father perhaps represents "nature", and the poetically lovely Jessica Chastain, "grace".  And the two do war, and in another voiceover they are at war in Jack's soul.  But the conflict is muted, and the camera returns again and again to what it does best -- loving, lush shots of rivers, trees, grasses and skies.

In the end someone loses his job and self-respect, someone dies, someone comes to some acceptance of the death.  But there is no emotional impact for the viewer.  Worse, some talented, iconic actors (Pitt, Penn, even Chastain) are wasted, since they are mere algebraic representations of Mr Malick's plan -- this is an auteur film, to its core.  Only Jack as an early-teen boy, moody, angry, confused and scared, is truly alive.  But he is smothered early and often by the camerawork.  In the end its the viewer that loses -- his patience.

What is even more frustrating is that the evolution sequence, which is a good 10 minutes or more, is so cliched.  The images are directly drawn from "artist's conception of the Big Bang" and National Geographic specials on the mysteries of space.    

This film probably could not have been made without the immense reputation of Mr Malick behind it, and it is indeed important that such films can get made and get wide release.  But the film itself doesn't deserve the hushed reverence that has greeted it, and in many ways is a lost opportunity.  It is reasonably good, but could have been great.        

June 2011

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Member of the Wedding

The Member of the Wedding.
Carson McCullers.

This book sneaks up and then kicks you in the gut.  Or as Frankie might say, it is a no-good mean old nasty pig that kicks you in the gut.

I won't add to the oceans of ink on Carson McCullers, and this novel in particular, but just record my reaction to the book.  At first it charmed me, and later Frankie's longing, loneliness and occasional resulting orneriness were shockingly familiar.  But John Henry West, her 6-year old cousin, and Berenice, her motherly black housekeeper, seemed mere archetypes, and the story moved slowly.

Then the sheer boredom of Frankie's summer infected me and I had to push myself to finish the book.  Even the episode with the red-haired soldier, which made me shrink in dread for Frankie, lost its power amidst endless pages of Frankie walking the streets of her boring small town.  And the wedding scene, after the immense buildup, was dealt with briefly, obliquely, and Frankie's inevitable shame and desolation was not as powerful as what I expected.

But at the end, it kicks you in the gut.  My reading is that the story is not about the weddding, or even Frankie, but lies elsewhere.  It's not about Frankie's coming of age, but really encapsulated in Berenice and John Henry West.  The tragedies that befall them, and even the implied loss suffered by her father -- moving in with relatives implies a financial downturn perhaps, or some other misfortune -- are the real story.

John Henry in particular made me so sad I almost couldn't read any further, even though only a few pages remained to finish the book I had been pushing myself to finish.  And ultimately what was shocking was how easily Frankie moved on, to new friends and new hopes.

Frankie's dreams of escape seem so narrow, so selfish, so silly compared to what Berenice and John Henry undergo; and yet they are completely believable.  Worse, they are probably even essential to her survival -- otherwise wouldn't the tragedy have scarred her and defaced her, precocious and sensitive child that she is, or even swallowed her whole?

This is life, the story seemed to say; we remain foolishly, selfishly blind to those who love us and those we love, invested and immersed in only our own stories and fantasies, with others only as an essential backdrop.  And, but for flashes of grace, we can be no other way.

June 2011