Monday, June 27, 2011

The Book of Job and Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life

Tree of Life begins with a quote from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth...When the morning stars sang together?” It’s God speaking to Job at the end of the story after God has allowed Satan to test Job’s faithfulness. Satan begins by destroying all of Job’s many possessions and children. After this first assault, Job reacts faithfully—if mechanically—and says, “Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return thither: the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.” So Job does not curse God, and Satan loses the first round. With God’s permission, Satan then curses Job with a terrible skin disease, Job’s wife tells him to “curse God and die,” and Job’s friends arrive. Instead of comforting Job, Bildad, Zophar, and Eliphaz lecture their friend and tell him to repent, for he must have done something wrong, something to really anger God. After all, they believe, we are only punished when we do evil. God rules a just and orderly universe.

William Blake, Book of Job

Most of the Book of Job consists of a series of dialogues between Job and his friends. Job defends himself vehemently, even arrogantly. Indeed, the cliché about Job being patient is clearly not true. As early as Chapter 3, he curses the day of his birth and wishes he was dead. Later he insults his friends, questions God, challenges God to face him in a legal battle, and whines—probably justifiably—about once being respected where now people spit at him and sings songs about how pathetic he is (I’m not making this up.). When God finally appears in Chapter 38, he arrives in the form of a whirlwind, probably a painful reminder to Job that God is the powerful force that took his family away. Instead of answering Job’s question (why is this happening to me?), God asks Job a series of questions like the one above. The point of the questions is obviously to show Job that he is small and insignificant when compared with God. Job is nothing, so he repents in “dust and ashes” to show his nothingness and to remind us where we will all someday return. For this, Job gets a new wife and family and possessions and lives a really long time. One hundred and forty years, to be exact.
So, why does Malick begin his film with the Book of Job quote? I think part of the answer has to do with themes both works share. Both deal with a seemingly random and meaningless tragedy, both explore the nature of human suffering, both show the mysteries of the universe and the decidedly human quest to find answers to life’s questions, and finally, both highlight the power of God and, conversely, the smallness and insignificance of humankind. Now, I don’t really think Malick believes in God, per say, for him God is nature, the universe itself. He’s clearly a neo-Romantic influenced by Wordsworth, who also found God in nature—at least in his early works like “Tintern Abbey.” But for Malick the universe has both positive and negative connotations: it is paradoxically beautiful and ugly, peaceful and violent, serene and frenzied, rejuvenating and destructive—or any number of dichotomies. The Sean Penn character is also a kind of Job figure, a man searching for justice in what seems to be an unjust world. Possibly one interpretation of Jack’s work as an architect is that, like Job, Jack is also trying to reach the heavens and confront God. Maybe Jack creates buildings and structures that remove him further away from God (nature) because he does not want to be close to the force that killed his brother. Maybe the buildings are emblems of Jack’s attempt to create order in a chaotic world.

One of many striking images from Tree of Life.

Neither Job nor Jack gets his answer to the question of why (this isn’t ever directly asked in Tree of Life, but it is implied). But I think the answer is pretty clear: for no reason at all. Terrible things happen to good people, and auspicious things happen to bad people. There is no justice. What Jack might learn is what fundamentally makes us human. We are weighed down with suffering, tragedy, guilt, and shame.  But we shoulder these burdens and move on. That’s the miracle. Think about Oedipus. He doesn’t kill himself as most people would expect. After he discovers that the prophecy has already been fulfilled despite his futile attempts to circumvent fate, he stabs himself in the eyes and becomes a wanderer. I’ve always thought he does this to show the gods that they can’t control everything. We can determine our final ends, not the gods. So Oedipus, Job, and Tree of Life are all saying that we are nothing next to God, but there is a kind of nobility in our insignificant mortality. We experience something the gods cannot. We live.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Let There Be Malick: Tree of Life

And God said, let there be Malick, and there was Malick. And God saw Malick’s Tree of Life, that it was good. Winner of the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes, Tree of Life—a film about creation, life, suffering, death, and the meaning of life—is only Terrence Malick’s 5th film in 38 years. So it goes without saying that Malick is anything but prolific. His most ambitious and experimental film, Tree of Life feels like an art film, especially the first 45 minutes and the last 20. Of course, Malick disregards conventions in all of his films. From Badlands to Days of Heaven and now to Tree of Life, his films scream idiosyncrasy, independence, and romantic imagination. They are all—whether you like them or not—powerful artistic statements about what it means to be human.
The story (if you can call it that—there’s not much of a plot here) takes place in Waco, Texas.  Jack is the oldest of three boys growing up in the 1950s. Tragedy strikes, and Jack grows up to what appears to be an architect (it’s never quite clear), a lost, alienated man living in a modern world that boxes him in tall skyscrapers, empty boardrooms, and glass elevators. But Malick is more interested in fleeting images of domestic life, waves crashing, volcanoes erupting, and the sunlight shining through trees than he is in telling a story about Jack’s family, so there are lots of gaps here.  Like the French director Claire Denis and her predecessor late-19th-century-painters Monet and Manet, Malick’s work is aptly called impressionistic. Malick provides us impressions of life and nature in the film. Snapshots in a photo album that serve as an aesthetic counterpoint to the realism or stylized realism presented in most films.  But his work might just as easily be labeled expressionistic since he uses the music and images to express his inner emotions and ideas about modern life and its complexities.
Regarding its cinematography, Tree of Life contains possibly the most beautiful images ever put to film. Ever. Bob Mondello of NPR said, “There's not a frame of The Tree of Life—not one—that I wouldn't love to have hanging on a wall in my home.” But I would go further and say that watching this film is like walking through a museum and gazing awestruck at a van Gogh or a Vermeer. One of the most visually striking shots utilizes an upside-down camera to frame several distorted shadows of boys playing, possibly a metaphor for the darkness within our souls. In the scenes from our modern world, the camera almost constantly tilts upward, looking through the glass roofs of modern buildings, looking to the heavens, searching for an absent God, searching for hope. The beautiful images and sounds (we hear selections from Bach, Brahms, Berlioz, Mahler, and others) are so powerful that we can’t help but feel the spiritual power while we watch. But for Malick the transcendence is not a result of religion; it’s about the sacred in the secular, the sacred in nature. There are also lots of gorgeous images from the Hubble telescope when Malick flashes back to tell the impressionistic story of the creation of the world. In my view, these early creation shots, though beautiful, went on too long and were pretentious, but this is a minor complaint in an otherwise powerfully affecting film.
While the cinematography is probably the most memorable element in the film and I was left with lots of images seared on my brain, the acting is nothing less than astounding.  It depicted convincingly realistic portrayals of sibling interactions, and mother-child, father-child relationships. Much of the emotional impact rests in the hands of a pair of wonderful child actors, who are natural, raw, and real. This is probably Brad Pitt’s strongest performance, too, and Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, is also excellent. In a whispering voiceover, Jack says, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me,” and I suppose the parents are meant to represent polar forces in our world. The yin and yang of nature and society. She is ethereal, soft, luminous, smiling, watchful, full of what she calls grace. There’s even a scene of her floating and dancing in mid-air. He is earthy, loving but hard, driven, intellectual, stern, and sometimes explosive like the volcano we see in the early days of creation. Walking on the grass and teaching his son to tend the garden and lawn, he connects himself to the earth and savors his time treading on land, even though he works in aviation and aspires to soar to the heavens like Daedalus. He demands respect and wants his sons to love him. But for him respect is more important than love. He also wants his sons to be strong and hard, prepared for the real world, and in one scene encourages them to punch him in the face. They merely stand and stare.  
There is no easy-to-comprehend message in this film, which is both frustrating and fascinating. You have to work pretty hard at figuring things out. And even after thinking about it for a while, the answers will probably still be out of reach. But this is typical of Malick’s films. He’s a skeptic who is not really sure about answers to life’s big questions, so he is certainly not going to simplify things for his audience.
The ending feels incomplete and in many ways it is dissatisfying, but I suppose that’s part of the point. We only get a series of snapshots from this family and we are left to fill in the blanks on our own. We can’t and won’t ever have all the answers to everything. We can’t know all of the beginning and the end.
Here's the official trailer from Youtube:

Here are several other takes on the film, both positive and negative and in between:

Wesley Morris's slightly negative review from the Boston Globe.

Bob Mondello's review from NPR.

Kenneth Turan's negative review from The LA Times.

A.O. Scott's positive review from The New York Times.

Anthony Lane's positive review from The New Yorker.

Todd McCarthy's review from The Hollywood Reporter.

Roger Ebert's review from The Chicago Sun-Times.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Super 8

I’m slightly embarrassed to say that I’ve been an off-and-on J.J. Abrams fan since Felicity. I say embarrassed because if there ever was a chick-flick television show, Felicity was it. But I watched it because it was smart, I cared about the characters, and it made me nostalgic for my recent college years. Plus, Keri Russell is totally hot! It’s true that I only saw a couple of episodes of Alias, which is basically Felicity with Guns, and I only just watched the highly acclaimed Lost (I know, finally…), so I’m not the most devoted fan or anything. When Abrams made his first big-screen film (MI3), I was curious but a bit skeptical, and I was even more skeptical about Star Trek. But both turned out to be strong and entertaining blockbusters, which aren’t usually my cup of tea, but if they are well made and have a good story, I’m right there. In fact, Abrams’s newest film comments on this idea. A group of 14-year-old boys are making a zombie movie for the Cleveland Super-8 Film-Festival, and their director explains to his crew that their film will be forgotten if nobody cares about the characters and the story. This is a lesson that Abrams (mostly) takes to heart and something that makes Super 8 stand apart from most of the summer-blockbuster drivel.
Watching Super 8, I couldn’t help but count the references to the films of Abrams’s idol Steven Spielberg, who also produced. The film is partly an homage to War of the Worlds, E.T., Close Encounters, Jaws (well, sort of), and Goonies. The gang of boys also reminded me of Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me. I can’t say Super 8 is a great film, but it is good and there are touches of greatness in it. Some might say it doesn’t pack the emotional punch of a Spielberg film, but I would say that’s a mark in its favor since most or maybe all Spielberg films suffer from high doses of sentimentality. The two lead characters played by Dakota Fanning’s sister Elle and newcomer Joel Courtney are excellent. I was struck by one small scene where Joel’s character Joey explains to Elle’s character Alice how a zombie acts and, click, Elle suddenly becomes one of the most convincing zombies I’ve ever seen (and I’m not embarrassed to say I’ve seen many of them). The best scene, though, comes during a rehearsal on Alice’s first shoot. It’s an amazing scene that you have to see.
But the rest of the gang are just OK; I’m not sure if it was overacting or poor scriptwriting—or both. Every time I hear the word “mint,” I’m going to wince. And there are some ridiculous details, the worst being that a man hits an oncoming train head-on with his truck--and survives! And what’s the deal with movies where the kids figure everything out way before the adults? Probably my biggest complaint, though, is one that not many others care about. I wish that Super 8 had more of the ambitious big ideas that were present in Lost. Super 8 is partly about loss of innocence and partly about recreating a not-so-distant past (1979, to be exact), and it does say some interesting things about the feared and alienated Other, but nothing is very deep. Nonetheless, a fun, entertaining film that’s great for light summer viewing.