Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

13 August 2011

Judging Stuff by Its Cover

During my annual end-of-summer home-reorganization ritual, i put my DVDs in alphabetical order. These two ended up next to each other. I wonder how many others i could find with the same confrontational composition.

05 August 2011

My Original Post on The Tree of Life

I wrote this in May, after seeing The Tree of Life for the first time, but then never posted it. So here is it now. Pardon the redundancy, but i can't seem to stop talking/writing about this film:

To begin, it was the perfect movie-going experience: the very first Chicago showing of The Tree of Life, a 1:00 matinee at the Century Center. I thought I was perhaps being a bit too enthusiastic in getting there a half hour early (I’m never early for anything) but it turns out my timing was perfect, arrived just in time to be offered a free ticket by a guy who somehow ended up with one too many tickets. So, I walked into the theater a good twenty minutes early, and the theater was already half full. I ended up sitting next to the “perfect date,” a New York film fanatic, somewhere in my age range, with similar taste in movies and good movie theaters. While waiting for the film to begin, we talked about Herzog (both loved Fitzcarraldo), the new Woody Allen (I saw it the day before, he hadn’t yet), the lack of good places to see films. A kindred soul! After the movie we discussed our impressions of it: what did it all mean? Which brother died and how? I am always tentative in these things, never one to assert my interpretation, but this time I knew, the blond brother was killed in Vietnam. Told through the simplest of nuances, the time frame, the telegram. We compared notes on the period-perfect details of mid-fifties Americana: those awful, brightly colored, aluminum drinking glasses that we were all forced to drink iced tea from in the '50s and early '60s; the little striped polo shirts on the boys in the film, just like the ones my brother and three oldest nephews used to wear (the kind they are wearing in a poem I once wrote about my father); the bizarre love we had of running behind the bug truck in the summer (I remember the DDT smelling sweet. Did it really or is my memory embellishing the scene?).

The theater was sold out, and not with your usual matinee crowd (god save me from the loud-whispering seniors who people most of the matinees in Evanston): we were the cult of Malick! There was something odd going on with the projector and during the previews only the bottom half of the frame was projected on the screen. I wanted to yell at someone, then realized that I didn’t have to: two guys immediately ran out to the lobby to report the problem. The reaction in that room was so wonderful—one guy let out an anguished “This is my worst nightmare!” – I felt like I had found my tribe! The opening quote from the book of Job was lost to the projection problem, but immediately thereafter the situation was resolved.

It is difficult, probably impossible, for me to write coherently about Tree of Life.  It is not story-driven, nor really even character-driven. Dialogue and voiceover float by in isolated words, phrases, and unanswered remarks. With the exception of the young Jack (Hunter McCracken) the characters are more archetypes than well-rounded characters. Yet somehow we find ourselves caught with them, feeling their sorrows, their angers, their love. What is it then? A quiet epic, a dialectic of “nature” and “grace” as the mother’s voice explains in the opening moments of the film: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.” But even that is too simple, for “nature” as she uses it here, is the self-focused aspect of human nature, while “grace” is the ability to embrace life, to feel the joy of it. The parents embody these two conflicting approaches to life: the father, aggrieved, dissatisfied, stern, embodies “nature,” while the mother, who literally floats above the ground at one point in the film, is the epitome of the life of grace. Paradoxically, Nature (the natural world) is the domain of grace: even the butterflies recognize it in Mrs. O’Brien. So, yes, it is an ancient story, the story of the boy caught between these two forces, the story of Oedipus. But Jack ultimately acknowledges that he is more like his authoritarian and despised father than like the mother he adores.

The visual elements of the film inscribe a dialectic of hard/soft, linear/sinuous, skyscraper/tree, the obdurate line of the father’s jaw / the curving arch of the mother’s foot. As is typical of Malick's works, the musical soundtrack is a powerful component of the film, but here it serves a diegetic function as well: the father is a talented pianist, and the gentle second son shares his talent; but even in this, the father's pleasure is blunted by the thought that he has given up his dream of becoming a great musician. As talented and appreciative of great music as he is, he cannot prevent himself from perceiving it through the warped lens of his own frustrated ambitions.

At the end of the film I sat weeping while the credits ran, because Terrence Malick had touched my heart. If there is nostalgia in the film, it is nostalgia tempered by grief: grief for the lost mother, the unknowable father, the brother who died too young.
The majesty of the natural world—a familiar motif to anyone who has watched Malick’s other films—is here given an operatic and sublime level of grandeur. There are volcanoes erupting in rivers of lava, comets striking the earth and setting off concentric waves, sweet jesus there are even dinosaurs! I haven’t decided yet what I think of those dinosaurs, and will have to revisit them when I see the film again. It is all so filled with beauty, power, and precariousness.

The Tree of Life

Last night I found myself debating whether to go see The Tree of Life this weekend. This would be the fourth time that I’ve seen it; in other words, 50% of the movies I’ve seen this summer have been The Tree of Life. Is it time for an intervention?

I’m amazed that there are people who have actually written coherently and thoughtfully about the film, while I can’t seem to get beyond a semi-orgasmic or possibly Pentecostal “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I’m addicted to this movie, even while I hover over it protectively, occasionally discouraging people from seeing it because I don’t want to hear their critiques of its length, lack of narrative, etc., etc., blah, blah, blah.  I can’t write about it in the way I might write about another film, because I experience it in a way that is unlike my experience of any other film. And yes, I’m including all of Malick’s earlier films in this category. If you know much about me and my relationship to movies, you know how much I love every film that Terrence Malick has ever made (Okay, I only recently learned of a student film that I haven’t seen, but will turn that into my next Grail). You may even know that, until this summer, Days of Heaven was my favorite film; the one film that I have never been able to bring myself to show in a film class because I couldn’t bear to hear any complaints from students about it being “boring” (I’ve had many brilliant students over the years, but there are always one or two who unabashedly expect to be entertained all semester).  So yes, as I readily admit, I worship at the church of the holy Malick. 

But this is different. The first time I saw The Tree of Life, I sat breathless and stunned when it was over, completely overwhelmed by feelings of what? Peace, grief, joy, wonder, nostalgia, longing? Yes, all that and more. With each subsequent viewing, those feelings have only intensified. I want to describe it as a beautiful film, but perhaps the Victorian concept of the sublime would be more accurate. Like Malick’s other films, the natural world plays a leading role in The Tree of Life, but it is a natural world filled not only with beauty, but also with awe, majesty, and more than a little terror. 

I have to confess that I’m completely amazed that the film is still showing in Chicago after more than two months. I really expected that the other Malick geeks and I would all scurry to see it in the first week, and maybe it would linger for a second week, but then it would be gone. But no, clearly this movie is resonating with a lot of people (or else, like myself, the same few keep going back to it over and over). I’m not going to tell you to go see it because, as I’ve already confessed, I don’t want to hear about why you didn’t like it. But if you want to take a chance on having a profound and moving cinematic experience, go ahead. Don’t wait for the DVD—I can’t even imagine how terrible it would be to watch the creation of the universe sequence on a small screen. Go ahead and see it; you may even find yourself afterwards viewing the world around you with the sense of wonder of the child you used to be. And now I’m going to sign off, go outside and look at the trees, the sky, the cosmos. And tomorrow or the next day, I’m going back to see The Tree of Life again.