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Film Review: The Tree of Life

February 7, 2012 1 comment

The Tree of Life (2011; Directed by Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s almost oppressively beautiful The Tree of Life is quite obviously an extended visual metaphor for the philosophical wonders of human existence, but it feels both unfairly reductive and merely conventional to label it as such. Such a description also undersells the film’s portentous existential artfuckery, which is much less palatable when applied through stilted epigraphic dialogue than through Malick’s awe-inspiring images alone.

Perhaps he meant "Trees", plural...

But my, oh my, are those images awe-inspiring, and my, oh my, are those dialogic epigraphs stilted. Malick offers a story with characters, sure: a vivid, detailed portrait of a 1950s family in Waco, Texas (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are the first-name-less parents, surnamed O’Brien, and they have three boys) imparted in something like full-motion snapshots, a cinematic photo album full of casual poetry and upswelling emotion. He also has the adult version of one of the family’s three boys, played by a vacant shell that strongly resembles Sean Penn, amble in a haze of regret through gleaming glass office towers in Houston and occasionally through arid windswept badlands.

But even if the Texas family is the core of the movie, its magnificent cloak of contemplative imagery is modeled for our astonished eyes in the first hour or so (I won’t use the term “act”, as The Tree of Life cannot be bound by conventional narrative terminology of that sort). Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who surely must take the Oscar in his category if the Academy wants the award to continue meaning anything) show us swirling nebulas, surging waves viewed from underwater, idyllic rivers, precipitous peeks over the brims of waterfalls, billowing ash clouds rising above erupting volcanoes, flocks of birds wheeling and whirling above a cityscape, comingling mitochondria, and a mind-numbing succession of crepuscular rays (if the sun ain’t shining behind and/or through an object , Malick pretty much doesn’t want to film it). Oh, yeah, and the dinosaurs. Can’t forget the dinosaurs. Did I mention there are dinosaurs?

This onslaught of imagery pushes the film into an early experimental groove, but it has something resembling a thematic purpose. Before unleashing this stunning visual feast, Malick checks in with his characters just long enough to impart the weighty information that one of the O’Brien boys has died young and have them react with their own precise species of grief. This grants a tone of cosmic elegy to the abstract passages that follow (but are they really abstract, dealing as they are with the concrete foundations of life and evolution?). These gorgeous images of ordered chaos constitute a eulogy to a boy we haven’t even gotten to know yet, but they also render the awareness and inevitability of mortality as exquisite but unknowable, a beautiful mystery of great and terrifying power.

Having opened his film by visualizing the tiny enormity of death in the context of an immense universe, Malick shows us the elegant poetry of quotidian life for the balance of The Tree of Life’s running time. The Texan family he focuses on constitutes a mixed allegory for the “state of nature / state of grace” dichotomy that he sets up early in the film, as Pitt’s demanding affection and stern masculinity contrasts with Chastain’s ephemeral feminine romanticism. While Pitt is allowed to craft a nuanced man of broad-stroke contradictions (lover of classical music, devout Catholic, physically affectionate father, but also a tyrant in his home who expects obedience and respect in all things), in Chastain’s case, any sense of individual particularity vanishes into softly-lit earth-goddess constructions. She runs barefoot in the grass, strokes butterflies, and in one illustrative moment floats suspended in the air in a recumbent pose, as if luxuriating on a supple, invisible airborne bed of heather like an erstwhile nymph. The father and the mother are not clear-cut representatives of either the state of nature or of grace (and the younger version of the Penn character, played by Hunter McCracken, struggles to find a space in between), but Chastain hoards the lion’s share of both selfish naturalistic freedom and graceful beauty, leaving Pitt to embody the regimented pseudo-grace of organized faith.

For all of his evident mastery of his craft, Malick has a weakness for pat philosophical pablum that undermines the undeniably profound glory of his images. The aforementioned visual orgy of creation and destruction early in the film is underscored by his characters’ forlorn, whispered, overformal entreaties to an absent or unconcerned God (“Brother. Mother. It was they that led me to your door.”), which continue insistently through the film (the Book of Job is referenced clunkily in a sermon, so there’s little doubt as to what trajectory Malick is taking toward the divine here).

This approach is redolent of a pretentious film-school-student art-film angle, although the breadth of Malick’s canvas positively dwarfs such assumptions. But combined with a mawkish coda of the living and the dead, the present and the forgotten, all walking and mingling together on a beach, the effect of these techniques is to defuse the grandiose epiphanies Malick strives for, to hopelessly dilute his presumptive transcendence by running it through the filters of Judeo-Christian theology. The Tree of Life is a majestic and powerful piece of pure sensory filmmaking, but if, in the final analysis, it’s nothing more than a labored revelation about how God is in the details, then what’s the point?

Categories: Film, Reviews

Film Review: Meek’s Cutoff

February 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Meek’s Cutoff (2010; Directed by Kelly Reichardt)

There’s a masterfully gradual visual dissolve early in this lovely mirage of an existential western that is an elegant metaphor for its thematic thrust: a static wide shot of the beautifully stark hills of Oregon transitions to a small wagon train traversing an open scrubland meadow. The plane of the scrub in the second shot is slowly superimposed on the distant line of clouds behind a ridge in the first shot, so that when the dissolve begins it appears for a few desultory seconds as if the horses, mules, oxen, wagons, and ragged people leading them are moving through the sky like dissolute Apollos astride decrepit chariots. It’s a quietly striking illusion to commence a quietly striking film.

Three little maids from school are we, filled to the brim with girlish glee...

Directed by indie auteur Kelly Reichardt and based on the historic hardship of real-life pioneers blazing one branch of the Oregon Trail, Meek’s Cutoff follows the lead of most westerns of the past couple of decades, which in turn took their cues from the cynical defamiliarizing approach of filmmakers like Cassavetes and Sergio Leone, who stripped the genre of the patriotic conservative political ideology that animated its classic Hollywood iterations through the 1940s and ’50s. A classic western likely would have treated the wilderness-hardened wagon train guide Stephen Meek (played with wily crustiness by an unrecognizably hirsute Bruce Greenwood) as a rugged masculine hero or at least a grizzled anti-hero in the late-period John Wayne mold. Reichardt’s film (from a script by Jonathan Raymond) renders him as an unreliable narrator who never narrates except in vague assurances of local geographic knowledge and in dubious anecdotes, a mercurial Coyote figure leading a band of increasingly desperate migrants towards an uncertain fate.

Reichardt and Raymond understand the plight of their characters, one of largely aimless trudging forward into the unknown, towards half-dreamed goals and aspirations that may never materialize out of the hazy western light, as that of all men and women in all times. Even as the period detail and dialogue establish a historical specificity, the dreamy long takes and gnomic utterances of the characters reassert the eternal and the ineffable. The dominant tone of the small questing group is of doubt; doubt in Meek’s expertise, sense of direction, and overall trustworthiness, doubt in themselves and their decisions, doubt in the inscrutable Native (Ron Rondeaux) that they forcibly conscript as a guide.

Hell is full of bears, but there are no bears here.

And although there is plenty of the outward religious expression of mid-nineteenth-century America amongst the wagon train pioneers, the subtext of all of this doubt is ultimately spiritual. Like Moses and the Israelites, Meek’s band soldier on through a virtual desert towards a much-discussed promised land of bubbling water and towering mountains. We know from recorded history that Meek and a remnant of his much-larger party completed their journey and at least some of them survived it, but Reichardt and Raymond provide the group’s quest with a truncated conclusion beneath a half-living, half-dead tree which may promise salvation or simply tease with its possibility. Meek talks a great deal about Hell, about all the things one finds there (bears and Indians, mostly, evidently), and it begins to sound increasingly as if that’s exactly where he’s leading them, and that he’s eager to get there.

Greenwood’s Meek is the key figure of this movie’s text and its subtext, and he’s excellent, a weirdly magnetic muttering mass of growling hair and creaking buckskin, like Buffalo Bill gone to wild seed. He recedes a bit as the plot, such as it is, progresses, privileging instead the wary interactions between Rondeaux’s Indian (the solemn gravity of his face is undeniable) and the cast’s main big name, Michelle Williams, as the determined wife of the train’s defacto alpha male, Solomon (Will Patton).

As formidable an actress as Williams has proven herself to be over the past few years, she’s all wrong for this setting. Try as she might to assimilate the anachronisms of nineteenth-century American English, the precocious modern timbre of her voice cannot be erased. She is persistently not in the proper epoch, and it distracts from what is an otherwise uniformly well-acted, magnificently-shot, and thematically-balanced film about our common human existence as a sort of aimless wandering in search of a never-ending frontier.

Categories: Film, Reviews

Samwise the Brave: Gagner’s Eight-Point Night

February 3, 2012 Leave a comment

So does this mean that he really had 16 points?

When the intermittent NHL powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks last visited Edmonton in October, the hometown Oilers demolished the 2010 Stanley Cup Champions 9-2 in a giddy premature ejaculation of offense that had Oiler fans and observers from around the hockey world buzzing with the euphoria of imminent possibility. The worm turned on the Oilers’ season soon afterwards, though. Due to injuries to key pieces like defensive anchor Tom Gilbert and rookie phenom Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, as well as a grotesque accident befalling young scorer Taylor Hall and a general course-correction that stat-heads invariably predicted during the team’s strong start, the thin construction of the Oilers’ roster caught up with it and a run of futility ensued. This included 8 losses in 9 games leading towards the All-Star break, with a dispiriting 6-2 drubbing at the hands of the rival Flames on national television bringing the waters to a particularly low ebb.

A slight bounce back has materialized since then, with a couple of points from shootouts and a solid win against Colorado earlier in the week making it clear that the Oil are unlikely to finish dead last this year again, at least (though that has more to do with the fanciful disaster that is the 2011-12 Columbus Blue Jackets than any leaps forward the Oilers have accomplished as a team or an organization). But another February-March stretch of meaningless games for a team out of the playoff picture for the sixth season running loomed, with the usual trade deadline sacrifices (good luck to Ales Hemsky with whatever contender will pay the too-low price for him) and another lottery pick waiting at the end of the dark tunnel.

What fantastic timing, then, for the Hawks to come back to Rexall Place and get torched by the Oilers’ young offensive guns and get that cruel, guttering glimmer of hope nicely blazing again. Last night’s 8-4 blitzing was not just satisfying, but surprising and even historic, and its mythic hero was distinctly unlikely: Sam Gagner, the talented, hard-working, little-rewarded top-six forward on a team choked with them, had a hand in every Oilers goal to equal the team record for points in a game with 8. That one of the young Oil’s whirring offensive engines might one day approximate the burning-house hockey of the Gretzky-led dynasty years has been the open aspiration of team management, city sports media, and the fanbase alike since at least the start of last season, when Hall and now-All-Star Jordan Eberle made their debuts. That Sam Gagner, the organization greenhorn of the depressing late ’00s, was the one to equal an ’80s team record (Gretzky had 8 points twice, Paul Coffey once) could not have been an expected outcome.

Is it the beard? It's the beard.

Now 22, Gagner has been in the league long enough to have become a bit of a stale taste to the notoriously fickle Oil Country hordes. Up until last night, he was having trouble establishing his game in a team full of very assertively-defined forwards. Perhaps a victim of the quiet effectiveness of his own game away from the puck as well as of coach Tom Renney’s mania for shuffling his non-top lines or perhaps just slumping in that ineffable athletic way, Gagner was looking like another potential deadline victim and a further footnote in modern Oilers history, a sure-to-succeed player who just could not succeed in Edmonton.

But then last night happened. Do you turn around in the next month and trade a guy who exploded for 8 points in a game? I’m no great admirer of Oilers GM Steve Tambellini, but even he’s not that silly in his decisions. That the balance of Gagner’s point-grubbing (seriously, spread it around a little, buddy!) came alongside Eberle and Hall (who both had the quietest 4-point games in recent memory) should make Oiler fans feel even better about that dynamic duo, as well make them wonder how much of Nugent-Hopkins’ pre-injury prowess was related to his Kid Line mates’ bona fides as opposed to his own.

All of those wider roster considerations aside, though, the triumph of Samwise (as Lowetide has amusingly dubbed him) was a bit of an aesthetic glory, and could be enjoyed most purely on that level. Just watch through the highlights package from the league, and witness the virtuosity take form with the inevitable exactitude of origami. By the time Gagner’s getting secondary assists on Cam Barker knucklepuck point shots, you’ve got to figure that the Flying Spaghetti Monster is reaching down His pasta appendages to effect the outcome. In an Oilers season largely dominated by valleys, Gagner’s absurd Thursday night was a towering peak. Admire it before we return to the unforgiving earth.

Categories: Edmonton Oilers, Sports