The Taser's Edge

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

Disclaimer: What follows might be pretentious, but please don’t think the movie’s pretentious just because it actively resists being written about by me. Also, consider yourself warned.

First, watch this trailer in full-screen. Watch it twice if you wish.

Supposedly, Terrence Malick has been working on the ideas behind this film for decades, and the technology and time had finally come for it. The trailer is entirely accurate if you’ve seen the film, but it’s fairly misleading if you haven’t. For instance, you might think that  the plot is actually something substantial. In fact, nothing in this film is substantial in the sense that nothing can actually be grasped and held onto. If anything, it has the viewer.

Tree of Life is about a family of five and then four in Waco, Texas, and about one of those five growing up into a wounded adult. But it’s also a visual meditation about God and death, nature and grace, Creation, destruction, a time, Time, family, children, marriage, boys, good and evil. Yes, it’s also slow.

For this particular film, it seems better to talk about themes than plot, but the two themes I name aren’t exhaustive in any way. They’re just most interesting to me.

First, it is about art, everything, and life. (I wouldn’t always group those three together.) I’m certain that the film is meant to be, as much as film can be, an imitation of the experience of life. It resists every attempt to be described or cognitively understood, because that’s how life is. Empiricist and intellectual approaches to life always end up being reductionist, and there’s a sense in which, if you take those approaches alone, all that is wonderful will be missed.

Alongside those approaches must come the emotional. And beyond that, there is the experiential. Some things can only be experienced: they can’t be understood; they can’t be described; they can’t even be felt in the sense that we normally talk about our senses. If you want to “get” this film, see it once and struggle to make sense of it. See it a second time after you decide to give that up and just experience it.

Second, it is about the mundane and the extraordinary. Many contemporary films and much of contemporary literature seem to want us to believe that their characters and their characters’ experiences are totally individual. No one else could experience what they have experienced, therefore no one else can understand them, therefore no one else can empathize, therefore we’re all alone.

That, in fact, seems to be how the main character, Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a kid and Sean Penn as an adult), experiences life.  He doesn’t get along well with his father (played by Brad Pitt), who, while he inarguably crosses verbal and physical lines with his wife and kids, is far from a monster. Surely Jack’s problems with his dad have their own character, but they are also the problems of every son and his father.

Or are they? In order to tell the story of this family, Malick shows the story of the birth of the universe, from the Big Bang to the most recent Ice Age. The juxtaposition of father/son dynamics with the Big Bang and the dinosaurs makes this particular father/son relationship into a unique experience and simultaneously makes the Big Bang and the dinosaurs into something totally mundane (“daily”) and ordinary. That is, the Big Bang and friction in a father/son relationship are equally mundane and equally extraordinary. It’s an awe-inspiring thought.

Worth Mentioning:

  • The interactions between the child actors are unbelievably real. Boys doing fun things, gross things, dumb things, dangerous things together. Boys figuring out what to do when they’re bored. My assumption is that no child actor is good enough to do that (although these are great) and that Malick (who is famous for the ludicrous amount of film that initially heads into the editing room) didn’t tell them what to do, but told them to become friends and to play, and then filmed it for days on end.

Two Comparisons:

  • The obvious comparison of recent years to me is The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s own film about life and everything, but I don’t think that there was anything mundane in the drama of that movie. Still, The Fountain is terribly underappreciated, and you really ought to watch it while you’re waiting for Tree of Life to come to, for instance, Florence, SC. It’s on Netflix Streaming.
  • The substantial comparison, however, is to 2001: A Space Odyssey. My pet theory is that Malick used dinosaurs instead of apes to elude the comparison, but the movies are most similar in that refusing-to-be-described, demanding-to-be-experienced, may-lull-you-into-a-coma sort of way. (For the record, I don’t know why I watched 2001 three or four times without giving up on finding something there, but the attempt paid off, and I don’t regret the time spent. Others might have the same experience with The Tree of Life.)

On first viewing and one night’s digestion, very good with the possibility that it’s great or even…MEGA-GREAT!!!(tm).


What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (dir. Woody Allen)

What’s not to love about Woody Allen?  Aside from the fact that some people just can’t stand him as a person, his art, or his personal life, nothing.  I did a count this week, and I’ve seen 28 Woody Allen films (29 counting Antz).  And this weekend, I caught his directorial debut, What’s Up, Tiger Lily?, which streams on Netflix.

The closest comparison to Tiger Lily might be an extreme version of Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Take a crappy movie, and then not only supply fake lines to ridiculous characters for humor’s sake (as MST3K did), but create an entire fake plot.

Woody Allen-level gold (whether or not you like that kind of gold) to follow at :48 and 1:45.  Don’t worry: despite Allen’s press, Tiger Lily doesn’t actually contain any raping or pillaging.  It does, however, contain a hip new soundtrack by The Lovin’ Spoonful, the beginning of which you can catch in the final seconds of this clip:

The movie might be a better symbol of a film career which at its best has been devoted to ambitious ideas and creating risk-taking art than a good film in itself.  Allen would likely hate the comparison, but the pattern of his artistic biography isn’t that far from Miles Davis.’  Their common M.O.: Explore and master an area with a few works, totally self-reinvent, explore and master a new area with a few works, totally self-reinvent, repeat a few times making sure to alienate old audiences and gain new ones all the time, have at least one really self-involved period where your art suffers for a while and your audience suffers with it, have at least one artistic comeback in which you prove that you’re still an undeniable genius, and generally just keep creating and sharing your art like crazy until you die.

Tiger Lily clearly took a ton of skill, and it mostly succeeds.  Success in this case, however, is making a totally incoherent Japanese spy movie into a mostly coherent American comedy with vaudeville and slapstick influences.  I for one think we can use more mostly coherent American comedies with vaudeville and slapstick influences today (think I Heart Huckabees as well as the films of major movie stars whom the Coen brothers get their hands on–Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, and the greatest screwball actor of his generation, George Clooney).

A word of caution, however: one other classic film tradition that Allen retains in Tiger Lily is some serious racial insensitivity in the form of crazy faux-Japanese character names that sound ‘funny’ to American ears.  Is it all in fun?  Does it matter if it’s ‘all in fun’?  You can decide.

Tired of all those slow, possibly thoughtful Holocaust flicks this past year?

“You haven’t see war until you’ve seen it through the eyes of Quentin Tarantino.”  I had heard rumors, but I hadn’t seen the trailer until today.  Inglourious Basterds will apparently enable you to see war for the first time.  Only Tarantino would think it’s a great idea to make what should have been a terrible Charles Bronson movie into what will most likely be (considering his incredibly consistent track record, at least not counting From Dusk Till Dawn, which Robert Rodriguez, a much less consistent artist, directed) a stylish and darkly humored ultraviolent wonder.  Most of Tarantino’s old fans will love it, and a few teenage boys will fall in love for the first time, choosing Tarantino as the one interesting filmmaker that they will ever watch.

Jewish-American soldiers terrorize the German countryside by killing and scalping Nazis.  Brad Pitt as their commander?  Okay.  But BJ Novak from The Office as one of the soldiers and Mike Myers as some other character?  Apparently working hard to break some typecasting here.

Make sure to give this video the HD treatment: