Monday, July 11, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE (2011 - DIRECTED BY TERRENCE MALICK)


ART: a symbol that expresses very real spiritualities under the surface of life; a thing of glimpses
- G.K. Chesterton

In our own little world, we often tend to lose sight of the big picture. For example, while art is a fascinating and enjoyable historical subject, many of us forget that the art of film is really still just in its infancy. The first known commercial release of a film took place on April 14, 1894. The first actual motion picture company essentially began in 1896. The film, The Great Train Robbery wasn't released until 1903. In the Arts, while we have painting, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, and literature - every single one of these branches of the Arts are over thousands of years older than film. Every single art form takes time to develop. To date, film has only had just a little over one hundred years.

Let's now take literature for an example. We have evidence that our ancestors were writing over five thousand years ago. Laws and stories were written down upon clay tablets, stones, tree bark and papyrus in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. The first books were written on parchment scrolls in early Bible times. The Epic of Gilgamesh dates to about 1900 B.C. The oldest books in the Bible, Job and Genesis , were probably written around 1500 B.C. Homer's Iliad dates to around 1190 B.C. We've learned that as literature developed over hundreds of years, different branches of literature emerged. All writing can be divided up between prose and poetry, and then prose can be divided between fiction/legend and nonfiction/history. In our generation, thanks to the likes of director Terrence Malick, we may be seeing the beginnings of this division in the art of film.

Of course, it seems like most of the first plays in the theater consisted of actors speaking entirely in poetry. C.S. Lewis, in his book, Reflections on the Psalms, wrote: "It seems to me appropriate, almost inevitable, that when that great Imagination which in the beginning, for Its own delight and for the delight of men and angels and (in their proper mode) of beasts, had invented and formed the whole world of Nature, submitted to express Itself in human speech, that speech should sometimes be poetry. For poetry too is a little incarnation, giving body to what had been before invisible and inaudible." Thanks to the imagination, poetry allows us to express things that we otherwise could not express in mere prose. Malick has been attempting to do this with film since 1973. So over about the last four decades, Malick has given us only five films. It's hard to judge this early, but The Tree of Life may be his best film yet.

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"Can any critic fully trust their initial reaction to such a thematically mammoth film like Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life? I'm battling this question myself nearly two hours after the film premiered at Cannes. To do so almost seems like a disservice to the endless possibilities Malick's film affords the viewer, like competing in a mad rush to a finish line that doesn't exist. Unfortunately, the long gestating hype surrounding the film and the "Shoot first, ask questions never" dogma of Twitter has already taken their toll. Processing a piece of film art like this takes time, and a lot of it, especially when the core function of The Tree of Life is to linger and crystallize. Since my own relationship with all Malick's films remains fluid, I'll try to reveal certain impressions about his latest project at this one moment in time, at this particular crossroads of perception. It's most definitely a profound and shape-shifting work, a towering examination of the way light and sound both comfort and repel. In turn, my thoughts will most definitely follow suit, morphing over time with repeat viewings."
- Glenn Heath Jr., Slant Magazine
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The idea that poetry can express and convey meaning incapable of other forms of speech and literature is not a new one. For example, poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney wrote The Defense of Poesy, where he argued exactly that:

"The lawyer saith what men have determined; the historian what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech; and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest persuade, thereon give artificial rules ... Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done ..."

Robert Frost said that "a poem begins with a lump in the throat" , hinting that poetry is an expression of deeper feelings not necessarily articulable in prose. Sidney laments anyone who has not developed an ear for "the planet-like music of poetry" because when a poet "comes to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music" , you are going to feel and understand things in a way that you otherwise would never be able to comprehend. English playwright Christopher Fry insisted that "Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement."

Now the idea of poetry as film is not completely new. This idea was discussed in the 1950s by Frederick Aicken who wrote that:

"... film should be capable of creating for the eye a sort of visual poetry, which would be a selection of the sight of ordinary men just as Wordsworth’s poetry was a selection of the speech of ordinary men ... As James Broughton has said, to ask for poetry in cinema does not mean that one is asking for verse plays embalmed in celluloid. The search is for the moment of truth, the sudden illumination of experience, the thrill of discovery of beauty in squalor, of the exciting in the ordinary. One looks for ‘a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented in an unusual aspect.’ One looks, too, for that flash upon the inward eye which completes the process of transference of emotion from the mind of the artist to the mind of the spectator. One looks, in fact, not for poetry in the film, but for poetry of the film."

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"The film is an affirmation of Mr. Malick’s belief in the power of cinematic images to express the sublime (the cinematographer is Emmanuel Lubezki) and, perhaps, of his faith in the audience to meet him with equivalent seriousness. It also serves as a reminder of how few contemporary filmmakers engage questions of life and death, God and soul, and risk such questioning without the crutch of an obvious story. It isn’t that these life questions aren’t asked in our movies; they are, if sometimes obliquely. Rather it’s the directness of Mr. Malick’s engagement with them that feels so surprising at this moment, and that goes against the mainstream filmmaking grain."
- Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
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There's a sense in which poetry takes you deeper than prose. And in film, other directors have flirted with this idea - Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer, French director Robert Bresson, and Swedish director Ingmar Bergman all created films where the images captured on camera were often far more important to the film than the action and dialogue. Dreyer's filming of actress Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc makes much more sense when you find that he said that "nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring." Dreyer could easily have been referring to the closeups of Falconetti's face in the film when he rhapsodized how there was no "greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry."

If you watch Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar or Bergman's Wild Strawberries, it will be the images in these films that stick with you the longest. They are images with so much to say. However, the master of the poetic use of visual imagery could easily be said to be Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. Andrei Rublev (1966), Solaris (1972), Stalker (1979), Voyage in Time (1982), Nostalghia (1983) and The Sacrifice (1986) are all films where many given camera shots could substitute for a beautiful painting. Taken all together, the beautifully crafted sequences and montages in Tarkovsky's films, do work as a sort of poetry. One can't help but suspect that Tarkovsky was an influence on Terrence Malick, particularly since his masterpiece, Mirror (1975), is probably the one film in existence that compares most closely to The Tree of Life.

Both Mirror and The Tree of Life are filmed collections of memories, many of which are occupied with mothers and family. Mirror is a difficult but rewarding film to watch and ponder because you are traveling through what at first seem to be apparently disconnected memories of a dying man - he's remembering his mother, how he has treated and harmed other people close to him, and his never-forgotten impressions formed during his childhood. There is a sense of both regret and redemption here. Beauty, self-sacrifice, anger, and sin all combine to make the thinker decide what in his life possessed true value. In The Tree of Life , the main character, Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn and as a child by Hunter McCracken), is traveling through his own memories. Jack begins the film by questioning God, and then, producing a series of images that rival anything ever put on the screen by Stanley Kubrick or George Lucas, Malick essentially takes Jack, and therefore the film audience, through an attempt at filming the first chapter of Genesis.

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"The film itself is essentially an illustration of the quote from Job 38 — asserting that the world is a beautiful and mysterious place, and that death and loss are to be accepted as part of this beauty and mystery. There are a handful of scenes in which the Catholicism of the central characters plays a rather understated part, but the film’s imagery is otherwise almost completely non-sectarian: This is an attempt at a universal vision of man’s fate, and a call for faith in the face of life’s cruelties. Of course, the notion that we should have hope and courage in the face of pain and grief because the universe is beautiful is a intellectually difficult one ... So the experience of beauty is not, taken in the abstract, an adequate response to Job’s — indeed, man’s — question. But what Malick has tried to create in this film is a concrete image of the universe that believers see, and ask audiences to join in contemplating it."
- Michael Potemra, National Review
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The contemplation of God's Creation is a regular theme of Malick's films, and while Tarkovsky first did this before Malick most powerfully in Andrei Rublev in 1966. Malick's Badlands (1973) predates Mirror by two years. At least half of Badlands consists of the main characters' reflection upon and experience of the natural world around them. Seeing the vastness of space and time, and the formless prehistoric matter in the first half of The Tree of Life , the viewer can't help but be enchanted. The film is a visual poem. And by turning film into poetry, Malick is taking us to deeper and profounder questions than 99.99% of Hollywood fare have ever taken us.

Jack is asking when God first revealed Himself. Jack's parents are questioning why (in the early minutes of the film) Jack's younger brother had to die (presumably in a war). Job asks God a whole series of similar questions in Scripture, and God's response to Job essentially consists in giving him a tour through the wonders of Creation. As a parallel, Malick ambitiously shows us God's Creation in this film. We see the birth of light and stars and planets. We see the beginnings of cellular life (a interspersing of images of the astronomical universe and images of the ordered cellular structures of biological life demonstrates a striking similarity). We see a primordial earth full of raging waters and volcanoes, lava, rock, fire, plant life and eventually dinosaurs. And then we see Jack's birth and family living in a 1950s suburb in Texas that can't help but remind us of the Garden of Eden.

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"Those scenes, like most of Tree of Life, play out with scarcely any spoken dialogue — just passages of whispered narration and much classical music (Bach, Holst, Goreckí, Mahler) laid over rapturously lyrical images that express more than words ever could. In particular, Malick recalls childhood, and a child’s way of seeing and feeling, with acute intensity: the first blush of pain, the mysterious lengthening of a shadow in the sun, the idealization of our parents as perfect people, the realization that all things must die. Like 2001, Tree of Life is a symphonic film that surges and swells, returns to favorite motifs, and—even by Malick’s esoteric standards—has more in common with music, painting, poetry, and certain strains of avant-garde filmmaking than it does with mainstream narrative cinema. 'When I talk about ‘poetic cinema,’ I don't mean that it has something to do with poetry,' the Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami told me in a 2001 interview. 'I'm talking about the cinema being like poetry, possessing the complicated qualities of poetry, and also having the vast potential of poetry.' If Malick were inclined to give interviews, he might say something similar. Where his previous films all, to one extent or another, felt marooned between the prosaic and the poetic, he here gives himself fully over to the latter, and the result feels like the purest expression of himself—like the fulfillment of Robert Bresson’s mandate, written in his indelible Notes on the Cinematographer, to 'make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen' ... You don’t watch this movie so much as you surrender to it."
- Scott Foundas, Lincoln Center Film Society
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The portion of the film that takes the viewer through Jack's early childhood memories are all tinged with a luminescent glow. His memories of his mother dominate this portion of the film, and she is a person full of joy. We get to see the beginnings of romance between her and his father, the first images he remembers of their faces, the grass, planting a tree, the wind in the trees, his first steps, the birth of his little brother, laughter, dancing, sharing, fireworks, playing, roughhousing, running, wonder and beauty. After just being taken through the opening visuals of the origins of the universe, the beginnings of human life and family are seen like new - the result is that you feel like you are watching a miracle. Out of nothingness and chaos Malick shows us the formation of order. I can't say I've seen anything as ambitious as this before. How well everything works and what exactly could have been done better is currently being debated back and forth by all the critics - I'm just amazed that Malick decided to do all this in the first place.

If this is what a film as a poem looks like, then I want to see more. But it's time to caution you. If you have never seen anything like this before (like anything else of Malick or Tarkovsky's Mirror) then trying to sit down and watch this the entire way through is going to be a culture shock no matter who you are. This is heavy stuff. It takes some getting used to and learning to appreciate it for what it is takes a certain amount of effort. This is a film you can wrestle with. And it's a film that will leave a lasting impression on you that will be difficult to shake off days later. Modern day culture has trained you to be bored by this film. You are going to think the pace is too slow. You are going to wonder why there isn't more dialogue, or why half of the dialogue is in whispers. You are likely going to fidget in your seat during the ending, because chances are you aren't going to quite understand what is going on.

You can appreciate the beauty exhibited here by Malick and still have problems with the film. Criticizing it and wondering how it could have been done better is just fine. But that doesn't negate the experience you will have by dropping your expectations for what you're used to, taking a deep breath, relaxing, sitting back, and letting Malick's work wash over you for the next couple hours. When it's over, you are going to be confused about a few things. You'll have questions. You'll be wondering what this scene or that image was all about. You'll be wishing the director didn't make that choice or didn't venture into surrealism at that other scene. But you'll also have just experienced something new - and ideas and impressions that cannot be conveyed in a purely linear prose film will have been conveyed to you. It will take some time for them to sink in.

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"Evocative. Captivating. Affirming. Powerful. Metaphorical. Stunning. Emotional. Cerebral. Epic. Challenging. Questioning. Unusual. Beautiful. Spiritual. Impressionistic. Affecting. Deep. Provocative. Majestic. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is all of these things. What it is not is a film that will be appreciated by everyone. Don’t misunderstand. I think it’s a wonderful film – probably one of the best coming out this year. It’s just that it is so out of the norm that it may just stump many viewers. It is not so much a film to be watched as it is an experience to be encountered and processed ... The film often lacks fluidity – even within a scene. This is part of the style of the film – not giving us a smooth story and storyline. Rather it often only gives us images, just as memory is often just a collection of such images ... Even in scenes where there is conversation, the words may be in the background while we focus on other things."
- Darrel Manson, HJ Live
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There is a portion of The Tree of Life that is meant to convey the idea of Edenic Paradise to the viewer. Since we live in a fallen world, it is something always difficult for us to imagine - but we can still try to imagine it. This is what works of art are for - engaging and exercising the creative faculty of the imagination. And, unlike more standard fare, Malick is far far more interested in speaking to your imagination than he is in entertaining you. The Tree of Life is not really going to entertain you. It's going to perplex you and make you ask questions - even if you're first only asking why things in the movie aren't more normal. But Paradise was, one could say, God's original intent for our world. And traces and hints of Eden still exist. This is what Jack's mother, played glowingly by newcomer Jessica Chastain, tries to explain by using the word "grace."

Grace is not necessarily something we see often or even deserve. But "grace" is still frequently granted to us, even in the corrupt condition we currently find ourselves in. Malick is intensely interested in demonstrating how grace is actually all around us if only we had the eyes to see. He tries to give us the eyes to see with his work, and he doesn't do a bad job of it. When an infant Jack's mother holds him and happily points up into the sky - "That's where God lives." - she's naturally expressing her belief in grace's origin. When Jack's father goes through a time of regret and self-repentance, one of his most immediate realizations is that he has been failing to stop and see the glory that is all around him. The reason for this is that this glory points towards something - something important that ought to have been affecting his attitude and behavior. Jack's father decides to if he had spent more time noticing the beauty that grace has put in his life, his actions would have changed - and now can change if he lets them.

In Malick's film, The New World, early on Captain John Smith is heading down a path full of nothing but his own self and ambitions. He's not going to get any help from the men he's around. His mentor and teacher seems to only be encouraging his ambition. His one chance to change is the beauty he sees around him in the new world, and the beauty Pocahontas naturally and innocently takes joy in sharing with him. In theology this is called general revelation. In The New World, this is what makes Smith begin to pray to the Creator of all that is new and wonderfully revealed to the explorer. Ultimately he has to decide whether to respond to it or not by changing his actions - and the question of how he will respond to it becomes one of the reasons for tension in the story.

The same theme is suggested by Jack's father's realization, and by Jack's own questioning of his own life and existence. Finding himself in a listless job where the modern city has risen up and surrounded him, effectively blocking him off from the Creation he knew and wondered at as a child, Jack is asking about the grace that he feels he has lost touch with.
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"Though Malick’s films are quite philosophical and vocally metaphysical (voiceover questions about God, evil, death, love are ubiquitous), they should not be processed in the way one would read a term paper. This is not to say they shouldn’t be thought about, analyzed or deconstructed after the fact (because certainly his complicated films invite all manner of critical response and worthy engagement). It’s just to say that, in the midst of experiencing the films, it’s best to receive them with eyes and ears wide open rather than trying to figure them out in the moment. Heavily influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (Malick studied philosophy at Harvard, Oxford and MIT before he made his first film), Malick wants his films to be experienced viscerally before they are understood cognitively. The J.D. Salinger-esque director doesn’t do interviews or comment on his films, but in a rare 2005 screening of The New World in his hometown of Bartlesville, Okla., Malick fielded a few questions and suggested to the audience that the best way to view his film was to “just get into it; let it roll over you. It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself.'"
- Brett McCracken, "How To Watch A Malick Film"
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Another word of advice when you try watching this film: reserve all judgment until it is over. There are times, as things move slowly, where you might be tempted to criticize Malick for showing one thing and not another. Wait and see. Keep watching it and let Malick's poem express his ideas and give you a story in his own time and at his own pacing. Don't fault him for giving you what appears to be a picture perfect 1950s family. That is not what he's giving you. He's giving you the childhood memories of an older, wiser, troubled and questioning man. The story is there lurking in the background. There is a progression the director will still take you through if you are willing to have the patience to let him.

While you get hints of the first chapter of Genesis here, you also are being given themes and selections from the Book of Job. The Book of Job is a debate with lots of questions about the nature, character and even presence of God in the face of death, pain and suffering. Terrence Malick has decided to take a questioning Job and set him in the middle of a modern day film - whatever pain and suffering he's going through, he has lost or never quite attained his faith. Because he is looking for it, some of his memories he turns to seem hallowed. But that is just the beginning.

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"As the barista took my ATM card, she noticed my notebook and asked, 'What are you writing?'

'A movie review.'

'Oh, really? What movie?' She scribbled my coffee order on a strip of paper and gave it to her coworker.

'The Tree of Life.'

'I haven’t heard of that. Who’s in it?'

'Sean Penn, Brad Pitt, and an actress named Jessica Chastain.'

'Sean Penn and Brad Pitt,' she said. 'Wow. It must be really good.'

I clenched my teeth, dreading the inevitable question ...

'Did you like it?'

As the barista asked me to sign a curling ATM slip, I cautiously answered: 'Well... it’s definitely a movie worth seeing.'

'What’s it about?'

'It’s about a man who is burdened by grief and confusion. He calls out to God. Like Job in the Bible.'

Her eyes widened in surprise.

But I wasn’t exaggerating ... 'God answers Jack,' I told the barista, 'with a vision of the creation of the universe. The birth of stars. The origins of life. The rise of the dinosaurs.'

I think she actually took a step back from the counter at this point.

'It carries us all the way to the daily life of the troubled man’s own family. It’s really beautiful.'

She glanced over my shoulder at another customer, a hint of apology in her expression.

'Did you see The New World? The film about Pocahontas?' I fumbled for magic words to persuade her. 'Or Days of Heaven? With Richard Gere?' As I stepped aside, I concluded, 'Just...go see it. Take some friends. Be sure you have time to talk about it afterwards.'

I sounded ridiculous, I know."

- Jeffrey Overstreet, Image
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For those of you just being introduced to Terrence Malick, you are about to make a great discovery. He rigorously protects the privacy of his personal life, does not work to promote his own films and rarely ever gives an interview. Thus, Malick the man is very much a mystery to curious film critics. While some speculate that he is pantheistic, and others have provided a small collection of convincing bits of evidence that he is probably Catholic, the most that we can learn from him is simply from the content of his films. In 1973, Malick released his first film Badlands , telling the tale of a young couple (Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek) running from the law. While you'd think it would be a violent Bonnie & Clyde sort of story, it's not. Instead, it's rather dreamy, the guy and girl are both very naive and they seem to be constantly looking at the world around them in surprise.

In 1978, Malick brought us Days of Heaven which enchants you with photographic vignettes of Americana the moment the opening credits begin. Starring Richard Gere, Sam Shepherd, Brooke Adams and Linda Manz, the film takes a while until you realize a whole number of stories and themes have been lifted from the early books of the Old Testament and placed into the early 1900s American West. The tales of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Samson are all found in Days of Heaven. Jessica Chastain's joyful mother is a bit reminiscent of Brooke Adams' joyful character, Abby. Much of the film is spent simply taking in the wonders of nature, the exuberance and tenacity of man, and the way light filters down to us from the sky.

Then, Malick disappears from the scene for two whole decades until finally coming back and releasing The Thin Red Line in 1998. The reputation that he had made for himself with only two films in the '70s was immediately demonstrated by the actors who enthusiastically signed up for roles in the film - Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Adrien Brody, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, John Cusack, Nick Stahl, Miranda Otto, John C. Reilly, Jared Leto, Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen and Mickey Rourke. There are a whole number of provocative themes running through this film, but the most prevalent one is the ongoing conversation between Private Witt (Caviezel) and First Sergeant Welsh (Penn). Witt believes in God. Welsh believes in nothing. Their actions and attitudes during the Battle of Guadalcanal and the Battle of Mount Austen are both reflective of their wrestling with each other's ideas. Welsh cannot understand how Witt can see anything good in the world when confronted with the evil of man in war. Witt can't seem to figure out how to explain this to Welsh. Ultimately, Witt uses his actions instead of words to do this.

In 2005, Malick demonstrated that his work only keeps improving with time. His most recent masterpiece before The Tree of Life was The New World . As in all his films, one of the main characters is simply Creation itself. The beauty of nature interacts with the human characters as much as they interact with each other. In spite of all their griefs, joys, failings, troubles and triumphs, General Revelation is continually revealing itself to them. It is up to them to respond and each of them does respond in different ways. The casting is perfect. Colin Farrel plays a troubled John Smith. Q'orianka Kilcher plays a radiant Pocahontas. Christian Bale is strong as John Rolfe and Christopher Plummer is a wise Captain Newport. Classical works like Wagner's Vorspiel to Das Rheingold and Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 enchantingly fill the background when you're not just listening to the sounds of wind or water. As the story progresses, you are constantly left with the impression that Paradise is just beyond the grasps of the characters - it's meant to be there but isn't - and the fault seems to lie with us. Man's nature is corrupt and the selfishness of man is destroying what ought not to be destroyed. Farrel's Smith understands this, and is wrestling within himself between what he knows ought to be and what he wants. Kilcher's Pocahontas is hurt by this. Bale's Rolfe wants to try and restore it. All three find themselves in constant awe of the world around them.

The Tree of Life takes these themes from all four of Malick's previous films, and then ups the ante.
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"With his cosmic realism, Malick vividly remembers youth's intimate yet huge idea of God, and Tree of Life's Genesis overture recalls the viewer to a child's awed first conception of the vastness beyond his proscribed world. Thus prepared, you have fresh eyes to see suburbia as, yes, a miracle ...

In his evocation of lost-Eden childhood, Malick shows the wisdom of C.S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism: “If we are to use the words ‘childish’ and ‘infantile’ as terms of disapproval, we must make sure that they refer only to those characteristics of childhood, which we become better and happier by outgrowing,” Lewis wrote. “Who in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity, and to admire?” It is because the 67-year-old director can get so much of that on-screen, and much more besides, that he's one of the few American filmmakers operating on the multiplex scale who makes movies feel like undiscovered country."

- Nick Pinkerton, LA Weekly
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It is not a coincidence that the main character of The Tree of Life turns to his childhood when trying to remember the beginnings of grace in his life.

Matthew 18:1-5
"At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me."

Neither is it a coincidence that when we think of wonder, we use the term "childlike wonder." In his book, Heretics , G.K. Chesterton argued -

"The child is, indeed, in these, and many other matters, the best guide. And in nothing is the child so righteously childlike, in nothing does he exhibit more accurately the sounder order of simplicity, than in the fact that he sees everything with a simple pleasure, even the complex things. The false type of naturalness harps always on the distinction between the natural and the artificial. The higher kind of naturalness ignores that distinction. To the child the tree and the lamp-post are as natural and as artificial as each other; or rather, neither of them are natural but both supernatural. For both are splendid and unexplained. The flower with which God crowns the one, and the flame with which Sam the lamplighter crowns the other, are equally of the gold of fairy-tales. In the middle of the wildest fields the most rustic child is, ten to one, playing at steam-engines. And the only spiritual or philosophical objection to steam-engines is not that men pay for them or work at them, or make them very ugly, or even that men are killed by them; but merely that men do not play at them."

Children at play could be seen as one of the main themes of Malick's new film. You watch Jack, his brothers, his playmates and often his mother simply playing together. Running, jumping, swimming, dancing, wrestling, creating games at whim, and taking pleasure in the mere fact of physical exertion itself. There is something about childlike wonder at the beauty of the world and resulting joyful physical exertion that go hand-in-hand together.

Friday, July 8, 2011

THE WIRE (HBO) - FIVE SEASONS (2002-2008 - Created by David Simon)

(Review originally written on September 11, 2008.)
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"When you walk through the garden, you gotta watch your back,
Well, I beg your pardon, walk the straight and narrow track.
If you walk with Jesus, he's gonna save your soul,
You gotta keep the devil way down in the hole."
- The Wire
opening lyrics

What can I say? HBO's TV Show The Wire is an epic masterpiece. Forget all your average CSI run-of-the-mill cop dramas, in fact, forget most of the garbage, mass-marketed network TV shows out there. The Wire may just be the most ambitious TV drama made in decades. High praise I know, but creator David Simon deserves all the praise he's getting from the critics and more.

"The Wire ... is surely the best TV show ever broadcast in America. This claim isn't based on my having seen all the possible rivals for the title, but on the premise that no other program has ever done anything remotely like what this one does, namely to portray the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature."
- Jacob Weisberg, Slate Magazine

The Wire is about the inner city of Baltimore, Maryland. The cast of characters is both large and filled with intricately detailed character development. People in Baltimore, or in any big city, are faced with constant poverty, bureaucracy, crime, corruption, entrenched & failed institutions, and the fallen human condition. The Wire tells the the story of what choices Americans are faced with when stuck in this soul-sucking environment.

Note for Christians: So how can I recommend a HBO show like The Wire to other Christians I know? Having standards for the content of what you allow on your television is not only commendable but necessary. At the same time, when you consider ... how can I put it ... the literary greatness, moral depth, or understanding and teaching on our modern culture that The Wire has to offer ... well, the "offensive content" objection just doesn't seem important anymore. It makes me wonder what the young kids in season 4, with their literal life & death struggles, would think of white suburban Christians who couldn't learn from their story because they use the F-word when they talk.

I mean ... I suppose if you're overly sensitive to some bad language, dirty jokes, or sexual content, then you won't be able to learn anything from this show because you'll just be too distracted. I won't criticize you for that. I've heard the Christian ask the question before - "Why? Why create a show or movie with offensive content? And why should I condone sin by watching it?" I've also heard the answer - "Because that's the way people act in real life." And I've never really completely bought that answer. Merely because something is real doesn't mean you have to show it on the screen. But I also don't quite agree with the question - because it automatically assumes that you are condoning sin (or even sinning), by watching the theatrical portrayal of sin on the movie screen. Shakespeare wouldn't agree with this assumption because it's not true. And I can honestly say that if the creators of The Wire cleaned up the language and actions of the characters, then the impact and story of the show simply would not have worked. In fact, it's a bit astonishing to me that I even have to say this. There is a reason why David Simon did not create The Wire for the popularly marketable mass audience.

David Simon is a controversial guy. He infamously said a few things in this interview with British novelist, Nick Hornby, that offended a large number of people. The entire interview is worth reading and thinking about, particularly if you believe Christianity is true, but here's a few of the more famous excerpts -

"My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.

"Beginning with Homicide, the book, I decided to write for the people living the event, the people in that very world. I would reserve some of the exposition, assuming the reader/viewer knew more than he did, or could, with a sensible amount of effort, hang around long enough to figure it out. I also realized — and this was more important to me — that I would consider the book or film a failure if people in these worlds took in my story and felt that I did not get their existence, that I had not captured their world in any way that they would respect.

"Make no mistake — with journalism, this doesn’t mean I want the subjects to agree with every page. Sometimes the adversarial nature of what I am saying requires that I write what the subjects will not like, in terms of content. But in terms of dialogue, vernacular, description, tone — I want a homicide detective, or a drug slinger, or a longshoreman, or a politician anywhere in America to sit up and say, Whoa, that’s how my day is. That’s my goal. It derives not from pride or ambition or any writerly vanity, but from fear. Absolute fear. Like many writers, I live every day with the vague nightmare that at some point, someone more knowledgeable than myself is going to sit up and pen a massive screed indicating exactly where my work is shallow and fraudulent and rooted in lame, half-assed assumptions ..."


Simon strives in his work for blunt honesty. This is because he believes that accurate depictions of our world and a true understanding of how other people live and think and struggle is one of the most powerful ways of challenging us. He continues -

"... Which brings us back to Average Reader. Because the truth is you can’t write just for people living the event, if the market will not also follow. TV still being something of a mass medium, even with all the fractured cable universe now reducing audience size per channel. Well, here’s a secret that I learned with Homicide and have held to: if you write something that is so credible that the insider will stay with you, then the outsider will follow as well. Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill — these are travelogues of a kind, allowing Average Reader/Viewer to go where he otherwise would not. He loves being immersed in a new, confusing, and possibly dangerous world that he will never see. He likes not knowing every bit of vernacular or idiom. He likes being trusted to acquire information on his terms, to make connections, to take the journey with only his intelligence to guide him.

Most smart people cannot watch most TV, because it has generally been a condescending medium, explaining everything immediately, offering no ambiguities, and using dialogue that simplifies and mitigates against the idiosyncratic ways in which people in different worlds actually communicate. It eventually requires that characters from different places talk the same way as the viewer. This, of course, sucks."


Back to the Review - There's no question about it, The Wire is a thoughtful adult show for thinking adults. The Wire is also a story that includes little children living lives in the American inner city hells that no child should ever have to live. How the main characters respond to this is part of what gives The Wire it's moral power. It's inherently a moral story about the lives of police officers, drug runners, drug addicts, politicians, dock workers, crime bosses, lawyers, journalists, and convicts and the ethical character forming choices that life presents every single one of them with.

But, it is particularly when the story deals with children that you see the heart of some of the main characters on the show - cruelty, love, evil, and self-sacrifice all come to the surface here. But this is where you realize what high quality stuff this is - most TV shows do not force you to ask yourself questions about your heart and moral depth. Most network TV shows are actually designed to turn your brain off, not on.

"I agree with Chase in one respect. I read an interview with him where he said what American television gets wrong relentlessly is that life is really tragic. Not a lot of people want to tune their living room box to that channel. It's an escapist form. There are people who are willing to look at it for something else. It's not a mass audience, but possibly some portion of that mass audience finds its way to something else, and then they expect to be treated as they've always been treated. There's nothing the writers can do about that, other than twist themselves into hacks trying to please people with what they want."
- David Simon

An hour of The Wire will not happily satisfy your desire for light entertainment. It doesn't please a lot of people (which is why they refuse to watch it). It's called a "dark" TV show. There are some "dark" shows and movies out there that pride themselves in showing every little detail of human depravity and then reveling in it. In these shows, there are no good guys - everyone is evil. "Here", they sneer, "look at all the sins and crimes that man is capable of." I personally can't stand that sort of garbage - becoming more and more currently popular in the horror genre for one example - and I refuse to justify watching evil simply for the sake of watching evil. That seems wrong to me. There is nothing of grace or redemption in doing so. And while the "everyone is evil" theme may be horse-blinder Biblical, it's also too simplistic. The Wire is dark in that it sometimes horrifies or shocks the viewer, yet it also teaches, inspires, and asks meaningful questions. Expect questions when you watch this show, not only about about personal integrity, but also about the society and institutions that surround you, how they are failing, and what, if anything, you can do about it.

"It's cynical about institutions, and about their capacity for serving the needs of the individual. But in its treatment of the actual characters, be they longshoremen or mid-level drug dealers or police detectives, I don't think it's cynical at all."
- David Simon

"On the off chance that you need to be reminded, this is not 'Desperate Housewives' ... let's just say that the breadth and ambition of 'The Wire' are unrivaled and that taken cumulatively over the course of a season -- any season -- it's an astonishing display of writing, acting and storytelling that must be considered alongside the best literature and filmmaking in the modern era. If you're not interested in 'The Wire' after that, Godspeed to your unexamined life ... It's not Simon who should worry that people won't watch his show because it's difficult. It's viewers who should worry that they are missing the absolute best of what television has to offer merely because it requires effort."
- Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle

So, there are 5 seasons of The Wire . Each season has a different theme that deals with the lives of different people in the big city. The main characters stay mostly the same, and the major themes will stay the same, but each season seems like it is also designed to ask specific questions about specific parts of our culture & society.

Season One is about the drug trade - a large, and often ignored, problem in almost every city in America - but The Wire will focus on Baltimore as an example. Season Two is about the city harbor - or, more importantly, about the dock workers there and the life of increasingly marginalized blue collar working man, unions, labor leaders - the manual labor working class of America is literally just being pushed aside today. Poverty is the increasing result. Season Three focuses on city politics - the subject of the incompetence of government & bureaucracy is a constant theme running throughout each season of The Wire, but this season takes it on full force and continues to relate how the drug trade is tied to Baltimore politics.

"The Wire will have an effect on the way a certain number of thoughtful people look at the drug war. It will not have the slightest effect on the way the nation as a whole does business. Nor is that my intent in doing the show. My intent is to tell a good story that matters to myself and the other writers -- to tell the best story we can about what it feels like to live in the American city."
- David Simon

However, it was finally in the middle of Season Four that I decided that, all along, I had been watching what perhaps may be the greatest TV show of at least my lifetime. Season Four is finishing the politics story from 3 while next focusing on the city's education system. And this is where you might get the closest to despair - because it becomes absolutely clear that the education system is not working. Not only is it not working, but the system works against the competent people who are really trying to help the kids. The government's numbers and statistics is more important than actually doing real work that accomplishes anything. In fact, the effort to produce media worthy statistics (mandatory tests for the schools, number of arrests for the police department) ends up sacrificing teaching the kids anything and actually preventing crimes that matter.

Season Five is about journalism - or the city's newspaper, a fictional substitute for the Baltimore Sun - more incompetence, more about failing institutions, more about work that does not matter and hurts people rather than helps them. Season Five also completes a very large number of character arcs that have been amazing to watch throughout the entire show. Some of your favorite and most beloved characters are going to go up against their toughest and most dangerous tests in the last season.

There's no other way to put it - This is a masterpiece, and I'm recommending it to anyone who has the capacity of learning something from it. It's amazing being exposed to a work of art of high quality can change you. I honestly believe that I can be just a little bit of a better person for having seen the story of The Wire. This is not something I've ever been even tempted to hope for when happening upon the low quality mass-marketed crap on network television.

"One of the sad things about contemporary journalism is that it actually matters very little. The world now is almost inured to the power of journalism. The best journalism would manage to outrage people. And people are less and less inclined to outrage ... I've become increasingly cynical about the ability of daily journalism to effect any kind of meaningful change. I was pretty dubious about it when I was a journalist, but now I think it's remarkably ineffectual."
- David Simon

So there, I said it. Watching The Wire could change who you are as a person. It could change the way you think. It could change the way you look at people. It could even motivate you to do something, and if happen to believe in a small collection of truths out there, then it should. I don't know yet how much The Wire is going to affect me, but I'm in a the stage in my life where I'm looking to start a career - and I think that watching the cops, detectives, lawyers, bureaucrats, mayors, and journalists all on The Wire has made me more think more realistically about this. The way the system works, it'd be very easy to work all your life at a career where basically your job is to screw people over. Finding a job that would allow you to really help people? With all the evil in the world today, that would be something to take joy in.

"'The Wire' is an inherently sad story. Though Simon and his writers infuse it with street-smart humor and even a droning, Dilbert-like quality that strips workplaces and government institutions to their flawed core, the heart of 'The Wire' is a dark one, as always. The tale that Simon has told ... can best be summed up this way: 'It doesn't work.' The war on drugs is flawed not only from a police procedural standpoint but also because the department is beholden to the mayor and the mayor to special interests. Even the most cleverly constructed, forward-thinking drug gangs are flawed because the greed, hopelessness, laziness and fearlessness of others always intervenes. Politics fails because so much of Baltimore is in the death grip of immediate need, of decades long failure that demands reparation. And now we see how the education system doesn't work, from a strapped school district that advocates 'social promotion' so that teachers don't have to deal with bigger, stronger troublemakers, to the cruelty of poverty and how it strips away chance and, ultimately, to the much more damning, complicated notion of historical nonparticipation of poor families in the very idea of necessary education for betterment."
- Tim Goodman, San Francisco Chronicle

"I very painstakingly said: 'Look. For 35 years, you've systematically deindustrialized these cities. You've rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you've alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods, and not being able to distinguish between friend or foe and between that which is truly dangerous or that which is just illegal. And you want to sit across the table from me and say 'What's the solution?' and get it in a paragraph? The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don't know, but until you start it's only going to get worse.'"
- David Simon

Simon, the creator of The Wire, has some very passionate things to say. A former police reporter for the Baltimore Sun , he's seen how our political institutions are failing. He's seen the incompetence and red tape of bureaucracy preventing the police from doing their jobs first hand. And he also has a low opinion of most of our modern day entertainment industry. Simon went outside the mainstream TV show world of script writing, and put together a collection of hand-picked crime fiction writers (including Dennis Lehane, Richard Price and George Pelecanos) to write for The Wire. His main co-writer, Ed Burns, is a former Baltimore police detective and public school teacher. So both the experience and talent for making something very special is all there.

He's got the fire and the fury at his command
Well, you don't have to worry, if you hold on to Jesus' hand
We'll all be safe from Satan, when the thunder rolls
Just gotta help me keep the devil way down in the hole.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

MINIMUS ILLORUM

I prefer peace and sipping iced scotch slowly
The needy are given meth and crack and dope instead
I like to focus on my own self wants solely
The Son of Man had no place to lay his head

I warm myself with Hendrix, Mozart, Creedence and Bach
Others are taught that pounding will make their misery no more
Myself is tempted the impoverished culture around me to mock
Hannah cried out that from the dust He lifts up the poor

Why should anyone deprive me of my rights? I demand
But the rights of others have been consumed long ago
Why should inconvenience between me and my desires stand?
Another asked me for my own little lusts to forgo

Comfort and safety is my class cultural birthright
Others in the darkness hope desperately for one crumb
I tend towards complacent apathetic lethargy despite
Those words ... Open thy mouth for the dumb

I’m a vast collector of enjoyable personal possessions
Tyler Durden sneers at mass-consumer seduction
I like to spend all my own resources for my own obsessions
Instead of “the cause of such as are appointed to destruction”

Comfort equals being with those most like myself
Tyler Durden thinks we’ve all been raised on television
White, uptight middle-class little boxes all stacked on a shelf
But in Him there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision

I find it easier to fold and give and bend with no effort
It’s too hard to be a rock, shelter, refuge or tree
My time is precious and I really hate going to the desert
“Take up your cross and Follow Me”

I prefer the company of the cool crowd to the outcasts
“Behold a man gluttonous and a winebibber ...”
Being that guy with those friends makes me feel outclassed
But he lived with the fisherman, publican, prostitute, and sinner

Pleasure is a good part of God’s Creation I find
And the Holy Fathers taught against the life of ease
Yet there’s no reason why two good things can’t be combined
And He said “Inasmuch as ye do it unto the least of these ...”

I prefer peace and sipping iced scotch slowly
But there is no good reason not to share
I like to focus on the little pleasures solely
But why not strive towards teaching others to care?