Posts Tagged ‘Jessica Chastain’

Leithart: Shining Glory

May 20, 2016

Shining Glory
Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life
Peter J. Leithart
(Cascade, 2013)
88 p.

Because I like to do things in the wrong order, I bought this book after writing about The Tree of Life for the 52 Movies project. Perhaps it’s just as well; the temptation to discuss the book’s many insights would have made my review too long.

Leithart is a Biblical scholar, not a film critic, and he admits as much up front. He was so enchanted by Malick’s film, however, and so impressed by its theological weight, that he felt compelled to write about it. He recommends that readers see the film at least three times before taking up the book, and that sounds right to me.

If you haven’t seen the film at all, not only will Leithart’s book not be very meaningful to you, but this post might spoil things too. Not that it is the sort of film to suffer from spoilers, but some people are sensitive about such things…

tree-angel

The book covers many topics in its short compass. I was not surprised to see him writing about music, memory, and family as treated in the film, but he also treats several topics that I had not considered before, such as the way Malick uses water imagery, or the way he focuses on hands, or his use of doors and windows. For me the most valuable parts of the book were the discussion of the film’s overall structure, of the relationship between the film and the Book of Job, of the themes of nature and grace, of the role of evil in the film, and of that long, vexing final sequence on the beach.

The Tree of Life opens with a mysterious, flame-like image that fades in and then out, and the same image recurs at three other points in the film. The first divides that moving opening segment of the film set in the late 1960s from the Sean Penn segment set in the 2010s. The second occurs soon after, dividing the Sean Penn segment from the creation sequence, and the third occurs at the very end of the film. Leithart argues, quite rightly I think, that it is significant that the flame does not divide the creation sequence from the long section of the film set in the 1950s, suggesting that Malick intends them to be taken together, as related to one another, and this provides guidance as we try to interpret what the creation sequence is doing.

On this question Leithart proposes a few answers which were not new to me. He notes (what is my favoured interpretation) that the creation sequence could be taken as an echo of God’s “Where were you when I laid the foundations?” response to Job. (And Leithart notes that the film’s main (and only named) character is Jack O’Brien, whose name actually contains an echo of JOB’s name.) As in Job, God’s answer to Job’s questions is not a direct answer; God does not justify his ways to men; but it is an answer “on the slant”, asking the one who pleads to consider God’s power and providence. Or, by setting the ordinary drama of the O’Brien family against a cosmic backdrop, Malick might be raising another Biblical question: “What is man that you are mindful of him?” Yet the fact that the film itself is certainly mindful of the O’Briens makes us think about what the answer might be.

the-tree-of-life-jessica-chastain

Leithart has also helped me to appreciate much more clearly how well-structured the film is as a whole. On first viewing(s), The Tree of Life can seem like a disconnected collection of chunks: the bit in the 60s, the long bit in the 50s, the bit in modern times, the creation bit, the beach bit. But Malick has subtly tied these parts together. For instance, in the very first moments of the film, when we see the mysterious flame for the first time, what we hear are the sounds of water on a beach, an obvious anticipation of the film’s closing beach sequence (but not so obvious that I hadn’t missed it before). And, crucially, in the early Sean Penn sequence there is an insert shot of his younger brother, R.L., standing on that same beach, and he speaks the words, “Find me”. I might almost say that this brief shot, which lasts less than a second and which I had hardly noticed on previous viewings, is an interpretive key to the whole film, for it is this “Find me” that sets in motion the descent into memory and the wrestling with God and death that constitute most of the film and determine its course.

Indeed, R.L. (whose initials we know only from reading the credits) emerges from Leithart’s analysis as a key character. His birth is the first disturbance to the happiness of his older brother Jack, who begins to experience jealousy and feel temptations to violence. He is a graced character, following his mother’s lead much as Jack follows his father’s, and so permits Malick to set up the nature / grace contrasts in both generations of the family. And it is R.L.’s forgiveness of Jack’s cruelty which, late in the film, begins to heal the wounds that were threatening the family’s life together. It is in light of R.L.’s place in Jack’s life that I begin to discern the overall structure of the film and its meaning, for that initial “Find me” on the beach is finally answered in the long beach sequence in which Jack does find him. The beach sequence is not just a strange add-on, but a fulfillment and completion of what came before. (Watching the film again after reading this book, I was surprised to find, for the first time, that this beach sequence actually brought tears to my eyes.)

Most interesting was Leithart’s analysis of the elements of this beach sequence. He points out that it is actually divided into two parts: a ‘resurrection’ part, with imagery of candles, processions, and figures rising from coffins, and a ‘reunion/restoration’ part, taking place on the beach. The two are separated by a shot in which the adult Jack passes through a doorway erected in the desert. In a long footnote, he cites evidence that the ‘resurrection’ part was originally planned to be much more extensive, and that Malick spent a lot of time filming material for it. It gives me another reason to want to see that rumoured 6-hour director’s cut!

tree-resurrection

Most commentators on The Tree of Life highlight the themes of nature and grace, and Leithart is no exception. He argues that as used in the film they don’t map readily onto Christian theological understandings of either. In the film, ‘nature’ stands for domination, competition, and control, whereas ‘grace’ stands for receptivity, contemplation, and love. Nature could be taken as representing modernity, while grace presents us a vision of an earlier order, or later (the influence of Malick’s beloved Heidegger is probably felt most strongly here). Grace is attention to being, which cannot be controlled or managed. Indeed, it is Mrs O’Brien’s openness to grace that makes her so vulnerable to loss and evil. Leithart also reminds us that Malick is himself a famously “graced” filmmaker, often working without a script, using reams of film in the hopes that something special will be captured fortuitously.

The film closes with two odd images: one of a field of sunflowers, and the second of a bridge. The latter is hard to love, being just a rather pedestrian shot of a suspension bridge, but Leithart argues that it is itself a symbol of reunion, uniting what had been separated, and therefore echoing the action of the film, and I suppose that is fair enough. (Perhaps not incidentally, Heidegger pontificated (if I may) about bridges.) The field of sunflowers is richer; Leithart calls it “the perfect image of the way of grace”, for a sunflower is rooted in the ground, but follows the arc of the sun with its face. It is indeed a beautiful, and beautifully apt, image.

Tree-of-Life-sunflowers2

Favourites of 2014: Film

January 12, 2015

This year I continued my efforts to acquaint myself with reputed cinematic masterpieces, giving relatively short shrift to recent films. I would like to share a few words about some of the films I encountered.

The best film I saw this year was Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). Since this was also the best film I saw last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, I will not dwell on the point. Something I noticed on this most recent viewing was that the mother (played so wonderfully by Jessica Chastain) was so very lonely. That her loneliness did not mar her inner beauty, but perhaps even softened her heart and made her more receptive to goodness, is a possibility that I think will enter into my meditations on this bountiful film when I next have the joy of seeing it again.

My runner-up film is another re-visit: P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia (1999). It is a film that I am careful about recommending — it really is saturated with obscenities of every variety, and I understand why some might very reasonably want nothing to do with it — but there is no denying that it is masterful film-making. It is sometimes said that one cannot understand grace and goodness without first understanding sin and wickedness, and if there were ever a film to illustrate the point it is Magnolia, a film in which sin abounds, but grace abounds all the more. I know that there are those who consider P.T. Anderson to be the greatest director currently working, and that his reputation has only increased on the strength of the films he has made since Magnolia, but for me those later films are too controlled, too precise, and, in a way, too cold; I like the risks he takes with Magnolia, I like the messiness of it, its raucous energy, and its sincerity of heart.

Moving on now to films I saw for the first time this year:

Ida
Ida

(Paweł Pawlikowski, 2013)

Set in Poland about a decade after World War II, this quiet film follows a young woman, Ida, who, having been raised in a convent, is preparing to take her vows to religious life. For reasons that are not explained — maybe just as a courtesy, or maybe to test her vocation, or because she knows more than she lets on? — Ida’s Mother Superior sends her out of the convent to meet her only surviving relative, an aunt. The two seem to have little in common, but together they embark on a journey to find the graves of Ida’s parents, who had been killed in the war. In so doing, Ida is exposed for the first time to life outside the convent, and to the opportunities and temptations it presents. For a while the film seems like it might be pitching a simple tale of a naive girl who wises up and escapes from the narrow to the broad path, but it takes an unexpected turn that complicates that story considerably.

People who know more about film history than I do have compared Ida to Bresson’s work, but I can’t comment further on that. I can say that Ida is one of the most visually stunning films that I have seen in years; I paused it numerous times just to appreciate the loveliness of individual frames. The director, Paweł Pawlikowski, also made an unusual, but clearly deliberate, choice to frame his shots such that the action occupied only the lower part of the frame; there is a hovering emptiness — or perhaps a fullness — above. Apart from whatever thematic value this might have, it adds something distinctive to the film’s aesthetic qualities. It’s a very good film.

Beyond the HillsBeyond-the-Hills
(Cristian Mungiu, 2012)

Last year I praised Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days in my end of year summation, and this year I had the opportunity to see this, his most recent film, which is almost as good.

The film takes place in a Romanian convent. A young novice’s friend comes to visit for an extended period, and the nuns begin to believe that she is possessed by a devil. For all of its formal and dramatic restraint, it is a harrowing film that explores the perils of a marriage of imprudence and authority in a small, tightly-knit community.

It would have been easy for Mungiu to play to the prejudices of his audience. Instead, he tacks against them, immersing us in the lives and world of these nuns so thoroughly that their motives and actions appear to us as they appeared to themselves: sensible and natural, given their understanding of the situation. Their sincerity and goodwill are never in doubt, even as their actions careen into recklessness. Indeed, Mungiu is so even-handed in his treatment that (with an important exception, described below) the film leaves open the possibility that the priest and nuns acted well, that the woman was in fact possessed — indeed, this might be the most fascinating thing about the film. I appreciated the unsensational and sympathetic portrayal of religious devotion in the central character, which served as an effective counterweight to the portrayal of tragically misguided zeal in the others.

As a bonus, Mungiu is teaching me to appreciate the art of direction. Each scene in this film is shot in a single take, and the compositions are superbly well considered: the placement of characters, the timings of their entrances and exits, the use of foreground and background, motion and stillness. It is intensely interesting to watch. His films are good examples of “art concealing art”.

As was the case in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Mungiu allows himself to comment on the actions of his characters in the very last shot of the film. He passes judgment, and (here as before) he condemns. The manner in which he does this is wonderfully judged: a consummately cinematic moment.

**

While we’re on the subject of priests, nuns, convents, and the like, let me briefly mention a few other excellent films I saw this year in which religious figures had a prominent role. I re-watched Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928); I had first seen it about ten years ago and it had not clicked; this time it did. The face of Maria Falconetti has been haunting me for months. Two films by Roberto Rossellini impressed me: in Rome, Open City (1945) a priest who is helping the resistance against the Nazi occupation is an inspiring example of courage and grace in the face of danger, and his The Flowers of St. Francis (1950) gives an understated but winsome portrayal of the early adventures of St. Francis and his brothers. I also liked Calvary (2014), a film from director John Michael McDonagh in which a priest of a rural Irish parish faces, in a very personal way, the painful fallout from the sexual abuse crisis that has so crippled the Irish church. The film is perhaps a little too schematic, too neatly structured, but it is remarkable for its portrayal of a priest who is a good and faithful shepherd struggling to find ways to heal the wounds of his flock.

**

A few others:

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 1.58.30 PMAfter a ho-hum response to his more famous films (Seven Samurai and Rashomon) I finally hit Kurosawa paydirt with Ikiru (1952), a moving story about a staid Japanese bureaucrat whose complacency is upset by a diagnosis of terminal cancer. Trying and failing to give his life meaning by pursuing various pleasures, he finally resolves to devote himself to doing good. A more conventional film might end there, but Kurosawa devotes the last third of the film to a kind of conference of fools, in which the man’s colleagues debate his character and his final actions. Equal parts Pilgrim’s Progress and Twelve Angry Men, I found it really engrossing.

The Battle of Algiers (1966) is a dramatization, filmed to have the look and feel of a documentary, about the Algerian fight for independence from the French in the 1950s. It is short on character, dialogue, and so on, but it is fascinating as a study of the logic of terrorism and the process of political revolution. Another “process” film that I enjoyed was The Hole (1960), about a group of French inmates attempting a prison break. Again, the film is not really about the characters, their lives or their reasons for taking the risk (although there is a bit of that), but about how they go about it: the digging, chipping of stone, sawing of bars, and so forth. It’s more exciting than you might think.

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 1.59.12 PMTo call Museum Hours (2012) modest and quiet might be to risk overstatement: it is as unspectacular as they come. But at its heart — and it does have a heart, however measured its beating — it wants to propose a simple question: what if we gave to the everyday world around us the focused attention and regard that we give to the paintings that hang in a gallery? What if we saw meaning and significance, humour and beauty, in the sight of young people sitting together on a bench, or an old woman slowly teetering up a lane? It makes its point through close observation of the wonderful Pieter Bruegel paintings that reside in the Viennese gallery where much of the film takes place, and as such would make a brilliant double-bill with The Mill and the Cross.

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 2.00.20 PMMy favourite comedy of the year was Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), about a genial and enterprising Englishman who promotes his chances of inheriting a dukedom by systematically murdering everyone else in the line of succession. It sounds macabre, and it is, but delightfully so.

Animated:Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 2.00.58 PM From Up on Poppy Hill (2011), a touching story about two young Japanese students who discover one another and then find that their histories intertwine in ways they never expected, was the best animated film I saw this year. I’d not seen this sort of naturalistic animation, suitable more for teenagers and adults than young children, from Studio Ghibli before, and I really enjoyed it. It is a gentle film, thoughful and detailed. I want to praise it principally for its portrayal of the young, tentative romance that springs up between Umi and Shun. It is rare — very rare, I dare say — to find a film that treats that first blush of wonder with more honour and appreciation than this film does. Their young love is quiet and dignified, yet bright and full of hope, in a way that our culture — Hollywood culture, anyway — seems to have lost the capacity to express. When my daughter is 12 years old, this film is going to be slyly placed in her path.

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 2.01.48 PMScience fiction: Primer (2004) is an intriguing and confounding little film about two engineers who make an amazing discovery. It is more concerned with how its characters respond to their situation, and how it affects their relationship, than with gee-whizzery — though it must be said that it is one of those rare science fiction films that at least tries to couch its bluff in something intelligible. It becomes increasingly difficult to follow as it proceeds, and I confess that at film’s end I am at some loss to say what happened. But I don’t really mind: time travel is intrinsically confusing. I have the feeling that if I see it again my admiration may increase. According to Wikipedia the film’s budget was just $7000.

Screen shot 2014-12-23 at 1.57.34 PMBlockbusters: I did not see many of the big blockbusters from this year, but I did see a few. The best of them was Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a surprisingly affecting drama in which awe-inspiring special effects are placed entirely as the service of the storytelling. It’s a far better film that we had any right to expect. And the same could be said of Aronofsky’s Noah, which somehow managed to be compellingly dramatic, engage seriously with the source material, and also preserve the art-house reputation Aronofsky has been building all these years. (And I loved the rock monsters.) Finally, I’ll give an approving nod to Edge of Tomorrow, an indifferently titled but rather funny and fun alien invasion spectacle. It riffs on Groundhog Day without any of the profundity of Groundhog Day, but sometimes it is entertainment enough just to watch someone stuck in a time loop.

Others I enjoyed: Sunrise (1927), Paths of Glory (1957), Blood Simple (1984), In the Mood for Love (2000), The Act of Killing (2012), Night Moves (2013), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

Films I most disliked: Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Canterbury Tales, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.

Favourite moment: When the young and unknown Bob Dylan took the stage in the fading final moments of Inside Llewyn Davis.