Posts Tagged ‘Terrence Malick’

Here and there

May 23, 2019

First, some film notes:

  • Terrence Malick’s long-awaited film, A Hidden Life, premiered this week at Cannes, and the critics seemed to like it, calling it his best since The Tree of Life and, perhaps on account of its World War II setting, something of a partner to The Thin Red Line, all of which is wonderfully good news. It’s the film I’ve been most anticipating this year, though whether I’ll actually get to see it this year is another matter.
  • Deal Hudson praises First Reformed, while sketching out its relationship to the so-called transcendental style of film-making.
  • Another good film from last year was the Coen Brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Ross Douthat argues that it’s “a particularly transparent window into their unique sort of metaphysical agnosticism” — which, if it wasn’t clear, he sees as a good thing. It’s a thoughtful take on the film.
  • There is a documentary from a few years ago — it never found a distributor, which tells you something — called An Open Secret which argues that the grooming system for child actors in Hollywood includes networks of sexual abuse and exploitation. The highest ranking Hollywood brass named in that film was Bryan Singer, director of several X-Men films. A few months ago The Atlantic ran a good piece in which his accusers told their stories.

Then, some book notes:

  • Will Lloyd laments the rise of politicized books for children.
  • It’s my favourite colour and yours, and now Michel Pastoureau has written a book about it. The book was in our home, courtesy the public library, where, alas, it sat in a place of honour for some weeks before being returned, unread. But I would like to read it, and in the meantime Jesse Russell has written an appreciative review.
  • James Panero writes perceptively about the ghost stories of Russell Kirk (which I read a few years ago around about All Hallows Eve).
  • Finally, I have to recommend Michael Weingrad’s superbly barbed exploration of Harold Bloom’s life-long antagonism toward the Inklings, and especially toward C.S. Lewis.

For an envoi, let’s watch Buster Scruggs’ death scene, featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings singing “Spurs for Wings”:

Favourites in 2018: Film

January 7, 2019

I had a rewarding year watching movies in 2018, somehow managing to cram quite a few into the nooks and crannies of my works and days. For this year-end list I’ve chosen ten of my favourites. Since they all have something to recommend them, I have not ranked them, but simply listed them in alphabetical order.

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Paul Schrader is best known as a screenwriter for Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), and is also the author of a minor classic of film criticism in Transcendental Style in Film. These strands, and others, including his Reformed Christian upbringing, come together in First Reformed (2017), which he both wrote and directed. A middle-aged clergyman, played with weary sympathy by Ethan Hawke, presides over an historic, but moribund, Dutch Reformed parish. His congregation is so small that First Reformed’s day-to-day operations, including Reverend Toller’s own income, are paid for by Abundant Life, a friendly evangelical mega-church down the road. First Reformed is preparing to celebrate its 250th anniversary, and Toller is beset by troubles, both personal and political.

Schrader has said that the film is his tribute to a number of his best loved filmmakers, and one can catch the influence of Bergman and especially Bresson, whose country priest is never far away. It is a beautifully filmed and carefully put together picture. Like Taxi Driver, it takes a wild turn in the final act, so wild that it will confound many viewers; I was very nearly among them. But on reflection I lean toward admiration of the film’s boldness. Even if it is not believable as a realistic story, it works as a fable, and that fable is about — what? Maybe simply the hazards of our need for meaning; or the temptation to see politics as a substitute for faith; or, though it seems a cliché, the power of love to overcome violence and despair. It’s a complex, artfully constructed film, very much worth seeing.

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The first and maybe best reason to see Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) is that no other film shows Rome to better effect. To see the city filmed with such sumptuous beauty — and magically empty of tourists! — was a glorious consolation to me.

And that might well be the only consolation on offer. Jep — Jeppino, as he is once called, and fittingly — is a Roman socialite, one-time novelist, living off the fumes of his literary reputation and enjoying his posh creature comforts. Having reached his 65th birthday, he begins to take stock of himself, and, rightly, finds himself wanting. The film alternates between bacchanales and quiet, ruminative moments as Jep ponders how his life, and he himself, might acquire more weight and substance. He considers a variety of remedies: popularity, artistic creation, religion, sex, love. All, with the possible exception of some combination of the latter two, the film rejects with greater or lesser degrees of smugness. It is, in this sense, a spiritually dark film, blind to certain possibilities. An instinctive cynicism, which reveals itself most clearly in the film’s gorgeous opening sequence, is its chief defect.

Jep says he is lost because he was looking for the great beauty, but never found it. But were you really, Jep? Be honest.

Despite my misgivings, it is a film that grapples with a serious matter — the search for meaning in a world bereft of transcendence — and for this I honour it. That is seems to have nothing to say in the end is, first, honest, for there is no good answer given those premises, and, second, belied by the manner in which it is presented: saturated with a beauty that just might undermine the complacent immanence of Jep’s world. The film may be wiser than it seems at first blush.

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At the beginning of Loveless (2017) a young boy goes missing; he is an only child, and his parents are in the throes of a separation. The police are called; search parties are formed; the boy must be found.

Except that the film cannot keep its mind on the plot. Instead it lures us into the self-involved, oh-so-understandable troubles of the boy’s parents, adults who have things on their minds, new lovers, and what they would no doubt call emotional needs.  They are petty and selfish, and we, to the extent that we are drawn into their concerns, are subject to the same damning criticism. Not often have I felt so strongly that a film, as I watched it, was watching me with an unsparing eye.

There is wonderful art here: patient direction, fantastic lighting and cinematography, creative use of the camera. Like the director’s previous film, Leviathan, it moves slowly but surely. What I appreciated most was its withering, steely-eyed interrogation of that mother and that father. Here, friends, is a film about divorce that is cold as ice and entertains no excuses.

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Ma Nuit chez Maud (1969), one of Eric Rohmer’s ‘Moral Tales’, is a closely observed study of the gap between ideals and actions, and of the difficulty of knowing the heart, whether our own or another’s. We follow Jean-Louis — a thirty-something man, articulate, somewhat lonely, a committed Catholic — who is invited by a friend to the home of Maud, a beautiful young divorcée. When the friend departs, Jean-Louis is left alone with Maud, and a long conversation, like a dance, begins, as she gently but persistently probes his integrity, and he, more brusquely and instinctively, hers.

Their encounter works on a metaphorical level — this was 1969, after all, and in that room we see the sexual revolution coming up against the Catholic order of marriage and sexuality, which, if nothing else, makes the film a fascinating cultural artifact — but it also works, and works quite beautifully, on a personal level, as a tale about two people who, though very different, find one another strangely fascinating. The film has a second act in which Jean-Louis falls in love with a Catholic woman; this section reconnects with the first in some surprising ways that reinterpret what we have seen before while reiterating and deepening the film’s main concerns. Altogether an excellent film.

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I haven’t seen many film noir on par with Out of the Past (1947). Robert Mitchum plays a man trying to start again, but his past life of crime will not let him be, and he is forced back into that world in a final effort to escape. Mitchum is weary, imperturbable, and sometimes inscrutable, such that when the plot warms up we cannot be entirely sure his crossings are not double-crossings. Much the same could be said of the excellent femme fatale character, played by Jane Greer. It’s a film in which the men are as tough as you’d expect, the women are as beautiful as you’d hope, but people aren’t always who and what they seem to be.

Dialogue in film noir is often darkly witty, but I can’t think of a single film that surpasses this one in that respect. (Roger Ebert’s review gives some examples, and they could be multiplied.) The director is Jacques Tourneur, who also made Cat People, a superior film of the creepy sort. In any case, with an abundance of trench-coats and cigarettes, and style to burn, Out of the Past is highly recommendable.

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In the contest for least-inspired movie title, one could hardly do better, or rather worse, than Personal Shopper (2016), but that blandness is a disservice to an involving film that never does what we expect, becomes more puzzling and fascinating as it proceeds, and concludes by increasing rather than resolving the tension it generates. The film is centred on Maureen, an American living in Paris, who is mourning the recent death of her brother, and, more than just mourning, is waiting for him to send her a sign from beyond the grave. He had been a medium of some talent, and Maureen believes that she has this gift too. And she does have experiences that could be, perhaps, signs, but are hard to interpret. The film gradually — too gradually for some, perhaps — builds toward a crisis in which something very dramatic occurs, although just what is hard to say. Like those messages Maureen seeks, the film, too, is hard to interpret.

I watched Personal Shopper twice this year, separated by several months, because I wanted to give my first enthusiasm for it a chance to wane before another sober viewing. On second acquaintance I am less convinced it holds together. Most vexing is that there does not seem to be any one interpretation of the film’s final half-hour that makes sense of all we are shown. Nonetheless, the film’s quiet exploration of desire and loneliness, underpinned by an excellent low-key performance by Kristen Stewart in the lead role, coupled with intriguing plot developments that had me watching and re-watching certain scenes with great attention, made it for me one of the more fascinating film experiences of the year.

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It has been a decade since a Paul Thomas Anderson film won my admiration, but Phantom Thread (2017) did the trick. Anderson seems to have gradually left behind the Dionysian freedom of his early films in favour of something more controlled and subdued, and Phantom Thread is positively Apollonian in construction, classic in every respect, from its elegant camera work to its beautiful sets and costumes and masterclass acting. Within that graceful framework, however, he has given us a pretty bizarre tale.

The story is that of an artist — Reynolds Woodcock, a dress designer in London in the 1950s — and his muse, Alma, a younger woman whom he meets when she waits on his table one morning in a hotel. Reynolds has been through this before, typically retaining his young women until their value as a muse wears off. But Alma is different; initially overwhelmed by the glamour of the life into which she has been spirited, she cannily finds a way to make a place for herself. The film is very much a study of the complicated relationship that develops between these two.

Thus far the story sounds like one we’ve heard before, more or less, but Anderson has a way of taking his films where we do not expect them to go, and the final act of Phantom Thread strays well outside established conventions. Anderson has prepared the ground quite carefully, but subtly enough that I missed it on first viewing. As the film drew to a close I actually began to wonder — if you know PTA’s other films — whether Alma was going to drink a milkshake.

If the terminus of the story arc sits rather uncomfortably on my mind, the rest of Phantom Thread is of the purest and most luxuriant filmcraft. Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave one of the greatest film performances known to me in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, gives a very different but, I am tempted to say, comparably impressive performance as Woodcock, a man of fastidious habits and sensitive temper into whom Day-Lewis disappears. That Vicky Krieps, as Alma, can hold the screen with him is high praise. There is a delightful vein of understated humour running through the film that adds sparkle, and everything about the production and direction is the work of a master.

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I saw two good films this year with titles beginning A Quiet P. One was the thrilling blockbuster sci-fi alien invasion disability farm family pregnancy drama A Quiet Place, which caused me to carefully check all the staircases in my house for a particular hazard. The other was A Quiet Passion (2016), about an unlikely cinematic subject: Emily Dickinson.

To make a film on the life of a poet seems a daunting challenge; the cinematic potential of a woman sitting at a desk, pen in hand, are limited. But of course Emily Dickinson was a woman like other women, with a family, and views on religion and society, and the dramatic possibilities to be drawn from a network of close relationships between articulate speakers gathered in a sitting room are, as we have learned from Jane Austen, rich and delightful, and A Quiet Passion makes much of its slender material.

(Speaking of Austen, by a peculiarity of the casting — in particular, by having Jennifer Ehle play the handsome second sister — I was continually tempted to conflate this story with the famous Pride and Prejudice adaptation! In this parallel universe, our poet appears in the role of Jane, the slightly homely, taller, thinner sister who has a harder time in social circles. Never had I suspected that Jane was a poet! Sadly Mr Darcy makes no appearance, having drowned, perhaps, in the pond.)

The oddest thing about A Quiet Passion is the dialogue. In the first half or two-thirds, dialogue consisted largely of aphorisms, as though everybody was choosing lines from an Oscar Wilde anthology. Quite stagey. Strangely, this effect seemed to dwindle as the film progressed.

As much as I enjoyed the story, and I did, for me the principal attraction of this film was the direction. It is my first Terence Davies film, and I am now very interested in seeing others. The direction is careful, with slow pans and beautiful compositions, and transitions are managed elegantly. I had the impression that Davies is a superb craftsman.

*

Every year since 2011 I have named Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) as my favourite film of the year. (Readers interested in why I love it might read this.) This year I watched it again, of course, but with a difference: a new, extended version of the film was released. The extended version adds about 45 minutes to the original 140 minutes, so it is a substantial augmentation.

Most sections of the film have been altered to some extent, sometimes just by brief insert shots. The most substantial changes are twofold: first, to the scenes with the adult Jack (Sean Penn), which are fleshed out and expanded from the modest material in the original version, and, second, to the long central section of the film devoted to life in the O’Brien’s household. To this section, which has always been the heart of the film, new story elements are introduced, including a dramatic storm sequence, and a new and quite upsetting plot development. The overall effect is to enrich the portrait of this family, deepening our appreciation of them. By giving this (fairly) traditionally narrative section of the film more weight, the new film has its feet planted more firmly on the ground than did the earlier, more enigmatic version. Something is gained, but also lost. And the new version clocks in at more than three hours; I don’t know how it is where you live, but for me it is hard to find three uninterrupted hours to do anything.

So, in the end, I’m not sure which version I prefer. My resolution, for future viewings, is to alternate until such time as one version wins my heart. In the meantime, The Tree of Life, Extended Version was my favourite film of the year.

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The joys and pitfalls of young love are the theme of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964). Shot in retro black and white, it tells the story of two young French lovers whose romance is interrupted by war but nonetheless continues to overshadow their lives. It is a beautiful but bittersweet film that just might break your heart in the end. Part of its beauty is its special conceit: it is entirely sung. There are no ‘big numbers’, just a steady stream of through-composed music that floats the film from its first scene to its last, with the singing a kind of heightened speech. Be careful, though: your jazz allergy may act up.

**

I have listed ten films. Most were easy to choose; a few were difficult on account of competition from other good films. Those that missed my list this year, and might have made it were my mood swings more erratic, were The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), La Fille inconnue (2016), Paper Moon (1973), and Top Hat (1935).

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Best superhero film: Wonder Woman (2017), the greatest wonder of which was that it included a battle between two invincible characters that was not dull as dirt.

Best action film: American Made (2017), if it is properly called an action film.

Best musical: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964).

Best animated: The Hobbit (1977), a weirdly folkadelic take on Tolkien’s tale that nonetheless managed to capture some of the childlike spirit of the book.

Best filmed stage performance: Romeo and Juliet, from the Globe Theatre; the best production of this play that I have seen, for stage or screen.

Started, but not finished: My Winnipeg (2007), in which my fledgling interest in Canadian cinema came to a sad end.

Watched, but not remembered: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946); All About Eve (1950); The Assassin (2015).

Watched again: The Princess Bride (1987); When Harry Met Sally… (1989); The New World (2005).

Film rescued by a single scene: Paris, Texas (1984).

Film rescued by a single character: Cool Hand Luke (1967).

Disappointments: A Brighter Summer Day (1991), A Fish Called Wanda (1988).

Shortest films: Simon of the Desert (1965) [45m]; Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928) [1h10m]; Le Monde vivant (2003) [1h10m]

Longest films: A Brighter Summer Day (1991) [3h57m]; Ex Libris (2017) [3h25m]; Spartacus (1960) [3h17m].

Oldest films: The Great White Silence (1924); Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928); Pandora’s Box (1929).

Newest films: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Nov); Mission Impossible: Fallout (July); A Quiet Place (April).

 

On the silver screen

September 4, 2018

A few film-related links today:

  • Writing at The Weekly Standard, John Simon gives a primer on the films of Ingmar Bergman. I believe I’ve seen about a half-dozen of Bergman’s films, and many of those Simon recommends as good entry points are yet unseen by me. Like Bresson, I’ve found Bergman a tough nut to crack; sitting down to watch him sometimes feels too much like homework. But, as always in such cases, I willingly shoulder the blame, and I’m planning to follow-up on some of Simon’s suggestions, homework or not.
  • I have no similar difficulties with the films of the Coen Brothers, from whom the most recent news is that their forecast mini-series, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, has now been converted into a feature film instead. This is disappointing, as I’d been curious to see what they would do with the extra time and scope that the mini-series format would provide, but, on the other hand, a new film from the Coen Brothers could never be simply disappointing. I look forward to it.
  • I’ve also been looking forward, for over a year now, to Terrence Malick’s new film, Radegund. Rumours were circulating that it might premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, but the festival’s line-up has now been announced and I am sobbing quietly, in voiceover.
  • It is also rather sad to note that I have lived in and around Toronto for almost 20 years and have never been to a single TIFF screening.
  • Also at The Weekly Standard, Tim Markatos has written a fine appreciation of Dreyer’s classic film The Passion of Joan of Arc, and of other cinematic treatments of St Joan’s life. I’ve actually seen quite a few of these, including Rossellini’s, Bresson’s, and Rivette’s — but I’ll not contest the critical consensus that Dreyer’s is the best.

Lecture night: mercy and Malick

April 8, 2018

John O’Callaghan, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, speaks in this lecture on mercy in Malick’s The Tree of Life. He brings that great film into conversation with Augustine’s Confessions, and illustrates the lecture with several excerpts. It’s an excellent lecture, recommended to admirers of the film.

Deeper roots of The Tree of Life

December 10, 2017

I’ve been watching my favourite film again, and I’ve discovered a worthwhile commentary on it in the form of a video essay. This format is especially well suited to a visual analysis of a film, and if there was ever a film that would benefit from a visual analysis, it is The Tree of Life. Recommended to those who’ve seen the film at least once; it’s about 20 minutes in duration.

Note that the essay relies heavily on the screenplay to draw out the film’s structure and themes, which does seem to shed some light, but is also, perhaps, misleading, for Malick generally feels free to depart from script during both filming and editing, and indeed it is obvious that he did so when making The Tree of Life. That said, and despite a few other minor missteps, I learned some valuable things from watching it.

Multi-Malick

February 17, 2017

When it rains, it pours. Earlier this week we got the first still from Terrence Malick’s forthcoming Radegund:

radegund-still

And then today the trailer for Song to Song (formerly called Weightless) was made available:

Song to Song will open the SXSW festival next month. Radegund is rumoured to have a 2017 release date as well. Come quickly.

Favourites in 2016: Film

December 30, 2016

Today I wrap up these year-end reflections by considering my favourites of the films I saw this year.

I don’t get out to the movies much anymore, so I don’t see movies until they are on DVD. For instance, I’ve seen only a couple of the films on this list of 2016’s best. Instead, I watched a lot of old movies this year, from the likes of Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Ingmar Bergman, Satyajit Ray, Krzysztof Kieślowski, François Truffaut, Frank Capra, and Charlie Chaplin. These are all great filmmakers, and no doubt those films were great too, but I’m still learning how to appreciate them, and the films I liked best — the 10 I’ve chosen to discuss in this post — are of recent vintage and generally less distinguished pedigree.

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By way of prelude: It will come as no surprise that the best film I saw in 2016 was, once again, The Tree of Life. In fact this year I enjoyed it even more than before, in part because I had several opportunities to think about it, both when I wrote about it at Light on Dark Water and when I read Peter Leithart’s book on the film.

treeoflifeclimb

But I propose to write today about films I saw for the first time this year.

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brooklynA young Irish woman leaves her family to travel to New York, c.1950, in search of a better future. She slowly makes a life for herself state-side, but then events in Ireland draw her back, and she finds herself torn between two homes, and two competing visions of her future.

Yes, of the films I saw for the first time this year, and if plentiful tears are anything to go on, my favourite was Brooklyn. I am a little surprised at this, because unlike some of the films I’m going to praise below, this is pretty much by-the-book movie-making. It has no grand ambitions, no particular sense of style, and no philosophical overtones. But what it does have is a compelling human story and a superb actress in the lead role, and those two elements together carry it through triumphantly. Saoirse Ronan has a quiet but commanding presence, and that Irish lilt is irresistible. (Not since Jennifer Ehle was Elizabeth Bennett have I been so ready to fall in love with a leading lady.) It’s a wonderful performance, and it’s a wonderful film that feels like a classic.

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My favourite comedy of the year was Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship. Adapted by Stillman from a little-known novella by Jane Austen, it follows Lady Susan Vernon (played by Stillman regular Kate Beckinsale) as she picks her way through the lives of her circle of friends and relations in the quest to obtain marriages for herself and her grown daughter.

Lady Susan is a delightful creation: a prodigy of manipulativeness whose capacity for duplicity is boundless and whose conscience is dead. The men in her life, especially — with a notable exception — are helpless before her combination of feminine charms and devious wit. Stillman’s films have all been, to some degree, comedies of manners, so he and Austen are kindred spirits. It feels to me that the period setting, with its latitude for elegant and articulate dialogue, is especially friendly to Stillman’s comedic instincts. Though the film is, at some level, a showcase for guile and hypocrisy, it eventually comes around, as every Austen adaptation must, to a happy ending, and one that feels honest to me. Treachery may have its fascination, but virtue is the charm that most adorns the fair.

Beckinsale dominates the film, but the supporting cast is good. The amiable fool Sir James Martin stands out as a particularly wonderful character; a cheerful idiot whose good intentions leave him ill-prepared to contend against Lady Susan’s wiles; he is played with hilarious volubility by Tom Bennett.

Love & Friendship has its laugh out loud moments, but it’s also a film that has humour in its very bones: in a sense, everything in the film is funny, starting with the title and proceeding through the situations, the characters, the dialogue, and the tone. Even the music, which has been judiciously chosen and carefully integrated into the action, has a comedic role to play. The whole package is highly enjoyable. Decidedly enjoyable. Not unenjoyable at all.

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My runner-up comedy is 1942’s To Be Or Not To Be, a war-time film about the Nazi invasion of Poland that dared to make the Nazi war machine the subject of farce. One can still sense the dangerous edge of the humour, and apparently the film did offend viewers when first released. But it is easier now to appreciate how well the film is made, to enjoy how delightfully funny it is, and to admire the chutzpah of those who made it.

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Several films caught my eye this year partly on account of their unusual formal elements.

Dietrich Brüggemann’s searing Kreuzweg (Stations of the Cross), from 2014, follows a young woman preparing for Confirmation in a schismatic Catholic sect. A variety of factors have made life difficult for her, and she wants to offer her suffering to God as a sacrifice for the good of others, but, in this as in so many other matters, teenaged judgment is deficient. Bruggemann structures the whole film around the fourteen traditional Stations of the Cross, and commits to filming each of the stations in one static shot — almost, and that ‘almost’ is key. On one level the film is not really, per se, about this fringe sect, but about the hazards encountered by any group that finds itself positioned against a majority while trying to retain its own intrinsic nature and culture. The issue is not about whether they are right to resist the larger culture — and this film grants the truth of what they believe — but about how difficult it can be, fraught with loneliness and isolation, and fringed with risks of imbalance and fanaticism. It’s a potent film that explores religious faith, friendship, and family life using intentionally minimal means, and it has a terrific ending. (I’ve written at more length about the film at Light on Dark Water.)

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Personal sacrifice also plays an important role in La Sapienza (2014), from writer/director Eugène Green, albeit in a different way and with very different results. The film introduces us to Alexandre, a successful architect who, in the midst of honours bestowed upon him, finds he regrets the principles he has followed in his art. He resolves to travel to Italy to study the works of Borromini, the idol of his younger days. His wife, from whom he is very nearly estranged, comes with him initially, but, as it falls out, it is instead a young man, a budding architecture student, who accompanies him to Rome.

Rome! Over the years I’ve tracked down quite a number of films made in the Eternal City simply for the pleasure of watching the backgrounds, but never have I encountered, or even hoped to encounter, a film that puts the city on such loving display as does La Sapienza. The camera fairly caresses the marble facades, and the viewer is invited to bask in the many beauties on display. To call it magnificent is to undersell it.

But the film is more than surfaces: Green, though the adoption of a whole battery of highly unusual conventions in perspective and acting style, asks us to contemplate the depths that surfaces conceal, and to entertain the thought that beauty might be more than just in the eye of the beholder. It is a film that slowly creates around itself a space in which mysterious currents of the spirit flow. It’s rather profound and very lovely, and is unseen, I believe, by almost everyone. (Again, I’ve written a brief essay about it for Light on Dark Water.)

***

As great as are the challenges posed by these last few films, they pale when set beside Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a high-wire act of extended cinematic metaphor that, after several viewings, has left me with the sense that I have still only dimly understood it.

The difficulties don’t lie in the basic structure of the film, which is clear enough: we follow Rick, a Hollywood screenwriter, who has lost the thread of his life’s meaning and who must, he faintly recalls, recover it. He lives in forgetfulness, sunk in sensual pleasures and self-gratification, chasing after wind, restless and unsatisfied. It is the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, explicitly so, and our pilgrim must escape life’s hazards and temptations in order to set out for the celestial city.

Many reviewers have said that the film is about the superficiality of Hollywood, but this commits the error of taking literally a film that, it seems to me, takes place almost entirely on an analogical or metaphorical plane. It is about all of us, about the quest which each of us must undertake to shake off our slumber, to leave the pomp and empty promises of the world in order to climb the dry and dusty mountain where God dwells. Hollywood comes into it only because fairy tales work best when the contrasts are bold and consistent, and nothing says pomp and empty promises like Hollywood.

The difficulties of the film lie not in its structure, then, but in its manner. Malick’s recent stylistic hallmarks, following on from To the Wonder, are presented undiluted: almost no on-screen dialogue — and what little there is is often sunk into the mix and made unintelligible — intermittent and often fragmentary voiceover, pervasive symbolism, little conventional acting, discontinuous editing, and — a saving grace — gorgeous cinematography. The images wash over the viewer according to a logic that is often difficult to discern: waves on a shoreline, a city skyline, a road, Rick and one of his (many) girlfriends circling one another, the sun, a swimming pool. It seems to follow a dream logic (and indeed we are told in the first minute of the film that, like Pilgrim’s Progress, it will be “delivered under the similitude of a dream”). This dream aspect allows Malick to mix realism and visual metaphor with gusto. When Rick, at a strip club, crawls into a gilded cage, we understand that a point is being made, and the point is clear. When he stands at a fence gazing at a line of distant palm trees the point may be less evident, until we remember that someone had earlier told him, “You see the palm trees? They tell you anything is possible.” But is this the “possible” of formless self-invention or the authentic “possible” of escaping unreality for reality? Palm trees are trees, tall and thin, which in Malick’s visual vocabulary usually makes them signs of transcendence, reaching instinctively toward the sun.

This call of the transcendent will not leave Rick alone. It seems always present, like the distant roar of the ocean, recalling him to himself especially in his moments of greatest debauchery and aggrandizement. Even when he hears it, however, and even when he heeds it, he faces a recurring question: “How do I begin?” His life’s rotating door for beautiful women testifies to his confusion, for in eros he perceives an intimation of the reality he seeks, though more often than not he mistakes the sign for the reality itself. At one point we hear in voiceover an excerpt from Plato’s Phaedrus, in which feminine beauty is said to remind the soul of the wings which it has lost, evoking in it a desire for flight.

He does eventually begin to recover the thread of his quest, spurred to a significant degree, it seems, by an act of violence that disturbs his restless reverie. He begins to take an interest in meditation, he visits a priest, and, eventually, in one of the more purely metaphorical scenes, he sets foot on the lower slopes of a steep mountain. The resonances with Sinai and Purgatory are very much intended, I expect.

The texture of the film is complex, right down to the sound design. There are moments when there are 3 or even 4 layers of audible “action” occurring at once: on-screen dialogue, interwoven voices of different characters musing to themselves, a narrator, along with music or other sounds. A distinctive feature is that there is almost always a low hum present in the soundtrack; true silence is rare. And this hum is ambiguous, for sometimes it turns out to be the sound of wind or, as I have said, of waves on the shore, but at other times it becomes the sound of a passing car or airplane. It thereby co-operates in one of the film’s leading formal strategies, which is the contrast of the natural world, understood as God’s world, with the textures of modern urban life, the quintessential city of man.

My principal reservations about Knight of Cups pertain to the visual strategy, and in particular to the seemingly disconnected way in which the images sometimes succeed one another. I’ve already conceded that there may be a governing symbolic logic to these sequences, but is the viewer sufficiently tutored in that logic as to able to follow it? A truly great filmmaker should not waste a shot, and while I am convinced that Malick is certainly a great filmmaker, there were moments in Knight of Cups where I was not sure it was a great film, and precisely on these grounds. My jury is still out. The film requires thoughtful attention.

I want to link to two very good essays on the film. At Mubi, Josh Cabrita explores the Christian themes in Malick’s films generally and in Knight of Cups in particular, and at Curator magazine Trevor Logan considers the film from a specifically Kierkegaardian point of view.

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Successful filmmakers are talented people, and it stands to reason that they might have put those talents to uses other than making movies. Are movies worth committing one’s life to? This is the question explored by the Coen Brothers in Hail, Caesar!, an introspective but witty and appreciative look at the means and ends of movie-making. Set in the Golden Age of Hollywood, it follows a studio executive (Josh Brolin) who has his hands full dealing with the personal foibles of his stars, the intrusive probings of the press, and the many challenges of putting a picture together, all the while pondering an offer to move out of the movie business and into a more practical and respectable line of work. It’s a paen to old-time movies — the Coens take us on set of a number of different productions, but rather than giving us a cursory look they, rather affectionately one feels, let each scene play out in its entirety before moving on — and a good-natured satire on Hollywood too, with bubble-headed big stars in one corner and coteries of Communists hatching dark conspiracies in another. Tonally it’s an odd duck, with farcical elements playing on the surface but serious questions about the value of art underneath. Nevermind, though; the Coens can handle it. Noteworthy are a number of fantastic bit parts played by Scarlet Johanssen, Tilda Swinton, and Ralph Fiennes (whose comic turn as drawing-room drama director Laurence Laurentz is a riot). It’s not quite the greatest story ever told, but it comes closer than you might think.

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The best horror film I saw this year (from a small sample) was The Witch, the debut of director Robert Eggers. I’ve heard it said that the principal challenge of directing a film lies not so much in the technical aspects, nor specifically in working with the actors and the cameras, but in maintaining a tonal consistency throughout the process, so that the finished product comes to the screen feeling organically put together. Based on this criterion, Eggers is to the manner born. His film rests largely on precisely this careful calibration of tone to generate and maintain suspense. Much of the success of the movie is presumably due to his careful preparation; I understand he gestated this project for several years, doing a great deal of background work to bring the authentic textures of seventeenth-century New England life, including the distinctive cadences of their speech, to the screen.

The movie, which is subtitled “A New-England Folktale”, is about a Puritan family, banished from their community, trying to establish a new farm in a hard-scrabble wilderness on the edge of a great forest. (The location, in all its glorious desolation, was filmed not all that far from where I live.) They experience a series of strange and increasingly disturbing events that hint at the activity of a malevolent supernatural force dwelling in the forest, and the movie follows them as they do their best to contend against it. It’s a slow movie, heavy on atmosphere and dread, that, at least for most of the runtime, keeps its secrets under wrap.

The film has faults. I have particular reservations about the acting of one of the characters (I shant say which), and, like many people, I have some doubts about the way Eggers chose to end the film. However when first I saw it my principal objection was this: in the world of this movie the power of evil is palpable and effective, but the power of good seems impotent. Prayers for safety and deliverance fall, for all we can tell, into the void, and all the while something definitely not imaginary is encroaching on this family’s peace. This is not only a theological problem, but a dramatic one, for there can be no contest of good and evil if goodness is absent. However when I reflected on the initial setup of the story — that this is not simply depicting a Christian family, but a family that has been cast out from the Church — then in a curious way their impotence before the evil that confronts them might be interpreted as a reaffirmation that extra ecclesiam nulla salus. But this still doesn’t solve the dramatic problem.

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George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1988) is a superb psychological thriller about a man whose wife goes missing while they are on holiday. Part of the tension of the film relates to what happened to her, but much of it is focused on the husband left behind. How can he carry on with his life without knowing what become of her? What would he do if she came back? Can he let her go? What would he do to find out what happened to her? At its heart it’s a love story, and a rather convincing one. It is also a study in the psychology of evil, for we spend much of the film observing a third character who is up to no good. Sluizer’s direction is unobtrusive and perhaps a bit flat, though there are a few key shots that use the camera very effectively.

The Vanishing is sometimes classified as a horror film. I knew this going in, but was puzzled as I watched, for it didn’t seem to have any horror elements at all. But no: having seen it to the end, it earns its horror film credentials, in spades.

Note that I’m praising here Sluizer’s 1988 Dutch-language film (also called Spoorloos). He re-made the film in English in Hollywood in 1993, but that version I hear is dreadful (and not in a good way).

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The Hunt is a 2012 Danish film that depicts what happens to a small, closely-knit community when one of its members is accused of a terrible crime. Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) helps at his village’s kindergarten, but his life becomes a nightmare when he is (wrongly, as we the viewers know from the start) suspected of sexually assaulting one of the children. This is dark subject matter — though not so dark as if the allegations were true — but it nonetheless makes for riveting drama. Friendships rupture, fear and mistrust spread through the community, and Lucas, of course, is ostracized and personally devastated.

The film is notable not just for its exploration of personal relationships subjected to intense strain, but for its implicit criticism of well-intentioned “zero tolerance” policies. So much that goes wrong in this village goes wrong because “best practices” are allowed to replace prudential human judgment. Naturally, such policies and practices are intended to promote justice, but The Hunt illustrates how easily the opposite can result.

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Rounding out my Top 10 is About Elly, from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. It was originally made in 2009 but only got an international release in 2015, and I caught up with it this year. It’s a stunner.

The story is about a group of families who go together to a beach-house for the weekend. One of the families invites their child’s teacher, Elly, to come along as a guest. The first half of the film is a loose study of how this group of people interact with one another, how certain personalities dominate, what they think of one another, and how they include or subtly exclude their guest. With deft use of foreground and background and reliance on multiple overlapping conversations it feels like a Robert Altman masterclass, while also preparing us for the film’s crucial sequence.

In that sequence, which occurs at about the mid-point, something happens (which I’ll not reveal); when it is over Elly is gone and no-one is sure where. The second half of the film is then a drama exploring how all of those relationships we learned about in the first half change under stress. We are shown the devastating power of lies, and the film finally arrives at a point where the duty to tell the truth is surpassingly clear and pressing. It’s a terrific movie.

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Brief thoughts on other films

Apart from the few runners-up already indicated, I also enjoyed this year the CGI-animated The Jungle Book, though it’ll not replace the 1967 film in my affections, and the documentary The Look of Silence, a follow-up to The Act of Killing from Joshua Oppenheimer, a man with a fair claim to be the world’s bravest filmmaker. I saw Spotlight, Best Picture winner at the 2016 Oscars, and while I thought it was quite good, and appreciated its willingness to tell its story clearly and soberly, it wasn’t as good as its model, All the President’s Men (1976), which I also saw this year. Other highlights for me were the harrowing escape drama Green Room, with Patrick Stewart a superb villain, and the off-beat but delightful Bird People, about … bird people.

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In the waning days of the year I was unexpectedly able to see Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time. This film has been released in two versions: a 90-minute version for regular theatres and a 40-minute version for IMAX theatres. It was the latter that I saw, at our local science centre, with two of my kids and a crowd of holidaying families. This was a bit like going to Disneyland and finding an exhibition of Rembrandt and Titian. My guess is that few of those present were expecting this contemplative, philosophical pondering of what natural history tells us about the universe and ourselves. Malick wonders about the origin of being, about whether consciousness preexists created minds, and whether it is love that animates and unites the natural order. The film is visually stunning — imagine a longer version of the creation sequence in The Tree of Life — and the music, dominated by Mahler 2, Arvo Pärt, and the Mass in B Minor, is superb.

I loved it. I must say, too, that I was proud of my kids (5yo and 7yo), who were fully engaged with it throughout. Eldest Daughter’s favourite part was a quiet moment in which the camera floated gently down a stream between high canyon walls — a lovely moment, to be sure — and Eldest Son’s favourite part was the space shuttle launch — in truth, this was part of the pre-film demonstration of the IMAX theatre’s sound system, but he did very well. Now, if only I could see the longer version…

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Did you see Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films? I suffered through the first two but dodged the third. But this year I learned that an enterprising fan had edited the trilogy to exclude anything not in the book, which cuts the run-time in half. This Tolkien Edit I did see, and while I would not quite call it good, it was decently enjoyable, and certainly far superior to the theatrical versions.

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Miscellanea

Oldest films: Dante’s Inferno (1911); Safety Last! (1923); The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Newest films: Voyage of Time: IMAX (October); The Conjuring 2 (June); The Jungle Book (April)

Most films by the same director(s): 4 (Coen Brothers & Terrence Malick)

Longest films: The Right Stuff (1983) [3h13m]; Magnolia (1999) [3h08m]; Fanny and Alexander (1982) [3h08m]

Shortest films: World of Tomorrow (2015) [0h17m]; Night and Fog (1955) [0h32m]; Voyage of Time: IMAX (2016) [0h40m]

Started, but not finished: Dazed and Confused (1993), The Peanuts Movie (2015)

Disappointments: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Safe (1995), The Right Stuff (1983)

Films I failed to understand: Werckmeister Harmonies (2000); La double vie de Véronique (1991)

Most egregious foregrounding of bad music: Sing Street (2016)

Best hagiography: Jean la Pucelle (1994)

Scariest goat: The Witch (2015)

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And that, more or less, was my year in movies. Comments welcome!

Things blight and beautiful

September 30, 2016

A few brief noteworthy items:

  • The Tragically Hip have been on tour in Canada, a final, farewell tour that was organized after frontman Gord Downie announced that he has brain cancer. Non-Canadians probably don’t understand the place of The Hip in Canadian pop culture: a band that at least aspires to art, that has nonetheless been consistently popular here, but a band that never made it big outside our borders. I am not a huge fan, but I will be sorry to see them go, and naturally I wish Downie and his family well. That said, the laudatory coverage of this final tour in the Canadian press has been a bit hard to take at times, and I admit I was rather grateful for this high-spirited critique of their “spasmodic non-sequiturs and salvos of blurry amplification”.
  • For the opposite of blurry amplification, check out this charming video of Boris Giltburg, who found an upright piano in a train station and decided to pass the time by tinkling a few keys. (The music is the middle section of Prokofiev’s Sonata No.7.) Isn’t music a wonderful thing? (Hat-tip: The Music Salon)
  • Speaking of beauty, an interview with Peter Kwasniewski reviews a century of Catholic teaching on sacred music and argues that the beauty of our worship should be a central concern for Catholics:

Human beings need beautiful things; human beings long for beautiful music that is suited to divine worship. The liturgy is supposed to be special; it’s not supposed to be an everyday affair. It’s not supposed to look or sound like the prevailing popular culture. It’s supposed to be different, distinctive, an encounter with the transcendent God.

  • A few years ago I reviewed Robert Reilly’s wonderful book Surprised by Beauty, an alternative history of twentieth-century music that focused on composers loyal to tonality and dedicated to making something beautiful. A new edition of the book, much enlarged, has just been issued, and here is a good interview about it. I hope to get this book for Christmas.
  • Terrence Malick’s new film, Voyage of Time, is set for wide release soon. I missed seeing it at the Toronto International Film Festival, but I’m determined to see it once it hits theatres. Early reviews have been mixed: Richard Brody at The New Yorker loved it, Ben Croll at IndieWire hated it, and I’ll just have to see it for myself. Here is the trailer:
  • The title of this post promised blight. The other day I walked past the north side of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum:royal_ontario_museum

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For an envoi today, let’s hear one of The Tragically Hip’s best songs:

Yonder and yonderer

August 10, 2016
  • The bump that launched a thousand papers was just a statistical anomaly, says CERN. The world of fundamental physics research may well be finding itself in the nightmare scenario.
  • Damian Thompson critiques the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ concert series, arguing that the prejudices of its planners undermines its interest.
  • Ever wonder if there might be something more to Brexit than raw xenophobia? Roger Scruton — make that Sir Roger Scruton — makes a number of good points about the possible motives of ‘Leave’-ers.
  • David Warren writes in brief appreciation of The Cloud of Unknowing.
  • The always wonderful Whit Stillman has a new film, Love & Friendship, based on a little-known Jane Austen novella. Stillman and Austen: it’s a match made in heaven.
  • Speaking of films, rumours are that Terrence Malick’s next project (after this fall’s Voyage of Time and next year’s Weightless) will be Radegund, about the life of Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, a conscientious objector and martyr under the Nazis.
  • Giving the lie to the notion that the Vatican moves slowly, the modest suggestion from Robert Cardinal Sarah that Catholic priests of the Roman rite return to the customary practice of celebrating the Mass ad orientem received a rapid slap-down from high-ranking Vatican prelates, including the Pope. The reasons for this are worth thinking about — try this or this, for starters — but in the meantime I recommend reading Cardinal Sarah’s full address, which is quite beautiful.
  • Rowan Williams has written a play in which he dramatizes a meeting between St Edmund Campion, a Catholic martyr under Elizabeth I, and William Shakespeare, a possibly-maybe-recusant Catholic. It’s an interesting choice of subject matter for the former Archbishop of Canterbury, to say the least. The play, entitled “Shakeshafte”, is playing in Swansea, Wales, and neither you nor I will get to see it.
  • Orwell submitted his manuscript for Animal Farm to Faber & Faber, and received in response a rejection letter written by T.S. Eliot.

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