Showing posts with label terrence malick. Show all posts
Showing posts with label terrence malick. Show all posts

Thursday, June 13, 2013


A scene from Ain't Them Bodies Saints.
Miss take

By Don Simpson

Writer-director David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is a cinematic meditation on poor, rural Texas life in the 1970s (though it often feels like the 1920s or 30s). It is Bob’s (Casey Affleck) desperate economic situation and intense desire to support Ruth (Rooney Mara) that has driven him to become an outlaw. There is presumably very little work available, so Bob’s only available option is to steal from others. These perceived external pressures at work against Bob are somewhat similar to Kit’s situation in Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). Both films also allude to psychological issues at play within the minds of their male antiheroes. The men are blindly obsessed with their girlfriends to disastrous proportions.

Ain’t Them Bodies Saints ain’t just about obsession; it is also about the deteriorating effects of guilt and secrets on one’s soul. Unlike Bob, Ruth seems to understand the grim reality that she and Bob will never be together again, so Ruth has sentenced herself to a loveless life of chastity to punish herself for the crime for which Bob is doing time. Ruth will never be happy because she knows that Bob has offered up his life for her freedom, while Bob will not be happy until he is reunited with his family. All because of one simple mistake — for which nobody died — Ruth and Bob are destined to be unhappy for the rest of their lives.

Like that of an early Malick film (Days of Heaven), cinematographer Bradford Young showcases iconic rural landscapes in transcendent magic hour photography. Lowery’s film is obsessed with the textures and degradation of rusting metal, peeling paint and splitting wood. Everyone and everything is covered with a thick layer of dirt.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints screens at LAFF 2013: June 15, 7 p.m., Regal Cinemas; June 17, 4:50 p.m., Regal Cinemas. For more info:

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Jack (Sean Penn) in Tree of Life.
Grace asunder pressure

By Ed Rampell

Here are four words I never thought I’d see in the same sentence, let alone in the same film: Sean Penn and dinosaurs. Yet they both co-exist onscreen in Terrence Malick’s latest cinematic tour de force, The Tree of Life. The movie’s meaning is as elusive as its writer-director is famously reclusive (his likeness reportedly cannot be used to promote Malick’s work, and he doesn’t grant interviews – including to yours boo-hoo truly). At its Cannes premiere Tree of Life was both booed and applauded, yet it went on to earn that famous French film fete’s coveted Palme d'Or.

Why boos, bravos and prizes? Tree of Life is composed of at least three stories; what’s ostensibly the primary plotline is the most accessible. This is the saga of the O’Briens, a Texas family whose strict patriarch, the businessman Mr. O’Brien, is portrayed by Brad Pitt (who also shares producer credits). Newcomer and Julliard grad Jessica Chastain depicts Mrs. O’Brien as a loving, nurturing mom of three sons. She’s an Earth Mother archetype in the modality of Jane Darwell, matriarch of the Joads in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, and of Hattie McDaniel, who as Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind is really the movie’s central maternal figure. Chastain may be minus Darwell and McDaniel’s weight, but this is not to say that her performance as an all-embracing mother isn’t weighty. In the tradition of Italian Neo-Realism, Malick cast non-actors in major (and minor) roles, notably Hunter McCracken, who makes his screen debut as Young Jack, the eldest O’Brien boy.

The part of Malick’s epic that’s specifically about the O’Briens is actually quite conventional and rendered in a pretty linear, narrative manner. The complexity and even mystical nature of Tree of Life is deepened by its intricate interweaving with the two other storylines (if you can call them that). Sean Penn portrays the adult Jack as an alienated architect, estranged among contemporary skyscrapers and wandering in the wilderness, searching for and brooding upon the meaning of life. These sequences have a Federico Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni sensibility, existential ruminations on materialistic modern man disconnected from his society and surroundings. Grown up Jack’s Vita is not so Dolce, his Desert is not so Red, and Penn’s performance, essentially sans dialogue, is reminiscent of the expressiveness of the great silent screen actors.

Compounding Tree of Life’s intricacy is the third leitmotif, the film’s most mystifying and obscure yet virtuoso, visually stunning sequences. The ambitious Malick and his stellar special effects/cinematography team attempt to cinematically render nothing less than the Big Bang Theory of the creation of the cosmos, the origins of life itself and the Darwinian process of natural selection. The Malickian crew is after nothing less than a filmic rendition of time and space itself, as well as what surrealist Salvador Dali dubbed “the Persistence of Memory.” Tree of Life is as if Albert Einstein has met Sergei Eisenstein.

The intense inter-cutting of these three cinematic strands is what perplexes yet enthralls viewers of Malick’s visionary film. In a nutshell, man’s place and purpose in the universe is examined, as Tree of Life asks the really big questions: Why are we and what are we doing here? What does it mean? What is the nature of being and consciousness? This 138-minute extravaganza’s title is a Biblical reference to the Tree of Life of life in the Garden of Eden, with the fruit that bestowed life everlasting.

Along the way, some members of the audience are bound to get lost in space, while others more attuned to spirituality and pondering the splendor and wonder of it all will go along for the ride, watching in hushed awe, as if beholding the unfolding of a religious experience. The former viewer will wonder what the movie is all about while the latter will become as one with Malick, a former Harvard student and Rhodes scholar who translated the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in marveling at "What's it all about?" Malick may have visualized what the quest for enlightenment looks -- and sounds -- like.

When I attended Hunter College’s film school during the 1970s there was a debate amongst cineastes about how to make films. Should movies be a strictly storytelling medium unspooling in a logical, linear manner, following a (mostly) chronological) narrative, like most novels and plays do? Or is there another path to pursue, the road less traveled by an expensive medium dominated by commerce? Should films be expressed cinematically, that is, utilizing the uniquely, purely audio-visual language, structure and attributes of the silver screen? It seems to me that since the 1970s, this film theory debate has mainly be sidelined in the American motion picture industry in favor of the trite, traditional way of making movies that tell stories like books and theatre, largely anchored in dialogue.

That’s why the appearance of a Terrence Malick movie is greatly anticipated and treated as a special event by lovers of fine filmmaking. Malick reignites this almost forgotten aesthetic debate. Although Malick is highly regarded as a movie maestro by those who prefer their cinema artsy, Tree of Life is only the fifth feature he has helmed since his directorial debut almost 40 years ago, 1973’s desperadoes-on-the-run drama Badlands, starring (Charlie’s daddy) Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. There was a full 20 year “hiatus” between Malick’s directing of the 1978 pro-labor ballad Days of Heaven co-starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, and his long-awaited 1998 return to the director’s chair with Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ classic WWII novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line, with Penn, Nick Nolte and George Clooney among its all-star cast of actors eager to work with the master. Malick’s 2005 The New World, inspired by the Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell) saga, was full of the expressive visual verve and cinematic sensibility that is the poetic hallmark of Malick productions.

The Tree of Life of Life is the best rendition so far of Malick’s cinematic palate of pure pictorial panache. This auteur strives to return to that rich wellspring of silent screen filmic artistry, a largely lost language derailed by the emergence of talkies, which then wedded movies to dialogue and story, as opposed to imagery. And like so many marriages, this narrative union has lost its luster. I hasten to add, however, that Tree of Life’s sonorous soundtrack includes compositions by Bach, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler and perhaps most memorably, Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau, a musical evocation of a river in the Czech Republic that works wonderfully onscreen. Malick marries music, sound and sight as he strives to create a film form that is one with, and organically expresses, content.

Tree of Life is in the tradition of experimental cinema, exemplified by Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man and Jonas Mekas type films. But unlike his moving picture predecessors, Malick has managed through Fox Searchlight (for god’s sake, a Rupert Murdoch company!) to create a big budget avante garde movie with high production values. In this stylistic sense, and in terms of its special effects and combination of a conventional linear story (the O’Brien family tale), unlike the Brakhage/Mekas hallucinogenic sojourns that completely eschewed the narrative, Tree of Life is actually closer to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci fi classic  2001: A Space Odyssey, which was similarly obsessed with evolution and our role in the cosmos.

Indeed, Malick recruited the venerable Douglas Trumbull, the special photographic effects supervisor for 2001, as well as for other sci-fi epics: 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first Star Trek feature in 1979, 1982’s Blade Runner and 1972’s Silent Running, which Trumbull also directed. Malick’s vision-eers also include visual effects supervisor Dan Glass (Matrix Reloaded, V For Vendetta),  production designer Jack Fisk (The Thin Red Line) and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World).

I also want to give a shout out to another Malick alum, the preternaturally exquisite indigenous actress Irene Bedard, who was so splendid in 1998’s Smoke Signals and portrays the Messenger in Tree of Life. Previously, in a piece of canny casting, Bedard played the mother of Pocahontas in The New World, which was apropos since a decade earlier Bedard had given voice to Pocahontas in Disney’s animated feature of the same title. Her role as Tree of Life’s Messenger is in a continuum of celluloid iconography of the “Indian maiden” as a sort of Ur woman, and it’s delightful to see the lovely Ms. Bedard back on the screen, where she belongs.

Some may be left in the dark by Malick’s The Tree of Life of Life, puzzled and feeling that the epic length work is pompous, pretentious and portentous. I, too, confess to not understanding everything on my first viewing; your humble scribe scratched his noggin more than once. But if bewildered I was also bewitched, going with the filmic flow of solar nebulae and, yes, the aforementioned dinosaurs. It's important for this type of experimental, experiential cinema to be pursued and that there be a place for it in our commercialized motion picture industry, where adolescent mall males at multi-plexes determine so much of our cultural "product." After all, one filmmaking size does not fit all.

I hope that audiences and critics won’t piss on this Tree of Life. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, “film must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of artists and studio suits. It is its natural movie manure.” Malick has created a cinematic solar system of outer and inner space for us to explore and experience. And I, for one, look forward to Malick’s 2012 as yet untitled feature, starring Chastain, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Rachel Weisz and Javier Bardem. Hopefully, the response to Tree of Life won’t cause another two-decade interregnum between the films helmed by one of moviedom’s most singular stylists and poets. 2032 is just too long to wait for another Malickian road trip through cosmic consciousness. 


Father (Brad Pitt) and R.L. (Laramie Eppler) in Tree of Life.
"Dear God"

By Don Simpson 

I am still attempting to digest The Tree of Life a week after seeing the press screening, making some sense of it all and figuring out exactly what writer-director Terrence Malick is trying to communicate (or maybe I am just having a difficult time getting beyond the CGI dinosaurs). When it comes down to it, The Tree of Life‘s cup runneth over with metaphoric imagery and references to Judeo-Christian scriptures (primarily the Book of Job) and I am desperately trying to wrap my head around it all.

There are essentially three distinct yet intertwined segments of The Tree of Life that play like movements in a symphony: The O’Brien family in the 1950s; Jack O’Brien, the eldest son, 30 years later; and what I loosely refer to as “dawn of time” imagery.

Malick dedicates a majority of the film’s screen time to the O’Brien family and their idyllic Texas home. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) and Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) have three sons: Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan). On the surface, their household appears to be as perfect as Leave It to Beaver. Mr. O’Brien has a good, secure job as an engineer (with several patents under his name) and he plays the pipe organ at church on Sundays while Mrs. O’Brien has the middle-class privilege of cleaning the house and raising the boys. The O’Brien family resides in a beautiful and spacious home with fresh air and daylight gushing through the open windows. It is the quintessential life for a white middle-class American family, but once you peel away the top layer -- the facade of suburban tranquility and happiness -- an ugly underbelly of a family ruled by the dictatorial iron fist of Mr. O’Brien is revealed. Mrs. O’Brien is rendered voiceless in the household and the three sons live in a constant state of fear of their father.

Thirty years later, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) resides in an aesthetically cold and sterile home and works in an aesthetically cold and sterile architecture office in Houston, Texas. The uninviting nature of both postmodern environments work in purposeful juxtaposition to the comforting openness of Jack’s modernist childhood home. Jack does not say or do much (Penn has approximately 15 minutes of screen time and very little on screen dialogue despite his second billing), other than recollect his past. It is the 30th anniversary of R.L.’s death (we are told that R.L. was 19-years old when he died, yet the timeline is so fractured that it is difficult to know for certain), and that event still renders Jack a listless zombie. (Note: Malick’s youngest brother, an aspiring guitarist, committed suicide in the late 1960s.) 

Jack struggles to make peace with his youth, particularly his relationship with his father and his brother’s premature death. Jack recalls several moments that still haunt him to this day, such as when he: tied a frog to a rocket; threw rocks through a window of a neighbor’s shed; broke into a neighbor’s house; shot R.L.’s finger with a BB gun; talked back to his mother; and prayed that God would kill his father. The Tree of Life is intended to be Jack’s own meditations on his childhood all the while contemplating God’s existence and the meaning of life. Jack perceives himself as the bad son and R.L. as the good (the righteous) son -- so why did God take R.L.’s life? Or, as Job often pondered: Why do the righteous suffer?

The “dawn of time” imagery showcases a psychedelic fantasia of bizarre cosmological phenomena a la the “The Dawn of Man” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” chapters of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. First, the Big Bang; then, primordial ooze and molten magma; next, unicellular organisms evolve into multicellular organisms...and eventually there are a couple of dinosaurs. In theory, these visual head-trips represent Jack’s contemplation of the universe (thus revealing the triviality of his selfish concerns). In reality, these scenes are more likely to just conjure up inquiries into "what was Malick on?” while he imagined all of this.

The final coda brings all three segments of the film together, well sort of. We witness the earth’s demise and then a bevy of lost souls (including the O’Brien family) wandering along a beach to an endless echo of “amen” from “Berlioz: 10. Agnus Dei [Requiem, Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts)]” as conducted by Sir Colin Davis and performed by Wandsworth School Boys Choir, London Symphony Chorus and London Symphony Orchestra.

Malick has historically kept his affinity for metaphorical imagery somewhat in check, but his cerebral tendencies run rampantly wild within The Tree of Life. I have absolutely no complaints with the deliberately obtuse nature of Malick’s choices in imagery; in fact, it is cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s (who earned a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination for Malick’s The New World) unabashed eye candy that is the strongest element of The Tree of Life. Lubezki adroitly conveys Malick’s transcendentally dreamy vision. Several scenes play out with no spoken dialogue -- just sporadic lines of voiceover and a heavy dose of classical music (Bach, Holst, Goreck√≠, Mahler), so the images are left shouldering the burden of meaning. For that reason alone, The Tree of Life will certainly be one of my favorite visual films of 2011.

Three subjects that are readily discussed in Malick’s other films -- Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World -- are also quite prominent in The Tree of Life: humankind’s constant struggle with nature; the inherent violence found within all humans; and the tug-of-war of gender roles. Yet in The Tree of Life Malick wraps these three subjects into a greater discussion on the battle between the way of nature (the selfish pursuit of earthly ambitions) and the way of grace (living a life of love and compassion for all).

Malick truly hits his stride when focusing on the subconscious conflict that occurs during childhood -- when young personalities are being shaped into their adult equivalent -- between the forces of good and evil. Children are prone to make poor choices during childhood, and sometimes those choices (like several of Jack’s) continue to haunt one’s memories long into adulthood. The adult Jack would never purposefully shoot his brother’s finger with a BB gun or tie a frog to a rocket, yet the adult Jack still feels guilty for the poor choices he made as a child. Like his father, Jack dishonored nature and never noticed “the glory”; he chose a selfish and violent path, rather than following his mother’s path of love.

An over-reliance on voiceovers has always been Malick’s one weakness and The Tree of Life seems to rely even more heavily upon voiceovers than his other four films. Understandably, Malick utilizes whispery and ethereal voiceovers to place the audience inside Jack’s mind as he regurgitates his childhood memories and waxes existentially (Malick is a disciple of Martin Heidegger), but Malick is simultaneously synopsizing the Book of Job for us, and this is enough to clear the seats of any atheists in the audience. There will certainly be accusations that The Tree of Life is a shameless proselytising of Judeo-Christian doctrine, but I interpret The Tree of Life as being quite the opposite. 

The title of the film references a non-denominational symbol that spans the breadth of religion, science, philosophy and mythology. Jack (like Malick) was raised as a Christian, so it only makes sense that Jack (and Malick) would turn to the Old Testament when attempting to come to terms with his brother’s death; Job -- a character who directly challenges God -- is chosen to convey Jack’s (and Malick’s) theological quandary. Jack (and Malick) doubts the existence of God, but at the same time he chooses to address God directly, challenging him (as Job did) to answer his accusations and questions. 

The Tree of Life reportedly received a conflicting chorus of boos and applause after its world premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. Nonetheless, Malick’s film received the Palme d'Or, but the infamously reclusive director was nowhere to be found.