“Where were you?”: God and Grace in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

It is a beautiful thing that the Yukon Film Society was able to bring us “Tree of Life” through their new Available Light Cinema incarnation at the Yukon Arts Centre once a month.  Even more amazing was the swiftness.  Whitehorse is not known as the place where new good films come quickly–but the YFS have almost bridged the gap between us and Seattle.  Tree of Life was handed the Palme D’Or in May, and we have it in September.  I’d say that was pretty darn fast. It shows again on Wednesday night, Sept 14 at the Yukon Arts Centre.

The Tree of Life is many things to many people.  The film doesn’t concern itself with a complicated, or even clear, narrative.  It has a simple one.  At the opening of the film, the death of brother/son sends the characters reeling.   What follows is a montage of scenes recalled from the mind of a surviving brother, now grown up (Sean Penn) as he tries to figure out what happened to “allow” this death in God’s great scheme of things.  The Tree of Life, for me, was a calling out, a plea, a requiem to God for our personal tragedies–asking many times of God, Where were you?  Why did you let this person die?  Was he a bad person?  The film is loosely tied together with scenes from a Texas childhood–a paradise of sorts–with a scary center, a frustrated musician father (Brad Pitt) who takes out his anger, at having to put away his music, on his three boys.

There’s a lot of whispering in this movie.  Be careful when you cough.  You’ll miss them.  Often the whispered pleas begin with “Father” or “Mother” or “You”— as the man, who speaks as the boy, tries to figure out whether he was more worthy of death than his brother.

God appears in this movie, but not as Christians typically think of him–he is a bit distant, but consistent with the book of Job.  There is the other “Where were you?” to consider:  the movie opens with an epigraph from Job, asking Job–in the voice of God–“where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?”  And there is stunning cinematography that takes a viewer from the beginnings of creation through to the moment the son is born.   Through this, the pleas and the questions cry out— “God, are you there?” plays over a volcanic planet being birthed.  The magnitude of the event of creation overshadows the magnitude of the personal tragedy.  It is almost as if Malick is answering for God: I was worried about much larger things.

But to make that the only statement Malick makes would be to miss his emphasis on the importance of love and forgiveness in the face of the cruelties of life and death.

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The Other “Hijacked Airliner” Story: Whitehorse, Yukon 9/11

It was the only airplane to emit a hijacked signal on 9/11/2001.  It was heading to New York City, from Seoul, via Anchorage Alaska.  Fighter jets were scrambled.   A whole city, Whitehorse, was given 15 minutes warning that a hijacked plane was heading to their small airport, an airport just above the center of town.  Every school was evacuated, parents were told to pick up their kids, and a giant 747 escorted by jets whose missiles were locked on target came into view.

Max Fraser, local Whitehorse filmmaker, has put together one of the most intriguing “untold” stories of 9/11 in his documentary, Never Happen Here: the Whitehorse 9/11 story.  Only a few hours after four planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, the Pentagon, and in Western Pennsylvania, Whitehorse is told that a hijacked plane is on its way to their city.  They have 15 minutes to get ready.

Imagine the panic, after watching everything happen in New York that day, hearing that it’s coming to your town in 15 minutes.  No one else got any warning that planes would be falling from the sky.  The morning of 9/11 was a surprise–there was no anticipation, no expectation.  While nothing can take away from the horror of 9/11 in the United States, or can compare to the tragedy of that event, Whitehorse’s story has an interesting angle no other story has.  It is because of the horror of 9/11 that Whitehorse had something to fear.  A disaster of 9/11 proportions was coming our way, only a few hours after we’d been shocked watching the panic and destruction hit New York City.   What would you do if you knew a 9/11 was coming to your city?

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Characters with Something On Their Minds: the brilliant writing inside Deep Impact

Recently, I re-watched Deep Impact, one of two “asteroids-going-to-hit-Earth” movies that came out simultaneously (the other being, the poor-in-comparison, Armageddon).  Deep Impact builds slowly, and has amazingly drawn characters.  It’s worth it to watch just to pick up some tips on character development.  These are my thoughts after watching it.

1.  Every character in the movie has their own worries or concerns BEFORE their first scenes.  Jenny Lerner (Tea Leoni) wants to make a name for herself as a reporter and move up faster than the news organization’s corporate ladder will allow.  Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) is falling in love.  Jenny’s mother (Vanessa Redgrave) is achingly going through the news of the marriage of her ex-husband to a younger woman; and the ex-husband has just married, and in the process, estranged his daughter.  Others are having babies, concerned about parties coming, or debts, or something.

It’s very easy for me as a writer to create characters who come into my scenes to do my bidding and then exit, stage left.  This makes them one-dimensional and cardboard–it also makes them a bit robotic, there to get my plot done for me.  BETTER are characters who have had something JUST happen to them when they come into your story, in other words, they are recovering from a cold, they are dealing with bills, parents passing, daycare that’s too expensive–something.  These scenes were really short, but they helped me care about the characters quicker because they had outside interests, outside agendas besides the imminent needs of the PLOT.

2.  They make CHOICES based on their previous problems or worries.  I was very surprised to see what kinds of choices they made, choices bound by the plot, yes, but could only have happened because of the natural cause-and-effect of the plot.  Someone chooses not to be saved; someone chooses to rescue someone else; someone kills themselves; each new choice brings about other choices–but choices that build on one another.

Sometimes writers (like me) create plots that are heavily structured because of what we want to see but we don’t quite take into consideration the kinds of choices  the characters would make—we make their choices from who they are in the beginning, not who they are BECOMING as the story progresses.  Events change us, and I was reminded that characters in the movies could not have made certain choices without having gone through the events in the movies. It’s a good thing to remember that the events of your story change your characters–and they do it gradually.

Change doesn’t happen because of one event, usually.  It happens because we are exposed again and again with events and choices.

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X-Men vs. X-Men: First Class

Okay, I just had to re-watch Brian Singer’s original X-Men (2000) after seeing X-Men: First Class.  I wanted to see how these two movies played off each other.  Call XM:FC what you want–origin story, prequel–it still has to be a good movie.  And I think Singer’s original X-Men is a much better movie than X-Men: First Class.  Here’s why.

1.  XM: So much more character development of several characters–Rogue, Wolverine, Magneto, Xavier, Jean Grey.  This movie takes time with its characters and keeps focus on Wolverine as the “schill” or the “new guy” who gets to experience all the Xavier School like we do, for the first time.  He operates “as us” so other characters tell him things we need to know.  Their world is well-developed already and intricate and we get the idea that it’s solid and has been this way for awhile, and has stuff that we haven’t seen yet.

XM:FC barely develops Eric as a tragic, one-note, revenge-minded character, and Charles as a privileged fop whose compassion comes because of his blindness to others hardships (though occasionally, his mind-link helps him “understand” your pain).  FC Xavier comes by his compassion too easily; original Xavier seems much kinder, empathetic, a person I’d admire.

None of the minor characters in XM:FC are even developed.  They barely get screen time except to fight.  Sure XM has its share of background/throwaway characters who simply run through a door, or make an ice rose, but we don’t need to know who they are.  They aren’t pivotal to the plot.  XM:FC characters are, and it’s a shame they are never really developed.

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Mob Rules and the Art of the Team Movie— a review of X-Men: First Class

I saw X-Men: First Class last night.  It was a good, solid action movie with stunning special effects.  It moves and kept me interested.  It never had me on the edge of my seat.  It’s an origin story– it has to go through certain details to collect them all–but it doesn’t do it very interestingly, in my opinion.  It also has trouble with multiple characters, having a hard time giving them much development.  I thought the original X-Men did a better job at giving each character a moment.  While Wolverine, Rogue, Dr Jean Grey, et al have their moments to shine as characters pre-Xavier, we don’t have that in this movie.  Here, we barely know anything about Banshee, Beast, Raven, Angel, Darwin, Havoc.  They are more about what they can do than who they are–though they hint at something deeper.  In all, it’s a pretty good film, but not an amazing one.  Enjoy it as an action flick.

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TRON: Legacy needs a CLU, gets a “journey without a goal”

I wanted to like this movie.  I have such fond memories of the original TRON.  It was ahead of its time in many ways back then, and probably a little cheesy too…  It was wrapped up in religion a bit, which wasn’t bad— it gave programs a “culture,” a “faith.”  TRON: Legacy has kept up with the digital explosion in movies and taken it to grand heights, but it abandoned good writing and good characters along the way.  I found it hard not to roll my eyes, and even with such great visuals, found myself bored during the last quarter of the film.  How did they fumble such a beautiful opportunity?  I don’t know, but I have some ideas.  I offer these up for consideration.  I’m no Roger Ebert (but I’m a huge fan, Roger) but I think most critics have already agreed that the plot lacks something. The original TRON received 69% on the tomatometer from Rotten Tomatoes, the new Tron 49%.  Though, oddly the audience seems to like the second one more.  Critics agreed the light show and “glitter” are fun, and who can beat that soundtrack?  I loved the light show, the competitions, the music, but the plot is an epic fail.

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Desperate Times Call For Desperate Magic: A Review of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, pt 1.  is a good film–a solid film, giving a good arc and screentime to all three of the main characters, and a host of others. There’s plenty of action, but this film also takes time to develop the story and the characters.  I stood in line at the Yukon Cinema for two hours to get in to the first showing (-10 C)–so my standards had to go up for how good this film had to be.  And I felt like, in the end, it was worth it.

You know the premise: Harry Potter and team are on the run from Voldemort.  Nowhere is safe.  Harry is out to find as many pieces of Voldemort’s soul as he can and destroy them.  We aren’t at Hogwarts anymore.  But the lessons, it seems, still go on–and the grades are worth more.

Some small spoilers follow—but nothing major.  Read later after you’ve seen the movie.  It’s just me talking about the really cool character arcs–but I do a bit of telling what characters do.

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I was pleased at how much this film is about Hermoine.  The opening sequence has her erasing the memories of her from her parents’ minds, and also from every picture in the house.  She has, in effect, erased her existence in the Muggle world.  The film highlights the extreme displacement the kids feel by not being in Hogwarts, and you feel it too.  The camera shots from above the various geographies, rotate just slightly, giving you the feeling of being lost.  And these students are lost, very lost.  They are on the run, and no place is safe.  Hermoine guides them through past memories of her childhood, and the movie plays out as a backwards rendition of those memories she has erased.  Each place they disparate to, or jump to, is a place she alone remembers from her past.  When she is tortured in the film, we realize how much she has always been in potential danger at Hogwarts, especially because she is Muggle born.  While Draco Malfoy always carried the racism and bigotry into Hogwarts, because he was a child–he had no power to enforce that bigotry, and we assumed that it would be knocked out of him.  Hogwarts has obviously failed a few times to instill responsible and compassion in its students.  Voldemort carries this much farther.  On a purity spree, he is trying to subjugate the world of Muggles under wizardry control.  Hermoine represents muggles on the run, Muggles fighting back.  She even helps save another Muggle-born woman who has been stripped of her wand in a courtroom scene straight from the Inquisition.  We know that the imperative for the wizards getting back in control of Voldemort is to save mankind, not just themselves.  And we realize that the last six books were about Hogwarts, a school that taught morality and self-control to people who had great, destructive and constructive powers.  Hogwarts is what stands between wizards and witches taking over the world–young wizards’ and witches’ education is paramount to our safety.

Ron has a great arc as well, as his whole family is left fighting against Voldemort while he and Harry and Hermoine are trying to find the horcruxes.  Every day he listens to the radio to see if his family is okay.  And every day they don’t find a horcrux is another day that he isn’t doing something to stop the war.  He feels guilty that he’s “doing nothing” and doubly guilty because he gets to be with the woman he loves all the time.  This turns in him, and with the help of an evil horcrux which amplifies those feelings of betraying his family, it causes him to rage against his friends, and make a big decision.  It’s a huge move for a major character.  We know part of is the horcrux, but part of it stems from six books of Ron Weasley being seen as less than all of his siblings, and standing in the shadows of Harry Potter.  He now has to play the hero–and while he wants to so badly, there’s a fear that it’s always just “playing” and that this playing is actually taking away from a larger duty he owes his family back home.  His arc represents, to me at least, the wizarding families and the freedom they are likely to lose if Voldemort wins, and the sacrifices they make to keep people safe.

Harry, though frustrated as a leader, has a lot of moments to make good and bad decisions as he goes.  I like that he learns that his friends are doing the best they can.  They are counting on him to know what he’s doing–and sometimes he does and sometimes he’s just an 18 year old who is figuring things out as he goes.  I like that he’s learning to be a leader here under trying circumstances and there are moments in the film that he shows how good of a leader he can be.  We know the final film will explore even more of Harry’s character, and Dumbledore’s.  I wonder how much they’ll bring out the relationship between Grindewald and Dumbledore.  I’m very excited to see how Harry reaches what he has to reach in the next film.

Even though this film deviates from its normal Hogwarts school year–I was pleased to see that the way the earlier films marked the passing of time was kept in this one: holidays.  So even though you are on the run, Harry, you still mark time the same.

Deathly Hallows does have some overtones of Lord of the Rings, as Harry searches for multiple objects, so that he can destroy them.  The scene interrogating Creature about a locket gave me Gollum, Frodo, Samwise feelings all over the place.  And the dream sequences of seeing Voldemort closing in on various people acted like Sauron’s eye in reverse.

And then come to the middle of the film, I was surprised and charmed to find such a finely animated film inside.  When the story of the “Three Brothers” is read aloud by Hermoine, the film indulges in a beautiful moment of cinema.  I was entranced. The short segment is worth its own short film status–and I would definitely be interested in seeing a film like this made from the stories in Beetle the Bard.  If this was the director’s way of seeing if we’re interested in seeing that film–let me be the first to say, yes.

Overall, the film far exceeded my expectations, in that it brought out threads that resonated with the first six films, and managed to find humor in the darkest book of the HP series.  It also gave such meaty character building parts to Ron, Hermoine and Harry–just when you thought you knew them, now you see them grow again. This is the perfect culmination movie.

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Kudos to the folks at the Yukon Cinemas for decorating the theatre, keeping peace, for filming the line, and asking us trivia questions for prizes.  Thank you for threatening any person who had cellphone nonsense during the movie with immediate expulsion.  Please do this for every movie!  🙂  I’m very proud of our how well Yukon Theatre did with the massive crowds, and regulating traffic.  And they were all dressed in Hogwarts robes!  Priceless.