“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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Realistic Science Fiction: District 9

Scene-from-District-9-200-001This is an amazing film, both for what it sets out to do, and for what it accomplishes.  Taking the form of a documentary, it brings science fiction as close to real as I’ve ever seen it.  It is the documentary form, I think, that convinces a viewer that this is happening, or has happened.  

The film is about what would happen if aliens came to Earth powerless and malnourished.  Human kindness would collide with our own aversion to aliens and suddenly you have camps where the aliens are kept.  It’s a brilliant stroke to make this set in South Africa and not New York or LA or London.  

This film will surprise you at every moment.  I found myself, a film junkie, a sci-fi enthusiast, completely unprepared for where the movie would take me until it took me there.  The writing is superb.  You can’t find a traditional plot here anywhere.  

Certainly we’ve come to an age where we can make special effects seem real—Peter Jackson, the producer and Neill Blomkamp, the director, have gone out of their way to make you see the special effects as realistically as possible.  Yes, the insectoid aliens are CGI, but there’s not a lot of special effects here that are obvious.  God bless ’em, effects are being smoothed into a film now.  

This is not a mockumentary, whose job it is to make you laugh; it is filmed as a documentary to trick your brain into accepting its premise.  And it works.  I remember reading Dracula by Bram Stoker, as a kid.  And I hated the diary parts—but it is the story in letters that make that novel all the more horrifying because the author didn’t want it to seem like fiction.  They wanted you scared because these were actual letters.  It was more creepy to do it that way.  And this film, using documentary style–down to the archived tapes, the dates at the bottom, the steadycam moments–makes you think that someone pieced this together from twenty years of real footage.  Some of it is grainy, some of it is blurry.  

If you want realistic science fiction, you blend the techniques and technology we have now with the strange and possible technology; you bring in recognizable cultural reactions (the Nigerians scamming the aliens), historical patterns of behavior (Nazi experimentation), all without winking at the audience.  Letting them react.  They will think it’s real–because you have torn away what they expect in a movie.  

You expect a hero.  The main character is an idiot, really.  So, he’s not Bruce Willis.  He’s not super-intelligent, and rarely does the right thing.  But what an interesting character!   Again, if you are going for realistic science fiction, your main character may not be the best man or woman on the planet–but they are pivotal and they can learn.  A learning character is all you need.  

The movie is brilliant on many levels.  It works as a science fiction thriller, yes.  But it also works as a metaphor for immigration, for refugees, and for the slums that are in South Africa.  Anytime a people are empowered over another people, stupid things happen to us.  The main character of the movie really is us–as we treat other people as alien.  That shift of power is the focus of the film, I think, and makes the most poignant statement.  Given the right circumstances, human kindness can become dispassionate, cold power.

And what it takes to regain a sense of humanity, perhaps, is to lose it altogether.  But I won’t spoil any of the movie.  I’m so thrilled with the movie, I know that sci-fi junkies will love it and I know people who prefer realism and a smart script will love it.  

I also know that if you have a passion for oppressed people in the world, and the injustice present in nations around the world who have subjugated another race, then you will also find the reflection of that, and the reflection, maybe, of hope.

The Wonderfulness of “It’s A Wonderful Life”

jamesstewart460This is my favorite Christmas movie.  So I’m a bit palled by recent articles that this is a dark film, or that George Bailey should never have been born.  Mainly, this is a response to a NYT article (and a short video commentary) about the “dark side” of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  (But you can also see the seething condescension for Capra’s human vision in this article, “It’s a Wonderful Lie”)

Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful Dreadful Life! by Wendell Jamieson revises, or attempts to revise the viewer’s reception of this movie, by making us concentrate on how miserable George’s life really was.

<“It’s a Wonderful Life” is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people. It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife. It is also a nightmare account of an endless home renovation.>

While these are George’s circumstances, this not the point of the movie.  Coming out in 1946, this movie exemplifies the self-sacrifice that many Americans made during the war and the depression to get their families through.  Undoubtedly it was a paean to all those people who had sacrificed what they wanted for what was good for the country.  George Bailey still stands as an exemplary “citizen” who sacrifices his dreams–which if you look at them closely are founded on the idea of escape, and a small opinion of his small town–to care for the people of his town.  This film, for 1946, has a strong inclusive argument for immigrants.  Potter hates them; Bailey wants to give them a chance.  Certainly Capra’s viewers would have seen many immigrants in the 30s and 40s struggling with them in hard times.

The movie is also about the power of one man to fight against the greed and power of another man.  Bailey and Potter are two sides of this coin of power: Potter would rule Bedford Falls without George in his way.  But to do something great requires sacrifice.

Sadly, Jamieson doesn’t see the point of self-sacrifice.  I admire George for giving away his Honeymoon money to help the town stay afloat.  I admire Mary Bailey for all the reasons that Jamieson discounts her.  He calls her “oppressively perfect.”  I’m not sure WHO she’s oppressing.  She wants George to stay at home and raise a family, sure.  But she’s also willing to make the sacrifices and understands George’s need to help others.  She’s also the force that goes door to door to help raise funds for him.

Bedford Falls is not perfect—but it’s not stultifying.  Certainly it is better than Pottersville.  Jamieson disagrees:

Here’s the thing about Pottersville that struck me when I was 15: It looks like much more fun than stultifying Bedford Falls — the women are hot, the music swings, and the fun times go on all night. If anything, Pottersville captures just the type of excitement George had long been seeking

He later makes the point that Pottersville would have been a “resort town” and would have survived the latest crashes on Wall Street. Resort town?  Who’s he kidding.  No one looked happy or having “fun times.”  No one is happy in this version; not Mary, not Violet, not Bert or Ernie.  No one has a better life in the de-Georged version.  I saw bars and dance halls, triple X movie theatres, and people were in these places not because they were happy–they were there to drown themselves.  It wasn’t excitement.  I saw chaos.  Everyone was angry, bitter, frightened.
Jamieson catalogues George’s set of woes as if he is making a criminal case against God himself (or fate):

Soon enough, though, the darkness sets in. George’s brother, Harry (Todd Karns), almost drowns in a childhood accident; Mr. Gower, a pharmacist, nearly poisons a sick child; and then George, a head taller than everyone else, becomes the pathetic older sibling creepily hanging around Harry’s high school graduation party. That night George humiliates his future wife, Mary (Donna Reed), by forcing her to hide behind a bush naked, and the evening ends with his father’s sudden death.

Okay, I have never thought of the flirting scene with Mary as a humiliating moment with Mary, but merely of two kids who are teasing each other.  I don’t know what lens Jamieson sees this movie, but it is a twisted one–bringing out the dark elements and calling them the point.

I admire this film because it reminds us to think of others.  It is a lesson to the viewer who might be a George–that they DO count, that they have made a difference–and a template for those who might know a George on how to be a friend in times of need.  Everyone at the end sacrifices their small needs for George.  While Jamieson makes the case that George would still have been libel for the stolen money—no one in the film has accused anyone yet.  While the bank examiner has a warrant for George’s arrest–the policeman rips it in two a the party.  If they supply the $8000 back, then the money never went missing–especially if the bank examiner and the police are conspirators on forgetting the whole thing.

George Bailey is canonized in the hearts of Americans because he does good for others for the sake of doing good.  While, yes, his human rage at having been denied so many things gets the better of him at the beginning, it’s all the more to remind us how fragile our saints can be–that George is not a God nor a robot, but a man who makes the better choices each time.  Until, he can’t do them any more.

Writing a story, an author is told to torture his main character.  Good plots do this well–by taking away what our characters hold dear.  “Wonderful Life” just follows that pattern–taking away from George until he is laid bare on the night when his life could be destroyed.  His miracle is less a miracle than a vision.  It works so well as a device because despite the hocus-pocus of Becoming Pottersville, the idea is something we can actually envision for ourselves.  Each of us can imagine our own Pottersville in the wake of our disappearance–and this can reassure us in our darkest times.  I think we have all been on the bridge, looking at that swirling water.  We may need a Clarence to point out our worth, a human Clarence, which requires us to step up.  But in the end “It’s a Wonderful Life” is about the value of community–and for all George’s sacrifices he gained a community that loved him.  Don’t discount this.  In our heady, Me-oriented societies–we’re losing the idea of our community.  And when we get to the bridge, I’m afraid we won’t have a Clarence, and we won’t have the vision to see that we made any difference in the lives of others if we don’t practice self-sacrifice.  I’m not one to talk–having not done much—but I am one to watch and learn from George Bailey.