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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Auto-Erotic Asphyxiation: Michael Bay, Michele Bachmann, and the American Fantasy

Who is Michael Bay now? The Rock. Armageddon. Pearl Harbor. Bad Boys II. And finally, the Transformers trilogy, his magnum opus, perhaps not only for him but for every man-child, the long expectant Second Coming of Lost Time as once more we can all be children at play, building things and immediately blowing them up. The flirtations between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler in Armageddon, the take on history and kitsch in Pearl Habor, and simply the erotic fetishizing of violence in...everything. Michael Bay creates movies for our worst impulses, making the idiot in his collective audience purr. Attending one of his pictures is like being caught masturbating, except everyone else in the room is masturbating also. It is fantasy as form. He's succeeded in creating a treasured aesthetic, as the sensibility of 1990s music videos have now become commonplace in action films. Films don't breathe today, so much as they glide down a runway in slow-mo, bullets firing behind the sheen of a perfect complexion. To complete the formula, Bay puts in sitcom humor, something the folks always finds very delightful. Explosions, cheeky laughs, Oscar-nominated actors, beautiful women, nice clothes, fast cars, rock anthems, more explosions…Sometimes it may resemble a 150-minute Axe Body Spray commercial, but one must admit they achieve their goals. Bay's movies are the epitome of glossy fashion, celluloid user-friendly models downloadable for fulfillment.

The critics snarl, as they do currently in regards to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, their words like darts falling like harmless feathers against Bay's Teflon chest. The previous film in the trilogy, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was even more hated by its critics. But it made nearly $200 million in its opening week…and the audience loved it. The same fate will hold for Part 3, I predict, as the preview audience applauded at its conclusion. Bay has pointed out the numbers to his critics before, as if to suggest their meaninglessness, their lack of a useful function in this economy, their elitism. Who are they writing for anyway? 

Before digging into the bile of my own criticism of Bay or Bachmann, I wonder about the mainstream mentality that these two have so perfectly channeled and fulfilled. The executive producer of all three Transformers films is Steven Spielberg, and didn't he also make paeans to middle American life, like E.T.

I really have never had much problem identifying with Speilberg's heroes, like Elliot in E.T. as a child, and later as an adult, Roy Neery in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Even the myriad of dysfunctions that follow his most stoical of heroes (the spiritual and family questions that are beset on Dr. Jones, for instance) allow identification. Most of all for me, there is David in AI: Artificial Intelligence, the robot who only wants to be "a real, live boy." Spielberg's most memorable protagonists are surrounded by affluence and the normal, but have a few parts missing. Take Oskar Schindler, who's a Nazi but is also, surprising to even himself, a humanitarian, and so an outsider and eccentric in his world. 

Michael Bay makes movies for the kids who made fun of Elliot and David, the well-adjusted ones with the affluent parents, the steady stream of lunch table friends, who had their lives figured out for them, from the right kind of clothes to wear to college. Again, I'm not disparaging the normal – it's what I envied, and I need to be careful here, because at the bottom of all this is, admittedly, my own resentment. And so let it be written – Michael Bay makes films for and about those people who wouldn't let me be a part of their club, and the guys who got laid before me. 

Yet so many freaks and geeks I know love Transformers, just as many who hate it. They love the way every moment is eroticized, the explosions, the loud noises, the glass hurling everywhere even though human bodies seem to stay intact (or they just kind of disappear). I wonder about history, and if Michael Bay could have been who he is now 40 years ago, when Spielberg was just beginning. The short, and possibly unexamined answer, is 'no.' Michael Bay was created by videogames, just as his film aesthetic perhaps worked to influence the course of where videogames would go in the decade following The Rock. For Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the theaters would do well to hand out videogame controllers just as they hand out 3D glasses, allowing the audience to be more immersed in the action as their fingers hit buttons and maneuver a joystick as guns blaze, swords slice, and metal crumbles. The perspective is unstoppable, allowed all access, traveling through windows and walls. This is what Bay's image does: it is unrestricted. Not in the service of story or theme (the unrestricted camera is employed in more respected films from Citizen Kane to The Tree of Life), but just for the effect.  It works well with our lazy eyes by giving us everything, outlaying so much information, titles on the screen joined with the noise of a computer farting, and even if the story doesn't make any coherent sense, we accept it. Special effects, in their persistence, are story for Bay, a point satirized pointedly by South Park ("That's not a plot – those are special effects!" "I don't know the difference.")

The unrestricted film image, where the camera eye reformatted by the graphic designer is allowed to go anywhere, gives us limitless space, as the spatial is no longer necessary. The first Transformers film from 2007 was an awful spectacle showcasing the worst of blockbuster special effects, because of how relentless it was to not be boring. But the special effects aspect of filmmaking, geared to satisfying the popcorn-fisted instincts of viewers, was less exciting than tiresome. The pursuit of not being boring proved  boring because the noise – aural and visual – worked to create numbness: too much sensation, too little reflection. 

There is no lull in videogames. It is all stimulation, all the time. Your eyes and fingers work away on the controller as your mind works itself into the screen, becoming one with the digital embodiment therein, killing other virtual bodies, collecting virtual money, and saving virtual women. If you die, you always get another life. When the game's over, there is fulfillment, accomplishment, rest, and a happy ending as order is restored – until the sequel comes out, and the villains also miraculously resurrect. This is how Bay's films operate--without the benefit of using your own hand-eye coordination with a controller--and it is why they are so successful with their intended audience (I want to note how prescient Bay was with the Transformers villain, Megatron, who is dropped in the ocean: the enemy to freedom anticipating the fate of Osama Bin Laden). His genius is being able to densely put so much into his images, knowing precisely what that audience will respond to – just as Michele Bachmann knows what her political base responds to. If you insult it, you are an elitist. Both Bachmann and Bay, as far as ideology goes, thrive purely in the realm of abstraction: Freedom vs. Tyranny in Transformers being the simple theme, where the Good take on the Bad – and the Bad have no motivations beyond simply being, well, bad.

The characters here are not human, but rather waxwork versions of humans. This is particularly applicable to women, and it is Bay's portrayal of women that I find most troublesome, even more than the militarism that makes his pictures look like recruitment films. Megan Fox, the female lead from the first two Transformers, was a "tough" mechanic chick, but functions as a fulfillment of male fantasy. It is Bay's intention that she should be a one-note character, because it's that channeling of the collective teenage fantasy that he's after – and he succeeds. Fox's replacement in Dark of the Moon, Victoria's Secret model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, is even more "perfect," and so empty. (And in real life, apparently does not talk back; Fox was fired for her negative comments about Bay – specifically, comparing him to Hitler).

In Dark of the Moon's excess, there is a kind of momentous absurdity that I found appealing, along with special effects set-ups that I admired, such as the human protagonists trapped in a wavering Trump Tower. Even so, it left me with a "not so fresh feeling" later on, and I couldn't help but feel a little used the next day. To his credit, Bay has almost altered his abominable aesthetic in many cases, at times seeming to emulate Christopher Nolan's recent summer films (Inception, The Dark Knight) more than his own work. The film's prologue juggles history, revealing how the Kennedy Administration started its race for the moon because of an alien Autobot spacecraft that crashed there. I was surprised by the amount of restraint Bay was employing during this prologue, and I took notice to how he was thinking of those cameras filming Apollo 11 while it was happening. Michael Bay was being self-reflexive about his own technological spectacles.

And then – well…immediately following the prologue, we see Rosie Huntington-Whiteley's ass in close-up, the commissioned Top 40 rock score singing along. This is Sam's (LeBeouf) girlfriend, prancing around in his apartment, getting ready for work. One of his transformer pets chimes in, "What a gorgeous box." The prologue gives way to latent porno. Dark of the moon indeed. Bay's film launches into its admittedly interesting commentary on men's desire for women, something that began in the first picture, where Sam's first car, the Autobot Bumblebee, seems to compete with Megan Fox for his erotic fixation. At the conclusion, the Autobots, statesmen of progressive and immortal technology, preside benevolently over the planet as Sam and his hot girlfriend lay on top of Bumblebee's hood – a perfect amalgamation of sex and technology, women and cars, the two things men love to talk about most.

The friction between Sam's new girlfriend and his car is now much more pronounced, and it will climax with a wedding proposal where a Decepticon scrap functions as an engagement ring. The erotic attachment to technology makes a lot of sense for Michael Bay. His aesthetic reminds me of a man flexing, then photographing and tweeting such images of himself. He gets off on technology and its possibilities. The "gorgeous box" of which the comic-relief Transformers spoke could refer to a mechanical invention or an organic vagina. The catch is that in Bay's films, the women are far from organic, and if they are nuanced women, they are bitter shrews contemptible of their femaleness. Sam's nemesis is his girlfriend's rich boss, Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), who collects classic cars – and has a female staff of seemingly cloned ladytrons. He points to one car and mentions how it's "built to echo the body of the ideal woman." Bay's women are as mechanically constructed as his Transformer robots are, or as the $200,000 automobiles flashing through the frame.

And yet on the other side, you have CIA Director Charlotte Mearing, played by the great Frances McDormand, who seems to be modeled on Hillary Clinton. She wears pants, talks straight, does not smile in a comely fashion, and, well, looks like a real person. More than twice in the film she accosts her male underlings: "Don't call me ma'am." "You're a woman, aren't you?" one of them asks. With this statement, we are assured that Bay's depiction of women here is not a subliminal or unconscious thing. The woman in his film who is powerful by virtue of her intelligence – and not at all by her looks – is herself a machine, as Mearing talks about protocol and paperwork, which "separates us from the animals." Strangely, while Bay's unreal and beautiful model women – who seem to be everywhere – are all too eager to issue romantic and sexual gestures, Mearing is a cold heartbreaker, having broken-up with the film series' special forces nut, Simmons (John Turturro). Even at the end of the film, when the world has been saved and Simmons grabs her for a big end-all smooch, her smile drops quickly and she commands her men to arrest him. Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, the attractive Christian Conservative female crusader, find their most enthusiastic audience among - if not other Christian Conservative women - older white men. They embody that attractive good-wife fantasy, headstrong and active but fully in support of an older set of mainly patriarchal values, and feminism does not apply to them. They too are virtually male fantasy constructs.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon's endearing misogyny is rampant. Though we do not see much trace of female robots, the villainous Decepticon Shockwave terrorizes our heroes with a shape-shifting cross between a snake-phallus given a toothy-vagina mouth (work with me here), ripping through civilization and the best things men have created for us (Mearing is meanwhile responsible for much of the bureaucratic stupidity that will put characters in danger). And then there is a teleportation portal to the Transformers' home of Cybertron, that will give passage to the villainous Decepticons as they land on earth and take over, which, in a Gigerean or Cronenbergian sense, resembles a huge, robotic clitoris.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon has a good message for us young men: work hard and harness your tools, so that you can take care of your beautiful women and keep them securely in your grasp. Sam's problem is that he's out of college and can't get a job, while his underwear model girlfriend is paying the bills. This puts him in a realm of uncertainty – most pronounced when he meets the flirtatious Gould with his car collection and infinite wealth. Sam's parents remind him of his responsibilities as a man, mom offering him a self-help book, She Comes First, and dad adding, "Happy wife, happy life."

Michael Bay, who has that aforementioned erotic attachment to filmmaking, and so to technology as his pictures are technological monuments, has then accomplished the male's dream of amalgamating a man's ideal woman with his ideal tools. He's a garage logician able to keep his women satisfied and eternally beautiful in the comfort of narcissistic prosperity – and to criticize his films for their reactionary arcs is then to criticize prosperity (or to "punish it," such as we hear a lot today). To be subservient to the woman is like being trapped in a job – the "life sucking abyss" described by Sam's effeminate boss (John Malkovich), and then echoed in Shockwave's vulva dentata. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is perfect for the new social Ayn Rand enthrallment, where pity is decried. To act with sacrificing charity only results in the pitiful lemmings below your sinking boat, pulling you into their den of doom.

It is puzzling to have the famous words of Spock from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan given a completely different context here – especially considering that Leonard Nimoy does the voice! The turn-coat Sentinel Prime has made a deal with Megatron and the Decepticons because, "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few." You'd think that Sentinel had made a deal to tax the richest 2% of earners in order to help balance the budget – which is an affront to freedom. The "milk of human kindness," that feminine attribute, is done away with in Transformers in favor of pure will, strength, and prosperity. A funny example is Simmons, now wealthy, who is interviewed on The O'Reilly Factor (and is a self-described "big fan"). Simmons says of Gould (who has made his own deal with the Decepticons), "Rich bastards. I used to hate'em. Now it's…." and he shakes his head, as now he's one of them. Freedom, as Optimus Prime makes clear, "is everyone's right!" The Decepticons (who were linked with the Obama Administration in the second film) are so the bringers of socialist, feminist tyranny, who will make slaves out of all 6 million of us, destroying the landmarks of capitalist glory (such as the Trump Tower) and our nation's heritage (the Lincoln Memorial).

What becomes a little frightening in Transformers, from my "milk of human kindness" effeminate male progressive liberal humanist perspective, is how sadistic the Transformers become in their heroism. Optimus Prime has done away with pity or the will to identify with his enemies. Where is the logic in that, after all? Pity makes no sense. Kill them. Stomp them out. Take the battle to them! And rip their heads off. Even when the beaten Sentinel Prime, Optimus' former leader and mentor, comes to understand defeat, Optimus does not hesitate for a moment in blowing the older Autobot's head off. Twice. It's great that Michael Bay can once again show us what being a man is all about.

This is the kind of stuff that gave me that "not so fresh feeling" of feeling used. I reiterate that the female imagery in Transformers makes me think that it is not accidentally featured here, and Bay truly does have some personal statements he wants to make in response to his critics. He knows that the audience will criticize him, but he's like Simmons grabbing Mearing, smooching her and willingly going to jail for it. He smiles and winks, knowing that we all like it. And most of us, evidently, do like it, even against our better judgment. This film will be a huge success, as most of Bay's films are. It's about prosperity and prosperity will always win – certainly as human beings become more mechanically inclined and concrete-thinking. Transformers: Dark of the Moon is a Dark Age Black Mass, reflective – even with a degree of antagonism to art – of the current mindset as the most deeply felt independent film. And this is frightening. 

Michael Bay and Michele Bachmann give the crowd what they want: fantasies and agelessness, along with cruel death to enemies of freedom, though no one can really define "freedom." The sadism of Optimus Prime disturbs me, but he's not too different from a post-modern, Cyborg Age representation of John Wayne, a symbol of a bygone age that so many people believe is lost. Conveniently, Wayne was just hilariously paid homage to by Citizen Bachmann on her campaign trail, as she spoke of Wayne's place in Waterloo, Iowa, when in reality it was the serial killer John Wayne Gacy who was that town's brief celebrity citizen. This is the nihilism of the ghost years in our Information Dark Age: In the films of Bay's opposite, Michael Mann, the filmmaker has deep concerns about the cloudiness of human identity where the cop and criminal collapse into one frame and the hyperreal impact of the brave new world steals away our spirits. In Bay and Bachmann, Freedom, Sadism, and Tyranny are all similarly confused, but we dwell blissfully in the illusory ether bits of the videogame fantasy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Raiders of the Lost Golden Age: Super 8 vs. Midnight in Paris

Let me be your spoil sport. The good times of summer, for me, are almost always accompanied by a melancholy taste of nostalgia for the moments while they're passing by: Living becomes an immediate memory, and so, summer is almost instantly sad. Maybe this is a symptom of my biographical youth, my own blossoming years of awareness being, at Valley Fair for example, fed the synthetic sounds of New Wave music, which is euphoric and sad in equal measure, struggling to hold onto its own high (which kind of makes it easy to understand why so many of the artists were on heroin). Strangely, Valley Fair remains an odd time vortex, where I can go back each summer – and still most of the music seems to be underground and across-the-pond pop music from 1984. It's like a doorway to my own hidden golden age, before things stopped making sense, or rather they started making sense. The slippery slope began with innocence lost, from domestic peril, to homework, dating, college, insurance, student loans, rent, and finding work. Before you know it, you're old, and too old to accomplish the things you had set out to do when the Golden Age withered away and you vowed to make a New Jerusalem of sorts. Then your prostate and eyes give you problems, there's gastroenteritis, your hair falls out, your gut expands, and you're 66 and have no savings. Scrambling for time, you beg the ref for a do-over.

The summers of my youth are so synonymous with the movies of my youth, which has become a sort of collective youth for the world of moviedom. In the late 1970s, Hollywood sort of determined that it was stubbornly not going to grow up and remain wrapped in its nostalgia. Before I was around, it was born with Jaws, Star Wars, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. My earliest memories in a movie theater take me to images of Darth Vader (a re-release of the original Star Wars, I believe), who would become my personal hero, and horror on seeing a suffering E.T. drained of color. I fell asleep often during these early movies, but I was also alerted and terrified by them. Eyewitnesses testify that I had my eyes covered – when I wasn't sleeping – during most of E.T., and even I can remember locking hands on my ears during the Rancor sequence in Return of the Jedi. Around this time, I started "coming to," meaning I was able to begin experiencing moments linearly and process them to my memory hard drive. The images of Spielberg and Lucas, not to mention their buddy Jim Henson, fertilized the mythological soil of my youth, to say nothing of my bedroom. Toys, t-shirts, pajamas, Halloween costumes…and I was hardly alone. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas colored the land of innocence before it was lost, and so it's a place that in maturity many of us are eagerly looking back to acquire, a Lost Grail. I still remember the pinnacle moment, outside the Southtown Theater in Bloomington, prior to a screening of Return of the Jedi (perhaps my third). Handing balloons out in front of Wendy's were Darth Vader and Yoda. I talked to Darth, asking him about his dismembered hand, and also complained about how his action-figure had a cape that kept on ripping. I don't remember his replies. I do remember not taking a balloon.

That was, as they say, "long, long ago." We grew out of our action figures and space age operas. We graduated high school and had dreams. We were set for losing our virginity and going to college. But it never really died, did it? How could it. Most fortuitous for Lucas and Spielberg, and how they miraculously channeled the collective unconscious with archetypes of hope following a period of great social malaise craving optimism, they had not only a triumphalist Ronald Reagan ideology to follow them, but these new things, videotapes. So you could watch these movies again and again at home. You could own them and put them right up there on your bookshelf. Spielberg in particular played it very well with his E.T. Unavailable for years following its record-breaking theatrical release, its videocassette commercial release in the late 1980s was met with fanfare that I can only remember as being puzzlingly bizarre…particularly considering it was that movie, of all the era's blockbusters, that was perhaps the easiest for me to grow out of (though it was also, as an adult, the best one to grow back into). The Force was with Luke Skywalker, always, as Obi-Wan said, and our early movie memories were always with us. On tape. Or laserdisc, if you were kind of rich.

The respected late critic Robin Wood talks about the era of "sequels and repetition": "The success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., and the Star Wars movies is dependent not only on the fact that so many people go to see them but also that so many see them again and again." Wood argues that the movies feed into our childhood desire for repetition, the same way a toddler, for instance, wants you to play a game with him again and again, doing the same thing…and if he grows tired of it, maybe throw in some slight variations – like a sequel! "The satisfaction of Star Wars is repeated until a sequel is required: same formula, with variations. But instead of a leap, only an infant footstep is necessary, and never one that might demand an adjustment on the level of ideology." Wood, a gay Marxist-Feminist academic, is conscious of the high-brow toil here. "To raise serious objections to them is to run the risk of looking a fool (they're 'just entertainment,' after all) or, worse, a spoilsport (they're 'such fun')…They work because their workings correspond to the workings of our own social construction. I claim no exemption from this: I enjoy being reconstructed as a child, surrendering to the reactivation of a set of values and structures my adult self has long since repudiated, I am not immune to the blandishments of reassurance." The problem, Wood pointed out, was that because these fantasies were being produced on such a prestigious platform, the public – and critics – had a hard time appreciating large spectacles that challenged them with cognitive dissonance, listing examples such as Heaven's Gate (which Wood, to his credit, believed was perhaps the best film released by a Hollywood studio decades following its release), Blade Runner, and The King of Comedy. And it is worth mulling over, isn't it? What are the all-time box office champions since the Spielberg-Lucas era, but wish-fulfillment fantasies? Star Wars, E.T., the Indiana Jones films, Jurassic Park, Titanic, Avatar… In 1972, The Godfather became the all-time box office champion, and it has as gloomy an ending that anyone could conceive; the same could be said of its usurper from the next year, The Exorcist, where Satan is cast out but with too many ambiguities for our comfort.

Wood wrote his critique on Spielberg and Lucas era cinema decades ago, claiming not to blame the filmmakers as much as he blames the critics. But what sticks out today is this: "The success of the films is only comprehensible when one assumes a widespread desire for regression to infantilism, a populace who wants to be constructed as mock children…The films are obviously very skillful in their handling of narrative, their resourceful, ceaseless interweaving of actions and enigmas, their knowing deployment of the most familiar narrative patterns."

Flash forward. Was it so coincidental that around the time a lot of us kids got to graduating high school and being readied for adulthood, George Lucas re-released the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters? The appetite of Geekdom had been primed and ready for the new trilogy beginning in 1999, regardless of how bad The Phantom Menace was (Lucas' return is, perhaps, one of the worst movies I've ever seen; it points to how Godfather III may have been a disappointment, but was also a good movie; The Phantom Menace was simply dire). Peter Jackson further fed into it with The Lord of the Rings. Throughout that decade, the post-modern cultural reflexivity of Kevin Smith and South Park tickled many of us with nostalgic mirth, both often being very intelligent and prescient. I admit this is a subject that has perhaps exhausted itself. But the Geek Generation, stirred into consciousness by the Star Wars paradigm – which also was in its own way compliant with the death of the New Hollywood of the 1970s – was now back with a vengeance. The illusion of special effects became a part of everyday life, with virtual images gliding along our phones and laptops at every moment, avatars pinpointing our unconscious Force-driven personas. The things we adored as children were reinvented for us as adults: our Star Wars indulgences, extraterrestrials, comic book heroes, videogames, weekly television characters, cartoons (The Smurfs are around the corner), and finally, toys (Transformers, an immensely profitable trilogy now). Jesus Christ. Board games are next.

Maybe my own experience of J.J. Abrams' new film, Super 8, was tainted by how it was the first motion picture I viewed after luxuriating with Terrence Malick's own descent into youth, The Tree of Life, for about a week (not including two weeks following my first screening, where the images persisted in invading my mind). But now it is not the hidden attic or underwater bedrooms that existed before your awareness, or the enigma of a plesiosaur pondering its wound, pointing direction to the Self, but the mass market toys you bought and TV shows you watched. In Abrams' film, the television becomes a marker for Truth, after all, as the adolescent characters express their certainty of a disaster-movie moment (a hilariously hyperbolic train derailment) only after they see the wreckage on the news.

Before thinking about Super 8, maybe I'm reading Abrams all wrong. He is very clever, but perhaps he's also a master ironist and is making sly commentary on the form that embraces him as its new master (M. Night Shyamalan was once dubbed by Newsweek "The New Spielberg," but that hasn't turned out so well…) Super 8 expresses a deep love for movies in its Spielbergian nostalgia, and it will certainly prove a steady crowd pleaser and perhaps become the sleeper hit of the summer. Its successes are more in line with Richard Donner's film of Spielberg's production The Goonies than to the maestro's own E.T.
Super 8 is a work that, taken on its own terms, is fairly humble and structured to do nothing other than please (though, for my money The Goonies is still better). But it's that air of nostalgia, even so, that will unnecessarily elevate it for a lot of people, who is simulating their pasts will believe that they've seen, I'm predicting, the best film of 2011…which is kind of what Abrams wants. He's made a Goonies or Gremlins-caliber Spielberg production, but it's so lushly dressed up as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, particularly in how well it hones Vilmos Zsigmond's and Allan Davieu's cinematography respectively, that the artifice, with a perfectly structured plot that works like a screenwriting teacher's dream (again, mark the contrast with The Tree of Life, a screenwriting teacher's nightmare), will sing audiences in search of lost time to rapture.

All credit to Abrams, who is a masterful engineer and has learned well from his mentor in how to trigger effects within the public. If the enthrallment of Geekdom has met with subpar critical success in movies (where it still secures a lot of money), on television it has proved endurable. Abrams is maybe emblematic of the problem cinema faces when set alongside contemporary television. Abrams' own shows, such as Alias and Lost, have a devoted following linked to their quality, which its fans would say is equal to that of respectable moviemaking. Television is not a weekly escape or ritual in Abrams' TV universe. It ranks alongside shows such as The Sopranos, House, Mad Men, etc. It is something a viewer immerses in. Most people with Netflix accounts do not use it to watch old movies, but rather to be kept up to date with television shows…which keep on coming. Lost is roughly a 200-hour movie. And quality television is primarily plot driven, week after week, with a host of new writers and directors recycling familiar characters. Even if they are well developed, the element that primarily drives the viewer's interest, as in a soap opera or serial, is what happens. In this process, the viewer primarily coasts over the surface of water on a joyride – but rarely gets submerged in the ocean. The experience is rich in content only. And that's fine, for Abrams: it is handled frugally, efficiently, properly. And it generates revenue.

Abrams has been successful in applying his plot-driven material for movies, as a producer of gimmick-based curiosities like Cloverfield, and as a director, interestingly of other peoples' material: Mission: Impossible III, the wildly successful reboot of Star Trek (considered by some to be the best film of 2009), and now Super 8. And yet his childish enthusiasm might be a hindrance. Star Trek was well-done, even getting the long-forgotten camera glares in the photography of outer space, which had been missing for as long as Douglas Trumbell's been an old codger. But for me, the reflexive winking stifles the material from being anything more than a geek fan's wet dream. The soul is there, but it's still like one of Steven Spielberg's mechas from AI: Artificial Intelligence. It is close, but not quite Orga.

Super 8 is Abrams' own original screenplay, but it wants us to know that it is the lost Spielberg film that never happened, set in 1979-1980, as the decade turned over and one paradigm of cinema gave way to another, Raging Bull and Heaven's Gate being a coda while Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky II, and The Empire Strikes Back bespoke the traits of the new. It is a personal story, about a young filmmaker finding his voice among friends in suburban Ohio, emulating his heroes and the movies than inspired him (in this case, a zombie film). Abrams apparently grew up in the industry with his father, and apparently was also instrumental in shaping John Carpenter's cutting of Escape from New York during a test screening, with the successful elder filmmaker taking the adolescent's advice for shaping a scene. His finished zombie film got Spielberg's attention and he went to work for the maestro/mogul. Super 8 is a love-letter to Spielberg and to Abrams' youth (for many of us, the two – Spielberg and our youth – are synonymous), who is credited here as a producer and, for the first time in many years, has allowed his Amblin Entertainment logo (with Elliot and E.T. on their mythic bike-ride) to open the film. There's then something loving here, something about memories and linking the sentiment of memory to film (we see the word "Memories" at a film developing shop frequented by the boys).

We also see the master engineer understanding his craft, as when the director/writer of the zombie film, the obese character Charles (Riley Griffiths), mentions a new scene: he needs his zombie-hunting detective to have a scene with a wife, where she begs him to stay home and not go. Why? Because it will make the audience care for them. It's about "story," Charles says. "You feel for them so you don't want them to die." The characters are given soul and we are given involvement and a reason to be interested. The Abrams alter-ego, the makeup artist Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) is given reason for us to care about him, because he is grieving the death of his mother, who died in a tragic – and grisly – factory accident. His own dad, a police deputy (Kyle Chandler), is forced to become an active father and fill in the mother's gap, but wants to keep Joe away from his zombie-movie friends and enlist him in baseball camp. The kicker is that the actress Charles wants to cast as his detective-protagonist's wife is Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning), the daughter of the drunk indirectly responsible for the death of Joe's mom. There's thus friction between the two dads, while at the same time Alice is the girl of Joe's – and Charles' – dreams.

In other words, with the set-up, Abrams has given us a lot of plot devices connected to characters and how they feel for each other – which function to engage us dramatically. His movie can go full steam-ahead as long as he has the obligatory scenes that verbalize these emotions (such as fat-kid Charles voicing his resentful attraction of Alice to his best buddy…which really comes out of nowhere). And yet, I'm not sure that Abrams with his narrative smorgasbord gives us anything to chew on and richly ingest. It's all plot. It's television. It's simulation with the good and clever writing and one-liners of one of his shows. Indeed, this has much to recommend about Super 8. Like Spielberg's early films, the kids here talk as much like suburban pals growing up as can be put into a PG-13 movie (we even have an older character, the photo lab pothead in lust with Charles' sister – the hot one, mind you – drop the 'f' bomb). Spielberg's family films, even E.T., were not sanitized as too many are today (Elliot would never call someone a 'dickweed' in 2011; hell, the federal agents lost their guns in favor to walkie-talkies in 2002).

But I'm stuck on Charles, the director, talking to Joe about what makes us care about a character, and not wanting anyone to die. This, for me, hints to one of Super 8's weaknesses (if I'm not going to give it an ironic reading). For though we care about the kids, all of whom are well-grounded and do great work here, and maybe a couple of the adults like Joe's grieving pop, along with the comic relief of Charles' big and wealthy family, most everyone else lacks any depth here. The villains, government spooks trying to cover up the existence of an alien monster, are flavorless in their antagonism. One may allege a similar complaint about E.T., but those government scientists were not necessarily villains, and one of them (Peter Coyote) even has a certain kinship for Elliot ("I was just like you when I was your age."), and so they fit into the architecture of Spielberg's love song for loss in adolescence. We could say a major problem with big special effects movies is the hollow treatment afforded most secondary characters. They are docile bodies, disposed of conveniently, like the Enterprise crewmembers wearing red (I think it's red). Meanwhile, explosions and hurtling metal thrash everything everywhere in sharp shooting shapes – while the human body usually remains untouched. Abrams gives an example of this during many of his elaborate CGI disaster-movie set-ups, where the action is so hyperbolic that it must be experienced humorously (and so makes me wonder if there's more to Abrams' film than meets the eye). He begins his film with Joe's friends contemplating over the dead mother's coffin, their thoughts pertaining to the reality of her body. She was apparently flattened. Is there anything in there? If there is, what does it look like? The unseen, mangled remains are linked to the surviving son's mourning. For real people that we care about, bodies are real.

But what about people that we don't care about? The alien monster of Super 8 collects bodies and technological contraptions in constructing a spaceship to leave Earth – and its nourishment. We don't really care about anyone taken by the monster (aside from Alice, who becomes the object of desire that Joe and company have to heroically save). There is no emotional investment. I want to believe – and maybe this intuition is correct and so is redemptive of Abrams' otherwise middling effort – that Abrams is making a pointed commentary on how we interpret and care for characters. This reading is given some credence by how we may think about the monster, who is no E.T., either as a narrative/cinematic invention or as a cuddly projection of the hero's longing. The creature, pure fleshy plasticity in its CGI glory, seems to be an embodiment of cinematic visual wizardry. It is the technology of special effects cinema run amok, tainted and maladjusted, made hateful by how its handlers (the government spooks…or the faceless studio heads) have mishandled it. Only one character, a well-meaning scientist, understands the creature. Its thoughts and emotions have been linked to him since it grabbed him during laboratory research: "The moment we made contact, we understood each other….This creature is more sophisticated than any of us….We've turned him into an enemy."

One of the gifts of Spielbergian fantasy was how he manipulated us: in his special effects landscape of awe and sentiment, we felt exactly what he wanted us to feel, the grandest example being the connection between Elliot and E.T., where the alien watches a John Ford romance on the television, while at school Elliot re-enacts the passionate movie kiss that E.T. is looking at: Spielberg is E.T., touching us from a distance. Other examples would be the similar astonishments of the alien spacecraft at Devil's Tower in Close Encounters, or the Well of Souls in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which are ingenuous moments born by the director's team of visual effects consultants. But, as the ill-fated sheriff says to a gas station employee listening to his Walkman, technology is "a slippery slope." This is what has happened to movies in the Spielberg era, where CGI, though effectively handled now and then, has stolen away the real-space magic of stop-motion spectacle (Terrence Malick's hiring of the retired Douglas Trumbell for the special effects sequences in The Tree of Life testify to the older format's superiority; Malick's meagerly budgeted $32 million epic is far more beautiful than its $300 million brethren). Spielberg, producer of Michael Bay's Transformers trilogy, is certainly complicit in this sin, as a lot of Geekdom is. Can it be possible that Abrams is also issuing a critique of his idol, just as he is giving a glowing letter of adoration?

This is unresolved for me, but its question at least holds me off on declaring Super 8 a sometimes frivolously enjoyable failure. The CGI Special Effects Monster that was first met and nourished with the best intentions now simply eats people, disposing of pointless bodies without a context. In his sway, weapons fire on their own and there is no integrity to real spaces. Could Super 8's nostalgia for a Golden Age of special effects moviemaking be a longing for a time before Loud Noises were simply an Invasion of Spectacle? A replacement for the Real? Before life was experienced as a movie, a post-modern thought? The train wreck is called like "something out of a disaster movie" by one character, even though they actually lived it. The mourning for the loving mother goes back to a moment of human connection, and Joe remembers his mom while looking at home movies: "When she looked at me it was like I existed." There may be poetry yet in Super 8, in its dialectic of film and real life. Cinema can communicate this human warmth.

Unlike Spielberg's great works, however, though Abrams engages us, he still lacks the master's magic – that warmth. For me, a random meditation on E.T. makes me misty-eyed, it's so powerful. The disconnections in families dealing with lost time is real sentiment, and whether I love it (like Spielberg's best film, AI, where Stanley Kubrick's framework tempers Spielberg's infantilism to nuanced perfection) or dislike it (as in Hook), the filmmaker's emotional engineering for a wide spectrum of audience members is almost without peer (though I should note, AI – which absolutely overwhelms me – left a lot of people cold). Abrams has so embraced and alluded to his master that I even saw nods in Super 8 to Spielberg's best historical drama, 2005's controversial Munich, as the boys climb a restrictive fence, framed in exactly the same way Janusz Kaminski films Palestinian terrorists sneaking into the Israelis' hotel. Abrams goes for the gold with his own "iconoclastic" Spielbergian image, with the alien's spacecraft pulling up Joe's locket (with an image of his mother) with its gravitational force. He lets it go, like Elliot lets go of E.T. But though I felt more here than I did anywhere else (the scenes between Joe and Fanning's Alice simply made me roll my eyes; she is, like many young females in this paradigm of film, a very young agent of the hero's desire, and little else…though again, maybe this is irony, seeing as that's the purpose of her role in Charles' film….), it was not close to being in Spielberg's league. Even the goodbye to Gizmo in Gremlins had a lot more punch to it.

Is Super 8 only a simulation, like the boys' amusing zombie film? Is it nostalgia porn? Why cannot Abrams make a film for his own era? Or is this his Far From Heaven, recalling Todd Haynes' wonderful homage to Douglas Sirk from 2002? But Haynes' picture matched Sirk's 1950s repressed America in quality and emotional potency while also being strangely relevant to its own time, in the same way that David Lynch's Blue Velvet transcendentally surpassed its 1950s teen-movie inspirations. I'm predicting that Super 8 will be a major player in this year's Academy Awards race, though, meaning that its very attitude of nostalgia for a Golden Age – even if that Golden Age killed off what many see as the real Golden Age of movies – will win it more merit than it's worth.

Indulge my spoil-sporting snobbery when I propose that Super 8's bid to be the surprise sleeper hit of the summer has been usurped by the most unlikely of opposing forces, the 75-year-old Woody Allen, whose Midnight in Paris is the season's true achievement as summer escapism. Allen, like Abrams, is also longing for a lost "Golden Age," in this case the 1920s of Paris, imagined by the frustrated writer Gil (Owen Wilson), vacationing in the City of Lights with his spoiled – but tolerable because she's so attractive – girlfriend, Inez (Rachel McAdams). Inez and her conservative parents (Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy) are materialists who want to exist with all the convenience they can afford in the present moment; the historical richness of Paris means nothing to them, and they scoff at Gil's dreams to be a part of that history, being an artist in Paris and finishing his novel. They'd rather he'd just live in California and punch out screenplays…for what are essentially Spielbergian productions. Inez' interest is hijacked by a pretentious academic and former classmate (Michael Sheen), while Gil discovers a strange time portal. At a specific location at midnight, the 1920s trot by in an old car, and drunken passengers invite Gil to come along with them to parties where the guests are all dressed…oddly. Gil discovers that the man singing Cole Porter songs at the piano is…Cole Porter. And that the bipolar married couple introducing him to the other guests is…F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. He meets tough-talking Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, T.S. Eliot, and others. He finds himself in a sort of paradise that puts his present day in perspective: Inez is a hollow, sexually attractive person with irritating parents; she has absolutely no interest in his own interior life. Here is a place where his soul can dance in endless fascination.

But in the Golden Age, Gil discovers a receptive and beautiful socialite Adriana (Marion Cotillard), mistress and inspiration to Picasso and Hemingway, and fast-falling for Gil, who finds himself in a major dilemma of Time. Hilariously, he voices his predicament to…Dali, Man Ray, and Bunuel – the surrealists, who fail to see anything too outlandish about Gil's situation (though it would make for Bunuel a great film, for Man Ray a great photograph, and for Dali, a great rhinoceros). He even finds the present and past in perfect correlation, coming across Adriana's diaries at an antique shop, where she speaks glowingly of him and how she dreams that he will present her a gift of earings and make love to her. So…when he goes back into the past, he fulfills the details of her dreaming. He is also, meanwhile, able to be the Present in dialogue with the Past, trying to reassure Zelda that Scott really does love her – even though it's bad for him.

The problem- and Allen's ultimate theme – is that Adriana is also enamored with a lost Golden Age, the Belle Epoque Paris of the 1890's, where the decadent artists came together at the Moulin Rouge, and laid the groundwork for the modernism of Gil's Golden Age of the '20s. The time loops of nostalgia go back centuries (as an ill-fated detective, hired by Inez's suspicious father, discovers), and the Golden Age emerges as an illusory concept; the Belle Epoque artists, like Gaughin, comment on how their own generation is empty and has no imagination: they long to be a part of the Renaissance. People are the same, driven by the same jealousies, desires, and stupid things. The mask of Art, what is truly important in creating something that heeds a meaningless existence, simply changes. A beautiful aspect of Midnight in Paris, much like Allen's other great magical realist piece (and my favorite of his films) The Purple Rose of Cairo, is that there is no logic to the narrative. This is not "a dream" or an "invented story" within the larger framework of the narrative. These things are really happening to Gil, and Owen Wilson with his gee-gosh naivete, though critics have said that he is simply playing Woody Allen, is doing his best Owen Wilson yet. Midnight in Paris is the most genuine kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy, while simultaneously, laced with Allen's misanthropy (here very benign, as this movie is very mirthful and perhaps Allen's most likable movie in decades), is also frank about the delusions we construct for ourselves.

Allen is mindful of the schism between high art and fluffy escapism, and he winks at us while making a fluffy escapist film about high art. The opening montage of shots, detailing the rich historical sites around Paris, is a deliberate cliche, as is Gil's attitude about the old Paris vs. the present day. But as Gertrude Stein (a wonderfully droll Kathy Bates) notes, the job of the artist is to find an antidote for the despair in life's meaninglessness - while also, to take a word from Hemingway (Corey Stoll), it should be "honest." Gil's novel is about a "nostalgia shop" called Out of the Past, which sells antiques from long ago that dually retain a sense of magic with time, while also "camp." Yes, Paris is photographed as a cliche (camp), but it's a city - more than most others - where History and its richness is present on every corner. It stands opposed to the year 2011, of corporatism (the reason why Inez's right-wing father is working in Paris), shallow materialism, and a time where, as Gil puts it, "people measure out their lives with coke-spoons." Inez' parents talk about enjoying a "wonderful but forgetful" comedic movie, which "lacked any wit or believability, but we laughed in spite of ourselves." That's fine, I think Allen believes, but that something so forgetful is processed so easily, while Paris with its rich history is rejected just as easily by the same people, gets to the heart of his artistic yearning. Tiresome and pendantic fellows (like Michael Sheen's academic) are able to spew a lot about history, but they're not in dialogue with it; they lack a sympathetic relationship to it, and so exist just as selfishly in the present moment, estranged from a perspective. Gil's a dupe (a very lovable one), but he's like the Last Man, always talking with the Past and asking for its advice. For him, the figures of the Past are not relics to be treated as museum objects, but are living, and in spite of their own flaws, they can teach us. To Inez, they're just "dead people," but Gil answers for Allen, "You can fool me, but you can't fool Hemingway." There's something to that, transcending nostalgia camp, which I think bears some reasonable wonder, and is essential for whenever we go inside an old book or film, or wonder about a masterpiece painting. Art means nothing, indeed, unless we are creative readers/viewers, in sympathetic engagement and bridging the discussion with incidents or feelings from our own lives.

Midnight in Paris is, like Super 8, its own kind of frivolous good time, eschewing the deep emotions of The Purple Rose of Cairo (while having just as much wonderful humor – though Cairo is the only Allen film that brings a tear to my eye), and not even attempting to sail to the heights of Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, or the deliberate frustrations of his recent wonderful offerings, like Match Point and Vicki Cristina Barcelona. It is Woody Allen escapism, and it works in its breezy 88 minutes as the best of its kind in a dense summer market, nakedly addressing the theme of escape. The Geeks who love Super 8, and the critics who acclaim it for its "perfect" (too perfect for my liking) engineering in story, will probably not grow out of their love for infantile regressions. Allen too is more in love with the past than he is with the present, but he understands the trappings of such a disposition. Super 8 offers possible ironies which lead me to ponder, but Midnight in Paris sent me out of the theater with the same kind of affirming adulation that, well, I used to feel as a child after a Spielbergian fantasy.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Terrence Malick's Song of Himself V - The Tree of Life: Los Demiurgos

"How paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory...The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years."

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

"The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one."

James Joyce, Ulysses

"Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?...Bottomless indeed, if – and perhaps only if – the past we mean is the past merely of the life of mankind, that riddling essence of which our own normally unsatisfied and quite abnormally wretched existences form a part; whose mystery, of course, includes our own and is the alpha and omega of all our questions, lending burning immediacy to all we say, and significance to all our striving. For the deeper we sound, the further down into the lower world of the past we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its history and culture, reveal themselves unfathomable."

Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers

"Time is the transcendental horizon for the question of Being."

Martin Heidegger, Being and Time

With the rumblings and portents of world's end and apocalyptic speculation, The Tree of Life could not arrive at a more opportune moment. Granted, it does not dwell on the End as much as it does the Beginning, but it still shows glimpses of it, with a dead and barren Earth as the white dwarf sun overlooks. There is an intuition of Eternity set on desert shores, the waves rolling in the water being the same images we saw earlier in the picture, after the cataclysmic meteor fell to the planet and destroyed the previous Earth governors, the dinosaurs. In this end of the world, which repeats ad infinitum to beings innocent of its interruption to Hegelian Great Goals, there is marked staticity and acceptance: Calm. Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) walks on the Ice Age terrain, just as he will walk through the desert towards Eternity's ocean shores. We should say it is removed by millions of years, but it is not. Time is illusory, a veil, an accident. In the Agnus Dei, where the Lamb of God has redeemed the world and pulled beings out of the cycle of sin and suffering (like a Buddha finding Nirvana), there is then no movement. Only this calm. After the dinosaurs, so there are us. And after us--? Malick begins and ends his film with the same mysterious shape, the form of formlessness that conceives and concludes the world, prompting our human eyes to read human shapes into it, like a face behind a thin veil of fabric.

This enigmatic veil makes me think that The Tree of Life is ideally viewed as a loop, the same way that Joyce's Finnegans Wake is read. Joyce's novel begins at the "riverrun, past Eve and Adams, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs...", goes through Vico's four stages of history as laid out in The New Science, and winds up going back to the start, his final sentence being the beginning of the first one: "a way alone a last a loved a long the". Joyce's book was a dream, his book of the dark, of dream logic and sense (and so is often inscrutable), its characters archetypes and forces. In completing the book, the reader can choose to go back to page one and dream again, the fragments and their weaving a little clearer (though never entirely lucid), or you can step out, released from the cycle of suffering, fear, desire, joy, growth, and destruction. I personally see The Tree of Life's title to be a commentary on its own form, rather than a reference to any specific tree in the movie (there are much too many). Its resonance is abstract, crossing the synapses – or branches – of religions and scientific paradigms and human lives. The leaves of immediate experience link back, deeper and deeper, into the bottomless past, to the demiurge, the first fire. As expected in Malick, there is no straight dramatic development of the content, only rough fragments, leaving us to fill in the rest. They are impressions that gradually become more specific as Jack's child memory grows, which then once again becomes an impression or archetype, before waking up in the present, though the final destination is in how the viewer interprets Jack's/Malick's binaries and absorbs his images into a contemplation of one's own Beingness and the way one gazes and actively interprets the world. The last player in Malick's film is then the viewer, invited to gaze at the fragments and later on remember them. In my life, perhaps no other film has triggered my own personal memory recall in the way The Tree of Life has. And thinking about my own past while thinking about The Tree of Life in retrospect, so too do I necessarily think of how unlikely my Being is, and how unlikely the Being of all the other beings in my life is also, which only takes me back into my own contemplation of the deep past, the tale that Jack's younger brother, R.L., asks to be told: "Tell us a story from before we can remember."

To me there is little that is confusing about The Tree of Life, which is dually impenetrable as a personal reflection, confession, and requiem for a dead brother, just as it is, while burrowing into its roots, universal. Malick's images are very specific pictures of his own biographical childhood outside of Waco, Texas in the 1950s. As time goes on throughout his autobiographical portrait and we experience the dissonance of his own neuroses rooted in the Mother (Jessica Chastain) and the Father (Brad Pitt), we fall into our own groundlessness, removed from the Creation of the World, an 18-minute marvel of how our terrain and cosmic canvas was sculpted, accelerating fast and faster through 14 billion years of cosmic expansion, volcanic light and lava screaming, geysers smoking, unicellular organisms coming together in the first acts of compassion, fish freely swimming, and then more complicated creatures – dinosaurs – feeding and suffering in the befuddling chain of existence. We are then born and called forth from the ocean of time, which slows down and wraps us up in its groundlessness with resentments, jealousies, and desires. The Tree of Life is too sincere to be pretentious, and though many of us may scoff at one man's presumption to link his own biography to the origins of life, Malick is in fact calling out for us to do the same, and so to wonder about our Being, rather than just being-in-the-world, working day to day, reading internet articles, watching The Hangover Part II and Sex and the City, and drinking PBRs. The Tree of Life is Malick's "Song of Myself," recalling Whitman:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

In Whitman's exploration of his own self, which we shall assume with him and so get to the "origin of all poems," we meditate with our subjectivity, a gift of evolution where we can observe ourselves, arranging words and signs mentally to arrange Life, feeling sympathy and gratitude and thinking about impulses just as we still will often fall prey to them. Is it solipsistic? Megalomania? Ego inflation? New Age bullshit? And how are we defining God? The "You," which is in fact that feeling and sentient part of ourselves, which has been with us since memory stirred us awake, has been buried deep in the past and is recalled by puzzling memories from hidden bedrooms and attics. Thomas Mann was also wrestling with his brethren that had exiled him in the 1930s, and so wrote a series of books following the Biblical Joseph, Joseph and His Brothers, which naturally wonders about the subjective individual's relationship with God in all of His names, from the benevolent Elohim to the jealous Yahweh. Mann writes,

"But we must go on from here: for subjectivation does not mean subjection, nor esteem of self disesteem of others. It does not mean isolation or a callous disregard of the general, the exterior and suprapersonal; in short, of all that reaches beyond the self. On the contrary it therein solemnly recognizes itself. In other words, if piety is the being penetrated with the importance of the self, then worship is piety's extension and assimilation into the eternalness of being, which returns in it and wherein it recognizes itself. That is to depart from all singleness and limitation, yet with no violence to its own dignity, which it even enhances to the point of consecration."

In being subjective, we are recognizing portions of the self that are lost, very often, to impulses and immediate moments. We're finding ourselves in the same way Joseph is working his way back to his jealous brothers and loving, bereaved father, Jacob (whose ladder becomes a huge motif in The Tree of Life). Mann, Malick, and Whitman are all emulating a kind of transcendentalism seeking to change our ocular focus, and in subjectivity and our awareness of seeing and processing, so life is consecrated. This is why cinema is so important, because it calls attention to our seeing. As frustrated as many viewers may be with Malick and his new film in particular, he is deliberately calling our attention to the act of seeing and subsequent imaginative interpretations that follow, the rough brush-strokes of binaries meant to waver back and forth in our own dialectic during and after the experience. The film screen is a window and doorway through which we are invited to look at people that are strangers. They are fragments, like characters in a Biblical sermon, that become mirrors to which we explore our own lost time.

We may even be off-put and reject what we see: couples fighting, frogs and birds' nests being destroyed, implied masturbation after trespassing into a woman's house, and the temptation to kill a parent. Malick's child alter-ego, excellently played by Hunter McCracken, could be laughed off as a too-logical cause for the eccentric many people see Malick as being. He is not the warm and inviting youth of Spielberg childhood fantasy, who also must reconcile the move into adulthood with the childhood being left behind. Whereas Spielberg is always looking for the absent father, Malick's father is too present, an Eye of God, a Yahweh demanding devotion and jealous love. The child's cognitive dissonance for the father is a mixture of love with a hatred having something to do with the characteristics he also sees in himself. Jack narrates words to describe his father, strangely as Dad is being playful with the kids: "Tells lies. Makes up stories. Insults people. Doesn't care." The Mother is ethereal, almost too sweet and loving a portrait of the Eternal Feminine. With Jack's apparent erotic awakening, his shame is increased as the female objects of his desire are then too easily projected onto his biological mother. "I can't talk to you about it," he says about his shame and desires to her, the person whom he could probably tell everything to earlier. The appearance of the women attracting him evidences a kind of striving to get away from the mother, as they all have dark hair: the girl whom Jack likes at school; the neighbor woman whose bedroom he invades; his wife as an adult; the smartly dressed woman that he notices walking past him as he speaks on a cell phone. Significantly, we do not hear him utter a single word to any of these four women, just as he cannot talk to his own mother about his burgeoning – and illicit – adolescent desires.

Language is again an important issue here, and it is the manifestation of freedom or repression, whether it's imposed by parents or by oneself. Jack cannot speak about desire to his mother, something that comes from within himself, but his father controls language utterly, so as to fit a framework of which he approves. The father here recalls many other Malick characters: certainly Kit in Badlands (who tells Holly to replace the word "loneliness" with "solitude," because "it meant more what I intended to say."), and Col. Tall in The Thin Red Line, who does not have dialogue with his underlings, but believes that all he should do is command them. For Pitt's father, do not call him 'dad,' but 'Father.' He demands on being called 'sir.' He cannot be interrupted. He tells R.L. at one point at the dinner table, "Will you do me a favor? Do not speak unless you have something important to say," or to Jack, "Not one more word out of you." The way his children fight back, in his presence, is through disobeying his strictures of language. In the backyard while the father talks, Jack interrupts. "Don't interrupt!" Jack continues. "Don't interrupt!" "It's your house," Jack interrupts once more. "You can kick me out whenever you want," and then adds ominously, "You'd like to kill me." At the dinner table, briefly after the father instructed R.L. to limit his words to significant content, and while the father talks about an article regarding how important sitting posture is, R.L. interrupts: "Be quiet." "What did you say?!" He becomes physical (but we never see him brutally slap or physically abuse his children – it's control exerted through language and the definition of boundaries), grabbing R.L., then throwing an intruding Jack into a dark closet. Mother holds closely the frightened youngest child, Steve (who never seems to talk at all), pressing him to her chest. When the episode concludes and the mother stands over the sink with that familiar dissonant symphony of sounds from my own youth, of clanging dishes, running water, and overheated evening emotions, the father accuses her of turning his own children against him. Her rebuttal is physical instead of verbal, though it relates to how he uses language: she extends her hand to his mouth and says, "How do you like it?" before he swats it away and forces her into submission.

Everything about the Father has reference to rules, boundaries, limitations, and circumscriptions. The only thing that is limitless for him is how inadequate something can be. In the steel web of his work (which looks like an oil refinery), an environment of straight vertical and horizontal lines of grey and lifeless blue, he – wordlessly – taps his watch while passing by a hard-hatted worker, who nods. He is calling attention to the yard, drawing lines for his children to not cross. And of course he draws out a precise syntax for them to follow at dinner table discussion, of which he governs. That kind of verbal syntax finds parallel in both the linear directions for how one carves out a professional existence ("through fierce will" and adapting to "the world's trickery"), and exhibiting compassion (the way he instructs Jack and R.L. to give him a kiss and hug). Being a man who catalogues everything, the lines drawn up in binaries for the father are definite. For him, "the wrong people go hungry" and "the wrong people get loved," whereas I believe Terrence Malick, inspired by the mother, would believe that there are no "wrong people": no one should go hungry, and everyone should be loved.

Those steel-webbed walls of the father are juxtaposed to the freedom laid out by the mother, and indeed when dad is away on a business trip, all three children erupt in euphoria, another trait to which I can relate. With the mother, the three boys run freely through tall grass and listen to fantastical stories unrestricted by time ("Tell us a story from before we can remember") or probability (the anthropomorphic tales of Kipling). This contrast of circumscriptions colliding with freedom comes back to subjectivity, such an important theme for Malick, as it's in that activated subjectivity that Being is realized. Significantly, we overhear the father define "subjective" for them: "Subjective. It means in your own mind. It cannot be proven by other people." The expansiveness of Being and Self shuts down, obliterated by the label of fantasy and selfish imagination. The key conflict in The Thin Red Line was Witt's dialectic with Welsh, where one sees "another world," while the other only sees "this rock," where a man, by himself, is nothing. And yet for Witt, a man himself is the whole world, limitless. The Tree of Life takes subjectivity to a new level, as the mind of one man, in a reflective thought one present day afternoon, goes back to his youth and the source of regrets, disorder, and early sorrow. He digs into the well of the past, going back to, quite literally, the very beginning. His life is the whole cosmos, the center of the universe and the expanse of Time: the transcendent horizon for the question of Being.


The question of Being and subjectivity necessarily leads to a theory as to what the true structure of The Tree of Life is. I pointed out that the "tree" in question is the film itself, with its seeds, roots, trunk, branches, sticks (Jack himself is always wielding sticks, and so implying that this is his function in the tree), and leaves, all undergoing duress and change under the weight/wait of Time. That still does not satisfy questions of the narrative's trajectory: late 1960s Middle America in a house with many glass walls, where two parents mourn the loss of their son; contemporary Austin, where adult Jack, who lives in his own glass house where the occupants can go about without having to look at each other, is overwhelmed with meaningless language and groundlessness; a 14 billion year sequence – happening in 18 breathtaking minutes – where the universe ceaselessly evolves in a symphony of cycles showing destruction and birth; a child being born into the world and familiarizing himself with a home, in a sense that's almost magical; then slowing down into the fragmented, 90-minute 1950s impressionistic melodrama, as the weight of the world takes psychological tolls, and in the end seems to have a dialogue once more with the modern day; the impression of Eternity, where beings are at peace and reconciled, released from the cycle of death and suffering; and a coda, once more in the present day, the thought ending.

Much information in The Tree of Life is elliptical, left mysterious and demanding our own imaginations to take an active part (much like I believe that the whole narrative of Days of Heaven is Malick's own imagination running wild with photographs of human faces from a time far removed). This element in the film's architecture might madden some, and yet it is something that primarily enthralls me, compelling me to suffer and wonder with the enigmatic and mysterious Malick. The Tree of Life is most immediately a requiem for the dead brother, Larry Malick, a practicing guitarist who was compelled by his own sense of inadequacy to break his hands and kill himself after failing to become, as he must have seen it, a better guitar player. The feelings of inadequacy were implanted by the father's demands, which was misplaced love. "He used to hit himself in the face for no reason," the father mumbles during the mournful beginning. "Did I make him feel ashamed?" This man, after all, talks about Toscanini, who recorded a piece of music 65 times and said: "It could be better." Many critics have assumed that the death of the son, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), given the time, is related to the war in Vietnam, but I think we have to intuit through research that the actual death of Larry Malick is the place from where we start our contemplation on death, meaning, and the guilt of survivors (Malick's other brother, Chris, died in 2008 at the age of 60; both of his parents, Emil and Irene, are still alive). In the present day, it is implied that before the day began Jack said some hurtful words to his father about R.L., dead all these years. The shame of saying hurtful words – from "you're fat" to "your bad parenting resulted in my brother killing himself" and everything in-between – to people close to us is something harder to run away from than would be expedient, even if we are objectively correct, because so often our own harshness points a mirror to ourselves and our own insecurities, and so nurtures our own self-loathing. Jack is haunted by the realization that he is more like his father than he would like, something that in Peter Biskind's 1998 Vanity Fair article on Malick, implies that this may be something that irritates the director. Talking on a cell phone while in an elevator going up, Jack apologizes to his father "for saying what I said," adding, "Yeah, I think about him every day." The whole film is a meditation brought about by whatever he said to his father, an endless free-floating association of memory climaxing in his reconciliation with the father. "I'm just as bad as you," he tells his dad in the 1950s, though in actuality I think we should interpret this scene as the present talking to the past. "I'm more like you than like her."

We cannot leave alone the question of R.L.'s death, though. It's much more significant if it is a suicide instead of a random death in military combat, because rather than incidental death (such as we see throughout The Thin Red Line), it is purposeful death acting in rebellion to the sorrow and meaninglessness of existence. (* - I should still clarify that we don't know how R.L. dies; and the way the mournful prelude flows is deliberately reminiscent of Walt Whitman's poem, "Come Up from the Fields Father," which is about a mother reading news from the Civil War front). The question of suicide, Camus reminds us, is the most important one we face. And though we may distract ourselves enough from it with day-to-day distractions, hopes, and glimmers of beauty, perhaps falling prey to it is to succumb to despair's truths. Nietzsche pointed out how the prospect of suicide actually acted as a comfort, getting one through many a terrible night. It's always there, and no matter how bad life got, it remained a viable option of escape. I think Jack's memory of R.L., his playmate and companion in growing up, coupled with the reality of suicide, provokes his own existential quandaries, just as Larry Malick's suicide is a ghost haunting all of Malick's thoughts on meaning in his films. Suicide is a choice wrought with an ego's tortured despair that wants escape from the shackles of the flesh's imprisonment, where it is susceptible to feeling. Kit in Badlands is not necessarily suicidal as a depressive individual, and neither is Witt in The Thin Red Line. But their destinies, along with the Farmer in Days of Heaven and John Smith or Pocahontas in The New World, point to a lingering wonderment of the individual taking one's fate in their hands. In Badlands (where we see Holly look at two boys outside her window - and I can't help but think Malick is imagining himself and his brother), Kit wants to be caught and so be an important person who finally gets attention and his own sense of permanence. More compelling is the Farmer in Days of Heaven, a melancholy individual (note how the Farmer is more like R.L., whereas Bill is certainly the earthier Jack) who knows that he is dying, could be said to walk into his death by Bill's screwdriver: in his torment and jealousy, he wants death and chooses it as something that he in truth belongs to. In The Thin Red Line, Witt wonders about death and immortality, but also recognizes that he's a part of Charlie Company and is a soldier. He gives himself as a sacrifice to the platoon, leading the Japanese on the wrong path, but also raises his rifle and is shot down when he could have just as well dropped his gun and surrendered (and the Japanese soldier apparently is telling him that he does not want to shoot him). Pocahontas leads a gloomy life of resignation after Smith lies to her about his death. She functionally erases herself as Pocahontas and becomes Rebecca, a ghost of her former self.

The suicide is an individual we see contemplating his wounds, and then being overwhelmed by them. The death of R.L. drives the heart of The Tree of Life's opening moments, as the mother talks about her youth and we see warm images of a rural landscape, her father holding her tight and animals – lambs and cows – being fed by her. John Tavener's Funeral Canticle plays as she says, "When I was young the nuns taught us there are two ways through life. The way of Nature. And the way of Grace. You have to choose which path you'll take." And what is Grace? "It accepts all things. It does not mind being slighted, forgotten, disliked, insults, or injuries." Nature, on the other hand, "only wants to please itself," much like the world described by Tall in The Thin Red Line. It "finds reasons to be unhappy" and wants to lord over others, have its own way, and finds things to dislike when all else around them is shining with "the Glory," as Malick calls it here and earlier in The Thin Red Line. There is bliss in these opening moments, as we see the O'Brien family together: father (Nature) at the garden, mother (Grace) on the swing set, and the three children climbing a ladder and rope on a large tree. But things turn. Malick's camera lingers for a second on that swinging rope, and mother's voice says, "No one who follows the way of Grace ever comes to a bad end."

And yet it's implied that R.L., who is associated with the Mother as Jack is akin to the Father, will indeed come to a bad end – the ugliest, where life so ate him up that he ended it, cutting himself off from it completely. Malick cuts to another house a decade later, where the mother gets a Western Union telegram with the bad news. The Funeral Canticle music goes to silence and she crumbles on the floor with a loud cry that cuts to an airplane engine (one of the most ingenious cuts in this film, which is not only one of the best exhibitions of cinematography I've ever experienced, but also film and sound editing). The father is on the phone. We cannot hear what he says or hears as he's framed in close-up (like Michael Mann in recent films, Malick is using the close-up in marvelous – and almost dissonant – abundance, further accentuating that juxtaposition of the micro and macrocosmic). Francesco Lupica's Cosmic Beam thunders on the soundtrack, drowning out all other sound completely, as the father is left alone with the space within himself.

The mother's voice drifts in as a prayer of mourning to God, Mahler's Symphony No. 1 (which has a funeral march in its third movement for "Frere Jacques" – referring to the death of a brother), the camera floating over R.L.'s room: paints and the conspicuous guitar we will see him play throughout the film, his inadequacy in mastering it the cause of his death. "I will fear no evil," her voice says, but then there is an opposition: "What did You gain?" The prayer is not acceptance, but a plea for it: "My Hope. My God. My Son." It's a meditation upset by a grieving parent's great question. "Why did You take him?" The boys' grandmother (Fiona Shaw) knows that she cannot give satisfactory answers. "Time heals, nothing stays the same…The Lord gives and takes away. That's His nature." The Father's own shame results in a confused walk underneath trees, a stark contrast to the well kept suburban lawn. He stumbles forth, lost and confused, much like McCron and Bell in The Thin Red Line, the Farmer in Days of Heaven, and Pocahontas in The New World.

Years later, the blur of technological modernity glides as an abstraction on the screen, confused and blurry. Jack wakes up in his sterile but ornately constructed house. Nature surrounds it outside, but the walls are too neatly dressed and arranged inside. His dark-haired wife sits on the opposite side of the bed. They share no words, each preparing for the day by walking linear paths that seem to purposefully avoid each other. The only time she looks at him is when he lights a blue candle and stares into the light, an image that will be echoed later on when his father does the same at church (and will end the 90-minute family melodrama, zooming out from the candle just as it now zooms in). The Fire in Malick, in all of its manifestations – whether it is natural or electric and man-made – is the eternal fire of consciousness and Self, the activating element of Pure Being. We should recall Witt and his spark in The Thin Red Line, and how we are each individually like "coal drawn from the fire," or Bell, who relates "the flame in us" to Love. During Jack's own childhood erotic activation, as he gazes longingly at a dark-haired, dark-complexioned classmate, the two words given by the teacher for the spelling test are, very significantly, "Volcano" and "Socket," two images that are predominantly figured in this picture and both being references to Light and Creation.

In his modern day world, Jack finds a greedy world "gone to the dogs." Words are everywhere, but they are meaningless. An architect, he is also an activating Creator, and Malick makes us wonder about creation in all of its forms here in downtown Houston (or Dallas?) as both interiors (like elevators) and exteriors (looking up at the great skyscrapers) are photographed with wide angle lenses. It's streamlined to perfection, beautiful in its own way (again, like in Michael Mann, who is also a kind of cinematic American transcendentalist, albeit a more pessimistic one than Malick), but also denotes disconnection between beings, groundlessness, greed, and estrangement from anything Eternal: it is merely an omnipresent Now of isolated moments, just as it is filled with isolated words and isolated people. Beings are imprisoned by Time. The biblical connotation is to the Tower of Babel, where architectural genius elevated humankind to the height of God, but resulted in a confusion of language. Jack is struggling through this disconnect. On a cell phone, he tells someone, "When you're young you're only focused on your career," a beautiful, smartly dressed, dark-haired woman passing him by, reflexively making him do a double take (which finds echo in how he voyeuristically gazes women later on, just as he avoids their gazes, like with his wife, or turning his head away from his classmate who looks back, or in his shame telling his mother, "Don't look at me.") He adds that he feels like he's "running into walls," the camera arcing up to a huge transparent wall: a window. Indeed, everything is transparent in Malick's film world here, the mystery of framed cinematic gazing into private spaces eliminated. The private is reduced in favor of the well-dressed social behavior of businessmen. He is existing as a doubly bound individual: his interior voice floating, while in social conversation with his co-workers and bosses. Like in Babel, words go nowhere. A coworker (played by Malick's stepson, Will Wallace), tells him about a girlfriend who wants to get back together. "Chapter's done, books' closed," the coworker says. "What are you going to do?" Jack asks. "Experiment," the coworker answers. People are closed off while transparent. Selfishness is almost mandated and normal. Maybe Jack's father was entirely correct about how "the world lives by trickery," and a rich man is "like the fourth person in the Holy Trinity." Outside in the concrete sculptures of man's own ingenious creations of urban sprawl (which necessarily call to mind man and God's relationship and the Book of Job), there is room for only a few trees, planted and arranged neatly.

Woven throughout this segment are pictures from Jack's interior journey, his hand on a desert wall, his shadow: his awareness of Being, and struggle to identify with Ground Concepts. In this urban environment, all is being-in-the-world, which conceals Being, or "the Glory." We see short fragments of the Shores of Eternity, shadows photographed upside down, as if to visually communicate phenomenology leading to the Self's realization. "How did You come to me? In what shape? What disguise?" he's asking. "What are You thinking?" He has to ask these childlike questions of a forgotten self from before he can remember, as though God only made his appearance known through personae or masks (and we will see one such mask floating through Eternity's shores near the end of the film), which also ties into Train's question, "Who are You that live in all these many forms? Your death that captures all, You too are the source of all that's going to be born."

Jack's mind – that of an architect – is building its own necessary bridge between the Office and the Shores, between the immediate and the Timeless, between the Beginning and the End, between the Objective and the Subjective, Nature and Grace, the Father and the Mother. Everything is encapsulated in the demiurge, the God stuff of the big bang. The river's edge where he plays with his brothers is the same river's edge where dinosaurs enacted their own unconscious and wordless dramas. The shores of Eternity, where he is reunited with his brother and his mother's grief is relieved, is where a mortally wounded plesiosaur contemplates the gash on its side.

Interpreted, the plesiosaur has two major references regarding the great dialectic of The Tree of Life. It might primarily recall the way of Nature, in being seen as a reference to Leviathan, the sea monster from the Book of Job, chapter 41. Philosophically, Leviathan's presence carries a dimension associating it with Nature in how the name was adopted by the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes for his book on political systems, Leviathan (1651). Hobbes' view of Nature and civilization was a bleak one, where beings are each individual units in a machine, and they are driven primarily by their selfish impulses, "the appetites" and "aversion." The Father could be seen as Hobbes' Leviathan, the governing monarch whose strict boundaries are necessary for controlling things, which would otherwise run out of control and simply make war on itself and everything; the Hobbesian view also points to R.L., the individual beaten by life and thrown by the wayside on the natural chopping block.

But through the prism of Grace, the plesiosaur could be seen as a Christ reference – the lapis or Fish, an archetype of the deep unconscious (the ocean) with a gash on its side (like Christ crucified). In alchemy, the Fish is associated with Christ, and in Arthurian romance with the Fisher King, keeper of the Holy Grail. Finally, R.L., the suicide, is linked with Christ (who also, essentially, chose death) when at church he looks up at the stain-glass image of Jesus, his hands bounded, relating not only to Malick's recurring motifs of boundaries and cages that impede freedom, but also the hands his brother broke. At the end of the 1950s melodrama, as the family moves house because the father has to transfer for his work, we see quiet R.L. in the backyard underneath the tree with its ladder (Jacob's ladder, naturally, again often associated in mythological frameworks with the Tree of Life), his brother looking over him, burying personal objects. On top of everything is a dead pet fish that he covers with a neatly wrapped cloth. At the end of the film, Jack finds R.L., his younger self, his mother, her younger self, his father, his other brother Steve (Tye Sheridan), his friend with a badly burned head, and countless other strangers going through similar reunions, on that same beach where the plesiosaur/Christ was suffering. Cut into the sequence and accompanied by the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God – Christ – who takes away the sins of the world) music from Berlioz's Requiem are more bizarre and enigmatic images: a desert town (in Israel?) where two corpses are wrapped in cloth - like the fish - in a custom that I believe is according to Jewish tradition. Malick also cuts to crypts where beautiful Sleeping Beauties (something evoked earlier in the film) resurrect. The apocalypse has happened, as Earth is now dead and the sun going out, but this is not Judgment Day. It is resurrection and calm forgiveness. More images of Jacob's Ladder (to Heaven), along with a bridge that seems to lead into the sky (which we spot a couple times in the film), take Jack through his spiritual education. He has imagined his own Genesis, Exodus, Ecclesiastes, Job, New Testament, and final Revelation. Richard Brody, in his New Yorker blog on The Tree of Life, sews up the Israel references (these are mythological references, mind you, not geopolitical ones) - and so allusions to Jacob - while pointing out that when the mother twirls the young Jack around in circles and points at the sky, saying, "God lives there," the music that soon erupts is Smetana's "Ma Vlast" or "The Moldau" – from which Israel derives its own national anthem. The myths cross branches into our humble lives, the processes of death, birth, suffering, and joy all present at once. The epiphany - perhaps only grasped for a slight instant - is the very miracle of Being, and the paradox of one's insignificance with Glory.

Many viewers might then well be turned off by how Malick approaches God, but his film is not a testament as to whether or not a supernatural Supreme Being exists (like Whitman, "the ineffable remains.") God is that You within, after all. Unlike a lot of modernists, Malick harbors little resentment for his religious upbringing, and for him religion is a term that he takes for its literal meaning in the Latin root, relgio, which means "linking back." This myth that takes its form through Nature is the song of himself, of his brother, of his mother, and of his father, and likewise we too live out our own myths on a day-by-day, year-by-year, decade-by-decade basis, if we subjectively "link back," as does Mann's Joseph, for example, or Joyce's Bloom and Stephen, or the mysterious dream characters in Finnegans Wake. The Past is a reformulation and reflection set in the present, and this is interesting in noting the Christ references and linking them to Job, and so to the harsh Father and the release of forgiveness in Agnus Dei. Jung's Answer to Job – at least what I can make out from it – examines the Book of Job as something that forced God to confront His own reflection, which would consequently result in His change of heart and attitude of forgiveness and selflessness, manifested in Jesus, who Himself, to be theologically correct, crosses between pairs of opposites and binaries, not being Half-Man and Half-God, but is All-Man and All-God, a contradiction that accepts, like Whitman, that it contradicts itself in its multitudes: "I and this mystery, here we stand." For Jack, the mercy of his suicidal brother (who chooses not to take the option of revenge on Jack, even after Jack had betrayed R.L.'s trust and shot his finger – such an important tool for him – with a bee-bee gun) and grace of his mother, are the two things, so we learn in the film's opening whispers, that brought the subject (in this case, Jack) "to Your door." "Find me," Jack's younger self whispers to the older Jack, standing on the shores. We see his shadow, his 12-year-old gaze on his own feet walking. "Forgot You…How did I lose You?" Is he talking about God? The Eternal sense of Being? His brother? His younger Self? Most likely, he is referring to all of those things. Would Jack be wrestling with his sense of Being-ness had his brother not died? Is the glory born of a felix culpa, a Happy Fall? The grisly bondage of the crucifixion opens the way to the Resurrection, and once more there is symmetry between R.L. and Christ, joy and suffering.


The opening quote of the picture is Job 38: 4,7: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?....When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" Malick's film may be accused of self-importance, but it is sincere in its questions and images, which will chime so harshly in a movie theater surrounded by trash, Cadillac commercials, and comic book franchises. Few films awe as much as this one, and the receptive viewer may even be moved to tears of awe while watching the creation of the world, scored to "Lacrimosa 2" from Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for the great Polish director, Kryztoff Kieslowski. In a film layered with death music, is it ironic that in the beginning of all things we are given the part of the requiem – the lacrimosa – that classically has the function of making us cry and reaching catharsis? While at the end, following the obliteration of the planet as souls are imagined in peace and atonement on Eternity's shores, we are curiously unmoved? The Agnus Dei having taken us out of the realm of feeling, and instead of being overwhelmed with emotion we are curiously gazing, as Jack is, and the accidents and erosions of life are made pristine and new (the mother is seen kissing an elderly hand – perhaps her own present day self – which becomes young). Creation mourns and it is harshly laying its base on death. Volcanic lava collides with rocks, and it is impossible not to read into those rocks suffering human faces.

The world, in Jack's subjective imagination, the all-encompassing You, is then completely anthropomorphized: The God of Job is certainly an all-too-human divinity when compared to His Eastern counterparts. Malick's original screenplay for The Tree of Life, titled Q, began with a sleeping God in the ocean, a fish swimming in his nostril – and so almost marrying myths of Vishnu, Poseidon, and the fish of Christianity – as he dreams up the universe. This is no longer literalized in The Tree of Life, but visual references for all three mythologies remain and sing together through Darwin's magnificent libretto. The natural world is colored in religion, the human interpretation of nature's forces. Do dinosaurs contemplate their wounds? Do dinosaurs exhibit compassion? Indeed, we see a velociraptor stalk through that riverside where Jack and his brothers will play, millions of years later, and place its foot on a sleeping – or maybe dying – herbivorous species of duck-billed dinosaur. Spielberg and Lucas – beyond in conditioning us what to feel in family melodrama – have also conditioned us what to expect in CGI dinosaurs. And yet Malick changes things. The raptor releases its foot and goes elsewhere. I don't believe this is an active form of compassion. It's random. Maybe the raptor just was not hungry. But more likely is that this episode is, again, created by Jack in his imagination. It finds echoes later on, when he passes by his father who is fixing a car, and understands that all he has to do is pull a wrench, and the father would be crushed to death (this moment might strike people as being morbid and unnatural, but I think rather that such contemplations are natural for children), or when he offers a wooden block to R.L. "You can hit me if you want," he says, remorseful of how he shot his brother. R.L. makes like he is about to hit Jack, but smiles and pulls it back.

The boys have been brought up by their mother to read themselves in nature. There is a storybook about rabbits in human clothing, and again there is Kipling's Jungle Books, in this case the story of Ka, the rock python, and his skin – which is not a coincidence, being that the snake, much like the fish, is another alchemical Christ reference, shedding its skin, its mask, which is then dying and being born again, ceaselessly in a cycle of death and rebirth. Reptiles certainly have a special place for Malick, who began The Thin Red Line with the fearful – and sublime – salt water crocodile, the relic from the dinosaur age. Here, in addition to the actual dinosaurs, we have snakes, lizards (used to frighten the mother when dad is away), and cousins to the reptiles/dinosaurs, seen in Malick's expected abundance of birds and amphibians (frogs). As a toddler, Jack's mother has him play with some wooden blocks of crocodilians: "Two alligators." The blocks are later used as a weapon when a jealous toddler Jack throws one at the infant R.L. While exploring the grassy land, one of the boys takes a grasshopper and offers it as food to a dog (who declines), and then Jack finds a dinosaur bone. This alludes to both timelessness and historical echoes, in addition to the consuming, self-pleasing and impulse-driven character of Nature, which is certainly seen in children ("Mine!" toddler Jack says, taking a bit of cake from his grandmother). In any case, as that wordless world looks back – or does not look back at us – we make it more like us: dogs, cats, reptiles, grasshoppers, rabbits, trees, etc., just as the Mother asks under the weeping willows (which weep only in how we have projected a definition onto them), "Lord? Why? Where were You?" During the Darwinian sequence, we see a fetus' heart beating fast (presumably a dinosaur), and the mother's voice says, "My hope. My child."

The most tender and evocative sequence of the film is that which follows Jack's birth up through his adolescence, which plays like a dream in making us wonder about how our consciousness comes around to recognizing itself, like in a mirror. The sequence begins symbolically, but the abstractions are not forced. Their strength, in fact, is felt by me in how they seem to recall my own memories before I was aware of who I was: a child's room under water, lakeside environments with tender figures whispering things in my ear. The children are shooed forth, Malick's camera moving in on a cave with a monster's face. We should ask ourselves: what the hell is this? The same way Joyce puts allusive strands in his writing, so too does Malick in his film. This cave is the Door to Hell, located in Bomarzo, Italy's Park of the Monsters, a Renaissance sculpture garden created by Pier Francesco Orsini, a creative ground that was, much like The Tree of Life, designed to astonish more than to please. Paradise, Earth, and Hell are then all commingling in Malick's world. To enter Life is to enter Hell, and yet the moment is filmed and felt with such lushness and tranquility that we feel like we are being birthed into an earthly paradise. The Door to Hell is a Hell-Mouth, an archetype in Christian mythology which also, interestingly, corresponds to the Leviathan from Job (the Leviathan's jaws are often referred to as the jaws of Hell), then tying this image up all the more with the paradoxical image of the Plesiosaur and the dual nature of God. Jack's quest, like everyone's quest in the struggle for realizing Being, is to find this place before Time began, "before we can remember." There is magic in these early years, like a chair moving by itself, the mother floating on air, and then the mysterious stairs leading to a dark attic, where a coffin seems to lay in front of the window, another uncanny memory I have.

The hidden room of the attic haunts the conscious section of the film, where adolescent Jack exhibits small rebellions and feels natural states of dissonance with his father and mother. We're never sure that it is a coffin – I can only presume, being that this is a film about death and resurrection, and the attic seems to exist as a room in Jack's unconscious where his youth is hidden. Later in the film, he remembers his younger, maybe 6-year-old self, riding on a tricycle in circles in the attic, a tall man whispering something in his ear and pointing. Who is the tall man? Is it the pastor of Jack's church, who tells the story of Job, reminding his congregation how God gives and takes away, regardless of who deserves it or not? Or, as I first thought, is it the crippled man who passes by both Jack and R.L. after they have amused themselves by acting out the silly walks of the town folk around them? I'm not certain, but the cripple appears as a kind of portent for how life is unfair and cruel, and how nature is imperfect - but also moves beings to pity. As the boys look back, we can wonder if they are driven by morbid curiosity or a deep-seated element of pity, a trait their mother demonstrates by giving some shackled prisoners (bank robbers?) water., much like Pocahontas in The New World. In reference to the shackled men, one of the boys ask, "Can it happen to anybody?" The mother has tried hard to keep the ugliness of life away from her children, which we first see as she puts her hand over the toddler Jack's face as a man is having a seizure on the O'Briens' lawn. The criminals are not given words, but Malick films them in imposing and looming wide-angle close-ups, casting actors with faces to remember. Their grave expressions haunt Jack and R.L. They are living ghosts.

In these memories, we see the struggle in Jack's heart. Roger Ebert called The Tree of Life a prayer, a meditation, and he is right. Like a prayer, its words ("Love everything") are more like mantras than didactic commands, for which we can hopefully take to heart in grappling with our impulses that imprison us. Orson Welles commented on how the two things that are hardest to film are sex and prayer, but Malick certainly accomplishes the latter with a kind of honesty and sincerity that is unprecedented. Young Jack prays at his bedside, but the tormenting thing any believing child understands about prayer is how they are words, verbal signs of ideals, and so removed from action. It recalls Claudius' lament in Hamlet: "Words without thoughts never to heaven go." Jack wants to be good and says so. "Help me to be good. Help me to be brave. Help me not to get dogs in fights. Help me not to tell lies." These are choices, aren't they? So why do we pray? Why don't we just choose to act certain ways? It's the conflict of flesh and spirit. One of the more beguiling lines of dialogue in The Tree of Life occurs when Jack, trying to exert rebellion to his mother, says to her, "What I want to do I can't do. I do what I hate." Again, Malick has inserted an allusion here, in this case St. Paul. It is from Romans 7:15, which says, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." Paul is talking about the division between spiritual ideals of acting good, and yet how one nevertheless is still driven by carnal appetites, and as such, really imprisoned by flesh. This is Malick's Gnostic sensibility, dealing with the binary of Mind/Soul and Body, where the body is a cage (we know, however, that Malick is like Whitman in seeing the Body and Soul as one, but nevertheless the binary is there, and is necessarily wrestled with). In St. Paul, we see an inflection of Nature and Grace in conflict.

And under the duress of peer pressure, for example, Jack does terrible things. He vandalizes old houses ("I say let's break it," his friend with a toy revolver says), throws firecrackers in a bird's nest with unhatched eggs, and takes a frog and ties it to a firecracker that is launched in the air. These are things that I suppose a lot of young people do. I still remember the glee I felt as a Boy Scout, about Jack's age, in working with my friends to desecrate a pop machine at a campsite. One of the fathers joined us later on, long after we'd damaged the thing the most we could, and said, "It's terrible what people do." And I'll admit that as we nodded along with him, I felt ashamed. With the same friends, we would – again, with delight – throw live crayfish into a burning fire, or boil frogs and toads alive, or chuck them like baseballs into the woods and water (I once wrote a short story where some Boy Scouts take one such unfortunate amphibian, and tie it up on two sticks so as to form a cross; the Frog Christ is then burned alive in the fire, its "eye popping with a juicy snap.") And again, in retrospect as the ego catches up with where my delightful impulses went, there's a sense of shame and regret. It's totally at odds with that concentrating side of one's self, kneeling at a bed, and praying, "Help me be good."

The most disturbing sequence in The Tree of Life is probably the scene following Jack into an attractive neighbor woman's house. Her door is unlocked. He invades the space, finally on the other side of the frame (before, he was always peering through those windows and doorways). He sees the window curtains blowing above air vents: this is the house belonging to the family that Jack's father envies and resents, who can evidently afford air conditioning, in addition to a pristine lawn. Jack passes through a hallway (where we see a birdcage in a room) and then enters the woman's dressing room. He looks at a mirror and holds her earrings. We are seeing a young Terrence Malick's fascination with and absorption by strange ornaments and objects, which finds its ultimate release in the woman's slip. Jack takes it out of a drawer and lays it on the bed, staring at it, imagining. Malick does not show us what Jack does next, but I think it is possible that we should believe that he has masturbated over the slip. He is, after all, at that age, and the shame that he feels later in his mother's presence, I do not believe, could be from simply stealing the garment. The close-up on his face as he intensely gazes at the slip cuts to him running in a sweat by the riverside with the slip. At first he hides it beneath a piece of wood. But then he lets it flow down the river. He goes home and cannot look at his mother or talk to her. The feminine ideal and attachment has been transmuted to the flowing River of Life.

I can certainly not be sure, but this moment in young Jack's life, which is so dissonant for viewers to watch (indeed, it may steer us away from identifying with the film instead of becoming closer to Jack), is a confession for Malick, and something that he actually did, just as I believe the bee-bee gun incident is something drawn from his youth, or the more graceful moments, like the content of his prayers. Malick seems to sum up the unutterable sense of adolescent shame when it first rears its head and inflicts its boundaries on a child, fencing one down a path to so correct them and root them away from the ground. The Catholic Scorsese also deals with shame and guilt, but not with adolescents, when it first becomes an issue (though we see it implanted, perhaps, with young Howard Hughes and his maternally imposed "Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E" in The Aviator). We should also remember that Jack believes he's always being watched by God. Before he commits his sins, he prays, "Are You there? What are You? I want to see what You see." It's as if his contemplation of the God's-Eye-View was Malick's primer for film school, just as it was his realization of innocence slipping away.

Indeed, the dissonant chords of the family melodrama in The Tree of Life threaten to uproot us entirely away from the Glory of the film's preternatural beginnings. Jack becomes increasingly absorbed in his own earthy, fleshy self, pushing away from his mother and hating his father. This changes when the father loses his job and walks home, his shoulders hunched down, his pants noticeably up too high on his ankles. He is a broken man for whom nothing has worked out. He believed in "fierce will," believed in the division between individuals, and worked to implant a sense of distrust and resentment in his children. Instead of sharing in the Great Idea, he patents his inventions, fostering "the ownership of ideas" just as he creates boundaries in language, space, and time (and yes, an internet search can reveal that Emil Malick has several patents online). He admits that he's missed "the Glory," which was always there, as it was for Witt and Pocahontas, though like John Smith, he's "sailed past" it in his devotion to social ideals. The garden and yard he's spent so much time on, and yet has never been able to have satisfactorily, is in worse shape than it was a decade before, and now he has to leave it, taking a job no one else wants. Losing track of that Glory, his life has slipped by as a series of disappointments. I should take a moment to praise Brad Pitt's performance here. This is no Great Santini, or an expected picture of the loving but all-too-harsh father. He's a little misguided, but Mr. O'Brien is still awfully tender and loving: he is not a bad father, but like a lot of fathers his preparation for his children results too often in their feelings of inadequacy. Mr. O'Brien's afraid. And maybe his aggression or need to impose his will elsewhere is an interior reaction to how he is naturally more compassionate than he is fierce. What Jack hates in his father and wants to kill are those things that he has still not recognized in himself. "I'm more like you than her," he tells his dad. "My sweet boy," the father replies. This may be the climax of the film, where the present, in dialogue with the past (I do not believe this exchange literally happened), is reconciled to its roots.

Malick brings us back to the present where Jack's elevator keeps on ascending, climaxing in the resurrection of beautiful corpses and the notorious Shores of Eternity, where the mother accepts R.L.'s death and gives her boy to God. This sequence is not a literal afterlife, but a subjective impression of it. It is the release from suffering and death that taunts beings in the disharmony of existence. We notice that the waves here are those same waves (of Poseidon?) resulting from the meteor crash that gave us the apocalyptic ice age (and where Jack similarly tread through tundra as he now walks through desert, looking for God). Back in the present moment, as Jack can afford a smile, I do not necessarily think that we are still close to him, or if we are even meant to. The Shores of Eternity function as an exercise of his sympathy for the two individuals who led him to God's Door, R.L. and the Mother, the two figures in his life who exhibited Grace.

The ending of The Tree of Life, if it's a resolution, may be fleeting, and like Thomas Buddenbrook reading Schopenhauer, Jack's reconciliation with life may be a short-lived moment. The television set at Jack's house seems to be evidence that we are in the present day of 2008 (when it was filmed), but it has been pointed out that Penn is too young to be Jack – 12 years old in the mid-1950s – in the present day. Bringing The Tree of Life back to its autobiographical dimension, regardless of continuity errors (which editor Billy Weber admits that Malick doesn't care about), I like to think of Jack's present day disposition to be the Malick of the mid-1990s, away and estranged from his Muse for nearly 20 years, in unhealthy relationships, and even possibly betraying the trust of his friends. Malick's muse was, like the image of his mother, a Sleeping Beauty lost in the wilderness, lying in a casket and waiting to be kissed back to life. No tree can reach heaven unless its roots descend to hell, and in exploring his dark corners – even if they are merely impressions or fragments – Malick's Muse returned to him so that he could once again finish the song of himself, and like the bridge that ends the film - a sign of human ingenuity in creation, just as Malick's film is - the spirit of the song blows through the cinema frame like the wind blows curtains on the windows, an image repeated again and again in The Tree of Life. And in those forms at which we peer, we see shapes of ourselves in the song, as Malick's pictures coast along our faces like the curtain fabric placed over Jack's face, a motif that recalls the enigmatic nebulae beginning and ending The Tree of Life's loop.

Cinema is too often an escape from reality, but in that escape we become concealed to our own selves in groundlessness. Some escapists will see The Tree of Life as antagonism to a mainstream audience, and so in return behave antagonistically to it. But the filmmaker has anticipated this. He wants a film of Grace, and so the mother's definition of Grace at the beginning is a nod to his critics: this film is my song, and you might insult it, dislike it, spit on it, and even forget it. And that's fine. Malick's Song of Himself is also a Song to our Selves, and the Great Self. We are imprisoned, shackled, encaged in modernity in its forms and banal tropes, in our lives and in our arts and entertainments. Isolated. But Malick wants to take us home, where our masks come off and wash away in the collective ocean. At the end of Malick's journey, we encounter ourselves, and in ourselves, we see everyone else. That bridge that ends the picture is a modern Jacob's ladder, designed to take us back to Being, beyond the accidents of being-in-the-world that make us what we appear to be in Time, and into an identification with the One - or Many - who dwells inside of us.

Recommended Reading:
Biskind, Peter. "The Runaway Genius." Vanity Fair. August, 1998. Recovered at
Brody, Richard. "The Front Row: The Tree of Life: Roots and Shoots." The New Yorker. May 24, 2011.
Ebert, Roger. "A Prayer Beneath The Tree of Life." Roger Ebert's Journal. May 17, 2011.
Lane, Anthony. "Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life Review." The New Yorker. May 30, 2011.
Walker, Beverly. "Malick on Badlands." Sight and Sound. Spring 1975. Recovered at

Terrence Malick Filmography
Badlands. Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates. Director of photography: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn. Editor: Robert Estrin. Warner Bros, 1973.
Days of Heaven. Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepherd, Linda Manz. Directors of photography: Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler. Editor: Billy Weber. Original Score: Ennio Morricone. Paramount Pictures, 1978.
The Thin Red Line. Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, John Savage, Dash Mihok, John Travolta, George Clooney, Miranda Otto, John Dee Smith. Director of photography: John Toll. Editors: Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, Billy Weber. Original Score: Hans Zimmer. Fox 2000, 1998.
The New World. Colin Farrell, Q'orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, August Schellenberg, Wes Studi, Yorick von Wageningem, David Thewlis. Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki. Editors: Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, Mark Yoshikawa. Original Score: James Horner. New Line Cinema, 2005.
The Tree of Life. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw. Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki. Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa. Original Score: Alexandre Desplat. Fox Searchlight, 2011.