"Death ends a life, but it does not end a relationship which struggles on in the Survivor's mind toward some resolution which it may never find." So says the main character in Robert Anderson's I Never Sang for My Father. The last two films I have seen in two days deal with that struggle of sons dealing with their father's (and their) failings. In fact, the main character in one of them says, “My father wrestles around inside of me.”
There are many great works which deal with the father-son issue. Anderson's
work, Steinbeck's East of Eden, Spiegleman's Maus, Genesis, Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, to name only a few. Unfortunately for me, The Tree of Life by Terence Malik is not one of them.
Malik’s film wants to lyrical, ponderous, mythic. Instead it becomes pretentious, overblown, humorless, and worse still rather boring. While there are some really excellent story-telling moments, the film fails to ignite for me. (One really powerful moment is when the mercurial father plays piano and his favorite son begins playing on the guitar along with him. The eldest son—are all eldest sons Cain?—watches the father and his brother bond in a way he will never be able to.)
I understand the father in the film way too well. My own mercurial father could often erupt in unchecked flares of temper, brought on—I know now—by issues that had nothing to do with his children. We were just the easier thing to focus on. Watching Brad Pitt’s unrelenting earthly Jehovah reminded me of many scenes I have experienced. But the catharsis of the film—summarized only by a hand on the shoulder—seems to unfulfilling after 2:19 minutes of abuse.
My friend had told me there was some great acting. Unfortunately, the most consistent thing I saw was actors staring into space, or out windows, or at the camera. I was reminded of an interview that Barbara BelGeddes once gave about working with Hitchcock on Vertigo. She had appeared on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and expected to talk Method and Motivation with the director. Instead, “I sat perfectly still,” she related, “and then he told me to look up, look back down, look sideways…” Hitchcock believed that the audience would read into her actions, but she didn’t feel she was acting. In Tree my friend raved about Sean Penn’s acting range. All I saw was him looking out windows. Only in a couple of scenes does he even speak. “What am I missing here?” I kept asking myself.
One of the biggest flaws to the film for me were two sequences that take place beyond time—the creation of the world which culminates in a primal scene between an aggressive dinosaur prepares to kill a more docile dinosaur, but after staring at it for a lengthy moment, changes its mind. All the while ideas, such as “Mother” and “Father” are intoned as if this were some religious Greek drama. While the Creation images were visually stunning, my mind kept asking “What the …?” And at the end, when the family leaves 1950s Waco, when a climax and redemption are needed, we end up on a beach where all is forgiven and everyone is together. The scene was done more effectively for me before in the 1990 AIDS film, Longtime Companion.
The second film I saw this week, but one I found much more powerful in a simpler way, is Mike Mills’ Beginners starring Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer. I consider the both two of our greatest film actors.
The plot deals with Oliver (McGregor) a cartoon artist who has trouble maintaining relationships and his father (Plummer) who comes out when Oliver’s mother dies after some 40 years of marriage. As the two learn to cope with their new beginnings, Oliver’s father takes a lover and eventually copes with lung cancer. It is his death and the ensuing guilt and grief that Oliver must deal with. Then he meets a kooky, loveable French actress with whom we know from the beginning can see that he belongs. Learning to deal with love and loss and the difficulty with relationships is what the film lovely, humorously, and ultimately very poignantly faces. The film has a joyful acceptance of being alive.
Both Tree of Life and Beginners use a non-linear story format—similar to 500 Days of Summer or Annie Hall. I find that form challenging and ultimately more satisfying than traditional storytelling.
In The Tree of Life the Mother says that “love is the most important thing in life.” Beginners shows just that. If you are looking for a film to see, pick the second.
Woody Allen created a love song to Manhattan in his movie of the same title, filling it with beautiful images of the city. Over thirty years later, he has created another love song, this time to Paris. The opening images before the credits are glorious images of the city from morning to evening. If you have never been to Paris, this opening may just convince you to go.
In his latest romantic comedy, Owen Wilson plays Gil, the Woody Allen persona, complete with all the introspective quirks and delivery we’ve come to expect from Allen on Allen, but I found myself charmed by the premise—the would-be novelist, currently Hollywood writer, yearns for the “moveable feast” that Hemingway described in the 1920s Paris, a world he sees as much less hectic than the present. One night, as he wanders alone, the clock strikes midnight and voilà, he finds himself in that same 1920s Paris, with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, young Hemingway, Cole Porter, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, and many others.
An article from the New York Timesexplains that background that some viewers may not know, since part of the fun of the film is recognizing the cultural cast of characters who helped create the modern art world. (Similar to identifying James Cameron’s Titanic characters before they speak.)
There is a salute to that wonderful moment from Annie Hall where Marshall McLuhan appears out of nowhere to put down a pompous Columbia TV media teacher. Here a pedantic friend of Gil’s girlfriend, also a teacher, is going on about a painting of Picasso’s that Gil had actually heard discussed by Picasso and Gertrude Stein. He is able to put the teacher/art critic in his place.
Wilson is engaged to Rachel McAdams, who we can quickly see is not for him. In his 1920s adventure he falls in love with one of Picasso’s mistresses, played by Marion Cotillard. When they discover they love each other, she reveals that she wants to leave the frantic world they live in and be in La Belle Epoque. And at the stroke of the clock, she gets her wish. She wants to stay in the past. Gil realizes as much as he likes the past, he wants to remain in the present.
Many of Allen’s themes are there: the struggle for fidelity to another, fear of death, the role of art and the artist, the tribute of a great city. One critic has stated, “Old men shouldn’t make movies.” I think he’s wrong. I found the film charming, and I’m looking forward to going to Paris someday.
In The Lost Books of The Odyssey: A Novel, Zachary Mason tells and sometimes retells new versions of the familiar and unfamiliar from The Odyssey and The Iliad. As someone who enjoys Homer immensely, I loved this book.
Here, unfettered by Homer's version, Penelope marries Menelaus, Telemachus has a sister, Odysseus marries Nausicca and makes no attempt to return home until Athena appears to tell him it is time. Odysseus is more than once seen as a bard, willing to embellish any truth until the story takes hold with a life of its own.
My favorite story tells of a youthful Odysseus sent by Agamemnon to bring Achilles to join the Trojan War. Unfortunately Achilles has died from an illness and Odysseus is forced to create a crude Golum which will take Achilles' place. Produced from clay, with "Life" written on his forehead, the animated warrior spends much time in his tent working, making life comfortable for Achilles' friend Patrochlus, who had come along to assist in convincing the Acheans that this was indeed Achilles.
In the end, when the Golum realizes what death means, Odysseus obliterates the "Life" on its forehead, and the clay is given to the Trojans as a lifeless statue commemorating the "dead" hero. For me, reading the book is worth this one story.
The book reminds me of the inventiveness of Neil Gaimon's graphic novel series, The Sandman, where he has stories which re-imagine familiar stories--many incarnations of Morpheus, god of dreams or one whole graphic novel on Orpheus.
Mason's book is peopled with Odysseus, Penelope, Helen, Agamemnon, the Cyclopes, Scylla, Theseus, Eumaios, Telemachus and many others. In the last story, Odysseus, now an old man, returns to retrace the journey he took, only to find Troy has become a tourist trap filled with actors and souvenirs. It is a fitting and quite poignant close to the book.
In The Double Hour, an Italian film from 2009 but just released here, Sonia is a bored chambermaid. Guido, a former cop, is a bored widowed security guard. They meet at a speed-dating club. He's drawn to her and they begin a romance. Gradually conventional story-telling is disrupted when we suddenly learn that Guido was killed in a robbery attempt where Sonia was also wounded. Dead Guido suddenly appears to her at night. Then again on a security camera at the hotel where she works.
Eventually a sinister character that Sonia and her girl friend have decided has murdered his wife, ends up at her friend's funeral where he drugs her and buries her alive. And then Sonia comes out of a coma. The rest of the film, with the living Guido, the guilty Sonia, and all of Sonia's secrets merge into a world that Hitchcock would have enjoyed playing in.
Don't assume that the trailer gives away spoilers. It's all there, but not what you think.
If you enjoyed Hitchock's Vertigo, I think you'll enjoy Giuseppe Capotondi's The Double Hour.
And in case you wondered, the double hour is that moment when the hour and the minutes line up: for example, 10:10.
A group of seven explorers, sponsored by the Jesuits, set off on a mission to the planet Rakhat. Think Avatar with priests, scientists, two Sigourney Weaver characters (one young, one old), and a complex main character priest who becomes the only survivor of the journey. We know from the beginning that things end badly, but the suspense of the book comes from learning not what happened, but why it happened. "You have the facts, but still don't understand," says one of the characters. I found myself at times having to put the book down because I didn't want to end the characters before I was ready. All the characters, including those inhabitants of the planet, were well drawn.
Russell has created a world of lush beauty and harsh realities, which remains compelling even after I've finished the book. It's taking a bit to shake off her world and return to reality.
How do we accept that God leads us in our choices when bad things happen to people that we care about? (It is not surprising that one of the women is of Jewish descent, for the previous question is infused with the horrors of the atrocities of the 20th century.)
As my class discussed Frankenstein and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, we discussed the question posed earlier on in Speilberg’s film—Could you get a person to love a robot? I pointed out to them how subversive that question becomes in Speilberg’s film because he casts Haley Joel Osment as this advanced child robot who constantlypulls at the heart-strings of the audience. Most agreed how difficult it was to watch the scene where his mother deserts him in the forest, and when he cries, the audience does also.
In our discussions, I talked about BBC America’s Love Me, Love My Doll, which some of the kids had seen. Guys and dolls also deals with the same subject.
That led to our consideration of Lars and the Real Girl, which I knew only by the trailer. Some of my students watched the film and were surprised at how touched they were.
Lars, played with understated pathos by Ryan Gosling, is so shy, yet so endearing, the people of his small town all seem to care for him. Lars has never coped with his parents’ deaths. He lives in the garage while his brother and pregnant sister-in-law live in the former family home.
One day a co-worker tells him about life-size sex-dolls which leads him to order his own built to order, Bianca. When Bianca arrives, Lars reaches out to others for the first time.
Dagmar, the local doctor, played with great sensitivity by Patricia Clarkson, suggests that the best way to help Lars is to accept Bianca. She “treats” Bianca. Others invite her to join them. She “reads” at the local school. A beauty operator fixes her hair. Several times a week she “volunteers” at the hospital. She is even accepted at church.
As people accept Lars and Bianca, he begins to relate more and more to the people around him, until finally he does find a real girl and finds he has to let Bianca go. That moment becomes surprisingly poignant and Lars moves into the adult world he has rejected for so long.
The film is well worth putting on your Netflix list… and then let me know when you see it.