Tuesday, July 19, 2011
The Movie Goer: The Tree of Life and Beginners
"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.