Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tree of Life

Sometimes expectations make all the difference. If you go to a museum with the expectation of seeing representational art, pretty pictures of landscapes and beautiful people, and instead find abstract combinations of colors and shapes, disappointment ensues. If you hadn’t gone in expecting a Rubens, you might have really liked that Jackson Pollack.

All this is to say, do not watch Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” with an expectation of a summer blockbuster. Or even a straightforward narrative. The film is an impressionistic work that doesn’t just move in and out of the character of Jack O’Brien from the present to his birth and his childhood in the early ‘60’s in Waco, Texas; we also see the creation of the universe and quite possibly the characters in the afterlife.

The film jumps from domestic scenes of family tension to static shots of great natural beauty to flights of fantasy. So if you just go into a film wanting to see “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy marries girl” or “man robs bank, cop chases robber, big shoot out”… Disappointment ensues. In fact, some theaters screening this film in some parts of the country have posted a sign saying, “This film does not follow a conventional narrative structure” to cut down on demands for refunds.

These tendencies are not new to Malick. His first films, “Badlands” (1973) about a less glamorous version of Bonnie and Clyde and “Days of Heaven” (1978) about farmers at the beginning of the 20th Century, featured leisurely meditations on natural beauty -- but within a traditional narrative structure.

Writer/director Malick took a couple decades off before returning with “The Thin Red Line” (1998) about the Pacific during the Second World War, a film that began Malick’s downplaying of narrative. “A New World” (2005) about Pocahontas and John Smith had even less narrative drive, and with “The Tree of Life”, Malick seems to work without traditional cinematic storytelling altogether.

But if one goes in without expectations of a traditional narrative, there are treasures in this film. It beautifully captures what it was like growing up in a certain time and place. Even more, it captures remembering growing up. There are wonderful, natural performances by the children, especially by Hunter McCracken as young Jack. Jessica Chastain is luminous as Jack’s mother and Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances as a father giving his all but perhaps not giving where he should.

What I appreciated most about the film was the consideration of Biblical and theological issues. The film opens with verses from the book of Job, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? …while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” (Chapter 38, verses 4 & 7.) We then see the characters dealing with loss as Job did, but we are given the context of the Big Bang through the dinosaurs. It is important to remember that God knows our grief, but He views it in a much larger context.

We also see Jack choosing between the path of Nature (what Paul refers to as the Natural Man) as represented by his father and Grace as represented through his mother and brother. Jack even paraphrased the Apostle Paul from Romans 7:15 that he does what he does not want to do. We do see Jack’s progress to finding salvation through grace.

If you are open to a different movie experience, you may want to see the impressionistic work of Terrence Malick. Or this summer you have lots of opportunities to see superheroes and stuff blow up real good. Just know what to expect.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Random Top Ten List: Favorite Jimmy Stewart Movies

10) "The Philadelphia Story"

It's odd to start this list with one of my least favorite Stewart performances in a movie I love. Stewart could play a tough guy, but he doesn't seem like the hard bitten reporter here. He has a couple of good scenes (love the what a gentlemen does speech), but Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and even Virginia Weidler (the kid) out shine him. His Oscar for this film that was probably a make-up for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington".

9) "Winchester '73"

Before Sam Peckinpah, these Westerns that Anthony Mann did with Stewart are what people thought of when they talked about "Adult Westerns". Stewart really is a tough guy in these films. (He was, of course, a tough guy in real life. He was a decorated pilot serving in WW II, and I believe in Korea and Vietnam.)

8) "Harvey"

When I worked on my bad Stewart impression, I went to Elwood P. Dowd and his wonderful speech about how he met his 6 foot rabbit friend.

7) "The Man Who Knew Too Much"

Stewart made four films with Alfred Hitchcock, tying with Cary Grant for the most leading man performances with Hitch. This film is one of those rare remakes that's better than the first. Stewart is very good (though he seems like an old father.)

6) "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington"

The film Stewart should have got an Oscar for this film, especially for the filibuster scene. One of the most patriotic films ever made (and I mean that in a very good way.) Those Republican, Capra and Stewart, worked well together.

5) "Vertigo"

"Rope" is the only Hitch/Stewart collaboration that won't make the list (though I like "Rope" very much.) "Vertigo" makes the top ten all time film lists of many critics. It captures the state of a dream, a nightmare.

4) "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence"

Getting to see John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart work together is a very happy thing. This is the go to film for impressions trying to do either actor. Also, fairly profound meditation on history and legend.

3) "Anatomy of a Murder"

Probably my favorite courtroom drama. Sordid material of rape, handled with in a very mature fashion by Otto Preminger. Stewart's ah shucks country lawyer is smarter than everyone else thinks he is, but not as smart as he thinks he is.

2) "Rear Window"

Not quite my favorite Hitch film (but easily in the top five), but Stewart is great as a photographer stuck in a wheelchair in his apartment. With the limitations of movement, Stewart still delivers a powerful performance. And Grace Kelly is beautiful.

1) "It's a Wonderful Life"

Favorite film ever. 'Nuff said.

Friday, July 8, 2011

How Bill Book Covers Are Made


Friday, July 1, 2011

Interview With Me

(Thanks, Donna, for leaving out the truly incriminating quotes)