Thursday, June 16, 2011

Two Movies

You have to have the patience of a tree to enjoy “The Tree of Life.” That’s the problem in this enigmatic and “cosmic” movie. Normally we don’t go to the theater to test our patience; we go mostly to have a good time. It can be a thriller, a comedy, a tragedy, a whatever, as long as it engages and surprises us, makes us laugh or maybe even cry.

But “The Tree of Life” that won the Palme d’Or Prize this year, the top honor at the Cannes Film Festival, doesn’t quite fit any category. It is too arty for its own good and the viewer is left wondering if director Terrence Malick isn’t trying too hard to impress with big ideas.

The story itself is actually quite moving. It follows the ups and downs – mostly downs - of the O’Brien family in the small town of Waco, Texas, in the 1950s. The father (Brad Pitt) is a stern and humorless patriarch who looks down on his three sons because he feels they do not measure up to him. They are not macho enough, intelligent enough and gifted enough. He is, of course, tragically oblivious of his own fundamental failings. The mother (Jessica Chastain) clings to the idea that love alone can conquer all and tries to bring a sense of normalcy to her children’s upbringing with grace and sweetness. When the middle child dies, she looses her poise. “Lord, why? Where were you? Who are we to you? Answer me?” her character asks in whispered voice-overs.

While life at home for the three kids is a fearful drill of taking orders from the father (“Don’t call me dad, call me father”), outside is an idyllic world of grass and sky and stream and meadows and friends. These impressionistic snippets are redolent of universal childhood and Malick captures them with sensitivity. What makes them also poignant is the tension at home.

At the ritualistic family dinner, one of the children cannot take the father’s overbearing behavior anymore and asks him to “keep quiet.” “What did you say?” screams the father. He grabs the child and locks him in a room. “You have turned my children against me,” he shouts at his wife. “You undermine everything I try to do.” The hunter is defending himself by claiming to be the hunted!

The wife has had enough. She retaliates by pushing him away. He immobilizes her with a viselike grip and releases her only when convinced that the last ounce of her resistance has sipped away.

But the father is not a one-dimensional character. He has the capacity for tenderness, even if not realized. As he prepares to play the piano one day, his middle son begins to strum on a guitar in the porch. The father hesitates, shocked by the musical gift of his son, and refrains from playing until the son has finished strumming. What makes the scene heartbreaking is the father’s inability to express his love and admiration. He simply cannot bring himself to say, “Son, that was lovely. Play for me more.”

All this would have made a touching, growing-up story of childhood, sadness, tragedy and ultimate redemption but Malick sandwiches it between heavy symbolism and metaphors that seem to take up the bulk of the movie’s 2 ¼ hours. We are treated to an interminable stretch of the creation of the universe, volcanoes, waves, dinosaurs, planets, asteroids and everything in between, just in case you miss the point that the director deals with heavy-duty ideas of chance, life, morality and mortality. The cinematography is gorgeous (I kept thinking it was the movie version of the great photographer Ernst Haas’s book, The Creation), but what’s the point? Just get on with the story, I wanted to tell Malick, and let us decide what to make of the impenetrable, big questions of life.

I will still recommend this movie because it shows what a father ought not to do to be a good father. Although “The Tree of Life” is a period piece from mid-20th century, it is shocking how many fathers in our days are still stuck in that mindset. Fatherhood is fraught with tension, indifference, arrogance and often, downright cruelty. With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday, “The Tree of Life” is a movie a father should give as a gift to himself, to become the antithesis of the character portrayed by Brad Pitt.


“Midnight in Paris” is a delightful ode to the Jazz Age Paris of the 1920s when heavyweights of literature, painting, movies and music took up residence in the City of Light. It is Woody Allen’s most imaginative work to-date and connects the past to the present to put our preoccupation with money and fame in context. Unlike Allen’s recent movies, heavy with ambiguity and symbolism and the dark currents flowing in the human heart, “Midnight” is a beguiling movie to savor for its romance, charm and humor.

Gil is a disillusioned Hollywood screenwriter (Owen Wilson) who travels from Southern California to Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) with the idea of settling down there. He is fed up with Hollywood. He has no desire writing scripts on-demand by tyrannical conglomerates. He wants to put the finishing touches to a novel that he dreams will set the literary world on fire when published. He wants this to happen in the artistic center of the Universe - Paris.

His fiancée, of course, has other ideas. Inez is as materialistic as they come, an epitome of conspicuous consumption. Ditto her parents who are also visiting Paris. The clash of the couple’s opposing life-view must be resolved, but how?

Walking back to his hotel alone one night, Gil loses his way in the alleys of Paris. At the stroke of midnight, a magical kind of taxi pulls up as he sits exhausted by the pavement. Its passengers invite him to join them. He is hesitant but buoyed by their enthusiasm, gets in. He is brought to a soiree where he runs into … Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway. He has traveled across time and arrived at the Paris of 1920s!

The seamless way in which Allen does this is itself magical. As the midnight encounters continue on subsequent nights, Gil meets Picasso, Gertrude Stein (who promises to review his manuscript), Matisse, Salvador Dali, T.S. Eliot, Luis Bunuel, Man Ray and many others. Allen leavens the story with parodies of these famous characters. His parody of Hemingway, clipped sentences and all (“No subject is terrible if the story is true and if the prose is clean and honest”), is particularly hilarious.

Stein approves of Gil’s novel and that decides the issue for him. He will settle in Paris to pursue his literary muse. Inez throws a fit but only for a few minutes. She adjusts, the quintessential material girl, and banishes Gil from her life.

The movie ends on a happy note, though, and you find making a mental note to yourself: “I am going to have to see this movie one more time.”

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