Monday, July 18, 2011

Back to the Garden



I watched Terrence Malick’s 2005 film The New World twice in one day when I had the flu. A historical drama retelling the Pocahontas legend, the film submerges the viewer in natural images and sounds, recreating a landscape in the last stages of its innocence. Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, shares with its predecessor an obsession with origins, guilt and grace, and a sensuous cinematographic style which intoxicates through fragments.

In attempting to stage the story of one mid-century American family against the creation and development of the planet, the film revives an old method of Epic: the nuclear family as a metaphor for the drama of all natural existence. The film begins with news of a son’s death, a grief still present as the adult Jack (played by Sean Penn) remembers his childhood in Texas. These are memories are lush snapshots of a southern boyhood which seesaws between domination by an authoritarian father (Brad Pitt), who asks his sons to kiss him and to call him sir, and the radiant grace of a mother (Jessica Chastain) whose whispered voiceovers haunt the film (‘Light of my life, I search for you, my hope, my child’). Split between nature and grace, the boy Jack struggles beneath his father’s oppressive discipline, praying to be good but acknowledging his tendency towards misbehaviour.

Though the Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, the reviews have been divided. Two complaints have caused the film to be heralded as a masterpiece that is inescapably flawed: its form, and its visual overindulgence. The splitting of the narrative by the Big Bang and slow development of planetary life lushly reminiscent of an Attenborough documentary, complete with dinosaurs (which caused several in the Phoenix Picture House to snigger and walk out), is almost unfathomable. The beauty of the actors and the caress of the cinematic lens prompted Michael Newton to liken the film (at its worst) in the Guardian Review to certain ‘perfume ads’, with the film’s good-looking actors as the southern equivalent of the Drapers, the central family in AMC’s Mad Men.

While I agree with Newton’s reservations and admit that the film is flawed, the film is also resonantly masterful. From the epigraph taking from Job, Malick proves that regardless of one’s personal orientation to faith, the Old Testament is still a potent source of mythmaking in a post-Christian age. The Tree of Life is a Genesis story: a tribute to innocence and fall, the family as a seed of love and life, evil, death and grief.

The camera-work is – and it is hard to avoid this word – transcendent. Paired with the soundtrack’s continuous wave-like musical cadences, the cinematography focuses on fragments of an ordinary and ecstatic life: a baby’s foot cupped in adult hands, sunlight in auburn hair, rivulets, magnolias, a toad strapped to a rocket, a ladder in the desert, a tree in the metropolis.

I believe this is a film which succeeds more than any other I have seen in fully realising the dimensions of what cinema does. In 1926 Virginia Woolf suggested that cinema ‘has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression’, The Tree of Life holds the key to the solution. In a supple working of what Wagner called ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, the unification of all the arts, Malick has produced a film relentlessly alert to microscopic beauty, to a life aesthetic which is attuned to the connection between things, between mankind and the planet, between fathers, mothers, and sons.

Friday, July 8, 2011


It is a truth universally (but mostly presently) acknowledged that reading Dostoyevsky and red wine is the best thing to do at the end of the week. Sitting in the kitchen, on the third glass, with a happy heart. (Somewhere down Walton Street my friend A, wrapped up in bed with a cold, is also reading the Brothers Karamazov.)

The sudden changes of mode – from philosophical to slapstick, from passionate to comedic – are a delightful jolt. Here’s a paragraph during the dramatic (but mostly blustering) trial of Dmitry Karamazov which, with all its paranoid specificity, makes me think of Bolano and a host of East-European twentieth century writers:

‘Moreover, he himself hated his feet; for some reason he had all his life found his big toes unsightly, especially one thick, flat toenail on his right foot that curved down awkwardly like a hook and would now be exposed for all to see. Utterly ashamed, he became ever more arrogant and intentionally provocative. He ripped off his shirt.’

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Picture at an Exhibition

I went to the Ashmolean with a friend yesterday to see the Macedonian exhibit (was largely underwhelmed). Afterwards we strolled through a few Western art displays. Though I love museums, I find them tiring. I feel like I must see everything, but one can only ever run through and experience the whole effect (the museum as a collage of people and places and periods) or focus on several pieces but try to just stay in front of them and see them. I am bad at practicing the latter approach, and tend towards the former. But yesterday J and I took our time and it was not unrewarding if only for this piece.



This is Barna de Siena’s mid 14th century Crucifixion and Lamentation which used to be a part of a diptych. The accompanying plaque said that it is rare to find the crucifixion and lamentation as a part of a single scene, and this makes it a powerful devotional image.

I am quite unresponsive to the Crucifixion (I find the blood rather comic in it’s energetic arching), and Mary Magdalene is a bit like a Wild Thing in the right-hand corner. But I found the depiction of the lamentation of Mary over Christ moving: their cheeks pressed together with some intensity (Christ’s dead, pallid, and unresponsive), Mary’s open eyes staring with grieving accusation at Christ’s closed lids.



She looks like she’s trying to consume him, to restore him to life by the pressure of her arms. There is an intimacy to this grief that reminds me of a wounded sorrow which I think is felt commonly in moments of betrayal.