Tag Archives: Brad Pitt

The Divine Guide in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:2-4)

“…also, on either side of the river, the tree of life.” (Revelation 22:2)

It’s been a year since The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and then opened in theaters. I wrote a review when the film came out but have since had the luxury of many repeat viewings and lots of conversations about it. There are numerous aspects of the film that have grown in interest for me as I’ve spent more time with it. Among other things, my belief that the film is fundamentally a deeply Christian, liturgical work has only increased.

Some people I talk to liken the film to a sacred masterwork on the level of Handel. Even critics like Roger Ebert see the film in this religious light. Ebert–who recently added Life to his all time top 10 list–called the film “a prayer.” And even if Life as a whole cannot be read as a prayer, certainly prayer is a central motif. The prayer candle is an image that connects past and present in the film, for example. And Jack (portrayed at times by Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken) is constantly heard in voiceover talking to what we assume to be God: “Brother; Mother: it was they that led me to your door.” “When did you first touch my heart?” “Where were you? You let a boy die.” “How did you come to me? In what shape? In what disguise?”

So also is Jack’s mother, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain): “Lord, why?” “Where were you?” “Who are we to you?” “Answer me.”

The film begins with Job 38:4 (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”) and ends with 15 minutes of Berlioz’ “Requiem,” the “Agnus Dei” section: Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest. / Thou, O God, art praised in Zion and unto Thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem. … Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them, with Thy saints for ever, Lord, because Thou art merciful. Amen.

These are the words (translated from Latin) that we hear a choir sing over the film’s final minutes, as images of catharsis and renewal fill the screen: reunions, resurrections, rising women in wedding dresses, a defeated jester’s mask, sunsets, sunflowers, the apparent destruction of earth, and hands lifted in unison, upward to the heavens.

Among the many questions prompted by a close viewing of this finale sequence–and indeed, the whole film–is the identity and meaning of the mystery woman seen with Jessica Chastain’s older and younger self in the “Amen” sequence. She shows up in part (usually just her hands) and in full on a number of occasions throughout the film–especially at the beginning of Jack’s life and in the film’s final fifteen minutes.

How are we to interpret this figure? I think it’s clear that she’s not meant to be taken as a literal human character in the story; she only appears in the dreamier sequences, has no lines and is never seen for longer than a few seconds at a time. We barely glimpse her face at all (until the “Amen” sequence). Who is she?

One clue can be found in the credits, where she’s listed as “Guide,” portrayed by an actress by the name of Jessica Fuselier (side note: there’s absolutely nothing on the Internet about anyone named “Jessica Fuselier,” which adds to the “Oh, so Malick” mystery).

It’s my contention that this “Guide”–this female figure, always clad in light colored dress, always “around” and a figure of comfort and care–is intended by Malick to be a sort of embodied symbol of the Holy Spirit. I could be totally wrong, and knowing Malick it’s probably nothing as direct as that, but given the film’s overtly Christian ambience I think it’s a fair reading. Here’s my reasoning.

I. “When did you first touch my heart?”

“Guide” is one of the functional roles of the Holy Spirit as seen in Scripture. It is the Holy Spirit that leads Christ into the wilderness (Luke 4:1), and Romans 8:14 tells us that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.”

In the film, the “Guide” leads Sean Penn’s character through the wilderness, ultimately through a “gate” signaling some sort of spiritual breakthrough or coming to faith. The Guide also leads little children through a gate in a forest, along a riverbed, gently signaling for them to follow her. This sequence–set to the music of Respighi’s “Suite No. 3”–begins with Jack’s voiceover: “You spoke to me through her; you spoke to me from the sky, the trees. Before I knew I loved you–believed in you” (as we see a dove-like bird flying in a sun-filled sky, and then trees, and then more skies). “When did you first touch my heart?”

From there we see a montage of Jack’s parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) falling in love and his mother giving birth to him. Interspersed are oblique images of the Guide–clad in a white gown–pointing the way through a gate, then whispering something to a child (toddler Jack) whilst holding a candle, showing the child a tiny little book, guiding a group of children through a forest, followed by a shot of toddler Jack swimming through a door of an underwater house and then a shot of a woman in a wedding dress swimming upwards in a similar fashion (a shot repeated in the final moments of the film). This sequence is a lot to digest, to say the least. But the impression we get in terms of the Guide is that she is a benevolent force that, even from the moment of birth, is there to guide Jack and lead him in the way of light and truth.

The Holy Spirit, we are told in John 16:13, “will guide you into all the truth” and will “declare to you the things that are to come.” The “Helper, the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus in John 14:26, “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit–the third person of the Holy Trinity–is thus identified as an advocate, a helper, a guide toward the truth (John 15:26). But it also serves as comforter and interceder, helping us in our weakness, “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought… the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). We see this aspect of the Spirit in Life in a brief shot of a woman’s hand hovering over Jack’s head and chest (0:57:44) as in voiceover we hear him pray: “Help me not to sass my dad, help me not to get dogs in fights, help me be thankful for everything I’ve got, help me not to tell lies.” Later we see those same hands gently giving Jack a drink from what looks like a communion cup and sprinkling water on his forehead as if in baptism (1:12:55), evoking another biblical association of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).

Another scriptural motif pertaining to the Holy Spirit is that of resurrecting power, as seen in Romans 8:10-11: “But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit give life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” We see images of this with the Guide in the film’s climactic Requiem scene–as she is seen extending her hand to what looks like someone in a grave, who appears to have risen from the dead (2:05:23). Moments later, we see a bride in a wedding dress lying down as if asleep, and then standing upright, resurrected and alive (2:05:40).

A few seconds later, the Guide is depicted as a being to be worshipped: On the beach, older Jack (Penn) bows at her feet (2:06:20). We then see her embrace and cradle the head of the boy with burn scars on his head (2:06:35). The last time we see her is in the “Amen” finale to the Requiem prayer, where we see her surrounding Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) in a state of sun-bathed harmony and peace, helping her lift up her hands as if in praise.

Revelation 22 should be a guiding text in our interpretation of Life’s eschatological climax, if only because it depicts the restored Eden and its “tree of life” (vs. 2). Verse 17 seems particularly interesting if read with the images of the “Amen” sequence in mind. The verse reads: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” It’s a call directed to Christ–the bridegroom–to return to earth and reign in the New Jerusalem with his people. Given the “bridal” imagery that we see in cryptic snippets throughout the film (appearing to be Jessica Chastain), perhaps in that final “Amen” sequence she represents the “Bride” of verse 17 and the Guide represents the Spirit. Certainly the “bride” imagery has eschatological connotations, as does the Spirit’s resurrecting the dead, both of which we see in Life’s final moments.

II. “Always you were calling me.”

Even though the total screen time of the Guide in Life is only a few minutes, the presence of the Holy Spirit if felt throughout–the film’s opening and closing with the mysterious, God-like wispy flame should suggest as much.

One of the functions of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is to convict the unbeliever about sin (John 16:7-8) and catalyze the process of renewing faith (Titus 3:5). We see this in the arc of Jack–who comes to a convicted place about his sin and recognizes that God was behind it. Following the episode where he shoots his brother’s finger with a BB gun and then asks him for forgiveness, Jack wonders–as the camera pulls upwards in a God-like point of view–“What was it that you showed me? I didn’t know how to name you then. But I see it was you. Always you were calling me.”

The Holy Spirit also serves to help us in our battle with sin (“the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, to keep you from doing the things you want to do,” Gal 5:17), which we see in Jack’s Romans 7-esque inner turmoil about his own nature (“What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate”). It is that humbled conviction that leads Jack in the next scene to seek reconciliation with the brother he has wronged.

We see a similar thing happen to Jack’s father a few scenes later, as he too recognizes the faults of his nature: “I wanted to be loved because I’m great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”

A close listen to this sequence will reveal that the quiet piano score we hear is actually a melodic quotation of the Respighi excerpt from the “When did you first touch my heart?” sequence of Jack’s birth and the Guide leading the children. We should take note of the aural parallel here between that early sequence (Edenic in its beauty and innocence) and this sequence (both Jack and his father recognizing their flawed nature–“I’m as bad as you are”–and accepting the way of grace). No music is arbitrarily chosen in a Malick film, and this Respighi melody seems to embody the theme of grace in the film. The way of “nature,” on the other hand, is represented in the mournful melodies of Preisner’s “Lacrimosa,” which we hear during the universe creation sequence (as Mrs. O’Brien asks God the “Why?” questions of suffering) and then, in subtler piano quotation, during Jack’s “I do what I hate” sequence of sin and guilt.

The triumph of grace over the despair of nature in the film doesn’t happen by accident. As we see through a close read, the Guide is present throughout the film–embodied but also implicit and unseen–helping these characters in their spiritual journeys and guiding them through grief, sin, and the constant battle with their errant impulses and prideful nature.

Considered in the broader context of the film, the nearness and presence of a benevolent guiding force represents the immanence against which the “where are you?” perceptions of a distant God are juxtaposed. The film’s 20 minute creation sequence–sandwiched as it is between one Texas family’s intimate pains on one hand (a son’s death) and joys on the other (a son’s birth)–establishes the bigness of the universe and the smallness of man. It’s a massive, cold, ruthless universe, magnificent and beautiful in its ambivalence toward the individual life (one dinosaur spares another, but in the next scene nature–or God?–destroys them all by hurling an asteroid to earth). And yet the pastoral adventures of Jack’s youth and spiritual epiphany that follows do not bear out this dire assessment.

Rather, Jack’s life is guided by God at every turn–even if he doesn’t recognize it.

In some ways the Guide can help us make sense of the film’s real understanding of “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” Nature assumes that we are all on our own–that we are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, wandering purposeless (Sean Penn in a desert, perhaps) in a hostile creation. That “way” is self-interested and, given the eventuality of mortality, ultimately aimless. We are all going to suffer the same extinction as the dinosaurs, so what is our telos? Lacrimosa dies illa indeed.

Grace, however, inserts a telos into the story by offering up an alternate “way” that rebuffs self interest (“grace doesn’t try to please itself”) and directs our attention to the Divine Other from which hope and purpose derives. The “Guide” is the helper, the voice of conviction, the spiritual awakening helping us to desire the way of grace–which is the way of humility, of relinquishing our grasp on our own natural way, of, finally, giving up our insistent hold on that which we believe to be our rightful property or path.

“I give him to you,” says Mrs. O’Brien in the film’s final line. “I give you my son.”

She’s discovered the way of grace.

“I’m nothing,” says Mr. O’Brien.

He’s discovered it too.

Jack also sees that he’s been guided all the time (“I see it was you; always you were calling me”), that he’s been watched over and led to faith by a divine Guide, out of the dry desert of sin, stubbornness and pride and into the lush, Edenic landscape of oceans, waterfalls and the river of life.

III. “The great river that never runs dry.”

This is not a new idea for Malick. His other films have explored it too–this notion of giving up one’s insistent, natural urge to “please oneself” and humbly accepting a path that–though directed by Another–ultimately leads to a place more pristine and satisfying than we could have found for ourselves. It’s the arc of Pocahontas in The New World: her Eden is destroyed by the depravity of man and yet cannot be regained on her own merits; she must relinquish control and trust the Divine direction (“Mother,” to whom she prays), even if it isn’t what she’d imagined for her life (e.g. John Rolfe instead of John Smith).

Likewise for Private Witt in The Thin Red Line: his Paradise is lost early in the film, and his attempts to regain it midway through only serve to reinforce how grave is the “war in the heart of nature” and how deeply red is the stain of sin. He too opts for the way of grace, in faith moving forward in the unknowable fog, ready and willing to go wherever he is guided (even unto death).

In The Tree of Life, Jack too finds his Paradise/innocence lost (“How do I get back where they are?”), and wrestles with his inability to overcome the misguided desires of his nature (nearly quoting Romans 7:15: “I do what I hate…”). Jack’s lament for innocence lost and reflections on his own depravity echo the inner monologues of The Thin Red Line: “This great evil: where’s it come from? … Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.”

For Jack and for Witt–and for any of us–one of the problems of evil is that we so rarely see it as our problem. We must see that the fallenness of nature touches us all, and that the way of grace is likewise available to all as a redemptive alternative. It’s only when we humble ourselves and recognize the extent of our brokenness that we can begin to heal.

We must loosen our grip, cede our control and broaden our horizons to include the possibility that we were not made for our own glory, but for Another’s. Look at the beauty around us–look at the wonder! Malick’s films beckon us to pay closer attention to the majesty and complexity of creation (in the ground, in the sky, in our neighbor) than we do ourselves.

In Life, Malick offers us a liberating vision of a way of living that draws us out of our own “my road or the high road!” autonomy and into a path of humility in which we are subject to a Director other than our self–a Director whose intentions for us may include loss, suffering, and challenges we’d never choose. It’s a subversive vision in a culture where individual happiness is the chief goal and the means to that end is each individual’s assertion of their absolute right to freedom of choice, freedom of identity, freedom to determine one’s path independently of any other.

Malick’s early films–Badlands (1972) and Days of Heaven (1978)–centered upon iconic, lone ranger figures of American solidarity, blazing their trails westward and subject to no one but themselves. Martin Sheen’s James Dean-esque outlaw, Kit, in Badlands is unapologetic in his refusal to have his course set by anything other than his own (sometimes homicidal) whims and slapdash fancies. Richard Gere’s Bill in Days of Heaven has more of a conscience than Kit but is no less resistant to having his absolute autonomy compromised. Neither Kit nor Bill really know what they want, and their paths are resultantly schizophrenic and (literally) all over the map. Bill hops on a train to Texas wheatfields one minute and flies off with a circus act the next. Kit–his equally aimless girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) in tow–is on the open road to nowhere, wandering aimlessly in a barren western landscape not unlike the desert of Sean Penn’s wanderings in Life. In the end, Kit and Bill meet lonely, sad ends–their insistent, prideful autonomy having failed to locate whatever specter of Eden plagued their restless hearts.

With Malick’s later films–The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and now The Tree of Life (2011)–however, the autonomous individual protagonist becomes much more reliant on others. In Line, Witt can still be read as a Thoreau-esque individualist, a canoeing wanderer searching for truth on his own–and yet he’s very much aware of and attentive to the Other, a divine “spark” he feels in the air and sees in the eyes of others. It’s not just about him; he’s willing to be shown things by others, by God, by the glory around him (“all things shining…”). In World, Pocahontas shares Witt’s hyper-observational awe and humble curiosity about the world around her. She’s wide-eyed and enraptured by the beauty around her–even when it’s harsh and alien (the Jamestown colony, her trip to England). Even when she’s wronged, when her people are driven out of their lands, she reacts with humility. Like a tree whose branch breaks off but continues to grow, she adapts and moves on in faith.

The New World opens with a voiceover prologue from Pocahontas in which she says, “Come, Spirit–help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother… we rise from out of the soul of you.” These lines are accompanied by Edenic images of a river–reflecting the sky, the trees, the clouds–and then an image of Pocahontas on the beach, lifting up her hands to the heavens as if in praise (quite reminiscent, in fact, of Jessica Chastain’s “Amen” motions of praise at the end of Life). Throughout the film Pocahontas wonders about the presence of “Mother”–“Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Give me a sign”–in a manner not dissimilar from Chastain’s ponderings near the beginning of Life. Pocahontas prays to Mother: “How should I seek you? Show me your face. You, the great river that never runs dry.” (Side note: the actress who plays Mother in World–Irene Bedard–was the voice Pocahontas in Disney’s animated version, and also has a 5-second cameo in Life, where she’s credited as “Messenger.” See 0:17:32 in Life for her brief, cryptic appearance, caressing R.L. through a window curtain and kissing his face).

Though Pocahontas is unaware of Christ at this point, I believe that “Mother”–the deity to whom she prays–represents the echoes of Eden and the pangs of lost communion between creatures and Creator that every human feels (the sensus divinitatis, as Calvin might say). It’s interesting that she describes this deity as “the great river that never runs dry,” which brings to mind the River of Life in Revelation 22–the passage that also mentions the “Tree of Life” (vs. 2) in its description of the renewed creation and restored communion between God and man. Indeed, it’s also interesting that at the end of World, after Pocahontas comes to a peace (“Mother, now I know where you live)” the film ends with an image of a river, and then a tree in the final shot. Could it be read as a Revelation 22-esque “Eden restored” in the same way as Tree of Life’s finale?

Each of Malick’s films is in some sense about the specter of Paradise Lost and the felt breach of communion between God and man (on account of sin). Each film evokes that longing for an eschatological recovery of that wholeness, that Rev. 21 moment when God will once again dwell in physical presence with his people. But before that day comes, in between the Gen. 1 and Rev. 22 “trees of life,” God’s presence is also made available to us, by grace, in the form of the Holy Spirit. Because of what happened on another tree (the cross of Christ), God’s presence is given to us through the Holy Spirit: a guide, a helper, an advocate, a spirit of resurrection within our own feeble frames.

It’s a Spirit that Malick’s Life makes explicit through an embodied character, but also implicit as an unseen divine presence, calling characters to faith, to worship, to humility and to love. It’s a Spirit that is with us throughout our journeys (“guide us to the end of time…”) if we are open to being led.

Come, Holy Spirit. Guide us.

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10 Transcendent Moments in “Life”

It’s been about a week since The Tree of Life came out on DVD/Blu-Ray, which means lovers of the film like me can watch, re-watch, dissect and pause to our heart’s content. As I’ve reflected on the film (I think I’ve seen it about 8 times now), I’m no less awestruck by its beauty now than I was in the beginning. It’s a film overflowing with the sublime, the transcendent, the holy. I’ve heard others call it a worshipful experience and I certainly concur.

The following are the scenes that get me the most, each time I watch Life. They are, in my opinion, the 10 most transcendent sequences of the film. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Jessica Chastain’s opening voiceover sequence (1:55-4:17). “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace…” These words from “mother” launch the gorgeous opening monologue of the film, set against images of childhood, cows, sunflowers, waterfalls, swinging from trees, and accompanied by the haunting and foreshadowing voices of Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle.”

Creation of the universe (19:45- 23:45). Following the death of her middle son, Jessica Chastain closes her eyes in grief and prays: “Lord… Why? … Where were you? … Did you know? … Who are we to you? … Answer me.” This prayer is beautifully, painfully juxtaposed with images of the birth of the universe: swirling purple gases, turquoise nebulae, celestial stained glass. Witnessing these awe-inspiring cosmic beginnings is like having a window into God’s creative process. And set to the mournful, operatic music of Preisner’s “Life: Lacrimosa,” it’s downright worshipful.

“Life of my life” (34:40-36:00). Immediately after the dinosaur scene, and as a transition out of the “history of creation” sequence, Chastain’s voiceover resumes: “Life of my life… I search for you… My hope … My child.” This is accompanied by Berlioz’ “Requiem” and magisterial images of Saturn, Jupiter, and an asteroid on a collision course with earth, bringing death to the dinosaurs and an ice age to the planet.

“When did you first touch my heart?” (37:10-39:10). Part of the beauty of this scene is that it follows the grandeur of the universe’s birth with something just as glorious: the birth of love, and the birth of a human baby. In this sequence, set to the achingly beautiful music of Respinghi, we see mother and father falling in love (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), followed by what might be the most powerful, abstract cinematic depiction of a human birth ever. The baby’s birth is intercut with images of children being led through a forest by a woman in white (we see her at various points in the film… I take her as some sort of Holy Spirit figure), and a little boy swimming upwards through a submerged house (a motif we see a few other times in the film… Watch carefully at the end).

The boys growing up (47:00-50:10). Set to the stirring, full-of-life music of Smetana’s “Moldau,” this sequence, which starts with mother pointing to the sky and saying “that’s where God lives,” manages to capture so much truth and vitality–of life, of boyhood, of growing up–in a brief montage of the boys being boys: playing in the grass, playing with hoses/sprinklers, lighting sparklers, jumping on the bed, kicking the can, climbing trees, running in fields, putting grasshoppers down shirts, throwing balls up on the roof, playing tag, and then being called in for dinner at dusk. There’s so much youthful exuberance packed in to this three minute sequence, and it stirs the soul.

Jack’s prayer (57:55-58:55). The Tree of Life is in many ways a string of prayers. Roger Ebert says that the whole film is a form of a prayer. One of my favorite prayer scenes is when Jack sits down at his bed and proceeds to pray a genuine prayer full of petitions (“Help me not to sass my dad… Help me to be thankful for everything we’ve got… Help me not to tell lies”) but also full of questions/whispers that are more rhetorical: “Where do you live? Are you watching me? I want to see what you see.” All of this is set against a lovely piano rendition of Francois Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mistérieuses.”

Repentance & Grace (1:49:00-1:56:10). Following the extensive “fall of man” sequence, in which we see Jack discovering his own depravity (culminating in the BB gun incident with his brother), the tone shifts as Jack  seems to adopt a repentant heart (“What I want to do I can’t do; I do what I hate.”) and seeks forgiveness from his brother. Notice the score here: a slow, subtle piano quotation of the operatic Preisner theme from the birth of the universe sequence. Then there’s the amazing reconciliation scene between Jack and his brother (“You can hit me if you want… I’m sorry. You’re my brother.”), followed by a scene of Jack showing kindness to the burned boy he and his friends had previously shunned.

In the Garden (1:53:30-1:56:10). Part two of the grace/redemption catharsis begins when Jack joins his father in the garden. No words are spoken, but a new understanding is reached. Immediately following is Brad Pitt’s own moment of being humbled and brought to repentance. He loses he job and we hear his first (and only) voiceover of the film: “I’m nothing… Look at the beauty around us… I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.” The sequence climaxes with one of the film’s central voiceover expressions from Jack: “Father… Mother… Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” The music in this sequence is quite deliberate: A subtle piano rendition of the Respinghi theme from the film’s birth scenes earlier, perhaps to help define these moments as experiences  of “rebirth” for Jack and his father.

“The only way to be happy is to love” (1:58:30-2:01:30). In the final moments of the 1950s section of the film we watch the O’Briens as they pack up and move out of their Waco, TX home, to the music of Berlioz’ “Domine Jesu Christe” (from the Requiem). We see Jack somberly walk out of the street of his childhood one last time, then as the car drives away and the house grows smaller in the distance, mother leaves us with one last voiceover: “The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by… Do good to them… Wonder… Hope.” “Hope” is last word from mother in the film.

The end (2:03:00-the end). “Guide us to the end of time…” What can I say? Set to the “Agnus Dei” section of Berlioz’ Requiem, the final 15 minutes or so of the film are absolutely sublime… a montage of sight, sound, hope & belief.

Moneyball

Moneyball is one of the smartest, most effective sports movies I’ve ever seen. It captures the “love of the game” spiritual gravitas of The Natural and Field of Dreams while also embodying the melancholy of nostalgia for the “glory days” (see Friday Night Lights). But Moneyball‘s most obvious antecedent and kindred spirit isn’t a sports movie at all. It’s The Social Network. 

The Moneyball / Social Network comparisons are numerous: Both are Sony Pictures; both are written or co-written by Aaron Sorkin; Both feature fast-paced chattiness and the negotiating of high dollar deals; Both examine the minutiae of men using technological savvy to “change the game” and make millions; both are about how computers are changing everything. Both films are also exquisitely made and impressively adept at making the mundane (business deals, statistics, programming) absolutely riveting.

But Moneyball isn’t just The Social Network: Part II. It stands on its own two feet as, if not quite a masterpiece, then certainly one of the best ever of its genre. It’s a film that avoids cliches and doesn’t focus on heart-tugging, tear-jerking melodrama as much as it does on the fascinating subtleties on the business side of baseball. It’s also a character study of one man trying to fulfill his calling in baseball but also in fatherhood. It’s a film about ambition–about the intensity in the eyes of someone who wants something badly and will stop at nothing to get it; but it’s also about the disappointment that success brings–because there’s always something more, always a next benchmark just beyond the reach of even the most decorated and successful of men.

Brad Pitt’s performance as Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane is the centerpiece of Moneyball and worth the price of admission. But Jonah Hill’s supporting role–perhaps the first serious role for the comedy star?–is also a highlight, and the two play off of each other winningly.

Moneyball is a unique film that in many ways parallels the sport it documents. Like baseball, the movie is sometimes quiet and reflective, sometimes intense and rowdy, sometimes playful and sometimes deadly serious. It’s also a movie that cares about people, heroes, their histories and their reaches for glory.

Malick’s Tree of Life: What We Know

There are films to be excited about, and there are films to be EXCITED about.

Then there are films that one’s entire life waits years—even decades—for. Or maybe that’s just me. In any case… such a film is coming soon, and it’s directed by Terrence Malick (the most mysterious and brilliant living filmmaker). It’s called Tree of Life.

Here is what we know thus far about the latest film from the reclusive, Salinger-esque Mr. Malick (and predictably, it’s all gleefully mysterious and writ large):

  • The film is described as “a cosmic epic, a hymn to life” with the main theme being “the loss of innocence.”
  • It stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn as father and son.
  • It was filmed outside of Austin, Texas in the town of Smithville.
  • The film is being released by Apparition, a new distribution company that is also behind Jane Campion’s new film Bright Star.
  • The release date has been stated at various times to be December 25, 2009, but just in the last few days IMDB has switched to listing it as “2010.”
  • The official plot synopsis from the film’s distributor:

We trace the evolution of an eleven-year-old boy in the Midwest, Jack, one of three brothers. At first all seems marvelous to the child. He sees as his mother does, with the eyes of his soul. She represents the way of love and mercy, where the father tries to teach his son the world’s way, of putting oneself first. Each parent contends for his allegiance, and Jack must reconcile their claims. The picture darkens as he has his first glimpses of sickness, suffering and death. The world, once a thing of glory, becomes a labyrinth.

Framing this story is that of adult Jack, a lost soul in a modern world, seeking to discover amid the changing scenes of time that which does not change: the eternal scheme of which we are a part. When he sees all that has gone into our world’s preparation, each thing appears a miracle — precious, incomparable. Jack, with his new understanding, is able to forgive his father and take his first steps on the path of life.

The story ends in hope, acknowledging the beauty and joy in all things, in the everyday and above all in the family — our first school — the only place that most of us learn the truth about the world and ourselves, or discover life’s single most important lesson, of unselfish love.

  • Jack Fisk—who has worked with Malick on all of his films—is back as production designer.
  • Costume designer Jacqueline West is back after having worked with Malick on The New World.
  • Emmanuel Lubezki is back as cinematographer (he worked wonders on The New World).
  • Alexandre Desplat (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) composed the music.
  • Sarah Green—producer on The New World—is back as producer.
  • In a 2008 interview about his 40 year working relationship with Malick, Jack Fisk said the following:

It’s such an important film to Terry and I think this is the film he’s most wanted to make. His approach to filmmaking just keeps evolving. We made this film with hardly any lighting. People were working without scripts. He would dole them out and take them back. It was Terry at his most excited. He seemed stronger and more inventive than any time in the last forty years… I saw some dailies and when I see this footage it looked like you’d found some film left over from the 50s. It was just magical.

…It’s not structured like a regular film. I think it could change some parts of cinema. I’m just so excited about it. I told Terry, “your going to make it hard for me to work on another film after this. Because they look like films, and this… is different.”

  • There is an IMAX film called Voyage of Time that is reportedly going to be a companion piece to The Tree of Life and will be narrated by Brad Pitt.
  • The IMAX film reportedly covers “the birth and death of the universe.” Of course!
  • There will be dinosaurs. Mike Fink, who is doing effects work on the film, reported this to Empire magazine: “We’re animating dinosaurs, but it’s not Jurassic Park. The attempt is to treat it as if somehow a camera wound up in the middle of these periods when dinosaurs roamed the earth and creatures first started to emerge from the sea onto the land. The first mammals appearing. We’re doing a number of creatures all seriously scientifically based… I think when it’s finished it’ll be something that’s referred to for years.”
  • Douglas Trumbull, the visual f/x pioneer who collaborated with Stanley Kubrick on 2001 and Steven Spielberg on Close Encounters of the Third Kind, was reportedly brought in to help with visual effects.
  • In one version of the screenplay, the story opened with “a sleeping god, underwater, dreaming of the origins of the universe, starting with the big bang and moving forward, as fluorescent fish swam into the deity’s nostrils and out again.” Malick supposedly wanted to create something that has never been seen before, and dispatched cameramen all over the world. They shot micro jellyfish on the Great Barrier Reef volcanic explosions on Mount Edna, and ice shelves breaking off in Antarctica. Special effects consultant Richard Taylor describes sections of the script as “pages of poetry, with no dialogue, glorious visual descriptions.”
  • Some rumors suggest that Tree of Life is a reworking of Malick’s abandoned project Q, which he wrote back in the 1970s. Q has been described as originally having been a “multi-character drama set in the Middle East during World War I, with a prologue set in prehistoric times.”

Whew! Well if that doesn’t make The Tree of Life the most anticipated “might change cinema” movie of the year, I don’t know what does!

The countdown is on. I cannot wait.

Inglourious Basterds

There are very few directors in the world who can imbue a dollop of cream and a plate of apple strudel with the sort of pulsating, vivacious energy that Quentin Tarantino can. And there are very few directors who can make twenty minutes of table talk as utterly engrossing and tension building as Tarantino can. But the Pulp Fiction auteur has a way of bringing to life the cinema in ways that hardly anyone else even attempts anymore. He doesn’t do it by using CGI or massive budgets. He does it by knowing how to tell a good story and how to tell it cinematically. And he does it by taking risks. He’s an utter master of the craft—a nerdy, fearless, movie nut genius who turns low art pop kitsch into masterful, luxurious moving picture epics. He’s like the Andy Warhol of the post-MTV, videogame era. And his new movie, Inglourious Basterds, might just be his masterpiece.

Tarantino, as you may already know, is a director who traffics in genre revisionism, pop pastiche, and all things irreverent, over-the-top, and anachronistic. Basterds is his “WWII epic” (mixing elements of war, spy, spaghetti western and noir genres), and it’s a film that looks and feels very much at home in his larger body of work. As such, you shouldn’t expect Saving Private Ryan. It’s not as honorable or sober as that film. But it’s no less profound.

Skeptics will dismiss Basterds as a too-far trivializing of a very serious topic (WWII, Nazis, the slaughter of Jews), but make no mistake: this film doesn’t take the subject matter lightly. Quite the contrary. Pay attention to Tarantino’s film (beneath all the ridiculous scalping and bashing of brains) and you’ll see a probing examination of the lasting emotional legacy of WWII. It’s a film about revenge and justice—familiar themes for Tarantino—and a cultural therapy session wherein the traumas of WWII are not debunked or demeaned but rather funneled into a piercing, explosive denouement that is equal parts catharsis and critique.

The end of this film, like the end of all Tarantino films, is a bloodbath. But it’s a bloodbath in the most respectable, glorious, Scorsese-esque sense of the word. It’s a bloodbath that feels almost purifying. Tarantino is an artist who knows how gore and bloodletting can service a film in an operatic, visceral (as opposed to desensitized), meaningful sense, and it’s never as meaningful as it is at the close of this film.

As in all of his films, Tarantino’s objective here is twofold. On one hand (and perhaps of primary import), he wants to make a wildly entertaining movie that indulges his fanboy fetishes and pop art proclivities. But on the other hand, he’s interested in making a point about what the cinema is—what it offers us that real life can’t (nonlinear storytelling, bird’s eye camera perspectives, and in this case, rewritten history and revenge catharsis), how we respond to it, and what its dangers are.

It’s not a coincidence that the final bloodbath scene takes place in a movie theater and features film-as-death imagery everywhere. Nor is it a coincidence that Eli Roth (mastermind of splatterfest movies like Hostel) plays one of the most vicious Nazi-hunting Jew protagonists (the baseball-bat armed “Bear Jew”). And in true form for Tarantino (who often has something subtle to say about race), I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a black man unexpectedly winds up being the biggest thorn in the Nazis’ side. You’ll recognize the scene I’m talking about when you see the film. But suffice it to say, it’s all very Gone With the Wind (incidentally, Josef Goebbels favorite film).

Tarantino’s attention to detail and uncanny ability to create memorable scenes ensures that Basterds will offer cinematic delights for repeat viewings for years to come. Tarantino’s movies are rich, artistic endeavors where every choice has his unique stamp on it, from the music to the vivid coloring to the unexpected casting (this is Tarantino’s best ensemble cast, I’d venture). Among the acting highlights in the film are Michael Fassbender as a demure British spy (with a slightly imperfect German accent), Christoph Waltz as the Austrian Nazi known as “The Jew Hunter” (perhaps Tarantino’s most delectably realized villain), Diane Kruger as 40s bombshell actress Bridget von Hammersmark, and Mélanie Laurent as heroine Shoshanna Dreyfus. And watch out for Mike Myers’ cameo. Tarantino employs his “Austin Powers British” skills in a brief scene that almost steals the whole movie.

My favorite scene in the film concerns a rendezvous of spies and “basterds” in the basement of a French tavern. It’s one of the best examples of Tarantino’s ability to build tension in a prolonged scene. For about 15 minutes, the characters are just talking, but the tension just builds and builds until the scene’s bloody, Reservoir Dogs-inspired climax (which lasts about 15 seconds). Everyone in the theater gasped and released nervous laughter when that scene ended—a sure sign that Tarantino accomplished what he intended to.

But really, the whole film is like this. The opening scene features a similar “rising tension while talking” motif, as do several scenes throughout the film (any scene featured Waltz’s “Jew Hunter,” for example). There isn’t a misstep in the whole grand affair, and it’s all so thoroughly entertaining and disarmingly cinematic. I haven’t even mentioned half of the great stuff in this film (Brad Pitt and his team of Nazi-hunters, for example), but I’ve said enough. This is an epic achievement and I daresay an essential addition to the canon of WWII film classics.

Public Enemies

Depp pitt

There is a lot that could be said about Public Enemies—a lot, for example, about the HD digital photography which is perhaps the most polarizing aspect of the film for many audiences. For a really insightful take on the visual style of the film, I recommend Manohla Dargis’ review for The New York Times (a review I happen to totally agree with).

I enjoyed the film. It is beautiful to look at and a fascinating rendering of the criminal underworld. It is definitely a Michael Mann film, and thoroughly comfortable in the company of his other crime classics like Heat or Collateral.

The film is about John Dillinger—an iconic American criminal in the most hardened sense of the word. The film is about his criminal behavior and his continual outrunning of the authorities (J. Edgar Hoover, G-Men, Christian Bale, and some no-nonsense Texan lawmen), but it’s also about his persona. He was a celebrity, a fashionable womanizer, a face every American knew, feared, and in some ways respected.

As Dillinger, Johnny Depp unsurprisingly hits the bullseye. Some will argue that his acting in this film is “minor Depp” and consists mainly of iconic posing, Tommy-gun shooting and simply looking suave and cool in front of Mann’s numerous high-def close-ups. But that is exactly the point. Depp’s Dillinger is incredibly self-aware and comfortable in the spotlight, if not in his own skin. The extent to which he has a stable sense of his own identity is inextricably tied to his celebrity and criminal clout. As long as he is on the run, robbing banks, and stealthily usurping the standards of class and law, he knows who he is. His image on the “Public Enemy #1” posters is exactly how he wants to conceive of himself.

Depp’s Dillinger in Public Enemies feels very similar to Brad Pitt’s Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both actors play these criminal icons in understated ways that emphasize visual grandeur and iconic posturing. Both films are about American crime, celebrity, and how we can or cannot relate to larger-than-life antiheroes. Both films have gun battles and death and the slow killing-off of the villainous allies and gang buddies of the central figures. Both end with the iconic men being shot from behind in appropriately dramatic (and yet almost anticlimactic) fashion.

And like Brad Pitt’s Jesse James, Depp’s Dillinger never feels completely relatable; we never get a full or deep sense of who he is or what exactly motivates his criminal impulses. All we know is that Depp, like James, enjoys being bad. He doesn’t know how to be good—though there are glimpses (subtle flinches of the eye, moments of emotion, etc) when we can see that he wants to be good or regrets ever turning to the dark side. We know he loves a woman, for example (Marion Cotillard), and that he likes baseball, movies, good clothes, and fast cars. But beyond that we are in the dark about his character—if only because he himself is not sure of who or why he is.

There are numerous times in the film where he says something about how he only cares about the now—having fun in the present. And this makes sense for a person like him. The past is full of darkness, evil-doing, and lost innocence. The future contains an almost certainly ugly end to his criminal free-for-all. The present is the only place he can exist, and that is one of the reasons why he is such a hard character to read. His identity comes only through his situation and circumstance. It is not deeply rooted. It only comes through the immediate impression he gives off to bystanders, cops, fellow criminals, and everyday people who see his face on posters and FBI newsreel footage.

In this way I think Mann’s unorthodox photography in the film makes perfect sense. People have complained that the HD digital, handheld look of the film is anachronistic and too distracting. It undercuts the believability of the 30s era milieu and brings too much attention to itself, they say.

But this is indeed the point. Depp’s Dillinger is best—indeed only—understood through the camera lenses and the perceptions of external observers. Mann underscores this by making it extraordinarily clear that this is a movie, that you are viewing these people through a camera’s rendering—a camera that is moving, present and perceptive in ways that neither you nor Dillinger could ever be. It is intrusively hyper-realistic and reveals more about Dillinger than perhaps he even knew of himself, which is the reason why a film like this is so valid and so haunting.

On one hand, the film is complicit in the maintenance of Dillinger’s mythic iconography. One gets the sense that if a team of HD digital cinematographers were sent back to 1933 to follow Dillinger around, Dillinger would glory in the attention and feel most himself in front of the hyper-attentive, deeply probing cameras. But—as with Jesse James—the conspicuously cinematic mediation of the man’s myth, especially via the sometimes brutal and unforgiving form of HD, also serves to demythologize. It unsaddles the epic story of its more romantic adornments and florid embellishments, leaving us with a dark, cold, hard-edged reality that feels far from the storybook world of gangs-and-guns adventure in which Dillinger and James would probably want to be remembered.