“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” asks the epigraph from the Book of Job that introduces Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life. Interestingly Malick omits the rest of that Biblical line: “Declare, if thou hast understanding.” Possibly Malick guesses that understanding may be asking too much of audiences–NPR reports that at least one theater has put up a sign declaring that not understanding the film is no grounds for a refund–or possibly Malick hopes that he has crafted something that can be appreciated without fully understanding it. (The raft of early positive reviews that nevertheless throw up their hands at the film indicate this is indeed the case.) More than both of these possibilities, though, I’d suggest that the omission stems from the very impossibility of true and complete understanding that is a core theme of the film.
After a brief flurry of disorienting shifts in time and tone–from the first our desire to understand is under assault–the present tense of Malick’s story opens with Jack (Sean Penn) and his wife getting ready for their workdays in their up-scale house, relations between them slightly strained. A possible reason for Penn’s emotional distance is soon revealed when he lights a candle for his younger brother. It is the anniversary of that brother’s death, and it is clear from Penn’s guarded portrayal that unresolved issues linger. As the day progresses we see Penn at various moments in his workplace, a concrete and steel urban jungle given life only by a single tree. And then we see Penn in the elevator of his office building, talking on the phone to his father–played by Brad Pitt, in a (as a friend put it) “you sometimes forget that Brad Pitt can actually act” performance–apologizing for an earlier conversation during which he blamed Papa Pitt for the brother’s death.
The rest of the film is a record of everything that led up to that moment of apology and implicit forgiveness–literally everything, starting with the Big Bang, the moment of foundation.
Back, then, to that epigraph. Where wast thou? God is saying to Job, essentially, “you weren’t even there when I created the Earth, so don’t presume to understand how this world that I made works.” But in an extended sequence that The Discovery Channel really should license, what Malick does is–contra God–take us there, based on scientific ideas of the formation of the universe, the Earth, and complex life. And as the questioning, whispered voiceovers suggest (“where are you?”), the God of the Bible isn’t there. The “foundations of the Earth” were laid by natural processes; just as the “foundation” of humans and human nature was laid by animals, chance, and evolution. An aquatic dinosaur blunders onto the beach to escape predators, laying a foundation for life on land; a meteor tumbles toward Earth, laying the foundation for the end of the age of the dinosaurs and the rise of mammals. A recurring scene shows Penn walking among labyrinths of water-formed tunnels, volcanic rock, the seashore…the geological foundations of the Earth, of life on Earth. He is there, part of the tree of life. And this seems to be a recurring device in the film, to link events and images backward and forward in time. The lone tree Penn sees in his urban workplace recalls the tree he remembers from the woods of his childhood recalls the first tree we see back in the dawn of the world. Boys swimming recall the origins of life in water, boys being capricious recall dinosaurs being capricious. The world is fractal, everything now contains traces of what came before: in the scientific sense of biochemistry and geological strata; but also in our memories, racial and personal.
The suggestion is made early in The Tree of Life that people must choose between “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” The film then spends the bulk of its copious length recasting this as a false dichotomy. In part, this is done through sets of similar images linking the natural and the transcendent, finding grace in nature and vice-versa.
If these grandiose, musical scenes of the history of life on Earth recall Kubrick’s 2001, Malick’s scenes of boyhood life recall the small-but-growing personal world of Stephen King and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. Seemingly disparate, the two sets of scenes are linked, different sorts of foundation-laying. One is wonder at the childhood of the world, the other is the wonder of a child in the world. In both, all is new; in both, sense is born of nonsense, solid features shaped by liquidity. Like King’s fiction at its best, Malick captures so well the trunculent adolescence of 1950s small-town Americana. There is the endless anarchy of summer, the testing of the world that leads children to sometimes do things without understanding why, without having a reason; there is fraternal love and familial love, cut with resentment and competition; there is the encounter with the other, in various forms; there is the God-like archetypal roles of parents, so akin to the two faces of God in Penn’s memories–Pitt’s stern, uncompromising musician-inventor, Jessica Chastain’s ethereal, angelic nurturer. Together they represent for Penn nature and grace personified.
So much of The Tree of Life is memory, is about memory. “I think about him every day,” says Penn of his dead brother. Christian religion promises a heaven where we are reunited with those we love, but memory already provides that, every day, whenever we dare call upon it. Christian religion promises grace, but nature already provides that, too–in memory, and in imagination, as the film’s final scene of reunion shows. When it comes this finale is sudden, feels unearned. (Everyone will find their own flaws with the film, and for me it was a wish for a few minutes less of the music of the spheres, and a few minutes more building up to the end.) But I think the suddenness is quite intentional. It is the suddenness of eucatastrophe, of unexpected grace. It cannot make sense; the freeing release of forgiveness feels as it does precisely because it is a release from the chain of cause and effect. And that chain is one that had dragged down Penn and his family–the litany of questions to God that God can never answer: why do bad things happen to innocent people, why does effort go unrewarded, why are people loving one moment and cruel the next, why is my brother loved more than me, where are you? We cannot believe that the world works the way it does, we cannot not search for understanding (exhibit A: this review). Even when religions tell us otherwise–as when the town preacher tells the family to expect a capricious God–we cannot not believe in reasoned causes, in ideas like fairness. “Some day…we’ll understand it all, all things” declares the pious Pitt, even as he inwardly seethes over his failures and his perceived lack of appreciation. And so a release from the chains of cause and effect must feel transcendent; and yet, must be human choice. Penn’s adult forgiveness is one of the few uniquely human acts in the film, an act not linkable to animal behavior (contrast it with another such act, shooting animals for pleasure as a child). When Chastain then whispers “I give him to you” to Penn’s wife, we have an inkling of what possibilities have been unlocked. By forgiving his father Penn is potentially allowing himself to be more open, to drop the stiff mask of cultural and personal history that all characters in the movie wear, to perhaps mend the icy formality that exists between himself and his wife.
A pensive Penn sets aside his mask.
It’s memory and imagination, then, that allow forgiveness and moving on–not understanding. Some matters cannot be proved or disproved–the God of the Bible may not be present in The Tree of Life, but nothing in his vision precludes a Deistic God, who has set the universe in motion and now watches; nothing precludes a theosophical understanding of the world, a union of science and spiritualism, nature and grace. And indeed much of the film, starting with its title and its first image, has theosophic overtones (the swirling lights that appear when characters try to talk to God are from theosophic artist Thomas Wilfred’s lumia piece “Opus 161″). But The Tree of Life does not insist on any specific understanding, so much as wondering how to live given the limits of knowledge and understanding. These limits are everywhere in the film: what we are not told by Malick can be as telling as what we are. We are not told what happened to Penn’s other brother, the third sibling, but his absence from the present-day narrative is telling; equally telling is that Penn and his wife appear to be childless. More centrally, we know next to nothing about the argument between Penn and Pitt. All we know is that Penn has accused Pitt of somehow causing his brother’s death, but then, when he’s had a chance to think about it, takes the accusation back and apologizes. And that’s The Tree of Life in a nutshell. We can put together some puzzle pieces around the circumstances of the brother’s death, but we cannot know the reasons behind Penn’s accusation, or its accuracy. In the context of Penn and Pitt’s argument this information simply isn’t important; what is important is that whatever happened, Penn would have found a way to believe that Pitt had caused it. But as we–and he–sift through his memories of childhood, triggered by the sad anniversary and the glimpse of the tree, we realize that sometimes we do things for no reason at all, without being able to explain or understand why. Sometimes things happen for no reason at all. That’s just the way nature works, and trying to understand these events as a meaningful, mediated sequence of cause and effect mostly leads to disappointment and recrimination. But nature does also give us those other gifts–memory, imagination–and they can more than compensate if we embrace them, as Penn finally does. Especially in the hands of a storyteller like Malick, they are nature’s own forms of grace.
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Note that these impressions are based on a single viewing of the film several weeks ago; this review is an artifact of memory.
February marked the 36th annual Boston SciFi Film Festival, and the first night of the SF36 was devoted to five recent short films under the program title “Dangerous Visions” (no connection to the famous 1967 anthology). I thought it might be worth examining these films briefly, to see what today’s “dangerous visions” were, and to capture something of the state of contemporary short film SF. Given how Neill Blomkamp’s short “Alive in Joburg” begot his big-budget feature film District 9, these may be directors to keep an eye on in the future. And a few of these films, at least, are very much worth watching in the present.
Some caveats. First, I am not a film critic. There will be cinematic areas and techniques–matters of directing, editing, cinematography, acting–that may be crucial to fully appreciating a film, but that I simply won’t recognize enough to comment on. I am writing this from the standpoint of a casual watcher of film but a more-than-casual consumer of science fiction, in the hope it might be useful primarily to a similar audience. Second, I should note that this review of one night’s program should not overly reflect on the SciFi Film Festival overall, which included ten days of other programming.
Finally, please also note that my presumption is that most people reading this will not easily have access to view these films, so I will be describing plots in detail, including “spoilers.” However, for “Planes de Futuro” and “Solita” I have included links to watch the films online; you may wish to do so before reading those sections below. Although, because these are such short films and each goes by so quickly, I think knowing what happens in them and why may lead to a greater appreciation of the films while watching them.
Time’s Up Eve
US, Patrick Rea (writer and director), Jon Niccum (writer) IMDB
We open the film, and the Festival overall, with a black and white shot of the mean streets of a nameless city at night. A damsel in distress gives us voice-over as she runs, avec trench coat, away from shadowy pursuers. Yes, we’re on planet noir. As she runs, our protagonist Eve explains to us that she is one of the last humans left, that aliens have come to Earth to harvest our souls. Eve takes refuge in her office building, where she looks longingly at framed videos of her BFF and a boyfriend. There is a noise from below. She uncovers a peephole in the office floor, watches as her downstairs neighbor–a “dealer” who facilitated the harvesting of souls–is himself taken by the aliens. Then the noises move to the stairwell. Eve flees to the streets, only to encounter two shuffling human forms. They are (surprise!) the zombie-like husks of her best friend and her boyfriend, come wanting their souls back–because (surprise!surprise!) Eve, too, is a dealer in souls, who sold them both out to prolong her own freedom. She reveals that she has kept her boyfriend’s soul in a small box shaped like a treasure chest, rather than giving it to the aliens (no mention is made of the BFF’s soul). And rather than giving up her boyfriend’s soul to the aliens now, she tosses it into a sewer, leaving her former friend and her former boyfriend to hold her down as the aliens take her own soul. Time’s up, Eve. It’s not hard living without a soul, a slumped and inert Eve muses as the film ends, when you haven’t had one for a long time anyway.
Some of these individual elements are well done: Eve fleeing not to her home but to her office, and the related sense–if underdeveloped–that the aliens are simply doing a job as well; the tiny shining marbles of the souls, which are the only bit of color in the film. The storytelling is well-paced and, with a run time of only 12 minutes, economical. But while literalizing the idea of selling souls in this manner might have been a dangerous vision in 1950, today it feels not so much retro as dated, an extended setup for final lines that don’t cut as they once might have. And the film’s central image–a professional woman, a sexual woman (and indeed Eve, the proto-woman) as a soul-stealing but otherwise undeveloped character–makes an unfortunately apt introduction to this collection of short films, considering how often that image will be repeated.
“Cosas Feas,” for example, is a film not improved by its proximity to the misogyny of some of the other films. Kriko Krakinsky is a schoolboy in Mexico attending his first sexual education class. As the diagrams and descriptions offered by the teacher become more and more explicit, Kriko begins first to sweat, then to tremble, and finally he flees the classroom, to the mocking jeers of his classmates over his apparent embarrassment. When he returns home, however, we realize that something more than boyish embarrassment is afoot. His parents, and his older brother and accompanying girlfriend, all act in a parody of domestic tranquility. Random pictures and objects hang crookedly on the walls for decoration; Kriko’s mother cooks without having any idea what food should look like; the father reads non sequitur excerpts from the newspaper; the brother and his girlfriend scream and moan and shake from their upstairs bedroom all night long without sleep at all–and Kriko has been forbidden to disturb them. Meanwhile, clips of classic SF films of alien invasion play on the TV, and Kriko himself totes around a small planet on his keychain. When he asks his parents where they are from originally, they only reply that they’re from far away indeed. “Cosas Feas” announces loudly but cleverly just how knowing it is.
Which is important for what comes next: one night Kriko can no longer bear the thumps and screams from his brother’s room, and sneaks in. He encounters his brother performing oral sex on his girlfriend–except her vagina is a monstrous toothed-and-tentacled maw spewing green slime, H.R. Giger-like in its mix of insect and reptilian qualities. My first reaction was mortification: if the somewhat distant, off-camera fear of female sexuality present in “Time’s Up, Eve” wasn’t bad enough, here was SF’s oft-implicit fear of female sexuality made vividly explicit. The scene went on and on. I began to sweat, and then to tremble. I contemplated walking out, in protest and disgust–at both the visuals, and the message. And that’s when I realized (I can be kind of slow) that this was precisely Kriko’s reaction to the depiction of human sexuality at the start of the film. I realized that my reaction was precisely what filmmaker Isaac Ezban had hoped to evoke. Alien sex doesn’t mean scantily-clad blue-skinned humanoid aliens who fuck in exactly the same way humans do; alien sex means alien sex. This is science fiction in the sense of Kij Johnson’s “Spar,” or in the sense Peter Watts frequently deploys: that the human way isn’t necessarily the only way or even the best way, and that true aliens would be just as likely to find us disgusting as we so often find their portrayals.
In “Cosas Feas,” Kriko imagines what his older brother and his girlfriend are up to that causes so much noise to come from their bedroom at night.
On further consideration, if there’s anything truly wrong with “Cosas Feas” it is that it goes on for about five minutes too long after this point, leading up to Kriko’s own first mating ceremony. (Also, the quality of the print was iffy, and the subtitles often belated). On the other hand, the acting is all very well done in a necessarily over-the-top sort of way; and the close, somewhat fish-eyed cinematography very ably conveys the claustrophobic world of a solitary child aware he doesn’t quite fit in. In this way the film ably straddles the line between depiction of the truly alien, and more everyday human experiences of coexistence and assimilation–for youth into the world of adulthood, and for many “aliens” into new cultures. So: a true SF film that’s interesting and undeniably effective in retrospect, although not a lot of fun to sit through.
UK/Hong Kong, Lawrence Gray (writer and director) IMDB
The breezy tone of “Zombie Radio” made it a good respite after the visual and thematic assault of “Cosas Feas”; on the other hand, that very breeziness, and the film’s placement here between the night’s two most memorable shorts, combined to make it largely forgettable. But here’s what I remember: “Freak of the Week” Frank, a conspiracy nut and claimed alien abductee, is a frequent caller to a radio news and opinion show–a show hosted by a sultry woman who apparently rejected Frank when they were in school together. During one such call, Frank’s car collides with a bicyclist–ridden by another attractive woman–while he fumbles with the phone trying to report a Bigfoot sighting. He and the bicyclist make common cause and chase the Bigfoot together; later, she takes him to bed, calling into the radio show and taunting the host that she must be a heartless zombie for rejecting Frank. Later, however, when they find Bigfoot, she is lured away from Frank by Bigfoot’s gifts and his primal manliness. Frank, upset at this turn of events, breaks into the radio studio and beheads the host, revealing–when the head keeps talking–that she is in fact a zombie. Frank then commandeers the microphone, and starts reporting on the real conspiracies and catastrophes of the day: the economy; climate change; etc.
Trailer for “Zombie Radio”
“Zombie Radio” is amusing enough in its sense of the ironic truth that the worst fears of conspiracy theorists pale in comparison to the real disasters occurring in the world. I think it might work well as a Pixar (or Python)-esque prelude or bonus clip to a feature film like Shaun of the Dead–it has the same understated British humor, and the colorful cinematography and cast ably convey a world that’s just slightly larger than life, supersaturated. Bigfoot, for example, is portrayed simply as a very large, unselfconscious man: John Candy playing “The Dude” from The Big Lebowski. This realism–exaggerated, but realism nonetheless–gives the film’s ending some extra bite. What pulls the film through to that ending is an ensemble cast that collectively delivers the best performance of any of these films.
This is closer to what I hoped to see: a film where, I’d imagine, the limited budget dictated a focus on using qualities particular to film to generate interesting, economical storytelling. It has a storytelling technique that could only work in film. So we are again in black and white, although the setting here is a brighter, more airy bedroom. A young man, David, awakes from slumber, whereupon he’s startled by a somewhat older woman standing by the bed in a slinky black dress (here we go again). She reveals that she is Eva–and there’s that most SFnal name again–the girl who recently broke up with him, come from the future. But he does not believe her, and orders her from the room. And then we begin again with David awakening: this is a groundhog day story, facilitated by time travel. Eva must convince David that she is who she says she is, that something terrible will soon happen to him. And, with this terrible event unavoidably on the horizon, that she wants a child from him to remember him by. With each misstep, each unconvincing statement, she learns and adjusts her argument, and so the film is actually a very small set of lines and scenes repeated again and again. Not a film for the impatient: I heard some sighs from the audience as the film progressed and the repetitions piled up, although I myself thought the pacing well-judged and never grew bored. If the ending is not unexpected–a message of getting what you need, as opposed to getting what you thought you wanted–it is also not at all belabored, and well composed. The scene is bright, Eva’s slinky dress is gone, her hair is down, and the camerawork is evocative of the hazy, powerful state of half-conscious association, compared to the methodical quest for proof that had gone before.
US, Steven Fine (writer and director), Barrie Potter and Evan Puschak (writers) IMDB | Watch Online
After the previous films I was all set for “Solita” to be a robot version of Lolita. That at least might have been dangerous. Instead, the film opens with the Argo, a spaceship on a mission of exploration, whose crew has been lost but for a sole surviving man, David Pierce. Attempting to complete the ship’s mission, David sends an odd farewell message to his brother, sets the warp drive, and dons the virtual reality goggles that the crew use to pass the time during long spaceflights. The ship is not heard from again. A salvage/rescue mission is eventually launched–the space tug Solita–which includes David’s brother, Robert Pierce. After turning down an invitation from Solita’s lovely navigator Marta to pass the time in warp together, Robert instead dons the VR goggles during warp, as his brother David had done, and somehow catches a glimpse of David inside the forested VR world. The rescue tug emerges from warp, they find the lost ship, and Robert discovers David dead, still wearing VR goggles. Solita arranges to tow the lost ship home, and on the warp back, our man Robert again dons the goggles; at the journey’s close, he is discovered dead, still wearing them. The lovely navigator sobs, throwing herself upon his inert body. Then we shift back to the VR world, where Robert at last meets up with David at the edge of a large body of water (see: SAIL AWAY), ready to begin their journey into whatever happens next, together.
Trailer for “Solita”
Of these five films, “Solita” feels closest to Hollywood-style science fiction. Along with “Cosas Feas,” it is the film that uses the most special effects–holographic computer interfaces, exterior shots of spaceships–wrapped around a not-terribly-scientific story that would feel several decades old were it to appear as written science fiction. In terms of popular awareness, however, it may be quite topical–as I write this, Time magazine’s cover story is on transhumanism, and a “robot opera” on the theme is set to begin a national run. What “Solita” does reasonably well, as a bridge to these concerns, is a more down-to-Earth twisting and mixing of the natural and the synthetic, in a way that does seem to be increasingly happening in today’s world. The scenes of the “real world” in the film are those that will appear to the audience most obviously unreal: the ship moving through space; the very spare scenes of the ship’s interior–chairs around a table, a lounge chair–which might be sets for a minimalist stage play. On the other hand, the “virtual reality world” is set around Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau’s temple of the natural, with its dense woods, chirping birds, sandy beach, and water lapping the shoreline. Which would seem to be stacking the deck, except there’s also some brief dialog where Solita’s crew sit around the table eating synthetic goop, commenting on how much they prefer it to older real foods. And in another scene, Marta comments that she has trouble telling her sleeping dreams from VR.
That sounds suggestive, but there’s nothing particularly complex going on here, no nested realities. What there is, is honest human confusion and uncertainty. The result is a film that’s endearingly and engagingly conveyed, if not in an especially meaty way. “Solita” can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a film about an individual character’s personal choice, or the broader pattern of choice factors that exist in its world, and so ends up feeling a little spare from both angles, a little simplistic. Yet by intent or coincidence, “Solita” does describe a certain trajectory in popular thought about the future–away from space, and to matters of authenticity in self and place. It comes across as almost meta-commentary on SF itself. On one hand, the choice made is a rejection of traditional genre SF tropes; on the other hand, the chosen VR realm is in a sense SF itself, an artificial world of expanded possibility. In Robert’s choice there’s thus a sense that SF may capture some important element of human life that cold and empty depictions of reality, however sleekly futuristic, do not; but tempered by the awareness of the wish-fulfillment potential of that expanded possibility, the awareness that it’s describing something not really there and so may be delusion-inducing. Humanity, the sense seems to be, needs a home, whether imaginary or not. And as compared to many big-budget Hollywood treatments of virtual reality and transhumanism, which tend to be monster stories advocating knowing one’s place, “Solita” earns points by its refusal to moralize about its choice made, for capturing something of the appeal of both sides.
* * *
Trying to extrapolate trends and patterns from only five films is probably an exercise in trying too hard, but it is at least worth noting a few data points. In addition to being the only one of these science fiction films set in space, “Solita” is also the lone film set in the future (although “Planes de Futuro” does feature a character from the future). None of the films pass the Bechdel test; more of an issue is that there are no conversations between men and women that are not about sexual relationships, and there is only one woman whose character is not defined by her sexual pairing with a man (the exception is Eve’s best friend in “Time’s Up, Eve,” who of that film’s characters gets the least time on-screen). Unmarried sexual women–who seem to always be wearing black in these films–are portrayed at best as distractions; at worst they are soul-stealers. Quite possibly related to this, none of these films had women directors or writers. This may suggest that the limited number of women in Hollywood involved at a high level with SF films [edit 23 March 2011: as John Scalzi has picked up on] is unlikely to be bolstered by new blood any time soon, alas.
Given the “girl cooties” treatment of sexuality largely on display, it’s probably not surprising that ties of blood and the nuclear family are a frequent solace to the characters in these films. In “Solita” fraternal ties, and the chance to continue living life with an older brother, trump a possible romance. In “Cosas Feas” it is only Kriko’s family who are capable of looking out for him and providing him with what he needs. And in “Planes de Futuro” it is only when Eva sheds her image of seductress, and assumes the image and gestures of a mother caring for a young child, that she gains the inner peace she had sought.
So, science fiction as a genre for backward-looking mama’s boys, then? As a fan of SF I know this isn’t always the case, but I did have an uncomfortable sense of it, watching these films in succession. Given the frequent backward glances the films cast at science fiction’s history, what is scary to contemplate is that this “Dangerous Visions” suite of films on the Festival’s opening night was to be followed on the third night by a program of five more films collectively titled “Retro Speculatives.” I skipped it. I had expected a large, young crowd the opening Friday night of the Festival, what with media fandom being a big industry these days and Boston being the locus for so many colleges, high-tech companies, and increasingly for film-making and gaming companies. But after watching these short films, the sparsely-attended theater and the largely middle-aged attendees made more sense. This was a program that seemed designed for insiders, for people who wanted to belong to something, rather than for bringing in casual viewers who simply wanted to see intelligent and challenging films, and understood that such films would necessarily include science fiction. And yet some of these films can offer intelligence and challenge–although for me, only after I had mentally shaken off the associations between the films that the collective program had given me.
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