In the spirit of nonlinearity and deconstruction, I’m going to do things a little differently this week. I will not begin at the beginning, but when I do, you’ll know it. If you’re already confused then I think it’s working. What do you think?
I would say that less than 10% of last Thursday night’s audience enjoyed the Cape Breton Island Film Series screening of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. This opinion of mine is based not on the weekly poll conducted by the film series, though I can guess the results, (Surprise me! Vote here!) but deduced from the sighs and snickers that echoed through the theatre as we were exiting. My own heart broken, by this film, I might add. And broken again by its reception. The pieces of a master laid bare, only to be forgotten in a mire of bad humour and condescension.
I liked this movie. And you, my imagined rival, did not.
So first let’s talk about a movie we’ll both like for a minute, and then we can get to the meaning of life and whether or not that matters. Deal?
Win win is sure to lift our spirits from the existential chasm in which we have generally been finding ourselves, mere specks of dust in the universe that we are. This third feature from director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) takes a more recognizably mundane approach to telling a story—and when we start to realize how enormous, terrifying, and ugly the universe really is, mundane is about as uplifting as it gets.
Paul Giamatti stars as Mike Flaherty, a down-on-his-luck lawyer struggling to keep his middle-class dreams of mediocrity alive. Hiding their dire financial status from his loving wife (Amy Ryan) and two daughters, Flaherty makes a morally dubious decision to assume guardianship of a senile client, placing him in a home and collecting $1,500 a month from his estate.
Flaherty’s desperate act of deception is further complicated by the unexpected arrival of his teenage grandson Kyle (Alex Shaffer), who seeks temporary refuge from his rehab-happy mother. And then, just when the shit pile of life seems insurmountable, a silver lining appears. Flaherty, who moonlights as a down-on-his-luck high school wrestling coach, discovers that Kyle is a talented addition to his floundering team. A favourable coincidence, and just like that, Flaherty finally has a shot at winning.
I expect Win win is a movie that will actually make us feel good—about something, about anything, about our fabulously average, uncelebrated lives. We may not ask big questions or ponder the mysteries of the universe, but in the quiet lives of a suburban New Jersey family, we might just catch a glimpse of something real.
Now I’d like to go back to the stuff about the universe. Here we are again, standing beneath The Tree of Life, asking God or maybe just each other the only question left when it’s all over.
“What the fuck was that?”
Well, that, everyone I’ve ever talked to about this film, was a remarkable not to mention breathtaking exploration of whatever is inside of us that we sometimes call infinite. He says God and you flinch but we all know better. Still, there is something worth a moment of silence, is there not?
The Tree of Life is, without question, a visual stunner. The eyes run wild with someone else’s imagination. A half-hour sequence interrupts what might be narrative, taking us all the way back, to the birth of creation itself, as imagined by the visionary eye of Malick, whose every shot resonates with sublime landscapes and potent imagery.
It is here, certainly, that the author loses his audience though we suspect, if we wonder about it, that he fully intends to. Why, anyway, should we be invited on one man’s quest to understand the intricate meanings of his own life? Who do we think we are?
Malick gives us some time to think about that, should we choose to use it, while creation unfolds before our bewildered eyes. Our problem, as an audience, is that we are trained to read from left to right, and we have come to believe in the significance of every moment, poor fools. So we are sitting there wondering what the hell dinosaurs play-fighting has to do with Brad Pitt playing an abusive father, and we are stumped. We are frustrated. And we say, “This doesn’t mean anything!”
Well, we’re right. But to have no meaning, and to be meaningless, are two different things entirely. Do you believe me?
The Tree of Life is first and foremost an exercise in memory. It is the story (and it is, a story, if one we cannot always recognize) of a man seeking to understand himself, and to reconcile the ideals of his childhood with the frustrated facts of his adult life. And so the movie begins with a series of flashes, moments of out sequence, the news of a lost son, and we are somewhere in the middle.
Jack, tortured and unspectacular, is something like our narrator. It is his voice we hear as we marvel at creation, it is he who is speaking to the universe, or God, or us. But this is not the Jack we know, played by Sean Penn, voicing our uncertainty. These are the questions of a child. It is young Jack, innocent and curious, who we imagine lying in his bed, afraid to dream, wondering why before it even happens.
Jack is our guide on this chaotic quest. We were just shooting stars until he came along and gave us something to look at. It is through his memories that we are transported to a distinct time and place, a particular moment and certain facts. It is here, in the middle, that we find our story. Everyone relaxes for a minute because something is happening.
I think we all like this part.
We are content, for the moment, but still we seek resolution.
Only, you will remember that the end is already written. Everyone eventually finds themselves face to face with a terrible metaphor for the meaning of life that is only ever a pitiful reflection of our wholly inadequate human imaginations. Even The Lord of the Rings ends on a beach. Everything ends on a beach. Or in a sky. Or as a dream.
Deal with it.
Win win shows at 7pm Thursday night at Empire Theatres Studio 10.