Two exceptional movies framed the past year for me.
The Tree of Life begins as a seed of light and then expands to the whole territory of existence. Through the memories of ordinary life juxtaposed with glimpses of the primal forces of creation we are given a view of a universe spawned in raptures of what may be called love.
Melancholia is no less of a masterpiece, but its subject is the utter finality of death.
Tree of Life is actually the first movie by Terence Malick that I totally enjoyed and appreciated. As ambitious as any film can be, it’s also so unconventional in structure that to many it has been either overwhelming or inaccessible. The only film I can think of that embraces so wide a vision is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. And yet, while that movie approaches the big ideas from a rather cerebral standpoint and spends most of its time outside of the earth, Malick’s singular achievement is to uncover the secrets of the soul through the device of memory and the lens of an ordinary life.
We watch a life unfold from infancy to adulthood in a little town in Texas and we are also witness to the initial explosion of creation leading to the evolution of life on our planet. Malick’s theme is the continuity between the extremes of our mundane existance and of the greater evolution within which our lives unfold. Only a director who is equally at home with the grandest vision and the minute particulars of memory could pull this off.
On one hand this is certainly one of the best portraits of growing up that I’ve ever seen. I could feel the textures and almost sense the smells and touch of my own childhood, growing up in the fifties. The intimacy and the struggles of family life, and particularly the relationship between a father and a son are revealed in such finely selected detail that what we witness reveals universal themes of love and struggle contained in singular circumstance. Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the father is truly exceptional as is the performance of the young Hunter McCracken as the son and Jessica Chastain as both mother and as the embodiment of grace.
Somehow, woven through the family drama, in a manner that is miraculously seamless, we witness in breathtaking segments the big bang, the evolution of stars, the emergence of life and the birth of the world we are familiar with. I can’t describe how or why this works, but it’s a feat that only a master of film and a true spiritual visionary could achieve without for a moment falling into the maudlin and sentimental.
At center the movie carries an essentially Christian message, but one that is both universal and transcendent. When we contemplate the last few images of skyscrapers and the Golden Gate bridge, we are seeing them through the eyes of a man who has taken the full lesson of life, that all that we are and all that we build are the products ultimately of the love that has been passed on to us.
Melancholia, by Lars von Trier, is about the denial of love and of life and the profound emptiness at the core of our suffering. Von Trier is a controversial director whose films have earned both the highest recognition and vitriolic condemnation. His actresses have won acclaim while he has been accused of misogyny for the usually harsh treatment of their characters in his films. His movies are not always easy to watch or gentle on our sensibilities, but he is an absolute master at constructing images that transcend the content of his narratives. Like one of his mentors, the Russian director Andrey Tarkovsky, he approaches film as a painter or sculptor in time, building for us in a precise accumulation of impressions a total picture that leaves us usually stunned and breathless.
About five years ago a very good friend of mine ended her life by jumping into the Rio Grande Gorge. I’ve often tried to imagine what went through her mind as she drove her ramshackle car with a broken window 40 miles up through the canyons toward Taos under the cold and overcast April sky, arriving at the bridge in the dark of evening. She walked to one of the exposed platforms that overlook the river, 600 feet down. You can’t see the river once the sun goes down, so what you are looking into is a vast pool of darkness with the distant sound of the rapids sifting between the canyon walls. What was she feeling as she removed her coat and her shoes, climbed the railing and jumped? Was it sudden fear or the exhilaration of flight, or just a numbing descent into oblivion?
I believe that the motives we imagine for suicide are full of misconceptions. Sometimes we think that a person who commits suicide is trying to leave here for a better place or was seeking some sort of transcendent experience. We may think that it’s an act of violence or revenge enacted toward we the survivors. Finally I’ve come to accept that for some people this life means nothing but constant pain, and death for them is not about transcendence or revenge, but only a blessed end to it all.
In Melancholia a world ten times the size of our own collides with the earth. We see it twice. During the overture we view the spectacle from outer space, as one enormous globe embraces and devours the other. Then we watch a woman’s life unravel in her total collapse into depression. We then see her slowly revive with the revelation of the end and finally in a welcome embrace of death. Then, once more we witness the collision of worlds, this time from the perspective of those whose lives are ended in its vast and sudden conflagration.
These are timely images in a year when visions of strange planets and worlds colliding echo in the consciousness of many who expect the revelation of dire prophecies. But von Trier isn’t talking about prophecies. He is addressing the condition of both longing and avoidance as we face each other and our individual mortality. The character Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, is a woman who tries to find meaning in the enveloping ritual of an elaborately staged wedding celebration. When confronted by the contradictory undercurrents and self deceptions of family, friends and associates, she fails completely in her efforts to conform, and what results is the almost complete collapse of her world. What remains is her relationship with Claire, her sister and caretaker, Claire’s husband, and their young son. The final drama plays out on a huge estate separated from anyone else in the world. Overshadowing every relationship is the approach and impending arrival of the mysterious planet, which is in the end, death itself.
What we witness is that in the face of death all of our illusions and rituals unravel and we can no longer hide from our fears. We are unmasked. The scientist must set aside rationality and embrace the unknown. Those who have everything under control see that control is ultimately an illusion. To those who welcome death with open arms, and perhaps for the children who are too innocent to have constructed a body of fear there is the possibility of calm acceptance or even embrace.
In the final image in the film, the two sisters and the child sit under a tent made of branches while the beautiful and awesome planet fills the horizon before it obliterates everything. This singular and powerful image is one that I will carry with me for a long time. For me it conveys a certain acceptance. To my surprise I found in this film a kind of understanding and a kind of peace.
These are the two movies, out of all that I saw in 2011 that stand out as special achievements. On the surface they appear to be contradictory in their themes, but as both strive to address universal questions of life and death they are not as far apart as they seem. Perhaps, as my own awareness vibrates between the poles of light and dark, life and death, love and despair, I find it quite natural to embrace both visions.