Category Archives: Essays

Silence tells the story in ‘Ida’

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The alarming precision of nuns singing chromatically descending chants.

The hollow, circular depression of earth on the grounds of the convent where a life-size statue of Jesus stands, and where Ida paces restlessly.

The hermetic insularity of these images and sounds are what give “Ida” its incisive narrative force. Despite its circular and deceptively simple storytelling, the film conveys an awesome transformation within its main character Ida, (or Anna, her Christian name), a young novitiate about to take her vows who discovers she is Jewish.

Ida’s story is one of many, a single thread in a web woven from the aftermath of the Holocaust. Despite its historical context, Richard Brody, in his controversial review in The New Yorker, asserts that “Ida” is fraudulent, vague, and distasteful. Mr. Brody argues that because “Ida” is non-specific to any particular event related to Jews and the Holocaust, it sacrifices truth in favor of director Pawel Pawlikowski’s own version of history: “It filters out all supposedly extraneous context to stick not merely to the story but to Pawlikowski historical point…..nothing in the film is a solid thing or an action; everything is an example.” Mr. Brody goes on to call the film  “a history lesson in editorial form.” But “Ida’s” vagueness does not make the movie shallow or false; in fact, its ambiguity is what gives the film its haunting demarcations.

A scene from Pawel Pawlikowski's award-winning Ida.Mr. Brody states that many definitive actions are never seen, nor is specific historical context provided. But Pawlikowski conveys the devastating results of those actions. The farmer is not shown digging up the bones of the family he has murdered – Ida’s family. What is shown is Ida’s aunt Wanda kneeling next to the grave while clutching the small skull of her child, before wrapping it absentmindedly in a shawl. Later in the film, Wanda commits suicide by leaping from a window. Pawlikowski does not show her descent, nor the impact – this would be crude. But the sound of her body hitting the ground can be heard, even as the camera remains fixated on the open window.

Ida remains still and poised as she undergoes a series of discoveries and revelations. Often, after a shocking truth is revealed, the camera will linger on the unexpressive planes of her face. Ida’s stoicism is not shallow, but emotionally transparent. Her emotional restraint allows the viewer to use her as a vessel for their own thoughts and reactions. An example of this character-to-viewer transference is a scene late in the film where Ida is eating a meal at the convent. Like most activities, the meal is shrouded in reverent silence; the only sound that is heard is the scrape of utensils against dishes. Suddenly, a choked, almost inaudible giggle escapes Ida’s throat. The origins of her laughter could be a number of things, ranging from sensual excitement to a cynical reaction to the horror and absurdity of her recent discoveries. It is an exhilarating moment, and the viewer empathizes with the possibilities of Ida’s array of emotions: pleasure, gallows humor, shame. The cause of this outburst remains unknown; the viewer can only try to imagine the thoughts running through her head.

Because Pawlikowski does not disclose the details of Ida’s family history, and because the film isn’t overridden with overt references to the Holocaust or explanatory flashbacks, (I don’t recall the words “concentration camp” and “Nazi” ever being uttered) the viewer is left to construct their own lessons from Ida’s terrible circumstance. And of course the task is difficult – impossible,  even. So instead of feeding us the simple logic of cause and effect, problem and resolution, we are left – forced, even– to ruminate. And the thoughts that materialize in our own heads can be more vivid and disturbing than anything a movie screen, or perhaps even history, can show us.

“Ida” / Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski / Starring Agata Trzebuchowska, Agata Kulesza / 1 hour, 20 minutes / Rated PG-13

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‘Black Rock’: Women with Spears

blackrock112920128Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton surprised me with “Black Rock,” a lean, formidable thriller about survival and friendship. A husband and wife team, Mr. Duplass wrote the screenplay and Ms. Aselton directed.

Mark Duplass is known as the star of goofy but earnest films such as “Safety Not Guaranteed” and “Humpday.” He also shared writing, directing and producing credits with his brother, Jay Duplass, for the off-kilter comedies “Cyrus” and “Jeff, Who Lives at Home.”  Followers of Duplass will recognize and appreciate the relaxed and improvisational banter between “Black Rock’s” three main characters:  Sarah (Kate Bosworth), Lou (Lake Bell) and Gabby (Ms. Aselton). The women are childhood friends who have reunited for what Sarah hopes will be a bonding experience (especially for Lou and Gabby, who are in the midst of a falling out).

The spiky rapport between the women is intimate and spry, with a streak of black humor (says Sarah: “we are all dying, we can be hit by a bus tomorrow, and I’ll tell you one thing for certain, there are no buses on that island, so we can go out there and be safe from buses.”). This kind of dialogue is silly and unfussy, but holds enough clarity to bring the characters info focus.  Like her husband, Ms. Aselton is known for her comedic traits on the  improv comedy show “The League” and roles on “The Office.” As a director, Ms. Aselton is adept at building tension – both in atmosphere and between the three women.

In many ways,  “Black Rock” is a formulaic thriller about three women who, after a chilling turn of events, fall predator to hostile men while on a secluded, wooded island. But “Black Rock” distinguishes itself from the trappings of the genre. For one, the women fight back.

At one point in the film, Gabby tells Lou that they are the only two women left on earth. This statement is not uttered out of hopelessness, but to instill hope – and fury – into her panicky friend. After Sarah is shot and killed, Gabby and Lou are indeed the only two women left on the island, and they continually prove that this is in no way worse case scenario.Throughout the course of the film, the women display heroic (if at times unbelievable) feats of physical perseverance.

Lake-Bell-Black-RockAfter a harrowing escape attempt gone horribly wrong, Lou and Gabby attempt to swim to their boat in below-freezing waters. The boat is too far from shore, and the two women return to the island and remove their clothing to avoid hypothermia. The most empowering scene in the film is when Lou and Gabby huddle together for warmth, alone and naked in the woods.  Instead of reducing the scene to a  tawdry moment of sexualized female objectification, Aselton conveys their nakedness as a conduit of primal strength. Gabby and Lou are two unadorned Eves who have found themselves not in a prelapsarian garden, but in a terrifying and corrupted wood. And what do they do in the woods? They make spears and fight back.

The image of two naked women carving rudimentary spears in a dark wood was both absurd and alarming.  So was a display of what can only be described as pure, unabashed female machisma between Gabby and Lou right before they siege their attackers’ campsite. The scene was complete with head-slapping, steely gazes, f-bombs and a brief but chilling tutorial of how to efficiently slit someone’s throat.

“Black Rock” is not bogged down by convoluted plot-twists or over-wrought explorations of the characters’ psyches. Yet, the latter could be considered the film’s weakest element, especially concerning the male villains. The men are former soldiers who, for reasons not fully explained, were dishonorably discharged from service. The heinous actions of these men could be seen as a defamatory depiction of soldiers who deserve nothing short of our thanks and support.

However,  these characters represent a generation of young veterans who are plagued by PTSD. I am in no way suggesting that soldiers who suffer from PTSD (male and female) are prone to the inexplicable violence committed by these fictional characters. Yet, recent events (the murder of Chris Kyle by Eddie Ray Routh, the trial of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales) make this scenario in the woods disturbingly – and tragically – plausible.

“Black Rock” | Directed by Katie Aselton | Screenplay by Mark Duplass | with Katie Aselton, Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth | 1 hr, 23 minutes | rated R


Why Did We Watch ‘Amour’?

Emmanuelle Riva in AMOUR_Photo by Darius Khondji_Courtesy of Flims du Losange and Sony Classics

I am not fluent or even remotely familiar with the French language. But, after watching Michael Haneke’s “Amour” and listening to it play out four more times in the movie theater where I work, I became attuned to repetitive patterns in the dialogue. From merely listening to “Amour,” I learned the French translation for the following words and phrases:

What’s going on?

What’s wrong?

I don’t understand.

Sweetheart.

Hurts.

For a movie that has been praised, criticized and analyzed to pieces by writers and audience members alike, “Amour” is not a complicated film. Its themes can be parsed with the above expressions. These fragments and questions, uttered by the three main characters, are the very same that we ask, often silently and without an answer: What happens as life dwindles, and how do we react when we encounter death – or worse, experience the suffering and decline of a loved one?

Here I pose another question: If “Amour” is so straightforward, why bother writing about it? What more can I say that hasn’t already been said? “Amour” has been praised by Manohla Dargis as a “masterpiece,” scorned by Richard Brody for its exploitation of euthanasia, and rendered audiences speechless as they exit the theater, silent and stunned as a funeral procession.

The strangest reactions of all from viewers were the intermittent peals of laughter that offered momentary relief from the film’s claustrophobic, hermetic tone. It should be said that these chuckles occurred early on, when Anne and Georges are trying their best to figure out what exactly happens next – both for their relationship and for their individual, daily lives.  It was clear that certain viewers could relate to this long-standing couple (portrayed with nuanced honesty by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). They found humor and understanding in Anne’s bluntness about her condition and her husband’s earnest efforts to accommodate her.

After I watched “Amour,” I struggled to find the right words to express the depth of emotion that this film conveys. Like many others, I can draw from personal experience. My grandmother suffered and died from Alzheimers, and my mother was her caretaker for many arduous years. It’s hard for me to remember my grandma before she succumbed to the disease, but every so often she will appear in my dreams – walking, talking, remembering my name. When Anne, immobile and suffering from dementia through the duration of the film, materializes in the kitchen at the end –  standing, washing dishes, scoffing a mesmerized Georges to put on shoes and a coat before going out – I wanted to thank Michael Haneke. I wanted to thank him for conveying that moment on film without pathos or sentimentality, but with a paralyzing sense of disbelief.

So back to the question. Why write about this film? Perhaps for the same reason that audiences chose to pay money to sit in a theater and watch the brutal decline of an elderly woman: to grasp at some sense of understanding, and, dare I say, comfort. Comfort in knowing that our ends, no matter how miserable or peaceful, are being conveyed on a universal scale through cinema, which, in a strange and sad way, feels validating.

The press notes for “Amour” are spare, almost as if mocking the excess of criticism, essays, and commentaries. It consists of a cast and production list and Mr. Haneke’s filmography. There is no director’s commentary or quotes. The film synopsis is brief and blunt:

Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers.

Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family.

One day, Anne has an attack.

The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.

That is really all the explanation you need for “Amour.”


In defense of M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘The Village’

I feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. After “The Last Airbender” debacle and the graceless marketing scheme for “The Happening” as his first rated-R film, M. Night needs an overhaul, and maybe some kind-hearted praise for what he’s done right in his films. There is a divisiveness evident in nearly all of his films—you either watch them with derisive condescension for figuring out the plot-twist before anyone else (well, aren’t you so smart!) or your gullible, bleeding heart is pulled over to the side of admiration and even respect. I admit that for some of his films, I fall into the latter category. There is something about Mr. Shyamalan’s unabashed earnestness and imaginative-audacity-verging-on-ridiculousness that I have always admired.  Mr. Shyamalan’s best films are mercifully free of cynicism, but still have darkly humorous undertones, such as in “The Sixth Sense” and “Signs.” Yes, they were both serious films about seeing dead people and hostile aliens, respectively, but they had their tongue-in-cheek moments as well. Bruce Willis’ hapless attempt at magic tricks and the sight of Mel Gibson as a preacher running around his house wielding a baseball bat whilst being forced to scream expletives are only two examples. Mr. Shyamalan puts his imagination and his emotional gut on the line, and that takes nerve, even if you think he’s a directorial hack. Yes, I am about to defend M. Night Shyamalan’s films. Well, at least one of them

I must begin with a proclamation to all of the smart-asses that may be reading this: Please get over the fact that you figured out the plot-twist before everyone else and stop to appreciate this film. There is no denying that “The Village” is well-acted, gorgeously shot and propelled by an elegant musical score. It is also thematically rich. The film scrutinizes a 19th century community’s struggle to cling to innocence, unadulterated beauty and love, and the painful sacrifices they must make to protect this prelapsarian existence. The members of the village do not venture into the surrounding woods and never have due to an intrinsic fear of creatures known as “the one’s we do not speak of.” There exists a truce between the villagers and these unspeakable creatures, and the townsfolk take ritualistic precautions to hinder their threat; the color red is forbidden, as it attracts them, and sacrifices of meat are given. When Noah Percy, (Adrian Brody) a mentally disabled villager, ventures into the forbidden woods, the creatures begin to infiltrate the village. Their presence is at first unseen; they stealthily enter the village and leave disturbing omens, such as skinned animals. Eventually, they do make quite a terrifying appearance. But even more terrifying than the creatures themselves is the sense of claustrophobia that Mr. Shyamalan creates through the omniscient threat of the surrounding woods.  Even the scenes in broad daylight of the villagers’ communal outdoor meals are fraught with tension and disquiet.

Above all, there is a strong cautionary tale inherent in the “The Village,” and here we have our first plot-twist: as it turns out, the real threat is not a supernatural monstrosity, but a human one. The woodland creatures are a “farce” invented by the founding villagers so that future generations will not venture into the corrupt, impure and violent towns.  The village was established because each founding member has suffered from some heinous human act of violence. Their decision to seclude themselves from the darker side of humanity can be perceived as cowardly, but also admirably ambitious and idealistic. But the true horror of the film is that there is no escape from senseless violence and death. This tragic truth is realized when two of the film’s most innocent characters, Ivy Walker (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Noah Percy (Adrien Brody) become unwitting perpetrators of their own love crimes.

Noah Percy’s character exposes the first blemishes of this supposedly untarnished village, and it is not because he is an outcast or mistreated by the townsfolk because of his mental illness. Noah symbolizes the consequences of being encased by innocence one’s entire life and not being capable of knowing or understanding how to cope with the darks side when it begins to surface. When it becomes known to the villagers that Ivy and Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) are in love and are to be married, Noah feels betrayed by Ivy, his best friend, and comes to embody the animalistic, brute anguish of uncontrollable jealousy and repressed sexual desire. He brutally stabs Lucius and leaves him critically wounded, and Ivy demands to go to the towns for medicine. Ivy, who has been blind since birth, learns that the creatures are a fabrication from her father, Edward Walker (William Hurt), who is also the founder of the village. In this way, Ivy alone can venture into the woods without fear or deception.

When Ivy falls into a vast muddy ditch, the “safe” amber colors of her robe become soiled, and even though she knows the creatures are not real, she frantically attempts to wipe away the mud. We now arrive at our second plot-twist, which is actually a plot-twist within a plot-twist—a Russian nesting doll behemoth of a plot-twist: the unspeakable creatures are real! Ivy knows she is being hunted by an “unspeakable” when she can hear it mimicking her movements, which they are rumored to do before they attack. The creature then appears behind her from afar, menacingly still and quiet, cloaked in red, its features indiscernibly black and hollow within a red robe. When Ivy out-wits the creature and leads it straight into the ditch she had fallen into moments before, our plot-twist nesting doll opens its outer shell, and it is revealed that the creature is actually Noah, who has found a hidden costume underneath the floorboards of the room in which he had been sequestered after his crime.

Instead of feeling relief that the creatures are in fact still a farce, the revelation that Noah was masquerading as the creature and stalking Ivy in the woods is even more disturbing for the sexual violence that it implies. If you think I’m reaching too far by suggesting that Noah had intentions of raping Ivy, I’d like to invite you into the realm of yonic imagery. Yonic imagery is basically the feminine version of phallic imagery.  Caves, ditches and small oval openings of any sort are the most common forms of yonic imagery. Yes, Mr. Shyamalan has Ivy fall into a muddy ditch for some cheap suspense, but more tellingly, to augment the sexual confrontation that is about to unfold between Ivy and Noah in the woods.  When Ivy leads Noah straight into this ditch where he falls to his death, it would not be a stretch to say that Mr. Shyamalan is making his own twisted version of a feminist statement.

In stark opposition to this violent and sexual turmoil is the presence of delicate, chaste and restrained love.  I watch “The Village” annually around this time of year, and what stirs me every time are the nuanced, intimate and restrained moments that are laced throughout the film. “The Village” certainly has its sensational-verging-on-ridiculous moments, but it also has moments of unassuming solemnity. In one of the film’s most tender scenes, Ivy finds Lucius sitting silently on her front porch at dusk. Even as a young boy, Lucius was drawn to Ivy by a primal instinct to act as her protector, even though, as the film will make clear, she needs none. Just as their heads come together for their first kiss, the camera looks modestly away, instead focusing on an empty rocking chair bathed in mist and twilight.  When Ivy’s older sister decides to marry a man she presumable does not love, there is a brief but telling scene during her wedding in which Ivy embraces her sister. Ivy hugs her sister few beats longer than what may be considered proper, and the camera lingers for its entirety. Ivy’s face is hidden, but we realize that she is not congratulating her sister on her marriage, but thanking her. Now that her older sister is “spoken for,” Ivy is free to pursue her own love—Lucius.

This same subtle elegance is also inherent in Mr. Shyamalan’s script, which is perhaps one of the most mocked elements of “The Village” because its attempt at 19th century colloquialism feels quite forced.  For example, we have mouthfuls like “What manner of spectacle has attracted your attention so splendidly I ought to carry it my pocket to help me teach?”  But we also have quietly devastating lines. Edward Walker and Alice Hunt (Sigourney Weaver) are in love, but cannot fulfill their love because they would be scorned and punished in the confines of their close-knit village. So when Edward sends Ivy to the towns to fetch medicine to save Alice’s son, he tells her, “it is all that I can give you,” and then repeats the phrase with sacred, almost prayer-like finality. Edward wants to give and receive so much more from Alice, but this one act is literally all he is able to give.  And again, when Edward is justifying his decision break the villagers’ oath and send Ivy to the towns: “The world moves for love. It kneels before it in awe.” The first time I watched “The Village,” I was so taken aback by the graceful, unpretentious poetry of that line that I wanted to kneel before it in awe myself.

Perhaps my favorite line of the “The Village” is spoken by Lucius as he reads a letter to the village elders explaining that the creatures will not harm him if he enters the forbidden woods. It is a line that I believe encapsulates the brilliant but flawed film-maker that is M. Night Shyamalan: “They will see I am pure of intention, and not afraid. The end.”  Come back, M. Night! Restore and recapture the earnest and inspired, daring and divisive film-maker you once were.

And no, I will not reveal the final plot-twist. Stop assskiiinng.


Standing still has never been this painful: Miranda July’s ‘The Future’

“The Future” took my breath away. And when I say it took my breath away, I don’t mean to say I was enraptured by its profound insight into “frailty of the human condition,” a much loathed and overused phrase. Instead of being uplifted, I was left with a lump in my throat.  This is because “The Future” does something unprecedented for its art-house, indie-genre: Instead of making light of the characters’ loneliness, desperation and terror through off-kilter humor and oh-so-clever dialogue, it shoves their fears onto the edge of the screen and lets them hang right in front of our noses in all of their pain and discomfort. No matter how hipster or eccentric or unbearably precious Miranda July can be, she is fearless when it comes to unabashedly exposing her fears. In her latest film, July expresses her fear of what the future holds through the claustrophobic paralysis of her characters.

The film begins with a shot of Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (July) sprawled on a couch, facing each other but looking into their respective laptops.  Jason shifts his position and Sophie asks if he could get her some water. Jason corrects her assumption that he’s getting up and says he’s just changing his position. He doesn’t offer to fetch her water. This evolves into some idiosyncratic verbal interplay between Sophie and Jason, in which they playfully spat over devices and scenarios in which one can obtain water without movement or effort. This seemingly insignificant exchange foreshadows a more profound moment. Earlier in the film, Jason and Sophie choose a song that is a secret code—when the song is played, they will remember themselves and their love for each other.  Sophie, feeling wistful and sentimental, decides that this is the perfect time to play this song and tells Jason to get his IPod.  Jason, only half-heartedly as moved as Sophie, says he’d love to play the song, but the IPod is in his car, and that she can get it if she really wants to hear it. These two people are terrified of moving; whether it’s getting up off the couch, taking an extra trip out to the car, or moving forward through time. “The Future” expresses this dread of inertia, of waiting, of uncertainty, unlike any film I have ever seen.

Jason and Sophie’s comfortable lives drift into unfamiliar territory when they decide to adopt a near-death cat, Paw-Paw. If given enough love and care, Paw-Paw will live a long a prosperous life despite its afflictions. Jason and Sophie, believing their future will be over once they adopt and devote their lives to this cat, decide to live the rest of their lives in the next month before the adoption date. They quit their jobs, turn off the internet and force themselves into feeling the freedom they are seeking. Jason becomes a solicitor for a tree-planting organization; Sophie, a former children’s dance instructor, is determined to perform thirty interpretive dances–“thirty days, thirty dances.”

Just as things seem to be progressing, Sophie and Jason begin to backslide. Inevitably, Sophie and Jason become unsatisfied with their new-found freedom, and regression and immobility take hold. Sophie is especially tormented, so much as to begin an affair with an older, affluent man in suburban Los Angeles named Marshall. Sophie was a nurturing, maternal figure with Jason; even the way they slept together suggested a mother nursing a child. With Marshall, Sophie regresses back to girlhood, and Marshall is turned-on by this girlishness. He asks that Sophie have sex with him and eat ice cream every night, causing Sophie to wake up guiltily grasping an empty ice-cream carton in an empty bed, like a little girl waking up from a sugar-induced sleepover party.

Adding to this already bizarre arrangement is the presence of Marshall’s young daughter, Gabriella. In what I consider the most surreal moment of the film—more so than the talking puppet-cat, voiced by Ms. July herself—is the image of Gabriella digging a hole in the backyard of her house. Later that night, we find her immersed in the soil so that only her curly blonde head is poking out, all smiles. Marshall, too, is all smiles, nonchalantly looking on as his daughter decides to spend the night in a grave which she has dug for herself.  Sophie, however, is unsettled; she stares at Gabriella, mystified, and reassuringly tells her that she can come inside once she gets tired of being entombed in cold dirt. And Gabriella does get tired of it, and also frightened. Sophie wakes up in the middle of the night to find Gabriella in the kitchen, covered in filth and clearly upset. Sophie’s maternal instincts resurface, and in a moment almost too genuine and tender for a quirky Miranda July film, she embraces Gabriella.

Meanwhile, Sophie is being stalked by her beloved orange t-shirt, which serves as something like a security blanket that she is seen grasping and kneading throughout the film. Every so often, Sophie glimpses it creeping through the house and down the street—not billowing or floating as if carried by the wind, but crawling, as if desperate to be reunited with its owner. Like everyone and everything else in this film, the t-shirt is struggling for movement. When the shirt finally finds Sophie in Marshall’s bedroom, she dons it, and flows into the interpretive dance she’s been waiting to perform for thirty days—thirty dances culminating into one.  Unlike Sophie’s first fledgling forced attempts with a videotape and a neck scarf resembling a lizard’s frill, this dance embodies the organic, effortless movement that’s been eluding her.  She pulls the shirt over hear head so that she is blind to her own gestures, and stretches the shirt so that it consumes her entire body, like a strained womb.

This may be a stretch (pun intended, hell yes), but Sophie’s transformation within the orange shirt—elongated, faceless, even corpse-like—eerily resembles a certain Giacometti sculpture known as “The Walking Man.” Like the characters in this film, “The Walking Man” captures the viscosity and strain of labored movement. Although its legs appear long and capable, his feet are literally blocks of bronze that are affixed to the ground on which he appears to be walking. Sophie, Jason, and even Gabriella, stuck in her dirt hole, are desperate for movement, for change in their own lives, but fear the future so much that they are stuck in a paradoxical push/pull, like “The Walking Man.” Maybe I’ll go to some kind of low-brow culture hell for comparing a Giacometti sculpture to a Miranda July film, but better to reign in a pedestrian hell than serve in an elitist, film-hipster heaven.

In “The Future’s” climactic scene, Jason has successfully stopped time to prevent Sophie from revealing her infidelity to him. He is literally stuck in one place, afraid that if he moves his position just an inch, time will resume, and his life and their relationship will change forever. Jason’s entire body is tense and rigid with the strain of holding onto Sophie, and in his most helpless moment, he turns to the moon outside his window for solace, and asks if it can give him some sort of sign about what is to come.  “I’m just a rock in the sky,” the moon genially replies. Jason and Sophie are not fixed rocks in the sky; they are mutable, even powerful, beings. The film’s ending, though bleak, at least reassures us that time has not stopped for Sophie and Jason. In the final shot, Sophie sits on her bed while Jason reads a book on the couch. For a few long minutes, they are completely still. Just as we begin to wonder whether Jason has stopped time again, he flips the page. At least it’s a relief to know that sometimes, the future and whatever it holds can be as be as ordinary and unremarkable as turning the page of a book.


Why we needed dinosaurs in ‘The Tree of Life’

About twenty minutes into Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” there is a sequence that chronicles the creation of the universe.  There is darkness, then supernovas of stellar light, volcanic eruptions, fire, and  colossal swells of waves and gushing water. Any attempt to describe this with words will not do it justice and I probably just wasted a sentence of my blog.  Once the earth as we have come to know and recognize it has taken shape, we see dinosaurs.  When the first behemoth, a wounded plesiosaur, appears on screen, a woman sitting behind me in the theater said, quite loudly, “We should have gone to the movie next door.”

Mr. Malick’s creation interlude, complete with dinosaurs and single-celled amoeba blobs, has been a divisive element of his film among audience members and critics alike. This is mainly because the more conventional 1950s era plotline (done, in typical Malick fashion, unconventionally) is so flawlessly realized.  It follows the coming of age story of Jack (Hunter McCracken) and his relationships with his mother,father and brother.  It conveys the unadulterated vigor of childhood with such boundless joy that at times, it made me want to do nothing more than run; run alongside the boys with their lithe bodies and lanky legs, through the tall grass and the paved streets and underneath the billowing laundry on clotheslines.  It also captured the grief, the inexplicable rage, the fall from innocence in some stunning moments which have been haunting me ever since I saw the film.  The interplay and conflict between these emotions of  pity, rage, fear and compassion as we experience them through young Jack is where the purpose of our dinosaurs is revealed.

Shortly after the disgruntled woman’s unsolicited comment, we are introduced to two more dinosaurs.  I know very little about dinosaurs and am wary about using Wikipedia as a reference, so I will just describe these dinosaurs as medium-sized and raptor-like.  The camera first lingers on a smaller one as it lies in a creek apparently injured and near death.  A larger dinosaur but similar in figure hops toward it, almost playfully. It studies the wounded creature and then forces its clawed foot onto the wounded creatures head, either in an attempt to stomp it to death or suffocate it. Curiously, the predator lets up, and gives its former prey a couple of affectionate taps on the head, and hops away.  I know what you’re thinking, and I’m just as cynical as the next person: “Dinosaurs can’t show affection,”  or  “dinosaurs aren’t noble or compassionate,” or  “c’mon Terrence Malick, gives us some harsh, bloody realism!”  Okay, maybe you weren’t thinking exactly that.  But perhaps you thought the moment was either ridiculous, or, in my case, oddly moving.

I believe the interaction between those two particular dinosaurs serves a vital purpose as the film progresses from prehistory  into young Jack’s narrative.  Yes, young boys in the prime of their youth can be mischievous and even cruel. But through Mr. Malick’s eyes, a child’s fall from innocence is a devastating event.  The way the lens lingers momentarily on images such as a boy’s singed, balding scalp, or a dog with blood matting its fur; the dim lighting, the way the camera slithers in between and around the gang of boys like an unseen snake. The dinosaur’s urge to commit violence is animalistic, but is it also the same bestial urge which influences Jack to commit acts of vandalism, to break into a home, and most disturbingly, to tell his brother to place his hand in front of a BB gun and then pull the trigger? It is certainly valid to say that Jack’s expression of rage is connected to his fraught relationship with his father and that adolescent stalwart known as peer pressure and not from any deep, primal, prehistoric urges. I mean, dinosaurs did not suffer from peer pressure or Oedipal complexes. Or did they….

Even more thought-provoking than young Jack’s expressions of rage is his extreme sense of guilt after he commits or even witnesses other boys committing these acts. Much like the dinosaur’s gentle pats, young Jack, after the BB gun incident, performs silly but kind gestures when he and his brother are alone together in their room. Jack takes a small electric fan and holds it up to his brother’s face in an attempt to cool him off; he curves his lips upward with his fingers in a forced smile.  I can’t recall if Jack actually verbalizes an apology, but his actions speak for themselves, and he does look his younger brother in the face  and tells him, “You’re my brother.”

In “The Tree of Life,” Jack, both young and old, asks questions to some unseen supreme being, questions that are never clearly answered.  Malick’s film does much the same to its audience. What is that confounding flame? How did Jack’s younger brother die? And the query of this essay–why did “The Tree of Life” need dinosaurs? It needed the dinosaurs  so we could ponder yet another question: what is that essence that drives us to commit heinous acts of violence one moment and act compassionately the next? And to propose the possibility that maybe, just maybe, dinosaurs and humans did share some shred of emotional intelligence.  And, even more boldly, to suggest that whatever form of life may succeed us will inherit our emotional intricacies, and hopefully, surpass them.


‘Winter’s Bone’ and ‘Fish Tank’: Cinema’s subtle female avengers

I had recently watched Ingmar Bergman’s all-time-downer-classic, “Cries and Whispers,” for the second time when an article critiquing the latest phenomenon of young, sexualized and violent female characters in film appeared in the New York Times. A.O Scott and Manohla Dargis cite “Kick-Ass,” “Sucker Punch,” and the “Millennium” trilogy as films with young women who express themselves either through superpowers, sexuality, or heinous violence.  In “Cries and Whispers,” film nearly forty years old, I realized that the three sisters essentially express their repressed emotions in almost this same exact manner (save the superpowers, perhaps).  The only difference is that the violence is self-inflicted and the sexuality is merely hinted through gestures, sidelong glances, and the occasional touch and kiss.

My point is that it is possible to convey the “complex intertwinings of sex and violence” without female exploitation and special effects.  Furthermore, we still see examples, few they may be, of young women who assert their power through more multi-faceted and subtle means. Mr. Scott and Ms. Dargis justly but briefly mention these films and characters, I would like to expand on their observations.  Two standout heroines who broke the mold of ass-kicking, gun-slinging girls were Ree in Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” and Mia in Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank.”  In “Winter’s Bone,” Ree exudes her power over others—men included—neither through sexuality or violence; her voice barely even raises above a low whisper, save for one crucial moment.  Mia, although a decidedly more brazen presence than Ree, articulates her very fraught emotions through the silence and fluidity of dance.

Both Mia and Ree do share some interesting similarities with the women of “Kick-Ass” and “Sucker Punch,” such as the pattern of what Mr. Scott calls “reassuring and creepy” father figures.  These are men who take young, vulnerable girls under their wing and proceed to sexualize them and/or persuade them into violent action.  Mia perceives Conor, her mother’s boyfriend, as father figure, but is also attracted to him, a fact that Conor eventually takes full advantage of.  What is most disturbing about Ms. Arnold’s depiction of their relationship is that initially, Conor’s actions can be viewed as either extremely inappropriate or utterly innocent.  When Mia falls asleep on the couch, Conor carries her like a baby to her room, lays her on the bed and takes of her pants, only to lift the covers over her legs and up to her shoulders, tucking her in.  The “creepy” factor is definitely there, but also the possibility of a paternal figure.  Ree and Teardrop share a similarly complex relationship, minus the sexual innuendo, although the threat of violence is certainly there at first.  Teardrop is the brother of her missing father, and despite his skinny, hangdog demeanor, he is one scary guy.  We are first introduced to him as he ambles down the staircase of his house, still in his pajamas.  A cup of coffee is placed on the table in front of him and he hunches down and slurps the coffee, hands-free, hinting at his animal tendencies and rage.  When Ree, who has come to inquire about the location of her father, asks one question too many, he lunges out of his chair and grabs Ree by the side of her head, not hitting her, but hurting her all the same. As the film progresses, Teardrop will not only become Ree’s only ally, but the one member of her immediate family aside from her younger siblings who loves and protects her.  These two important male figures in the lives of Mia and Ree prove to be more intricately drawn than the “reassuring or creepy” type that Mr. Scott depicts—they are a disturbing embodiment of both.

Mia, and even the ever-stoic Ree, also personify the “female rage” that Mr. Scott describes and take their own brand of revenge against abusive men. Mia’s revenge against Conor’s emotional and sexual abuse is especially frightening because she demonstrates that her reckless abandon goes beyond merely head-butting other teenagers.  In a bizarre but terrifying sequence, Mia kidnaps Conor’s daughter, snatching her right off her scooter and forcing her to march to cliffy seashore, where she nearly drowns.  Mia may not take an axe to Conor a la Lisbeth Salander, but she hits him where it hurts the most by invading his personal family life and staining his daughter’s innocence. Speaking of Lisbeth’s revenge on her father,  Ree also, if more symbolically, takes her own form of gruesome revenge on her already dead father not with a axe, but with a chainsaw. Ree is certainly more sympathetic to her absent father, whom she clearly still loves.  So when Ree grasps her father’s dead hands through the murky water in which his body has been dumped, and is handed a chainsaw, which she must use to cut off those hands as proof of his death,  it is a much more grueling and horrifying act than Lisbeth’s attempt at patricide.

The taciturn Ree a stark contrast to the foul-mouthed Mindy/Hit Girl of “Kick-Ass.”  Ree’s might is measured by the force and consequences of her actions and, even more so, by the thoughtfulness of her silence.  She answers every question after a long stretch of painstaking silence; you can almost hear the wheels turning in her head. Ree’s one verbal catharsis is blunt, relentless, and free of expletives.  She stridently bellows the name of the town patriarch—“THUMP MIL-TON!”—over and over again, her cries intermixing with the groaning of the cows of the auction house to where she has tracked him down.  Ree knows she will not get a reaction out of him, but she continues to holler those three syllables with dogged conviction. Ree’s verbal torrent will have grim consequences, and she knows this, and is not afraid.  When it counts, Ree uses her words, and uses them fervently.

With Mia we encounter the opposite trait: a ribald, vituperative and sometimes dangerous teenager who spits out the coarsest obscenities as if it’s her own secret language.  Above all things, Mia is a kinetic being, although her physicality is not of the action-heroine variety, such is the case with the girls of “Sucker Punch.”  An aspiring hip-hop dancer, Mia is constantly in motion, whether practicing moves alone in an empty room of an abandoned high-rise or prowling the dingy, drab streets of her town.  Mia’s physical grace is the reason why her most defining moment in “Fish Tank” is devoid of words altogether.  In a silent but tense moment of alternating confrontation and empathy, Mia and her mother dance together—not side by side, not in a loving mother-daughter embrace, but facing each other, toe-to-toe, an uncanny mirror image:

(Sorry about the weird subtitles)

Ingmar Bergman would beg to differ, but sadly, you need a bit more than cries and whispers nowadays to get by in the movie land of sexed-up-women-with-weapons. So, you foul-mouthed, pre-sexual yet inappropriately erotic superhero; you mercurial, mohawked, axe-wielder; you sword-swinging, scantily-clad prisoners of a misogynistic psycho-ward/alternate reality–Ree and Mia would like you to know that all a girl needs to get by in this cruel world is the good sense to know when to make your voice heard, and some sweet dance moves.  And perhaps, in dire circumstances, to be used only as an expression of deeply repressed female anger and grief, a chainsaw.

Work cited:

Scott, A.O., and Manohla Dargis. “Gosh, Sweetie, That’s a Big Gun.” New York Times 27 April 2011: MT1. Print.