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The Big Issues of Living: Three Recent Indy Films
I keep thinking about the three strange, non-mainstream movies I’ve seen recently, The Tree of Life, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and the recently released Margaret (a 2002, post-911 film whose release has been delayed), all of which have something vital to tell us. . Or rather, show us, because we have to understand their messages ourselves.
Or, these films are, at the very least, a reflection of some of our new century collective consciousness, as well as leaflets from our collective unconscious. I was drawn to the movies even though they weren’t “entertainment” as much as they were thought provoking, and it’s a bit of a challenge to articulate exactly what the three have in common.
The first, “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick, I found so mesmerizing in its lyrical imagery that the fragmented narrative didn’t bother me at all. And yes, there was a story, a typical family drama of the early sixties. Brad Pitt is the father of three sons and we mainly take in Jack’s world, the older boy’s point of view, his chaotic and confused growing up through adolescence and into manhood under the somewhat harsh rule of the father played by Brad Pitt.
The elementary Jessica Chastain is the great earth mother under whom the three boys are protected, and the tensions between the parents, and the father and sons, are full of the same inappropriate conflicts that many of us recognize from the emotional consequences of growing up. small town america
In the middle of the film there is a lull of dazzling images, an explosion of nature’s growth and the passage of time, throwing us into thoughts of the big bang, the violence of the earth’s natural movements, the throwing of seeds and leaves and light, atoms and molecules, sperm and egg, the sense of ancient time, infinite time and the great questions of The purpose of time. It doesn’t connect with or distance itself from the well, but it does give us some hints about the film’s ambitious thinness.
Jack is a poetic soul, struggling to understand his existence, and the middle son is the musician who felt his life was cut short by the Vietnam War. When the siblings grieve and the parents suffer and hurt each other, we feel the ups and downs, anxiety and threats that go along with everyday life. We believe in the “tree of life” of the title, in the splitting at the root, in the striking of the branches, in the dappled summer light that illuminates the buds of the heart and awakens the mortal awareness of the body.
How does one capture and interpret the secret of what it means to be human on this particular planet, to know the self in large print? Who we are? Jack wonders in voiceover. Can the far-reaching archetypal symbol of the tree hold us all, thread and root us into an interconnected whole?
Most of us never ask why we are here, but then again some of us constantly ask. As a poet, I read all kinds of approaches that speak to this question along with shapely and meandering answers. And Malick’s film itself is poetry, and the response of the poetry is often distant to the rock, winding in wishes, like in a Mobius strip.
Despite critical raves, people in theaters across the country walked out of this film, no doubt frustrated by the alternate murmurs and noises of the soundtrack and the lack of linear storytelling, perhaps unwilling to give the film the attention it needs. I watched it twice, I didn’t want to miss any of the parts the first time, and the second time, to focus on how you put the pieces together. I found it visually stunning and the acting excellent, earning Pitt an Oscar nomination. Pete takes on a deeper dimension of himself as the frustrated father, and Hunter croons, playing Jack with a universal truth in his every move.
In the film’s finale, a strange, surreal place (meant to be paradise?) emerges, complete with a beach and lukewarm waves, to which a city’s population seems to come and go as if the sand itself were a sidewalk in New York. The family we watched fall apart, reunites with reconciled affection. Sean Penn, is the older Jack, who has found himself as a modern architect, and appears with his younger self, his lost brother, the mother who never ages, and Pete as a gentler father. Between the changes of light, the shapes, the colors, the abstract landscapes and the faces of the characters, Malik seems to pay homage to our entire experience as creatures on the earth and of the earth, no less than eternal in the pure mystery of the traveling soul.
Like “The Tree of Life”, “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, it is also told from a child’s point of view. This hero, an untrained star of incredible power and depth, is played by six-year-old Kwanzena Wallis, a fascinating child to watch. In fact, the entire cast is without acting experience, yet each has connected to a larger self and found the perfect center of their character. As for the plot, this film contains even less wood but is just as provocative.
The girl lives next to her father on a small barrier island in the Bay of New Orleans, an area bordering on levies, called “the bath”. The young girl, “Hushpuppy,” narrates as we watch her alcoholic father’s health fail in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Her mother “swam away” one day, although Ashpeepi still sees her in her vision, and calls to her from the water box.
Her father raises her like a child, doesn’t let her cry about his illness, (although they both do it in the non-sentimental way) calls her “the man” and calls her to stand up and cheer herself up, shows her “guns” (muscles). The movie takes place in just a few days.
At the back of Ashpipi’s imagination are the Eractos, ancient, mythical, giant creatures in her fantasies. And when she finally meets some of them face to face, she’s like Alice grown up tiny. However, through her confidence and self-reliance, Hushpuppy is able to dispel the formidable spirit creatures with her magical powers. As a metaphor for her wildness, these wild animals can be said to further represent her fiery independence.
The film is disturbing. The ragtag group clinging to what’s left of their messed up homes doesn’t look like proper parents. By any middle-class measure, these children will be taken for their own safety. But while it bothers us that Hushpuppy suffers from both abuse and neglect, her father’s love for her is genuine, and vice versa. As he tries to protect her from his illness, Katrina swings in, and the islanders find themselves cut off from their self-sufficiency. Everything is dying around them. And when they fight the help offered to them by government agencies, they are like primitives who can only survive in their natural habitat, and prefer to die there. As she watches her father being treated by doctors, Hushpuppy remarks ironically that when people get sick here, “they pin them to the wall”.
After they escape from the hospital, she cremates her father and sends him to be buried at sea on a homemade float just as the ancients did. Remember the rituals of Avalon, and that the nature that threatens the life of this community is also part of its soul. The film speaks for a kind of libertarian independence, against a meddling society of government culture. The hardened crew escapes the Red Cross camp, and the Aspipi conquer the primitive creatures in one triumphant moment of staring them down.
This is her fantasy of course, how she sees herself, a girl-child who grew up like a child, a loyal, devoted daughter, who mourns the loss of her mother and father equally. But Hushpuppy knows who she is. She tells us that scientists will look back in 100 years and “they will know that there was a dark dog who lived with her father in the bathtub.”
Will she survive? Not by any current cultural standards. But then, as it gains our respect and captures our hearts, we wonder about our world, held in its grip, its grip, more and more alienated from nature. What if we don’t need banks? And lawyers? Or the Federal Drug Administration? What if we weren’t so reliant on the powers that be, those who seem to serve themselves more than their constituency? Wise people tell us that now is the age when we can grow out of the ubiquitous crumbling systems and shallow values of our materialistic world.
Hushpuppy is a mythological, magical child. She shows us an alternative life that we would never choose for ourselves. But still, we sit in silent tears at the end of the movie, finding strangers in the bathroom afterwards wiping their eyes as well. We know something is lost in our world that is not lost for Hushpuppy. She’s free and she’s confident and yes – she’ll probably get disillusioned as she gets older – but her belief in her weird core is strong. We are sure that we do not want to live like her, but we are not sure how in our modern life we can find what is lost.
A few days later I picked up a movie at the supermarket at Redbox. I heard an NPR program on “Margaret,” and because of its length, among other things, it was denied release. Based on a play by Kenneth Longrin, “Margaret” tells the story of a fatal bus accident and a privileged, teenage West Side Manhattanite, Lisa, played fiercely by Anna Paquin. Lisa causes an accident by distracting a bus driver with her flirtatious interest in his cowboy hat. The bus driver, (Mark Ruffalo) runs a red light and runs over a woman, (Allison Janney.) As “Monica” dies in the girl’s arms, Lisa, (if she didn’t already find out in 911) learns that life can change in an instant. Although she readily admits to her math teacher (Matt Damon) that she cheated on his test, Lisa begins to think about “right” and “wrong” in absolute terms.
She is traumatized by Monica dying in her arms. After the accident, when she exchanges glances with the bus driver, she tells the police that the light was green. But Lisa becomes obsessed with her lie and confides in her actress mother who has her own distractions as the star of a new Broadway hit.
We see Lisa in and out of school, arguing, manipulating and seducing teachers and friends. She lives an “entitled” life and like most teenagers, she is passionately idealistic. When she tries, with the help of Monica’s cynical friend, to get justice for Monica’s senseless death by correcting her statement, incriminating the driver and filing a lawsuit against the MTA, she only succeeds in pulling them into a settlement that benefits Monica’s greedy, distant cousin.
Nevertheless the driver gets to keep his job despite a previous reckless driving record. But does Lisa herself recognize the mountain of guilt she threw at him? Although she once admits that the accident was her fault, she did not take full responsibility for her reckless behavior, which continues throughout the film to the point of losing her virginity and claiming to her teachers that she had an abortion. We don’t think that’s true.
Meanwhile, Lisa’s mother is courted by a wealthy Colombian man who dies of a heart attack shortly after she breaks up with him, which ultimately leaves both mother and daughter with a few things in common: guilt and grief. In the final scene, mother and daughter attend an opera at Lincoln Center and are reduced to tears at the diva’s voice. Then sobs, then hugs. For the first time we see the love between them shows.
Lisa is aware that the world is not fair. She herself is vigorous and brave, persistent and operatic. The world appears to her as a series of random events such as the death of her mother’s lover, the terrible accident and the ever-present memories of 911, which the filmmaker emphasizes by the many expanses of sky above New York.
All three of these films tell us something about the difficulty of reconciling the many opposing forces in our modern society. The Tree of Life looks back nostalgically to a simpler time as much as it looks through the eyes of a young man towards an uncertain future. Hayut gives us the struggle of a young girl to come to terms with her lost mother and dying father, and rise above her vastly weakened life with hard-won inner strength. “Margaret” (named after a young woman’s realization of death in a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins) gives us the thin-skinned, self-centered insecurity of an otherwise dramatic young woman with eerie close-ups of an adult world that offers no answers to injustice. The ambiguity of life in our time is told in each of them. Something is wrong with our world.
Nevertheless, the lesson we can draw from all three films is found in the wise words of Mother Earth in the Tree of Life: Help each other. love everybody. every leaf every ray of light. forgive.
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