Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Cinema

I finally saw Terence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011). I almost saw it in a theater, which would have been preferable, but for various reasons, I did not. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It's some kind of weird mix between a 1950's family character study, 2001 A Space Odyssey and even a bit or two from Francois Truffaut's Farenheit 451. It is not to be entered into lightly. It is "poetic" in the sense that some films are: the main points of the movie are "surmised", not spelled out. The parts regarding Brad Pitt's character and his family are very "understandable" and straightforward. The rest of it is not.

And that's where the 2001 reference comes in. Part of the film lingers on what seem to be primordial excretions near the beginning of the creation of the cosmos. And much of the film continues in that vein as our planet finds a way to sustain life as we know it, from the earliest forms thru the dinosaurs and beyond. And of course the whole thing is informed in that Malick-y way: long unbroken tracking shots, asides to the sky, trees and other natural phenomena, a methodical, unhurried approach to "story-telling", a complete antithesis to the current Hollywood approach.

A week after I saw it, I watched another film I had wanted to see for years: Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966). I remember first hearing about Tarkovsky sometime in the 70's, and saw Solaris at the time. I liked it okay, but didn't get all the "fuss". Of course, his reputation had already been made with Andrei Rublev: for those of you who are unafraid of facing a three and a half hour mainly black and white Russian film, this is marvelous. In a strange bit of synchronicity, it became all too apparent where much of Malick's "inspiration" must come from. Rublev is divided into about seven "parts", most of them NOT about the very real artist Andrei Rublev; he is a peripheral character in many sections. It takes place in the early 17th century, and the Prologue is about a man who is trying to take a flight in a very primitive hot air balloon while a large group of what appear to be peasants try to stop him. And then it goes places I never expected it to go, and because of some of those places, the Russian government "banned" it for 20 years or so. A lot of it moves like molasses, incredible tracking shots involving the most fascinating actor's faces, and cutaways to the Russian sky and landscapes. The film moves along from around 1600 to about 1624, and there are titles that tell you what year you're in and who a lot of the people are, but it's a film of magnificent parts, that actually do come together towards the end, but in an oblique and non-literal way.

These approaches to shooting scenes remind me of several shots in Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will be Blood -  gorgeous, uninterrupted tracking shots that require incredible choreography and the co-ordination of many people, actors and tech crew alike. It is the yin to most modern film making's yang, wherein fast cuts and incomprehensible "action" sequences add up to nothing except the illusion of craft. This week's recommendation: slow down and sink in to The Tree of Life and Andrei Rublev. But have some "expectation" of what lies ahead, lest you run shrieking from the experience. Be open and you may be pleasantly surprised.

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