Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Tree of Life

The list of a lifetime

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

I miss Roger Ebert for a lot of reasons, but I always loved how fully he occupied the role of the celebrity critic while expanding it into something more. “Two thumbs up” has become a way of dismissing an entire category of film criticism, and Ebert was as responsible for its rise as anyone else, although he can hardly be blamed for his imitators. Yet he wouldn’t have been nearly as good at it—and he was damned good, especially when paired with Gene Siskel—if it hadn’t been built on a foundation of shrewdness, taste, and common sense that came through in every print review he wrote. He knew that a rating system was necessary, if only to give shape to his discussions with Gene, but he was also aware of its limitations. (For proof, you need only turn to his classic review of the Adam Sandler remake of The Longest Yard, which transforms, unexpectedly, into an extended essay on the absurdity of reconciling a thoughtful approach to criticism with “that vertical thumb.”) Read any critic for any length of time, whether it’s Pauline Kael or David Thomson or James Wood, and you start to see the whole business of ranking works of art, whether with thumbs or with words, as both utterly important and inherently ridiculous. Ebert understood this profoundly.

The same was true of the other major tool of the mainstream critic: the list. Making lists of the best or worst movies, like handing out awards, turns an art form into a horse race, but it’s also a necessary evil. A critic wants to be a valued guide, but more often, he ends up serving as a signpost, pointing up the road toward an interesting vista while hoping that we’ll take in other sights along the way. Lists are the most useful pointers we have, especially for viewers who are encountering the full variety of movies for the first time, and they’ve played an enormous role in my own life. And when you read Ebert’s essay on preparing his final list for the Sight & Sound poll, you sense both the melancholy nature of the task and his awareness of the power it holds. Ebert knows that adding a movie to his list naturally draws attention to it, and he pointedly includes a single “propaganda” title—here it’s Malick’s Tree of Life—to encourage viewers to seek it out. Since every addition requires a removal, he clarifies his feelings on this as well:

Once any film has ever appeared on my [Sight & Sound] list, I consider it canonized. Notorious or Gates of Heaven, for example, are still two of the ten best films of all time, no matter what a subsequent list says.

In short, he approaches the list as a game, but a serious one, and he knows that pointing one viewer toward Aguirre or The General makes all of it worthwhile.

Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential

I thought of his example repeatedly when I revised my list of my ten favorite movies. Four years had gone by since my last series of posts on the subject, and the passage of time had brought a bit of reshuffling and a pair of replacements: L.A. Confidential and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan had given way to Vertigo and Inception. And while it’s probably a mistake to view it as a zero-sum game, it’s hard not to see these films as commenting on one another. L.A. Confidential remains, as I said long ago, my favorite of all recent Hollywood movies, but it’s a film that invests its genre with greater fluency and complexity without challenging the rules on a deeper level, while Vertigo takes the basic outline of a sleek romantic thriller and blows it to smithereens. As much as I love them both, there’s no question in my mind as to which one achieves more. The contest between Inception and Wrath of Khan is harder to judge, and I’m not sure that the latter isn’t ultimately richer and more rewarding. But I wanted to write about Inception ever so slightly more, and after this weekend’s handwringing over the future of original ideas in movies, I have a hunch that its example is going to look even more precious with time. Inception hardly needs my help to draw attention to it, but to the extent that I had a propaganda choice this time around, it was this one.

Otherwise, my method in ranking these films was a simple one. I asked myself which movie I’d save first—solely for my own pleasure—if the last movie warehouse in the world were on fire. The answer was The Red Shoes. Next would be Blue Velvet, then Chungking Express, and so on down the line. Looking at the final roster, I don’t think I’d make any changes. Like Ebert, who kept La Dolce Vita on his list because of how it reflected the arc of his own life, I’m aware that much of the result is a veiled autobiography: Blue Velvet, in particular, galvanized me as a teenager as few other movies have, and part of the reason I rank it so highly is to acknowledge that specific debt. Other films are here largely because of the personal associations they evoke. Yet any movie that encapsulates an entire period in my life, out of all the films I was watching then, has to be extraordinary by definition: it isn’t just a matter of timing, at least not if it lasts. (You could even say that a great movie, like Vertigo, is one that convinces many different viewers that it’s secretly about them.) Ebert knew that there was no contradiction in embracing The Tree of Life as both the largest cosmic statement since 2001 and an agonizingly specific evocation of his own childhood. Any list, like any critic, lives in two worlds, and each half gains meaning from the other. And when I think of my own list and the choices it made, I can only quote Ebert one last time: “To add a title, I must remove one. Which film can I do without? Not a single one.”

The Best Movies of 2011, Part 2

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5. Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. A personal triumph for Tom Cruise the producer, if not the actor: when he isn’t hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa, his presence onscreen is strangely detached, and much less interesting than that of Paula Patton, the movie’s real human star. Yet there’s no doubt that Cruise himself willed this movie into existence, assembling a creative team, headed by director Brad Bird, that delivered a film that comes close to the ideal modern blockbuster: sleek, totally impersonal, but so expertly crafted that it brushes our objections aside. The year’s most purely satisfying entertainment, and the ultimate advertising reel for IMAX.

4. The Descendants. Watching this film makes me wish all the more that Alexander Payne had been making an annual movie for the past ten years: this is a beguiling family drama, shot through with moments of high and low comedy, and blessed with great local color and a sly supporting cast. As usual, Payne gives us characters who seem like caricatures and then edges them back toward humanity, but his touch has rarely been more assured than it is here, and he coaxes fine work from George Clooney (in his most moving performance), Shailene Woodley, and Judy Greer, whose expression of surprise at a crucial moment is one of my favorite movie memories of the year.

3. The Tree of Life. One of the strangest movies ever made, and certainly one of the most ambitious, The Tree of Life isn’t a complete success, but it’s hard to imagine how it could have done more: it’s one of those rare films whose reach exceeds its grasp only because of the grandeur of a great director’s dreams. Terrence Malick wants nothing less than to present us with a symphonic essay on man’s place in the universe, as seen through the lens of one family’s experience—and while the sequences in outer space, as conceived by the legendary Douglas Trumbull, are stunning, it’s in the evocation of a Texas childhood, anchored by Brad Pitt’s forbidding father, that the movie finally achieves the poetry it works so urgently to create.

2. Moneyball. A thrilling baseball movie with hardly any baseball, a heroic presentation of statistical analysis, and a great film starring Jonah Hill: the wonder isn’t so much that Moneyball achieves the impossible, but that it makes it look so easy. I wasn’t a fan of Bennett Miller’s Capote, which was so subdued that it almost faded from the screen as you watched it, but he emerges here as a director of considerable wit and intelligence, with a more relaxed and engaging way with actors and story, aided immeasurably by the work of Michael Lewis and screenwriters Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. At the center, again, is Brad Pitt, this time with his stardom on full display: more than any actor in the world right now, he’s playing a grown man’s game.

1. Certified Copy. It’s beautiful and infuriating, frustrating and seductive, and although it initially looks like a more cerebral version of Before Sunrise, it’s really a work of stealth science fiction. The more I think about it, the more I doubt that there’s any one “solution” to the puzzle it presents, and I no longer care whether the characters played by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche are strangers, married, estranged, or living out one or more possibilities in converging timelines: all I know is that I like spending time with them in Tuscany, and that the problem that Abbas Kiarostami poses to us is less important than the picture of a marriage it creates. A modest, but hugely important, reminder of film’s possibilities.

Honorable Mention: Among the other films I wrote about at length this year, I also enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Tabloid; Cave of Forgotten Dreams; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; and parts of Hugo, Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, Source Code, and Captain America, although my most memorable experience at the movies, as well as the longest, was the twenty-fifth anniversary release of Shoah.

Written by nevalalee

February 24, 2012 at 10:01 am

The unstructured magic of Little, Big

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Over the past few years, there have been few contemporary novels I approached with such anticipation, aside perhaps from Cloud Atlas, as John Crowley’s Little, Big. Harold Bloom, who praises dead authors effusively but is much more restrained about recent fiction, has famously called it one of the four or five best novels by any living writer, and the consensus seems to be that this is one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time, and certainly one of the best by an American author. Earlier this week, then, after a long, leisurely reading process periodically interrupted and resumed by other commitments, I finally finished it. And while I admire it greatly, my reaction is more complex and ambivalent than I expected, which is perhaps fitting for such a strange, pointedly elusive novel.

First, a word about structure. I love structure, perhaps because I love the movies, which depend utterly on structure for their power. Structure, at its most basic, is an author’s arrangement of narrative elements into an overall whole, which often coincides with plot, but can also reflect a different sort of logic. At its best, a novel’s structure describes a shape—a pyramid, a circle, a series of spirals—that the reader can stand back and admire, something like the Borgesian conception of the divine mind. As a result, I respond strongly both to perfectly structured conventional novels, like Coetzee’s Disgrace, and to novels that make an unusual structure seem inevitable, like Gravity’s Rainbow, in which the author’s engagement with form becomes a character in itself. And, perhaps inevitably, I have trouble enjoying novels that seem deliberately unstructured.

At first glance, Little, Big has the appearance of intricate, almost obsessive structure: six books, twenty-six chapters (half the number of weeks in a year or cards in a deck), each with its own smaller divisions. On a deeper level, however, it seems designed to provoke, then frustrate, our expectations about a conventionally shapely novel. It begins with a leisurely account of the lives of several families in an imaginary New England, hints at the existence of fairies, then abruptly skips forward twenty-five years, alternating languorous descriptions of rooms and scenery with breathless events barely glimpsed or left entirely offstage. The novel’s technique, like that of House of Leaves, is one of implication, postponement, reticence, full of clues, but no answers, with small vivid scenes that promise to break out into a larger narrative, but either remain isolated in the gorgeous swamp of language or fade decorously away.

Reading Little, Big, I was reminded that an unstructured novel is something quite different from a structureless one. Structurelessness in itself is a narrative choice, and if such a work states its intentions early on—as in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life—it can be as satisfying as any conventional story. The reason why Little, Big often feels so frustrating is that it constantly knocks on the door of structure, only to shy away. It’s an uneasy hybrid of the shapeless family novel and conventional fantasy, with its supernatural events, prophecies, and air of intrigue, and the two elements push endlessly against each other, which can be exhilarating, but more often exhausting. To attribute this to artistic confusion or laziness, as certain commenters have done at the A.V. Club, is to give Crowley insufficient credit: every paragraph of this novel testifies to his intelligence and skill. But it’s fair to wonder if he intended to inspire such bewilderment in many, if not most, readers, while also inspiring rapturous joy in a few.

Little, Big, then, is precisely what its reputation suggests: a cult novel. And while I can’t quite count myself as a member of that cult, I’m at least one of its sympathizers. There are wonderful things here: the dense but lyrical language, the reappropriation of Rosicrucianism and Theosophy, and many of the self-contained set pieces, like George Mouse’s encounter with the changeling, which is a perfect little horror story in itself. Above all, there’s the evocation of a fantastical New England and the family home, Edgewood, which I can’t help but associate with my strong feelings about looking for a house of my own. I may not read Little, Big again—its five hundred pages remain as daunting as before—but I’ll certainly be reading in it for the rest of my life, because there’s magic here. And it’s more magical, perhaps, in that you’re forced to dig for it, without the reassuring map of structure, and always with the promise of finding something more.

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2011 at 9:41 am

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