Brad Pitt

A Tale of a Father and a Son

Painter Makoto Fujimura and his son, C.J., a Philosophy and Music major at Bucknell University, discuss The Tree of Life. The film, written and directed by Terrence Malick, opens in select New York and Los Angeles theatres May 27.

Makoto Fujimura: The intrigue going into Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, lead one to believe that it would be either one of the greatest films ever made, or a mystery of a film that would lead to a box-office disappointment.  The trailer is filled with promise as it surely is one of the greatest trailers ever made. How can any film live up to the poetic narrative, and the expectation, set up in the trailer? When the movie started, the jarring nature of the initial few minutes made the viewer uncomfortable, and the couple next to us started to chat.

The Tree of Life, Fox Searchlight.

C.J. Fujimura: The disjointed style with which the film begins actually felt unsurprising and appropriate, although I found myself asking how it could be maintained for a feature length.  Malick, from this place of uncertainty, which was surely felt throughout the audience, orchestrated long stretches of imagery and abbreviated moments of human drama into something that can certainly be described as poetry through film. This method turned the medium, usually used to depict or translate events in real time through screen and sound, into a collage of timeless moments and nameless characters. The drama that is represented is more than just the struggle of one family to overcome the loss of a beloved son. It is the dynamic ebb and flow that has been passed down through the universe itself from the beginning of time.

Makoto: The Tree of Life IS a true masterpiece. Great art makes you believe in the medium of art itself. Picasso makes you believe that paint and collage can do great things. The Tree of Life makes one believe in the medium of film; and film that is designed (thank God) specifically not to be seen with 3-D glasses. The movie is better than the trailer, and the viewer does end up journeying into the narrative of a family struggling to find peace in Waco, Texas. The people next to me did eventually become quiet, settling into the emotional depth of what Malick weaves together masterfully.

C.J.: The future of culture is tightly intertwined with the universal. Globalization has created a worldwide sense of community, and art is at the forefront of this new script. This is a story which cannot be read or understood by one set of symbols and, as such, Malick has used every corner and crevice available of the expressive space that film allows. Tree of Life manages to suggest great potential for this medium, and the arts in general by association, to tell this story.

Makoto: There are paintings imbedded in every scene of the film, either consciously or unconsciously. Wyeth pops up, with Bill Viola and Pipilotti Rist seeping in between the scenes; Jessica Chastain, playing the grieving wife, even looks like Helga (Andrew Wyeth’s favorite model). At times I even felt that I was in Chelsea galleries, rather than a theatre. Sean Penn’s character, an urban architect who designs both his own and his parent’s Philip Johnson-esque modernist house, meanders about, lost in a fragile house full of light. We are to remember his teenage days, as a leader of a pack of friends in the dull summers, throwing rocks through windows to prove his toughness. We hear the broken glass, but we also feel the sharp edges of despair and loss.

C.J.: We are the YouTube generation. We would rather change the channel then stay put on one story. Our culture is built of bits and pieces thrown together in whatever way works for us. Each part seems small but they are linked by association and they coalesce into a whole. Our musicians don’t cover classics, they sample them. There is too much available, and it comes at us too fast, for us to be satisfied with single strain narrative in the same way that previous generations may have been. The stories are out there to be read, but we are the ones who connect the dots. For us, Malick’s approach is not new or jarring — it’s fitting. The pieces brought together on screen encourage the viewer to make their own connections and form their own greater theme. This film aims to portray life itself, the universal drama, in the same way we understand it: by clicking through all of the related videos on the right side of the YouTube page. From each we take a moment, a line, or a gesture of beauty, and without each, the whole would not be complete.

Makoto: Pay attention to what is in-between things on screen. Note the dragonfly that buzzes in between the father and the mother as darkness enfold the town; see the abstract patterns behind Brad Pitt’s face turned away from the camera — a father oblivious to what is disappearing.

C.J.: We are not given classic Brad Pitt cool-as-hell moments, and blades of grass get more screen time then Sean Penn. It is hard to tell how this will be received, but for me, this fresh approach to film begets a fresh approach to acting, and every one of the actors succeeded, which is remarkable. I’d like to believe that this is only one example of the generative power this film, and other works of art in the future, might have.

Makoto: The Tree of Life is a deeply theological film.  Not since Magnolia has a film captured the depth of the depravity of our hearts, the temptation that sways us, the despair of the loss of life.  It lacks, though, the reality behind what is to come.  What is depicted as heavenly turns out to be nostalgia more than Heaven invading the Earth, or a vision of the New Heavens and the New Earth. The world of reconciliation comes in a stark, desert-like flatland. But the “theology” behind the master may turn out to be more a philosophical, metaphysical search informed by Kierkegaard and Heidegger, than the reality of faith.

C.J.: As a whole, my generation is not excited about faith. It is perceived as a foggy windshield through which the road cannot possibly be seen clearly, although the driver sure looks comfortable. To a peer who is turned off by the heavy presence of faith throughout the film, I would suggest that the portrayal of spirituality is necessary for Malick’s purposes. Faith and religion, much like art, are an attempt to understand something which cannot otherwise be understood. There is no better vehicle for a movie like The Tree of Life than prayer because it focuses the mind on the intangible. The movie would be less effective without spirituality because it would be more difficult for the viewer to accept the metaphysical nature of Malick’s writing and directing.

I think, though, that my peers misunderstand their own struggle with faith. There is faith built into everything we do. It is not a choice, it is a necessity. The choice is this; which understanding of faith is the best?

Makoto and C.J.: The Tree of Life is a film that has to be a film; no other medium of art can capture what Malick captures.

The Art of Inspiration in the Crescent City

Let me preface this by saying that I get strangely sentimental around the holidays.

The first reason for going was the food, and the second was the nightlife, but somewhere in the top ten reasons that I chose to vacation in New Orleans was to put my finger on the pulse of the town that was partly responsible for one of my most recent reads, John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. Somehow, it seemed romantic and hilarious that there still might be a philosopher-slash-hot-dog vendor, like Confederacy‘s protagonist, certain enough about life’s secrets to wear a costume like that on Bourbon Street as well as lead a Crusade for Moorish Dignity.

It’s easy to be a critic in the mold of that protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, decrying and lamenting the ills of a society, all the while maintaining a log in your own eye. Within Confederacy of Dunces, hidden among the sermons and moral indignation of the protagonist were several lovely descriptions of a city that, despite its own odd collection of degenerates, was nothing other than immensely human. (And speaking of sermons, while I was in New Orleans, I was jarred awake at ten each morning by a megaphone sermon on the corner of Decatur and Canal relegating all sinners to hell.)

While it was fun to spy the oddities, eccentricities, and inequalities that Toole lampoons in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, things have changed immensely since Hurricane Katrina. This makes it all the more interesting that it was at the movies, like Mr. Reilly in the novel, where I had a profound encounter with quite different piece of art during my stay.

While I was sitting in the Canal Place Cinema on Christmas Day, I realized that the city of New Orleans was visible in its best light as Brad Pitt rolled through Gentilly on a vintage 1950’s Triumph in a leather jacket. Maybe it’s kind of ridiculous to say it, but New Orleans in the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, while not prominently featured, clearly shines through; the images portray the city as uniquely set in time and place, and as the film hints, possibly capable of throwing off the yoke of time when the situation allows.

Directed by David Fincher, the film chronicles the unique circumstances surrounding the birth, life, and death of Benjamin Button, book-ended with scenes from a hospital on the day Katrina made landfall. As you know by now if you’ve not been living in a cave over the holidays, Button ages backward. He appears to be eighty years old as an infant, and passes on as a newborn.

To me, the real story in the film was the city. It grows up and seems to lose its innocence simultaneously with Benjamin. As Benjamin grows younger, the city becomes also becomes younger, less mature. At several moments direct comparisons are drawn: New York is more affluent and artistic, but it is flighty and prone to change according to unimportant whims. Murmansk, Russia, while containing more seriousness, is at last too cold, the sameness of the place invading even the people that live there.

What other city would have been better used to display the timeline of the United States? The upper Midwest is a graveyard for what once was the nation’s industry. The West Coast is swimming in exposure, which only spotlights the notoriously absent soul of the place. The East Coast maintains an argument-winning intellectual leverage, an ardent belief in its own superiority keeping everyone else at arm’s length. All of these places have trouble changing, becoming other than their current descriptions.

Cities like Detroit, Newark, and Los Angeles have all experienced a knockout blow; New Orleans, a death blow. There is a strange blessing in this – instead of wheezing out an existence, ruin leaves a chance for a return, and therefore provides a blueprint of hope for the rest of America. As Walker Percy points out in his essay “New Orleans, Mon Amour“, the only city capable of delivering the American city from death by extremes of time and place is New Orleans. Early independence, spiritualism, hedonism, race struggles, devoted local culture, crass materialism, devastation, and hopefully, resurrection – it’s all there. New Orleans lives and still breathes. It stays up all night dancing. It best showcases the problems and hopes most relevant to the United States today, and despite how old it sometimes look, it constantly stays young at heart.

There was an ovation as the film ended, and as I left the Canal Place Theater there weren’t many dry eyes. I stepped out into the sunlight. It was warm and beautiful. It would have been a great day to be born in New Orleans.