Monday, June 27, 2011

Art at the Cinema: Summer 2011 Edition

Not usually do summer audiences watch films of depth in the midst of the heat and humidity. Sequels, comic book flicks, kiddie animated pics, gross-out comedies and blow-em-up extravaganzas are the norm. This year is no different: "Green Lantern," "Transformers 3," 'Cars 2," and "Bad Teacher" all bear witness to that. But beyond this standard fare, interesting small films are being released that speak to other aspects of the human condition told in thoughtful and innovative ways.

I cannot say Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life" is an entertaining film. It is a ponderous and slow-moving film, which actually intercuts the story of a post-war American family with a pictorial representation of the world's evolution from the cellular level. Malick, whose reclusive life has become part and parcel of his image, has only directed five films. Some have been gorgeous depictions of relationships on the margins, such as "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven," others have been lugubrious and dull retellings of episodes in American history, such as "Thin Red Line" and "A New World" (his version of the Pocahontas story). "Tree of Life" is almost two-and-a-half hours long, and at times the audience feels that length. There is minimal dialogue and little plot. It is heavy on imagery and symbolism, some of which seems fairly impenetrable.

Beyond these seeming drawbacks, the film is one of the most gorgeously shot movies to be shown in general release. Its tone of loss and mourning towards familial relationships helped garner the work the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Malick's camera lingers over his actors faces. While Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn have little to say, their faces communicate a great deal about their characters. Then we cut to a long shot over sunflowers and the shifting sands of the desert. And yes, there are even dinosaurs, but the film is cinematic art with scenes of such striking composition you feel that they should be featured in studies of modern art.

Malick makes a convincing case for the banalization of violence. The juxtaposition of images constructs a notion that cycles of aggressive behavior are learned and continue over time if traumatic experiences are not dealt with and resolved. In one key scene, a fight between a married couple transforms seamlessly into their child's marauding antics with his gang, torturing animals and committing property damage around their neighborhood. Clearly, the model of masculinity in practice in post-war America made belligerence seem a normal part of quotidian life.

On an opposite side of the spectrum in terms of tone, Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" has become the most commercially successful film of Allen's career since "Hannah and Her Sisters" (and that was back in 1986!). Critics have recognized Allen as a great American auteur since the 1970's, so a provocative film from him is to be expected, but such a warm and non-anxiety producing work such as this seems to be a shift in much of his direction. The film follows a screenwriter, Gil (played by the oh so likable Owen Wilson with the crooked nose), struggling with the existential conundrum of what to do with his life. Paris only exacerbates this quandary.

The City of Lights becomes a metaphor for the experience of tourism, bliss and even disillusionment with which succeeding generations of Americans have struggled since the days of Franklin and Jefferson (two of our earliest Francophiles). While Gil visits the French capital with his fiancée (played by Rachel McAdams in one of Allen's problematic portrayals of harpy women) and her conservative family, he explores the streets of the sprawling urban landscape to find the many layers of history that inhabit it.

(Note to readers: I am spoiling a huge plot point at this moment that many reviewers have not divulged, so if you have not seen it, I recommend to stop reading here). As the clock strikes midnight on a drunken sojourn, a 1920's-era Peugeot stops near Gil. He climbs into the car and he is delivered to a swanky party where a man is singing at a piano and a seemingly exotic group of expats and European are decked out in sparkly dresses and tuxes. Gil believes this to be an exhaustively researched theme party, but then discovers that it is Cole Porter at the piano and the blonde woman with whom he is conversing is Zelda Fitzgerald. He wanders around with his new friends only to see Josephine Baker dance, Hemingway slurs his words about sex and writing, Djuna Barnes lead him in a Charleston, Salvador Dali hold forth on rhinoceroses, and Gertrude Stein admonish Picasso for depicting "petit bourgeois morals."

"Midnight in Paris" has some rather profound things to say about nostalgia and our relation to the past. The landscape of Paris has served as a springboard for many Americans to imagine some golden age of creative wonder and insight and Allen has exposed some of the moral predicaments that come from such a position. There in Paris many of us feel at home, while others simply don't get it. Then again, maybe our nostalgic attachments are precluding us from seeing the insights of the present.

With two such appealing and thoughtful works, maybe Hollywood will make more such films geared towards audiences who crave something a bit more profound than "Transformers 3." Since films, such as 'Thor," "Green Lantern," and "X-men 25" have disappointed at the box office the studios may just shift to cheaper and more intelligent fare. We can only hope.

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