Nothing But Memory
Posts Tagged terrence malick

All Is Quiet, on New Year’s Day

The beginning of a new year always makes me feel like doing random things in the name of having a fresh start; for example, this morning I flipped all the cushions on my couch, which I would probably never think of doing on any other day, but hey — it’s a new year! I also refilled my salt shaker, opened up a new toothbrush, and started rereading the Harry Potter books again.

Now a brief look back on 2011. I did some good things: went to England, managed the HPreread. Got to know my toddler niece as she developed her personality. I rewatched The X-Files. This may not seem like a big deal to anyone else, but I’ve tried to do that three or four times before and have never made it past the first half of season six. In 2011, I did all nine seasons plus both movies. It felt like an accomplishment! I also did a good job of getting myself back in the habit of reading every day, and as consequence I read 65 books. To be fair, many of those were short and some were things I’d read before, but I’d count about 30 of them as solid new books. I think I managed my personal life fairly well. I had surgery to fix up a health problem I’d been dealing with for a while and took advantage of the fact that I have dental coverage through my job to get some much needed work done on my teeth. I paid all my bills and knocked a fairly big chunk off my student debt. I did well at my job. I tried to make smart decisions about how I spend money and on what. All in all, it was a good year.

I also took in some good culture. Here are a few best and worst of 2011 picks:


I liked Florence + the Machine‘s debut album enough that I was really looking forward to the followup, Ceremonials, which turned out to be one of my favourite albums of the year. My picks for the best tracks: “What the Water Gave Me,” “Heartlines,” “Leave My Body,” “Only if for a Night,” “Never Let Me Go,” and “Shake It Out.”  But my most listened album of 2011 is undoubtedly Born This Way by Lady Gaga. It’s not perfect, but there are some truly great songs on there. The best, in my opinion, are “Heavy Metal Lover,” “Bloody Mary,” “Born This Way,” and “Hair.” “Hair” was easily my favourite song of the year. It’s so stupid, but so much fun.

My biggest musical disappointment of the year was Radiohead‘s King of Limbs. I never thought we’d reach the day when Radiohead made a bad album, but unfortunately it seems we have. It’s still possible King of Limbs will grow on me in the future. I hope so.


I was underwhelmed by the cinema of 2011 until July when I saw The Tree of Life, and I still think it was probably my favourite movie of the year. As I wrote at the time, I totally get why so many people hated it, but it really, really worked for me. I thought it was beautiful and brilliant, and it stayed with me for a long time after I saw it. Another movie that has stuck with me is the haunting Martha Marcy May Marlene, starring Elizabeth Olsen as a young woman who joins and then leaves a cult, but finds that she may never truly be able to escape. I’m not sure why this movie isn’t getting more awards buzz. Speaking of which, The Artist is just as good as people say. I found it very charming. In terms of more mainstream fare, I thoroughly enjoyed Captain America — everyone seems to have a preference between Cap and Thor and, while I enjoyed Thor, I think I was more drawn in by Captain America‘s period setting. I thought the filmmakers pulled that off very well. Plus, Chris Evans was wonderful, and Hugo Weaving made a terrific Red Skull.

Movies I didn’t like: The Descendants, which I am officially naming the most overrated movie of 2011, was just as boring and pretentious as I expected it to be given my hatred of Sideways and my general dislike of George Clooney in serious movies. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 annoyed me so much the first time I saw it that it almost put me off ever watching any of the HP movies again. Then I saw it a second time and liked it more, but I still have to say that the series was overall pretty disappointing — apart from the absolutely excellent casting.


I think the only 2011 releases I read were The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin, both of which were great but fell just short of being truly outstanding. I read Martin’s entire Song of Ice and Fire series for the first time in 2011, and the third volume, A Storm of Swords, was most likely my favourite “new” (to me) book of the year. A low point in 2011 for me and probably for the world: I read all four Twilight books. Breaking Dawn created a whole new level of bad.


The good: Fringe, The Good Wife, and The Vampire Diaries are the best things on television right now. I was overjoyed — overjoyed, I tell you! — by Smallville‘s series finale, which made me feel that the 10 years I spent watching that show were actually worthwhile. The second season of Boardwalk Empire also wrapped up in spectacular fashion.

The bad: I was disappointed when I heard One Tree Hill and Weeds, two shows that have really gone downhill, were being renewed. I finally stopped watching House.

The sad: No Mad Men.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

This weekend I saw Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life. I knew the response to this movie had been quite polarized, with glowing reviews on the one hand, and people walking out of screenings and demanding refunds on the other. The only other Malick film I’ve seen is The Thin Red Line, which I liked but wasn’t blown away by, but I think that plus the reaction from others probably gave me a pretty good idea of what to expect this time: something not very linear, kind of long, and likely rather meditative. And that is indeed essentially what I got. I enjoyed it very much, but I also completely understand why so many people have hated it.

Surface impressions: The Tree of Life is a very beautiful film. The images on screen may at times seem random, but they are almost always visually stunning. The music, too, is gorgeous, both Alexandre Desplat’s score and the numerous classical pieces used throughout.

But now to go a little deeper and tackle the big question: what is it all about, anyway? I don’t know what Malick intended, but I can tell you what I took from it. The movie opens with an epigraph, a quotation from the Bible’s Book of Job. I’m no biblical scholar, but I know Job is about a good man who suffers greatly. The main event that drives the story (okay, “story” may not be the right word here) of The Tree of Life is the death of the main character’s brother at age 19; although it’s never explicitly stated, it seems reasonable to assume that the boy was killed in Vietnam, given the time period. The entire film, I believe, is the main character, Jack, played as an adult by Sean Penn (although it seemed to me Penn only appeared in the film for about 20 minutes, and all he did was walk around … I don’t think there’s an Oscar nomination in the cards this year), meditating on the Book of Job’s central question: why do bad things happen to good people? The film is Jack’s stream of consciousness on this subject. In considering that question, his thoughts take him all the way back to the creation of the universe — yes, there are dinosaurs. It is bizarre, to be sure, that a movie which is about a family living in Texas in the 1950s includes a sequence involving dinosaurs, but it also makes sense. We humans do occasionally think about these big ideas; the train of thought goes to some strange places sometimes, and I can well imagine that a man angry at God for taking his brother’s young life, wondering what it all means, might end up in contemplation of the cosmos. Jack also remembers incidents from his own childhood, including a longish sequence in which he remembers the sins he committed as he started coming of age, perhaps wondering if his bad behaviour somehow led to his brother’s death. The reference to Eden in the movie’s title also seems linked to this idea: Adam and Eve, of course, are banned from Eden and denied the bounty of the tree of life after they sin by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, even those who do not sin, like Job, may suffer.

Jack’s parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, are presented as embodying the two different ways of life outlined at the beginning of the movie: the way of nature (the father) and the way of grace (the mother). Grace, according to the mother’s voiceover, “doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” Nature, meanwhile, “only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.” Jay Michaelson has an interesting analysis of nature and grace in The Tree of Life at Religion Dispatches. (I’m sure there’s probably room for a more complete analysis of the Book of Job and The Tree of Life in this context, but I’m also sure I’m not the person to do it.) I’m not 100% on board with this nature vs. grace dichotomy, partly because I think the mother is closely associated with nature and wildness, while the father seems intent on civilizing it: for example, he’s strangely obsessed with having a perfectly neat front lawn. Then again, I suppose this could be his way of lording over nature itself, and we are shown in the film that there is sometimes grace in the natural world. I’m still not quite sure I buy the nature vs. grace argument as it’s presented, but this may be because I think of civilization as nature’s true opposite and I just can’t wrap my head around what Malick is trying to say.

Come to think of it, that last thing seems very likely. The Tree of Life: I have no idea what it really means, but it was beautiful and oddly powerful. To celebrate it, here is a piece by Bedrich Smetana called “My Country – Vltava (The Moldau)” — it’s a very grand piece of music that plays toward the middle of the film. Enjoy!