Posts Tagged ‘oscars’


In The Bedroom – the one about acting


Some films are about the fantastic.  The performances in them are based on the audience’s need for connection.  But in any drama there is a need for something else.  You might call it an artistic distance.  For films where the actors need to “become” the characters, there will always be something about the performance that is different, in an uncomfortable way.

Human beings have natural nuances that are less than flattering.  We don’t look, sound, or behave as “coolly” as characters on the big screen.  We snot, wince, and stutter.  Tom Cruise would never do that, would he?  After all, one of the great appeals of the cinema is that it can offer us “life with all the boring parts cut out,” as described by Martin Scorsese.  But what happens when we are thrust into the lives of those characters that share our negative qualities?

There is a certain hypnosis to empathy.  When we sense that someone like us is in a situation that seems possible to us, then we automatically project our sensibilities into their decisions, and participate with their life events.  All storytelling works on this principle.  And good actors will present their actions in a way that is conducive to this character/audience relationship.

The performances in In The Bedroom have that sort of hypnosis.  They draw you in with little subtleties.  The wandering eye-lines, stuttering dialog, and inconsistent intonations all serve to take the perception of intellect out of the action.  Real people are impulsive.  We rarely think about the little things we do.  Any heavily rehearsed action is easily discernable because of how clean and deliberate it is.

These actors have done away with any semblance of forethought.  Their instances of shock and romance have all the nuances of reality.  If you follow their eye-lines, you can see their realizations.  It is easy to participate in these characters decisions, precisely because these nuances feel so real.  The reactions they have are as close of a representation of what we might be like in that situation as I can imagine.

Posture and blocking is a big part of all this.  We follow the little head bobs and fist clenches.  These little actions represent the tracking marks for the Audience Bond.  The plot offers these characters only a handful of major choices for the audience to participate in, but the little blocking moments fill in the gaps.  You can tell a lot about these characters based on where they’re looking.

In one scene between Tom Wilkinson’s character, Doctor Fowley, and a Prosecuting Attorney, we are given very deliberate close-ups of what the doctor is looking at.  He doesn’t seem to be listening to what the lawyer says.  Instead he is distracted by the lawyer’s nonchalant mannerisms, such as the way he plays with his car keys.

Another example is when Mr. and Mrs. Fowley have their big fight in the kitchen.  She focuses her physical attention on the dishes, inputting a few harsh critiques of her husband’s apparent lack of mourning.  He starts to leave the room, but is brought back in by the insult.  As he slowly loses his patience, he investigates what she meant by her remark.  At this, she smashes her plate on the floor and runs out of the room.  The physical beat marks a change in dramatic tone and shifts action to a new location.

The motions give us a sense of subtext.  Is she leaving because she can’t stand her husband?  Or is it because she she’s hiding from something.  This particular instance in the story is probably caused by the subconscious need for revenge.  In their case, the need is unsatisfied by the courts, and they are unable to see the punishment of their enemy.  Is it possible that they replace that enemy with each other?  Perhaps the insults they throw at each other are coming from this need for vindication.  They can’t punish the real criminal, so the punish each other.

The audience is involved in all of this.  We are sympathetic to both sides, and even empathetic to them as well.  As the characters proceed through their grief, we share their search for answers.  And at the end of it all, we may not understand why we are in this place, but at least we have some satisfaction by joining in the character’s need for revenge.


Climbing the Tree: A Thematic Analysis of The Tree of Life


Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  . . . when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”

The film opens with this passage from Job 38.  This is Malick’s “thesis,” and the rest of the film is his supporting argument.  The juxtaposition between Jupiter, Seaweed, and Jump Cuts is not arbitrary.  It’s an impressionistic portrayal of how God sees and experiences His creation.  The cosmos are not unrelated to the planting of a tree, or the wounding of an animal.  But like the branches of a tree, all life finds its roots in the Earth.

Malick’s films are significant because of how unashamedly they embrace thematic editing, rather than causal narrative editing.  In traditional causal editing, one shot directly causes the next shot, which directly causes the next shot after that and so on until the end credits.  But the films of Terrence Malick do not emphasize narrative.  They emphasize theme, truth, and self.  As such, Malick’s preferred editing style is very impressionistic and thematic.  When shots of trees are juxtaposed with shots of children growing up, we aren’t meant to understand them as being “causally” related.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t related.

Mainstream audiences expect narrative in their cinema.  They expect a protagonist and an antagonist.  Films that do not have a strong emphasis on this type of story are considered to be shoddy and poorly made.   This expectation is largely due to the lack of film education in our culture.  Film did not start out as a storytelling medium.  It started as a record of life.

When shots were first assembled together in sequence, there were many experiments with what could be accomplished through cutting.  The speed of the cuts and the order of the cuts were found to produce different effects in the audience’s experience.  It was Sergei Eisenstein who said, “Language is much closer to film than painting is.”  Each shot is like a word that represents a given association in the receiver’s sub-conscious.  When specific words are placed together, they give a certain meaning.  Thus, traditional narrative grammar in film might sound like this: The Dog ran away from the pound.

But Malick uses different pieces of information to produce a different idea in the audience’s mind.  His grammar may sound more like this: Dog, barking in the wind, the pound behind, the World ahead.  It isn’t wrong.  It’s just different.  I call it “Linguistic Impressionism.”  It represents the experience of life, rather than recording the facts of it.  Terrence Malick is a poet who all but ignores words.  The images are enough.

And this is one of the most significant reasons that contemporary audiences might not “get it.”  In most narrative film, we’re used to being told through dialogue what the story is about, who the good guys are, and what’s at stake.  We often listen to movies, rather than watch them.  But in Malick’s films, he cuts away from the dialogue.  He focuses on the moments and the memories.  The impression of what life is like.  And as this film demonstrates, life is like a tree.

All life is interconnected.  Like leaves that stem from branches, which grow out of a single trunk whose roots are in the earth.  As new branches grow, the other branches move to accommodate it.  A part of the tree may fall off or die, while the rest of it grows and moves on.  The tree grows with time; it changes shape, and suffers through the elements.  But it survives.

There are frequent shots of trees interspersed throughout the film.  We are often positioned to be looking up at it them, as if with childlike wonder, as the Sun is seen through the branches.  The scope of life is awe-inspiring.  But it is not the size that makes it grand.  It’s the details, interwoven, telling a story.

The Tree is not the only piece of significant symbolism in this movie.  Some of the less disputed symbols are Grace (the mother, also possibly water), Nature (the father), and God (the Light).  In the case of God, the real representation of Him appears to be the recurring orange light.  But there are anticipations of him in images such as the sun, the lamps, and the various candles seen throughout the film.  When we are granted images of the sun shining down onto the trees, it symbolizes God gazing down upon creation.

When Jack says, “Mother . . . Father . . . always you wrestle inside me.”  He is referring to his innate spiritual conflict between Nature and Grace.  The mother describes the difference at the start of the film when she says, “Nature 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. And love is smiling through all things.   Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Before Jack is born, we see a woman in white leading small children toward a gate, and then we see one of them in a submerged bedroom, swimming toward the surface.  The woman is an angel leading young souls to their births, and the underwater bedroom is the womb.

The second to final image of the film is of a bridge standing over water, leading into the sunset.  It is very telling symbolically, and punctuates the film quite well.  We are led over Grace to meet God, the Light Source out of which the Tree of Life is grown.  It takes water and sunlight to make a plant grow.  It takes Grace and God for life to grow.  As a dying branch falls to the ground, it is returned to its roots.  Eventually, the whole tree will be returned to the earth, one piece at a time.

In Jack’s vision of Heaven, all people have come together on a beach to celebrate life.  They are reunited.  They are happy.  They are reconciled.  The Mother says a prayer, offering her son to God.  It recalls one of her first lines in the film; “he was in His hands the whole time.”

As the film jumps through space and time, exploring the light years and the eons, it seems patently obvious that this film is not from any human’s point of view.  Rather, it is from the point of view of God, who experiences all of creation at once.  The Mother asks, “Where were You?” and God responds by taking us back to the Creation of the universe.

The evolutionary process begins in water; Life begins by Grace.  God is everywhere.  He is with the newborn as it rests on its mother’s chest.  He is with the wounded dinosaur as it lays stranded on the beach.  He is with Jack as he chooses to do wrong.  And He is with the Cosmos, as they begin and end.  God has seen such struggles of the universe that any human pain (like being shot with a BB gun) should be inconsequential to him.  And yet He is there, suffering with it, despite its cosmic insignificance.

The juxtaposition between human pain and Divine presence plays out like an eternal dialogue, with each asking the other, “Where were you?”  God responds to Job with evidence from the foundations of the earth.  Mrs. O’Brien asks of God the same question that Job had asked, and receives the same answer.  Whenever this question rises in the film, Malick presents us with images of nature, or in some cases, glimpses of Heaven.

Malick frequently employs voice-overs as a means of demonstrating to us the heart of the characters.  The voice-overs are in present tense.  They are often prayers; they are the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings.  They are notches on the Tree of Life.  The Tree is raised up out of the earth by God, and in its prime seasons will continue to produce more life around it.  Mr. O’Brien is a gardener, but his plants are dying.  Even the grass in his yard is weak, because he does not grow with love.  What the Mother says, “The only way to be happy is to love.  Unless you love, your life will flash by . . . Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” the Father echoes in disappointment when he says, “Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.

The opening and closing images are the same: a glowing orange light.  This is God, at the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, holding the Tree of Life between His hands.  It is a Tree that He planted, and that He has lovingly cultivated, despite its natural tendency to oppose Him.  This presence in creation is how God answers Job’s question.  “Where was I?  I am HERE.  Where I’ve always been.


The Hurt Locker


[This review was written before the movie made it huge at the Oscars.  Since that time, I have come to find the film to be much over-hyped, in contrast to my positive sentiments expressed here.]

If you are the type of person who regularly sits down in your living room with a couple of bucks in your back right pocket and an extremely bored-looking countenance, only to question what it might be like to disarm car-bombs in Iraq, then The Hurt Locker is just the movie for you.  The film is inspired by first-hand accounts of the writer, Mark Boal, who spent time with an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team in Iraq.  It focuses on both the stresses as well as the excitements of soldiers who risk their bodies to potential disintegration as they disarm Improvised Explosive Devices (IED’s) in hostile areas.

The three principle characters are amalgamations of various soldiers that Boal encountered during his time in Iraq.  For instance, the character of Sergeant William James represents the attitude of adrenal addiction.  He feels the need to put himself in danger, and is in many ways a ‘wild card’ of unpredictability.  His team members each represent other attitudes toward war, and the three of them together typify major personalities common in today’s soldiers.

The film opens with a quote from Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”  In this way it reminds us that, while for most soldiers war is hell, for some, it is an excitement without comparison.   There are a few men who enjoy the rush of near-death experiences, and this movie sets out to tell their story.  There are no scenes of commanding officers discussing strategy, no ‘evil Iraqi mastermind’ to personify the enemy, and no political commentary on the meaning of war.  This is simply a movie about clashing personalities under high-stress situations.

On a psychological and philosophical level, this movie says nothing new.  But on a cinematic level, it is in a league of its own.  No other film I have seen presents the audience with a sense of intensity that largely contradicts the calm attitude of the main character.  This goes to the filmmakers’ credit, as it is much more common a ploy for a film to ratchet up the intensity merely by the performances of the actors.  But in The Hurt Locker, the main character is the only calm person in the theater.  Even the camera shakes with anticipation, zooming in on little details, looking for solutions to potentially explosive problems.

In general, the writing here is not particularly original or even terribly interesting, except when carried by the actors and cinematography.  In one scene, the character of Sergeant William James follows a cord in the sand, expecting it to lead to another bomb.  But as he tugs on it, the camera angle cuts to an overhead view of seven bombs being slowly pulled up out of the dirt.  From this angle, the character’s face cannot be seen.  This has the unique consequence of bringing the audience into the threat, whereas in a normal film this would create a distancing effect.  By not seeing the actor’s face, and only being presented with seven individual bombs connected by a single cord, we project ourselves into the center of peril.  In any other film, the human connection is what brings the audience closer, but in this movie, there are shots where the most powerful images are presented to us by way of character anonymity.  This obscurity presents a somewhat ‘everyman’ psychology in the audience’s interpretation of the soldiers.  If the face is what makes a person unique, then that is precisely what the filmmakers’ have attempted to avoid.  It’s the uniform that matters.  What a soldier is wearing determines who he is.  A man in a bombsuit is in danger by default.  Without any identifying characteristics, the audience becomes immersed in the image, feeling as if it is we who are in the bombsuit, a flinch away from having our ashes swept to the wind.

As mentioned previously, a downside to this film is its writing.  It feels as if many of the scenes have hardly any relation to each other, and little effect on the primary character arcs.  While the majority of these scenes are interesting and engaging in themselves, they struggle to find relevance in the overall story.  In one such scene, a soldier subtly threatens to kill the sergeant as tensions begin to surface around the recklessness of the main character.  The goal here is to show the stresses of the battlefield, but the problem with a scene like this is simply that no other time in the movie is the soldier’s comment or even the threatening concept presented again.  They mention it once, and take it seriously for a moment, never to bring it up again.  This in many ways is deceptive to the audience, as we have a set up with no payoff.

As a whole, The Hurt Locker succeeds brilliantly at what it sets out to do: putting the audience in the thick of the threat.  No matter how much the main character thrills in the danger, there is still a very present intensity throughout the film.  There is something about Kathryn Bigelow’s superb direction that demands a sense of audience interaction, and it is primarily this effect that provides the cathartic feeling at the end.  Because in all honesty, the characters grow very little over the course of the movie, but the audience is changed forever.  That is the effect of good filmmaking.  And a good film is exactly what this is.