The Big Issues of Living: Three Recent Indy Films

I keep thinking the three odd, non-mainstream movies I’ve seen recently, “The Tree of Life,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, and the newly released “Margaret,” (a 2002, post-911 film whose distribution was delayed), all have something crucial to tell us. Or rather, show us, because we have to figure out their messages for ourselves.

Or, these films are, at the very least, a reflection of part of our new century’s collective consciousness, as well as bulletins from our collective unconscious. I was drawn into the films though they were not as much “entertainment” as they were stimulants for difficult thought, and it is a bit if a challenge to articulate just what the three may have in common.

The first, Terence Malik’s “The Tree of Life,” I found so mesmerizing in lyrical imagery that the fragmented narrative didn’t bother me at all. And yes, there was a story there, a typical family drama of the early sixties. Brad Pitt is the father of three boys and we are perceiving mostly Jack’s world, the older boy’s, perspective, his chaotic and bewildering coming-of-age through adolescence to manhood under the somewhat stern dominion of the father played by Brad Pitt.

The ethereal Jessica Chastain is The Great Earth Mother beneath whom the three sons are sheltered, and the tensions between the parents, and the father and his sons, are fraught with the same incongruous conflicts many of us recognize from the emotional throws of growing up in small town America.

In the middle of the film there is an interlude of dazzling imagery, an explosion of nature’s growth and time’s passages, throwing us into thoughts of the Big Bang, the violence of earth’s natural movements, the tossing of seeds and leaves and light, atoms and molecules, sperm and ovum, the sense of time immemorial, infinite time and the great questions of time’s purpose. It doesn’t segue into or away from the narrative well but it gives us some hints as to the ambitious nitty-gritty of the film.

Jack is a poetic soul, struggling to understand his own existence, and the middle son is the sensitive would-be musician whose life is cut short by the Vietnam war. As the brothers grieve and the parents suffer and wound one another, we feel the vicissitudes, the anxiety and threats that persist alongside daily living. We believe in the “Tree of Life” of the title, the welling together at the root, the battering of the branches, the dappled summer light that brightens the buds of the heart and awakens the body’s mortal awareness.

How does one capture and interpret the secret of what it means to be human on this particular planet, to know the Self writ large? Who Are We? Jack wonders in voiceover. Can the far-reaching, archetypal symbol of the Tree hold us all, thread and root us into an interconnected whole?

Most of us never question why we’re here, but then, again some of us question constantly. As a poet, I read all sorts of approaches that speak to this question along with shapely and sinuous answers. And Malick’s film itself is poetry, and poetry’s response is often layered down to the bedrock, twisting with wishes, as on a Mobius strip.

Despite critical raves, in theatres throughout the country people walked out on this film, frustrated no doubt by the alternate mumbling and blaring of the soundtrack and the lack of linear storytelling, perhaps unwilling to give the film the attention it needs. I saw it twice, not wanting to miss any of the pieces the first time, and the second, to focus on how the pieces were put together. I found it visually astonishing and the acting excellent, earning Pitt an Oscar nomination. Pitt takes on a deeper dimension of himself as the frustrated father, and Hunter McCracken, plays Jack with universal truth in his every move.

In the finale of the film, a strange, surreal place (meant to be heaven?) emerges, complete with beach and lapping waves, for what seems a city population coming and going as if the sand itself were a New York sidewalk. The family we watched coming apart, comes together again in reconciled affection. Sean Penn, is the older Jack, who has found himself as a modern architect, and appears with his younger self, his lost brother, the mother who never ages, and Pitt as a more tender father. Between the shifts of light, the shapes, the colors, the abstract landscapes and the faces of the figures, it appears Malick is paying homage to our whole experience as beings on and of the earth, nothing less than eternal in the sheer mystery of soul travels.

Like “Tree of Life,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” is also told from a child’s viewpoint. This protagonist, an untrained star of amazing power and depth is played by six-year-old Quvenzhan√© Wallis, a fascinating child to watch. In fact, the entire cast is without acting experience, and yet, each tapped into a larger self and found his or her character’s perfect center. As for plot, this movie possesses even less than Tree but is equally provocative.

The girl lives alongside her father on a small barrier island in New Orleans’ gulf, an area bordered by levies, called “The Bathtub.” The young child, “Hushpuppy,” narrates as we watch her alcoholic father’s health fail in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Her mother “swam away” one day, though Hushpuppy still sees her in her minds’ eye, and calls to her from the water’s edge.

Her father raises her like a boy, won’t let her cry over his illness, (though both do at the unsentimental end) calls her “The Man” and exhorts her to stand up and cheer for herself, showing her “guns” (muscles). The film takes place in just a few days.
In the back of Hushpuppy’s imagination are the arctos, ancient, mythic creatures, huge in her fantasies. And when she finally meets several of them nose-to-nose, she is like Alice grown tiny. Yet through her confidence and self-reliance, Hushpuppy is able to dispel the enormous spirit-creatures with her own magical powers. As a metaphor for her own wildness, one could say these wild beasts further represent her own smoldering independence.

The film is disturbing. The ragtag group who cling to what’s left of their junky homes are nothing like proper parents. By any middle-class measure, these children would be taken away for their own safety. But though it disturbs us that Hushpuppy suffers both abuse and neglect, her father’s love for her is real, and vice versa. While he tries to shelter her from his illness, Katrina swings in, and the inhabitants of the island find themselves cut off from their self-sufficiency. Everything is dying around them. And when they fight the help they’re offered by government agencies, they are like primitives who can only survive in their natural habitat, preferring to die in it. While she observes her father under doctors’ care, Hushpuppy ironically remarks that when people grow sick here, “they plug them into the wall.”

After their escape from the hospital, she cremates her father and sends him off to a burial at sea on a homemade float just as the ancients did. One remembers the rituals of Avalon, and that the Nature that threatens this community’s life is also a part of its soul. The film speaks for a kind of Libertarian independence, against an intervening government civilizing society. The motley crew slips away from the Red Cross camp, and Hushpuppy conquers the primitive creatures in one triumphant moment of staring them down.

This is her fantasy of course, the way she sees herself, a girl-child raised like a boy, a loyal, devoted daughter, who grieves the loss of her mother and father equally. But Hushpuppy knows who she is. She tells us the scientists will look back 100 years from now and “they’ll know there was a Hushpuppy who lived with her Daddy in the Bathtub.”

Will she survive? Not by any dint of current cultural standards. But then, as she earns our respect and captures our hearts, we wonder about our own world, held as we are in its tightening, grip, more and more alienated from Nature. What if we don’t need banks? And lawyers? Or the Federal Drug Administration? What if we didn’t rely so heavily on the Powers-That-Be, those that seem to be serving themselves more than their constituency? Wise men tell us that this is now the era for us to outgrow the ubiquitous crumbling systems and shallow values of our over-materialistic world.

Hushpuppy is mythic, a magical child. She shows us an alternative life we would never choose for ourselves. But still, we sit in our silent tears at the end of the film, find strangers in the restrooms afterwards wiping their eyes as well. We know something’s been lost in our world that is not lost for Hushpuppy. She’s free and she’s confident and yes–she’ll probably grow disillusioned as she ages–but her faith in her strange foundation is steadfast. We’re sure we don’t want to live like her, but we’re not sure, how in our modern lives, we can find what’s been lost.

A few days later I picked up a movie in the supermarket on Redbox. I’d heard an NPR program on “Margaret,” and because of its length among other reasons, it had been held back from release. Based on a play by Kenneth Lonegrin “Margaret” tells the story of a fatal bus accident and the privileged, teenage, West Side Manhattanite, Lisa, played ferociously by Anna Pacquin. Lisa causes the accident by distracting a bus driver with her flirtatious interest in his cowboy hat. The bus driver, (Mark Ruffalo) runs a red light and runs over a woman, (Alison Janey.) As “Monica” dies in the girl’s arms, Lisa, (if she hadn’t discovered it by 911 already) learns that life can change in an instant. Although she readily admits to her math teacher (Matt Damon) that she cheated on his test, Lisa begins to think about “right” and “wrong” in absolutes.

She’s traumatized by Monica dying in her arms. In the aftermath of the accident, exchanging looks with the bus driver, she tells the Police the light was green. But Lisa develops an obsession about her lie and confides in her actress mother who has her own distractions as the star of a new Broadway hit.

We see Lisa in and out of school, arguing, manipulating and seducing teachers and friends. She lives an “entitled” life and most teenagers, she is passionately idealistic. When she tries, with the help of Monica’s cynical friend, to administer justice for Monica’s senseless death, by amending her statement, incriminating the driver and starting a law suit against the MTA, she only succeeds in drawing them into a settlement which benefits Monica’s greedy, distant cousin.

Still the driver gets to keep his job despite a previous record of reckless driving. But does Lisa recognize in herself the mountain of guilt she has projected onto him? Though she makes one admission that the accident was her fault, she has not taken full responsibility for her own reckless behavior, which continues throughout the film to the point of losing her virginity and claiming to her teachers that she has had an abortion. We do not think this is true.

Meanwhile Lisa’s mother is being courted by a rich Columbian man who dies of a heart attack shortly after she breaks up with him, leaving both mother and daughter finally with some things in common: guilt and grief. In the last scene mother and daughter attend an opera at Lincoln Center and at the sound of the diva’s voice, they are reduced to tears. Then sobs, then hugs. For the first time we see the love between them shows.

Lisa’s aware that the world isn’t fair. She is a feisty and courageous, persistent and operatic herself. The world seems to her a series of random events such as her mother’s lover’s death, the horrible accident and the ever-present memories of 911, which the filmmaker emphasizes by numerous pans of the skies over NYC.

All three of these films tell us something about the difficulty in reconciling the many opposing forces in our modern society. Tree of Life looks back with nostalgia for a simpler time as much as it looks through the eyes of a young man toward an unsettled future. Beasts gives us a young child’s endeavor to come to terms with her lost mother and dying father, and to transcend her immensely disadvantaged life with hard-won inner strength. “Margaret” (named for the a young woman’s realization of death in a poem by Gerard Manly Hopkins) gives us the thin-skinned, self-centered insecurity of another dramatic young woman with scary close-ups of an adult world that offers no answers to injustice. The precariousness of living in our times is stated in each. Something’s not right with our world.

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