By Brian Contratto
The history of the universe is distilled into one image, a young boy kneeling at his bedside, praying to God, humbled by life’s unanswerable questions—“Why?” The scene embodies the spirit of Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, which explores the same ontological questions in a maximally ambitious framework. Though unwieldy and difficult to apprehend, the story is familiar and bursts at the seams with archetypal characters and themes.
The film catapults us through the galaxies in the staggeringly gorgeous cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki, before zooming into the saga of a 1950s American family whose narrative evokes Our Town and East of Eden. The Tree of Life is more audacious than either.
The story emphasizes the recurring nature of a "loss of innocence," avoiding the myth of a single coming of age event that affects children alone. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), a personification of 1950s male values, must also experience the uprooting of his moral fiber when he is denied the success his formidable work ethic should have insured. And his gorgeous, gentle young wife must struggle through the troubling contradictions imbedded in the conventional wisdom of parenthood, and later, the premature death of her son.
The limp condolences Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) receives—“people pass along, nothing stays the same”—are suddenly revitalized and exaggerated when the film cuts back several million years to an extended scene of a massive erupting volcano, reminiscent of the Planet Earth series.
But the domestic scenes are equally stunning: the confusion and wonder Jack (played excellently by Hunter McCracken) experiences interacting with his newborn brother; the gut-wrenching guilt written on his face after he steals from the neighbor girl’s underwear drawer; the pathos of the moment when he says, "You're my brother!"
Fortunately, The Tree of Life’s treatment of “family values”—as an admirable pursuit with some sinister pitfalls—stems from Malick’s own empathetic impulse instead of contrived moral ambiguity. Even while highlighting man’s infinitesimal condition, he dignifies the comfort found in religion, tradition and platitudes—even the excessive faith we place in the grave importance of our lives.
When an adolescent Jack fantasizes about killing his domineering father, a highly dramatic score is used to evoke the same desperation he feels. Malick frequently capitalizes on these advantages his medium has over writing and theater. Instead of dialogue, Tree of Life communicates most explicitly through its silent vignettes and the actors’ intimations.
The film is shockingly earnest, the product of an overzealous mind exercising his craft with zero inhibitions (one can imagine the decision to include CGI dinosaurs was not unanimous). As a means of entertainment, it approximates the divisiveness of staring at the sun, and produces a similar effect: audiences leave the theater shell shocked—some furious, others smug about not succumbing to the pretentiousness and others stammering inelegant expressions of praise.
All responses are valid. The Tree of Life tackles way too much content, overwhelms to the point of discomfort and still emerges victorious and lucid. In a film that both amplifies the human condition and obliterates it with literal perspective, the effect is perfect.
By Katie Zaborksy
Ever since the Apple iPad’s entry into mainstream technology last year, tech geeks and commoners alike have been arguing over its necessity and efficiency—is it just a cumbersome iPod Touch, or is it a portable, user-friendly laptop? Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn put its utility to the test, recording a new album entirely on his iPad during the group’s 2010 tour. Understandably minimal, The Fall is not just an experiment in physical production, but also a major departure from the energetic, collaboration-heavy tracks of the band’s last few albums.
Evidenced by track titles like “Phoner to Arizona” and “The Snake in Dallas,” The Fall documents the North American leg of Gorillaz’s Escape to Plastic Beach world tour. The music mimics a visual tour of the U.S. landscape, not all of which is stunning—the songs range in quality from stellar to humdrum. Ethereal and meandering soundscapes are the status quo, serving as a constant backdrop for frenetic bursts of electronica, hip-hop and even forays into country music and yodeling.
“The Speak It Mountains” opens with an apocalyptic dialogue that sounds like it was lifted from a bad sci-fi movie, only to continue with sparse instrumentals while a shapeless voice counts to seven. The ominous mood then transforms into the lighter “Aspen Forest,” which evokes a walk through the woods while a UFO flies overhead. The Fall constitutes a playful venture out of the studio that affords Albarn the chance to express some more spontaneous creative instincts.
Though the album has been available for digital download since December, it was only released in physical form this Monday, a move that almost seems inappropriate given its gimmicky conception. The album is something of a lackluster outlier among their prior work, and plays more like an inside joke than a serious endeavor. This might work better as a tour DVD with commentary and documentary footage. As it stands, The Fall can’t escape the sentiment of, “Dude, you had to be there.”
For every tree that falls, Daniel McGowan—a member of the extremist group the Earth Liberation Front (ELF)—will be there to make sure it never happens again. He may choose to build a fort around the forest, protest in the streets or perhaps organize an arson attack on the logging squad. It for this last activity—something that the government not only deems a crime, but also an act of terrorism—for which McGowan now faces 7 years in prison.
What is most telling about our first glimpse of McGowan is that he is not your typical fanatic. The audience expects him to be energetic and passionate about environmentalism but, instead, he shows a sense of quiet, profound respect for his natural surroundings. He speaks of his arson attacks in a very matter-of-fact way—almost like not he but everyone else is the anomaly. His steadfast pursuit of his own goals to protect our environment leaves one questioning, “What are my fundamental beliefs? To what extent would I go to protect them?”
Moreover, he asks audiences to think about what “terrorism” exactly encompasses. If a person burned down an empty logging warehouse, can he or she necessarily receive the same verdict as another who detonated a bomb inside the same warehouse full of workers, with the intention to kill? We are left to grapple with this moral gray area, to consider and reconsider personal and court definitions of justice.
This struggle between the self and the system brings us closer towards empathizing with McGowan’s experiences. It is when he lost faith in the “system”—the wholly unchangeable and profit-driven environmental policies of the local government—that McGowan began to act upon his personal beliefs. This window into the psychology of the “criminal” leads us to sympathize with McGowan and indirectly expose the pro-McGowan slant of the directing team, Sam Cullman and Marshall Curry.
It is ironic that the impervious “system” that McGowan and the ELF group reproach bears resemblance to the organization of the ELF itself. In the film, we learn about the network that ELF members form throughout the U.S., and the encrypted forms of correspondence that they use. This prevents any sort of communication, let alone collaboration, between the ELF and other environmental groups or the local or national government. It is this disassociation from society that demonstrates why the ELF is not a good model of a bottom-up governing model.
While the film begins in a provocative and intriguing way, it quickly becomes disheartening and completely frustrating—a bitter reminder that this is indeed a documentary of a real-life event in which there is no dénouement, no artistic tying together of loose ends or glimpse of resolution as one might hope to imagine.
Perhaps consider watching If A Tree Falls as a documentary sandwich, between two more lighthearted works from the 2011 Full Frame Film Festival: Forest Hill’s Junk Palace and Lacobucci’s Take Me Away Fast. While they both make references to problematic relationships between the self and society, they do so in a subtler manner.
At the beginning of The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, director Chad Freidrichs presents his audience with the jarring image of an 11-story high rise collapsing onto itself, disappearing into a massive white cloud of debris. It was the first of thirty-three high rises in Pruitt-Igoe—a housing project in St. Louis—that was brought down after the project had disintegrated into disrepair and was declared an utter failure.
But Pruitt-Igoe wasn’t always the emblem of public housing failure. Freidrich goes back to St. Louis in the late 1940s, where a postwar economy was shifting populations, and the urban poor lived in cramped, grimy conditions. At that time, the construction of Pruitt-Igoe was a symbol of hope, lifting families from dirty alleyways to clean, furnished high-rise apartments.
Using news reports and photos from the period, Freidrich chronicles Pruitt-Igoe’s progression from sunny, safe home to imploding structure and intersperses them with interviews of academics and testimonials from former residents. The grainy images of archival footage are juxtaposed with glaringly white backdrops of individual interviews, jolting the viewer’s focus to how changing housing policies were experienced by the people actually living in Pruitt-Igoe.
The narrative is really brought to life with Benjamin Balcom’s original score. A steady drumbeat runs strong, keeping the story plodding forward and setting the tone for each segment of the film. It creates a sense of trepidation, nostalgia, anger and sorrow as the former residents recount Christmas lights in the winter, elevators that smelled like urine, people dancing around a record player in the evenings and boys toughening up and fighting each other.
Throughout the film, everyone knows the story will circle back to the image of the collapsing high rise. But when Friedrich finally shows the footage and we see the building slowly starting to cave in—the white cloud building up, the structure gaining momentum as it falls down—we understand it is not just an example of architectural failure. It is not just the symbol of a political blunder. It is someone’s home and the myriad childhood memories contained within that is crashing to the ground.
UNC Chapel Hill’s Mipso Trio, who came to Duke earlier this year for a live set, are putting on a release show for their debut EP this Thursday at Local 506 on Franklin Street. Tickets are $7 and the doors open at 8:30. Come out to support undergraduate music and enjoy a night of folk and bluegrass. Their first show in Morgantown drew over 500 attendees, so get tickets while they’re still available!
Matthew Morgan and Jose Villenueva are one half of Chapel Hill’s Divided By Friday. They attended UNC-Chapel Hill for a year, but dropped out to pursue the band full-time when they signed with Hopeless Records. In November they released a new EP, “The Constant,” and are currently on tour. Recently, Morgan and Villenueva came by the Small Town Records studio for a stripped-down acoustic set. And though their music is a no-nonsense affair, the guys weren’t afraid to cut up during the shoot.
“Nothing Like Today”
Audio: Doug Ross
Video: Jason Meer
PlayMakers Repertory Company based in Chapel Hill named Jeffrey Meanza as associate artistic director, according to a press release March 4.
“In this newly created position, Jeff will continue to oversee education and outreach as he takes on more responsibility in season planning and supporting the artistic efforts of the theater. Jeff has been an exceptional colleague since joining PlayMakers. I am thrilled to work with him in furthering the artistic scope of our work,” said producing artistic director Joseph Haj in the release.
Meanza holds a BA in Theatre and Performance Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, where he served as alumni artist in residence in 2005. He earned his MFA from the Professional Actor Training Program in the Department of Dramatic Art, UNC-Chapel Hill.
11:49 – Well, it was a big night for The King’s Speech, with the film talking home Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture. The Academy spread the love around tonight, awarding three Oscars to The Social Network, four to Inception and two each to The Fighter and Toy Story 3. Black Swan took home the Best Actress Oscar. Other Best Picture nominees True Grit, Winter’s Bone, 127 Hours, and The Kids Are All Right each won no awards tonight.
11:36 – The King’s Speech wins the Academy Award for Best Picture. The British are laughing now.
11:23 – Best Actor goes to Colin Firth for The King’s Speech. Looks like a shoe-in for Best Picture now.
11:16 – Best Actress goes to Natalie Portman for Black Swan. The film has otherwise been totally snubbed tonight, not that it’s any surprise. As with most edgy films, it was too strange to get widespread admiration. Give it a few more years.
11:03 – Best Director goes to Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech. Huge win. King’s Speech: 2, Social Network: 3
10:46 – Best Original Song goes to Toy Story 3‘s “We Belong Together” by Randy Newman. Can’t decide whether the Golden Globes, which picked Cher’s “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me” from Burlesque, or the Academy made a worse choice. Sad year for Best Original Songs. I still agree with Family Guy about Randy Newman.
10:35 – Best Film Editing goes to The Social Network. Third win of the night for the film.
10:31 – Best Visual Effects Oscar goes to Inception, the fourth win for the night’s clear technical leader. The film has won four of it’s seven nominations so far, but with Best Picture as it’s eighth, this is likely the night’s end for Christopher Nolan’s film. Though the film was quite good, cinema is still all about the story. We haven’t all been corrupted into special effects junkies yet.
10:22 – Autotune the Oscars. Fantastic. Perhaps the Academy will someday give more than a comical nod to the exploding new media sector. But this is progress! YouTube Oscar, anyone?
10:20 – Best Documentary Feature goes to Inside Job.
10:16 – Best Live Action Short goes to God of Love.
10: 12 – Best Documentary Short goes to Strangers No More.
9:59 – The Oscar for Best Costume Design goes to Alice in Wonderland, the Academy’s second nod of the night to Tim Burton’s distinctive cinematic style, adding to the film’s art direction win.
9:56 – The Oscar for Best Makeup goes to The Wolfman, which probably no one actually watched. Impressive that the Academy actually remembered that.
9:50 – Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing Awards bot go to Inception.
9:42 – Best Original Score goes to The Social Network, the film’s second win of the night.
9:30 – Best Supporting Actor goes to Christian Bale for The Fighter, the film’s second win of the night. Bale clearly hasn’t trimmed his beard much since the Golden Globes.
9:27 – Best Foreign Language Film goes to In a Better World.
9:16 - The Oscar for Best Original Screenplay goes to David Seidler for The King’s Speech.
9:14 – The Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay goes to Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network.
9:07 – The Oscar for Best Animated Feature goes to Toy Story 3. Big surprise.
9:04 – The Oscar for Best Animated Short goes to The Lost Thing. Aka not Pixar. And Justin Timberlake isn’t funny.
8:57 – The Oscar for Best Supporting Actress goes to Melissa Leo from The Fighter. The Oscar for Best Old Man Presenter goes to Kirk Douglas. Best Old Man Wrangler goes to Hugh Jackman.
8:56 – “Colin Firth is not laughing. He’s British.” – Kirk Douglas
8:51 – KIRK DOUGLAS IS STILL ALIVE. And he still has his fantastic double chin.
8:47 – The Oscar for cinematography goes to Wally Pfister for his work on Inception.
8:44 – The Oscar for art direction goes to Alice in Wonderland. The winners even put a little top hat on the statue. Cute.
8:37 – The show begins with an interesting montage featuring the co-hosts Anne Hathaway and James Franco with last year’s host Alec Baldwin and an appearance with Morgan Freeman. Of course it’s all actually a dream. A big thank you to Inception for providing the most clichéd and easiest plot twist of the year.
Last Thursday, acclaimed music scholar Greil Marcus stopped in at the Nasher Museum of Art to give a talk entitled “Our Old, Weird America: The Mole In the Ground.” Prior to attending, I described the talk to friends as “something that should be really cool about American culture and folk music and maybe Bob Dylan.”
I knew that my predicted summary, though enthusiastic, was reductive, and accordingly expected to sit sponge-like at the talk. I would absorb everything Marcus said, but I knew that I would probably hone in on any possible allusions to Dylan’s music, with which I am moderately obsessed.
As it turned out, obsession was the underlying theme of Marcus’s talk. From the beginning, he made clear that his lecture would focus on a song he’d “been obsessed with for more than forty years.” However, as Marcus later revealed, obsession (at least in his case) is never something completely one-sided. It entails an evolving engagement with the material that, if turned static and merely declaratory, loses its potency.
The song of Marcus’s long-term infatuation, “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” was originally recorded by North Carolina folk musician Bascom Lamar Lunsford in the 1920s. Since then, it has been anthologized, sampled and placed in other songs, and covered in its entirety. Such artistic transference, as Marcus discussed, demonstrates the ways in which music classified as “folk” invites diverse interpretation and application. The very nature of its genre connotes accessibility, but, according to Marcus, not simplicity.
“Folk music is not simple,” Marcus said early in his lecture. “It’s weird.”
He went on to explicate this weirdness, this element of the “other,” in an impressively meticulous analysis of Lunsford’s lyricism. This analysis, however, came only after an anxious strain of technical difficulties involving the auditorium’s sound system. As the very premise of his talk necessitated sharing music with the audience, I became concerned when the lack of communication between the sound technician and Marcus continued for several minutes. The gentleman seated in front of me quietly importuned Marcus, “maybe we could sing the song?” I feared that Marcus, ostensibly a professional, would offer a derogatory rejoinder. At the same time, I envisioned the audience, led by Marcus, joining together in some collective warbling (read: my romanticized idea of a folk-fueled peaceful protest, circa 1964) of Lunsford’s piece. Neither happened, and the song eventually played—as did pieces by artists such as The Tallest Man on Earth, Bob Neuwirth, and Bob Dylan, who had each incorporated snippets of Lunsford’s song into their own.
I gradually realized that my twofold reaction to the evening’s audio difficulties tended toward both the absurd and the legitimate. Perhaps a spontaneous singsong togetherness seems absurd. Perhaps even the thought of Marcus’s response to my front-row neighbor seems odd, because Marcus appeared more humored than not by the technical mishaps. Yet each response reaffirmed my consciousness of connection that evening—to Marcus, to the music, to the others alongside me who were engaged in the lecture. Above all, I felt connected to the variation in human experience that implies something both weird and beautiful. And, as Marcus suggested, this coexistence produces the type of great, long-lasting folk music exemplified by “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground.”
The song, in its standalone complexity and temporal iterations, encourages (and even mandates) self-reflection. As Marcus said, “the song, and the way of singing the song, could call everything into question.” The ways in which we interpret the song on an individual and collective level actually call into question what it means, and what it could mean, to even be an individual or to be a collective. When we sing (or think) along with Lunsford, what do we leverage when we “wish [we were] a mole in the ground”? According to Marcus, we enter into a politics of not only music and lyrics, but also of decision-making and self-affirmation in the context of all humanity.
And what else, besides this perpetual politics, defines our existence? It seems only right to obsess over it.
Arcade Fire won Album of the Year last night at the Grammys. There are two problems with this.
The first one isn’t usually what the Grammys would call a problem—more like the status quo. To put it simply, The Suburbs is a mediocre record. It’s boring, overblown and conceptually delusional. For most of the overlong run-time, Win Butler sounds like he needs a cup of coffee, and whenever he raises his voice, the moments that Grammy voters probably thought were so thrillingly raw, he comes across like one of the more animated characters in a daytime soap, brittle and disinterested and overly melodramatic. At best, The Suburbs was in an ugly tie for the third-best record nominated, with Eminem’s stilted and pop-obsessed Recovery. The two, actually, are each other’s rap and rock equivalents: songs for the middle-aged, short on novelty, the work of artists who view themselves as voices beyond their music. I mean, nothing against Arcade Fire, they seem like totally nice people, but with every record they get less innocent and interesting and fall deeper into kitschy faux-philosophy. Out of the five nominees, Katy Perry should’ve won, and Lady Gaga was a close second, though I think if she doesn’t get her act together Perry’s going to make her obsolete; I will give Arcade Fire the dubious honor of being better than Lady Antebellum, though. Kudos.
The second problem is more important. All of a sudden, people are acting like the Grammys have righted themselves. That they’ve raised up this tiny indie-band from the ignominy of touring the southeast corridor together in a wheezing, broken van, have propelled them into the spotlight that they so desperately deserved and were unjustly deprived of up until now. Well, Arcade Fire sold out MSG—headlining over Spoon, who have been releasing stellar albums consistently since 1993 and are one of the greatest rock and roll bands of the last 25 years. They soundtracked the Super Bowl. They soundtracked a #1 movie. U2 used that same song—”Wake Up,” which is actually a really great song, off of their very solid debut Funeral—to open for them on one of their tours. The Suburbs CHARTED AT #1. This has nothing to do with the quality of their music or the integrity of the group, but it’s just a fact by now: Arcade Fire are one of the most popular bands in the country.
If the press keeps lauding this as some sort of debt-paid to “authentic” or “indie” music, we’re screwed. The mainstream industry continues to morph and disintegrate, and there’s all kinds of opportunity to actually help the music-consuming public find acts pushing and producing new sounds, or doing the tried-and-true as well as possible. But this isn’t Arcade Fire, and it’ll be a shame if everyone gets hung-up patting themselves on the back for their make-believe philanthropy. Last night, the Grammys weren’t a victory for anyone other than Arcade Fire and their fans, which makes it the same as any other awards show. Until people get carried away.