Saturday, October 29, 2011

Terrence Malick & Chemical Nostalgia

I'm sick of the radio these days. There are four different stations that I regularly listen to, and the more I listen the more I realize they're all playing the same thing. Different songs, to be sure, but only the same 700 or so different songs over and over again. "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey. "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John. "We Are The Champions" by Queen. "Back in Black" by AC/DC. "More Than A Feeling" by Boston. "Won't Get Fooled Again" by The Who.

These are all great songs. It's just that 700, when you think about it, isn't that big of a number. It takes very little of one person's life to completely absorb 700 different things, and then you have those things in you forever.

The marketplace of ideas applies to rock 'n roll, of course -- the chaff will naturally fall away and the great works will last, and that's why we hear those 700 songs over and over. There's no question they deserve to be celebrated and sung at top volume while stuck in traffic. It's just that I would venture there have been, oh, say, about 20 million songs written — give or take 10 million — since the invention of recording devices. Surely, therefore, even with the most demanding standards applied, there must be at least 50,000 songs out there that I would really enjoy.

Some of those songs won't sound like AC/DC, or Usher, or Adele. They'll sound so different they don't have a place on any radio station today. I heard a performance on local programming in Oregon last year by a girl called
Grey Anne. She looped her own voice using an FX pedal and sang over herself. It was some of the most haunting, delightful music I had heard in years. My point, if indeed I have one, is that I would never have known I love her music unless I stumbled upon it just as I did. You couldn't have shown me a trailer for her music, if it were a film. There isn't a "genre" I could search to find it in. It's just out there.

• • •

Recently I understand there was some fuss kicked up over a film called The Tree of Life. At one cinema people kept walking out complaining they didn't know what the hell was going on, until the manager posted a sign explaining that the film was a bit "challenging." At Cannes the film was divisive, called a masterpiece by some but also dismissed as flowery and aimless. One of the executive producers on a film I made, a documentary about world cinema, saw it and hated it.

Here's the thing: I think all of the people who walked out of the cinema during The Tree of Life were right. Because for each of them, their complaints were real — the movie was horribly slow. It was unclear. It was weird. When blowhards like yours truly get uppity because someone "just didn't understand" Lynch's Mulholland Dr., for example, we are dishonoring the fact that that viewer, the details of his or her opinion aside, has just experienced something wholly new, and that, by itself, is something to be treasured.

I have sat in the room with many a chuckling Westerner while watching a Bollywood song & dance extravaganza — indeed I have
been that chuckling guy, once upon a time. How can you not laugh, at first sight? Much of Hindi cinema is ridiculous. But if you're a certain kind of person, soon you realize that it is sublimely ridiculous, and also rapturous and magical. Yes, I have come out as a Bollywood apologist. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai works like onions on me. I think Amitabh is classier than Connery. By being willing, (and living in India for three months), I have entered a world, like the Grey Anne song, that no one could have shown to me cold, saying, "You will love this." I had to wander into it, and work at it.

My pal the film historian Mark Cousins has joked while curating one of his many festivals that he would like to advertise a showing of the latest Harry Potter film, and then lock the door once the audience was all inside and show an old Renoir film instead. I love to picture what would happen to that audience. My guess is about half of them would hate the Renoir. Almost all of them would be confused, and in a bad mood, for about the first 20 minutes. But I would also bet a hundred dollars, and I know Mark would too, that by the end of the screening someone would be curious to check out another Renoir film. And maybe, just maybe, one person would be moved to tears.

• • •


A few years ago I lived away from my own country for a year making the aforementioned flm about world cinema. It was expressly my purpose to absorb movies that were "new," being made by people and in places far away from my frames of reference. I watched
Clay Dolls by Nouri Bouzid. The Way We Are by Ann Hui. The Star-Capped Cloud by Ritwik Ghatak. Chaos by Youssef Chahine. Ashes of Time by Wong Kar-Wai. All of these were wonderful.

And yet nearly every week, come evening time, I would find myself wearied by the foreign sights and smells around me, facing another subtitled venture into the unknown — and overwhelmed by a desire to watch
Rush Hour and laugh my ass off. I once spent two days going to DVD shops all over Tunis just to track down a pirated copy of Gladiator, because I was seized with the overwhelming urge to see Russell Crowe kick some butt.

Preston Sturges, of course, produced a brilliant essay on something like this; it was called
Sullivan's Travels. The need for diversion and catharsis will always be hard-wired into the machines of cinema production worldwide. But in my case, having thought a fair bit about my junkie-like craving for Hollywood scruff in those trying times, I think what I was looking for in Gladiator was familiarity. I wanted to watch something whose syntax I understood, whose buried language had been burned into me since childhood, whose swordplay and growling I could trust to lead to a satisfactorily cathartic and bloody resolution. I wanted something that could work on me, like a massage, instead of something I had to pitch in and help with, like life.

• • •

The Tree of Life, as well as being bizarre and slow, is also the most dazzling evocation of what it feels like to grow up as a boy in the backwoods of this country that I suspect has ever been filmed. The unstoppable Emmanuel Lubezki employs the perpetual glow of summer twilight to make the story of a boy's childhood feel like a shimmery version of my own memories, and probably those of much of America. Werner Herzog says the pursuit of cinema is "ecstatic truth," and that's what The Tree of Life acheives — an ebullient, hallucinogenic impression of how it feels to live one part of a human life on this planet.

Meanwhile, in 2009 a Chinese-Canadian filmmaker named Lixin Fan made a documentary called
Last Train Home, about a family of migrant workers in southern China. To watch that film is to come as close as I can imagine possible to living life as a poor father or daughter struggling in Guangzhou. Fan's camera shrinks beyond fly-on-the-wall and into virtual absence as the family travels, argues, and falls apart. It is the heartbreaking documentary equivalent of The Tree of Life — an indelible portrait of what life looks and feels like, for people who aren't me.
What thrills me is to imagine what The Tree of Life must look like, then, when seen in other parts of the world. For there on the screen, in some form or another, is my life; and if he is willing, for a few minutes a young boy in Guangzhou, or Kolkata, or Santiago might be able to experience what it would have been like to be me instead of him.

• • •

So then the question is, what do we seek? Do we want to see ourselves, and chase the feelings we have already known, at some younger age or some earlier era? Or do we want to take the risk of living new lives, slipping into other people's skin, commiting to song #701?

This isn't a rhetorical question. Certainly the evidence is enormous that what people crave — or at least what some people think most people crave — is familiarity. The number of remakes going on in Hollywood this decade has become uncountable, and even many of the "fresh" films of today are built around nostalgia for yesterday. (Ie, the terrifically-rendered fairytale 1970s of
Super 8.) Still, every once in a while, something thrillingly and genuinely new appears on the mainstream stage. You can usually mark its arrival by the clamor it causes, the protestations of the many, and the zeal of the few who cling to it like a life raft. And when the new thing appears, for just a moment, we may see everything we already know fading into insignificance, and catch a fleeting glimpse of the infinite possible things that are out there.

The massive billboards and marquees on the multiplexes will never tell us so, but the truth is that the vast majority of what we see and hear is recycled and weatherworn, and what we mainly stand to get out of it is a lesser re-release of some neurochemicals which were once incredibly powerful, but which, like a junkie's, have weakened through overuse. In an age when everything is streaming and all access is instantaneous, excuses grow thin for continuing to expose ourselves only to that which is a known commodity — my suggestion, in the words of Robert Frost's lesser known neurophysiologist cousin, is that we might all pause occasionally, and elect to take the neural pathway less traveled by.

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