Dogtooth, Parenting, Home Schooling, and Obedience
by Dan Schindel
I was home schooled for my ninth and tenth grade years. Exiting middle school, my parents didn’t find the local high schools up to snuff. Plus, an education controlled by materials selected entirely by them meant that they could ensure that I learned certain subjects “correctly.” And so I was taught creationism as science, among other inaccuracies.
Being stuck at home day in and day out, with no one but a dog for company, was dreadfully dull, to say the least. During that time, the house became my entire world. That’s often how it is with the home schooled. I can only imagine how much worse it is for kids who spend an entire tutelage in such an environment.
Or is it worse? When one knows nothing else, the world you inhabit is the world you become comfortable with. A human being is the sum of their experiences, after all, and one often determines happiness or unhappiness by comparing what is encountered with what they are already familiar with. To me, having already spent ten years in normal educational institutions, home learning felt insufferable. As someone who had grown up in conservative Christianity, though, I knew many people who lived with no other frame of reference. They didn’t think that anything might be amiss with their experiences until they encountered mainstream culture.
As they felt their influence over the mainstream beginning to diminish, evangelical churches crafted an alternate culture of their own in order to shield their children from the “sins” of the world. Guitar Praise instead of Guitar Hero, October Baby instead of Juno, the entire PAX network. It became another America within America, one that outsiders don’t understand and and are often quick to mock; insiders fearing the outsiders.
But, to an extent, every family does something similar. Each household is its own little world universe. When we are very young, it is the sole environment we know. Family shapes our expectations for all of life to follow. Dogtooth simply takes that phenomenon to its greatest imaginable extreme.
The movie is about a Greek father and mother who have completely isolated their children from the rest of the planet. The two daughters and one son, all in their early twenties, have never stepped foot outside of their house. It is a lavish compound, a large house full of top-line furnishing and appliances, a swimming pool, and a lush garden, surrounded by high walls. Only the father ever leaves, to work. Under the supervision of the mother, the children spend their days performing chores in return for stickers, competing to see who can earn the most.
The only old things in the house are the television, which plays nothing but VHS tapes, and a record player. There is no communication with the outside, save for an old phone the mother keeps hidden. According to the parents, the airplanes flying overhead are toys, and if the children are lucky, one may fall to the ground, in which case the first one to retrieve it can keep it. That is how thoroughly reality is controlled. The very laws of the universe are different to these young people.
The father tells of an older brother who was disobedient, who ventured outside of the house and is now trapped there. According to the rules, a child cannot leave until they “lose their dogtooth.” When a cat ventures into the yard, the children are terrified, having never seen one before. The brother kills it with a pair of pruning shears. Their isolation is total, in the service of ensuring that they never, ever leave. It’s a horrifying vision of the parental protective instinct gone awry. And it’s made even more chilling by the fact that the parents’ motives remain largely unknown to the audience.
There are hints, though. The father rebukes someone by telling them that he hopes their kids, “have bad influences, and develop bad personalities.” Everything, it seems, is in the service of keeping his children “pure.” To him, this manifests as utter obedience. When he plays a record of “Fly Me to the Moon” for the children, he helpfully “translates” Sinatra’s lyrics so that they speak of the love that parents have for their offspring:
“My parents are proud of me /
because I’m doing just fine.
I’m doing just fine /
but I will always try harder.
My house, you are beautiful /
and I love you /
and I will never ever leave you.”
The irony is bitter, given that the actual song is about the exhilaration of freedom. This is how the father and mother control their kids: by making sure the mere idea of an outside world never even enters their heads. Humans are creatures of language. Jean-Pierre Gorin made a documentary, Poto and Cabengo, about two young girls who, having interacted much with the world, developed their own language. Words are how we build our concepts. Identity starts with a label.
In Dogtooth, every label is warped. Here are a few samples of the alternate language that these parents have constructed:
- A “sea” is a comfortable chair. Something from the outside is now something firmly interior.
- A “phone” is a saltshaker. A word for something that links to things beyond the walls instead signifies a tool of the table.
- “Zombies” are little yellow flowers. The dangerous is innocuous.
- A vagina is a “keyboard.” The sexual is functional.
That last example ties into the most sinister aspect of this incarceration. The sexuality of the two daughters is denied, while the father brings in one of his employees to pleasure the son. This is the one way he allows the outside to penetrate this bubble: so that his boy can get off.
The employee is the only character in the film that has a name: Christina. The children know themselves and each other solely in relation to the rest of the family. I am the older sister. That is my father. That is my brother. I am the daughter. Our names are the beginning of our individual identities. But having an identity means that you will define yourself on your own terms, which is something that the father and mother in Dogtooth will simply not permit, for it marks the beginning of a separation, which leads to disobedience.
It’s no mistake that the named character is the one who disrupts this careful arrangement. The elder daughter finagles two videotapes from her: Jaws and Rocky IV. They are the first movies she sees that are not home videos. It is impossible to imagine how a young adult raised in such an alien environment would understand these films, but the effect they have is seismic. For the first time, she acts the way a real child would, playing out scenes from the films. Eventually, she tells her younger sister to call her “Bruce.” Exposure to the outside has made her dissatisfied with her reality.
Christina’s transgression is soon discovered and she is fired. The father attempts to use the elder daughter as a new sex object for the son. This is her final straw. For the first time, she takes her life into her own hands, changing her reality. She “knows” that she won’t survive beyond the walls as long as she has her “dogtooth” so she smashes it out of her mouth with a barbell and makes a break for it. After a taste of the apple, Eve leaves the garden on her own, rather than getting kicked out. The knowledge of good and evil intrigues rather than scares her.
All things considered, what kind of paradise is she in, really?
That “paradise” wasn’t going to last, anyway. There’s no possible way for the father and mother to continue the charade indefinitely. What was going to happen when it came time for them to die? Likely, they would have initiated some kind of murder-suicide, a neat end for their perfect family.
Dogtooth is funny because it’s ridiculous. It’s scary because it’s a few steps away from what some people really do to their children - and the extreme end of what all parents do to their children. Think carefully on what you tell your sons and daughters of things, the words for those things, and the meanings of those words. Reality itself is only what we’ve perceived through biased senses, so the best we can hope for in creating people who can engage with it in a healthy way is to not try and seal them off. The world is messy and ugly, but purity is not the answer – it’s just tidy and ugly.
Dan Schindel lives, writes, and does everything else in Los Angeles. He tweets at @DanSchindel.
A Single Man (2009)
by Eric Tegethoff
George lives his life on a budget of colors. The vibrant moments when our protagonist’s eyes are filled with crimson and sepia and California orange must be repaid in a long series of cloudy, gray scenes. Skin is not tanned and sensuous for much of the film, but the color of a cat’s dirty milk bowl. Unfortunately George cannot help but absorb these depressed hues, as the people around him are quick to point out.
A Single Man is about a gay British professor named George Falconer living in the early 1960s. He cannot exorcise the ghost of Jim, the love of his life who died a year earlier. If the film were set today, George’s days would likely unravel at expensive therapy sessions, talking to doctors who do not understand him and who prescribe him pills to numb painful memories. But to the brilliantly vivid and brutal memories, George has found his own solution: he is going to kill himself.
George’s task of excising his grief is doubly hard. Not only has he lost the love of his life; he must hide that fact, too. He must live invisible in a world afraid of a minority that threatens the wholesome American way of life. George explains this fear to his dumbstruck English class, raving about the fear of communists, Madison Avenue, advertisements, and fear itself. Does anyone in the class understand this? It doesn’t seem so.
Until this point, the film is divided between George’s memories of Jim and his preparation for suicide. There are beautiful, fleeting moments of temporal presence in the world, moments where time seems to slow and George briefly betrays his depression with a smile. George sees tulip red lips and sweat-gleaned bodies proportioned like Greek statues, but he is always pulled back to the ashen world before he can enjoy the moments much.
Enter his young student in the mohair sweater, Kenny. Perhaps he reminds George of Jim, who was also considerably younger than “Old Man” George. Maybe he feels as if he can teach this one, too. Though wasn’t Jim, in the end, the one teaching George?
The boy’s dramatic minefield of a youth is interesting to George. They walk to the campus bookstore and, for a moment, we see the skeleton of the film. The boy, Kenny, buys a red pencil sharpener the same bright color his lips have become. It is the color of rage and lust, George informs him. “No kidding,” Kenny says, smiling and flirting. What is red really but the color of passion left in George’s world?
George is reminded again and again of life’s beauty: by the powder blue dress on the girl next door; by the green eyes of a Spanish prostitute who looks like James Dean; by the pink cigarettes of his vain friend Charley (performed wonderfully by Julianne Moore).
But the past is never far behind him, because George does not ever wish for it to be. It’s a terrible nightmare, but a nightmare he must endure to keep Jim alive. And that’s why we are so empathetic. What is scarier than letting go of someone taken from us too soon? Will they cease to exist if we forget? Does our love still exist without them? Or does love exist on a higher and inviolable plane, left undestroyed even in death?
Can we ever learn to live without our lovers by our sides?
After an interrupted suicide attempt, George finds himself at the old sailor’s bar where he first met Jim. The cherubic face of Kenny comes to the rescue again. Red saturates the screen. The color has shifted its meaning now, representing not just rage or lust, but also what George refers to as “clarity”. In Kenny’s presence, the vibrancy of the present world is almost overwhelming.
And perhaps these brief moments of passion are enough. Maybe, if we saw the world in it’s wide spectrum all the time, it would begin to look like an overexposed photograph. George’s passion explodes like a star and he is, finally, left with the faint glow of happiness. Nothing more needs to be done.
Of moments like this, George says, “it’s as though it has all just come into existence.”
Eric Tegethoff lives in Portland, Oregon. More of his writing can be found at www.itsabeautifuldayineedadrink.com
Jackie Brown (1997)
A WOMAN IN UNIFORM
by Joaquin Villalobos
I’ve been fascinated with Pam Grier, both her films and her style, ever since seeing Jackie Brown at the age of eighteen. She never subscribed to media standards of thinness or “whiteness”, even at the inception of her career, but instead solidified notions of an alternative ethnic allure in America’s burgeoning independent cinema. The only appeasement to male gazes and box-office business her beauty ever made was in a handful of brief scenes dotting her Blaxploitation beginnings in which she wore a string bikini, sexualized in positions of bodily compromise right before she blew away the sons-of-bitches daring to ogle her body. Along with selling seats, these scenes also tried to sell Grier as another half-naked female object to be seen rather than understood, even if this awkwardly bumped up against the consistent cool she calmly exuded throughout whatever paper-thin narrative she was headlining.
This confidence became Grier’s signature, superseding the gorgeous surface and retrospectively calling out how miscalculated the Blaxploitation genre really was in “empowering” black women on screen. A bikini was certainly never unkind to her body, mind you, but it couldn’t do justice to her natural stature, striking face, or the unshakable, collected voice that commanded our full attention. Grier was—and still is—far too mesmerizing for a simple reduction of her sex appeal to a revealing garment, and, as Blaxploitation’s popularity faded, Grier refused to compromise her appearance for supporting roles in mainstream Hollywood pictures. So instead, she faded from screens along with it.
A couple decades later, playing the titular Jackie Brown, Grier finally got the garb she’d long-deserved and remains to this day the most genuine agent in any of Quentin Tarantino’s sub-genre correctives. A film dedicated to the second chance of a “middle-aged black woman” (as Detective Dargus so cruelly put it) Jackie Brown marked a rare occasion afforded not only to its protagonist, but also to a relic in repose such as Grier. As she makes her way through the airport in both the opening title sequence and the film’s central high-wire maneuvering act, Tarantino center-stages and celebrates her towering profile in a simple Cabo Air flight attendant uniform. It’s a bright, near-cartoonish royal blue that calls attention to a dated airline and a bleak career that the character has resigned her adult life to, but Grier’s confidence and forgotten screen history imbue it with a regal sense of revival. She’s back, and this initiatory outfit, as amazing as it looks on her formidable form, is destined to be shed like an outgrown skin as Jackie uses her intellect and comradeship—not her body—to strategize her fair share of the half-million dollars in cross-country limbo.
From this work uniform to drab jail fatigues to a post-bail bathrobe, all of these outfits will come to mark the re-energizing of Jackie’s self-worth and courage as she advances from a set-up pawn to the game-winning queen. Her every move balances along a tightrope between extreme outcomes: incarceration or freedom; a dead-end-job life sentence or a comfortable early retirement; even death or survival, as she plays her adversarial gangster boss, Ordell, against the detectives forcing her to cooperate in making his arrest. That immense pressure only suits her, as her growing wardrobe—various form-fitting skirt and suit jacket ensembles, Kangol hats with cool shades, and that knockout high-hemmed cherry-red dress with matching pumps—all remarkably attest. Each of the men who circle Jackie can’t help but comment on her look, though none of them (not even Max Cherry, who’s awarded a single kiss) will get much farther than her coy smile.
But it‘s the professional black suit from Billingsley’s she’s “had her eye on” that will complete her transformation. The very last time we see her wearing that old blue Cabo Air uniform is right before she’s shown imagining her new self, sizing up the black suit as it rests on the store mannequin. After asking to try it on, the shot cuts quickly to Jackie strolling out of the fitting room, donning the suit—a new armor that will carry her through police interrogation all the way to her final confrontation with Ordell—revealing with astonishing effect the outfit that Jackie was born to wear. “Wow,” says the sales associate, “you look really cool. I mean, you wear that suit to a business meeting and you’ll be the badass in the room.” The girl, of course, has no idea how right she is, and even surfer-girl Melanie has to admit “it looks really good on you” before they make their climactic money exchange. One can’t help but react the exact same way. It’s a perfect fit.
I’ve always loved that, at the height of Jackie’s own masterminded plot, she somehow finds the time to try on clothes. But what I really love about this scene is the brief shot of Jackie as she meets her own gaze in the fitting room mirror while she awaits her destiny. As much as the camerawork in Jackie Brown is about dignifying and respecting Grier’s intrinsic strength and beauty, this shot is exclusively about vulnerability and aging. This slow, subtle zoom is the quietest and most private moment of self-reflection that Jackie (and maybe also Grier, throughout her entire career) gets to have in a film so busy with rationalizations and risk-taking, and it’s significantly uncharacteristic in Tarantino’s otherwise loud, cocksure, and conversation-heavy universe. Here, modestly official in that fine black suit, old work clothes crumpled in the frame’s corner and a half million dollars waiting patiently at her side, Jackie is scared shitless, perhaps most so at seeing a woman reflected back to her that she doesn’t seem to recognize.
The look on her venerable face is priceless, full of questioning: “How in the hell did I get here? Who do I think I am? Can I really pull this off and is it worth the risk? Do I deserve this?” One can imagine those same questions also swirling in Grier’s mind at the prospect of headlining a movie again after almost twenty years out of the spotlight. It’s an incredible moment of middle-aged insecurity and doubt at both the unlikely second chance life has afforded Jackie, after years of struggle, and the opportunity given to Grier, long after her early cinematic glory had faded.
For me, Jackie Brown will always be among the greatest films about taking a colossal gamble, and, while the majority of its running time revels in the complicated logistics and excitement of it all, that straightforward shot reveals everything at stake in Jackie Brown’s world (and Pam Grier’s career), an interior world she’s often kept hidden behind a poker face and impeccable taste. Every time I watch it, I’m enamored with how cool Grier plays it and exhilarated by the much-deserved extent to which her bet pays off. It doesn’t hurt that she looks good while doing it, too.
Joaquin Villalobos is a Denver filmmaker and writer who daydreams about making modestly scaled movies with Ana Ortiz and our digital-age equivalent to Lásló Kovács.
The Early Films of David Gordon Green
HEARTBREAK ON THE EDGE OF TOWN
by Brody Rossiter
Prior to the narrative missteps of stagnant stoner comedies, medieval make-believe and midnight child-minding misadventure, director David Gordon Green carefully crafted graceful, heartfelt and deeply moving cinema. The young filmmaker’s insular stories shadowed unremarkable individuals through rural small town communities, observing their relationships with one another, allowing seemingly mundane narratives to shudder with emotion before soaring skyward upon a vapour trail of eloquent storytelling—only to drag you back to reality with a dose of gut-wrenching sorrow. Set amidst the backdrop of abandoned factory buildings and down on their luck drinking holes powered on pedal steel and cheap beer, Green’s coming of age dramas projected a rhythmic, hypnotic quality that strongly echoed the films of Terrence Malick, a fellow Texan and admitted influence.
Green’s first two pictures, George Washington and All the Real Girls, contribute to a heartbroken portrait of Americana and its patchwork quilt of contemporary fables and folklore—stitched together from Malick’s hazy afternoons, the regretful avenues of Richard Yates and Frank O’Hara’s NYC, and William Faulkner and Carson McCullers’ southern gothic streams of indecipherable consciousness. Though transposed to a more modern setting, the roots of Green’s early narratives share the same soil, and the emotive nature of such evocative material carries with it much of the same potency.
These concentrated depictions were, and still are, capable of burrowing deep beneath the surface of the thickest of skins and most vocal, chest-beating machismo. They long for attention and reconsideration like an ex-lover, the one—or maybe the many—that got away. There are no clear-cut good guys or hiss-worthy bad guys, simply individuals living out their lives side by side, moment by moment, chance after chance. Green’s themes of loss and longing provoke a strong reaction due to their universality, recounting events that many of us have experienced. Most importantly, though, Green’s early narratives never strayed toward phoniness, never insulted its audience with the overt optimism of most run-of-the-mill romantic comedies. Instead, his films suck you in, drive you out to the city limits and break your heart—only to piece it back together with a single line of clumsy, drunken dialogue.
Green’s debut feature-length picture, George Washington, opens with a sleepy trance-like montage of downtrodden rural imagery, tinges and hues of Malick readily apparent. Time moves at a half-step as the oil-stained faces of workmen grimace while stripping down rusty freight-trains, looking as if they might have just leapt from the set of Days of Heaven. The sequence is narrated by the voice of the titular George’s tentative teenage love-interest, Nasia. Her soft tones relay all the hardships of past lives and the youthful promises of immortality that blow through these trees before being swallowed up in the cracked concrete of beat-up playgrounds. She begins:
“My friend George said he was going to live to be one hundred years old. He said that he was going to be the president of the United States. I wanted to see him lead a parade and wave a flag on the Fourth of July… he just wanted greatness.”
In addition to Nasia’s poetic monologue, George Washington discovers itself through Tim Orr’s breathtaking cinematography, sweeping long shots of industrialized prairies and extreme close-ups of torn-up tin roofs that place you in a time warp, or an alternate sepia-toned reality.The hard black outlines of towering smokestacks reach beyond the scorched vegetation below and billow into the pale watercolour yellow sky. All at once everything begins to resemble a Red House Painters album cover; a throwback to a more honest, simple time when individuals were connected to one another by street corner gossip and telephone wires. It’s not hard to imagine Atticus and Scout Finch sitting on a nearby porch, listening in as the innocent narrator tells us how the ‘grown-ups’ “had worked in wars and built machines… it was hard for them to find their peace”. Whiskeytown’s "Jacksonville Skyline" races to mind upon viewing this sequence for the first time: I was born in an abundance of inherited sadness. A sustained synthesiser undercurrent, provided by Green’s long-time musical collaborators Michael Linnen and David Wingo, swells in the background, seamlessly accompanying the industrial orchestra of wheels on track, the stray dogs barking through the factory perimeter fence.
Nasia finishes her opening monologue by stating “I like to go to beautiful places where there’s waterfalls and empty fields. Just places that are nice and calm and quiet.” These observations and romantic longings, pieced together by a child whose understanding of the individuals around her far outweighs the years she has spent with them, tells you most everything you need to know about George Washington. Allegory and metaphor is are forsaken in favour of truthful admissions and the blind optimism of adolescent minds. There is a narrative here, but it is faint, almost transparent. You already understand why these people live here, why their bloodlines and footsteps took them in the directions in which they did. Now you witness the narratives of all these lives, interweaving, colliding.
There is a constant motion to Green’s early work, a sensational and evocative quality that makes you feel like a ghost in the corner of the room, voyeuristically listening in on every conversation, beaming yourself between the claustrophobic interiors of overcrowded lounges filled with squabbling siblings and hypothetical cousins, and messy bedrooms hiding dirty magazines and padlocked diaries. You begin to realise Green’s narratives are cyclical, that these stories have been lived out a thousand times in several different guises, irrespective of creed, colour, or age.
You witness the passage from young to old as childhood innocence is corroded and covered in rust by hardship and loss. George Washington’s unexpectedly tragic events—and the hard-hitting manner in which they are depicted—are a clear identifier of this. In the aftermath of tragedy suddenly everything feels lost; rain falls from the sky for the first time, the throbbing synth notes turn to forlorn organ melodies, the colour palette shifts from oranges and reds to blues and greys. Nevertheless George Washington isn’t a story about the tragedy, but rather about the children’s realisation of tragedy’s existence, on an otherwise ordinary summer afternoon.
Green’s second feature, All the Real Girls, also closely aligns itself with the theme of capturing those irreplaceable moments of youthful-fantasy-turned-reality, in all their glory and regret, while you still can. All the Real Girls is a startlingly honest depiction of young love between pool table lothario Paul (Paul Schneider) and his best friend’s little sister, Noel (a blonder, somewhat unrecognisable Zooey Deschanel). Green’s lyrical filmmaking relies here upon the simplicity of his characters and their timeless mill town surroundings. There are no overblown declarations of love across a crowded room, no rain-soaked reunions upon a bustling platform, and most definitely no boomboxes held aloft—just all-consuming, inarticulate infatuation and its accompanying inconsolable loss.
Following her return from an all-girl boarding school, the virginal Noel’s attention is captured by Paul. We witness them embark upon a story of love without boundaries, stricken and forced into a corner by family ties, small town mentalities and their fear of the unknown. Green identifies All the Real Girls as his attempt to make a movie that “captured a genuine feel of being young and in love and the frustrations of figuring out who you are and where you’re headed”, a movie that can’t be simply defined as comedy or drama but rather “conveys an honest emotion, with a sense of humour and tenderness, that makes you think and challenges you.” The freedom afforded to Schneider, Deschanel and the rest of the cast and crew to collaborate within an improvisational atmosphere gifts the film with an invaluable sense of believability. Deschanel’s charmingly improvised hand gestures and Schneider’s own real life romantic bag of tricks ricochet off one another, causing genuine sparks to fly and blurring the lines between fact and fiction—convincing you that, in some guise or another, these characters actually existed beyond the pages of the script.
Whether it’s a fuck-buddy comedy or a supposed ‘true-life’ anecdote from The House of Apatow, romantic cinema (whether it fawns upon misguided hometown pride, childhood friendship or simply the girl next door) that is genuinely dramatic and hard-hitting is a true rarity today. I opened this piece by discussing David Gordon Green’s work in the past tense, longing for a return to form as if the header should read ‘In Memoriam’, but ultimately my goal was to discuss his unparalleled depiction of heartbreak in its many unbending forms rather than rant about the obvious fact that the debut album was better than the fifth. We fall in and out of love with one another, our friends, our families, our favourite directors, those musicians whose entire discography we own, yet the experience and pleasure we gained from them never truly leaves us. Maybe we get so angry with the artists that we love because of the vicarious manner in which we live through their work; when they falter or diverge we feel let down, disappointed. We argue that “they don’t understand us anymore”, “they don’t know what we want and need”, and worst of all “they aren’t doing themselves justice.” In arriving at a conclusion to this piece it seems fitting to do so via Frank O’Hara and his stunningly understated elegy of a love lost to time, “Animals”:
Have you forgotten what we were like then
when we were still first rate
and the day came fat with an apple in its mouth
it’s no use worrying about Time
but we did have a few tricks up our sleeves
and turned some sharp corners
the whole pasture looked like our meal
we didn’t need speedometers
we could manage cocktails out of ice and water
I wouldn’t want to be faster
or greener than now if you were with me O you
were the best of all my days.
Maybe, sometimes, the journey is worth the heartbreak.
The Tree of Life (2011)
SOMEDAY WE’LL FALL DOWN AND WEEP
by Elizabeth Cantwell
For a somewhat significant period of time, I was terrified of elevators. I had nightmares about them—never about an elevator crashing to the ground, or even about getting stuck in one, but about the elevators themselves. In the dreams, I would enter an elevator and suddenly have an extreme feeling of dread. I didn’t know what would happen when the elevator doors opened. Where I’d be. What strange, unforgiving landscape might await me.
Several years later, in college: an impound lot. My father and I stared at the crumpled car in front of us. The way the steering wheel nearly touched the driver’s seat beneath it. The hood like a used tissue. I signed the form to legally identify it as my brother’s car, held the sleeve of my father’s coat. I heard something like a desperate voice: How did I get here?
What is this moment made of?
The images in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) flow from just such sensations, such moments. On what we understand to be the anniversary of his brother’s death, Jack (Sean Penn) has a moment in an elevator where he, too, wonders How did I get here? along with How can I find you?
Glass and water.
Glass walls, waterfalls. The amniotic fluid we all swam happily in for months.
The glass we can break more easily than see through. The water that forgives. The water that takes and takes without sympathy.
The glass no one can hide behind. The glass we turn into cathedrals of solitude, of escape.
The “you” is simultaneously Jack’s dead brother, God, and Jack himself.
Going into the film, I was prepared for a lack of plot—but, contrary to what I thought I’d read, The Tree of Life is not a film that chooses image over character or story. Rather, it revolves intensely around character and story, just not in any way we’re used to. As Jack relives the formative years of his childhood, we overhear whispered thoughts—pleas, really—that cement the psychology of his character in a more crystalline way than any planted backstory conversation in a coffee shop could do.
We watch as baby Jack discovers how to smile, as he learns to plant a tree, as he follows his mother’s gaze from the smallest clod of soil to the most magnificent view of the sun. That’s where God lives, his mother (a transparent Jessica Chastain) tells him. We watch young Jack (Hunter McCracken) find joy, and then we see him lose it.
As we all do, Malick implies—the eternal (yes, represented literally) loss of innocence that creates a space for doubt, introduces us to hatred, makes us break windows, pushes us to hurt the people we love. To hurt ourselves.
A boy with burn scars covering the back of his head, a freakishly tall man in an attic room. A convict, a dead frog, a father who asks you to hit him and will hit you back.
The things we are afraid of that make us harder. That make us less naïve. That take away our ability to fly, twisting in the air like a contorted Sleeping Beauty.
How will you act when grief seeks you out? How did you act before you knew it could?
The Tree of Life is, really, a cinematic experience narrated in prayer.
Not that the film preaches a specific belief system, in any way—but it is told through the language of spirituality that comes to us all in our most helpless moments. In some cases, prayer may just be the things we say to ourselves in idle moments, when we feel sorry, when we feel less than whole.
Watching the images unfold across the screen—especially that both glorious and controversial beginning-of-the-universe sequence—we, as audience members, are forced out of our default passive stances and made to “pray” with Jack. I found myself thinking things like How do we heal? Whose side am I on? Do I expect an answer to these questions?
Walking out of the theater, I felt very quiet. I did not want to talk to anyone. I did not want to wait in the parking garage with my validated ticket.
I wanted to stay in the desert that is nevertheless an unexpected paradise, in the reminder of what it means to feel like the odd one out, the one who deserved less. To not forget what doors we can walk through and what doors we can’t. To accept whatever landscape awaits me on the other side of the elevator doors.
To be forgiven, if not by a God, then at least (or at last) by myself.
Elizabeth Cantwell is a Ph.D. student in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California. Her first book of poetry, Nights I Let The Tiger Get You, was a finalist for the 2012 Hudson Prize and is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press.