A Wheel Upon the Earth

While living for six years in the New South at the turn of the millennium, I was struck by a certain I-don’t-know-what-ness.  Underneath the smothering yet genuine gentility and kindness there was still an undercurrent of “sticking to your own kind” – and it wasn’t just down lines of race, but down political, religious and social class lines.  Birds of a feather should flock together.  This certainly isn’t unique to the New South.  This undercurrent (sometimes seen as a tidal wave) has always existed to varying degrees across the world.  But what made it unique in my eyes, and positively Southern, was that it was coupled with this melancholic and melodic nostalgia for a time before that was better than now – yet it was a time that was not clearly defined, only dreamt about, perhaps having never really existed and only ever dreamt about.  It begs the questions, when exactly was it better?  What about the good ol’ days of Jim Crow?  Was it better during the Great Depression?  Was it better during the days of Slavery?  Or maybe it was better before any white or black men set foot on the land and there were only trees, beasts and Native Americans? 

Yet even I found the milieu intoxicating…the whole “Country Time Lemonade” commercial-ness of it all – lazy Sunday afternoons on the porch, Ma and Pa sipping on sweet tea, the kids running barefoot through the tall grass – the kind of laid-back twilight feeling that “once upon a time…it was always like this…it could always be like this…if only….”  And for the better part of those six years I yearned to let my North East jackass-ery and uptight-ness slip away into a world of Yes, Sir’sNo, Ma’am’s…and Thank You Kindly’s.

I think maybe writer director Robert Persons was trying to capture that I-don’t-know-what-ness of the New South in his troubling yet haunting experiment, General Orders No. 9, which exists as an amalgamation of poetic voice-over, ambient music, stunning images verging on still-life, animated maps and an overall “otherworldliness” of bygone times set to the crawling cadence of 72-minutes on film. Continue reading

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Memory and Magic in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Like an Andrew Wyeth painting come to life, Malick's obsession with open doors and windows conjures myth and memories.

Nature is a cruel and unforgiving mistress.
 
Over time, man has conjured God to tame her and give reason and order to the random chaos.
 
In present day, a man named Jack (Sean Penn) wanders listlessly through a cold, sterile metropolis where success is measured by wealth and excess.  On the anniversary of his brother’s death, a call to his father triggers an ocean of memories to come rushing over him.  Distracted, he daydreams and wonders about the meaning of life and why his brother had to be taken from him.  Was it because of the bad things he did as a child?  Was it a failure on the part of his parents?  Is it because his God is a mysterious and unknowable power that snuffs out life as easily as it gives it away?  Is this why he has become so misguided and empty today?  Jack imagines his childhood bookended by the beginning and end of time, where writer/director Terrence Malick’s meta-narrative provides a linear mirror image to Weerasethakul’s cosmic cycling from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.  Memories and dreams fuel both films, but The Tree of Life cuts through time like a knife. Continue reading