Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Tree of Melancholia: Film Existentialism 2011


The meaning of life is not new territory for the movies.  As long as there has been cinema, so there have been films about our place in this infinite universe.  Consider the bleak division of society in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or the exploration into the dawn of man and the evolution of the species in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001; existentialism can take many shapes and sizes in film, though most of the time such a subject lends itself to grandiose storytelling.  And while it has been around for ages, the meaning of life in film has never seemed as prevalent an examination as it does here in 2011.  And it’s clear to see why.  Things are not well across the planet, perhaps more so than any other time in our history.  Dare I say, we are sitting at a crossroads of the civilization and the existence to which we have all grown accustomed.  And two of the most unique films this year try and shine a light on where we sit as a society, where we came from, and where we are going. 

It is the duty of true art to reflect the current situation of the time from which it comes, and films are no exception.  Of course, the movies are escapism first and foremost.  But not always.  There is and will always be a need for humor and action and fright on a base level, where audiences can go to the movies and forget about the world outside for a few hours.  As much as we need Art House Cinema, don’t we also need Dumb and Dumber or Transformers?  I would argue they have their place, good or bad.  However, on occasion, it is necessary for films to take a closer look at what makes humanity tick.  Bold strokes exist in all forms of art, and in this visual medium it is the responsibility of those willing (and capable) visionaries to take a look at something more important and paint it with the brush of their imagination.  This year, two pictures stand on opposite ends of the spectrum of the human race.  While one examines our beginnings, another studies our end. 
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a meditative exploration into the origins of life on earth, beginning with a wide focus, the widest really – the creation of the universe – and narrowing its focus all the way down to a single Texas family and a son searching for the meaning behind his own existence.  Malick’s film arrives at the conclusion that our lives are the only thing that matters.  To us.  From the origins of the universe, all the way down to the family unit, the way of nature and the way of grace shape what we know and understand about the world.  Without our own life experiences, we have no existence to speak of.  The Tree of Life takes the grandest of subjects and individualizes it in order to show the audience that we are all we know and all we will ever know.  Consider the final act, where Sean Penn’s character, the aimless son now grown into a philosophically lost man, finds himself wandering in a desert with all the people of his past.  He is confronting the ideas and the people who shaped his own life, and the very notion of such an overwhelming experience is the only thing any individual can fully comprehend.  The universe, as we see it individually, is made up of what we understand.  Nothing more, and nothing less. 
While The Tree of Life may celebrate our very existence, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia observes the end, and where we may be headed.  As optimistic and meditative as Malick’s film may be to many, von Trier’s film is equally nihilistic and bleak.  It is not an observation of the beginning of our world, but its total destruction, and how everything we cherish means nothing once the world no longer exists.  Our two guides through this end, sisters Justine and Claire (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg), come to understand, in their own ways, that no matter how the universe takes shape through their own experiences they will meet the same end.  We all meet the same end, regardless of the form it may take, and von Trier’s idea here is to homogenize the past experiences of these characters into one complete range of human emotion.  Fear, anger, resentment and resignation exist as one arch in two people.  When the end comes, we all die the same way.  Melancholia shows us the apocalypse in an intimate setting, allowing us not to be caught up in the mass chaos of the world, the myopic instability of all religions battling against each other’s beliefs, but to truly consider the finality of such a catastrophe.  This destruction of everything we know renders everything we cherished – our lives and our ceremonies and our love – as meaningless. 
The Tree of Life and Melancholia serve as bookends to an expansive volume of existentialist films.  There have been films dealing with the origins of life, and even more studying the destruction of it all, but I would argue none explore these obtuse ideas with such clarity.  Von Trier’s vision of the end times is the counterpoint to Malick’s idea of the beginning, and vice versa.  Whatever questions arise with The Tree of Life, von Trier has answered with his own opinions.  Of course, that was not his intent as these directors were undoubtedly shaping their own films, one without the knowledge of the other.  But I would also argue it is no coincidence that these two very different, but very similar films, have both come out now, in the same year.  These are times of great uncertainty, and when a society is faced with unrest it is human nature to look inward and find out what anything, and everything, means in the end.