Film Review – The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011, dir. Terence Malick)
Starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Sean Penn

“A film is – or should be – more like music than like fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.” – Stanley Kubrick

In the first hour of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life we see the Big Bang, the formation of galaxies, the violent volcanic upheavals of land masses on a young earth, and the evolution of animal life. This massively cosmic scope is sandwiched in the middle of an equally intimate examination of a young boy in smalltown Texas during the 1950s. Malick presents all of this in the form of a prayer, beginning with The Mother (Chastain), a red-haired aging woman who receives a letter that her son has died overseas in the Vietnam War. She must relay this news to The Father (Pitt) and the entire scene is done with as a little dialogue as possible. We also have the surviving eldest son, Jack (Penn), in present day still struggling with childhood anger towards his father and the loss of his brother. All of these plot pieces are purely interpretive though. What I stated in the most obvious, traditional narrative way of describing the film, but much more in happening underneath it all.

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DocuMondays – Koko: A Talking Gorilla

Koko: A Talking Gorilla (1978, dir. Barbet Schroeder)

I have faint memories of being a little kid and seeing video of Koko the gorilla and her cat/adopted child All Ball. I also remember seeing Dr. Penny Patterson with Koko and years later came across an article that reminded me I was familiar with this story already. Now, as an adult, I go back to where the story began, the days before Koko was an internationally known figure and simply part of study at Stanford to teach a gorilla sign language. What she became is a mirror to put our own ideas of personhood and intelligence up against.

Koko was born in captivity in the San Francisco Zoo. She was lent to Stanford, but as the movie explains, she was kept past the agreed upon stay and things between the zoo and the college got very tense. Dr. Patterson, 28 at the time of the documentary, bonded with Koko deeply, and shows an obvious maternal instinct with the ape. Director Schroeder explains in the film that the entire documentary had to be kept quiet, lest the zoo contact authorities to have Koko removed.

Koko is shown going about her daily routine with Patterson, who we are told has to be there when Koko wakes up and when she falls asleep to keep their bond airtight. Patterson has in effect devoted her entire life to the care and development of Koko, same as a devoted parent to a child. Patterson even disciplines Koko with a fearlessness that shows an absence of distinction between man and ape. For us laymen, should a gorilla misbehave we would try to back out of the room slowly. For Patterson, she actually strikes Koko to reprimand her for tearing up her room.

The evidence in support of Koko being considered a “person” with the rights that come inherent to that is her ability to apparently synthesize language. She knows 1,000 American Sign Language signs and 2,000 words of spoken English. For objects she has no words for, Koko has shown the ability to merge two signs to describe the object. She had no word for “ring” so she called it “finger-bracelet”. She had no word for “duck” so it became “water-bird”. Fairly impressive. While there can be valid arguments back and forth about Koko being a person or not,  I found Patterson’s wish that Koko not be seen as something that could be owned a statement I would be in support of. The zoo sees Koko as their property, Patterson sees Koko has her child. Both may be a little presumptuous in their ideas of Koko. Once an animal gains the ability to use a human developed language to communicate it should cause us to step back and question many things. If Koko expressed a desire to leave both Stanford and the zoo, would she be granted this request?

A very thought-provoking documentary from one of the premiere documentary makers. Barbet Schroeder, much like the Maysles or Barbara Kopple, is not a character in his own film, but an observer. We hear the occasional question, but the subjects are truly the focus of his work.

DocuMondays – Dirt! The Movie

Dirt! The Movie (2009, dir. Bill Benenson, Gene Rosow, Eleonore Dailly)
Narrated by Jamie Lee Curtis

There’s is something about the smell of healthy soil that is unlike anything else. My father got his degree in wildlife biology and worked for the Illinois Department of Agriculture for many years so soil and gardening and nature were a big part of my early years, whether I liked it or not. As I have gotten older I’ve become interested in nature from a global perspective, particularly the way our agriculture has slowly shifted into the hands of a few private corporate interests and away from typical citizen run farms. This documentary focuses on the impact of these practices on our soil and where this practices will inevitably leads us. It doesn’t sound all too excitement but the style of the film’s presentation keeps your attention.

The film begins with metaphor of soil as a living skin to the earth and goes on to talk about the amount of living microbes in a handful of soil. The film can come across fairly dry at the beginning and sags in moments that feel a little lesson oriented. It’s saving grace are the well educated group of interviewees who come from all over the world and present well thought out and reasoned ideas about how to create more sustainable systems. I particularly enjoyed Vandana Shiva and Gary Vaynerchuck.

Shiva is an Indian physicist whose focus has been on fighting against the corporatization of genetics and push towards stronger bioethics. Her experience growing up in India has helped her see the plight of farmers who are forced into working the land as dictated by corporate agricultural firms. The result is that many farmers end up in debt and kill themselves as the land dies around them. She also emphasizes that cultures where women are moving out of a subservient, second class role and into a more active role in their local agriculture are proving themselves to be incredibly sustainable and productive environments. Vaynerchuck, the host of a internet series about wine, is able to provide a poetic look at soil and its intricacies. He talks in length about going to vineyards where he tastes the grapes and the soil to get a better sense of the wine produced there. He has a lot of enthusiasm on the subject which helps pull the audience in.

Dirt! is by no means the greatest documentary made and it does definitely feel didactic in some sections. However, it is a topic that, if given a chance, will pull people in and teach them a lot about the complexity of their environment. I found the portion on mountain top blasting my mining companies to be particularly relevant to situations here in Tennessee. I think its our responsibility as socially conscious human beings to be informed about these topics and ideas.