Over the Garden Wall is so good, so successful at everything it sets out to accomplish, that it is something of a miracle. I cannot fathom a better TV show debuting this year.
Over the Garden Wall tells the story of two brothers- the teenage Wirt and the much younger Greg- who have gotten lost in a forest. They are trying to find their way home. Early on, they run into a talking bluebird named Beatrice. Yes, this all sounds familiar. This show’s roots are in the fables and folklore that we seem to absorb through osmosis as children. This is a show with singing, magic, talking animals, witches, and more than the occasional sinister creature in the shadows. It contains elements that will be familiar to anyone who was a child. It’s how it uses those elements that makes it so special.
Many reviewers have given in to the temptation to describe Over the Garden Wall as whimsical, but it rarely struck me as such. Yes, Wirt is inexplicably dressed like a gnome, and Greg has a teapot on his head, and yes Beatrice is a talking bluebird. But Wirt’s and Greg’s costumes are given rational explanations in due time and Beatrice is neither a friendly Disney-style sidekick nor a snarky Shrek knockoff. She’s blunt and critical in a big sisterly sort of way and we grow to like her because her story is as compelling as any in the show. And it never stops telling compelling stories.
There is precious little exposition in this show, both for the plot at large and episode to episode. Each episode is largely contained to a single-serving of a new setting. In the first episode, the brothers end up in the home of a strange man living in the woods, warning them of a sinister creature he calls the Beast. Other settings include a town populated by sapient pumpkins; a sprawling, apparently haunted mansion owned by a tea mogul; and a steamboat transporting some very well-dressed frogs to their annual mud hibernation. This narrative approach is extremely engaging, giving the plot a constant sense of headlong momentum, even as it takes it sweet time exploring each world in detail.
And lord, what detail.
Over the Garden Wall looks so good that you could choose just about any still and want to frame it. It is autumnal in the best ways, alive with color and character.
The show frequently uses old-fashioned motifs, but they rarely seem to be calling attention to themselves. Techniques like the iris lens above are a callback to silent movies, but it also gives the opening sequence of the show a dreamlike quality that sets the tone before the story starts.
Before each episode, I found myself looking forward to simply seeing where Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice would go next. Each location is cool on the surface, and only get cooler as their layers peel back. In one episode, they end up in a creepy cottage where a teenage girl is held captive by her fearsome Auntie Whispers. Auntie Whispers looks like how Yubaba from Spirited Away might appear after spending a few years bathing in formaldehyde. But she is not simply a grotesque. Auntie Whispers ends up being one of the most interesting of the show’s vast roster of side characters, and the episode’s story takes a turn that is surprising, scary, and incredibly satisfying.
Another episode features a schoolhouse full of animals, being taught by a lovelorn human schoolmarm. In this show’s style, there is almost no setup preparing us for this setting, but eventually there is an explanation for it that somehow ends up making sense. One of the show’s delights is how heedlessly it explores its settings, and how thorough that exploration is.
There are plenty of musical sequences in Over the Garden Wall, and they are just about all delightful. Well, if not delightful, then excellent. This scene is the sort that would have haunted my dreams a kid:
That is a gloriously creepy 30 seconds. I don’t intend to show too much more of this show out of context, but here’s another, completely different song from another episode:
Over the Garden Wall uses music to set the tone its episodes beautifully. The first song is as jarring and disturbing as the second is jolly and fun. The first song creates a sense of deep unease. It’s downright trippy. The second helps define Greg as a character: infectiously optimistic and fond of nonsensical, improvised wordplay. The show navigates between these tones (and many more in between) effortlessly. At times it is pure delight and others genuinely frightening and all the while we get to know its characters a little more at a time until we are completely invested in their journey.
For all the rightful plaudits Over the Garden Wall receives for its animation and music, it is as good as it is in the same ways that any good show succeeds: strong characters, quality writing, excellent performances. The show’s creator, Patrick McHale, is yet another graduate of the Adventure Time/Misadventures of Flapjack school of animators who continually churn out outstanding shows (see also: Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and Bee and Puppycat). Over the Garden Wall’s writing team includes a number of the best Adventure Time alums, including AT creator Pendleton Ward and alums Natasha Allegri and Cole Sanchez.
Wirt, Greg, and Beatrice are brought to life with outstanding voice acting by Elijah Wood, Collin Dean, and Melanie Lynskey. Wood’s voice has a constant tremble of harried anxiety, warm towards his brother, defensive towards Beatrice, and always at his wits end. Dean is charming as Greg, who is one of the best written child characters I’ve seen on TV in a good long time. It’s difficult for adults to write convincing children. Greg is not simply a fount of energy. Like many young children, he is endlessly curious about the world around him and equally lost in his own imagination. \
Beatrice is the show’s biggest scene-stealer, a slightly amoral bluebird (I did enjoy writing that phrase) whose clashes with Wirt slowly evolve into the sort of affection that comes with deep mutual empathy. Lynskey’s performance is warm but not fuzzy. Beatrice is the show’s most conflicted character, and Lynskey’s voice seems naturally laden with gravity, buoyant as it can be.
Each character is quietly dynamic in their own ways. The show has no use for preachy moralizing; its characters’ revelations are deeply personal, rooted in their relationships with each other and how far they realize they are willing to go for each others’ sakes. And I was just as invested in them by the end.
Over the Garden Wall billed itself as a “5-night Mystery Adventure”, and that’s apt. The show’s sense of mystery is not a parlor crime novel, but something more childlike. It reminded me very much of Spirited Away, a film that observed a fantasy world from a outsider, child’s eye view, with every new and amazing sight raising a new set of mysteries. With 10, 11-minute episodes, you can easily watch this show in its entirety over the course of the week in 22 minute chunks. Or you can take it all in at once (since all the episodes add up to less than two hours), and have the best fantasy movie experience of the year. You can buy the whole show on iTunes for ten bucks, and it is worth every penny and then some. If you have cable, you can find it On Demand. However you watch Over the Garden Wall, just make damn sure you watch it.
Edit: While looking for other reviews of this show I realized that I gave this post almost the exact same title as this article on Bloody Disgusting. It was a coincidence, but something still worth rectifying as that article came out before I posted mine. I have now changed the title.
My favorite superhero film remains The Incredibles. No superhero film before it or since has so deftly balanced so thoroughly engaging a story with an unrelenting sense of fun. Oh, there have been contenders for its belt. Heath Ledger’s performance as he Joker in The Dark Knight is one of those pitch-perfect turns that elevates the entire movie by setting a tone that reverberates throughout the whole film, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. As someone who has never hopped on the “Batman is the best superhero” bandwagon, The Dark Knight won me over by being the Joker’s movie.
This summer produced two films which announced their candidacies for my “favorite superhero movie” mantle: Captain American: The Winter Solider and Guardians of the Galaxy. Winter Soldier was a film blessedly devoid of plot excess, lean and thrilling. Superhero movies that trust in there lore- in this case, resting on Steve Rodgers’s lingering sadness over Bucky Barnes’s “death”- to drive the story without relying on excessive exposition are immensely satisfying. Make no mistake: Winter Soldier has more than its share of cheerful and goof moments, but it frequently ventures into shadows.
On the other hand, Guardians of the Galaxy was unabashedly goofy. In Chris Pratt it found the perfect star for this approach. Pratt has been one of the most charming actors on television for years. In Parks and Recreation, which boasts one TV’s most talented comic ensembles, he is frequently the standout performer. A lesser actor might have turned Peter Quill into a poor man’s Tony Stark, a repository of sass and snark and not much else. Pratt injects an sincere, just-a-bit sensitive core behind the smartassery. Pratt’s performance elevates the film much like Ledger’s elevated his, just in a different direction. Guardians of the Galaxy is a fun film, but without Pratt it could easily have teetered into a constant series of reminders that we weren’t supposed to take it too seriously. In an age dominated by sarcasm and irony, Pratt’s comic gift is how thoroughly he doesn’t break the fourth wall, and how convincingly he makes just about any setting feel like home.
But still, there was something missing in both those films that The Incredibles had, that special something that elevated The Incredibles to a higher tier: the ability to have fun with their material while still taking it seriously, and effortlessly changing gears between both tones without missing a bear. Having one overriding tone is not a flaw, but when sorting out my personal hierarchies, it can be a deciding factor. The Incredibles is no less interesting or engaging to me than The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, no less willing to have fun with its material than Guardians of the Galaxy. But it has more fun with its material than those first two films and none of the arms-length self-awareness of the latter. The Increidbles is as earnest in its convictions as the 1978 version of Superman or the 2002 version of Spider-Man, only with none of their corniness.
I felt some of that same energy watching Big Hero 6. It’s not as good as The Incredibles or even Winter Soldier. Butt is the first superhero film since The Incredibles to take its material seriously without a stone face, to radiate with the joy of simply being fun without being obligated to find the material silly. And that both The Incredibles and Big Hero 6 are animated plays a big part in this sort of appeal.
I love animation for its ability to make any world feel fully alive. A live action film can be undone with poor special effects. Our point of view, no matter how otherworldly the plot might be, is always going to be rooted in reality. Sam Raimi’s 2002 version of Spider-Man suffered mightily for this; at times Spidey looked so rubbery that it broke the trance. Animated movies can render lo-fi universes without worrying about this effect- the immersiveness of the world tied to the scope of the artist’s vision. A literally sketchy film like Don Hertzfeldt’s Rejected is no less convincing in depicting its strange little universe than a technological wonder like How to Train Your Dragon 2, because realism is not the goal with animation. On the flip side, a live action rendering of Dragon would likely be much more difficult to do convincingly (considering how much of the Dragon’s emotional core relies on humans and dragons communicating directly, something that feels perfectly normal in animation). And a live action version of Rejected wouldn’t be Rejected, so let’s not even go there.
I have long felt that animation is an ideal format for superhero movies. The easy immersion into any world of the artist’s choosing, that 1:1 translation of an artist’s vision to the audience’s eyes, is what has made animation such an effective medium for fantasy. With animation, there’s no such thing as suspension of disbelief, because reality does not apply.
But in the modern (let’s say beginning with Raimi’s Spider-Man) era of superhero movies, The Incredibles had long been the only animated offering.
And lord, what a good offering it was. Right from the opening, its fleshes out the core cast of characters and the rules of the world they live in with a breezy sense of humor that nonetheless sets the stage for a meaty plot. We likely wouldn’t accept a Superman movie that opened with Superman shaking a cat free from a tree and defeating an evil mime on his way to his wedding, and then getting sued after the fact. But in a world as stylized as Brad Bird’s creation, every tone he aimed for fit. The goofiness was exactly what we expected from a movie with a futuristic 1960s aesthetic. The serious moments are earned from the realistic, at times unnervingly sad and human family drama that builds these characters.
A live action movie forcing actors to navigate these narrative waters would have a difficult time avoiding tonal dissonance. When a live-action movie or show adopts an “everything goes” style of storytelling, we call it “cartoonish”. It tends to be strictly comedy, shows like 30 Rock and Malcolm in the Middle. Navigating across tones and genres is doable in live-action, but difficult, requiring a razor-sharp directorial focus and vision, and actors game for the challenge. Films like Fargo and Dr. Strangelove are classics for a reason. But when such a story is animated, the material is much easier to digest, and more easily applicable to simpler genre films.
Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite pack the narrative punch of The Incredibles. Brad Bird’s film was as much a drama about the relationships within its titular family as it was a superhero movie, which is what helped make it so good. But Big Hero 6 does benefit from the same narrative freedom granted to it by its medium. The first major action sequence in the movie is a delirious chase sequence through the streets of “San Fransokyo”* The film’s primary villain is a mysterious figure in a kabuki mask, who moves atop a massive swarm of completely mind-controlled microbots that act as a sort of sapient, free-flowing silly putty. It’s a wonderful bit of character design, and in a superhero film universe increasingly filled with indistinct and boring villains, it was terrific just to see one who looked so damn cool.**
The scene has a reckless silliness that reminded me of some of the best Pixar action scenes- the door chase in Monsters Inc., the paper chase in Ratatouille, and my favorite, the 100 Mile Dash scene in The Incredibles. Yes, they could all technically have been done in live action, but there’s a joy in seeing a sinister figure atop a flowing black mountain towering over a cityscape and experiencing absolutely no dissonance: for that image to be as organic to the world of the movie as the heroes who are being chased. To some degree, we are always aware the special effects are special effects. But in good animation, nothing feels like a special effect. Everything feels like a part of the film’s reality.
*I admit, much more could have been done with this setting. Ostensibly a hybrid of two of the most visually distinct cities in the world, in the movie it comes across as San Francisco with occasional superficial Japanese motifs. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge has pagodas.
**While the best villains have backstories as interesting as any hero, I like to employ what I call the T-1000 rule now and then: A villain consisting of nothing but menace and a great visual design can be spectacular when done right. Technically, this might better be called the Darth Vader rule, given that that describes Vader in the first Star Wars film to a T, but it stopped applying to him the moment he uttered the word “father”.
Big Hero 6 lacks a truly compelling story for its villain, but it ended up being so much fun that I could forgive it that. It incorporates many of the expected elements of both superhero and Disney movies (tragic first acts, cuddly sidekicks) but they are seamlessly integrated. The other people who make of the team of six (Go-Go, Honey Lemon, Wasabi, and Fred) are all surprisingly distinct, and given plenty of character despite the limited runtime. Baymax is a delightful character, aided by a gentle and powerful voice performance by Scott Adsit. The protagonist, Hiro, is relateable and likeable even when he’s going through (usually completely understandable) bad moods. Their interactions are the heart of the movie and yes, it’s the most Disney film to stick its hero with a cuddly sidekick, but this hero and this sidekick felt fresh and new. The film relies a lot of physical comedy. Not pure slapstick, but the sight of the giant puffball that is Baymax trying to move around the world when he was clearly designed not to leave a room. Again, animation enhances the appeal of these scenes significantly. Baymax is every bit as normal resident in this world as Hiro. It’s easier to appreciate his physical comedy as a character, and not as a prop or an effect.
The Iron Giant is probably the finest example of a movie using the unique advantages of combining human and non-human characters in the same universe. The way that film continually came up with ways to creatively use space to create scenes with the Giant (Brad Bird again; where have you gone, dude?) was inspired, effortlessly flowing from desperate comedy to poignant drama.
Big Hero 6 still has a knack for physical comedy, though. A partially deflated Baymax is inherently hilarious, like an old basset hound rolling on its back, rolls of loose skin happily flopping everywhere. And his limited movement makes for some terrific tension in the early scenes that is easily combined with slapstick humor; for example at one point, Hiro and Baymax need to make a quick escape that’s impeded by Baymax’s inability to easily squeeze through a window. It’s a simple visual gag, but a funny one. It’s not quite the range of The Iron Giant, but the principles are the same: when you can easily integrate physically creative character, as animation allows you to do so easily, the possibilities for scenes that are just fun are endless, which for a superhero movie can be a priceless quality.
Big Hero 6 doesn’t quite have the deft control of its emotional range that makes for the upper echelon animated films. Its story is more broad strokes than the little details that make The Incredibles and The Iron Giant really special. But it has all the usual elements in place for a perfectly fun Disney film. And yet I enjoyed it more than that. Because superhero films that are built on earnest joy are unfortunately rare in this new golden age for the genre. And Big Hero 6 was the most pure fun I’ve had at the movies since Pacific Rim, another big action movie as goofy as it was sincere. I treasure movies like that, because they know that “fun” is not a synonym for “mindless”, that you have the most fun with any activity when you are invested in it. And both of the animated superhero films of this era have been so effortlessly fun without compromising their sincerity. I can only hope the third one comes out in less than ten years.
It’s been a while since my last post. Work sidelined me for most of October, and my hopes to marathon and review horror films during Halloween got nuked by a nasty case of food poisoning.
In the meantime, I am soon going to watch and review La Dolce Vita for my next review roulette this week. However, I realize that, aside from my tribute to Robin Williams, review roulettes have been the overwhelming bulk of my content these last few months, which says more about my blog’s lack of content than anything else.
To amend this, I am going to start putting out some more fun, less criticism based posts just to shoot the breeze about my love of movies, games and television, which I did a lot more of when I began this blog.
This post is going to be about one of the most significant aspects of moviegoing that I think doesn’t always gets enough mention in criticism or cultural debates. I’m talking about movies as real-time theatrical experiences. When you see a film for the first time on a big screen, you are not always parsing through its bits and pieces. Sometimes, the right movie with the right crowd can be an electrifying experience in ways that don’t really have a place in traditional film criticism. The numerous factors that come into play that lead to a truly enjoyable cinematic experience are among the purest joys of moviegoing.
So with all that out of the way, here are my top five movie theatre experiences:
While I was a longtime skeptic of 3-D (after the 3-D version Beauty and the Beast turned one of the prettiest of all films into a blurry, literal eyesore, I was kind of spiteful towards it) Life of Pi convinced me that the form could absolutely add to a film, rather than simply not detract. However, it was Gravity that converted me completely, convincing me that it was possible to make a film that almost demanded to be seen in as grand a setting as possible.
While Life of Pi had fun playing with the dimensions of shots (like that exquisite image looking up from the bottom of a swimming pool at the blue sky, with swimmers in between) Gravity at times felt only a few inches away. This was no gimmick: that long close-up of Sandra Bullock trying to gather her wits after flying off into space is much more effective by us feel like we’re pressed up against her helmet. The 3-D consistently created a closeness to the characters on screen, which was important for a film set largely in a void.
Gravity left me breathless and exhilarated. I still listen to that track that plays over its final scene to get pumped up. I can’t think of another movie that has ever left me so drained and limp with glee, and so much of its impact stemmed from how overwhelming it was on that enormous screen.
4. The Hurt Locker
I can’t say The Hurt Locker is one of my favorite films. It didn’t hold up on a second viewing all that well. I like it, but Renner’s protagonist is reckless to the point of unbelievability, which sort of undercut my enthusiasm about the rest of the story. However, this post is entirely about theatrical experiences, and my seeing the The Hurt Locker for the first time was one of the most enjoyable theatrical experiences of my life.
I was visiting my sister in New York in July 2009, and we were walking around late one night when we walked past a movie theatre. We stopped by to see what was playing, and sure enough, a screening of The Hurt Locker- fresh, new and just starting to build the buzz that would lead it to a Best Picture Oscar. We bought tickets and went it. The theatre was small, cozy, and packed to the brim. And damn if we weren’t all ready to be thrilled by a movie. I firmly believe that some films demand some level of audience participation. Not necessarily Rocky Horror Picture Show level acting along, but at least some level of the audience understanding the effect the movie is going for and letting the movie have that effect on them. The Hurt Locker is one such movie. Its logic often falls apart with scrutiny, but on that night no one was scrutinizing it. Everyone in the theatre had a vice grip on their armrests. Everyone fed off everyone else’s energy, and the result was one of the most beautifully tense moviegoing experiences of my life. While closer examinations of The Hurt Locker have since dampened my enthusiasm for it, that first viewing will always stick with me.
3. Princess Mononoke
Not all great theatrical experiences are first viewings. I had watched Princess Mononoke- my de facto favorite film/inaugural member of the top platform of my all-time movie pyramid- twenty times between 2003 and 2010. After the twentieth viewing, I vowed the 21st would be on the big screen. In 2012, the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge showed a marathon of Studio Ghibli films, including Princess Mononoke. Perhaps there was nothing for me to learn by seeing it on a big screen, but only in the sense that there’s technically no difference between seeing a great painting in person and looking at a photograph of it. Princess Mononoke is one of the great works of visual creativity in film history, a work of art by one of our greatest living artists at his absolute prime. To finally see it in a format that allowed it to envelop me, to see its beautiful images in their full splendor, was to finally make one of my most cherished dreams come true.
2. Jurassic Park
I don’t think I was aware of movies as a cultural thing, as something not just bigger than my living room but rather big in a way that connected people around the world, until I saw Jurassic Park. Leading up to it, I was a five-year-old in the full throes of my dinosaur phase. I think every kid goes through that phase when they realize that there were once these gargantuan reptiles that ruled the earth and for a year or two nothing else registers but dinosaurs. And here was this new movie whose entire point seemed to be “Dinosaurs are the coolest” and you can bet your ass I was there on day one, lined up with my dad and my big sister. And unlike previous movies, the line for this one was really, really long. I remember walking all the way around the back of the theatre to get to the back of the line when it clicked: everyone here; kids and old people and everything in between; is here to see Jurassic Park. It was a thrilling new reality for me. Movies were bigger than my little five-year-old orbit. They united us all.
That alone would chart this film, but really, does any film from the 90s carry quite so much nostalgic sway from our first cinematic viewings as Jurassic Park. It is a film constructed from Big Moments, and I remember my reactions to all of them. Steven Spielberg has been met as much derision as praise over the years, but I remain convinced that he is one of the few commercial filmmakers to really grasp how awe-inspiring movies are to children, and to bottle those feelings and put them in movies where people of all ages can feel them again. Yes, he has lost that deft touch, but it was never more present than in Jurassic Park.
1. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
The year 2003 was crucial for my love of movies. Seeing Spirited Away made me realize that movies meant something much much more to me than passive entertainment. I was active on a message board that provided a spring of cheerful, welcoming people from around the world who were all too happy to chat movies with an overeager teenager who rather clearly had too much time on my hands and precious few similar outlets. I started reading books about movies voraciously, starting with Louis Gianetti’s Understanding Movies, an invaluable primer for cinematic language for newcomers. I was falling in love with movies, and none had my heart quite like The Lord of the Rings.
I had been a bit lukewarm about The Fellowship of the Ring when I saw it initially, but subsequent viewings and numerous chats with LOTR nuts had converted me into a true believer with The Two Towers. When the time came for The Return of the King, I felt like a pilgrim making the final ascent to a spiritual nirvana. Yes, that is embarrassingly overwrought. I was sixteen. Everything I felt was likely to be embarrassingly overwrought.
There was nothing particularly interesting about the screening itself. Packed theatre at the local mall. No, it was just the perfect movie for me at that time, one I knew I was going to love completely, a masterful spectacle that completely fulfilled every lofty expectation I had for it. The best theatrical experiences can be defined by many things, but sometimes, they’re defined by the perfect movie at the perfect time.
Night of the Living Dead
Raise the Red Lantern
Children of Men
Being John Malkovich
La Dolce Vita
Arsenic and Old Lace
Paths of Glory
Singin’ in the Rain
The random selection:
Replacing La Dolce Vita on the list:
“After the full moon it starts to wane. But with the 14th night, there’s still tomorrow. And hope.”
This line of dialogue has resonated with me for years. When I first saw Millennium Actress, I was startled by the places it took me. As a 16 year old starting to fall in love with movies, here was an animated film like no film I had ever seen. At times it’s a frenzied chase through Japanese history, at times a slapstick comedy, and at times like the scene that gives us the quote above: sincere, contemplative, and bittersweet.
The line is spoken by a painter. He is a revolutionary, on the run from a fierce looking army officer with a scar on his eye. He finds refuge for the night thanks to a teenage girl named Chiyoko Fujiwara. She finds him wounded, takes pity on him, and hides him in the storage shed of her family’s store. Chiyoko and the painter share one night together, one that consists entirely of quiet and earnest conversation. He tells her of the beautiful winters in his home town. He says he will take her there to repay her for her help. He leaves her a key as a thank you present. He is gone in the morning. Their one meeting serves as core from which Millennium Actress derives its boundless energy, as it takes us through Chiyoko’s life. She becomes an actress, and then a major movie star. She marries a successful filmmaker. And she never stops looking for the painter. She holds on to the key like a relic.
The film opens on a documentary filmmaker named Genya and his harried cameraman named Kyoji trekking up a very tall hill to Chiyoko’s home. She is old, her former film studio has just closed, and Genya (an unabashed fan of Chiyoko and her films) wants to get an interview with her for his documentary about the studio. They start to talk, Kyoji films, and the movie begins to unfold.
If this all sounds straightforward enough, buckle up. Chiyoko’s stories from her life weave imperceptibly in and out of memories from her movies. Scenes repeat themselves, in different eras, sometimes clearly on film sets, sometimes clearly from Chiyoko’s life, often apparently both. Genya and Kyoji are always right there in every jump through time and reality. Genya plays along, sometimes inserting himself as a character, or weeping at how a moment that is clearly from Chiyoko’s real life made him cry thirty times. Kyoji, mercifully for the audience, is confused as he is jerked through time and reality, providing a running commentary of dismay.
Confused? Don’t be. Millennium Actress very quickly reveals itself as a film about feelings, not facts. We are following Chiyoko’s emotional quests, not a linear story of her life. Her search for the painter is not a quest in any traditional sense. It occupies her soul and affects her life time and time again.
I love when films take radical approaches to how we perceive memories. In my piece about The Tree of Life, I mentioned how we don’t recall our pasts in perfect, chronological detail. The Tree of Life presented memories of a childhood in sun-drenched fragments that aimed less to tell a story than to bathe us in feelings. Millennium Actress takes an even more audacious approach, disregarding chronology and realism almost entirely.
But Millennium Actress is not science fiction. Chiyoko is telling Genya her life story. Genya is a huge fan of Chiyoko’s movies. Together, their memories might very well combine create something that looks like this movie. That Kyoji is very much afraid for his life as he is dragged through time is another matter for another time.
Millennium Actress was the second film by animator Satoshi Kon. His first was the psychological thriller Perfect Blue. That film was a hot mess in the best possible way, a headlong tumble into a genre rarely broached by animators. In Perfect Blue, a pop star turned actress deals with a violent stalker who is angry that she has abandoned her music career. The film, like Millennium Actress, deliberately blurred the lines between showbusiness and reality. But while Perfect Blue used this device as a thriller would, to disorient the audience and draw us into the world of a character growing detached from reality, Millennium Actress is more versatile. One montage of Chiyoko’s film career at first simply seems to be an exercise in style (a beautiful one at that) until it suddenly segues into something far more serious.
The movie continually informs its narrative during its forays into Chiyoko’s memories. And when Kon makes it clear that a scene is depicting an actual event in Chiyoko’s life, those moments are all the more potent as a result. Consider a wordless scene where Chiyoko finds a gift that the painter left for her in the rubble of her post-war home. Or a scene late in the film when Genya confronts the scar-eyed general to learn more about the painter. The general pops up throughout the film like a specter of Chiyoko’s fears, but he is all too real a person, now broken by a lifetime of cruelty. These scenes are simple but overwhelming in their power. Millennium Actress builds to moments of heartbreak by showing us the contents of Chiyoko’s heart, rather than a point by point rundown of her history. We may not know the precise chronology of her life, but we are fluent in who she is.
Millennium Actress envelops you and then flies. It is a roller-coaster ride through memories and feelings, and it knows that those two things are inextricably linked in ways that movies all too often forget. Its is heartbreaking and uplifting, often at the same time, in ways that only a movie about an entire life can be. Chiyoko looks back through her life, one with seemingly far more regret than triumph. She dedicated so much of it to a chase that seemed destined to be fruitless. And all she can do is smile. It was the chase, she says, that she really loved.
First, the list:
Night of the Living Dead
Raise the Red Lantern
Children of Men
Being John Malkovich
La Dolce Vita
Arsenic and Old Lace
Paths of Glory
The random selection:
I’m genuinely excited about this one. Millennium Actress is a top-five favorite film for me, and I haven’t seen it in a while.
Replacing Millennium Actress in the pool:
Singin’ in the Rain
I have always been been kind of obsessed with stars. At night we can see thousands of celestial objects, larger than our world and more distant than I can comprehend. It took Voyager 1 thirty-six years just to exit our solar system. The next closest star after the sun is 4 light years away. It would take Voyager 1 another 40,000 years to reach that distance. All of us share our existence within a system of staggering size and scope.
The human story is, as far as we know, unique in our universe. The story of the universe began roughly 13.8 billion years ago, and from that moment immeasurable narratives burst. Our ability to learn those narratives beyond Earth is contained by the limits of our technology. But even then, slivers slip through space and time and find their way here. When I heard in May that scientists had detected what they believed to be an echo from the Big Bang, I was moved to tears. Another story had found its way to the only audience we know exists. It had taken almost 14 billion years and the rise of humanity and technology to a level capable of detecting it, but the story had made it.
We tend to look at the human story and the story of the universe as separate. One is ours, and one is… out there. But that is a matter of perspective. If you could look through the cosmos, through time, through the history of the universe, why wouldn’t you turn your attentions to a single family on Earth? Is their story not just as worthy of our attentions as any other story to be found in the universe? Echoes of the Big Bang are just one snapshot of the history of existence. And in The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick looks at a family through that lens. They are happening alongside the rest of the universe, and gently, slowly, we realize that that is a sort of miracle in itself.
Despite his reputation for “tone poetry” and whispered philosophizing, I think of Terrence Malick as one of our least ponderous directors. He doesn’t sit around looking for meaning and symbolism in minutiae. He’s not forcing us to listen to his pontifications. He simply observes what his characters do. All of his films have a detached quality, a sense that things are only moving as fast as the characters are willing to. Filmmakers rarely exercise this sort of patience. He lets his characters’ stories unfold at their own speed, and he makes sure it looks damn pretty. His Badlands, in which a film a teenage couple who go on a killing spree, makes no attempt to to provide an explanation for its characters’ actions. It simply shows them. Days of Heaven takes a similar approach to a plot that could just as easily have been made into a soapy Texas epic, a la Giant. Instead murder and romance take a backseat to a movie that views a storm of locusts as its climactic centerpiece. Why? Well, why not? To an impartial observer, the locusts would probably have more effect on your life than the melodrama going on around you.
The Tree of Life opens on a scene of grief, as a woman and her husband learn that their son has died. We don’t learn how or why. The movie is not concerned with that. It witnesses their grief, like a bystander suddenly made aware that they are not alone by a cry of anguish. The following scenes are potentially confusing. Shots of the universe, of stars and nebulae and planets. Dinosaurs appear for a brief, strange interlude, only to be wiped out by an asteroid. We see shots of the microuniverse that surrounds us as well, cells and bacteria and blood flowing through veins. Yes, this might seem like the artiest of artsy asides by Malick. They confused me the first time I saw the film, even as I was awestruck by their beauty. When I saw the film again recently, I realized that awe was the point.
Consider how Malick treats the scale of all things. Nebulae, the massive interstellar clouds that give birth to stars, resemble cloaked figures here, almost humanoid. Planets are shown against stars, pinpricks in their appearance. Cells dividing and consuming one another appear like prehistoric sea creatures, seemingly huge and imposing. The scenes with dinosaurs are shot against the rivers and trees that seem recognizable later in the film. The sequence has a binding effect, tying all of history to the main story. A moment of personal grief resonates against the history of time. Whole histories of the world have come and gone several times over. Humanity is barely a blip on the scale of the universe. Think of Carl Sagan talking about the “Pale Blue Dot” photograph. There are so many stories to be told just on our planet, a planet that is so tiny compared to what surrounds it. Of all those stories, Malick has latched onto this one, this moment of human sadness. And he takes us back, back to the beginning, where we can learn where the sadness comes from.
The second act of The Tree of Life is a seemingly free-form depiction of the childhood of a boy named Jack O’Brien, the oldest son of the grieving parents. The parents in the first scene are Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. Young Jack’s story is inter-cut with moments from the adult Jack’s life as he grapples with own grief from his brother R.L.’s death, and from his broken relationship with his father. The movie is not really so formless. It’s only as fluid as actual memories. So many films show adult narrators describing their childhoods with perfect, plot-point by plot-point detail. That’s not how memories work. When telling stories we inevitably fill in gaps. Good writers fill gaps with humor, with prose, with other anecdotes. But Malick isn’t concerned with filling those gaps. The Tree of Life shows us memories as we actually remember them. We don’t remember a perfectly plotted childhood. We remember specific times we were scared, when we laughed, when mass wouldn’t seem to end and staring at how the light came through the stained glass window was a surprisingly good way to pass the time.
My most vivid memory of childhood is this one time I walked out of a grocery store with my mom and into the sunlight, and then back into the shade of another building. The sunlight felt so good that I ran back into it and basked for a few more seconds, my eyes closed and my arms outstretched. I don’t remember what else I did that day, or even exactly how old I was. But that feeling of that sunbeam against my skin in that moment has never left me. If I was writing a novel, I might use that moment of truth to color my fiction. If I was writing a memoir, I might ask my mom for some more detail, to see if she remembers it the same way, or at all. The Tree of Life isn’t concerned with making a plot out of those moments. It cares more about how sunlight feels on your face.
We don’t get a traditional plot out of these moments, but we get a vivid picture of a childhood, of a boy grappling with a strict, at times terrifying father. Mr. And Mrs. O’Brien are less fully formed characters than towering figures in Jack’s life. That’s accurate. To a child, parents can seem life the Old Testament God, all powerful and occasionally confounding and even frightening.
Chastain delivers the films opening words via voiceover: “The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”
It’s tempting to see this quote as a thesis. Whoever wrote the film’s Wikipedia page uses the quote to quite literally categorize Mr. O’Brien as “nature” and Mrs. O’Brien as “grace”. While this interpretation of the quote is a bit too obvious and literal for my taste, it is not entirely off-base. Mrs. O’Brien loves unconditionally and shows it. Mr. O’Brien loves his kids too, but expressing it always plays second fiddle to establishing his authority. He reacts to even slight defiance from his sons with absolute rage. The film seems to make a point that a man as square-jawed and intimidating as Brad Pitt needn’t be so desperate to assert dominance over kids a third his size. Mrs. O’Brien is shown at first as an angelic figure, the advocate for her children, a saint in Jack’s eyes (one memory shows her literally dancing in the air, floating as she does). But she cedes to her husband’s authority, leading to a moment where Jack, full of fire and venom, rages at her that she never stands up to their dad when it counts. She is hurt. The scene ends. The emotion has been registered, and it’s time for the observer that is Terrence Malick’s camera to turn its eye to something else.
The movie isn’t trying to paint a depressing picture. There’s nothing here that suggests that the O’Briens live a particularly unusual or sad life. We do see Jack learning the wrong things from his father’s harsh lessons, taking out his confusions on his younger brother. We see a moment where he hurts his brother and immediately regrets it. He snaps out of his growing pains and back into reality. These are the types of moments that we remember in our own lives, from our childhoods. The times we wish hadn’t happened, that we would give anything to do differently, even years later. Mr. O’Brien says as much at the beginning of the film, as he mournfully regrets all the times he was needlessly harsh to his now dead son. Later on, we see a moment where an adult Jack calls Mr. O’Brien to apologize for an argument they had as adults, unseen in the movie. The movie isn’t trying to pinpoint the moment their relationship broke, or provide a cathartic moment of regret in the relationship between Jack and R.L. It’s a movie that hears a cry of grief at the beginning and traces the history of the source. It then settles in and starts to learn about these people. It takes a fleeting moment and humanizes everyone involved by showing them as they were, how they came to be. We don’t need every aspect of Jack’s relationship with his parents to be spelled out in melodramatic sequences to spoonfeed us their meaning. So much is said in a brief exchange when Jack tells his father “I’m more like you than her”.
The Tree of Life is particularly lovely, even by Terrence Malick’s standards. The spacescapes and microcosmos of the opening give way to scenes in small town Texas that are achingly beautiful without seeming to try. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is one of the great film artists of our time. You probably last saw his work on Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, which won him his first Oscar. If the Oscars knew a damn thing, Lubezki would have won an Oscar for this film too, as well his nominations for The New World, Children of Men and A Little Princess. His skill lies not in painting everything lushly, but in tailoring his work to the story at hand. In The New World, the story required smothering greens of the uncut 17th century American forests, of the senses being completely overwhelmed. In Children of Men, he filled the screen with sinister grays and always managed to find something interesting or menacing to linger on the edge of the frame. In The Tree of Life, Lubezki crafts memories in the little ways we remember details. The way light comes through a window, just a bit brighter than in reality, in child-eye view closeups that mimic how children study their surroundings, and in the dry earthinesss that seems embedded in every home in the neighborhood. “Hypnotic” is rarely the most exciting way to describe a film, but The Tree of Life induces a reverie in me. Its beauty is not just cosmetic, it is embedded in the movie’s soul, constantly reminding us what it feels like to remember something from years long ago.
The ending of The Tree of Life is one of Malick’s most audacious sequences, a vision of the afterlife, heaven, the end of time, whatever you wish to call it and perhaps all those things. Jack’s memories meld in one another as the dying sun consumes Earth, and he sees his mother as she was as he remembered her from his childhood, before he knew how to be cynical about her. He hears her finally, at long lost, accept his brother’s death, relinquishing her grief. Emotions are some of the most minute realities. They are deeply personal. But here Malick gives grief, love, acceptance, and forgiveness the scale they deserve. When we die, the emotions we evoke in those left behind are what remains of us. It’s why so many cultures place such significance on funerals. Funerals aren’t for the dead, but for the living. It’s how we begin the process of remembering the dead. What will happen when there is no one left to remember? The end of The Tree of Life seems to be Malick’s answer to that question. As the earth burns at the end of The Tree of Life, bits and pieces of everything still remain, unaltered from our memories, to finally provide closure for the scenes of pain that open the movie. This is a movie that quietly, gently, takes us across the entire span of existence before finding its final notes of love and acceptance at the end of time. In that sense it is Malick’s most human film, his meditation on the scale of individual existence. It’s easy to be cynical about the significance of any given person, of humanity itself, against the sheer size of the universe. But The Tree of Life considers the life of a boy in Texas to be as significant as any fleeting moment in a universe full of them. Its ending is the closest thing it has to a statement of its purpose. Despite criticism to the contrary, this is not a pretentious or pseudo-intellectual film. It is a spiritual one.
One last anecdote, and I’ll let you go. Recently I looked out my window in the wee hours of the morning. I noticed that Venus and Jupiter were incredibly close together, and for a moment I marveled at the novelty of it. And then I realized something: I wasn’t looking at two dots against the sky. I was on Earth, looking at Venus and then Jupiter behind it. The sky took on three dimensions, and I suddenly felt dwarfed by how small I was compared to what I was looking at. The scale astonished me. Here I was, one person staying up far, far too late, looking through our solar system, through hundreds of millions of miles of space, for the first time realizing with my naked eye how vast it actually was. The Tree of Life is like that. It isn’t simply gawking at the beauty of the stars and then dipping back to earth to tell the story of a family. It is in awe that they inhabit the same universe. It is about a family, yes, but the stage is all of space and time.