Friday, June 15, 2012

Revelations above the border

How often do you get to see what might be the two best films of the last two years in the same day? While in Toronto at a conference yesterday, I had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life in a way I had never seen it before: at the magisterial Lightbox theater in Toronto, the cinematheque where the TIFF is held (a beautiful space only exceeded, in my experience, by the BFI in London). The sound was a revelation: I was hearing things in the mix I had never heard before (one particular sonic detail led me to completely rethink Brad Pitt's character and his relationship to his children). The digital projection was so sharp and translucent; I was seeing a depth in the imagery, and a luminosity to surface and skin, that had previously eluded my visual grasp. To say it felt like I was seeing the film for the first time is an overstatement - but it was close. It did feel, however, like an unrepeatedly perfect experience: if I ever see another Terrence Malick film in a cinema under such pristine conditions, I'll be surprised.

The quieter revelation came later that evening, when I caught up with Patrick Wang's equally (although differently) luminous In the Family (a 2011 film which is receiving its wide release in North America in 2012). I'll be cagey in my plot description, because I think the affective experience this film offers is most intense when you know very little about its central plot points. This film contains one of the most quietly beautiful performances I know of, that of Patrick Wang himself, playing the lover of a widower named Cody. I have never quite seen another character on film like Wang's Joey Williams before: through Wang's deft combination of image duration, flashbacks, and carefully chosen actors in supporting roles, his Joey emerges as one of the most fully realized, humanely generous, and subtly complex characters I know of in recent American cinema. Joey is the surrogate father of Chip, Cody's young son; after another tragedy befalls their family, Joey is left with the messy situation of defining what it means to be a homosexual father in a grossly intolerant social context. What is so remarkable about this film is that its anger is never worn on its sleeve, and it is never used to judge those characters that we feel Joey himself would be perfectly just in condemning. Wang simply lets us be with Joey and his son on the screen, and through Wang's mastery of duration and light (this is one of the most beautifully photographed independent films) the rightness of their lives together shines through. This is a remarkable debut, and I can't wait to see where Wang goes next.


Anonymous said...

I was hearing things in the mix I had never heard before (one particular sonic detail led me to completely rethink Brad Pitt's character and his relationship to his children).

Can you share what this was?

Steven Rybin said...

Sure. On my first few viewings, I had thought it was the adult Jack who speaks the following voice-over early in the film (during the contemporary scenes in Houston): "World's goin' to the dogs; people gettin' worse." I couldn't tell until the Toronto screening that it was actually Brad Pitt's voice. I think this is significant, because it tells us that the father's voice is still "with" Jack in his adult years -- whereas his mother's (and his departed brother's) voice is what he is struggling to remember.

I am not sure if this little detail will strike everyone as significant, but I thought it was interesting.

Scott Hennessy said...

Thank you. This is significant. I just re-watched it and what I noticed was during the film most of the camera movements are moving forward pulling the spectator into the story while at the end their is a distinct backward movement and then the elevator descending taking us out of the story.