Friday, June 17, 2011

Upcoming Films Philadelphia

Greetings Soldiers and Cinephiles,

Below are some upcoming films and events in Philadelphia worth checking out. Also, be sure to check out our ongoing forum/discussion on Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. We already have a couple of good pieces below and should have some more in the next few days.

International House

Friday June 17th at 7pm - La Jetee (1962) / Sans Soleil (1983) by Chris Marker. Film will be introduced by archivist Paul Lewis.

Saturday June 18th at 7pm - Taste of Cherry (1997) by Abbas Kiarostami

Wooden Shoe

Sunday June 19th at 7pm -  Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzman Part 1

Sunday June 26th at 7pm - Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzman Part 2

Sunday July 3rd at 7pm -  Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzman  Part 3

Opening at the Ritz Friday June 17th

Submarine by Richard Ayoade

The Trip by Michael Winterbottom

Cinematheque International of Philadelphia

Saturday July 18th at 7:30 - The Diving Bell and Butterfly (2007)by Julian Schnabel at AxD Gallery (265 South 10th Street Philadelphia, PA 19107)

Wednesday June 22nd at 7:30 - The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) by Jacques Demy at L'etage (624 South 6th Street Philadelphia, PA)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thoughts on Tree of Life

In response to this opportunity to have a dialogue with other Shooting Wall member on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, I hope that I will be permitted to take a more photo-diary ranting route in which I try to map out my immediate thoughts and associations.
Paul Gauguin’s treaty on the human condition: his painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898)

Here we have an image in 3 parts which propose a series of questions. Tree of Life seems to be thematically compiled in a similar sense.

Where do we come from? From scenes of a birth, CGI dinosaurs, and NASA-esque visual representations of the cosmos, one has the sense that Malick is attempting to draw a grandiose straight line from the creation to the universe(s) to prehistory to human existence. Perhaps this is where pretention takes hold, because that which makes Gauguin’s painting so successful, his lack of explanation and his preference for representation through the here and now, seem to be Malick’s weakness. Even in demonstrating the chaos of the universe and the spontaneity required for creation, Malick still turns at every step to explanation in nature.

What Are We? In the film this seems to correlate to the scenes of the young man now grown up played by Sean Penn. Scenes of isolated urban landscapes, cell phones, business conference rooms all attempt to answer the questions what are we right now. A culture of corporatism that permeates all aspects of our existence and shapes our interaction with the outside world and with nature.

Where Are We Going? This is to me where Malick loses a sense of his overarching vision. The scene on which all the people unite on a beach shore made me feel like one of two things happened: either Malick is stuck in his film school phase and can’t help but reference The Seventh Seal, or a producer came to him and said “oh, we gotta put a beach scene in here, it looks great in trailers- plus its summer and we are premiering at Cannes!” Either way, it falls short on every account to try and visualize what happens once we “leave” our bodies and only have our memories. It gave me the same feeling I had after the final episode of Lost: a combination of “are you kidding me?” and “why even bother.”

But I should cut him some slack. There are some beautiful moments in the film. Malick to me is a filmmaker of his generation. His visual ideas about science, life, human experience, and interaction could all seen to be shaped by his particular experience of it (in fact it would futile to deny this fact). But if we consider that he was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s we can know his points of reference. I have to think that he is familiar with the Ray and Charles Eames educational film made for IBM, Power of Ten, which was shown at some point in nearly every classroom in the USA.

Ray and Charles Eames

Some other possible references:

NASA (its creation and the space race in general) All Texans seem to have a sense of a great commitment to those things in the ground (Exxon and Texaco) and those things in the sky (Mission Control)

Home Videos and Super 8 film: Many of the shots in the film seem as though a very graceful toddler is filming. The exchange of glances, smiles, and twinkling eyes remind me of home videos. Like old super 8 films, those shots in Tree of Life are low to the ground, really form a child’s perspective, but also they have a smoothness and slightly out of focus feel that seems to mimic that of a child’s- both in regards to our eyes being particularly sensitive as children and in the fact that our memories blur those images which we are not completely able to process, perhaps on a visual or emotional level.

There is a famous Texas home video in particular:

Mary Cassatt: The Great Painter of Babies

There is little doubt, that if this film is somewhat autobiographical, which those in the know have said it is, then Malick adores his mother. His images of her walking down the block to the strip mall in her best dress, laying without a worry in the grass in the front yard, putting ice cubes on the feet of sleeping and unsuspecting children, all point to his conception of this women as a supreme being. But in all his adoration we find the typical clichés of what it means to be a mother, a woman. He does, no doubt, subscribe to the idea that women are somehow inherently more childlike, closer to their children, and less inclined to seek out their own happiness. Perhaps this is an accurate picture of women at this particular time, but I find it just a bit overdone and somewhat annoying in a contemporary context. I hate to always be, or better yet, have to be, the standing feminist for Shooting Wall, but what are we to learn about the female condition from this film? Like Mary Cassatt, who painted what she knew: women in interiors, women with their babies, women standing at windows looking outside on the world that is going by without them- I find Malick’s vision of womanhood to be depressing.

Maybe I’m too eager to make a case for it, but I do think CGI dinosaurs are a political statement. It suggests that our director values science over other explanations of human existence. Couple this with minutes upon minutes of complete “scientific” imagery a la BBC Earth and Hubble, and we are left with this strange concoction of scientific method, eastern philosophy, and religious overtones. Feels like Film School 101 at times. But I for one find better questions and more astute answers from The Brothers Grimm, Has Christian Andersen, and Aesop.

Final Thoughts:

The only thing I feel the film really accomplishes is to push us toward the edges of liminality. We are constantly bombarded with images of people and things at liminal spaces: windows, doors, and shores. One of the last shots of the film is of a large bridge. The most pleasurable moments of the films are those in which we are allowed to linger at the border. When the film hovers in between the earth and transcendence that is really when Malick captures human experience, which really can be categorized as a threshold in which we constantly teeter toward death only to be reeled back into suffering.

-Carrie Love

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tree of Life

Over the next few weeks, Shooting Wall will have an open forum on the blog in which we discuss Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. This will be a chance for all of us to work through some of our ideas and interpretations of the film, as well as to discuss/disagree/debate with each other. This forum is open to anyone who has anything to say about the film whether you agree or disagree with our positions. You can always email us your responses at and we will be happy to post your responses here to add to the forum.

In previous posts, we have Mike McCraken's initial review of the film, followed by Josh Martin's review form June 11th. Below is Ben Webster's response to Josh's review, as well as some of his initial thoughts on Tree of Life.

Thoughts on Tree of Life by Ben Webster

Where is the line between pretention and sincerity? How does it map on the line dividing failure and accomplishment? Accusations of pretentiousness are a bane of the solitary cinephile adrift in a pop culture milieu, driving the harshest critics of auteurism at times to defend the uncompromising vision of a “difficult” film-maker. We are accustomed to defending minimalism, long duration, political clarity, formalism, humorlessness, experimentation. Tree of Life is a thornier case; a maximalist art film marketed to mainstream audiences, overstuffed with sounds and images, symbols and effects assembled with symphonic intensity and complexity. After a first viewing, I stake a position between Josh’s accusations of pretentiousness (of form and content), and the laudatory praise coming from certain critics. In this start of a conversation with Shooting Wall and friends, I’d like to pose the question of what Tree of Life is about- what Malick sets out to accomplish. From here I think we can offer better assessments of how well his work succeeds, and have a platform to discuss elements of the film in more detail.

What the hell is going on in Tree of Life? There are no fewer than 5 temporal settings (if we can count the creation of the world and the afterlife as discreet time periods) in non-chronological order, there are dinosaurs and planets, there are movie stars walking through deserts, there are sunflowers and frogs on rockets, there is Ma Vlast and Brahms’4th, there are unmoored voiceovers and jolting, elliptical cuts, all within a mode, however cosmic in scale, of psychological realism. Given this surplus of material, I defer to my personal sensation as a starting point. The first hour of Tree of Life is unrelenting and gripping; it affected me physically. While I do not claim this to be a universal experience, it is hard to deny the power of the film’s first several movements (up to the end of the Smetana piece on the soundtrack, or at the conclusion of the growing-up montage.) Malick establishes a problematic of the type found in horror or disaster films, but on a far more sophisticated register: life is terrifying. Not the life of this or that particular character (the film slows considerably once it crystallizes around the grown boy’s life), but of existence, universally, at every scale.

Tree of Life, a degenred horror film, draws upon three rich sources for its epic opening statement: science, religion, and psychoanalytic theory. The already infamous “creation of the universe” sequence, then, is a spectacularly rendered affirmation of what science tells us, that the universe is violent, huge, and indifferent. The sequence is a response of sorts to the first Texas sequence, set in the late 1960’s, in which a family grieves the loss of a son. Here the religious/metaphysical theme is posited- the human effort to find meaning in life and death, to reconcile psyche and society with indifferent nature by way of imagined higher purposes. Yet it is only with the beginning of the second Texas movement, which will dominate the film, that this problem acquires force. The incredible montage from birth to adolescence is a treatise on the development of the human psyche. Mirror stage, Oedipal triangulation, development of language and social consciousness- an aestheticized psychodrama for sure, but also one of primal force (I want to comment later on the amazing use of subjective camera here.) Malick will elaborate further with symbolic sexual initiation, revolt against the father, etc., but the essential point is posited here with chilling vigor. Romanticized childhood is actually a traumatic awakening to the horrors of human existence, as little Sean Penn will find and big Sean Penn will anguish over in his elevators and wastelands.

Behind the real beauty of these cinematic depictions, these three planes of horror are pinned together to constitute an admirable project. In ranging from a slice of dark Americana to prehistoric Earth to the Big Bang, Malick attempts to bridge a form of narrative cinema with a realm of the human known usually forbidden to the medium. Instead of relying solely on the interiority of characters, expressed through dialogue and action, to posit his concerns, Malick shows it, as if to say: it is no secret, this is the universe as we know it to be; these are dinosaurs who ruled a world, and it was all snuffed out by an accident of gravity; even life itself, the very existence of my characters, was dependent on chance chemistry. I resist glibly calling this a search for the meaning of life. What interests me in Tree of Life, what its about, is the problem of human existence in a universe unsuited to the existence of the human psyche- a psyche that can not possibly comprehend the universe’s scale, indifference, and temporal existence- yet an existence that we must muddle through in suffering. This is what Tree of Life is about, at least for the period in which it burns across the screen with vibrant power.

So I don’t think Tree of Life is pretentious; I do not believe that Malick is trying to prove his greatness. Rather, I think the director is pursuing an ambitious thematic portfolio, and succeeds in part with incredible formal technique, among other attributes. But I understand why people would think it is a pretentious film. Indeed, the most pretentious-seeming parts of Tree of Life are the very parts that betray Malick’s ambitious problematic of cosmic destruction and human suffering, and I think, reduce it from great to good. Undoubtably the worst idea, and the worst sequence in this work is the tidal afterlife scene, in which the family in reunited amidst a flock of souls, lost and found. Or something like this. The second half of the film builds to this scene for a long time, with whispered voiceover intimations of love responding to Malick’s queries to the void of existence, voiced by Penn’s character. It’s a let down because the film heretofore had fronted like a darkly brilliant philosophy major, only to reveal itself as evangelical youth group leader opportunistically reeling in lonely undergrads. Tree of Life fearlessly poses the dark puzzle of existence, only to suggest as a solution… love? And not just any love, but one visually rendered as a new age-y family vision quest thing. It’s a disappointing, middle-brow mystical gloss.

There is substantial beauty and mystery in Tree of Life, but without the sustaining tension of the dark problematic of existence, it collapses into mush. For an apolitical work, which this film is, this problematic must be held in suspense (if playing out on a social scale, the solution is abolition of capitalist relations, natch!) There is frankly no answer to it, and if there were, it definitely not be love. Malick sabotages his film by stupidly trying to answer a question he poses brilliantly and forcefully. Give us dinosaurs in a moment of grace, give us a boy drowning a negligee in the river, give us butterflies and Peter Rabbit, but please don’t give us bullshit.

I feel I’m just scratching the surface here and am looking forward to SW and friends’ comments on what I believe to be an important film, and my first crack at making sense of it. It would be great to get into the Texas narrative, the cinematography, the score and sound editing, symphonic montage, specifics of the ethical and metaphysical thrusts of the film, reception and marketing. Fire away.
- Show quoted text -

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tree of Life Review by Josh Martin

Some beautiful images and interesting narrative ideas marred by too much pretention.

I have never fallen under Malick’s spell as many cinephiles have; I have always found his films visually striking, but underwhelming thematically. This film was no exception. The CGI dinosaurs were cheesy and many of the nature scenes recalled Planet Earth or an IMAX documentary. The spiritual overtones were obnoxious and the characters and situations rather clichéd. A disciplinarian father and an earthy mother in 1950s America has been done to death.

The film is not terrible, however, and its use of elliptic narrative, rapid cuts, and jumping between periods of time and space were interesting. I would say, as with Malick’s previous two films, the director needs to better self-edit himself. There is an interesting work in here, but it is too often marred by self-indulgence and an overwhelming self-importance. Since Malick’s return to filmmaking in the late ‘90s his films have felt so consciously “epic” and “grand” as to become obnoxious. I felt like with every shot he was trying so hard to convince us that he is a great filmmaker and this is a masterpiece. It is not a masterpiece.

Having said all that, I was pleased to find myself in a crowded theater for such a fractured, obtuse, long, and not terribly commercial film on Friday night; and I saw very few walks out and the theater remained pretty quiet throughout the entire film. It seems like audiences are willing to put in the effort, but only if there is already some name recognition. This gives me some hope that there still is an audience for interesting and difficult films out there; they just need to be pointed in the right directions.

Overall, I think the film was average, though quite interesting. It is a work I would be interested in discussing with fellow cinephiles. I was underwhelmed by most it, but there were moments that I loved. I like the spirit of this work, but I feel like all of it has been done much better (see Solaris or 2001: A Space Odyssey).


Monday, June 6, 2011

Greetings Soldiers and Cinephiles,

See the the link below to a great articles from the yesterday's New York Times by Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott. The piece is "In Defense of the Slow and the Boring." This is exactly the kind of thing Shooting Wall is trying to get out there. A really well done piece.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Greetings Soldiers and Cinephiles,

Shooting Wall has been hard at work planning another screening, which we hope will be happening sometime in June. We are also starting to work on Issue #3; the deadline for articles is August 15th. Please let us know if you have something you want to write about. We are currently taking submissions and/or ideas. We want your article! Our website is also currently in the works and we hope to be able to unveil that within the month. Stay tuned to the blog for more info!

Below are some upcoming films and events in Philadelphia worth checking out. Our friends at the Wooden Shoe will be putting on Luc Moullet's Genesis of a Meal this Sunday; be sure to check that out!

Friday June 3rd at 7:30 - Weekend (1967) by Jean-Luc Godard at AxD Gallery. This is presented by Cinematheque International of Philadelphia.

Opening at the Ritz June 3rd:
Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen

Wooden Shoe
Sunday June 5th at 7pm - Genesis of a Meal (1979) by Luc Moullet
Sunday June 19th at 7pm - Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzmano Part 1
Sunday June 26th at 7pm - Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzman Part 2
Sunday July 3rd at 7pm - Battle of Chile by Patricio Guzman Part 3

Opening at the Ritz June 10th:
The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick
Blank City by Celine Danhier

Cinema 16:9
Friday June 10th at 1pm and 7pm - Scarlet Street (1945) by Fritz Lang

Colonial Theater Phoenixville
Sunday June 12th at 2pm - Scarface (1932) by Howard Hawks



Takashi Miike's style of filmmaking is sometimes just his job, sometimes autuerial. Kurosawa is seemingly popular, see all the Criterion releases and re-releases, such must be one the reasons this samurai-an obvious homage to the films of Kurosawa, Fukasaku, Kobayashi, Yamanaka-film in comparison to his others (he makes several year) got distribution in the States.

Watching the film in an audience of 20-40 year old men with a minority of females, one of which though was enjoying it more than boys, the film does seem to know its audience. At Temple University where I take film courses only for the access to equipment, Kurosawa is consistently evoked by the majority male populace who sees Kurosawa as 'art' and Seven Samurai as a highly intellectual affair. After a few years of repeated viewings of Kurosawa and then discovering the work of John Ford, I have been pushed very far away from the work of Kurosawa, seeing him as a competent director that at best makes solid action films with cinematography highly derivative of Ford, who is a far more talented director. When it comes to Samurai films then, I rather go with Kobayashi than Kurosawa.

Now, when it comes to Miike, my top choices are Visitor Q, Gozu and Imprint. These films have the most obvious Miike stamps, which have very interesting ideas to express and this is done in a unique way. Miike, who takes immense influence from his onetime film school teacher Shohei Imamura (The Insect Woman, Vengeance Is Mine) and most definitely from David Lynch, Miike comes in after these guys with an even more overtly surrealist style. While bordering on horror, which is the community that Miike finds most of his fans due to the decent but more accessible and overhyped Audition, he pushes an interesting moral line in his films.

What is missing in 13 Assassins is this moral discussion, rather there are brief moments of surreal violence (a young girl who bleeds blood and has no limbs), but otherwise what is being discussed is different. More this film is about the absurdity of the Samurai ethos of overly sacrificial devotion to one's master. And how such ideas are now even more absurd in the mid 1800's, when the Samurai are in their final days. Here the ideas Miike somewhat brought up in his early Yakuza films, in-which character's devotion to their leaders were argued, here more the debate is simple.

In all, the film is then just a well done hack-n-slash. With just enough story and thought put into it. I can only suggest this to fans of Die Hard and/or action films. As it is a solid one of those, but not much more else. Don't give up on Miike though, check out my top choices if you haven't, I'm sure you will become a fan.



This seems to be a film going in similar directions to Limits of Control and The American. Of the subdued action film, something that surely owes its existence to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. While the film is well shot, with long takes, a semi-break with the handheld fetish of the moment, a unique color pallete, it lacks almost everything else. Relying I believe on tension, it lacks even that. It's attempt at pretension is even laughable. I believe it was trying to do some existential thing, with a major Camus-type moment, but then it still has unnecessary and predictable situations that ruin the existential and/or the tension.

I don't know how this film got made. A lot of seemed like they went out and shot pretty stuff then put it together at the end. Then actually repeated the pretty images again at the climax of the film during a flashback because I assume they literally didn't have anything else they could of done.

Also, yep, expect an American remake, as it is in the works. 

Fight back, skip this film, go watch Le Samurai