Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ruminations of The End

I have watched the world end three times in the past few months -- not in any metaphorical sense, though, the circumstances of my life are not the best at this moment. No, I mean, this subject seems to be reoccurring in some of the films I have viewed lately. During this year's New York Film Festival, I saw five films (a sixth I was forced to skip due to illness), out of which there were two separate speculations on what The End might be like. (There was an additional third on the roaster, though I chose not to see it). 

The first of these was Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Split into two parts, the second half of the narrative occurs against the backdrop of an asteroid hurtling perilously close to Earth. Scientists proclaim that there is no cause for alarm, though there are others who fear for all. This is not a huge disaster film with a cast of thousands; you could count on one hand the number of characters who appear during this section of the story. Instead, the narrative is focused on a single family, and how they react to unfolding events, as well as to each other. There are no grand heroics, though there is some kindness, what might be allowed under such circumstances. When the end does arrive, there is a bang, though it is not a prolonged one.

In The Turin Horse Bela Tarr limits his focus even further: a father & daughter living alone in a one room cottage in the midst of a stony, desolate, and constantly wind-swept landscape. One man stops by long enough for a drink and a speculative monologue on where everything went wrong (or if it was ever right to begin with); later there is a brief appearance by a wagon of roving gypsies. However, they all seem beside the point -- the father's horse is a more prominent character than any of these visitors. The father and daughter go through their daily routines, trying best to keep to their usual paths. Eventually the weight of it all bears down on them. Eventually, the film argues, one's energy is simply depleted, at which point, you gently fade away.

My thoughts on these two films, naturally led me back to Tree of Life which I saw towards the end of the summer. The concluding point of Malick's film is less clear than Melancholia yet the consensus does seem to hold that it is some vision of the End of Days, an interpretation that would fit within the scheme of a narrative whose range stretches all the way back to Creation. Malick differs from von Trier or Tarr in presenting a more mystical vision of the end, a moment filled with reunion of those previously departed, along with a sense of transcendence. My reading of Tree of Life is that Malick wishes to take as his subject the entire scope of the human condition -- indeed the entire scope of life itself.  Thus, the story of a boy coming of age in 1950s Texas is bracketed between the early days of creation and the final ones. His experience is a universal one: through his seemingly mundane adventures, we may learn of ourselves, and hope to find solace through that knowledge.

Which led my thoughts to The Mill and the Cross. This outstanding film, by Lech Majewski, is a speculation on the painter Pieter Bruegel and the making of his The Way of the Cross. The movie is not, however, a standard bio-pic of an artist at work. Instead, the filmmaker recreates the 16th Century world in which Bruegel moved, imagining the daily events which may have provided the inspiration for his canvas. Bruegel was an artist also interested in the entire range of the human condition, which is reflected in many of his greatest works, including The Way of the Cross. Majewski, in turn, follows this thread, weaving a tapestry that is worthy of Bruegel in both image and content. "Here too," Majewski seems to claim, "is a view of all the elements that make us who we are." Then, in a deft slight of hand I have no desire to spoil, the film admits that this one canvas of Bruegel's can merely be one component of his prolific imagination, which itself is the product of one artist among many who wish to examine what makes us who we are.

Which, in a way, is what von Trier and Tarr are up to as well. The first half of von Trier's film takes place during the course of a wedding reception. Here we watch the ebb and flow of a party, the jerky starts and stops of interpersonal relationships, while a marriage falls apart over the course of a single evening. Similar to Bruegel, von Trier wishes to distill a vast variety of experience into a single night. (I doubt that it is any coincidence that von Trier features Bruegel's painting The Return of the Hunters prominently in his film). In the same manner, Tarr has explained that he wished in The Turin Horse to make an allegory of life; within that battered cottage, he saw the essence of who we are. Indeed, when asked after the screening why he is choosing this moment in his career to retire, his response was, more or less, to point at the now empty screen and ask "what else could I say?"

Except, of course, that we will continue to trudge on, despite whatever our personal toils, in search of some additional nugget of wisdom, until we reach whatever end there is.


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