A summer of extremes in movie theaters
More than once in my life, I have been accused of thinking in extremes.
For instance, I saw my dream vacation on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's "No Reservations," where he visited a remote Russian village and holed up in a primitive sauna atop a frozen lake. Bourdain spent the afternoon eating raw fish and sipping freshly distilled vodka while old village women flogged him gently with palm fronds. I can dig that scene.
After an hour or so, the doors of the shack were opened and Bourdain went streaking through the snow and dove through a tiny hole cut into the ice, submerging himself in dangerously cold water. And then it was back to the steamy shack for some fish, vodka and plant flagellation.
This idea of submitting yourself to heaven and hell and back again in short order appeals to my extremist nature.
With this in mind, I ponied up $15 earlier this week to attend nearly back-to-back showings of Terrence Malick's life-affirming epic "Tree of Life" and Michael Bay's cruel endurance test "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."
My intention was to catch both flicks on the same day, but time restraints and the fact that I feared my head might explode like a character in "Scanners" during "Transformers" were deterrents.
I wanted to experience the extremes of summer movies within 24 hours.
First up was "Tree of Life," the latest work by auteur and infamous hermit Terrence Malick.
I've long been an admirer of Malick. "Admire" feels like the correct word when assessing Malick's vision. At his best in 1978's "Days of Heaven" and the vastly underrated "New World," Malick makes mundane experiences such as watching wheat sway in a soft breeze or following a lizard as it scampers along a damp tree branch seem almost dreamlike.
I've enjoyed some of his movies more than others, to be sure. The detached extensional musings of some of his characters wear thin after three or so hours, but there's no denying Malick's deeply humanistic concerns and their place in a cold, indifferent universe.
"Tree of Life" tells the story of an ordinary Texas family in the 1950s. Except it really doesn't tell that story at all. We mostly drop in on the O'Briens between extended sequences detailing the birth of galaxies and the first vestiges of bacterial life on our particular rock. And then some dinosaurs show up.
You can understand why "Tree" has a high walk-out rate in theaters across the country, as reported by several media outlets.
I can image a typical scene. The place: A Showplace 12 in the Midwest. The Time: Last week.
Ma Nebraska: "Finally, a movie about simple farm life. And it has that Brad Pitt. I can't wait."
Pa Nebraska: "Hrmm. Um hm."
(30 minutes into the movie, or at around the time the Elasmosaurus makes its appearance.)
Ma Nebraska: "Well, I just don't know what to say about this. What is going ... I just ... but this isn't ... gah, Pa let's leave and ask for our money back. This is ridiculous."
Pa Nebraska: "Hrmm Um hm."
I don't know whether "Tree of Life" accomplished what it set out to do. Hell, I don't understand large swaths of it, honestly. But it was compelling in a way that most movies released between Memorial Day and Labor Day very much aren't.
I left the theater after "Tree" feeling serene and a small bit hopeful about the grand scheme of things.
Little did I suspect that Bay was waiting for me around the corner with a lead pipe gripped in his sweaty, cash-stained hands.
I could spend pages attacking Bay and what he represents about modern Hollywood. But why? To poorly paraphrase Cormac McCarthy, to make sense of Bay would be like attempting to explaining stone. He simply is, and we have to give him room because he takes up space.
There's not much to say about "Transformers: Etc., etc., etc.," because nothing of consequence happens in its nearly three-hour running time.
I'd wish I could say that my brain was pummeled by the interminable scenes of mass destruction at ear-crushing volume and that I left the theater fearing that all truly is lost for mankind.
But mostly I didn't feel anything. Except boredom. Maybe a little homesick, because the film took place in and around Chicago. I guess it was kinda cool to see buildings I've passed under hundreds of times uprooted and thrown around by warring robots.
Other than that, I can't say I remember much of the plot — of which there was thankfully little — or the characters — of which there seemed to be hundreds. But they glopped into each other like little balls of Silly Putty to create one large ball of Silly Putty matted with cat hair and fingernail clippings.
As I left "Transformers: Dark Night of My Soul," I was not as tempted to ask for a refund of my money as I was to seek a reassuring hug from the theater manager or the popcorn girl.
None of this is to say I am a movie snob. One of my favorite movies of all time is "Death Wish 3" and I thought "Super 8" was fantastic.
Neither is exactly "On the Waterfront," but I enjoyed them on their own merits.
Anyway, I'm curious to hear from anyone out there who saw "Tree of Life." What is your take?
As for those who saw "Transformers," go head and drop a line or email. Maybe this can develop into a Southern Oregon chapter of a Michael Bay support group.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or email email@example.com.