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Ominous Scenes of Space Set to Classical Music

October 17, 2011

Where I live there are two movie theaters. One shows mainstream films, the other artsy-fartsy stuff. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve seen several good films at Regina. It’s where I was introduced to the awesome The Man Without a Past. It’s where I saw The Princess and the Warrior (although in honesty I hardly remember anything of it). It’s where I saw The Journey to Melonia (a father left huffed with his son and a refund because the focus kept slipping).

Regina is small enough to only have one projector, so that the projectionist has to splice the film into one huge reel instead of the several it arrives in, then cut it up again before sending it along. This theater is located in a former boiler-room in the basement of a house where all sorts of low-grade cultural things are going on. It is run entirely by volunteers. They give you a discount if you’re a student or unemployed. The sink in the roomy restroom has an eerie It-like feeling to it.

Quite early this year I was intrigued by two probably-pretentious pieces of cinema: The Tree of Life and Melancholia, neither of which appeared at the mainstream theater. I should have expected them to appear at Regina, and at least one of them did, Melancholia. (The other one might have been or will perhaps be shown; I am not very attentive.) Still, I was pleasantly surprised when I heard it did.

I had mixed feelings about it as I watched it. The start was pretty hypnotic and ominous, with classical music and slo-mo scenes everywhere. Then it turned into a standard Scandinavian drama of the “everyone is horrible and life is dark, empty road to oblivion” variety. The wedding party had me playing a game of Spot the Swede (I found three) which was amusing.

It felt a bit long in places but the last scene was fucking awesome. Still, I felt somewhat disappointed as I made my hurried a-gentleman-will-walk-but-never-run to the bus. I guess I was expecting more dazzle of the sort found in the prologue. I didn’t regret watching it, though.

(I am quite shallow when it comes to consumption of culture.)

The other night I downloaded and watched The Tree of Life. Like with Melancholia, I was taken in by the start. Like Melancholia, it had space scenes set to classical music, albeit less boding ones. That part was amazing. Then – again, like Melancholia – it turned from cosmic to close, but unlike Melancholia it kind of stayed there. It never really left that claustrophobic suburb of horrible people, even with the intermezzos of a harried Sean Penn sleep-walking through his life of suited success.

It felt like it wanted to be cosmic and all-encompassing but it got stuck on the ground, while Melancholia managed to hint at larger things while starting smaller. Even the space scenes and the time-scale follow this: in Melancholia, we meet the planet in the solar system, in TToL we’re seeing galaxies; in Melancholia, the reach is months, years at most, in TToL we go from the Big Bang onwards until today.

I realise it’s not a perfect contrast, but I can’t shake the notion that the film that wanted to be grand in its reach was small, while the film that was small reached much further. Why is it not a perfect contrast? Because I suspect Melancholia wanted to reach far too, but didn’t feel the need to make a fuss about it.

Watching Melancholia, in a few places I got the feeling I was missing what the film was trying to tell me, that I lacked some crucial piece of the code. No biggie. This happens to me a lot. I could still enjoy it. (I’m sure I whined about this before.)

Watching The Tree of Life, I got that all the time, once the awe of visuals died down. The creation/evolution montage was beautiful but I didn’t understand what it had to do with anything else. Those badly CGI’d dinosaurs? Fuck knows. Everyone at the beach? Don’t ask me. Those short voice-overs that seemed vaguely religious? I shrug in your general direction.

I felt very disappointed. Half-heartedly I tried to read praise to understand what I missed (like I did with Mulholland Drive). People called it poetry and impressionistic and I still didn’t see what they saw. And I though I liked impressionism.

Then I noticed something interesting.

Every time I think back to Melancholia, it seems to have grown in my mind in some way. I increasingly find myself wanting to rewatch it. Maybe it was because the bleak ending is so much more in line with my default state of mind than the weird everyone-is-happy-in-heaven thing of TToL. (TToL felt like it had a happy ending but I just couldn’t figure out why.) Maybe it’s a Nordic thing to like melancholic things (even if von Trier is a Dane, the jovials of the Nordics).

It got me wondering if I will grow to like The Tree of Life as well.

Probably not.


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