Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Tree of Life Meditation

by Odienator

Unlike the twentysomethings who jumped on the Terrence Malick bandwagon with The Thin Red Line, I don’t worship his post 70’s output in a manner best reserved for the Second Coming. I was underwhelmed by The New World and downright hostile toward The Thin Red Line’s contrapuntal narration. It only infuriates said bandwagoners further when I cite that The Thin Red Line, with its footage of catapulting soldiers flung heavenward by explosions while the soundtrack rambled on with Hallmark card bullshit about butterflies and love, is Malick’s worst movie. “Who thinks about butterflies when hot shrapnel is flying into one's ass?” I asked in my C+ review of Line.

I am sure this will get me lots of the standard “you don’t understand Malick’s genius yada yada yada” in the comments section, to which I say spare me because I DO get it. Badlands and Days of Heaven are two of the best films of the 70’s, the latter of which is my favorite and gets richer every time I’ve seen it; the former never ceases to disturb me to my core. While Malick’s latter two are visually imagined in sometimes achingly beautiful compositions, they just don’t involve me the way his prior two films do. Even my mentor and friend Matt Zoller Seitz, whose defense of Malick is worthy of Clarence Darrow, couldn’t get me to change my mind.

Leave it to Malick himself to pull me back into the fold. The Tree of Life is a thesis statement that also serves as cheat notes for this auteur’s body of work. It says “in case you’ve missed it, THIS is what I’ve been trying to say.” Granted, one still needs to dig deeply to understand all that is happening, but The Tree of Life is as blatant a period as I’ve ever seen on the sentence that describes a director’s work. It melds the director’s latter, more visual meditations on the universe with his former films’ narrative exploration of how miniscule our place is in it.  It also does something for me that the few rational people with whom I’ve debated The Thin Red Line and The New World said those films did for them: it lulled me into a state of meditative recollection. My brain went off on tangents of my own memories during The Tree of Life, which was terrifying but not at all surprising. Movies about brothers tend to make me reflect on being the oldest out of four sons.

So I shall not discuss how great the lead three actors are, how visually stunning it is, and how bad the ending is; I’m going to save that for another time. Instead, I will send you down some of the tangents I explored while watching Malick’s best film since my favorite of his, Days of Heaven. You can figure out what may have triggered these on your own.

Why I Hate The Village People's YMCA

I drowned when I was 5 years old. My Kindergarten teacher took us on a field trip to the YMCA, and since I couldn’t swim, she sat me on the edge of the pool so I could put my feet in the water. Some punk ass kid came and pushed me into the pool. I do not remember how long I thrashed around, or even if I came up  to the surface once I was submerged. I do remember it took forever for me to die. Water filled my lungs, giving me both a lifelong fear of the water and of suffocation.

They said I was dead for several minutes before being revived. Between losing and regaining consciousness (I can still taste the water I threw up), I went somewhere. It was the crappiest, most unimaginative out of body experience a writer could have: I stood in a freezing room that was covered in white bathroom tiles. That’s it. It was cold, so I obviously wasn’t in Hell. At 5, what could I have done to earn Hell? Whether my “out of body experience” was a lot warmer when I died at 34 is a story for another time. But when I told this story to a devoutly religious friend of mine, she said “you didn’t see anything because Jesus was behind you doing this.”  Then she put her thumbs into her ears, wiggled her fingers and stuck out her tongue. “Then He kicked you in your butt and sent you back here.”

Now that is a visual I wish I had seen.

My Mother’s Words: The Clean Version

“I have no favorites,” my mother often stated. “I love you all the same.” “LIES!!!” my brain would always utter. Not about the “I love you all the same” part. I believe that. About the favorites part, well, she deserved some lightning in her ass because she did have a favorite kid and it was not me.

My Mother’s Favorite Kid

My brother, and I won’t say which one (sorry brothers, and an even bigger “sorry” to my sister) and I were playing outside on one of the numerous, cracked up sidewalks of Jersey City. I was pushing him on some Fisher Price contraption, a truck that had a horn and a lever you could pull to make it go “VERROOOOOMMM!” I cop to pushing the toy a little too hard, but the faster I went, the happier my 18-month old brother got. We hit a particularly jagged piece of the sidewalk, and my brother flew up into the air so high that he blocked out the Sun. He landed with a thud on the ground. “BAM!!!” said the ground.

I can’t spell the noise my brother made, but it was loud enough to wake the dead.

Something Like This, but Not Quite
 My bodily inspection of the yowling kid yielded a scrape and a bruise on his shoulder, but nothing else. It is de Lawd’s penchant for irony that positioned this accident in front of a row of switch bushes, the same bushes used to beat ghetto asses for generations. My mother was going to send me to the scene of the crime to get a piece of one of those bushes if my brother didn’t quiet down. Panicked, I knelt down and looked at my brother. His eyes were fire hydrants of tears, his mouth a siren not yet completely filled with teeth. I looked into those watery eyes.

“Please,” I begged. “Mommy is going to kill me.”

My brother looked back into my eyes and I swear there was something there, some sense of recognition, the genesis of the brotherly connection we would later use to occasionally team up for mischief when he was older.  He shut up immediately.

It remains the only time my brother saved my ass.

Firecrackers and Fingers

Kids are mean little bastards. My cousins and I sometimes hung out with other neighborhood boys, roaming the streets in search of games of tops, three flights up or stickball. Occasionally, someone would have firecrackers, cherry bombs or cap guns. I liked the cap guns (I especially liked smelling the exploded caps papers, which is just sick) but I was always afraid of firecrackers. I liked hearing them explode, but I could never light one for fear it would blow up and I’d look like a reject from a Tex Avery cartoon.

Some of the neighborhood kids would light these things and throw them at animals. Dogs behind gates, pigeons, cats, all of whom would thankfully get out of the way before they blew up. One of the biggest perpetrators of this lit a cherry bomb (or something to that effect) with plans on throwing it at perhaps the only dog in my ‘hood that didn’t chase us. It was such a sweet tempered animal, with sad eyes and a perpetually cocked head. It looked as if it really gave a shit about you from behind that gate. If it could talk, it would ask how your day was and offer you better advice than Dear Abby.

The kid lit this explosive device when the dog wasn’t paying attention to us. But right before he threw it, the dog suddenly turned our direction. It cocked its head. “Do you really want to hurt me?” its face seemed to say. I saw it. That kid must have seen it, too, because  the split second he reconsidered his action was the moment his hand exploded.

Baptist Funerals are in my DNA

I gave up on organized religion for good in 1999, for reasons that are (you guessed it) a story for another time. I did, however, visit Baptist church after that for a couple of funerals. If you were raised Baptist, Baptist funerals are in your DNA. It almost feels like you know what’s coming before it happens. The thing I hate most about them isn’t when somebody throws themselves on the coffin (reason #1 why I’m being cremated) or when “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” gets sung (reason #2 why I’m being cremated). I hate these funerals because the pastor takes this opportunity to try to recruit for his church by scaring the shit out of you with the specter of Death. When my aunt died, it was almost as if I’d lost my mother. At the funeral, the pastor pointed at her coffin and told the congregation we needed to get right with God. We could start by coming to his church on Sunday. I wanted to punch him in his face. I damn near choked the woman who told me this was God’s plan and I should be happy I have 7 more aunts.

My Mother’s Words, Not So Clean

Thank God my mother didn't wear these.

My mother used to say she had eyes in the back of her head. She also said if she saw something with those eyes of which she did not approve, she’d  either beat me ‘til I shit blue ink or stomp a mudhole in my ass. Mom made the latter threat for the 9 bazillionth time on the Christmas Day of my 16th year.  It ended an argument we had been having, or so I thought. Mom turned around to walk away, and I rolled my eyes at her. My Mom hit me upside the head with her hand. I never saw her face, which indicated she had not turned around.  It was the last time my mother ever laid a hand on me, and the first time that hand was above my waist. She’d later slug her favorite child in the chest hard enough to send him flying when he was 16, so thank heaven for the small favor of not being Mom’s Choice Kid. Yeah, he deserved it.

Things We Lost In the Fire

During turbulent times in the house I grew up in, I envisioned the day we’d all move out and the house would be demolished. Years after we’d grown up, my parents sold the house and moved someplace far more friendly. The church to whom they’d sold the house wanted the land for some expansion project. I was finally going to get my wish. Like in my childhood fantasies, I would get a lawn chair and some popcorn and watch them knock the house down.

Before any of this could transpire, the house burned down in spectacular fashion. It was on the news, and in the papers. (I just found footage of it on fucking YouTube, for God's sake!) Suddenly it hit me: All I’d been thinking about were the bad times in my life that occurred while I lived there. I had somehow forgotten that the best of times had occurred there too, and by virtue of spending all my teenage years and some of the years prior in that house, most of life’s discoveries had a tie to it.  I was bound to that physical place by the majority of my childhood memories and all my adolescent ones. Up in smoke they went.

Well, Only Figuratively. Memories Do Remain.

The year after my Mom slapped the taste out of my mouth for Christmas, she, my Pops and my entire family went to Atlanta to see my uncle. My Mom was adamant about me going, but my Pops talked her out of it. Maybe he thought, at 17, I was man enough to be “home alone.” Maybe it was because a few weeks prior, the crackhead next door had broken into our house and stolen the VCR, and my Pops didn’t want to come home to just a foundation and a doorknob. Regardless, for the first time in my entire life, I had full run of an empty house. I ran up and down the stairs, yelling for joy before marveling at the quiet. No noisy siblings, no bickering parents, no yelling at me from Mom. Just quiet. And joy. So much so that, when the Great Love of my Life asked if she could come over, I told her HELL NO. Not even sex was better than this. You try living in a house with four little kids, all day, every day, for almost a decade, and you’ll see my point of view. I could screw next week.

I wound up cleaning the house from top to bottom, and spending the week watching movies.

It’s only fitting I end here, as this memory was inspired by my favorite scene in The Tree of Life.

Here’s to finding your own meditations courtesy of Terrence Malick!


Richard Bellamy said...

Odie - It was great seeing The Tree of Life with you, Steven, and Jason last weekend. (Hokahey = Rick Bellamy). I totally agree with how Malick's movie takes you back to your childhood. I started my own post on the movie with my own memories of growing up with my two brothers in the late 50s/early 60s. I enjoyed reading your anecdotes here. I love your humor!

I especially identify with the "Kids are mean bastards" part. I remember one time going with a friend to his neighbor's house. The neighbor boys had a campfire in the backyard with a cauldron on it. In the cauldron they were boiling a cat. Whether or not the cat had been alive when they put it in the pot, I will never know.

odienator said...

Thanks, Hokahey. I enjoyed meeting you the other day, and look forward to reading your blog piece. Boiling a cat?!!! You lived in some Lord of the Flies kinda 'hood! That makes me think of the science experiment in The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-In-The-Moon Marigolds.