What the fuck happened to you, Arclight Cinemas? Shit, your ass used to be beautiful!

The girl was somewhere in the 18-21 range and she had the obvious aura of someone who’d rather be Anywhere But Here, working this summer job — and only a summer job, get that right! — here at the formerly awesome Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood. Her name tag did not have her favorite film written on it, like the name tags usually do at this establishment, and in retrospect, that should’ve told me everything right there.

Anyway, after she asked me what I wanted — and that’s how she said it: What do you want? — I looked over to the soda dispensers (it’s been a while since I last came here) and I could’ve taken half a second and it still wouldn’t have been quick enough for her: “CokeDietCokeSpriteRootBeer!” she told me. Oh.

She then went “OwwwwwOOOOwwwwOOOOWWW” after placing my soda on the counter. Figuring that showing sympathy would lessen her apparent dislike of the Fat Ugly Fuck on the other side of the cash register, I asked her what had happened and she told me that she bumped her elbow on the counter earlier and she was still sore. She then told me that the day before, she had banged the side of her foot near the bottom of the other counter. I responded with “I hate when that happens. It’s like when I accidentally stub my toe on the couch” except I didn’t say that, I only said “I hate when that –” before she shoved the soda closer to me and said “Enjoy your movie”. I was the only one there, nobody else was in line — unless you count the many invisible undead that I was holding up, hence Time Of The Month’s quick dismissal of me.

I noticed a man in glasses go up to the ticket-taker and tell her that his seat was still full of trash, even though the picture was to begin in 10 minutes. She sighed and told her fellow employee, who responded with “But they’re showing the movie all day”, before taking off with her trusty broom and trash pan.

Before the movie started, another employee of the female persuasion stepped up to give the intro, which went something like this: Ladiesandgentlemen, welcometo,uh,the Arclight Cinemas presentationofTheTreeofLife, uh, starring Brad PittandSean, uh, Penn. Um, this movie, is uh, runs about, uh, an hour and fifteen minutes? *brief pause* Uh, yeah, an hour and fifteen minutes. Uh, enjoy the movie. For the record, The Tree of Life runs two hours and eighteen minutes.

Another tell-tale sign that things changed at this place, this former standard by which all other movie theaters measured themselves: she did not do the usual bit about employees checking the print every once in a while to make sure that sound and picture were top notch. Because sure enough, the print seemed a little jittery. Thankfully, you can only notice this during the credits and whenever the image was completely motionless (the camerawork is handheld and never seems to stop roving about). Sure, I could’ve gotten up and complained to the staff, but that would mean having to miss some of the movie and for what? To be met with blank stares? I didn’t want to find out what other rude surprises were in store for me in the Land Of Employees Who Don’t Give A Fuck. Also, it would’ve involved me having to get up.

What happened? I’m reminded me of that bit in Casino, when Ace Rothstein laments the death of the personal touches the old casinos used to have, before they got taken over by corporate cunts who were all about maximum profit for minimum effort (in other words, The American Dream). The employees at the Arclight used to act like they gave a shit with their friendly attitudes & smiles, and while I knew it was an illusion — a trick is something a whore does for money — I was fine with it because I was paying for the illusion. We all pay for the illusion, also known as Customer Service.

But I don’t know what happened since; did they start paying less, and therefore got what they paid for, employee-wise? You know, over at the burger joints they pay more and offer better benefits at In-n-Out Burgers, compared to McDonald’s where they start off at minimum wage — perhaps that’s why the workers are always smiling at In-n-Out and frowning at Mickey D’s. Is this a result of the Arclight franchising out to more locations, and spreading themselves thin as a result? Maybe. Or maybe they just started hiring assholes.

Or maybe I just came on a bad day.

Every Malick film features narration but their uses differ, depending on the film. In Badlands and Days of Heaven, the characters are recalling events to the audience and adding more detail/humor to them with their thoughts. In The Thin Red Line and The New World, the characters are speaking from their souls, pretty much talking to no one but themselves. But in The Tree of Life, it’s a mix of that inner soul monologue along with a dialogue with the Creator, whoever the fuck that’s supposed to be. Yeah man, I guess you can say all of Malick’s joints are religious experiences but this one goes even further or farther or both as it attempts (and succeeds!) to encompass every fucking thing about this universe while asking out loud What Does It All Mean?

The way I saw it, Malick took a different approach from going with the God-Vision camera he used to make The Thin Red Line with, instead, he went over to Panavision or Arriflex or Red and asked — nay, he demanded — that they give him a camera that can film the inner mind and soul of the protagonist. Because what most of this movie consists of — at least to me — is all of the shit going through Sean Penn’s character’s mind during one particular day (if it was actually Sean Penn’s mind we were looking into, it would probably be filled with very liberal, blow-hardy, and ultra-serious bullshit with no sense of humor whatsoever).

The film focuses on Penn’s past, growing up during his personal Wonder Years in Texas but every once in a while, we cut to Right Now and watch Penn doing whatever the fuck he’s doing in that office building. I bet you whatever he’s doing, it’s making him CRAZY bank, or maybe not, because based on the look of his very nice home, the motherfucker can afford nice digs and nice threads but came up short when it was time to buy some fuckin’ furniture.

Anyway, we’re seeing his childhood memories along with the passing thoughts that stem from them in retrospect, contrasted with the thoughts he had at the time — this motherfucker has a lot on his mind. And why not? I don’t know about you but sometimes thinking of a deceased loved one (Penn’s character’s deceased brother) might put you in a real introspective/existential place. You begin to wonder about shit, like, what’s the meaning of All This? Is there a God, and if there is, what the fuck is His fucking problem and what’s His fucking point? And that’s where the scenes involving the creation of the universe come into play, so you can wonder to yourself “Really, man? Dinosaurs?”

Early on, we see some dinosaurs and for a while I wondered if they were going to get an inner monologue as well. Part of me wishes they did, because it would’ve cemented to the rest of the critics and moviegoers that everything is, in fact, bigger in Texas — particularly Terrence Malick’s balls. Also, it would’ve been both bewildering, admirable and fuckin’ hilarious (the dinosaur narration, not Malick’s testicles). Imagine how it would look and sound, pensive shots of dinosaurs framed in beautifully-composed images of Nature Long Ago: “rawr. rawr rawr rawr rawr rawr. rawr? rawr rawr rawr? rawr.” and because it’s a Terrence Malick-style monologue, it would all be done in a whisper.

I’m kinda glad that I didn’t grow up going to Catholic school, otherwise I’d be an atheist today for sure. Instead, I’m in that non-committal area — agnosticism — and when you get right down to it, it’s so much more fun to not be sure. Otherwise I’d be like one of those assholes on either side who has an answer to everything and is Just So Fucking Sure that they’re right, even though a dot of doubt surely rests somewhere in that soul of theirs. Because when you get right down to it, who the fuck knows? There are no good solid answers to me, just a betting sheet with different horses and their varying odds, and a lack of willingness to bet everything and Let It Ride.

Shit man, we might not know why we’re here or who made us, but the one thing we know for sure is that Love is always a good thing to have and to give. Without that, without just living your life and appreciating the things you have (the things you know — the fuckin’ things you know for sure) then there really is no point to your existence, you’re just a robot passing time, meaningless and sad (much like my blog in general).

It’s all just a fuckin’ mystery and the more you spend trying to figure it out, the less time you have to appreciate the shit that you know is real — like, every tangible fucking thing that you can see right in fuckin’ front of you: the beauty of nature, the wonders of Netflix Instant, the deliciousness of a Chicago-style pizza, and if there’s room, the love and companionship of your family & friends. That seems to be what Penn’s mom is saying when she says something to the effect of “life flashes by, unless you love”, because you’re throwing away some perfectly Good Times when you try to live life as Mr. Hard.

I think that’s who Brad Pitt’s character represents. I know the credits call him Mr. O’Brien, but Mr. Hard is what he acts like. He’s not an evil fucked-up dude, he’s just strict, and I think one of his flaws is that he thinks love is something that can be demanded and scheduled like a weekly chore. He tells his kids to kiss him or give him a hug in the same manner that he asks them to pull weeds from the lawn, then he wonders why the kids favor the mother. The poor guy, he loves to play piano and you find out later that his is one of those lives where he chose Making A Living over Doing What You Love, and you get the feeling that sometimes all this guy looks forward to after a day of work is sitting on his chair and listening to his Brahms albums. To his credit, he encourages his children to follow their dreams and not let anyone tell them otherwise.

It’s kind of a running theme in a Malick joint, this battle between dualities; you have Jesus Christ and Sean Penn (and Elias Koteas and Nick Muthafuckin’ Nolte) in The Thin Red Line duking it out — it’s Live Life With Love & Compassion vs. Fuck That Shit, You Gotta Do Some Cold Shit To Get By and they’re both right. There’s the fuckin’ rub. Life is ugly, but it’s also beautiful, and it’s kind of like God’s twisted pay-per-view amusement to see what his creations decide to do about it, which way they decide to Get Through This. Malick’s all like “Man, thanks for the free will, but goddamn it’s hard to be a good dude in a world of bad motherfuckers.”

Here at the Young Sean Penn household, you have a one-parent-is-cool-while-the-other-parent-is-kind-of-a dick dynamic: You have Mrs. O’Brien (aka Miss Grace), this pretty ethereal lady with her loving & caring ways, then you have Mr. O’Brien (aka Mister Nature) coming in to hit the boys with a dose of Man Up, This Is The Real World whenever he enters the picture. Mr. O’Brien is the kind of guy who will send you to your room without dinner, while Mrs. O’Brien would probably sneak you a plate and make you promise that you won’t do that again. Mrs. O’Brien would wake you up by gently rocking you awake, while Mr. O’Brien would just yank the blanket off of you. Mrs. O’Brien parents like this, while Mr. O’Brien parents like this. Black people drive like this, white people drive like this.

Anyway, because we’re human beings capable of doing both good and bad things, we do both, and sometimes we forget about the things we did, and sometimes we don’t and we’re haunted by it as a result. Even worse, more often than not, it’s usually those we love that are the victims of the rank shit we sometimes pull. Is Malick telling us this? I don’t think so, I don’t think he’s pulling some lame Mt. Olympus bullshit, like Look At You Lame Humans With Your Frailties, he’s definitely just as guilty of this shit as the rest of us and The Tree of Life (all of his movies, really) is basically him wondering/confessing out loud and projecting that shit in 35mm and charging us $12.50 at a theater that used to be my homie, used to be my ace.

I remember reading in Jewfro’s book “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” that Malick grew up with 2 brothers in Texas, and that his father worked in the oil business (that’s funny, Penn’s character has a very similar upbringing) and that one of his brothers went to Spain to study guitar with the guitar-playing equivalent of Pei Mei. Anyway, I guess Malick’s brother thought he wasn’t good enough or Spanish Guitar-Playing Pei Mei’s cruel tutelage was too much for him, because he later broke BOTH OF HIS FUCKING HANDS.

So Malick’s father e-mailed (or whatever it was they did to communicate back in the 60’s) Terrence to go over to Spain and make sure the dude was all right, and I don’t know, help him wipe his ass or scratch his nose. Terrence was like “Nope, I know he’s my brother and he ain’t heavy but fuck that guy, I ain’t carrying shit.” Cut to some time later, and Malick’s father contacts Terrence again and tells him, “Yeah, I went over to see your brother, oh and by the way, just a little FYI for ya, I’m bringing back his body because he killed himself.” So yeah, it’s obvious none of this real-life shit inspired this movie, I’m sure. I don’t know why I even brought it up.

There’s a line of inner monologue involving Young Sean Penn getting all Book of Job with God. The kid just witnessed another kid die from drowning, then he saw the anguished mother scream in tears, so to God he’s all like “Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. So why should I be good, if you’re not?” Lady and gentleman, I came thisfuckingclose to sobbing in that goddamn theater when I heard that, because as much as I’d love to be the cool motherfucker who never had similar thoughts fill my head, as much as I’d like to admit that I don’t question Whoever The Fuck Is In Charge up there about such shit on a frighteningly daily fuckin’ basis, I’m not and I do.

The Book of Job was definitely one of my favorite parts of the Bible (like The Prestige, the Job section is really intriguing until the disappointing ending), back when I tried to fool myself as a kid by attending Sunday School, back when I had that extra bounce in my young steps, back when I didn’t question anything but believed everything. Now, I’m more of a fan of that book because the guy’s name sounds like Will Arnett’s character from that awesome show that got cancelled, once again compelling me to ask God: “Why oh why?”

Some people are complaining about what they see as an overly-simplistic message in this film, like if somehow being a simple message disqualifies it from being true and worth saying — because it is true and it sure as fuck is worth saying. Then you have those calling Malick pretentious and if I was a complete piece-of-shit (I’m only 82% shit), I’d find out what movies those motherfuckers love and call those movies pretentious. I really don’t consider Malick pretentious — if anything, his joints are dripping with the purest uncut and non-cynical sincerity and that’s part of why I love his films. I’d throw the “love” word towards The Tree of Life, but I need a second viewing of any movie before I use the L-word, and by L-word, I mean Lesbian, obviously. As of now, I will settle for calling this movie Fan-fucking-tastic and Phe-fucking-nomenal — typical Malick, in other words.

I could tell you that the movie is masterfully-crafted and beautifully shot (Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki! Raza!), but to say that about a Terrence Malick film is like telling you that the sky is blue, water is wet, and women have secrets (and ol’ Satan Claus, Jimmy, he’s out there and he’s just getting stronger). I also noticed in the end credits (which should’ve started with “You just got your shit owned by TERRENCE FUCKING MALICK” rather than the usual “written and directed by” credit) that there were five credited editors for this flick. Goddamn, the last time I took notice of that many editors being credited in a movie, it was for Street Fighter, which proves the indisputable fact that cinematic masterpieces require more than 3 people to cut ’em.

Listen man, I know I’m a Terrence Malick fanboy and that Malick’s an acquired taste for many and your mileage may vary. But I’m gonna take a guess and say that if you dug his other works, you’ll dig this one. If you didn’t like his other movies, then don’t even fuckin’ bother, man. Go see X-Men: First Class — and then tell me how it was, because I want to see that shit too but I have a feeling there would be a higher probability of texting in that audience, and I’m just too hyper-sensitive for the real world and would rather just wait for the Blu-ray.

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