TREE OF LIFE
My parents believed that children who got straight As and attended Ivy league schools had only two possible future professions: doctor or lawyer. That’s what they owed society. So when my parents saw 10 graduate school applications neatly laid out on the diningroom table during the fall of my senior year of college, they can be forgiven for asking, in hopeful tones “When do you plan to take the LSAT?” It took my parents years to get over this. You can imagine how excited I was when my mother developed an interest in the cinema, the focus on my PhD.
Her cinephilia started not too long after an independent theater, The Midtown Cinema, opened up in her city (which also coincided with her retirement from politics). There she could go and see “art” films like Mulholland Drive (2001, David Lynch) in their initial release. She also got into the habit of calling me after going to see one of those art films — because if I wasn’t going to be a doctor (meaning, the “real” kind), then at least I could help her understand what the hell was going on in Adaptation (2002, Spike Jonze). That was a fun conversation.
I am always impressed that my mother wants to discuss the films that challenge her. For example, after going to see Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan), she left the following message on my voicemail: “Honey, your father and I just saw Inception. We have A LOT of questions.”
Perhaps the best thing about my mother’s cinephilia is her pithy, honest responses to them. Her critiques generally match up with what the professional critics have to say. And she sees enough of the new releases to have a solid understanding of the contemporary cinematic landscape. She can tell when a film is being manipulative (like War Horse [2011, Steven Speilberg]) and when it is being subtle. Her one blind spot is experimentation. My mother doesn’t like films that are “too weird” or that steer too far away from conventional cinematic language. For example, she really enjoyed The Artist (2011, Michel Hazanavicius), which, with its lack of sound, can certainly be labeled as “experimental.” But she hated Tree of Life (2011, Terence Malick). We have discussed her hate for this film on several occasions. I think she is actually mad at Terence Malick for making this film and for luring her into the theater to see it.
For the last few years my mother has also made a point of trying to see all of the films nominated for awards. In fact, there are many Oscar seasons when she has a far more informed opinion of the year in film than I do. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to have my mother, amateur film buff, give you some of her 2012 Oscar picks. I sent her a list of questions via e-mail, and then I called her and we discussed them.
Before we get to the interview, allow me to tell you a little bit about my mother, in order to contextualize some parts of our conversation. She is 69-years-old, born and raised in Pennsylvania. She received her BA as well as her MA in education from Shippensburg University. When she first moved to Harrisburg as a young, single woman, she taught public school, but quit teaching when I was born. Then, when I was about 8 years-old she ran for Register of Wills in Dauphin County, a position she held for 4 years. After that she was a Dauphin County Comissioner for 12 years. My father, who she was married to for 43 years, passed away over the holidays, so she is also a recent widow. My mom wanted me to add that she has “two wonderful children” and “four beautiful grandchildren.” So there you go.
Below is a transcript of our conversation, with my questions appearing in bold-face. The portions of the text appearing in brackets are my later additions/corrections to the interview.
Which of the films nominated for Best Picture Oscars have you seen so far?
I’ve seen every nominee except for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (2011, Stephen Daldry), Hugo (2011, Martin Scorsese), and Moneyball (2011, Bennett Miller).
Out of the Best Picture nominees, which films were your favorite? And can you tell me why these films were your favorite?
The film that I thought was the best was The Artist. It was just incredibly watchable even though it was a silent film. It was very unique in the way it was done, with a little bit of sound but mostly silent. It was just fascinating to watch. I loved it.
Did you think going to see a silent film would not be enjoyable?
I don’t think I would have gone to see it at all if I hadn’t read the reviews. It didn’t sound appealing. Although I do prefer subtitles because of my hearing problem.
You mean intertitles? Yeah, it’s probably better for you if you can read the dialogue.
A lot of my friends weren’t interested in seeing [The Artist] at all. So I’m glad it was playing in Greenville when I was visiting you.
And why weren’t they interested? Because it was silent?
Yeah they just thought it was too weird to go in and watch a movie like that.
Now you also told me about how much you liked The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne).
Yes. But as far as Best Picture, The Artist was special. It will definitely win the Best Picture award. [she pauses] But I’ve been wrong before.
Out of the Best Picture nominees, which films were your least favorite? Can you explain why?
My least favorite was Midnight in Paris (2011, Woody Allen).
I didn’t like it at all. Do you want to know my second least favorite is?
First I want to know why you didn’t like Midnight in Paris.
It was very disjointed. It went back and forth in time so much that it lost me. I thought the acting was terrible.
Who did you think was terrible?
The guy. Whatever his name was. I didn’t like him.
[she is referring to Owen Wilson]
It was almost a tie for me with Tree of Life. I just didn’t care for [Tree of Life] at all.
[we both start laughing]
Did you ever see it?
Yes, I saw it last weekend.
What did you think?
I liked it.
I didn’t like it. I think the film made me very uncomfortable.
It was such a depressing film because of the character played by Brad Pitt. I was constantly feeling sorry for the children and the wife. And that whole surreal scene on the beach? Where they were all going wherever they went? That was strange.
What about the first 15 minutes of the film? Where the director shows the evolution of life on Earth? What did you think of that?
Totally lost me. Went over my head. Wasn’t for me. That is never going to get Best Picture. Ever.
When I was watching the beginning of Tree of Life, I knew to expect that kind of opening because I had read about it. As somebody who went in to see that movie, and wasn’t expecting 15 minutes of almost abstract images and no plot or characters, what was that like for you?
I wasn’t expecting it. I just didn’t get it. It was just uncomfortable. I didn’t care for it. It was a film without any light moments. I really firmly believe that a director has to have a little bit of brightness in a movie. It can’t be all depressing and weird.
Even The Descendants — with that serious topic — there were several really funny, light moments that made the viewer relax a little bit. I don’t think a film should be all of one type…I don’t know how else to express it.
Which actors, in your opinion, gave the best performances?
Definitely George Clooney. I love the way — and I’m not a fan of his — but I loved the way it was such a real performance as far as a father dealing with two young daughters, and what they were feeling with their mother in a coma. And then his wife, who was in a tragic accident, dealing with that. And dealing with his business. It was extremely believable. And then his reaction when he found out his wife was having an affair.
And he did provide the sadness, and the very deep part of the whole film — making the decision to let this poor soul pass away [she is referring to the character who is on life support]. And at the same time he finds a relationship with his girls.
Did you find that you related to George Clooney’s character, given that you were faced with with an eerily similar situation back in December? Did you find any parallels?
No. Not really. I didn’t shed a tear like you did.
[correction: I cried for the duration of the film]
Watching this film and watching how another family dealt with the same situation… It was sort of comforting in a way, in the way the doctor told him [that his wife would never wake up]. They didn’t hesitate. They had to do it.
Did that make you feel better?
Yeah. In a way. Now what about best actress?
Who is your pick?
Absolutely Meryl Streep. If she doesn’t win, I give up. That’s ridiculous. I mean she was just…did you see it?
No. I haven’t seen it.
Well, she is the Iron Lady. You know, there was a lot of criticism about portraying this woman in her later years, when she had dementia, not when she was in top form.
But I thought it was very difficult to play the role as [Meryl Streep] did. Because the times she was in the public eye, she had to act normal and then she’d go home and be sitting on the couch talking to her husband, who wasn’t there.
Did you relate this character in any way? Since you were also a woman who held public office?
No, because I don’t have Alzheimer’s.
One of my favorite parts was a flashback where she was interviewed and wearing this hat. After it was over her consultants told her she had to get rid of the hat. And she was “Why should I?”
[note: here my mother attempts to imitate Merly Streep imitating Margaret Thatcher but she sounds more like Meryl Streep imitating Julia Child. Yes, it is awesome]
I can remember those kinds of meetings. Like remember when I went to one of your softball games while wearing a suit and heels?
I don’t remember that.
Afterwards there was this was a poll in the newspaper. And some woman said I was “uppity” because I wore a suit and heels to my daughter’s softball game.
But I was talking to Dr. Garcia [my friend’s father] at that game and he was wearing a tie and jacket.
Oh my Gawd!
Is there anyone who was not nominated for best actor/actress or best supporting actor/actress who you feel was snubbed? I know you said you were angry that Leonardo DiCaprio was snubbed for his performance in J. Edgar (2011, Clint Eastwood).
Well after all the years of watching him and being such a fan of his incredible acting…I think his problem is — and this is just my opinion — I think he’s just too good-looking.
Well then what about George Clooney and Brad Pitt?
Right. I don’t get it. There have been actors in [Leonardo DiCaprio’s] situation. For example, Paul Newman never won an Academy Award. Fabulous actor. Great stuff. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, Richard Brooks).
[correction: Newman won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1987 for The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese)]
And the other one was, what’s his name? He does the Sundance stuff?
Robert Redford? Has he never won an Oscar?
He’s never won. Neither of them.
[Note: she is correct about Robert Redford, who has never won an Oscar for his acting]
I don’t know what’s going on with Leonardo. Frankly, when you look at Titanic (1997, James Cameron), what’s-her-name won Best Actress for that film. I think he was nominated and didn’t win, which is absolutely insane. I mean he was that film.
[correction: Kate Winslet was nominated and didn’t win. Leonrado DiCaprio was not nominated for Titanic. But I don’t think this invalidates my mother’s point. Kate was recognized, Leo wasn’t.]
Well, you also have a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio.
Yeah, I do.
And then in J. Edgar, I’m hoping you get to rent it, because he was magnificent in that film.
What made his performance great?
Because first of all, he became J. Edgar Hoover as you watched it. Number two, he showed this incredibly strange side that he had — this very manic thing he had with the law. But then, the film didn’t really come out and say that he was gay…
But it was implied…
There was this scene, where [J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson] are together and J. Edgar says “I think I have to get married.” And the other guy, I forget his name [Tolson], just goes beserk. They had this fight and start rolling on the floor, and then they kiss. And J. Edgar is absolutely furious about the whole thing. But that’s the way it was in those days. Whether he consummated an affair with that guy, nobody knows for sure.
The problem with the film, and I was very disappointed with Clint Eastwood because he is such a superb director, but I was disappointed with how [Leonardo DiCaprio] was young, then old, then young, then old…I didn’t like it.
Well, thanks for talking to me about movies, Mom.
I’ll get to read this?
So what do you think of my mom’s picks? Will The Artist win? Was Tree of Life simply “too weird”? Does anyone else’s mom have a crush on Leonardo DiCaprio?