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WHAT DO I WANT FROM MOVIES? ("The Tree of Life" vs. "Love and Other Drugs")
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Laramie Eppler and Brad Pitt in "The Tree of Life."

I might even go farther and ask what do I want from any story? I happened to see two films this week, Terrence Malick's Palme d'Or-winning The Tree of Life and Edward Zwick's Love and Other Drugs, co-written with frequent partner Marshall Herskovitz and Charles Randolph. I liked both movies and yet I was frustrated by each. They made me examine what it is I want.

I went to The Tree of Life knowing I wasn't going to see an average movie. I came to admire Malick's Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World not for their rip-roaring plots--there are barely any storylines--but for their imagery. You have to watch his films letting each wash over you much in the way you do in a night at the planetarium.

The first words in the new film come in a voiceover, a woman telling us there are two ways to view the world: as nature or as grace. In short order, I'm witnessing incredible images, such as the dancing shadows of people, the beauty of skyscrapers against a blue sky, blood coursing through the smallest of veins, water cascading over a waterfalls, and the planet Mercury moving in front of the sun in such detail, you see the undulating surface of the burning orb. Grace and nature.

The bulk of the movie, however, captures moments in the life of the O'Brien family in Waco, Texas in the 1950s. Brad Pitt plays the loving yet controlling father of three young boys, joined by his nurturing wife (Jessica Chastain). Near the start of the film, she receives a telegram that says her son has been killed, which nearly cripples the audience in watching the knowledge knock her down. In voiceover, she asks, "Lord, why? Where are you?"

Then you go back about a decade to witness the son and his two brothers and their parents in various vignettes, such as one brother daring another to touch an empty light bulb socket with a hanger. Other moments accrue. Dad makes his oldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), close the screen door fifty times softly after Jack lets it slam. Jack sneaks into someone's house and steals a negligee, which he then feels so bad about, he hides it under a log in the woods, then just throws it in the river.

We spend much of the time with Jack, who under the surface seethes with anger as if trying to figure out why life is so damn frustrating. Sean Penn plays Jack as a middle-aged man, a successful architect who nonetheless seems swamped by angst. It's as if Malick in his imagery is looking for answers to why individually our lives are so vivid and yet unclear.

Love and Other Drugs shoots us back to traditional storytelling where each scene builds a plot and meaning while revealing character. College dropout Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) can sell things--first stereos as well as himself to beautiful women, then drugs as a pharmaceutical salesman. In trying to win over a scrip-writing GP (Hank Azaria) to prescribe Zoloft instead of Prozac, he meets Maggie (Anne Hathaway). Jamie and Maggie soon are in the sack (more accurately, the kitchen floor). Maggie has an early onset of Parkinson's, however, so will this lothario have anything to do with her after some easy sex?

And there's a lot of sex, the kind not seen in most American movies. It's not hardcore and I wouldn't even call it softcore because it is not about a way to sneak in nakedness but to examine character. Typically, American films show sex to indicate in prurient shorthand that someone has "scored."

Here, however, as in European films, the sex actually looks fun, and the participants laugh a lot. It's about breaking down barriers, not only emotional but temporal. They're living in the present--dasein, as philosopher Martin Heidegger called being present in existence.

In fact, where Love and Other Drugs meets The Tree of Life is in the unexpected after-sex moments where Jamie and Maggie just are, talking extemporaneously to the same video camera they used to film themselves having sex. These moments give glimpses of truth. The Tree of Life has such truth, however, in every frame of the Texas family, vignette after vignette, and this highlights what's wrong in many parts of Love and Other Drugs. So many scenes there feel untruthful.

This is what any director is fighting throughout a shoot. The act of filmmaking is about as alien and anti-real as can be. Lights pour onto the actors; assistant camera operators measure lens-to-actor distances for focus; an army of onlookers--gaffers, makeup artists, microphone boom operators, prop people and more--watch as bits of scenes are recorded and recorded again. Actors have to pretend no one else is around. If an eight-hour day translates to five minutes of film time, that's a lot.  

Director Malick shot a lot handheld, and whatever he told his cast brought so many honest and revelatory moments, it seems like a documentary. I realized, this is what I demand in my stories: verisimilitude. This is life.

Zwick, too, has a good eye for composition, yet many of his efforts bring an air of falseness.  How is it that Maggie, who has no health insurance, has a huge wad of money that she shows her doctor? She has her own huge loft apartment where she creates art that she apparently doesn't sell or display. She doesn't seem to have a paying job. Her hair is always gorgeous and her clothes, flattering.

Despite this, by the way, Hathaway makes her character alternately sure and vulnerable, scarred and scared. Despite her inherent beauty and her character's mysterious background, she's down-to-earth and likeable.

In overview, Love and Other Drugs has an interesting premise: what if the ultimate salesman, a guy who can get doctors to prescribe his pills and women to unsnap their jeans, finds himself actually wanting to be in a relationship, which is essentially doomed because his lover has a degenerative disease and she won't be self-sufficient, witty, and adept as he sees her now?

However, the Hollywood Moment comes crashing through too often. For instance, Jamie conveniently breaks up with Maggie to go to an orgy for the sake of his nerd brother Josh (Josh Gad). They have sex with suppliant supermodel women, scenes that indeed feel softcore, which have no effect on Jamie's life beyond his supposedly hilarious hard-on that won't go away (thanks to the Viagra he sells) and he has to go to the ER. It just fills the time until he can come across his videotape of Maggie post-sex, giving an honest moment.

He must have her back and, like Benjamin Braddock of The Graduate, he drives his sports car fast to get back his love. She's not getting married, but she's on a bus with old people. Such moments made me yearn for the truthfulness of Malick's characters.

Yet The Tree of Life too often seemed like Malick's own private Idaho with images and events that only have meaning for him. Nearly any time Sean Penn was on screen, I couldn't see how he did so well for himself--mansion, beautiful wife, soaring towers he seems to have designed. Toward the end, Penn wanders with his younger self and with the characters from the rest of his family. I wanted motivation, realization, character arc and more.

It made me wonder what if Malick had directed Love and Other Drugs? He would have spent just as much time in bed with Jamie and Maggie, but we'd see life go on outside--plums fall off a tree, perhaps, a skunk sniff a tabby cat, and the wind whisper in the trees. We'd see more of Jamie's torment--which is missing in this film--that is, if Jamie has any inner-self that can be tormented. What would be nice, though, is we'd still see the characters grow and have resolution.

Back in the other film, considering we're watching at times millions of years go by, Penn's character never resolves. None of the characters get old enough to reach any answers to their questions or even gain a sense of what Elizabeth Kübler-Ross describes in the stages of death where acceptance descends and the individual comes to terms with his or her mortality.

What if Zwick had directed The Tree of Life? Of course, out would go any imagery outside of the main characters--no dinosaurs or Jupiter's moons--but we might get more of what happened to the O'Briens later in life. We might see how some of these characters found peace even if life's meaning never became clear.

This all brought me back to what I'm trying to do as a writer. My early work tended to be more Malick than Zwick, where characters sometimes butted up against the natural world. When I was writing The Brightest Moon of the Century, I knew the novel had to end at the moment of the brightest moon of the 20th century, December 21, 1999, where a full moon occurred during the winter solstice, when the earth was closest to the sun. What did that mean? I didn't know until I wrote the book.

With my new novel, Love at Absolute Zero, I'd written five drafts where I really focused on moments that revealed physicist Gunnar Gunderson who, when he wasn't exploring what happens to atoms near absolute zero, was stuck trying to deal with his own carnal and emotional desires. I was fascinated not only by physics--the natural world explored and explained--but also with people and their psychology.

Before I wrote draft number six, I analyzed my story's structure and considered how to make it more involving. I cut, I created, I moved chapters around. Thus my Zwick met my Malick.

With Love at Absolute Zero only going to reviewers now, I'll soon see how successful I was. I have to say, I loved the challenge. This all shows, too, how difficult it is to create something magical--but that's what I want.

-- Chris, www.chrismeeks.com

Love At Absolute Zero publishes September 17th but is available now on the Nook and on the Kindle. For the latter, click here.