Michael Koresky on Maidan and The Tree of Life
Two shots, for your consideration:
The first comes exactly one hour into director Sergei Loznitsa’s 2014 Maidan. Loznitsa’s epic yet detached film documents the people’s uprising in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (a.k.a. Independence Square) following President Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a Ukraine-European association agreement, in favor of deepening ties with Russia, which ultimately led to his ouster. Until this point, Maidan has been a stringent, visually rigid work of cinematic witnessing. Throughout, the camera remains not just static but locked down in position. Within extended single takes, the viewer is left to scan the unmoving frame, absorb the meaning of the incidents happening within it: observational cinema in its most literal interpretation. What we see is increasingly dramatic and tumultuous, major world events recorded and unfolding right before our eyes, but Loznitsa’s camera remains immobile, transfixed, studious. The film moves forward chronologically, so clearly Loznitsa had a rigorous aesthetic approach in mind from the outset. But then here, at the nearly exact midpoint, something happens, and the camera can no longer stand still. The rioters have grown in number, the armed police have multiplied. We are situated within another elegantly composed frame: a man wanders through it, picks up a brick, decides against it, tosses it off gently, and walks out of frame. But then a man dressed alarmingly in red, and carrying a camera runs swiftly by, his voice off-screen exclaiming, “They are shooting at journalists! Scoundrels!” Loznitsa’s camera suddenly does the unexpected: it moves, rapidly pivoting to catch what’s going on behind it. When it finds the tumult it’s been looking for, it repositions and finds its frame again, but not before swooning and nearly falling. We’re now fixed on a line of geared up, shielded riot police. The reporter in red is on the side of the frame, coughing and doubling over from tear gas. The film regains its composure, but it’s now forever rattled, unstable, and nervous.
The second shot comes about forty minutes into Terrence Malick’s 2011 The Tree of Life, a film made up of extended, compartmentalized movements, like those in an orchestral composition. We’re currently in what we might call the third movement, following the film’s introductory passage, which established the narrative’s unifying framework of retrospective mourning for a death that forever ruptured a family, and the second movement, the majestic origins-of-the-universe sequence instigated by the film’s mother figure (Jessica Chastain) questioning God in the face of unimaginable loss (“Lord, why? Where were you?”). Now we’re ostensibly back in the realm of character, though in a radical manner, with Malick racing through a number of years in the life of a family in 1950s Texas. We rapidly see the courtship of Chastain and her husband, played by Brad Pitt; the birth of their first child, Jack; then his two younger brothers, blooming in quick succession, all of it shown largely wordlessly and in quick fragments, as though life is flashing before our eyes. Malick is establishing a consuming grace throughout, most of it flowing from Chastain’s character, who seems to all but float through every scene (literally in one case), a becalmed constant in a fast-moving world. She is so attuned to beauty of the nature in fact, that at one point a butterfly lands on her hand. Unlike a Disney princess, Chastain is no drawing, so this really happened. The report from the set, however apocryphal, is as follows: according to second assistant cameraman Jeremy Rodgers, while the cast and crew was getting ready one morning,
“Terry suddenly noticed a butterfly. It wasn’t uncommon for him to get excited over things like a bird perched on a tree branch and want to film them. So we followed the butterfly through three blocks of Smithville. Jessica gracefully stepped out into the middle of the street, backlit by the morning sun. She held her hand out and the butterfly came full circle and landed directly on it.”
In an interview, Chastain also refers to the moment: “I could not believe we captured that. A butterfly has never before in my life landed on my hand.” It’s the sort of thing one can try and plan, but one cannot truly control nature. Call it the magic of movies if you want, but what’s really going on here is an alert camera, making sure to keep pace with events as they’re unfolding. The butterfly landing on Jessica Chastain reminds us that even in a seemingly controlled fictional universe, uncontrollable reality keeps intruding beautifully.
It would be evident even to a child that Maidan and The Tree of Life are films with very little in common. Arguably both may seek to cleanse the viewer through some kind of aesthetic rigor, yet generically, formally, even spiritually, they exist at opposite poles of filmmaking. Loznitsa’s film grinds you down, while Malick’s seeks to lift you up. The former is what most people would call a documentary, while just about no one would consider the latter—a dreamlike, fragmentary period drama that features cameos from dinosaurs—as such. The gulf between their approaches is just as wide as their typical categorizations, with Maidan grimly holding vigil over history as it’s being made, and The Tree of Life fancifully rocketing through the universe as it may have been created. Yet the two shots in question reveal something similar—and inextricable—about the moviemaking apparatus, that the camera can only capture whatever reality is put in front of it, however manipulated or contrived that reality may be.
The Belarus-born Sergei Loznitsa, now fifty-one, has spent his career thus far shuttling between nonfiction and fiction work, features and shorts, but as is often true of any committed artist, there are emotional and visual commonalities threading his films together. His fulminating first narrative feature, My Joy (2010), a nightmarish journey through the violent social disorder that Loznitsa sees as underlying the bureaucratic structures of contemporary Russia, may have been scripted and acted, but it feels as though it belonged on the same continuum as the director’s earlier documentary shorts—like The Train Stop (2000) and Portrait (2002)—in the way it captures the weathered faces and spirits of the people, from his doomed protagonist to random folk who wander past (and often stare into) the camera, as though the filmmakers just happened to be there to partake of their disillusionment. In the Fog (2012), his World War II drama and most melodramatic film to date, plays with chronology and unfolds in a literate, Dostoevskian manner, yet nevertheless uses its camera in such a way that it often appears to be playing catch up with the characters and violence onscreen; Loznitsa the observer always is present. Even his remarkable recent film The Event (2015), which captures the attempted 1991 coup in St. Petersburg that tried to overthrow Gorbachev and Yeltsin, feels like an authorial statement despite the fact that it’s entirely made up of found footage. At every moment of this extraordinary discovery, you can feel Loznitsa relating to the viewer his astonishment that these images exist: look, the camera was there!
Maidan uses the camera to do what many documentaries do: to narrativize, and thus harness and subdue reality. By keeping the camera so intransigent throughout—save the one crucial moment outlined above—Loznitsa is allowing us to look at and define history as it’s unspooling before our eyes. We’re not just watching, we’re given the space to interpret and contextualize events, and since they’ve been captured for posterity as much as artistry, the film will likely have the same power, perhaps even more, twenty, thirty, fifty years from now, when these incidents prove to have been either the beginnings of a larger revolutionary shift in the Ukraine or the last gasps of a society as it’s further ground down by a re-ascendant neighboring superpower. Loznitsa wants us to consider, but he also wants us to engage. A documentarian first and fictional filmmaker second, perhaps, but only in terms of career trajectory: Loznitsa has consistently proven that he cannot be defined as one or the other, delineating the boundaries of narrative where he sees them.
The 72-year-old Oklahoman Terrence Malick, on the other hand, has never been thought of as anything other than a fiction filmmaker, directing films that in their most reductive forms could be called true crime drama (Badlands), period melodrama (Days of Heaven), action war epic (The Thin Red Line), and historical romance (The New World); although they of course explode such conventions, these first four films of his career, each extraordinary and atypical of these genres in almost every meaningful way, more or less follow an accessible pattern not wholly alien to watchers of American cinema. The Tree of Life, a personal passion project decades in conception, was the first hint that Malick was moving away from such traditional modes of cinematic narrative, pushing into realms of expression that could fairly incorporate a fictional framework and freeform experimentation in terms of camera and editing. Strictly designed and structured though it may be, The Tree of Life is greatly made up of scenes in which cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera allows the actors to just be, to just move; the camera is exploring the world of its characters rather than trapping them within existing parameters and defining what that world is. When he was first asked to shoot the film, Lubezki says Malick “sent me a general outline of what the movie was, and we had a meeting where he talked about what the story meant for him and how he wanted to shoot the movie. He said, ‘If you want to read the script you can, but you don’t have to—in fact, it might be better if you don’t, so you can act like a documentary filmmaker and come onto the locations and capture these ideas we’ve been talking about.’”
This new aesthetic direction seems to have become a mission for Malick, whose subsequent films, To the Wonder (2012) and Knight of Cups (2015), moved even further to shift narrative expectations for the sake of visual exploration, creating something like a series of spontaneous ballets between the camera and its subjects, abstracting character and actor alike. Reliant on postproduction voiceover and featuring very little sync sound, both films are constructed of scenes shot on the fly and refuse to follow set patterns found in the blueprint of screenwriting. He also allows for the incorporation of non-actors—neighborhood denizens and townsfolk—into his most recent films, resulting in moments of on-the-fly interaction, which we are able to glimpse before they’re quickly gone. In these ways, Malick has become something more like what we would traditionally call a documentary filmmaker. Even The Tree of Life’s creation-of-the-world sequence—to be explored further in Malick’s Voyage of Time IMAX experience—has a a kind of “instructional” doc outline, which might help explain why some consider it somehow didactic. Yet it feels of a piece with the film’s more off-the-cuff sequences in that his scenes are more about the core truth of what you’re watching than narrative momentum. In these films, which have alienated many viewers, style and scripted emotional signposts are trumped by movement and innate emotional truth: perhaps his films are less about human beings than about humans being. His three most recent films seem to be aesthetically driven by a kind of spirituality tied to Buddhism; their characters attempt to attain a supreme inner peace, one that cannot be faked by the manipulations of screenwriting and cause-and-effect editing.
The camera creates the frame in which an entire world can exist. It’s a tiny window, really, but its walls are imaginary and limitless. Beyond its boundaries, we know there is something else always happening. Or about to happen. Or which just happened. How those events are captured helps define any given film’s level of reality. A filmmaker, like Loznitsa, may use the camera to frame unscripted events in order to place them within understandable linear frameworks; another, like Malick, uses the camera to liberate ostensibly scripted events so that one can get at deeper truths behind the images. Maybe cinema exists somewhere in the middle. Maidan and The Tree of Life each reveal something about the spontaneity and alertness inherent in and necessary for cinema, even in aesthetically circumscribed situations. Something’s always happening, and the viewer has to be made a part of it. Loznitsa’s camera must know when to start moving; Malick’s has to know when to stop.