Gosford Park: No Downton Abbey

Gosford-Park

I began watching Julien Fellows’ Gosford Park with high hopes. After all, I love Downton Abbey and Fellows won the Oscar for this screenplay.

I was disappointed. Sorely. Despite an all star cast, Gosford Park lacked a single character I found charming or likable. There was one Scottish maid who seemed mousy but nice. She wasn’t enough to carry a film of this length. The characters all came off as cold, greedy and indolent. The upperclass people spent money like water and had nothing but disdain for each other and got no joy from their money.

The downstairs servants weren’t much better. Though not as spoiled they were all out for themselves in a different way. No warmth at all. They just wanted to get their work done with as little fuss as possible. Anyone who upset their system was glared and scoffed at.

One theme that rose was how the servants felt overshadowed by their employers. I can see that, but the grass isn’t always greener. If they worked in offices, their lives would also be precarious and as one of my new colleagues asserts if you work for one company for a long time, that company forms your identity to a great extent. So if they traded their apron for a factory uniform it’s not sure that they’d be happier or more secure.

Sexual harassment was rampant as the lord of the manor couldn’t keep his hands to himself, but in a store, office or factory women run into that too.

For the first 75 minutes we see rich people bicker, whinge and finagle for money. Now and then someone says something they think is droll and smokes a cigarette. Then the plot picks up when the lord who’s a churl gets murdered. Yet the investigation is so incompetently carried out that I just couldn’t buy it. In the end we do learn who did it, but by then I barely cared.

Fellows sure deepened his understanding about character and plot by the time he started Downton Abbey.

tree of life

Avoid this film at all costs. Again, avoid this film at all costs.

Where to begin? How about with some adjectives? Esoteric, narcissistic, limited, painful, dull, inane, impressionistic, arcane, wasteful, provincial, miserable, . . .

I was duped into seeing Tree of Life since Roger Ebert gave it four stars. Other critics praised it too. (Are they on drugs?) Moreover, I feel so guilty for bringing a friend to this. Luckily, we’re old friends and she knows me well enough to forgive this error.

As Ebert mentions there’s a resemblance to 2001 Space Odyssey. That should have been my tip off. I didn’t enjoy that film, which I saw when I was about 7. Yet 2001 has some memorable moments and lines that have fit into our culture:

Dave Bowman: Open the pod bay doors, HAL.
HAL: I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.

[HAL’s shutdown]
HAL: I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.
Dave Bowman: Yes, I’d like to hear it, HAL. Sing it for me.
HAL: It’s called “Daisy.”
[sings while slowing down]
HAL: Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.

Okay, back to the dreaded Tree of Life. It’s an impressionistic mess that begins with a quotation from the Book of Job. Then I believe we saw images that present a woman who looks about 30 who learns of the death of her 19-year-old son. We see family members react in impressionistic disconnected mini-scenes showing grief.

I kept waiting ever so patiently for a story to form. It never did. Since there’s no narrative, I’m not quite certain if I’m getting the order right.

At some point in the beginning we see a Sean Penn as a weathered architect dealing with grief and general nihilism. We see cool screen-saver type images of the universe’s creation. We jump from colored gases and a few planets (not earth though) existing to one species of dinosaurs ambling about a lush river area.

Well, as we all know nothing of much consequence happened between the dinosaurs and the 1950s and the birth I assume of this director, so let’s jump to that point in history. Obviously, this film is a confused attempt to make sense of his little troubles.

Fleeting images, all with little or no context, of a day at the beach, an argument, a meal, a game, an unfortunate encounter with a clown and what have you pass by.

At one point my friend whispered that she thought the writer/director had ADHD. I wholeheartedly agreed.

After enduring more scenes, I resigned myself to the fact that no narrative would ever come. No matter how much I wished it would. I was so bored that while I took in the parade of images, I tried to figure out what would drive a man to make this kind of film. My current theory is ADHD and autism. There’s no way a person who’s normally situated in society can come up with this dreck. One has to be living in a kind of bubble that makes it impossible to really interact with others.

Throughout the whole thing there’s never anything that I’d call a real conversation. People talk at each other in a way that is so unreal. It’s as if Martians made a documentary about life in middle America in the 1950s and got everything wrong.

There was not one scene in this film that was essential. An editor could randomly take out a whole half hour at any point and you’d have a better movie since the only way to make this film better is to make it shorter.

Get this:

An Italian cinema showed the film for a week with the first two reels switched. Even though the film starts with production logos, no one in the theater noticed and thought it was all part of Terrence Malick’s “crazy editing style”. Source: imdb.com

A friend recently wrote to me about a book he read and said, “It’s really not a book, but rather a collection of snippets, the notes one takes to prepare to write a book.” Tree of Life fits that description. No coherence at all despite the common understanding that humans create coherence as easily as they eat or walk. If we had a scene with cavemen one of the most profound post-dinosaur achievements would be the story.

The nihilistic theology was just pathetic. After watching the film for about an hour, I really didn’t care that the teenager had died. I did think we’d eventually hear how he died, but we don’t and it really doesn’t matter. People die every day. Why not this kid? I never cared about any of these characters as I felt so aware that I was watching a film. It’s like you’re studying a life form under a microscope.

From some of the patches of this crazy quilt we know that the family prays and goes to church. We don’t know much about what they believe or if they totally misunderstand the faith. The film is kind of about why bad things happen to good people. It’s a pitiful, lazy 2 hour 18 minute attempt to deal with that while playing with cinematography. From what I can discern, according to writer/director Terrence Malick, the purpose of life is to go to heaven, a crowded beach where people meander aimlessly about in dresses and business suits. Wait, maybe the purpose is to dream about the beach. There’s no place to sit. The main thing is to wear uncomfortable clothes there. The big joy in this heaven is getting to smile at someone we recognize. (I’ve had more “blissful” commutes to work when I’ve happened upon an acquaintance on the train. At least then, I’m allowed to chat. On Malick’s heaven everyone keeps roving.)

Only people who lived in the U.S. in 1950s are this heaven. Bizarre? What religion is that exclusive?

It’s as if the only scripture available to Malick were scraps of the Old Testament, completely out of order.

(What was interesting was that I was listening to a pastor on the radio taking questions as I drove to my friend’s house. A caller brought up the question of pain and the pastor acknowledged the difficulty of understanding why bad things happen to good people. He went on to explain that Christians see that God’s Son was perfect and he took on an agonizing death for us. His sacrifice and pain was far worse, and less deserved than ours. Moreover, Christians don’t believe in a dull afterlife. And Christians do try to view this question in light of Christ’s life and other Biblical events.

These characters are supposed to be Christian, and I know solid theology isn’t available everywhere, but really. Is this the extent of the director’s understanding? He couldn’t try more? It doesn’t appear that he tried to find any smart Christians and listen to what they might know. Just slothful. Pick up C.S. Lewis and research a little. That’s the least one could do.)

I assume the boy died in a war. That’s hard for a family to take, but it’s not a surprise that he’d die. He’s in a war. So why would you think, “Why my son?” That’s what happens in war. It’s no mystery.

I wasn’t quite sure which boy died or who Sean Penn was playing. It seems he was the older brother that we see as a kid of 3 and later as a preteen. I have no idea why we only see the characters during these years. Certainly other years were more important. I wasn’t sure that the older brother wasn’t the one who died.

I noted an error. The father traveled to China for his mysterious gray flannel suit business. I don’t think so since in the 1950s when China was in the midst of turmoil and the U.S. was rounding up Reds, Americans couldn’t visit China! Nope, not till after Nixon went in the 70s. More evidence that the writer was out of it and lazy. Check your facts, Terrence.

By the way, Brad Pitt plays a confused, angry father. You’ve seen this type a thousand times. Don’t expect any nominations for any awards for that performance. God knows why he took this role. I pity anyone who had to spend time on this heavy, lethargic, meandering film.

It’s really as if a film school professor told his first year students to make something ethereal using a Midwestern family of 5 in the 1950s. Everyone did whatever they wanted. No one crafted a story. The professor then took the scenes edited them in a random order and interspersed his own scenes about the universe and a dinosaur film that he had from a film he never finished.

This is certainly not a film for anyone outside the U.S. or perhaps the little town of Texas, where it’s set. The title Tree of Life, just does not fit with the director’s provincial outlook.

I’m sure the budget for this movie could have been spent on a couple better films that could be more profitable.