How the "X-Men" Stumbled on "The Tree of Life"

Usually I can crank out movie reviews with machine-like regularity. For the past two weeks, however, I've been stuck. There's no dearth of reviewable movies. I've seen two films I heartily recommend: Woody Allen's new romantic comedy Midnight In Paris and the latest superhero spectacular X-Men: First Class. I really loved both films.

Midnight in Paris is delightful. I recommend watching the film with as little knowledge of the plot as possible. It centers on an Owen Wilson character who longs to live in 1920s Paris and rub shoulders with Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, and Dali. He so idealizes the past that he misses the present. Like so many of Woody Allen's films, Midnight in Paris is an ecclesiastical parable about the importance of enjoying the life you live even in the midst of its hardships. It's a surprising, funny, poignant, and overwhelmingly joyful experience.

X-Men: First Class offers everything you could want in a summer superhero movie. The story follows the founding of the famous mutant league by its leader, Professor Xavier, and the maturing of their fiercest foe, Magneto. It is as much a spy or heist movie as it is a superhero flick. The actors embody their characters with conviction, and the script presses hard on the central dilemma of the mutants' struggle: Will mainstream society embrace those who are different, or will it seek to exploit or eliminate them? Professor Xavier maintains that the mutants and non-mutants can coexist in peace. It's easy to understand why Magneto disagrees. We all want to believe that mutual love and acceptance are possible, and yet we see it in action so rarely.

So why have I been unable to write reviews? The answer is simple: The Tree of Life. The film struck me so deeply and personally that I have trouble processing less moving films like Midnight In Paris or X-Men: First Class. I won't reiterate what I wrote in my review of The Tree of Life, but I want to examine how the film impacted me.

I saw my own story in Malick's deeply personal reflection on his childhood. Like Jack O'Brien, the man at the center of the film, I too was the firstborn of three brothers. I too have a younger brother who shares more visible interests with our father. I too have wondered whom my father loves more. My father does love me, deeply, but that is something I had to learn and accept, just as Jack does in the film.

I've spoken with others who saw the film but did not resonate with Jack's journey as I did. It is not a perfect film, but it is a profound one, a wonderfully layered, impressionistic canvas that makes possible multiple interpretations. Other movies seem lesser in comparison, and I have found myself less eager to engage with them.

That's the trouble with developing a taste for finer fare—one loses the taste for less complex films. I wish it were not that way, but it is. Engaging thoughtfully with anything develops one into a more discerning person. As I see and consider more films, I like—simultaneously—more and less of what I see. Three years ago I would not have been able to enjoy The Tree of Life. I had not developed those aesthetic taste buds.

By the same token, while I would have enjoyed X-Men: First Class more three years ago than I do now, I would not have been able to explain why. I notice more of the film's imperfections now, but I also appreciate more of its finer points. I must learn to be at peace with this. Like Owen Wilson's character in Midnight In Paris, I should learn to appreciate the good in the midst of the bad.

6/15/2011 4:00:00 AM
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    About Elijah Davidson
    Elijah Davidson is the Co-Director of Reel Spirituality at Fuller Seminary's Brehm Center for theology, arts and culture. Follow his reflections via Twitter, or at the Brehm Center blog and the Reel Spirituality website.