Thursday, July 7, 2011

MY BEST GUESS: Casey Anthony and Social Media

I hope to make "My Best Guess" a regular posting. For my first, I am making the completely annoying move of commenting on what everyone seems to be commenting on: the Casey Anthony murder trial. Here's the question that keeps coming to mind when I read post after post on facebook about this trial-- why on earth do people care about this one case so much?

My best guess: the Casey Anthony trial is the perfect reflection of the current moment in our culture. I think that this trial combines social media, questions of justice, and social frustration about completely unrelated issues in our society together in a soupy mix of emotion. No matter how much the jurors of this trial insist upon the lack of evidence presented by the prosecution, millions of people will still be convinced of Casey Anthony's guilt in murdering her little girl. One of the biggest reasons (if not the biggest) for such widespread consensus on her guilt is the collection of pictures of Casey partying while her daughter was purportedly missing and in reality dead. This continues to surprise me because it seems deeply ironic. We usually assume 'social media' to be exhausted by Twitter and facebook but includes public sharing of our photos, including Photobucket, the website upon which Anthony's indiscrete images were shared and viewed. The irony comes when one considers that social media consistently facilitates behavior and comments for which people are not held accountable. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that there are some horrific things being said online about Casey Anthony herself, things that if said in person, in public, might be cause for arrest.

In terms of questions of justice, I think Americans feel the need to publicly (again, through social media) express their outrage about this case because it's an easy side to pick. "Porch Lights on for Caylee" is an easy thing to get behind. In this moment, we find ourselves part of a nation that has fought and continues to fight dubious wars in terms of justice, has been vehemently fighting over what is just for workers, and finds itself violently divided over what justice means for the body in the form of a healthcare debate. People want something to latch on to, something that allows them to pick a side and stand firmly within it--from the comfort of their keyboards, of course. It would be hard to deny the volatility of our current cultural moment, and recent politicking has taught people that they must pick a side and shout the other side down. The rub, of course, is that shouting doesn't work in a courtroom.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick's new film starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn left me underwhelmed, an ironic result given the film's attempt to overwhelm the viewer with images, cuts and its jolting lack of narrative. It won the Palme d'Or at Cannes (the festival's highest prize), and I think I know why. When people see a movie that is different in some remarkable way--and The Tree of Life certainly is that--they think they are supposed to like it. The Tree of Life has the added benefit of being about "the big questions," presenting a juxtaposition of the beauty and vastness of the universe with the beauty and grace of the nuclear family capped off with voiceovers asking simple (and yet somehow stilted) questions of what most would assume to be God.

The journey of the family's oldest son is set against the images of creation Malick provides in the first twenty or so minutes of the film. After a neighborhood boy drowns in front of him, the oldest son asks God, "If you're not going to be good, why should I?" From there he spirals into acts of boyhood mischief that draw him away from his family and ultimately, himself. The best part about this film is how Malick is able to convey the gravity of just one young person's rather common mistakes. In another film, for instance, a twelve year-old boy shooting his brother with a bb gun could have a completely different tone and purpose (my dad shot his brother in the leg with a bb gun and the story always seemed more hilarious than tragic). Malick manages to turn what some might dismiss as the trials of growing up into an interesting commentary on sin and redemption.

I appreciate the attention Malick pays in this film to the relationship between the mistakes we make (especially in our families) and the cosmos. The film lacks a driving narrative but manages to make the viewer care about what is happening in this one family. It moves from the particular to the universal and back again, presumably to highlight the space between feeling completely inevitable and utterly insignificant that form the poles of our searching for God.

So this review sounds favorable but I have some issues with this film. The first is that it should not have been a feature-length film. I think Malick could have done a beautiful, halting job in like an hour. Too many images in the beginning made it feel more like Planet Earth than anything and I was distracted by the form and began to question the content (judging only by the shifting of the people in their seats around me, I would say I'm probably not alone on this one).

Secondly, for me, the ending added little to what came before it in terms of sin and redemption. All the beach-walking and hugging reminded me of several moments in other films that I hate. What is awesome about the majority of the movie is what I mentioned above: Malick drawing the universe and the family in ways that puts them in the same cosmos. Personally, I think the other-worldly beachland verges on undermining the very space he creates in the rest of the film.

Overall it's worth seeing, if only so you'll be able to nuance the inevitable and uncritical cocktail party reviews.