Reel Life #32: The Tree of Life, Paprika, and The Bridge on the River Kwai

Between the surreal aesthetics of The Tree of Life and Paprika and the grittiness of The Bridge on the River Kwai, this has been a week of contrasts, to say the least.

The Tree of Life (Terrance Malick, 2011)

You know what? I’m disappointed in you, internet. I was going into this film expecting something ridiculously pretentious, and what I got was actually pretty good. Yes, The Tree of Life is an unabashed arthouse film and one could make a fairly defensible case that it is style over substance. It especially doesn’t appear to help that the plot is rather simple despite potentially going on for three hours and that an audience in France was shown the scenes out of order and nobody noticed. However, if you can get past all of that, you’ll be rewarded with an experience that I think can only be described as what would happen if somebody took the energy of 2001: A Space Odyssey and used it to spice up an otherwise mundane slice-of-life story. The results are better than it sounds.

So why didn’t this picture supposedly notorious for its pretentiousness manage to offend on that front? I think the simplest answer is that in the years since 2011, there have been countless directors who rammed up the pretentiousness to ridiculous levels on top of being either excessively preachy (First Reformed, High Life, etc.) or sophomorically edgy (Ex Machina, The Witch, etc.). On the back of that, The Tree of Life barely made a dent. Sure, The Tree of Life takes some refuge in its incomprehensibility, but it still manages to exclude a positive vibe at the end of the day. In a battle between the dreamer and the edgelord, the dreamer wins every time.

Paprika (Satoshi Kon, 2006)

We have ospreyshire to thank for drawing my attention to this film. A lot of people compare Inception to Paprika with some calling plagiarism on Christopher Nolan’s part. I can buy that artists would be looking outside of the medium for ideas because, let’s face it, the 2000s wasn’t an especially great decade for cinema (although weirdly, I find its best films tend to be better than the best films of the 2010s despite the latter arguably having a greater number of good films). I haven’t seen Inception in a while, so I couldn’t really make a judgement call on that, but if it’s one film that I find is very similar to Paprika, it would be Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Both films really capture that “Random stuff is happening, but I’ll just go along with it” feeling dreams have in how the impossibilities that occur start off innocuous enough before ramping the craziness up exponentially. With stellar animation borne from a deep imagination, and you have yourself a classic. Paprika was Satoshi Kon’s final film, and although I haven’t seen any of his other work, I can safely say he ended his career on a high note.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)

A lot of people (me included) thought that iconic whistling theme actually originated in this film. I was kind of surprised to learn that it was a real song sung in World War II, but it featured lyrics I had heard of. I just never made the connection until I read up about this film after the fact and learned that David Lean wanted the soldiers to sing the song as opposed to just whistling it (unfortunately, the producer wouldn’t let him put that in the film).

One might take that as a sign that The Bridge on the River Kwai is your typical, sanitized, 1950s-era depiction of the Second World War. Actually watching it reveals it to be the single least romantic film of its day. While it doesn’t go to Saving Private Ryan levels of grittiness, that it depicts a character whose romanticism gets the better of him as completely foolish while the one making rational decisions is one in the right makes it remarkably ahead of its time, almost acting as a rough precursor to Apocalypse Now. The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of those films that’s famous for being a beloved classic, and it’s a distinction well deserved.

17 thoughts on “Reel Life #32: The Tree of Life, Paprika, and The Bridge on the River Kwai

  1. Thanks for the shout-out and for checking out Paprika! That’s a worthy cinematic swansong for Satoshi Kon. I would strongly check out his whole directorial filmography and so many people have been inspired by him. I was also thankful to have seen Paprika before Inception came out which really helped in seeing the obvious comparisons.

    Of course, Christopher Nolan DID have identical scenes though…

    Liked by 2 people

    • You’re welcome! And thank you for the recommendation. I’m way ahead of you; I have Satoshi Kon’s entire body of work in my list of things to watch. The guy appears to have been a true visionary. A real shame he died when he did; he could’ve done so much more.

      I think it is possible those scenes were meant to be an homage, though I wonder why nobody came out and said it. Plus, when it comes to dreams, there are unusually common things between entirely different sets of people; many have had that one dream where they’re onstage and can’t remember their lines. I’m not sure if I’d consider Inception a ripoff, though because if what I recall of it is true, then it does go in a different direction with the idea; Paprika seemed to take cues from 8½ in how also managed to be a film about films whereas Inception placed a greater emphasis on its thriller elements. I will say that between the two films, I think Paprika was better.

      Along those lines, I can easily recommend The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; that’s another good film about dreams.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sure thing. Ooh! I’m looking forward to you reviewing the rest of his work. He really is a true visionary and anime auteur. I’m sure he would’ve had at least 6 more great films by now if he was still alive.

        It could be, but if it was an homage, they would’ve said something about it. Christopher Nolan should really come clean about that stuff especially with those scenes and core concepts with the dream machines or the convergence of dreams and reality. 8 1/2 is an interesting comparison not that I would say Paprika would rip that off. Movies does play a big part especially with Konakawa’s backstory or how Kon was challenging the notions of Hollywood. I did enjoy Paprika a lot more, too.

        Sweet. I’ll keep that movie in mind.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yeah, even after seeing just one of his films, I’m convinced of that. He died too young.

          If it was lifted from Paprika, I don’t get why they wouldn’t have said something about it; people are perfectly fine with homages. Hell, admitting it would be beneficial to the person who blazed the trail. Weirdly, I heard something similar happened with Black Swan in relation to Perfect Blue, so Mr. Kon certainly seems to inspire imitators. Must be the curse of being ahead of the curve.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I’m glad you see that with Satoshi Kon.

            I know, right? It makes sense as an homage when people are honest about where they got their ideas from. That would be very beneficial. Good point about the Black Swan/Perfect Blue issue. Sure, Darren Aronovsky bought the rights to Perfect Blue to recreate the “girl screaming in a bathtub” scene in Requiem for a Dream, but he should’ve been more open with his clear influence with Black Swan. He truly was an innovator albeit an underappreciated one outside of the anime fan circles.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t seen Paprika or Inception. Maybe now I’ll watch both one after the other. I’ve intended to watch Satoshi Kon’s movies, but haven’t gotten around to them, so now might be the time.

    I’d always heard The Tree of Life was ultra-pretentious, but sounds like it’s not. Or at least, if it does have pretensions that match the skill of the creators and the goal it’s going for, it’s probably justified. (Then again, I’ve also heard a lot of good things about The Witch — but I haven’t seen these movies either.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I can recommend both. For what it’s worth, I will say I liked Paprika more, but Inception is good too (though not Mr. Nolan’s best film).

      Honestly, The Tree of Life is only really only ultra-pretentious when viewing it purely in the context of its original 2011 release. After that, we’d get films that were at least ten times as pretentious on top of being soaked in that stupid edgelord cynicism that would define the work of the likes of Ari Aster and Alex Garland. And in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Tree of Life got that criticism entirely because it refused to go along with the typical 2010s nihilistic posturing; I just don’t get how someone can lambast The Tree of Life only to turn around and praise Midsommar despite being every bit as guilty of being a go-nowhere slog. As it is, on the back of things like Hereditary, The Witch, and Ex Machina, The Tree of Life barely made a dent (not that many of those were fan favorites either, but still). Now, The Tree of Life does take a little too much refuge in the fact that it was artsy, but as I said, in the battle between the dreamer and the edgelord, the dreamer wins every time. Plus, as annoying as that style can get, Terrance Malick did develop it honestly whereas the auteurs in the latter half of the 2010s very clearly strive for that standard by copying it wholesale when they should be more concerned by starting their own artistic movements (mumblecore doesn’t count).

      And I don’t think I could recommend The Witch. It’s about as stereotypical of an A24 feature as you can get without directly parodying their ethos.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yeah, there is a big difference between artsiness like that done honestly and the kind that’s meant just to seem smart. Out of those films you mention, I’ve seen Ex Machina, and I’ve expressed my opinions about that one as well — I could have accepted its pretensions if it hadn’t turned to garbage in the end. But now I guess it’s the ultimate sin to have any optimism at all about the course of technological development, about human nature in general, about any of that.

        I’ve been digging around for Satoshi Kon’s movies now, but somehow Netflix and the anime streaming services I use don’t carry them. I might have to resort to YouTube. I do want to watch them, though. A few films like that would be nice to break things up for me.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I can tell that this new wave of auteurs want so badly to ape that New Hollywood energy, but the problem is that the context that allowed those artists to achieve those levels of greatness is gone. They’re too concerned with being the next when every artist should strive to be the first them. As it is, I find these are people who don’t really bring any interesting frames of reference to the conversation.That personal touch can work wonders for projects, but in practice, that desire to produce auteurs is like how GeoCites gave everyone the ability to form a website and it turned out that 90% of the people who utilized that service had absolutely nothing interesting to say. I think that edgelord cynicism is a byproduct of that; it’s a sure sign that the artist in question is creatively spent when they can’t write about anything other than what’s right in front of them.

          The good news is that Mr. Kon’s works are available on Blu-Ray, so that’s an option if they aren’t available on streaming services.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I must add my voice in recommending checking out Satoshi Kon’s catalogue, including the TV series Paranoia Agent. His first film Perfect Blue will seem familiar whilst Tokyo Godfathers might be the most underrated – and unlikely – Christmas movie ever!

    Tree of Life, I barely lasted forty minutes of that and most of it was on fast forward. It didn’t help there were no HOH subtitles on the version I saw so I have no idea what Brad Pitt was mumbling about, so I’m afraid you can lump me in with the “pretentious guff” brigade based of what I did endure. More power to you for getting something out of it though, it was just too much for my tiny brain to comprehend. :-/

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, I definitely have all of those on my list of things to watch; you can be sure of that. Even after just one film, I can tell Mr. Kon was quite the visionary.

      It probably did help that I had the subtitles on when I was watching. And while I did enjoy The Tree of Life (I actually liked it more than 2001 or Days of Heaven if I’m being honest), I will say that I wouldn’t lift a finger to defend it. It was pretty good, but I will admit that it appearing in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the world’s top 250 films and BBC’s poll of the greatest American films is going a little overboard. It indicates less to me just how good it is and more that film critics are in a desperate need to reinvent themselves.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. My first time watching Paprika, I was rather under the influence, and found it almost impossible to follow because of that. I checked it out again, sober, and although it made more sense, I didn’t have that much of an easier time with it. It was definitely a much better watch that way, though! That’s my official recommendation. Watch Paprika when you’re sober.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Paprika is pretty trippy sober, but I can imagine trying to keep up with it under the influence would make it even stranger. I wonder just how much of a trip certain films would be while under the influence. I heard it’s a really bad idea to listen to the albums of Sunn O))) while stoned.

      Liked by 2 people

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