I recently watched the Terrence Malick film Tree of Life. The one starring Brad Pitt as Sean Penn’s father. The one that has been simultaneously lauded as inspired genius and panned as artsy-fartsy rubbish. And it was an interesting experience to say the least.
I went into the viewing with low expectations. Based on what I had heard, I feared that it would be a tad too existential and contrarian for me to enjoy, but I wanted to judge for myself. Plus, I enjoy the acting efforts of both Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, so I gave it a shot. What I came to find was a film that I found to be incredibly creative and interesting. It was smart. It was thought-provoking. It was original and unique. It was comforting and sad and mind-numbing all at once. And in many ways, it was beautiful.
At no point did I completely understand what I was watching, but in a manner that I somehow enjoyed. For a movie that was so frequently over my head, it was also oddly personal, relatable and identifiable. I couldn’t always explain what I was seeing, and yet still felt connected to it in a very intimate way.
Terrence Malick delved into the concept of life and existence, exposing the questions and musings we all ponder at one point or another. He didn’t so much ask what the meaning of life was, but rather examined it, from various angles and origins and points of view. Malick scrutinizes over life and death and relationships, mainly through the eyes of Jack O’Brien – during his childhood and his adulthood (Sean Penn) – but also through the visual and artistic genesis of life and creation and conscientious thought. His relationship with his mother (Jessica Chastain) and father (Brad Pitt) represents the earthly affiliation to grace and nature. Jack is the vessel through which life is contemplated, but he’s also the example through which life is conveyed. He embodies subsistence and evolution and religion, both in a literal and theoretical sense.
The abundance of (incredible) imagery and the lack of context or a linear narrative came together to form this amazing film – amazing just as much for what it does show you and tell you as it is for all the things it doesn’t. It’s far from my favorite movie, but it could very well be the most creative or mentally stirring one I’ve ever seen. And it is because of all of this that I found the ending to be somewhat disappointing. It wasn’t bad, but I suppose I was hoping for something more substantial, based on all that I had watched over the previous two hours. I found myself expecting something that wasn’t there. But maybe that’s what the film was trying to tell me.
The 2011 Cincinnati Bengals will always hold a special place in my memory. A team that had an aggregate pre-season ranking of “garbage” but still ended up making the playoffs. A team that started a rookie quarterback, rookie wide receiver, rookie offensive coordinator and a bunch of no-names and cast-offs on defense and still pulled off a winning season. A team that was young and inexperienced and without the luxury of offseason programs that still came together and competed as a team.
I went into this NFL season with low expectations for my Bengals. It had all the makings of a re-building year with some young players in place to contribute in the future, but who would probably need a year or two of taking their lumps before things got rolling. Our once franchise quarterback was sitting at home. Our team identity was in flux. A 3-13 record seemed to be a realistic prediction. Laughing stock of the league appeared to be the likely outcome.
Instead, something intriguing and interesting and incredibly unexpected happened. A franchise mired in decades of futility, cursed by the stars and destined for humiliation…actually began to catch some breaks.
We won the first game of the season on a fluky trick play. We came back from 2nd half double-digit deficits three different times. We got defensive touchdowns, special teams touchdowns and flip-over-the-defender’s-head-in-mid-air touchdowns. It’s not like everything went right, but there were a heckuva lot of things that did, which is a massive change from years past. It was amazing. It was shocking. It was constantly haunted by worry and incredulity, the fear that at any moment it could all dash away. But it never did. And in many ways, it was beautiful.
At no point did I completely understand what I was watching, but it was in a manner that I enjoyed. For a season that was so frequently unfamiliar to my general expectations, it was just as personal, relatable and identifiable as the Bengals always manage to be. I couldn’t always explain what I was seeing, and yet still felt connected to it in a very intimate way.
Marvin Lewis, a man who I have praised and criticized at different times, was making a team of children look like men. Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer were coordinating an offense and defense in a manner that seemed to extract the maximum amount of success and achievement. And Mike Brown – the confounding, mystifying and historically frustrating-to-no-end Mike Brown – was looking like a genius for the veteran contracts he extended in the offseason, the drafting of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green, and the draft picks he swindled from the Raiders in the Carson Palmer trade. Yeah, I said it. A genius.
The paltry expectations and subsequent postseason bid came together to make this season and this team amazing – amazing for everything it was and everything it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t the best or most talented Bengals team, even of my lifetime (’05), but it could very well be the most likeable, surprising and impressive. And it is because of all of this that I found the ending to be somewhat disappointing. Yeah, making the playoffs was incredible, but I was hoping for that ever elusive playoff win, something that has escaped the Bengals since the first turn of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” After everything that had taken place, all the improbability that had occurred, I had essentially convinced myself that it was going to happen. And in that shortcoming, I found my disappointment.
But maybe disappointment isn’t always a bad thing.
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