The Tree of Life: Comes bearing strange fruit

Like the chubby girl who ‘doesn’t even go here’ in Mean Girls, as I approached the local multiplex to see notoriously challenging auteur Terence Malick’s divisive Palme d’Or winner, I had a lot of feelings. Chief of which was a decidedly unprofessional last-minute urge to duck into the screen next door and rewatch Deathly Hallows Part 2 -an urge apparently shared by the two people who walked out during the first hour of The Tree of Life, although that was a mild reaction compared to the pockets of rebellious critics who loudly booed the film at its screening in Cannes. Of course, the self-appointed elite vocally professing their disdain for anything that becomes popular enough to win a prize is a long-established tradition at the festival, but nonetheless I was uncertain: what exactly was I about to see? Just what had Malick put on the screen that so aroused the ire of many well-respected critics, including the likes of Mark Kermode, no less?

The answer is as complicated as the reclusive Malick himself. Most reviews have comfortably summarised the plot as the story of a boy (Hunter McCracken) and his family in 1950s Texas, but this is a deceptively straightforward synopsis bearing little relation to what the audience actually sees unfold. The Tree of Life has no plot, in the traditional sense. All we see are disconnected, non-chronological and mostly wordless snippets of a boy’s life, with no attempt made to weave them into anything resembling a narrative arc. The only sequence lasting longer than a few minutes is an audacious and astonishing half-hour sequence depicting the formation of Earth and the beginnings of life. Orchestral blasts and operatic crescendoes score the entrancing images of volcanoes, rivers and, of course, trees, as the story of Jack’s childhood is suddenly thrown into a cosmic context, his prosaic memories suddenly put on hold to explore the origins of God and the universe.

How exactly you feel about this prolonged and unexplained digression might well determine how you respond to the film as a whole. For some, it clearly proved a dealbreaker, as evidenced by the fact that both of my screening’s walkouts occured during this period, but if you are able to get past the initial feeling of dislocation, you could find that it holds the key to understanding the whole film. Near the end of the sequence, we see a wounded dinosaur lying in a riverbed, unable to move. A larger, stronger dinosaur approaches and comtemplates the injured animal, going so far as to place a foot on its head, before finally slinking away. At the beginning of the film Jack’s mother, a devout Christian, opines that there is ‘the way of nature and the way of grace’ in life. This act of prehistoric mercy seems to suggest that these paths may not be incompatible as they first appear, a sign of hope for Jack, who is torn between the conflicting personalities of his parents. His father (Brad Pitt) is a loving but volatile figure in the boys’ lives, a control freak who insists on being addressed as ‘sir’ and for whom any act of minor disobedience is a cause for explosive anger. However, we come to understand that he behaves this way out of misplaced love, in the belief that it will make his sons strong. A failed musician, he believes the only way they will achieve the dreams he missed out on is to ensure they are tough and disciplined, not realising that his behaviour is having a deep impact on the fragile Jack and his tragically-fated younger brother, whose suicide at the age of 19 opens the film. The children’s mother (Jessica Chastain), on the other hand, is almost too good to be true, a product of childish adulation which only rarely slips to reveal the human beneath. Ethereal and saintlike, she hovers over Jack’s memories – a revered but ineffectual guardian, unable to protect him from his father’s harshness. The whole cast is wonderful, the three brothers in particular played with seamless naturalism by the youngsters, who don’t even appear to be acting; rather, they are just being kids.

Perhaps it is best not to think of this as a film in the traditional sense. Malick uses the screen as a canvas, and each fleeting flashback is like a dab of a paintbrush – individually insignificant, but contributing to a grand and epic portrait which is much more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes what we see is confusing, simply because when it comes to explaining his intentions Malick refuses to lend his audience a hand – you get the impression he wouldn’t care if the movie was playing to the Albert Hall or in a shoebox. Like its spiritual predecessor, Tartovsky’s smirkingly impenetrable Mirror, you just have to trust that the bigger picture will be sufficient to outweigh the minor puzzles.

The Tree of Life ‘s wilfully abstract style is impossible to ignore, certainly, but the important question is: does it work? For the most part, yes. That said, the incessant stream-of-consciousness voiceover and fussy camerawork  are occasionally reminiscent of a fancy perfume advert, and at times I couldn’t quite get this Fry and Laurie sketch out of my mind. Indeed, there were moments where I felt like it was almost a parody of an arty film and the joke was on me for trying to appreciate it. This is a minor gripe, though, which probably reflects more on me than on Malick, whose aching sincerity barely seems to allow for the possibility of humour, nevermind outright self-parody.  For today’s pampered audience, used to the narrative spoon-feeding of colour-by-numbers blockbusters, the idea of having to meet a filmmaker halfway to appreciate his vision is a bitter pill to swallow. The Tree of Life almost requires the viewer to make their own contributions – only by digging around in your own stockpile of childhood memories can you get on right level to see the world through Jack’s eyes. So, if you decide to see this film – and you should, if possible – remember that a search for a concrete message will probably prove unsatisfying, because every viewer will experience The Tree of Life differently, for better or worse. Just be ready to let Malick’s beautiful compositions wash over you and see what happens.

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Northerners have bigger brains but are they smarter?

The further from the equator people live, the bigger their brain and eyes according to a new Oxford University study. But this does not mean northerners are smarter, merely that they need bigger vision areas in the brain to cope with lower levels of light.

Scientists at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology published their findings in the journal Biology Letters after measuring the eye socket and brain volumes of 55 skulls from 12 different countries, dating from the 1800s. They found that the size of both the brain and the eyes could be directly linked to the latitude of the country from which the individual came.

Eiluned Pearce, from the University’s School of Anthropology, said: “Having bigger brains doesn’t mean that higher-latitude humans are smarter; it just means they need bigger brains to be able to see well where they live.”

Co-author Professor Robin Dunbar added, “Humans seem to have adapted their visual systems surprisingly rapidly to the cloudy skies, dull weather and long winters we experience at higher latitudes.”

But writing in the Daily Mail, proud Sheffielder and Labour peer Roy Hattersley suggested southerners should now be treated “with pity rather than contempt.”

“The truth is, because they have had it so easy for so long, their brains never extended and grew. Some even say that their brains actually contracted.” Hattersley rejected the study’s claim that this is due to light: “I give them credit for being 50 per cent correct.”

The study takes into account a number of potentially confounding effects, including the effect of phylogeny (the evolutionary links between different lineages of modern humans), the fact that humans living in the higher latitudes are physically bigger overall, and the possibility that eye socket volume was linked to cold weather (and the need to have more fat around the eyeball by way of insulation).

Other studies have already shown that birds with relatively bigger eyes are the first to sing at dawn in low light. The eyeball size across all primates has been found to be associated with when they choose to eat and forage – with species with the largest eyes being those that are active at night.

Oxford University statistics show 50 percent of successful 2010 entrants came from the South West, Greater London or the South East of England. Just 10.7 percent came from north of the Midlands – less than the 15.5 percent of overseas students.

AAB students concentrated in 12 universities

Newly released figures have revealed that over half of students achieving AAB or better at A Level are concentrated in just twelve universities.

The data, made available for the first time by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, demonstrated that in 2010, 26,121 out of 50,712 students obtaining a minimum of AAB took up places at twelve English universities. The remaining students attended 145 other higher education institutions.

The figures suggest that this small number of institutions will be best placed to benefit from government higher education reforms. Recent government proposals reveal that the coalition intends to allow institutions to expand in order to take on an ‘unlimited’ number of students achieving grades AAB or higher at A-level from 2012 onwards. This is estimated to include about 65,000 students next year.

The universities that are able to attract AAB candidates will not be restricted by the recruitment cap that would otherwise be imposed.  At present, these candidates are concentrated in the following twelve universities: Manchester, Durham, Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham, Leeds, Exeter, Bristol, Warwick, Birmingham, Sheffield and Southampton.

With these institutions best placed to take advantage of government reforms, higher education commentators have voiced their fears that the changes could lead to the creation of an elite English “Ivy League”, reflective of the American higher education systems. Sir Steve Smith, president of Universities UK, further warned that such a grade-driven approach would risk alienating students from poorer backgrounds less likely to achieve high grades.

Austen, not austen-tatious

If Jane Austen were alive today, she might be astounded to find herself as wealthy as one of her privileged literary heroes.Her novels and the films based on them have enjoyed steady popularity in recent years, and her unfinished manuscript The Watsons sold last week for nearly one million pounds to Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Auctioneers had only expected the piece to sell for a third of the final price.

Amid fierce competition from the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the University’s central library purchased Austen’s manuscript The Watsons at Sotheby’s last week for £993,250. The Bodleian was assisted by a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, as well as by other contributors.

“The Bodleian is delighted to be able to add this manuscript to its extraordinary holdings of English literary manuscripts,” said Dr Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections at the Bodleian and English faculty member. “The phenomenal financial support we received towards the total purchase cost came solely from benefactors and grant giving bodies, which is a wonderful vote of confidence in what we do to preserve and make accessible to scholars and the wider public items of great cultural significance.”
Fletcher addressed the risk of losing the manuscript to another institution abroad and said he and his colleagues felt it was crucial that the piece “come into a major research library like the Bodleian.”

The 68-page working draft containing liberal revision marks may lend insight into the great Austen’s creative process. The first 12 pages of The Watsons reside at New York’s Pierpont Morgan Library and were sold during World War I.

The plot of The Watsons, featuring a clergyman and his four unmarried daughters, draws parallels to Austen’s own life. The story is thought to have been written somewhere between the creations of Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park. Austen abandoned the project before her death.

“Austen is probably second only to Shakespeare in her status as a major national literary icon”

Christopher Fletcher, Keeper of Special Collections, Bodleain Libraries

Austen’s manuscript, which is the only copy of the story, will join other literary gems on display starting 30th September as a part of the ‘Treasures of the Bodleian’ exhibit. The Bodleian is also home to a manuscript of Austen’s juvenilia, Love and Freindship [sic].

“Austen is probably second only to Shakespeare in her status as a major national literary icon,” Fletcher said.

Horrible Bosses: Not so horrible after all

What we have with Horrible Bosses is a film of 2 halves, 3 friends, 4 big stars and a scatter gun approach to comedy that will have you laughing and cringing in equal measure. At 98 minutes it’s also a lot shorter than one may expect but I feel compelled to advise you to leave 10 or so minutes beforehand to climb your nearest ladder, tree or preferably skyscraper in order to find a high enough vantage point from which to suspend your disbelief. Get ready for some of the most unintelligent decision making since Zack Snyder cast Ron Jeremy as Dr Manhattan. Oh wait that didn’t happen…

As you may have guessed by now from the advertising campaign (that has seemingly found its way on to every bus in the country), Horrible Bosses is about 3 guys who hate their 3 bosses enough to team up and plot to kill them. Why do they want to kill them? Well Kevin Spacey’s Dave Harken has strung along Jason Bateman long enough, promising him promotions that he never delivers and trapping him within a job he doesn’t want. Colin Farrell’s Bobby Pellitt is just horrible to everything and everyone and sees no problem in firing all of his fat employees and killing thousands of Bolivian’s in order for his late-father’s chemical company to save a bit of money. Finally Jennifer Aniston’s Dr Julia Harris really, really, really wants to have sex with her engaged-to-be-wed assistant. Whether these offences constitute murder is another matter (to which most disappointingly for a film in which you are supposed to be rooting for the ‘good guys’ the answer is no), but murder is the plot that they gave me so if it’s going to be any good the impressive cast has got to step up to the plate.

Well to kick off, out of all of the not so horrible bosses Farrell is the standout here, building on the comic potential he showed in the black comedy masterpiece In Bruges (I warn you that any comments to the contrary will be met with the fervoured consternation of a man obsessed). Bald, fat, obnoxious and the funniest thing on show, he is woefully underused.

Jennifer Aniston on the other hand spends the whole film straining to hammer home the ‘I’m playing against type’ message in the most amorously direct manner possible. The threat that at any moment she will finally just give up the pretence and sexually assault the camera, probably with some sort of specialist dental equipment and fuelled by years of basking in the temperate indifference of critical opinion, is one that looms large in every scene that she’s in. The part of Julia is one just begging for a grandstanding performance of horrid ferocity and she’s ok, but nothing more than that.

On the dependable side Kevin Spacey is as tediously excellent as usual but his character arc is one that falls quickly into ridiculousness, much to the films expense. Aside from the bosses Jason Bateman completely dominates the ‘Stupid Employees’ delivering some solidly understated comedy whilst the other two (Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day) make no real comedic impact whatsoever.

The other big name here Jamie Foxx is given hardly any screen time, phoning in his role with consummate ease, although he does get one of the funniest name origin stories I’ve heard in a while (and I’ve heard some name origin stories let me tell you). One thing he did take a special interest in (being the modern progressive liberal that he is) was indeed his characters name. After he read the script Foxx saw the given name ****sucker Jones as ‘over the line’ preferring the moniker Mother****** Jones instead. Turns out he prefers insinuated incest to insinuated homosexuality. Mothers before brothers it is then.

The script itself is a little lacklustre, squandering its promising premise with some loose plotting. It’s also the sort of film where every race knows its stereotypical place, but such potentially offensive material never jars in the way it does in things like The HangoverHorrible Bosses has a breezily knock-about demeanour that somewhat blows away its moral quandaries and ridiculous implausibilities in a gust of mainstream callousness. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of mainstream callousness is fine by me but when the premise is as good as the first 20 minutes would indicate and extremely ripe for a bit of the old satire then it’s a shame to see it go to waste.

Horrible Bosses does have some laughs and some excellent comic moments. However many jokes do fall alarmingly flat with the big sweary letters that cover the screen when each new boss is introduced bombing especially hard. But overall in spite of all of its flaws and potentially catastrophic plot machinations it was funny and I enjoyed it and from a piece of mainstream comedic fluff (however disappointing a waste it may be) you can’t say fairer than that.

No Place For Awana Diab’s Antics in Football

By the time the penalty was awarded in the 78th minute, Tuesday night’s international friendly  between the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon had been winding towards a decisive conclusion for quite some time. With UAE already 5-2 up, questions of who took the penalty and how they did so should have been largely irrelevant.

Awana Diab had only been on the pitch of the Khalifa bin Zayed Stadium for three minutes, but his subsequent conversion from 12-yards blasted his name into the spotlight for other reasons. Stepping up to the spot as any cock-sure 21-year-old might, Diab then proceeded to swivel round and back-heel the ball into the net. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ultDaICPTB4).

Diab became an internet sensation overnight, quickly catapulted among the ranks of the other penalty-taking legends such Antonin Panenka. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tp2HZNheCZ8) Awesome stuff, really.

Except, no-one involved in the game itself seemed to share that mentality. Diab was swiftly booked and, watching the clip, this punishment seemed sort of fair for the same reason that a player celebrating in over-exuberant fashion might attract a similar reaction. But after Srecko Katanec, the UAE coach, hauled him off only ten minutes after sending him on looking incredibly displeased, the sense that something pretty out of order had just occurred could not be escaped.

It’s not so much that Diab was showboating; there is nothing wrong with providing such entertainment if it’s done with the correct attitude. The young Cristiano Ronaldo certainly overused stepovers and trickery and Robinho still does, but rarely were you left with the sense that either of them mocked their opponents. For an apt contrast, memories of Luis Nani’s notorious seven kick-ups while escaping the clutches of Justin Hoyte during Manchester United’s 4-0 romp over Arsenal in the FA Cup back in 2008 serve well. Nani was doing more than showboating; he was fairly obviously kicking his enemy while he was down, and there was a feeling that had Mathieu Flamini’s crunching slide-tackle moments later actually connected with the Portuguese’s ankle it would have been no more than he deserved. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dP11rk6GTpg)

Showing a flagrant lack of respect towards the opposition appears to be one of the cardinal sins in sport. Diab’s antics stank of a player kicking an opponent while he was down, and coach Katanec rightly recognised that there is no place for that in football. As Katanec stated afterwards, “this is not respect. He’s a young guy and he knows he made a mistake immediately. I just want him to show respect, not just on the field but off it as well”. The UAE Football Association shared the same point of view, and are currently reviewing whether Diab should receive disciplinary action.

To his credit, pulling off such a manoeuvre was incredibly impressive. But during the course of a professional encounter it just wasn’t acceptable. Diab subsequently recognised where he went wrong and offered his sincerest apologies. There is a place for such displays, but it is on the training pitch, as Francesco Totti so brilliantly shows: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLrxVPlZLMg)

Enterprise or Entertainment

In 2004, when The Apprentice was first commissioned, Sir Alan Sugar (as he then was titled) declared that the show sat “perfectly with my long held belief in the importance of promoting enterprise”.  Co-producer Peter Moore promised “a series that tests entrepreneurial skills”.  Within the BBC’s public service remit, the show was evidently designed to “promote business and enterprise”.

This may have been the theory, but in looking through comments in the media on the previous series it is hard to find much mention of “enterprise”.  “Jedi Jim” is disliked because he is manipulative.  ‘Nitwit Natasha’ irritated viewers by saying “Yeah” too often.  Helen has generally impressed, although in a “shiny-haired teacher’s pet” way.  Entrepreneurial talent seems distinctly less important than personality.

It is the nature of reality television that the producers are provided with hundreds of hours of footage, which they cut down to an hour’s worth of television.  To try and make 60 minutes of videotape attractive to viewers the producers need to shape it into some sort of narrative, which necessitates having characters that viewers can either love or hate.

This focus on personality has led to the show’s alumni tending more towards celebrity status than entrepreneurialism.  Kate Walsh hosts a television show for Channel 5; Alex Wotherspoon has been working as a model; Raef Bjayou has scaled the heights of Celebrity Coach Trip.  Obviously these are balanced out by those who have pursued successful business careers, either with Lord Sugar or on their own.  Nonetheless the evidence points towards the show being as much a media opportunity as an entrepreneurial contest.

All this isn’t to say that the show has lost the element of business at its heart.  It’s easy to criticise the individual performance of the candidates, but even in doing so the public are being made to consider the fundamentals of running a business: sales, profit margins and planning.  It is facetious to suggest that watching The Apprentice will inspire hordes of unemployed people to launch into business, but even by planting that seed it is having an effect.

Considering this, the decision to change the prize this year from a job with Lord Sugar to an investment in the candidate’s own company is confusing.  The interviews in the final of the series resembled an episode of Dragon’s Den, with candidates pitching their ideas and being grilled on them.  However, the fact that the previous eleven episodes had been a game show meant that only those who had succeeded before would have a chance to pitch their ideas.  Business was once again subsumed under personality, leading to the jarring conclusion of Tom being pronounced as the show’s winner despite a dismal lack of success across the show as a whole.

Overall though, maybe we can question whether the celebrity focus of the show must necessarily be a bad thing.  It might be better for young people to aspire to be businessmen and women rather than pop stars, even if it is for reasons beyond simply entrepreneurial talent.  Encouraging business acumen amongst viewers must remain a purpose of the show, and celebrity might just be a potent vehicle for delivering that.

You know what we’ve read this summer? A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Without meaning to disparage the fascinating tomes that other students get to read over the summer, it’s fair to say that it’s English students who have the highest chance of striking reading list gold.  This 19th Century epic is one such example.

While BBC Big Read voters might only have rated this as Dickens’ fourth best novel (behind Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol and David Copperfield), there’s a strong case to be made that this is his masterpiece.  The backdrop of the French Revolution lends an epic edge, the trademark comedic caricatures provide a dash of humour, and the central characters are invested with a humanity that is sometimes lacking in Dickens’ other works.

Fundamentally though, whether you are an English undergraduate or someone who hasn’t read a novel since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the real strength here is the story.  The action builds steadily from an opening loaded with mysteries, culminating in a final third that is almost deliciously put together.  Whereas many Victorian novels fall back on absurd coincidences to resolve their plots (how many times can someone be secretly related to the hero without anyone knowing?), here the characters’ arcs fuse together in ways that are both comic and tragic, in all senses of the words.

Overall then, this is so much more than something to let everyone else on the beach know you’re a pretentious Oxford undergraduate.  It’s just a mystery why no-ones made a TV series of it recently…

You know what we’ve read this summer? is an ongoing series of articles for OxStu Online, giving you our top tips on books of all shapes and sizes that we think you should be reading this summer.  Check in soon for the next update, and if you have your own suggestions or opinions let us know in the comments!

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