Hidden Life of Trees

REVIEW: The Hidden Life of Trees

Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” was not only an engaging and enjoyable book, but it also made for a fabulous documentary on the big screen. The documentary followed Wohlleben as he shared videos of himself working as a forest manager in Germany, educating groups on forests, and engaging with foresters. The documentary also featured beautiful footage of the forests Wohlleben visited from canopy to soil as well as striking imagery of the impacts of poor forest management.
Part of what made “The Hidden Life of Trees” so engaging as a book was Wohlleben’s dry sense of humor, which translated fantastically to the screen. The movie was partly in German with subtitles and partly in English. Wohlleben resides and manages a forest in Germany, so a large section of the movie was in German. However, the subtitles were masterfully done, conveying not only the information but also Wohlleben’s idiomatic sense of humor across languages (the book was also originally written in German with an excellent translation).
The film is divided into several chapters loosely following the structure of the book. The documentary is engaging from start to finish and well-edited. It avoids excessive overdubbed narration and lets the images and footage of the presentations and travels speak for themselves. The educational material comes in large part from footage of Wohlleben presenting seminars not solely for filming. This improves the flow of the movie and avoids the documentarial pitfall of overdubbed droning that can make nature documentaries a bit too relaxing and sleep-inducing.
The cinematography overall was excellent, providing a diverse perspective of views. Despite this being a film about forests, the filmmakers avoided the trap of having too many sweeping aerial views at the cost of ground-level footage. The movie includes many close-ups of what happens on the forest floor and the diversity of life within a forest beyond just the central feature of trees. The use of time lapses also enhances the key point that forests are alive, living, moving things—something that can be easily lost in the lack of change in short-term videos. However, at times it felt like the cinematographer had a bit of an obsession with a macro lens and there was a shot of a decaying animal that felt a bit gratuitous and unnecessary with where it was placed in the film (although it likely would have felt gratuitous no matter where it was placed).
Overall, the film was delightful to watch whether you’ve read the book or not. Expect to come away with new knowledge about and respect for forests! “The Hidden Life of Trees” is still in a theatrical release and has not yet been released on streaming services, but watch out for it coming to a theater or streaming service near you soon!

Hidden Life of Trees

PREVIEW: The Hidden Life of Trees

I first picked up Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees over the summer of 2019 looking for something different to add to my summer reading selection. The book is a well-written exploration of the surprisingly complex social life of trees and forests and I couldn’t put it down. Even as someone who has spent a lot of time around trees, the notion of trees being able to “talk” to each other with such detail and depth and the concept of each forest acting as a community was surprising to me. Wohlleben did an excellent job conveying the majesty and scale of forests through the written word, but I think the big screen might be an even better medium to convey the awe they deserve.

Peter Wohlleben’s 2015 nonfiction masterpiece The Hidden Life of Trees has arrived for the big screen and will be showing this Tuesday (10/19) at 5pm at the Michigan Theater. This is currently the only showing scheduled in Ann Arbor, so grab your tickets now if you’re interested!


REVIEW: Jonathan Franzen Releases “Crossroads”

Acclaimed author Jonathan Franzen recently released his latest novel, Crossroads and is also presenting an accompanying virtual book tour in partnership with local bookstores around the country. Last Thursday, local bookstores around the midwest including Ann Arbor’s Literati Books co-hosted an online book tour event where Franzen read excerpts from Crossroads and discussed the book in conversation with Kathy Wang, author of the novels Impostor Syndrome and Family Trust.

The concept of an “online” version of the classic local bookstore book tour is a bit odd at first glance, but it proved to be a rewarding substitute for the pre-covid format. The event began with Franzen reading an excerpt from Crossroads. The novel itself focuses primarily on a single family over the course of a single day around Christmastime in the 1970s. To open, he chose a segment which at times felt deliberately uncomfortable, dealing with complex issues of religion, maternal roles and responsibilities, and the concept of the “ideal body” and dieting for women in the 1970s (when the novel is set). The prose isn’t terribly complex, but the associated emotion in the excerpt is compelling and palpable.

The excerpt serves as a springboard for Franzen and Wang to discuss just how this book and its characters came to be. Franzen chooses to inhabit the consciousness of each family member, a decision that arrived slowly over the course of the creation of the novel. He discusses how originally he thought the matriarch, Marion, would be “just a mom”—a character without much depth or her own perspective. Yet she grew so much during the three years of the book’s gestation that she ultimately became a character so important that the multi-paragraph opening excerpt was focused entirely on her and her internal conflict.

Not only did Marion change throughout the novel’s creation, but Franzen and Wang also discuss how Franzen’s attitude towards his characters has changed with time, over the course of his previous novels up until now. Franzen admits that he’s not trying to be “kinder to his characters”, although in his eyes, he sees that as a potential loss of comedy. The inextricable partnership of anger and comedy is something I had never seriously considered before, but Franzen and Wang put it into sharp perspective. They discuss how, in Franzen’s eyes, it’s impossible to have comedy without also having anger, and how his choice to treat his characters in Crossroads with greater kindness—although never forgoing honesty—may have sacrificed some comedy in the interest of having deeper, truer characters.

The “peek behind the curtain” about the creation of Crossroads and Franzen’s literary process only increased my excitement about reading the novel. If you’re a fan of Franzen or just generally interested in reading the novel, I would recommend attending a book tour date! The tour is virtual and future tour dates can be viewed here: https://fsgworkinprogress.com/2021/08/18/jonathan-franzens-crossroads/. 

Stay tuned for an upcoming review of the full novel!

copper embossed zentangle in a black frame

REVIEW: Copper Embossing with the Ann Arbor Art Center

This weekend I took some time to create with the copper embossing ArtBox from the Ann Arbor Art Center (this ArtBox is free to all U of M students with a Passport to the Arts)! This was my first experience working with copper, and I had never done any sort of embossing before. My only exposure to copper embossing was an awareness that it existed from old copper embossing pieces that used to hang at my grandparents’ house. Back then it seemed fantastically complex and difficult, but this project turned out to be simple and fun to complete!

Everything I needed to complete the project was included in the ArtBox, including the sheet of copper, a piece of foam to work on top of (to avoid embossing whatever is underneath :), the wooden embossing tool, sticky tape to attach the frame, and the frame itself (which I thought was a nice touch). There was also a piece of paper the same size as the copper square for a practice sketch, and a detailed set of instructions. I found the instructions to be very detailed, clear, and easy to follow. About half of the instructions were dedicated to the technical details of how to emboss copper, and the other half were dedicated to developing the “zentangle” art form suggested with the kit. The zentangle instructions are really nice if you’re also suffering a persistent case of artblock, or if you’re just not sure how to get started.

The first step was developing my paper sketch. Originally, I got pretty detailed on the paper version since I knew the paper was scaled exactly to the size of the copper sheet, and I assumed I could simply overlay it on top of the copper and trace along the pencil lines. I did this to trace my original long, winding, pattern divider lines but realized quickly it wasn’t going to work out well for the rest of the piece. Firstly, the instructions advise (and I concur) alternating the sides you’re embossing on to create different raised and recessed designs. However, to do this, you need to flip over the sheet of copper…and you won’t be able to see your paper that you taped to the other side. The second problem was that tracing over the paper made it harder to apply the force I needed to properly emboss the copper. You need to press harder than you think you do to get a good line (the foam allows you to apply some serious pressure without fear). The takeaway here is not to overdo your sketch. Sketching out the dividing lines and tracing those can be useful, but after that I started using my sketch as just a very loose guidelines for the types of patterns I wanted to put in different areas—and I ended up straying from the sketch a decent amount.

In the end, I had a lot of fun and I would definitely recommend it as a relaxing way to try a new art form. It’s something I haven’t seen opportunities to learn about very many times in my life, so I would take advantage of this one to try it out in a low stakes way! If you end up loving it, I did a bit of researching and found out that it’s not as expensive a hobby as I might have thought!

PREVIEW: Copper Embossing with the Ann Arbor Art Center

The Ann Arbor Art Center has been offering virtual programs and hands-on activities you can do from home this year, in lieu of the in-person art classes that would be offered in a more normal time. This month, the Art Center is offering a copper embossing kit, no prior experience required, with all materials needed included in the kit. Copper embossing is a very tactile form of visual art that involves using tools to imprint shapes and grooves in a sheet of copper. It’s a great opportunity to try out a less common visual art form and to have something engaging and creative to do while we’re unable to attend as many arts events in person.

U of M students can get a free kit with the current Passport to the Arts! You do need a physical copy of the Passport voucher to redeem the free kit. Due to COVID precautions, Passport vouchers are available in less locations on campus this fall, but you can find them at Info Desks in the Michigan Union, League or Pierpont Commons (I picked mine up in the Union)! Once you’ve gotten your voucher, head over to the Ann Arbor Art Center 10am-6pm Tuesday-Saturday to exchange your voucher for a kit and get embossing!


REVIEW: Transit

Christian’s Petzold’s Transit is a sprawling, moral adventure that examines questions of loyalty, morality, and the modern global order in the face of fascism. Set primarily in the French seaside town of Marseille, the background to the drama is a façade of gorgeous pastel storefronts that police vans race past in a flurry of sound and light. The setting is noticeably modern; the outfits chosen by the characters, the ships in the harbor, the vehicles in the streets all clearly belong to the modern era, and it’s also clear that Petzold wants it that way. The ambiguity of eras is only one part of the ambiguity that Petzold has carefully constructed for his film, as he places grand amounts of trust in the viewer to think critically about and understand the messages he wants to send.

The ambiguous setting contains both undertones of the Nazi occupation of France, and the modern rise of fascism in Europe. Most of the characters in Marseille trying to flee are German, and although the identity of those occupying the country goes unsaid, references to Jews, “the occupation” and “cleansings” evokes strong similarities to the Nazi occupation of France during WWII. Yet there is also a modern twist. A family of African descent that the protagonist, Georg, befriends is described as “illegal”, living a careful life in avoidance of the authorities. Their entire apartment complex is revealed to be a haven for cautious, illegal families largely of African or Middle Eastern descent, mirroring the current refugee crisis in Europe. Petzold carefully draws the comparison between the historical threats we have learned to fear and the more modern ones we may have not.

The ambiguity stretches into the exposition of the characters and the choices they make. The narrator, who appears partway into the story, goes deliberately unnamed and largely unidentified for much of the saga, but he is identifiable as an outside observer, someone witnessing the events but not privy to the inner thoughts of the main characters themselves. Petzold also avoids the potential easy moralizing of his characters. They act in unpredictable and frequently selfish ways, given opportunities to act in a clear, ethical manner, they abstain for sometimes selfish reasons, and sometimes reasons wholly unclear and never explained. Petzold’s characters are constructed as complex, whole people, with rich, unexplained inner lives. And that is what makes Transitultimately worth seeing. The characters are rich, real people, with real, complex desires, who refuse to fall into the mold of action heroes or love interests. The film artfully touches on serious modern issues while simultaneously immersing the viewer in a carefully constructed world of drama and tension, the one the unexpected ending ultimately topples.