Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Film #144: The Tree of Life

The most special special effect in Terrence Malick's ultimate, unrelenting, devoutly cinematic achievement occurs at its outset: a valuable jewel-like dalliance of light and dark, color and blackness. It lingers, morphs, disappears and then returns to us at key moments.

I cannot help but open this piece by considering these apparitions. They happen so importantly. Why are they there? Why do these extremely experimental seconds, in an EXTREMELY experimental film, impose themselves on us so insistently? 

These ghostly apparitions of Malick's are, in my opinion, what we see when we close our eyes: the sparks of memory first and imagination second. Malick's new film, The Tree of Life, concerns itself partially with these twin subjects. What is memory? How true is it? Is it something we've fashioned out of wholecloth? And, regardless of where it comes from, what does it do to us? How does it affect us, forever and ever? How do those who help us create these images in our brains face up to their responsibilities? Where to we come from? Where are we going? What do we wonder life was like before we got here? And what do we imagine it'll be like after we're gone?  (This is, possibly, the subject of The Tree of Life's last, longing, beachside moments, though I think, really, those scenes are the portrayal of our peacemaking with the past.)  How do we deal with our brains'--our hearts'--own imperfections? Or are they imperfections at all? Malick continually asks questions like these. He is cinema's premier, bald-faced philosopher--not a new moniker, for him--and his freshest movie, with its 30-year conception, is the proof.

The picture is told in insistent whispers--in the utterings of its main character's mother (Jessica Chastain, who wisely imparts "Unless you love, your life will flash by"). They are also told with the murmurs of her first son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), who confesses "Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will." And The Tree of Life reaches fruition in the recollections of that son's grown self, played in a brief appearance by Sean Penn, who concedes to a higher power with "Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to your door" (and I think the door here belongs to the father).  Unlike Malick's previous two works, the inestimable The Thin Red Line and The New World, the narration is almost wholly limited to these three characters. The main dramatic character, Mr. O'Brien (played impeccably by Brad Pitt), is given few narrative points. He says what he thinks, when he thinks it. He suffers because of this. Whispers, and confessions, are rarely his style (though if you listen closely enough--the film rewards extra attention--you'll find he does have something secret to divulge); still, confrontation and aggression are primarily his trade. And, in this life, he's not going to own up to anyone about any sort of shortcomings he might have, except in one special instance (the film's TRUE, shattering climax, which comes equipped with one of the most moving hugs in cinematic history).

I hear many things being bandied about regarding The Tree of Life's resemblance to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm sure this comes from the stellar sequence, 30 minutes into the film, that maps out the entire history of life on this globe we inhabit, backed mostly by only a low rumble (one way in which this film diverges from 2001 is that, in these scenes, the constructs of man, musical or otherwise, are vague). These are unspeakably extravagant segments, sampled more from Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi than anything else, though still solely the product of Malick's inquiring brain. His filmic thoughts are, however, resolutely unlike anything mainstream audiences of narrative cinematic storytelling have been treated to since Kubrick's 1968 film. I'd guarantee 99% of the audience watching the film with you when you see The Tree of Life have never experienced anything like it. That includes you, and me, too, really. Most viewers will be angry at the ultimate conclusion to Malick's film, because it doesn't conform to a paying customer's plotline/revelation payoff. But these disappointed ones will be regretful, or perhaps doubly angry, with their reactions or with the film itself 20 years down the line. So the comparisons to the similarly singular, divisive, fantastic 2001 are just. This is a movie for the ages. It's rare to see such a work, but here it is, in front of our eyes, and I'm sorry if you cannot see it.

The Tree of Life's much-talked-about dinosaurs do indeed make an appearance ("The movie has DINOSAURS in it?" the internet collectively queried). It's brief, but a lot of genuinely human emotion is punched into this mirage. One lizard's careful, empathetic gestures has an integral impact on another, whose life depends upon this fellow creature's next move. The scene takes place at a riverside that certainly, with higher waters flowing over once polished rocks, matches a riverside we see millions of years later, as McCracken delivers a stolen piece of female nightware down a rushing river tide. The scene--one that shakes Jack to his center--delineates how small our most significant concerns are to the universe at large. By the way, the scene with the dinosaurs is later mirrored in a scene with the two brothers, where the elder takes pity on the younger.

In fact, the film is also partially about our smallness as a species. To reduce The Tree of Life to a pat thesis statement seems rather conservative, but the film certainly still dallies with how insignificant we all are in the scheme of things; the stunning shots of 50s-era children playfully romping amongst the clouds of poisonous DDT are tremendously ebullient, even though we now know those chemicals are lethal. But so what? This, too, shall pass. There's a moment in the film's first hour in which I could feel it breaking me--breaking my addiction to plot and dialogue. It'll break you, too, unless you're too addicted to give it all up. Still, there's such a monumental lack of direct discourse in The Tree of Life's first hour that it makes us happy--when the exchanges finally come between Pitt's father and his sons--that humans have any impact at all on the Earth. Or that the Earth has any impact at all on humans.

There are more joyful moments in Malick's the scene where the toddler Jack first meets his baby brother, R.L. The boy's startled, fascinated reaction to his new sibling rings resolutely truthful, as does his angry outburst at being his mother's new second best (there's a third brother that barely gets noticed, as third children often do). The closest I ever came to weeping in absolute ecstasy like I did at the Wagner-scored end (and beginning) of The New World--something I cannot expect EVERY film to achieve--came when a beautiful piece by Bedřich Smetana (Má Vlast Moldau (Vltava)) swells and the kids finally get to run about in wild abandon while their father is away on business. This rapturous scene made me realize acutely what joy these boys felt they'd been missing out on all along (though I suspect Jack still desired to see his father--with that determined, lip-pursed look on his face--playing Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" on a gorgeously wooden-keyed pipe organ). I also like how the young Jack makes amends after constantly testing and besting his younger brother (Laramie Eppler, who looks remarkably like a baby Brad Pitt). Eppler's uncanny resemblance to his screen father transmits an important, gentle signal as to what Jack imagines their pop must have been like as a boy, and this has a powerful effect on how he decides to treat him from then on.

But I have to wonder: not seeing what happened to the third child, and knowing what happened to the second (he dies early in the film, at age 19, possibly as a result of the Vietnam War, though nothing is ever mentioned of this; likewise, very little is mentioned of the "yes, sir" father's military-peppered past)...given all of this, I wonder: did the father's strict upbringing insure Jack's success in a solidly cold, impermeable, steel-and-glass world? Did it likewise insure an even gentler R.L.s death by his own or by another person's hand? (The early telegram that devastates the mother clues me in that R.L.s death occurred in combat; the military informed families of combat deaths by letter or telegram up until the first years of the Vietnam conflict.) Or is it the mother's forgiving, nature-loving freedom that led to her children's inability to deal with the planet's harshness? Regardless of who's responsible, is it Jack's very success among the unfeeling skyscrapers that chaperones him into reveries about the origins of the world, and to thereby question what kind of man he's become? A sign that Jack's turning into his father: He's clearly incommunicable with his wife/girlfriend, who's briefly seen bedside, early in the picture, wondering what the hell's going on with him. (I find it moving that this woman bears a strong resemblance to a girl the young Jack is seen following home from school in the wake of his first romantic feelings; this lass stares into the camera at one point, way into the film's running time, as if to say "Remember me?")

I cannot, now, deconstruct the film's unreliable maze of memory, the impossible fragmenting of Earth life, the searing splats of emotion, and the kaleidoscopic sparks of hazy inspiration. And then there's all the water and window imagery (this seems to connote a flow of feeling and thought--and the final shot of the film is of a bridge OVER water, which tells us much).  At any rate, these are features that should be left for future conjecture, after the movie can be seen again and again as it deserves to be (I have seen it three times now, and have noticed many fascinating details that weren't evident the first time around). It should be enough to say that, while this is a difficult picture to ponder for an audience who cannot possibly be expecting anything like it, The Tree of Life is necessary viewing for all those who love movies at a soul level. And isn't it absolutely divine, in a summer filled with films that can't nearly compete with such subject matter, that more thoughtful moviegoers can be left with something on screen that challenges us so? The mere thought of The Tree of Life's magnanimous grandeur makes me glad I still live on such a friendly but unsympathetic planet. Personally, the struggle to live drives me crazy, more often than not. But this film makes life itself easier to bear. I hope, but do not expect, that you will feel the same upon seeing it.


Tony Dayoub said...

Dean, this is an essential reading of THE TREE OF LIFE I plan on sharing. You point out things I wasn't aware of on a conscious level, such as the absence of any interior monologue from Pitt's character, or the movie's kinship with experimental films (a type of film I'm not too familiar with).

I have to say, I prefer reading your deep readings on an individual film, and I'm glad you're doing those with more frequency.

Dean Treadway said...

Thanks, Tony, for the words of encouragement! You're right...I need to be doing more straight reviews. I forget how fun they are to write!

expo66 said...

That rare experience in cinema. Mr. Malick boldly asks that you give him your hand upon entering and let him guide you through his vision. Those who don't get the film cannot trust themselves to relinquish their death grip on a box of useless vanity. A great film and an observant analysis by DT.

Lisa said...

Dean, I just got back from seeing "The Tree of Life" and have recommended this essay of yours to the two friends who saw it with me. I need to see this again, and after reading your piece I think I have a better grasp of some of the bits. I was enthralled by the creation/dinosaur/asteroid scenes, and the afterlife/beach was especially amazing to me. Such a film! The theatre we saw it at had a little explanation card to the effect that they don't give refunds, and be aware that this movie is different, because they had a patron go ballistic when it didn't make sense to him! :-) You'd think he'd at least have the decency to keep his confusion to himself!

Beautiful post, Dean! oxox

Anonymous said...

"Grey, my friend, is every theory And green is Life’s golden tree."

The review is nice and wise. But without understanding what's Malick's Tree, it's all useless.
Yes, you must see this much more than one, two or three times. Many spectators didn't notice someone saying “Attenzione” in the skyscraper, for example.
It's important to be alert to this sort of details, or so I believe.
A review somehow different:

Dean Treadway said...

I'm ecstatic that you thought so much of the film, Lisa. You are an especially hard person to please in regards to movies, and that you thought so much of it makes me incredibly happy.

Shirley said...

What a wonderful review and description of this movie. I have made reference to it in my own blog and quoted you with a link to yours. I watched this movie last night and it left me feeling so very much in awe of the insignificance of our lives and the role we play on this planet, the universe! Breathtaking movie.
Thanks for the wonderful insight!

John B. said...

I just saw The Tree of Life for the first time last week, and in the course of trying to say something worthwhile about it on my own blog, I ran across your post while on a search for stills from it. (I'll be using the still of the kids' shadows as a starting point.) I say "something worthwhile" because this is one of those films that clearly--in a very good way--demands successive viewings. I really, really liked it, but I'm still pretty overwhelmed by it: Where does one start? Where does one end, once started?

I just wanted to thank you for this post. I'm not sure, even after three viewings, I would have seen as much as you seem to have. Your post did confirm for me some hunches I had about the film (the kinship with Koyaanisqatsi in particular), so I'm grateful to see that maybe I'm not as far off on this thing as I'd begun to wonder. Anyway, thanks for an illuminating discussion of this awe-inspiring film.

Dean Treadway said...

I appreciate your thanks, John. This is a movie that will stand the test of time, and even though you may not get it all now, I hope that you (and all) will eventually see what I see in it. The word "masterpiece" is thrown about willy-nilly these days, even by me, but I really think this is one work that deserves the label.

Dean Treadway said...

And thank you, too, Shirley. I'm proud of this review. I think it covers everything, while leaving much up to the reader's imagination. I find it astounding that it's my most revisited review on this site. I wrote it in a frenzy, knowing only that it needed to be defended. I suppose I did a good job (though I have revisited the review 4 or 5 times to re-edit it). I'm so happy it helped you appreciate this magnanimous work.