Requesting tickets to Tree of Life, I was offered the following caveat – ‘I just want you to know, before you buy the tickets, this movie doesn’t really have any kind of story, it’s very slow and arty, more or less abstract really, so if you’re looking for entertainment or a plot you might want to pick a different movie’. The last time I experienced anything like this was on the DVD for Tidelands, when beleaguered and evidently paranoid director Terry Gilliam introduced his work by way of an unwarranted 10-minute apology.
‘Wow, you really know how to sell it’, I said, ‘I’ll take three please, before my friends change their minds. Do your movies always come with a disclaimer?’
‘It’s just that so many people have asked for their money back’, explained the teenage clerk, ‘I wanted you to know what to expect.’
Apparently people had been demanding refunds all week, on the shaky grounds that they didn’t like the movie. I’d have been less surprised if I’d been at the mall, but I was at the Nickelodeon, known for showing independent movies and as close to an arthouse cinema as anything the mid-Cape has to offer. In theory, this is where people go to seek out filmmakers of uncompromising vision. Yet they found it appropriate and necessary to preface Malick’s latest film with a lame pseudo-apology.
In my world, a new movie by Terence Malick is a major event. Considered by some a master of cinema, he is a bold visual filmmaker with a rare ability to capture the tiniest ephemera that form the tapestry of life, and the vast forces capable of tearing it apart. Malick made two films in the 1970s, Badlands and Days of Heaven, taking an extraordinary 20 year hiatus before returning with 1998’s The Thin Red Line. Notoriously private, a certain mystique has evolved around his career and personal life. I was already excited to hear that Tree of Life was on release, and determined to catch it on the big screen it was made for. I was now desperately curious to see it.
As the story begins – yes, there is a story – we are introduced to the O’Brien family through a moment of great personal loss, the death of one of three brothers shattering their world through a familiar, almost clichéd, telegram scenario. We are shown moments of drama, already presented as something of a montage: the father, struggling to hear the news above the din of plane propellers, and the look on his face when he finally comprehends; the efforts of neighbors to console the inconsolable mother or stoic father; the young sons climbing the tree in their back yard. These are religious people in the age of the traditional Nuclear Family, when a man was a provider and disciplinarian and a woman was a wife and mother, and in this case a source of ethereal beauty.
The impressionistic opening doesn’t stray too far from the conventions of cinema, but I didn’t have to wait long before it became apparent where Malick loses a chunk of his audience. And it is exactly this passage where the film enters the realms of the extraordinary and spectacular, or for some, the grandiose and pretentious:
Out of blackness emerges a shifting, luminous shape, a nebula cloud perhaps, which could equally represent the creator. In a sequence reminiscent of Olaf Stapleton’s novel Starmaker, we have time to absorb and contemplate each successive image as we move through a bold sequence lasting 12 minutes, which uses pure montage and lush abstracted imagery in an attempt to show us nothing less than God, the cosmos, the creation of Earth, and the evolution of life. Though similar conceptual ground was covered in a sequence in Adaptation for one, the ambition and scale is entirely different here, as is the role of the viewer.
It is not just the length of the montage which proves initially disconcerting, but the time we are ‘abandoned’ to contemplation of each individual image. Watching the abstract requires entering a different mindstate, both meditative & receptive, and the effect is almost Brechtian as we realize this is no short segment but a major chapter of the film. If you can make this perceptual shift and allow the visuals to wash over you, the imagery is entirely successful. There has perhaps been nothing like it since the Stargate sequence in 2001, which to my mind it far exceeds in beauty & coherence.
I’ve worked in abstract filmmaking and found it easy to appreciate the fantastic richness and composition of the images, especially the way the production manages to preserve an organic appearance almost throughout. I was interested to see that my two friends – one forever in search of the unique and challenging and one whose tastes tend more to the mainstream – were each able to appreciate and enjoy these passages.
In many ways, Tree of Life is a companion piece to The Thin Red Line, sharing various stylistic techniques and thematic preoccupations. Often heralded as a masterpiece in its own right, The Thin Red Line deals with the beauty of life and the incomprehensible horrors of war, and may even have been something of a warm-up piece for Tree of Life (in his 20-year career ‘break’, Malick reportedly had been developing a project known as Q which in time became Tree of Life). In both films, Malick is attempting to communicate a sense of awe with nature and creation, and mortal humans’ eternal search for meaning in the face of overwhelming and seemingly impartial forces. While both are successful in terms of the imagery, Tree of Life is especially stunning in its scope.
Where the extravagant visuals offer pure cinematic pleasure, and the music is at least adequate, what is less successful is the use of voice-over, which plays like a weak rehash of the The Thin Red Line. When I first saw that film I cringed through the voice over, which felt like a cheesy device masquerading as something far deeper, though I’ve warmed to it a little in subsequent viewings. In Tree Of Life, the voice-over takes on a similar role – lost, sad voices, asking big, generalistic questions directed seemingly at God, if indeed God is in residence: “Lord, why?” “Where are you?” etc… While it gets the point across, it is by way of an over-earnest sledgehammer, and though I hate to say it, lazy filmmaking. I’m not sure what else he could have done, but I wish he’d come up with a different solution.
This open vagueness is at least in keeping with his thematic interests both as a filmmaker and in this film in particular – of the universal vs. the specific, the fleeting vs. the eternal, in essence the big vs. the small. While the specific is present in every unfolding detail of the family’s life, it emerges in this sequence only through the potentially distracting dinosaurs which are given two very odd ‘cameos’.
In one a large dinosaur encounters a smaller dinosaur, possibly injured and apparently hiding, and steps on his head in an almost comical fashion. Apparently capable of crushing the smaller dinosaur, he (a relevant gender assumption) does this again and again, asserting his alpha-dominance over the vulnerable other in an encounter which is tense yet ultimately tender in the alpha’s care not to cause real damage. This scene parallels the interaction between the brothers and also the father as it develops later.
In another odd vignette a dinosaur stands fatally injured on the shore, bleeding red into the water in the aftermath of an attack. The dinosaur’s reaction seems to be one of confusion, as the hapless creature attempts to lick or even eat the flesh about the cavernous wound. In a sense this is a dino-equivalent of so many moments in The Thin Red Line where characters meet their unexpected demise with a bewilderment that is somehow touching.
One of my friends who adored the film felt the dinosaurs were the worst part, as one of the few places that calls attention to the digital effects, yet the strangeness of their interaction made them more realistic than others we’ve seen and serves to link the common experience of life and death throughout all evolved species – ultimately suggesting that the question asked of ‘God’ was being asked wordlessly and without any concept of god, since the beginning of intelligent consciousness.
Malick goes on to present us with a smorgasbord of intimate family moments as bubbles in the ocean of time. Each is unique yet speaks of universal human experience, and the environment figures as a major character throughout. The family home and surrounding neighborhood, a lovingly rendered 1950s idyll, throws into sharp relief adult Jack’s overwhelming sterile cathedral of a work place, and modernist home. My friend who grew up in the 1950s says it reminded him of the ‘golden age’, though I imagine Malick chose this era not because it represented some lost American ideal but because it captures the world of his own childhood.
As the film progresses, the flaws in paradise are revealed. As the children literally frolic in DDT, we see clearly how the defined gender roles of the time provide stability and closeness on the one hand, yet limit the possibilities for freedom and authentic spiritual relationships. While underpinned by love the relationship between the parents is somewhat sterile, and their relationships with the children are troubled as they grow increasingly alienated, the father eventually approaching the status of tyrant.
There is solid acting and insightful examination of gender-based interactions: brother-father, brother-brother, mother-son and husband-wife. Yet one thing is lacking in a film that attempts so honest an exploration of human relationships, and that is the sex. Where is it? Is it not part of the tree of life? I’m not suggesting we see the main characters or indeed the dinosaurs getting it on, but it’s a strangely sexless world inhabited here. Traces we see are limited to the Mother as archetype, the sexual evidence provided by babies and a walk-on girlfriend, a certain discomfort between the parents and the children that seems related to sexuality, and the boys approaching puberty and the ensuing oedipal confusion. Somehow leaving us to fill in all the blanks doesn’t seem in keeping with the approach of the film.
This is a film replete with riddles. Events occur in the family’s life that are sometimes ambiguous, and we float freely (as does the camera) between memories, dreams, and the subconscious world. Surviving brother Jack (Sean Penn) seems to be the main character, but it is unclear who’s mind, if any, we are in at any given point. Most troubling is a beach scene that plays as The Afterlife but looks like a family gathering for the shell-shocked or Valium-popping, as characters mill about gormlessly. Here Jack seems to be the dreamer or newly-dead, because everyone else is aged as though drawn from some moment lodged in his memory. Yet the importance of his perspective in the narrative seems arbitrary.
Whether this scene is meant to be symbolic or literally transport events onto a spiritual plane is one of many questions posed about religion. The film takes a Christian perspective because this family happen to be Christian, but does it go deeper than that? It is left for the audience to take what they will, but in the opening we hear Mrs O’Brien discussing two ways, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. According to her, the way of nature is the lower, and the way of grace, of imposition of human will onto nature, represents the higher path. But contrasting the inherent magnificence of nature with the petty property borders imposed by Mr O’Brien on the family’s yard, we have to question this. As Mrs. O’Brien helpfully informs us, unless you love, your life will flash by. And love, be it grace or nature, shines through here as the great animating force.
Magnificent? Pretentious? Awe-Inspiring? Grandiose? Ground-breaking? Facile? Success or failure, one word defines this work: risky. It is only in the voice-over that Malick attempts to create a safety net and arguably compromises his vision. One can look for similar ambition in Godfrey Reggio’s Koyanisquattsi, or the work of Tarkovsky or Herzog. Whatever we feel about their films, we need filmmakers like these because they are unafraid try to capture the awesome beauty of this world on film, however presumptuous that may be.
- Did Sean Penn really pee on The Tree of Life? (blogs.suntimes.com)