Dinca: contemporary art and culture

Thoughts on The Tree of Life

Life, death, and everything in between

by Jack Kentala

It seems oddly appropriate that I spent yesterday in a suburban mondoplex, eyes glued to X-Men: First Class like any respectable summer moviegoer. X-Men: First Class was a film that has its merits like any other, sure, but it has superheroes and thus has to blindly prescribe to the Louder Is Better school of filmmaking; so much sound and fury that Faulkner wouldn’t know what to do with it.

During the much-publicized climax, Michael Fassbender’s Magneto hangs precariously from the exposed landing gear of the mutants’ ship, focusing all his energy into lifting a nuclear submarine, propeller still churning, up into the skies around Cuba. It’s the film’s money shot; it’s something so awesome, in the truest definition of the word, that I couldn’t help but get a little dumbstruck at considering that kind of world-changing power, lodged in the mere shell of a man. It’s a showstopper. As a lover of giant spectacle, I had to wink a few tears out of my eyes.

Now imagine if I hadn’t seen a thing about it in one of the millions of trailers.

The Tree of Life (2011), by way of its increasingly-experimental director Terrence Malick, contains scores of these money shots – something so beautiful or rapturous that you can do nothing but take a deep breath – that are almost tossed off, as though they have no value. Malick – and I don’t want to waste unnecessary prose on this short attempt at highlighting the film, so if you don’t know about Malick’s reputation, do some research and find out what a fascinating figure he is – is known for his visual flair. He and his cinematographers (here, Emmanuel Lubezski, a second collaboration since 2005’s The New World) take the usual ordinariness of the natural world and blow it up to screen-filling wonder. Here, the nearly-80-years-old director sets his sights a little grander – including universe- and earth-creation footage that I presume will mostly be withheld for the rumored IMAX documentary about such events – and shows us not only the world, but the way in which that beauty in our world was created.

Here is where I make the semi-apologetic statement that, yes, I plan to see The Tree of Life at least another time, maybe another after that, since I’m such an unashamed Malick fan that I doubt I can really find solid footing about The Tree Life so soon after my first viewing. The first time I saw The New World – my first Malick film in theaters (was, alas, too young for the R-rated The Thin Red Line, and my twelve-year-old sensibilities would’ve probably hated it) – I came out of a 20-screen compound into a 2 a.m. parking lot, frozen in a Minnesota winter and freezing in a poorly-warming-up car, mostly with a head-scratching “Huh?” on my mind. I had known I had just seen another very, very, very great film by my favorite living director (I’m very guarded what I call a “masterpiece” – it takes at leas ten years of hindsight to give that gavel-pounding verdict), but I had to let it settle like a, uh, big meal. Only later did I come up with my little theories about the film that I didn’t see elsewhere – like how the Wagner suites played over scenes of the “Naturals” showed that the film is viewed through the prism of Smith and the West, and how they can only equate the Naturals’ beauty with something they know (Wagner) and around and around we go – and tried to bury the still-in-film-school attempt to write a paper about it and, thus, invariably ruin the movie forever.

So The Tree of Life is about a mom and a dad father and their three sons in suburban Waco, Texas sometime in the whitewashed 1950s. To say that it’s a mostly-plotless film that sort of gives and takes – disregarding the usual axis of peaks and valleys that characterize most three-act films that don’t actively engage the viewer – will be, for most, a source of many yawns. Ever since The Thin Red Line (1998), Malick films haven’t worked the way other movies function. While there’s usually some element that anchors or pushes the narrative – the crimes in Badlands (1973), something similar in Days of Heaven (1978), the battle for Guadalcanal in The Thin Red Line, and the colonization of Jamestown in The New World – The Tree of Life might be Malick’s coming-out party that, after a mere five films but certainly forty years of conceptualizing unrealized projects, he’s decided to stick with his guns of visual arrest and running voiceovers and, maybe, just maybe, throw linearity out the window and following a sort of elliptical narrative that recalls Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971).

It’s this lack of one standard timeline that gets the movie into its most trouble. Sure, there’s some bouncing between the 50s and the modern day in some anonymous urbanscape. The latter is the first time Malick, in the whole of his career, has set part of a film in contemporary times, and, if nothing else, it gives him a new visual playground. His naturalist’s suspicions of glass-and-steel high-rises give the modern-day segments a natural claustrophobia. (The sequences are painfully short – including scant screen time by Sean Penn, who’s in the movie about as long as George Clooney in The Thin Red Line [the first collab between Malick and Penn, who had a substantial role].) That stuff is easy to kick through vis a vis what is happening where. But a few spots in the 50s timeline either point to my terrible abilities as a filmwatcher or my own half-certainty it was all a cinematic device. Particularly, one of the three sons of Brad Pitt and the luminous, haunted Jessica Chastain seems to die twice, yet subsequent scenes show all three boys together. Given that a possible read on the POV is that it’s all in Penn’s head, maybe you can chalk it up to an Unreliable Narrator. Or maybe I’ll go on Wikipedia after I write this and see how wrong I was.

(Update: I did indeed check some sort of plot summary, and while I’m [mostly] wrong, it’s still confusing given that there’s no warning that the narrative sort of fractures at one point and jumps forward. Minor quibble.)

The universe-creation scenes are mostly confined to one reel and act  elsewhere as intertitles between major sections of the film. Rumor is that The Tree of Life was going to be coupled with an IMAX documentary called The Voyage of Time (and yes, I know it sounds like a Disneyworld ride that exits through a gift shop). To get ready for Cannes, this supposed time-voyage was scrapped, and what was completed was put into The Tree of Life. For the large part, it’s hypnotic, astounding, and mind-bending enough for a certain LA theater proudly advertising they have daily Tree of Life showings at 4:20 p.m. During the sustained narrative of how our hot, lava-covered, noxious-gas-filled earth turned fertile, it soon comes clear that it plays as a perfect analog to how a tumultuous, oft-ugly process can create something beautiful, the same as – ta da! – the birth of a human child.

Here’s another PSA about what’s probably the biggest misstep of the film: You’ve well known by now that there are DINOSAURS (capitalization necessary) in The Tree of Life, and yes, they’re fortunately relegated to the deep past and play no part in man’s future. After the free-flowing exhibition of oozing primordial matter and cold, cold wind forming the earth, a mini narrative suddenly takes brief shape as a few dinosaurs show up. Of course the CG isn’t the greatest, and that always has the nasty tendency to pull back a disbelief-suspension layer. There’s a scene of some dinosaurs interacting – such as a predator possibly finding mercy within its reptilian brain by sparing a wounded iguanadon (right?), which has about as much evolutionary significance as Moon Watcher picking up a bone in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – and while it’s done with a minimalism that makes it work within the context of the greater film, it still seems like a cast-off scene from the (obligatory) supposed Voyage of Time documentary.

We’re almost done, I swear.

Again, any filmwatcher with an opinion of Malick usually sides with one of two opposite poles, and Malick’s refusal to make a film without a voiceover track leaves some permanently turned off of his work. What’s really sort of amazing is how little voiceover there is in The Tree of Life. Gone is the somewhat heavy-handed expository VO of The New World and some of the on-the-nose poetry of The Thin Red Line’s stacked cast. Here, it’s mostly barely-heard whispers, nothing ever enunciated clear enough to get across any plain meaning. The Tree of Life also has barely any dialog whatsoever. It’s one of the closer attempts at a modern silent film I’ve seen.

In interviews with nearly everyone who’s worked with Malick and uncomfortably spoken about Malick’s methods (since a man of such intense privateness doesn’t like his trade secrets aired, I imagine), apparently it’s a common practice for Malick to run a take with script lines, then run another with no words said at all. It’s something that I’ve – rather successfully – ripped off in my own work, and something that Malick, in his quiet, impressionistic films, can get away with and have few people be the wiser.

At the risk of sounding like some Ebert-style fuddy duddy: Filmmaking and film have been cheapened with every passing year and the many, many ways you can watch them. I have my first feature up on YouTube, but I cringe at the thought of someone watching it piecemeal, prone to distractions, hideous compression artifacting, seen under too-bright lights and played out of shitty laptop speakers. And that brings me back to where I started: I watch movies like X-Men: First Class because, aesthetically important or not, they’re designed to play on a big screen with big sound, in a big dark room where you’re not allowed to talk or use your cell phone. But that experience, to me, is like a meal full of empty calories. Shortly after seeing The Tree of Life, I said to a friend, “This might not have much stock coming from an atheist, but seeing a Terrence Malick film, for me, is like going to church. There’s just something… nourishing and fulfilling about it.” (And yes, I was laughed at.)

Feel free to put that blurb on a poster, Fox Searchlight. Not that there’s any harder way to market a film like this other than, thank god, getting to plaster the Palme d’Or logo on one-sheets and trailers. (The one-screen arthouse theater in Minneapolis I saw this at – the Landmark Uptown – had on its marquee “THE TREE OF LIFE – CANNES WINNER” like that’s supposed to bring in more traffic?) The Tree of Life, in extremely limited to release, is pulling in huge per-screen averages (the metric best used to determine limited-run box-office takes versus something like X-Men, which opens on several thousand screens while The Tree of Life opens on several dozen), and it always raises the little specter of hope that the adult filmgoing public still has an appetite for something daring and slow and, many times, terrifying beautiful about the fleeting joy and intense sorrow of life and death.

Now that Malick – again, about to top eighty years – might be entering his most prolific phase now that, honestly, he doesn’t have that many years left. And even though there’s still his stubborn (but by no means unnecessary) trademarks voiceover and the nature-doc cinematography, he’s still the only man who can do what he does. It’s a thrilling time to know one future Malick feature is in the can – the prospective The Burial with Javier Bardem, Ben Affleck, and Rachel McAdams – and another prepped for shooting this summer. Even at his glacial pace, and even without any official word from the man for decades, Malick’s looming presence is felt in every frame of The Tree of Life and, for those perceptive enough to feel it, over the entirety of modern filmmaking.

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