Saturday, June 25, 2011

'The Tree of Life'

In a rather wonderful essay featured in the Criterion version of "The Thin Red Line," David Sterritt writes of Terrence Malick: "His great creative passions -- nuances of light, subtleties of camera movement, rapport between word and picture -- all reflect his conviction that cinematic reality is reality, and that film, treated with due reverence and expertise, is able to absorb not just patterns of luminosity but also the transcendent essence of people, places, and things."

I wouldn't dare try to say it better myself.

Terrence Malick is many things as a filmmaker: perfectionist, reclusive, poetic, visionary, artistic, patient; the list goes on. Above all else, he is unique. In just five feature films spread out over almost forty years, he has made some truly gorgeous work. He is a mood filmmaker, concentrating much more on conceptual and emotional connections instead of narrative causality, something that certainly puts him at odds with most of Hollywood. His use of whispered voiceover, of effervescent camera motions and elliptical editing, of sequences that feel more like moments caught and preserved rather than staged in front of a crew, all make him special.

But what makes him IMPORTANT is that he's using this to redefine our conventional semiotic understanding of how film works as a medium. In the vein of Carl Dreyer, Stanley Kubrick, Michelangelo Antonioni, Sergei Eisenstein, and any other number of filmmakers whose work feels more like exercises in theory or form than the conventional narrative engagement we usually expect from the cinema, Malick's meditations on the complex relationships between nature and humanity espouse a different kind of spectatorship. Tone poems, hymns, prayers, treatises -- call them what you will, but these films speak from his soul and seek to unite his spectators with the grandeur of the world as he sees it and tries to understand it.

While "The Thin Red Line" and "The New World," his first two features after a 20 year hiatus, sought to uproot war films and historical epics, respectively, "The Tree of Life" feels like a completely different work. On the surface, it's a domestic melodrama, about a family in the 1950s and how their children grow to perceive the world. But to call it that would seem incredibly reductive, even if this is most certainly a film about a family and, in particular, its elder son's loss of innocence and rediscovery of grace.

For a genre critic like myself, "The Tree of Life" is almost impossible to write about. It so defies structure and narrative, yet at the same time is wholly perceptive and perceptible. The telling is abstract, but the story is rather straightforward. It defies our understanding of "genre" as a way to communicate narratives and ideas, but it embraces every mechanism at the cinema's disposal.

But if I say it's impossible to write about, I could also fill pages and pages with thoughts about what it all means, why it's put together the way it is, and why Malick might have hit one of the most audacious grand slams in 10 years. We need films like this, and we need artists like Malick. We need people to shoot past the moon, to try and experiment with how film can create meaning, to develop it as a medium in exciting new ways.

We live in an incredibly gifted new period for American filmmakers. People like David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, P.T. Anderson, the Coens, Darren Aronofsky (usual suspects, I know) are giving young filmgoers reason to be excited and thrilled by what cinema can offer. Terrance Malick, a bridge figure from the 70s to the present, is, in his deliberateness, patience, and will to be perfect, our next Stanley Kubrick. But I'm going to stop right there, because I'm sure Malick would loathe the comparison, and what he's doing is certainly different from Kubrick. A comparison, like using genre to describe his films, is reductive to how unique he is.

Peter Travers has already made the claim that "The Tree of Life" is this generation's "2001." I'm sure he made that claim because the film opens and closes with a lengthy journey through evolution, into a moment of epiphany and clarity about the human condition, and seeks to explore without explaining "the meaning of life." It's a loaded comparison though, because "Tree of Life" is such a surprise, so infinitely rewarding for those willing to devote themselves wholly to it.

The "evolution of the cosmos" scenes have some of the most amazing photography you're likely to find this side of an IMAX nature documentary, but when you couple them with the story of the O'Briens, you're suddenly confronted with beauty and elegance that seems somewhat intangible. Why are these two interrelated? Why do the voiceovers speak the way they do? Are these flashbacks, imagined happenings? The answers aren't easy, and I don't feel like my providing my own interpretation here.

Every moment cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki captures feels bred from a mysterious reality: from a meteor crashing into the Earth to a child crawling across the floor, this is not a film of scenes that build to a climax. This is a collection of vignettes, images and incidents culled together to form a grander representation.

And while I usually ascribe to the philosophy that film evades reality every step of the way, that the camera apparatus displaces our reality, to watch "The Tree of Life" is to be caught in the midst of religious conversion to believing the camera can reveal the real beauty of nature. Malick makes every inch feel so alive with life, with color, with vitality, with meaning.

Is all this starting to sound a bit vague or general? I mean it to be, if only because I don't want to detract from your own experience of "The Tree of Life." Like so few films, it's an actual mystery. It doesn't spell itself out, it doesn't beg us to revel in its explicated meaning. It merely scrawls images onto celluloid and projects them for us. It's designed for us to be patient, to give ourselves over to the somewhat glacial pace of the film, if only so we can understand the gradual shifts and beats of life.

While Brad Pitt is borderline perfect as a man dealing with the realizations of his own failures, looking to control his family so he can have some semblance of control in his otherwise dictated life, and Jessica Chastain equally haunts as the mother wanting to teach love and grace to her children, their acting is blink-and-you'll-miss-it good. As are the children. They are only part of the broader spectacle. They all wander through the frame, casting gazes and frowns, but somehow they feel like they penetrate past the borders of the screen.

That's how all the film feels, in fact. Each individual moment feels so simple, but its execution feels so pure, and its cumulative effect raises us into a moment of grand epiphany.

Again, I could write more about why I personally think the kids were portrayed in particular ways. I could write about how Malick uses the space of the house and how industrial space and natural space collide and overlap throughout the film. I could certainly write about how he uses discontinuous editing, or what I think the meaning of Sean Penn's character is to the overall film. But in a way, I feel like I can't because I feel more and more overwhelmed by this film with every minute I spend away from it. I would need to see it at least two more times to begin tackling these subjects on my own, or at the very least a coffee with a friend who had also seen it once.

That's the real joy of the film. It makes me want to talk about it and explore it, not so much so that I can understand it, but so I can find the details and make my own conceptual connection with it. This is a masterwork, a modern art piece that shows us where films can take us, if only we'll let them.

1 comment:

Matthias said...

Jimmy, I absolutely concur with your astute characterization of the film. I initially viewed it at Cannes and was completely overwhelmed. It is a multi-faceted film, worthy of in-depth discussion. I am looking forward to chat about it with you in person :-)