May 27, 2011

The Tree Of Life (05/27/2011)

There is a lengthy segment, running about an hour or so, in the middle of Terence Malick's The Tree Of Life that is beautiful and unforgettable. It begins with the birth of Jack, the closest thing the movie has to a central character, and then, through a series of quick cuts and snatches of moments that I would describe as something between full scenes and montage bits, follows his discovery of the world he's been born into.

This section begins about a third of the way into the movie, I would guess, and I must admit that before it came along, my wife and I were about an inch away from grabbing our stuff and getting the hell outta there.

I knew very little about the picture going in, to be honest with you. I had read an article saying it had been booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and then a few days later I saw another one which announced it had won the Palme d'Or, the festival's highest honor. I can somewhat understand both reactions: That mesmerizing midsection is bookended by two of the most abstract segments I've seen in a wide-release movie this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey (with which it seems to share some conceptual similarities). There was a smattering of enthusiastic applause at the end of the movie, but while we were making our way back to our car, we heard several people going on and on about how much they hated it, vowing that they would never watch a Terence Malick film again.

To be honest with you, I'm not entirely sure where I come down on it myself. I think of myself as an astute movie goer, but I was at a bit of a loss to interpret what those beginning and end parts of picture were really getting at, and what the take-away, perhaps, was supposed to be. There's something big and cosmic happening in The Tree Of Life, but did the experience really speak to me on a deep level or am I trying to appear intelligent to my friends by saying that it did?

Although you may be mislead by the presence in the cast of Brad Pitt as Jack's father and Sean Penn as an older Jack, don't be fooled: This is not really a narrative movie: It's an art movie with some heavily avant-garde elements. Even that section that I really like does not constitute a story, per se: It's more like a collection of memories that are as much about "feeling" and "atmosphere" as they are about being literal.

The film opens with a very abstract sequence wherein the parents are informed that Jack's little brother, now 19, has been killed in Vietnam. It's a time period that the film will never return to, but which hangs over the rest of the picture's past and future. Throughout the film, we hear various characters whisper in hushed tones every now and again - possibly praying? - all raising questions about spirituality, God, and the nature of life itself. "How do you see us?," Jack's mother, played by Jessica Chastain, asks while mourning her son. The movie then segues into a lengthy, lengthy sequence that meticulously shows how gasses came together in space to form the planets, the coming of the dinosaurs (!), and the evolution of life and nature as we know them.

It was during this "formation of the planets" section that I noticed the most walk-outs. The woman sitting next to Laura turned to her friend and said, "I'll see you in the book store!," and abruptly left, never to return. Others trickled out at intermittent points during the film, and one guy in the back of the theater proclaimed, "Well, that was a big piece of shit!" once the credits started rolling.

The aforementioned segment with Jack that I really liked was a breath of fresh air because it is the first time the picture is told from a character's point of view. As Jack grows, we follow his attention as it shifts from the beauty of the trees and the skies to having a sense of what kind of people his parents are. This further evolves into what I would guess are a series of Malick's nostalgic recollections: We're shown things Jack does with his parents... how their details get filled in with time. We see how he interacts with his friends (and how that changes with time), the moment he becomes aware of the concept of death, and other assorted incidents from childhood that shape who Jack is. Walking through town with his family, he sees men in chains, under police custody, and wonders if such a life could happen to him. After a childhood friend drowns at the local pool, it dawns on him that his parents will one day die, and that eventually, he will too.

As for the ending segment, which seems to show an adult Jack (now played by an ever-sweaty and miserable looking Sean Penn) remembering his life... well, I don't know what to make of that!

Religion is a major thematic element in this movie, but I honestly was unsure what Malick was saying about it. If I knew more about the man himself, perhaps his viewpoint would be a bit more clear to me, but it is not apparent from watching the film alone, and on those terms, I'm not sure how successful his endeavor is. I actually kind of admire innovative and experimental approaches to filmmaking, provided that the filmmaker supplies the audience with adequate tools to decode what the picture is trying to say. I'm not convinced that The Tree Of Life does that in and of itself. It is memorable, and it is powerful, but I suspect that if I encouraged a friend to go see it, I would be greeted with an earful later when they questioned how I could possibly set them up like that when something like Midnight In Paris was playing next door. Again, I do think the "middle" of the movie is quite striking. Brilliant, really. But at the same time it too is more of a feeling than the sort of thing that has a clear narrative purpose.

I thought of 2001: A Space Odyssey several times during the picture, actually. Not only because of the lengthy Nova segment that had no dialogue and the dramatic classical music throughout the film that was occasionally reminiscent of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," but also because I found the pattern of the various segments (and my enjoyment of them) to be quite similar. With that movie, I think the stuff on the space station is highly engaging, but everything before and after that is a certain kind of low-grade torture. I've even tried to watch it a few times as an adult, but always have the distinct feeling that there's something about it that I'm simply not getting. And I don't necessarily mean "not getting" as in "not understanding"... I mean, I've never quite felt the powerful vibe that others do.

Similarly, while I will never forget The Tree Of Life, everything outside of that quasi-narrative section feels a little like a deeply symbolic cinematic jerk-off session. It seems like it's an intelligent , sophisticated work, but it takes a chap who is a more intellectual (and more interested) than myself to really understand and appreciate what it's doing.

No comments:

Post a Comment