Monday, May 30, 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life, the fifth film in the nearly four decade career of director Terrence Malick, gives back to cinema, and in particular to American cinema, what it has lost after years of commercialism: a return to an "auteur" sense of artistry that brings us back to the abstract notion best summed up by Italian film director Federico Fellini about a certain type of film catapulting audiences out of the darkness of the theater and into the light of understanding. For Malick, the urge of wanting to share that precious discovery with his audiences is very much alive in this epic film. It is a work that will puzzle many and entertain few. But honestly, this should not surprise anyone, accustomed as we are at this time of the year to paying our overpriced admission tickets only to be plunged into a world of summer explosions and endless sequels. Here's a summer movie (I'm actually surprised that Fox Searchlight Pictures released it this early in the year) that will not allow you to do that for one second. Hitch along for this singular ride and you will find yourself in the middle of one extraordinary journey seldom experienced in film these days.

The Tree of Life reaches beyond the bounds of traditional storytelling at every turn. Not content with telling the story of a dysfunctional family in Waco, Texas in the 1950s, the film reaches back to the beginnings of time. Why? For the same reason that Stanley Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey begins at the dawn of prehistory to tell the story of Mankind's quest in space. We are, all of us, each a part of the whole, and to forget this is to misunderstand our very existence. Malick shows us the birth of the universe, anchors us with a domestic American story of love and loss, and shows us in an unforgettable scene that takes place by the seaside the souls of the departed, content in the afterlife, finally achieving the kind of redemption that we all seek while we are alive. By the end of the film we have experienced the very depths and the very heights of the human condition -- the mirror has been held up to nature: we have seen ourselves.

And to get us through this epic journey, Malick has chosen some of the most ravishing classical music ever assembled for one motion picture. Whatever you think of Malick's masterful film, I am certain that you will not be disappointed by its superb soundtrack featuring the music of Brahms, Berlioz, among many others. And neither will you be disappointed by the powerful performances of Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as a struggling 1950s couple, as well as by their three children portrayed by Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tyre Sheridan. Sean Penn, playing one of the grownup children, gets inside of his cameo role revealing a profoundly deep sense of alienation. Without uttering a single word he is able to convey that he is one of the many lost souls trapped in our modern world of concrete, steel and glass. Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's memorable images are outstandingly beautiful whether capturing Eisenhower's America or the Jurassic prehistoric period.

When Herman Melville wrote and published the entertaining Omoo in 1847 it turned out to be a popular narrative of the South Seas aboard a whaling vessel, selling very well in the US and England. In 1851 Melville published the dark and brooding Moby Dick, another tale aboard a whaling ship, but this time a narrative filled with digressions referencing the Bible, philosophy and cetology. Needless to say, it was a critical and popular failure when it was published. Today Omoo is a nearly forgotten work, while Moby Dick has achieved the status of a classic. Allow me to predict the same fate for Terrence Malick's new film. The Tree of Life is destined for a place in the pantheon (if you allow me an auteur term) of great American films.

1 comment:

Home Inspector Expert said...

I saw this movie over the weekend. I had to be talked into it cuz the last Malick movie I saw in the theater was The Thin Red Line and I spent most of that counting the hairs on my head. All I really remember is Clooney in fatigues and lots of shots of trees blowing in the wind (during which I did my Nell impression for my date… horrible impression, but much more entertaining than that movie).
So, for the first 20 minutes, I was like “uch, what am I doing here?” Then came all the footage of the creation of the universe and the Earth. While that footage was actually kinda awesome, I started to wonder if they had accidentally spliced in a reel from an IMAX movie cuz at the time, it had nothing to do with what was going on.
After those 20 minutes cuz the hour or so with the family stuff. And I have to say this was fantastic. The kid that played the eldest son was great – and he has the unfortunate last name of McCracken. Anyway, the only kinda problem I had was Brad Pitt. Nothing against Mr. Pitt at all, but everyone else in it was so unknown, it made me feel like I was watching someone’s home movies or, dare I say, a reality show of their life. But then, there was Brad Pitt with that shining “MOVIE STAR” sign following him around and it kinda took me out of it. I know this was a pet project for him and he was a producer, but it would’ve served the film more if he got a relative unknown to play the father.
What I loved about this whole section was that it brought me back to another time when life seemed so simpler. I grew up long before the internet was created and I remember just hanging out with kids in the neighborhood, walking around. I remember being outside and climbing trees (wow, trees in a Mallick movie!) and throwing a stick around and it was the greatest amusement. Don’t get me wrong… I love the internet, I love my iPhone, but I still long for those times when you had to be creative on your own and not rely on a screen for social interaction. This whole section of the movie is quite enjoyable.
And then… now, I love me some Sean Penn. But for the life of me, i don’t know what the heck he was doing in this movie. The whole last half hour with him and the “afterlife” or whatever it was and meeting the kid he once was… uch, if I hadn’t started shaving my head, I would’ve spent the time re-counting the hairs on my head to see how many have vacated the scalp. For me, the movie was over when they were driving away from the house.
I still don’t see why it was boo’d at Cannes (yet it then went on to win one of the top honors). But I can understand why people didn’t like it or found it boring and pointless. However, i do plan to buy the blu-ray when it comes out so i can relive the whole middle section. And it’s all gorgeously shot and all, but you can be artsy without being pretentiously boring.