Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Tree of Life: Part One Reconciling the Hype

Every so often, sometimes years in between, a film comes along that often sight unseen has the illusion to change, distort, and powerfully absorb the movie-obsessed population.  Often this comes a major filmmaker whose prior work has been analyzed, dissected and over-watched and seen as beacon and standard.  The filmmaking already exhibited by Terrence Malick, whose five previous films have been leisurely made throughout his four-decade career, proves that his movies are those rare celluloid creations to be treasured.  The challenge of course that in building an totally excusable fandom around his work requires a lot of patience.  Not just because of his snail pace in making pictures, lots has been said of his perfectionism, but the patience required in actually watching his movies, all of which are precise and delicate, meandering and slow.  His latest, The Tree of Life, premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival this past week (his first trip to the festival since 1998's The Thin Red Line; he's only made one movie in the interim, The New World, 2005) and was greeted with mixed results.  There were "boos," of course there would be, as well as solid praise for what looks like a beautifully intriguing and maddening piece of work exploring the meaning of it all, or something, all while distilling 1950s Americana.  As one not fortunate enough to be in France, I wait, an all too familiar feeling when dealing with Malick, but as the we get to the release, now within days-counting reach (unfortunately cinemaphiles not currently residing in major cities, will have to wait longer), there's that irritating question mark.  And one, and really this is just personal therapy I'm sharing, must take a deep breath and rationalize that no, The Tree of Life will not be the cinematic equivalent of the second coming of Christ (though many early reviewers have likened to a religious experience) and that no film could ever really live up to expectations set so high by the devotees of Malick.  Sure some all already proclaiming it's a masterpiece, and that will continue, others are more taciturn about distilling their acclaim, fully aware that cinematic experiences like I'm sure this is (and is true of the rest of body of work) are movies require more waiting and more patience.  His past films always seem to delight and haunt and linger long afterwards, while watching them can lull and confuse.  Taking a deep breath...

And while others enjoy they're favorite sports teams, or television shows, or recreational drugs, or what have you, I have the cinema.  And those tingling with anticipation moments when a proven artist births something new, there's always that pre-euphoric panic of what if it all goes wrong. Perhaps the last time an auteur had this much at stake was last winter when Darren Aronofsky unveiled Black Swan, the time before that might have been when Paul Thomas Anderson released There Will Be Blood (2007), another filmmaker that keeps us waiting, thankfully he is allegedly going back to work with a film called The Master, slated for release in 2013, starring Joaquin Phoenix, oh boy.  But it's different with Malick, who in five films has exhibited such an uncommon eye for slice of life Americana, even when settled in different, scary and exotic locations.  There's a beatific naturalism and beauty, even in stories hardly beautiful.  An obsessively detailed place for dreams and nightmares.  Working on his must be exhausting, that's the only excuse for such little output.  And for that reason, he's likely one of the very few (perhaps the only one in our current climate) who could get away with what he does, for his films aren't at all accessible, four quadrant runaway successes; they require too much time, and typically multiple viewings.  Yet there's a strong and passionate legacy to all of his films, of which I truly doubt will change, whatever the initial, or long-standing reaction to The Tree of Life is.  Malick has been compared to Stanley Kubrick, and more than one early reviewer has compared The Tree of Life to 2001: A Space Odyssey; again taking a deep breath.

His first film, and I would strongly argue, his best, though that's not a fight I want have was Badlands (1973), which came out in a different movie world, likely the solar opposite to one today, or even the one a decade before it came out.  Malick was of the generation of other prominent New Wave American filmmakers that churned out the most challenging and biting of product during the late 1960\early 1970s, although Malick might have been the most unassuming of a bunch that included Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, et al.  And perhaps Badlands was kind of unassuming when it opened, for what a strange and beguiling film it was, and still is.  Starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, the film was a dramatization of a real-life killing spree that took place in late 1950s.  I think the poster's tagline explains it best:

"He was 25 years old.
He combed his hair like James Dean.
She was 15.
She took music lessons and could twirl a baton.
For a while they lived in a tree house.
In 1959, she watched as he killed a lot of people."

And the film like the above words, is oddly settled, strangely beautiful, and a brilliant mixture of the innocence and violent.  With also a squarely American treatise that our country, like the young killers in Badlands, have always mixed the innocence with the violent hand in hand.  A more urgent comment on American mores came five years after Badlands with Days of Heaven, in which set during the turn of the century (his films were always looking back) starred Richard Gere and Brooke Adams as a couple trying to get out of poverty.  A bigger statement was raised, but truth be said, I myself have to revisit the film; it was the first Malick picture to win an Oscar, for Best Cinematography (all of films, except for Badlands, have been nominated for they're pretty pictures), and Malick himself won the Best Director at the 1978 Cannes Film Festival.

He sat the next two decades out, and returned with The Thin Red Line (1998), based on James Joyce's novel, a WWII epic that had the misfortune (or maybe not) of being released the same year as Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan.  Featuring an all star cast that included Sean Penn (also in The Tree of Life), John Cusack, George Clooney and John Travolta, largely set during the battle of Guadalcanal.  The movie appears not at all interested in it's cavalcade of celebrities (all of whom, I'm sure jumped at the chance to work with the mysterious enigmatic filmmaker), for Malick is through and through always the star of films, even as the unassuming man himself will never do press releases, and rarely is ever photographed.  More challenging and cerebral than Speilberg's more popular epic, there's still an broader scope in Malick's meditative portrait of war.  Seven years later came The New World (2005), which went even further back in American history, focusing on the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas, and again showcased his gifts for a broader, serious story tapered into a poetic, prosaic way; nature and the outdoors are important in all of his films.  Distributor New Line Cinema botched the release of The New World so badly that it was quite clear which cut of the film got shown where...I still feel cheated, but whatever version I saw was meticulous and ripely beautiful, if perhaps for the first time, slightly missing the early magic.

Surprisingly, and perhaps most shockingly of all, the elusive filmmaker is already preparing his next film, a love story starring Ben Affleck, Rachel MacAdams, Javier Bardem, Rachel Weisz and The Tree of Life co-star Jessica Chastain.  Known now just as Untitled Terrence Malick project, with an IMDb release date of 2012, which means I'll give it five or six years to see the light of day.
 And now I wait.  Taking another deep breath...

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