Wednesday, June 1, 2011
The Tree of Life: Part Two Watching the Film
What I saw was a meticulously crafted, beautifully filmed piece of gobbledygook. Malick's powers as a filmmaker and visual stylist\poet are unparalleled on American shores, or international ones as well, but there pretty images all lead up to a strangely distancing film that always appears to keep its audience at arms length. The Tree of Life is a singular, and maddening exploration (perhaps) of the meaning and origin of life as seen through the prism of a 1950s nuclear family. Mr. O'Brien (played with maturity and strong willed precision by Brad Pitt) is the breadwinner, and a signifier for the harsher, crueler aspects of the universe, thus the films representation of nature. He teaches his three young sons to be tough and that to get what they want out of life, they must demand the respect and intimate the belittling forces outside. In perhaps a Darwinian sense of irony, Mr. O'Brien is a bit of failure, a dreamer and owner of several patents never seen to fruition, giving up his big plans for a better future for his young children. He's also a harsh disciplinarian, demanding much from his young sons (perhaps too much) and emphases the powers of strength, mostly externally.
On the other side, and I suppose the counter force of the film is Mrs. O'Brien (played with soft and loving gestures by Jessica Chastain) who represents grace. Doting and motherly (perhaps so much so that it falls into caricature), Mrs. O'Brien is ethereal and all pleasing, extolling kindness and tenderness to her three young sons. This is seen is exquisitely bright montages of her playing and chasing and running around with her children. I'm not quite sure what the intention Mr. Malick really had for the Mrs. O'Brien role, a cipher and idealized; she comes across as a mixed between a 1950s sitcom mom with her pretty dresses and well-managed hair-dos crossed with a Disney princess (there's a scene where animals are drawn to her that might be the closest thing to levity here), always with arms extended...she's practically going to break down in song at any second. But, by design, the words that are said (and there's not very many) in this magnum Malick opus are mostly voice-overs, and likely inner prayers as opposed to human interaction, another one of the experimentally distancing motifs in the film.
The opposing forces of Dad's nature versus Mom's grace hit son Jack (Hunter McCracken, a delightfully non-professional acting presence) the hardest as he's grapples both sides. The middle of stretches of film encompasses Jack's childhood with a serene elegance, both as boys-will-be-boys enchantment and loss of innocence. An early childhood tragedy at a local swimming pool is potent is its immediacy, as is the curiosity of random of boyhood mischief. A later years tragedy proves more problematic, as seen by the eyes of a grown up Jack (Sean Penn), a dour, seemingly aimless man in search of a higher being (as visually expressed by a seemingly endless upward elevator ride.) And while perhaps not a faith-enriched film (at least not one that could count on a religious uptick in ticket sales), the search and approval of God appears throughout The Tree of Life (the film opens with a quote from Job), whether directly or not...in such esoteric, inaccessible pet projects like this, nothing may be quite it appears. And as the film starts, or ends, or whichever side it appears to on, perhaps the ultimate meaning behind this mad-director-gone-wild experiment is that the creation of human life may be tantamount to creation of life itself.
And this may the root of the absorbing, exasperating sequence in which Malick explores just that. Enlisting the aid of special effects royalty Douglas Trumbull (who worked on the awe-inspiring, non-computerized imagery for 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that could be seen as an influence, depending on the beholder's eyes), Malick starts at the very beginning, and the nifty, and again, the absolutely visually absorbing sequence charts the Big Bang and various eras of the universe, complete with a cameo appearance from a dinosaur. What could be seen as showboating, or pretentious, or a filmmaker's ego gone full tilt (and\or all of the above) is nearly as achingly beautiful and tedious as everything else that surrounds The Tree of Life. But again, the mystery evokes, as to what the whole thing means, and why is it here? For a film that intentionally gives very clues as to it's true essence, a sad fact permeates that perhaps it all adds up to not that much at all, and as nature and grace battle it out for supremacy, there's little in store for real, substantial human drama. That The Tree of Life, with it's compelling and meticulous craftsmanship offers but a tease of provocation both emotionally and intellectually. Perhaps it all amounts to the most ambitious nature documentary ever filmed.
Not that that means nothing, for the production elements are top drawer across the board. Using the same cinematographer he used for his last film The New World (2005), Malick clearly has hit alchemy with Emmanuel Lubezki, whose pristine and fluid photography is breathtaking in its scope and limitless in its ambitious. Lubezki previously brought other hard sell films like Children of Men (2006), Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002) and Sleepy Hollow (1999) an inimitable style and flow that's evocative, new and also kind of poetic, and this film certainly reminds why the Mexican-born cinematography is such a favorite of prickly auteurs and a visionary in his own right. And perhaps a vexation to his films editors (The Tree of Life had five!) Longtime Malick collaborator Jack Fisk (Mr. Sissy Spacek-- the two met on Malick's first feature, Badlands) does his typical superior job in production design, both with the more real environments that beautifully detail idyllic Americana and the stranger ones. The score by Alexandre Desplat is so shaped by the other classical pieces of music in the film, that one would be hard pressed to tell what exactly is original and what isn't...another staple of Malick filmmaking.
What does one do with a film like this? It's as easy to throw it away as it is appreciate it for what it is. For everything that feels misguided (which would include most of the Sean Penn-modern-age stuff) or juvenile (the story or lack of one, or tease of one, full of holes, either intended or discarded) or boring (perhaps the entire film in its entirety), there's another nagging feeling that perhaps The Tree of Life will creep itself into the cinematic mind-frame and live forever, that there's clearly a method in Malick's madness. But until that happens (at least for this patient, and attentive moviegoer), I suppose what I have to appreciate is the idea of filmmaker on limitless ambition and scope, and mad brio making a film that no one else could have possibly ever entertained the idea of ever making, the hope that it lingers and settles the way some films need to, before making it's ever-lasting legacy, and of course those pretty pictures. For now, I suppose I do what fans of Terrence Malick are prone to doing...wait. C+