Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick has more in common with poets than he does with most filmmakers. He's not a storyteller in the sense that we've come to expect from American directors, especially in Hollywood. I point this out neither to praise nor diminish him. Going into one of Malick's films, it's just important to know what you are going to see.

Most movies--great movies, good movies, terrible movies--tell stories. It has been thus since the early days of film. Whether we realize it or not, when we go to the movies we expect to see a sequence of events about a set of characters. We expect rising action, complications, a climax, and perhaps a resolution. This is true of both artistic masterpieces and commercial dreck.

There is a whole other school of filmmaking, however, that is non-narrative, that is more abstract in nature. It is about movement and sound. Images are created not to further a plot but to invoke mood and feeling, and the juxtaposition of these images create meaning to be interpreted. You must sort through these films to decide what they mean (if, indeed, they mean anything). You can trace this type of "experimental film" back to European surrealists like Bunuel (whose 1929 UN CHIEN ANDALOU is still as fresh and scary as the day it was made) and American avant-gardists like Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, co-directors of the indispensable 1943 film MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON. (Besides being trippy and entertaining, the film is
indispensable because it is such a jarring time capsule. It's hard to believe MESHES IN THE AFTERNOON was made the same year CASABLANCA won Best Picture at the Oscars). The great modern experimental filmmaker was doubtless Stan Brakhage who died in 2002 and left behind some 370-something films.

What makes Terrence Malick such an oddity is the way he straddles the two worlds of narrative and non-narrative filmmaking. His film THE TREE OF LIFE has narrative
passages, but it's not really a story. It's more of a memory album. We see a man played by Sean Penn, a successful architect who works in a high rise building. He seems to be reflecting on his childhood in Texas. His memories make up the main part of the film. His father (played by a laconic Brad Pitt) and mother (played by the ethereal newcomer Jessica Chastain) create a home together that is full of love and tension and violence and wonder. There are incidents involving these characters I could recount, but there's a far more important point to make instead.

In our own lives, we all create a narrative for ourselves. I have one: about a childhood in Arkansas, about my parents, about my two brothers, about leaving home and moving out of state, about my education and relationships along the way. It's the story of my life, but it is only a story I tell. I've shaved away 99.9% of my actual life, reduced it down to some bullet points about my existence. My actual memories, though, are a collection of a million images and impressions: the heat of summer, the sound of my brothers' laughter, my father's calloused hands, the softness of my mother's skin.

That physical sense of memory is what Malick is after in THE TREE OF LIFE, and in this he succeeds gloriously. This is an art film, a film about images and memory. That's not really the odd part about it, though. Many art films get made and go unseen by the general public every year. What makes THE TREE OF LIFE an oddity is that it was made in Hollywood, has incredible special effects and a high production value, and features a major movie star in Sean Penn and an international superstar in Brad Pitt. It's because of the desire of these two stars, and particularly Pitt, to be in a Terrence Malick film that THE TREE OF LIFE even got made, much less released to the public. (I saw this quiet, contemplative tone poem at a theater that was also showing THOR in 3D.)

I have yet to discuss two major sections of the film: a twenty-minute sequence near the beginning in which we see the universe come into being, and the end of the film, an almost surrealist sequence, in which we seem to be seeing either a) heaven, b) the end of the world, or c) something else.

I love the beginning sequence, in part because it's such a vindication for the art of special effects. Like many movie geeks, I sometimes tire of watching shit blow up real good in movies. To watch Malick and his special effects team create the beginning of the world is to be swept into a realm of wonder that movies so rarely even attempt to touch.

As for the end...I don't know. Malick paints a distinctly Christianity-inspired vision of forgiveness, of restitution and spiritual resolution on the peaceful banks of an ocean after a long walk through a desert. Is he doing our thinking for us here, telling us that heaven is our final destination? Or is it a vision of the way all the people and events in our life seem to converge in our consciousness? Or is it the end of the world? Having seen the film only once, I can't say for sure what the poet is trying to tell us here.

There you have it. THE TREE OF LIFE is certainly unlike any other film playing in theaters right now. It's a film full of the inarticulate sadness and wonder of life. If that sounds too arty, then maybe you should steer clear.

But it is a beautiful work of art. I'll close with a final word about poetry. In its recreation of the beginning of the universe, the film hearkens back to The Book of Job, from which the film takes its epigraph: "where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Yaweh's rhetorical question to Job is famously evasive. After all, he never gives Job the "reason" for human suffering, but what his answer does make clear is that the suffering of humanity is built into the foundation of existence. We live, we suffer, we die. "The Lord giveth," as Job tells us, "and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." In other words: that's life.

Finally, in its memory sequences involving the family--particularly the hard father and his sensitive son--I was reminded of one of my favorite poems, "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden and the final haunting line:

What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

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