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Monday, August 15, 2011

Tree of Life

Before getting to a roundup of the rest of the week's releases, I want to shine a spotlight on Terence Malick's Tree of Life. As the work of one of cinema's great perfectionists, it's clearly a very important work but does that mean I have to like it? What follows is as much my reaction to the reaction of the film as it is to the film itself and, I must warn you, this will go on a bit and will, undoubtedly, be more than a little rambly and self-indulgent. But then, considering the film, that seems oddly appropriate.

Also posted as Artslink.

Terence Malick's latest film, Tree of Life, has gotten probably more gushing, five-star reviews than any other release this year. Most critics simply absolutely adore this film. Me? I don't get it.

Now, lets be clear, I can't simply right this off in the way I would the latest Adam Sandler or Michael Bay abomination. This is a film created with presumably the most noble of intentions by a filmmaker who is known for being both passionate and deathly serious about every single frame he has ever filmed. There are also, it has to be said, a number of moments in the film that are really quite breathtaking on a purely visual level and the acting is, in general, very solid all around. There really is no getting past it, though: I found watching Tree of Life to be an exasperating experience that pushed my patience well beyond breaking point. I hated it, in short.

That really should be that. I'm not, after all, a film student. As a film reviewer I may need some technical understanding about the art form but, ultimately, my job is to take my emotional, visceral and intellectual reaction to a film and be able to put it into words, explaining exactly what it is about the film that did or did  not work for me. It matters little what the intentions of the filmmakers are or what others may think about the work - all that should matter is what I think about it.

It is, in a way, therefor cheating that I didn't simply write up a quick review, eviscerating Malick's latest passion project with a few brutally snarky comments and be done with it. I could, for example, simply say that the five minute "Married Life" montage in Pixar's Up succeeded in saying everything that Tree of Life failed to adequately express and did so in a fraction of the time with far better music and oodles more joy, humour and sadness. Instead, I took to these here interwebs and tried to ascertain what it was that (most) film buffs and revered film critics saw in The Tree of Life that I simply did not.

Here's what I came away with: the film's proponents were either blown away by the film's technical brilliance or were taken in by Malick's impressionistic take on filmmaking - essentially presenting a series of moments that, rather than tell a specific or identifiable story, are there to act as visual cues on which the viewer can place his or her own ideas and emotional impressions. It's hard to argue with either of these points. The Tree of Life is something that could easily serve as an art installation, at home in any half way respectable art gallery to be enjoyed and appreciated by the many lovers and connoisseurs of the impressionist movement.

Personally, though, when it comes to cinema, impressionist art installations only have their place when they serve an actual narrative. The Tree of Life does have a plot (guy in his 60s looks back at his childhood and the time leading up to the death of his younger brother) but there's a reason why so many have used terms like "anti-narrative" when describing the film: its plot and its characters are simply convenient devices on which Malick can hang his visual poetry and his (seemingly straight forward) spiritual outlook.     
And I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here. I am perfectly willing to concede that the only crime that The Tree of Life potentially committed was its use of film as something that is not built around narrative. If I didn't, you see, if I simply took the film as a conventional narrative, I would have no choice but to bemoan all the many, many things that are wrong with it.

I could, for example, focus on the fact that, after a short introduction to what is the film's nominal plot, Malick spends the next 40 minutes wanking on about the creation of the universe - sorry, Universe - and the evolution of life on our planet before the rise of man. I get it, Terence, there is an entire Universe going on out there, that is pretty much unaffected as as we try to make sense of our own little lives in it. It's a good theme but it was handled better by Arthur C Clarke in Childhood's End and it would have worked better in your own film if you tied it more cohesively into an actual story.

I could also go on and on and on and on about the fact that once you've survived (and occasionally been wowed by) The History of the Universe in 1 Hour or Less, the actual meat of the film - the bit about the dysfunctional family and the tragic death and whatnot - feels to earnest and too mannered to strike the right emotional note. I could also perhaps wonder about why on earth Sean Penn signed up for such a non-role as the older guy looking back on his childhood where all he really has to do is look is troubled and, fittingly, on occasion, confused. Then, of course, there are those scenes of what I assume to be a representation of the afterlife but seem to be far too mundane and obvious to really be the personal and profoundly spiritual beliefs of the film's creator. And please, oh please, don't get me started on those unbearably earnest whispered internal monologues...                   

Yup, it really is just as well that The Tree of Life is such a great piece of "non-narrative impressionism" because, boy, I would hate to imagine how I would react to it if it was anything but...

1 comment:

  1. I don't think the truest admirers of this film characterise as a work of "non-narrative impressionism," but as a transformative work of sublime cinematic art. I, for one, would certainly ascribe to it an invigorating sense of narrative; beside its exaltation and rhapsody, it's a rather straightforward recollection of childhood. It's non-linear because our memories of childhood are non-linear, and what Terrence Malick does so astoundingly well in his film is not only capture childhood memories, but evoke the feelings inspired by the act of memory. His style is not impressionistic, but intensely expressionistic, highlighting the subjective experience of each infintesimal detail that surges into his main character's mind. His shots float and travel, and are unencumbered by a frame because memories float and travel and have no frame; they bend around until they include you yourself, and stay in our mind not as fixed images - like a photograph or painting or conventional movie frame - but as a subjective experience, remaining infinite at the edges. Malick emphasises the extraordinarily beautiful in the everyday, and the exhilarating in the banal. He suggests that his grand feelings are there for the taking, available to everyone willing to inspect their lives at hand. A focus on the unconventionality of his plot - and rather a bitter criticism of it, at that - rather misses the point of the radical filmmaking that Malick, Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and others espouse in their modes of deeply personal expression.