Tree of Life

Warning: This post is lot more long-haired and poseury than I expected. But the film involved provoked a lot of thinking. Proceed at your own risk. And feel free to call me artsy-fartsy pseudo-intellectual pants when it’s over. I’ve been called it before, so I won’t mind.

I thought I’d put up a post on this since I’m now in a twitter discussion about one of the most controversial movies of 2011 and a movie likely to be controversial for a long time: Terrence Malick’s — depending on how you look at it — beautiful and humanistic or overlong and absurdly indulgent Tree of Life. This was the movie that was both booed and jeered at Cannes when it won the award. Roger Ebert called this 2001 with more humanity, a comparison that is incredibly apt (and one intended by the director, who pulled Douglas Trumbull out of retirement). This is a movie, if you look at IMDB, is either rated 8-10 or a 1 by its users. Frankly, I can see both points.

On twitter, Ilovecress brought up Lars von Trier, whose films tend to be equally divisive. The same comparison hit me, especially with regard to Dancer in the Dark. That was a movie I could see as brilliant — a stripped down musical held together by Bjork’s amazing performance (go figure: the one pop star who can act only did one film). But I could also see the view of people who saw it as manipulative, silly and too smart for its own good. Of course, both directors contribute to this divisiveness in different ways: Malick with his reclusiveness, von Trier with his controversy.

But I’m drawn to the kind of movies these guys make, even when I don’t like them. I love watching someone try to make a film; trying — even failing — to make a masterpiece. David Lynch, whose films I generally don’t like, falls into this category too. I would almost take Wild at Heart, a film I didn’t like, over the predictable safe fare that’s either dumbed down to make a billion bucks (almost every summer blockbuster) or softly lobbed into the Academy’s wheelhouse (almost every Academy Award winner).

A film doesn’t have to push the boundaries and risk spectacular failure to be great. Saving Private Ryan, Lord of the Rings, Gone With the Wind, Ben Hur — these are all imminently approachable and also among the greatest films of all time. But it is good to see someone at least trying to do something different. And it’s especially nice when, in my opinion, that trying works.

Which brings us back to Tree

OK. So, I can see why many people didn’t like it. The film is long, non-linear and doesn’t really have much of a plot. It’s artistic, but its artistry is almost suffocating. There’s a long section near the beginning that traces from the Big Bang to the modern age that seems out of place. You can spend a lot of time fidgeting and waiting for something to happen.

That’s the case against. I can see that. Maybe if it had caught me on a different night, I would have agreed with it. But now let me make the case for.

First, there is Malick’s composition, which is simply unparalleled. Even the film’s detractors have to admit that his frame composition is superb, his use of color and light magnificent. There is a shot that goes through the ground to show Jack’s friend in his coffin that is simply starting and almost frightening. There’s a scene when Jack breaks into a neighbor’s house that is incredibly tense on many levels. When you add that to a wonderful musical score, you’ve already got me halfway there, with two of my senses overwhelmed. As I’ve said before, great cinematography and a great score can make me overlook a multitude of sins. Now granted, two and a half hours of that would be boring if that’s all it was. But the film is simply gorgeous, simply made to be watched on a big screen or in high def.

The acting is fine all around, particularly Pitt who simply embodies Mr. O’Brien. A friend recently said that Brad Pitt is an amazing character actor miscast as a leading man. Tree demonstrates this in spades as he renders the father — easily a caricature of abuse — into a three-dimensional man: conflicted, gruff, disciplined and trying to raise his sons as he thinks best. Without Pitt, the film would have collapsed. (The one casting mis-step is Penn as the older Jack. Penn is fine in the role. But it’s such a small role, I wonder if a less-distracting character actor would have been better.)

As for the lack of plot: I think it’s significant that the bulk of the film takes place when the protagonist is 11 or so. He is in the last real summer of boyhood, before things begin to get complicated with school and puberty and girls. Jewish boys are bar-mitzvahed at 13 and 11-15 is the typical age range for rites of passage into early manhood. Seen in that light, the film’s lack of plot is because it’s more of a tone — Jack remembering the last years of his childhood innocence — before his father lost his job, before his friend died in a swimming accident, before his family moved from the suburb he’d grown up in, right when he first began to rebel. That end of that coming of age was punctuated by the awful death of his younger brother, the memory of which is what triggers the entire movie. He now finds himself middle-aged, indifferent to his job and thinking back to that open-eyed 11-year-old boy, running through the neighborhood before everything got so ruined and complicated.

Laced within this are the voice-over questions to God, to the universe and life. Laced within are the deep introspections that begin when he questions why his friend died. Whatever else one might say, this movie is deeply philosophical. I’m reminded of the Antonius’ questioning of God in Begerman’s magnificent The Seventh Seal — and the similar implication: that whether God exists or not, we must find happiness in the world around us.

(Actually, this entire review is reminding me of my Ingmar Bergman Rule: a critic’s review of a Bergman film frequently tells you more about the critic than the movie. This review is probably telling you a lot more about me than about Tree of Life.)

The most maligned part of the movie — the sequence leading from the Big Bang through the age of the dinosaurs — is actually my favorite part. I found this deeply moving — the implication that we are all, no matter how insignificant, bound up in the grand opera of creation. That all the moments of our lives, no matter how trivial, are part of the story. Jack’s life did not begin when he was born; it began when the atoms that created him were forged in the early universe. The story of his life is the continuation of the story that began with the first single-celled organisms and continued through the dinosaurs. Note the dinosaur sequence, where one dinosaur shows its dominance over another dinosaur and then spares it. Note how this reflects later relationships in the film between Jack and his brothers, between Jack and his dad. And again, we see the questioning of God — how he could create such a magnificent universe and tolerate suffering and cruelty.

I will not claim that I understand the ending. I will, however, note that it moved me with its feeling of resurrection, of timelessness, of all our selves — young, middle-aged and old — existing at once. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to a more Tralfamadorian view of life: that time is somewhat illusory, that perhaps all the moments of our lives exist at once but we perceive them as being linear because that’s the way we have evolved. Call it the Timey-Wimey Theory of Vonnegut. The ending seems to play into this idea, with characters changing their age and appearance rapidly and almost randomly. An old man’s arm turns into a child’s, a grown man is a kid. We exist all at once.

OK, that’s the case for. I’ve waxed rhapsodic enough about it. If I printed that out and turned it into my college english teacher, she’d love it (I was always so literal back then). But as I said on Twitter, the film either gets you under its spell or it doesn’t and I was definitely bewitched. My view may be skewed because I was watching it on video, where I could pause or work. Perhaps I’ll watch it a second time and hate it. This has been known to happen; albeit rarely. The only film I really downgraded this way was Independence Day, which I thought was awesome when I first saw it and then bad the second time (I blame watching it on video combined with alcohol). But Tree of Life is no Independence Day. The provisional score I give it is 9/10 and it’s very rare for me to initially rate a picture that high.