Sitting under The Tree of Life

30 April 2012

Terence Malick’s marvellous, majesterial film “The Tree of Life” – my cinema highlight of 2011.

It’s taken me the best part of a year to write about Terence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life, which I first saw on the opening weekend of its UK cinematic release in July. I’ve seen it twice again on the big screen, and bought the DVD when it was released earlier this year, though, like this review, I’ve not quite mustered the courage to tear off the cellophane wrapping and see what’s inside. Sometimes it’s harder to write about things you truly love, and much harder to find words that capture an experience of joy and fulfilment than it is to form words of criticism, and my fears until now is that I’ll struggle and fail to do the film justice, and end up sounding like another of Malick’s slobbering cinegeek disciples, reaching for the well-worn clichés of film reviewer speak: “visionary”, “masterpiece”, “genius”.

Which is odd, really, as The Tree of Life is fundamentally a film about the restless search – emotionally and cinematically – to describe the sublime joy and sadness and beauty of life – a lofty ambition that I think it achieves more successfully than any other piece of art around, so if anything, it’s a film that encourages the search for direct emotional expression of deeply-held truths. It’s also a film that’s been written about, argued over, praised, rhapsodised, philosophised, mocked and occasionally villified by everyone in the Western world – like most of Malick’s work) tends to polarise audiences, who produce extremes of praise or dissatisfaction – so it’s felt necessary to let the dialogue about the film settle, until my own thoughts can find their way again.

Almost a year later, it’s still my favourite film of 2011, with Lynne Ramsey’s brilliant and disturbing adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin a very close second. I’ve loved it and revisited it largely because the experience of seeing it seems greater than simply watching a movie, but more of reliving the experience of childhood, or embracing a philosophy (Malick’s?) about what it is to be human. More than any other filmmaker around, Malick is interested in film as expressing a state of consciousness, and celebrating the divine in nature. His films are rapturously beautiful, and come as close as any post-Christian artist has done to locating a spiritual dimension in his work. For his fans, watching his films are almost religious, revelatory experiences. (For his detractors, it’s usually a chance for a long nap, but more about them later).

It helps, of course, that his filmography has been so slim: The Tree of Life is only his fifth feature in 30 years, following two films in the 1970s, then nothing for nearly 20 years until The Thin Red Line in 1998, with The New World trailing seven years later. Revelatory cinema is usually less revalatory if it gets produced and reproduced every week, so the sparseness of Malick’s output makes his work more striking in its selectiveness, and drives his fans into messianic fits of anticipation.

But I’ve gone ahead of myself slightly. The Tree of Life is, for the most part, a beautifully photographed memory piece about a Malick-substitute in gloomy middle age (played by Sean Penn, looking elegantly wrinkled in an Armani suit) recalling his childhood in Waco, Texas, as the eldest of three boys in a rapturously photographed 1950s suburbia of tree-lined pavements, Danish modern furniture, boat sized Buicks and Chevrolets, kids with crew cuts, segregation, public swimming pools, village idiots and Bible-bashing Baptists. Dad is played, wonderfully, by Brad Pitt, as a straight-backed, plain-speaking authoritarian, who insists that his kids call him “Sir” even as they kiss him goodnight, and whose own dark psychology of failure and resentment throws a shadow over the film; Mom is Jessica Chastain, ginger goddess du jour, who plays what’s becoming a Malick regular: the porcelain-skinned red-headed beauty who’s part Mother Earth, part Virgin Mary, and the object of the male protagonist’s unambiguous love and worship. (Former Malickian ginger goddesses have included Sissy Spacek as the changeling-like girl on the lam in Badlands and Miranda Otto as the lover on the swing in The Thin Red Line).

The family scenes are exceptionally well-played and beautifully filmed – even a shot of children playing in clouds of DDT smoke being pumped through neighbourhood streets as a mosquito repellant (and then-unknown carcinogen) are gloriously lit and capture the effortless joy of childhood play – but hit a somewhat too-familiar series of beats.  The world of the 1950s has been evoked countlessly in American folk art (especially Andrew Wyeth and Ansell Adams) and filmmaking, including by Malick himself, who begins Badlands in 1950s Texas.

It’s at this point that Malick pushes the film and his audience into something more ambitious and less familiar – which, for my money, anyway, is one of the more jawdropping feats in modern filmmaking. The film starts in a chilly modern-day Chicago, where the gloomy looking Penn, now a jowly adult in an Armani suit, joylessly stalks through a series of glass buildings, anaethetised with ennui. We learn that his younger, guitar-playing brother has died – the film never explains how, although it’s apparently based on the suicide of Malick’s own younger brother when he was in his late teens. As Penn struggles to reconnect with his estranged father and as his devastated parents quietly fall apart, the film does an extraordinary about-face – opting to go back to the beginning, not just of Penn’s character’s life, but to the beginning of life itself. Taking off into the epistemological stratosphere, Malick and his genius cinematographers trace us through the creation of the world, from the Big Bang through to the age of dinosaurs (more on them later), some blobby jellyfish, the first land-walking thingees and through to the development of man. Although the vision of the creation of life seems strictly Darwinian – there’s no sign of a God, and the steps recounted wouldn’t be out of place in a standard evolutionary biology lecture, what Malick does with it is phenomenal. Scoring his images with some of the best work of the Eastern European “Holy Minimalists” Arvo Pärt, Gorecki, and especially Preisner, whose “Lacrimosa” from his Requiem is an emotional highlight, Malick creates what I would call a secular hymn to the power of nature and “life”, whereever it might have come from, and makes something truly awe-inspiring. Some reviewers have read this differently, insisting that the sequence is Malick’s attempt to reinscribe the presence of God in the universe. Either way, it’s an unforgettable moment, and probably the boldest attempts at epic cinema since Kubrick’s 2001, though with none of Kubrick’s icy emotional detachment.

At this point, Penn’s character enters the world as a baby, and we watch him make his first memories, learn to crawl, walk and speak. A brother comes along (the one who will eventually die) and then another, and the world makes room for them. Like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (or its alternate title, which I prefer here, Remembrance of Things Past), a monumental work that I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to read and write about for years, Malick reconstructs the world of childhood through a series of small, perfectly rendered images and recollections. Some moments are especially mysterious and unexplainable, the secret language of childhood: a stolen negligee floating down a river, a fantasy of a tall tall man who lives in the attic, the first image of Penn’s character as a child swimming underwater and through an open cellar door to the light above sea level. Through extraordinarily well-rendered childs-view hand-held cinematography, we see the Penn character’s consciousness take shape, ricocheting between moments of rivalry and kinship with his brothers, a slow-burning rage at his father, and see-sawing adoration and resentment of his mother for being the respite from mean self-pitying ol’ Dad and the family doormat who refuses to stand up to him.

The connection (or lack thereof) of the space sequence with the film’s Oedipal drama is one of its most fascinating and hotly-debated features. My reading was that Malick wants to connect every human life with the history of the universe – that when each of us are born, we carry with us the remnants and DNA particles of all that went before, and that the birth of a new human life is the universe made new again. Malick also seems fascinated by the apparent randomness of our ever having existed here – the much-discussed dinosaur feature shows one beast about to kill another, then pausing, seeming to decide not to and sparing its victim’s life. Was this the first moment of existential empathy in the universe that made the development of human life possible? It seems unlikely – like a good evolutionist, Malick chronicles faithfully the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs – though he seems just as keen to locate some humanistic yearning as far back as the dawn of time.

It’s the yearning for connection, understanding and sympathy from a (mostly cruel and misunderstanding) world that makes the heart beat a little faster when watching Tree of Life, and which made its fans fall so deeply in love with it. The film’s ending, a dazzling sequence filmed on the Utah salt flats and a long stretch of beach, where Penn’s character is reunited with his parents, his dead brother and his childhood self, all as he remembered them, was, it was argued, further evidence that Malick is promoting Christian beliefs of life after death. (Some of the unkinder critics sneered that it looked like an insurance commercial). For me, it seemed less like an avowing of the Christian afterlife and more like a grieving man’s desperate need to imagine a point of reconciliation and reunion with what’s been loss. Whether it actually happened or could happen seems beside the point – what you connect with most strongly is the very human desire (especially when someone is grieving) to achieve a state of grace with the past, which is, by its very nature, irretrievable except through our memory. Malick intuitively understands the power and limitation of art as an aid (or a creative fallacy, depending on your point of view) to help recapture lost time. After all the plaid-dressed misery, the soulful dinosaurs and all those table lamps, what The Tree of Life seems to be most powerfully is a wistfully hopeful hymn to the power of art.

I loved The Tree of Life for its ambition, its willingness to seek out and find moments of rapture, and most of all its silent but resolute disavowal of irony. It’s a big, weighty, tony, self-consciously serious movie that’s mostly humour-free – in that sense, it’s a very different film from Malick’s Badlands, which had a mordant wit and a Bonnie & Clyde-esque anti-hero chic. He’s a true poet of the cinema, which involves a commitment to the obliqueness and beautiful lack of clarity that poetry sometimes features. Unsurprisingly, Malick’s filmmaking process is chaotic: millions of feet of film shot, cinematographers entering and leaving the project, years stuck in the editing suite, producers brought to bankruptcy, top-billed characters’ roles being whittled down to cameos or removed completely, composers working frantically at the last minute to score the film ahead of its release, and legal wrangles aplenty. The cast of The Thin Red Line reported of bizarre moments where Malick, in the middle of shooting a bloody battle scene, would instruct his cinematographer to point upwards and shoot tropical birds or cloud formations, and production executives apparently had to sit Malick down three weeks before the film’s cinematic release to tell him he couldn’t make any further changes.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of “organic” filmmaking draws massive admiration from those of Hollywood who admire the gung-ho visionary spirit of independent filmmaking in the 1970s, in which mythology Malick is still revered as a god. His detractors scoff that he’s a pretentious, massively self-indulgent and over-indulged old hippy who makes quasi-spiritual existentialist drivel. Charles Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek, the husband-and-wife film critics who formerly wrote for, are the smartest and most bitchily funny detractors of Malick’s vision. In his review (read: hatchet job) of The Thin Red Line, Taylor sniffs that the film,

either by incompetence or willful perversity, dispenses with plot, characterization, dramatic structure and emotional payoffs in favor of the sort of painstakingly composed pictorial diddling that invariably gets critics frothing about the director’s “indelible” images… you can only look at so much dappled sunlight and smoke filtered through insect-eaten leaves before it all starts to run together. (After the screening I attended, someone said, “Terrence Malick never met a leaf he didn’t like.”)

Taylor dismisses the cult of Malick and his many fans, which he argues is underlined by a dangerous form of nostalgia for the good old days:

“by creating a swelling chorus of praise for Terrence Malick, they believe they can bring back the glory days of American movies of the ’70s when, at good movies and bad, the constant seemed to be that audiences were treated like adults, and it wasn’t assumed they would reject the unfamiliar or the unresolved. And there seems to be an unspoken fear that if The Thin Red Line fails without any support, the studios will use it as an excuse to quash other chancy projects and feed us more of the same pap.”

Like the grumpy sergeant-at-arms in The Thin Red Line who orders his troops to attack, Taylor cautions his readers against allowing Malick “to stand for the originality and daring of ’70s American movies”, which Taylor doesn’t seem to be that convinced about anyway. Taylor argues that Malick’s ’70s-era films show “the same mixture of distanced estheticism and woozy philosophical imponderables” which “do more harm than good” to the chances of new filmmakers. Taylor urges critics and audiences not to follow Malick the “tin-pot Kurtz” into exile in the hope of recovering a “golden age” of filmmaking: “The ’70s aren’t coming back, certainly not by turning Malick into a demigos and preparing the altar and lighting the incense for his second coming”, he says, urging attention to be paid to the work of younger contemporary filmmakers.

Taylor’s other half Ms Zacharek takes similar aim at The Tree of Life in her review, describing it as “gorgeous to look at”, but also “a gargantuan work of pretention and cleverly concealed self-absorption masquerading as spiritual exploration.” Zacharek rips her hair out repeatedly over Malick’s preference for voiceover over dialogue, his eschewing of narrative and his tendency to film actors as beautiful props rather than people, concluding that he “doesn’t seem to care much for people at all”, and, like Taylor, has a problem with all those sunlight-dappled blades of grass:

Those who love his pictures…. see [Malick’s] meticulousness as a kind of hyperfocus, a way of seeing into and beyond the reality of the world around us. But for me, Malick’s slavish attention to detail is more a kind of ADD distractibility, where every flickering butterfly passing by, every dust mote dancing into the sun, is supposedly loaded with so much meaning that in the end, nothing has any weight.

Well, each to his or her own, I guess. I’ve quoted Taylor and Zacharek at length because they’re critics I admire, they care passionately about film, and most of all they understand the power of couching their condemnation of films they don’t like in an elegantly written and juicily barbed put-down. (Meow.) Their reaction is also an articulate version of a lot of criticism I’ve heard from friends who condemned The Tree of Life as indecipherable shit.  I’m grateful to hear their opinions, but I’m happy not to share them.

I’ve seen The Tree of Life three times now, sitting in the front row each time as I wanted the images to eat me up without any naysayer melonheads getting in my way. I’m happy for a film not to have narrative drive, and or for a character to mull over “nuggets of pseudo-Zen wisdom” (another Taylor-ism) in voiceover, and to let the power of beautifully photographed imagery and soundtrack create an emotional response in me. The film has seared itself inside me, as if they’re my childhood memories and not someone else’s, and it leaves me feeling wildly optimistic about what art can achieve, and the ability of a filmmaker who’s nearly in his 70s to create something so powerful.

The Tree of Life left me feeling shaken up, provoked, and strangely comforted. I have a sense of the utter aloneness of our individual existences, and a sense of everyone sharing the same experience. And that to me is the greatest thing that any piece of art can do. Far from feeling like I’m following a Kurtz-like figure into a woozy ’70s-era nostalgia trip or giving up people in favour of leaves of grass, following Malick feels like the way of my future as an artist. What more can one ask for?

1 Comment

  1. I loved this – as someone else who also thrills to Malick, but never quite feels that people manage to articulate on paper what makes his films so magical. The critics you quoted – and their lazy idolatory of 70’s cinema irritated the hell out of me.

    I disagreed with your ‘ interpretation’ of Tree of Life – partly because I’m more sympathetic to a religious way of looking his work, but more because I came to conclusion Malick is anxious above all to avoid the rush to meaning. (The finale is ambiguous – the figures from Sean Penn’s past are there witth him but they are curiously unreconciled somehow. We are never quite given the information that we need to make something coherent and meaningful of what we see.) The film is almost a hymn to a preverbal state of consciousness as an infant where things were purely sensual without any further significance. So much American cinema is so adept at manipulating our response to the image and prodding us into confering the particular meaning on it that the director has precisely calculated. There is none of that with Malick – he almost refuses to confer ANY meaning on his gorgeous images and just surrenders to their intoxication. This happens from time to time in Tolstoy (Andrei dying on the battlefield remembering the beauty of life; Levin remembering a girl playing in the street or perhaps eating bread and life going on) and as the Marquis of Posa says in Schiller’s Don Carlos as he goes off to his death – ‘But, ah, life is so beautiful’. This rapture is something that Malick captures purely for its own sake on film. The mind is naturally distracted by randomn beauty. The rush to interpet is a sign of a restless immaturity – just as an excessive haste to return a favour is a sign of underlying lack of gratitude. For such an ‘intellectual’ he is paradoxically realist.

    I have an awful feeling that this won’t make sense the next day, but it will have to do…

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