The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Terrence Malick
viewed: 07/01/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theatre, SF, CA

Though it won the Palme D’or earlier this year at Cannes, Terrence Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, split audiences at the French film festival and throughout the movie-going world since its recent release.  Some avid fans of more challenging and avant-garde films extol its virtues while many a seasoned film-goer has rejected it whole-heartedly, with many reports of attendees demanding their money back.  Incidentally, I’ve heard both impassioned appreciation and cross disdain.

And me, I’m not entirely sure where I fall.

For Terrence Malick, whose filmography has been amazingly brief, though spanning decades, and largely amazing, this film is by far his most strange and avant-garde.  At one point, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) alone had earned him his reputation.  And for the next 20 years, he didn’t release a single feature.  Then in 1998, he released The Thin Red Line, an adaptation of James Jones’ novel about the battle for Guadalcanal and it seemed as if his strange mastery of the medium was still at its heights.  Then in 2005. his film The New World, a historical re-telling of the Pocahontas/John Smith love affair came out, an earnest but perhaps less successful effort.

His films have all been historical, period films, and his obsessions with images of nature and the many hues of the sun have pervaded his varying stories of human life, foibles, adventures, love and humanity.  So, setting The Tree of Life ostensibly in the present day is novel enough.  But the adult son (played by Sean Penn) who reminisces about his childhood in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s shifts not just back through a semi-present present to a historical past, but shifts further back to the creation of the Universe, first life on Earth, and a brief segment that features dinosaurs.

Malick has always employed voice-over narration in his films.  His early films featured a single narrator, a naive teenager in Badlands and a young, similarly uneducated, but spiritually wise girl in Days of Heaven.  In The Thin Red Line, he shifted among the soldiers for a variety of voice-overs, and then in The New World shifted between the three main characters.  In The Tree of Life, the shifting is incessant, constant, and communal almost.

And the shifting, flickering back to a pulsing, ever-changing undefined image, transitions the story between the “present”, the past, and the pre-historic.  The main story of this Texas family, with Brad Pitt as the loving, but harsh patriarch who both adores and repulses his children while fighting for his beliefs in the success in life in the acquisition of wealth and trying to teach his boys how to be tough.

No doubt it’s the more science fictional, visual effect-laden, non-narrative tropes that push this movie from beyond a stream of multiple consciousnesses, non-linear as it is, into something far more astounding, hard-to-swallow, and far out.  You know if a common reference point for this film is 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and yet the film is set in the largely naturalistic world of 1950’s Texas, you’ve got some rather large jumps to make in entrusting Malick with the story, your time, and your comprehension.

And when the film moved into the Creation sequence, perhaps I was more on the side of those who were more dumbstruck than nonplussed by this wild stretch.  In fact, I kept thinking to myself that this psychedelic head-trip about the meaning of life was really a little too far out and that I was disappointed that it wasn’t more coherent.

But as the story, for its lack of narrative clarity in itself, somehow won me back over.  After floating in space and watching the dinosaurs, I doubted my ability to re-connect with a story that had hardly gotten underway.  But there is a compelling quality to this act of remembrance and acceptance and forgiveness, these Christian values which the film’s narrative show to be key to the lives of the family during the film, are the same forces and qualities that brings about the surreal, emotional finale of the film.  The film is clearly situated in the science of Evolution in its perspective, but as well adheres to much of the quality of the teaching of religion, too.  And is also tapped into some Modernist consciousness, something perhaps psychological, perhaps spiritual, beyond either of those dicta.

Halfway through, I was sure I was going to come out saying that it was a failure, but by the end, I was not so sure.  Was it a masterpiece?  Pure genius?  One of those films that hardcore scholars and cineastes will glom onto and cherish for time immemorial?  While others, equally astute and educated, along with average film-goers will hate and never “get”?

I find myself thinking about the film quite a bit since I saw it.  I know by no means will just anyone perhaps enjoy it, but I know that there will be those who will find it astonishing, perhaps.  It’s certainly the most radical film playing at the cineplex this summer.  And if rumors hold true it will not be Malick’s last.  He has another on the way.  Whatever the ones who will despise it will think (and that included a split audience reaction as Cannes), it did win the top prize there.  Most critics seem to have bought in.

I’m not passing a judgment on it here.  I’m still contemplating it.  I’m still not entirely sure how I feel.

The New World

The New World (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Terrence Malick
viewed: 02/14/06 at the Loews Metreon Theatres, SF, CA

Captain Smith and Pocahontas
Had a very mad affair
When her daddy tried to kill him
She said, daddy oh don’t you dare
“He gives me fever
“With his kisses
“Fever when he holds me tight
“Fever, I’m his missus
“So, daddy, won’t you treat him right”

Terrence Malick is rightfully considered an important director, despite the fact that he only has now four feature films to his thirty-plus years of industry experience. Badlands (1973) is an amazing film. Days of Heaven (1978) is quite stunning even though it features a fairly questionable cast. The Thin Red Line (1998), which I saw on its initial release, I found pretty stunning, as well.

Malick’s new film, The New World bears a lot of his stylistic and narrative character, which is unlike anyone else working in the relative mainstream of American film-making. Malick often shoots entirely in natural light and has an amazing eye for the natural landscapes, both flora and fauna. In thinking back about The Thin Red Line, often my head is primarily filled with the images of the north Australian jungle. And here again, the Virginia river land that the native people inhabit is amazingly photographed and bears so heavily on the subject matter. This tough, beautiful “new world” is seen through many sets of eyes, the natives, the English settlers, Malick’s, and the audience, both as the past and the present.

It strikes me what a significant story this is to tell, the initial meetings with a civilization that will be eventually decimated. The landing of an ignorant, though not intentionally evil, civilization. The story for the modern audience is one loaded with foreknowledge (assuming that one’s understanding of history is at least basic.) And it’s not surprising that the narrative of Captain Smith and Pocahontas (though she is never referred to by that name until the credits roll) is a striking human story that resonates throughout our changing perspectives on the history.

I am guessing, though I do not know, that this story is trying to adhere to the better knowledge that is currently available on the subject. From Pocahontas’ perspective, which this film might well have at its core, the move from the natural forest and encampments to the rough-hewn buildings and forts of the newcomers, she moves ultimately to England and the vast evolution of architecture and the management of nature. In the English gardens, the trees are all cut and lined in uniform rows and the hedges are shaped. The landscape is tamed. The churches huge and ornate. Pocahontas moves from very sexy little outfits of animal hides to the corseted heaviness of the period’s European couture.

Q’Orianka Kilcher, who plays Pocahontas, is stunning. Malick and his camera adore her. She represents the beauty and humanity of the native culture, and perhaps more deeply than that the conflict between her culture and that of the European settlers as she is excommunicated from her father’s tribe and is assimilated by the English.

There is a lot here, so much so, that I am not really getting my head around it. I think that the film addresses a lot and that this is a monumental subject. The film has a somewhat stream-of-consciousness about it, with voice-overs from each of the main characters, internalizing moments, experiences, views. The narrative is ultimately fairly straightforward but is delivered in a loose-knit way that feels that it is not attempting at being definitive, but perhaps more personal and open.

It’s an honest endeavor, and there are admirable and beautiful things about it, but I think that the film is a bit of a mixed bag ultimately. I think in many ways it’s an ambitious subject, approached on a more human level, somewhat visceral, though I am not sure that it’s 100% successful. I don’t know what to fault for it, since I think much of it was quite strong. I don’t know. Maybe time will tell.