Tuesday, June 28, 2011

 

Cinematic Grace


By J.D.
Decades in the making, the gestation period of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) is as epic as the film itself. After Days of Heaven (1978) was released to critical acclaim and nominated for four Academy Awards, Paramount, the studio that backed it, offered the director $1 million dollars for his next project, regardless of its subject matter. Despite being burnt out from making and editing Days, he agreed. Malick had been contemplating his most ambitious film yet: the creation of our galaxy and the Earth as well as the beginnings of life. It was originally called Qasida (a reference to an ancient Arabian form of rhythmic lyric poetry) and eventually shortened to Q. In 1979, Malick and a small crew began shooting footage in exotic locales all over the world. The footage they were getting looked great but Paramount was nervous about the absence of a screenplay (Malick would write 40-page poetic descriptions of the imagery) and a structured shooting schedule. Eventually, the studio lost patience with the director’s methods and he not only quit the project but the movie business for 20 years.


The first signs that Malick was returning to his Q project came during pre-production on The New World (2005) when producer Sarah Green received a revised treatment for what would become The Tree of Life. By July 2007, there was a script that fused the cosmic nature of Q with a semi-autobiographical story that focused on a Texas family in the 1950s as seen through the eyes of the oldest child Jack (Hunter McCracken as a child and Sean Penn as an adult). As early as Days of Heaven, Malick had been moving away from linear narratives to a more philosophical tone poem approach. With The Thin Red Line (1998), he began to explore in greater detail man’s relationship with his environment and with the Earth. This continued with The New World, which embraced a nonlinear narrative more than anything he had done before. The Tree of Life is the culmination of Malick’s body of work so far.

The film begins with the death of one of the O’Brien children. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is understandably devastated while the father (Brad Pitt) is stoic but eventually the cracks begin to show and he also grieves in his own way. Cut to the present day and Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn) is an architect, unhappy and adrift in the world, still haunted by the death of his brother. The film flashes back to his reminisces of his childhood in the ‘50s. In this first section, Malick cuts back and forth between the impersonal concrete and glass jungle of the big city in which Jack works and the idyllic suburban neighborhood of his youth.

Early on in the film, the mother says in a disembodied voiceover, “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.” I believe that this passage is integral to understanding Malick’s film and it becomes apparent that the mother represents Grace, accepting insults and injuries, while the father represents nature, lording over his family.

Right from the get-go, Malick dispenses with the traditional notion of how a scene is structured and linked to another in favor of an impressionistic approach. This is no more apparent than when the narrative segues to an extraordinary sequence depicting the creation of our galaxy and the Earth with absolutely breathtaking imagery — a stunning mix of unusual practical effects (created by Dan Glass and the legendary Douglas Trumbull) and actual footage courtesy of NASA. With this sequence we are entering Stanley Kubrick territory. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Malick mixes science with spirituality, the cosmic and the ethereal, occasionally commented on via existential voiceover musings about God by the mother. He actually shows the Earth forming and early life being created on the most basic cellular level on up to the dinosaurs. This sequence and its placement so early on in the film is just one of the audacious choices Malick makes.

The film then goes back to early stages of the O’Brien family, to the creation of their children, the painful and glorious experience of childbirth, much like that of the Earth itself. Malick presents two approaches to parenting: the mother is a nurturing figure while the father is a stern disciplinarian. She is in tune with nature while he represents structure. It is this part of the film that is the most engaging as we are presented with familiar, relatable imagery: a very young boy gazes in wonderment and then jealousy at his baby sibling; the shadows of tree branches playing across a wall; the family playing with sparklers at night; kids playing in tall grass; and a tree-lined suburb at dusk with the sky the most amazing shade of purple-blue. These are the innocent, carefree days when you had no worries and would spend hours playing with other children until called in by your mother for the night. Malick has come full circle by returning to the same tranquil Texas suburbs first glimpsed at the beginning of Badlands (1973), his debut feature. These scenes will be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in the suburbs or a rural environment.

As he did with Linda Manz in Days of Heaven, Malick demonstrates an incredible affinity for working with children and pulling naturalistic performances out of them. All of the kids, especially newcomer Hunter McCracken, act very comfortable in front of the camera, almost as if Malick caught them unaware that they were being filmed. McCracken has a very expressive face, which he utilizes well over the course of the film as Jack becomes increasingly rebellious, testing the rules imposed by his father. Malick documents the children’s behavior and all of their idiosyncrasies, like how they interact with each other and how this differs with their interaction with adults, especially in the ‘50s when they were much more respectful. Much of the film is seen from a child’s point-of-view with low angle shots that look up at adults, trees, and so on. It’s only in the scenes with other children that the camera takes a more level position.

At one point, the father tells Jack that his mother is naive and that “It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world.” Brad Pitt doesn’t play the stereotypical strict father figure but one with layers that are gradually revealed through the course of the film. He works in a factory, a labyrinthine maze of metal machinery but we learn that he wanted to originally be a musician but it didn’t work out. He had to become responsible and lead a more traditional life in order to provide for his family. He still plays piano and passes this ability on to his children. Pitt delivers an excellent performance that grounds the film. The actor has aged well and grown into his looks, relying less and less on them as he gets older. There is a nice scene where he accompanies one of his sons playing an acoustic guitar with the piano that is brief but does a lot to humanize his character. The mother, in comparison, is a more elusive character, more of an ethereal figure as played by Jessica Chastain.

You simply cannot engage The Tree of Life in a traditional way. The first section is a little impenetrable at first as one has to leave the concept of traditional narrative behind and get acclimatized to Malick’s approach. One has to let it wash over you and let his poetic imagery work its magic. Like all of his films, this is one that people will either passionately love or hate because of its ambitious, unusual approach. It will be seen as pretentious by some but any film that strives to tackle big themes like life and death and what it means to be human on such an epic (and also intimate) scale runs that risk. What prevents it from collapsing under its own thematic weight is Malick’s sincerity. He really believes in what he is showing us and treats it with the solemnity and weight it deserves. The Tree of Life has the kind of lofty ambitions most films only dream of reaching and it is easy to see why it is being compared to 2001. Like that film, Malick’s will undoubtedly reveal more upon repeated viewings. There is just so much to absorb that one viewing is not enough because you are too busy trying to make sense of what all this breathtaking imagery means. It will take repeated viewings to fully appreciate what Malick is trying to do and say. This is an important film by a master filmmaker.

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Comments:
This is a terrific piece. I saw The Tree of Life for the third time last friday, and it's grown even stronger with each viewing. However, I've surprised by the inappropriate, and downright disrespectful behavior during the screenings I've been to. It's understandable if you don't full comprehend a film, especially with one as esoteric as this one, but the hemming and hawing i've witnessed by attendees is ridiculous.

Christian.
 
I haven't seen this particular film, but it seems to me for a long time now we've gone long past the time where we can expect courtesy from fellow moviegoers. They believe they are in their living rooms and are free to chat, talk on phones, text and generally behave like rude morons. My four word solution has been the same for a long time: Ushers With Stun Guns.
 
Christian:

Thank you for the kind words. I can't wait to see this film again. I know what you mean re: annoying audiences. I try to pick obscure times to cut down on the annoyance factor and that usually does it but it is a real problem and is it any wonder people now invest in awesome home theater systems? The only distruption I had during my screening was a few walkouts but at least those people were quiet about it.


Edward Copeland:

"My four word solution has been the same for a long time: Ushers With Stun Guns."

heh! Good call. Also, howzabout ushers who have hit puberty? You get all these young kids who have zero authority or the presence to back it up. No wonder people act so rude in theaters.
 
I agree with a lot of what you say, JD, though I take exception to the oft-repeated truism that 'this film will be either passionately loved or passionately hated'; while I definitely feel more positively than negatively about it, I am also conflicted and, to be honest, a little disappointed...

For about the first half of the running time, I was absolutely awestruck, thinking "this is clearly even more amazing and adventurous than The Thin Red Line - and that movie is in my all-time top 20 with a 10/10 score, so this is SURE to end up as one of my favourite films!" A clear case of getting carried away and 'counting my chickens before they hatch' (an analogy which inadvertently made me remember that jolting moment in the film when we see the boys setting off an exploding firecracker in a nest containing eggs - but I digress...)

In the end, I found The Tree of Life to be compulsively watchable, technically staggering, awesomely beautiful, structurally daring, thematically rich, compelling, thoughtful and sensitive - but I didn't quite feel the connection between the majestic scenes that contemplated our wondrous universe and those of the simple lives of the human family who are witnessed by Malick/Lubezki's camera for such a large part of the film with so little change in mood/tone/costuming/decor; it wouldn't be accurate to say that I lost all interest in the second half, but the interest level certainly dipped for me (from what was, admittedly, an insanely high peak), and when I realised the film was nearing its end, I couldn't help but feel a little let down that the story was going to remain as open-ended as it was...

It's not that I felt nothing at the film's end (indeed, I felt physically affected by the power of Malick's visuals, his sound, his sincerity and artistry, and richly grateful for being able to take part in this experience, however frustrating), and I don't think I require 'explanation' for what I see; it's just that I think Malick's ambition is so enormous, and his talent so powerful, that the end product of all the thought and planning and power that he put into this movie should have been something that felt greater than the sum of its parts, rather than less...

Perhaps what made his two previous films more satisfying for me is that his tendency to wander and lose focus was necessarily reined in by the stories that he chose to tell: an experience of war adapted from a novel about a real conflict, and a legendary episode of true American history. I suspect this director is ultimately at his most successful when he has something tethering him down in some way (at least in theory) so that we, the audience, can feel the glory of watching such a brilliant artist fighting against the boundaries of the artform...Now that he's given himself free rein, he's gone for broke and shot for the stars, giving us so much to wonder at, but also (for me at least) too much to be disappointed and frustrated by to be able to call this the masterpiece that I so dearly wanted it to be (and so strongly thought it would be at first.)

I very much want to see The Tree of Life again, because the experience it gave me was singularly unique; 2001, though similarly senses-staggering in many ways, was different in that I knew from the first end credit that I had just seen one of my new favourite films. While that didn't quite happen here, I encourage anyone who cares deeply about cinema to see this film on a huge screen and allow yourself to drink in the wonder and beauty that it presents us with. Malick is a true master of the cinema, even though I can't say I think he has made a masterpiece with his new film - but thank you, JD, for your thoughtful critique of the film - and for letting me go on so long here! (and to Eddie for letting him do the piece; this being a Malick film, I was expecting something scathingly 'satirical') - I hope we both find even more to enjoy in our next viewings!
 
I told some of my Malick fan friends they would be shocked that a positive Tree of Life review was about to appear on my blog but to relax, it wasn't by me. I didn't want anyone to suffer strokes.
 
Anthony Vawser:

Interesting comments! I actually found the first bit of the film tough going as I was getting acclimatized to the style of the film but I actually really like and identified with everything that came after the creation sequence. A lot of the imagery: the kids playing in the tall grass, on the street, the family with the sparklers, etc. could have been plucked from my own childhood and therefore I found it quite engaging.

But I believe that I'm only scratching the surface with my review. There is so much more to enjoy and explore with this film as with all of Malick's work.

The ending of the film is an interesting one - some of have interpreted as an 8 1/2-esque conclusion while others have interpreted as Jack in the afterlife being visited by everyone he knew in life or that it is merely taking place in his mind as he continues to sort out his thoughts and feelings in regards to his deceased brother. Your guess is as good as mine. All I know is that I ahve to see it again.
 
The Tree of Life is certainly a polarizing film - because it doesn't adhere to the traditional rules of filmmaking, with a clean-cut, easy-to-follow narrative structure and tidy little portions of dialogue which spell everything out for the audience, it won't be accessible to everyone. Personally, I think it could very well be one the best, bravest, and most beautiful films ever made. The theme of Malick's work has always been man's relationship with nature - while not all of his films have been entirely satisfying in every regard, there is no denying the power and beauty of his imagery. There's so much more to The Tree of Life than its images, though - this is really the first Malick film in which every single element is geared to a clear purpose, with nothing seeming extraneous, irrelevant or out-of-place (not even those dinosaurs, Copeland.) This is a film about how memory works - memory is fragments, mostly of the visual or sensory variety, not fully recalled, word-for-word scenes that play out over a period of minutes or hours. We can't always place these fragments in neat chronology, or recall them exactly as they happened - no other film I can think of has ever captured the elusive properties of memory to the same degree. When you lose a love one, the mind naturally tries to piece together the fragments in some way that makes sense, to try and understand what has happened and why, to try and draw some kind of sense and meaning from the bits and pieces that linger. When dealing with mortality and loss, the mind also naturally begins to question the very nature of existence on this planet - Why is life so fleeting, and what is the point of it? Why are we here? What is God's plan for us? Is there some sort of master plan that we all fit into? "How did I lose you?" That's what Malick is trying to do, here - he's getting to the root of what existence is and what it means, how we fit into the grand scheme of things, with life & death, birth and rebirth, past & present all existing as part of the continuum. I responded to this film on an incredibly emotional level - overpowered by it, really - because just because it felt so intensely personal, but because I related to it in such a personal way. The elliptical nature of the film allows for that - because it isn't doing all the work for you by observing conventional rules, you can put something into it, as opposed to just taking things out of it. From among the (mostly wordless) fragments were moments that spoke to me particularly - the way a child recoils from a parent's touch without knowing why, and the hurt it registers in kind; the ways that brothers communicate wordlessly, and the unconscious affection that expresses itself in the slightest of gestures; the way children can sense that things are not quite right between their parents, without fully understanding what it is that they're seeing. If the film is all happening in Penn's mind as he's sorting out what has happened and trying to make sense of it (not just his brother's death, but existence itself), then the film builds to the most graceful coda imaginable; Malick tells us that understanding is possible, forgiveness is possible, and that you don't really lose the ones you love; we are all part of the collective energy of the universe, and for as long as memory endures, we all exist forever. "The way of Grace," indeed.
 
...and I also want to add, Edward, that I think you're going to hate it.
 
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