Sunday, June 12, 2011

Cinematically Inclined: The Tree of Life

The Blogger had a near-religious experience this morning. He attended an advanced screening of Terrence Malick’s long-awaited new film, The Tree of Life. Shrouded and filmed in secrecy, very little of the film’s story has been given away during filming and even the reviews from Cannes, mostly glowing and a few dissenting, were cryptic in their relations of details.

The Tree of Life centres on a childhood, a family, a specific time and place. There is a disciplinarian father (Brad Pitt, in unquestionably his most vanity-free and accomplished performance), who is continually frustrated by life and tries to warn his children of the evils in the world, without fostering premature bitterness in them. Despite the fact that he is no superman, he can see the beauty of life in such things as his faith and classical music. This is a film where the sounds of Berlioz and Toscanini caress the aural senses. The mother (embodied by a masterful Jessica Chastain) exudes forgiveness and compassion, but doesn’t indulge her brood. There is no conventional “plot”, as everything is told in a non-linear fashion. Where Pitt’s performance is filled with words, hers is full of feeling, as Chastain interprets the role like a silent-film actress. Sean Penn plays the now-aging middle child, who is our narrative guide and tie to the present. There are no heroes or villains here, only some damaged, everyday people.

The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job. Malick structures his film like a symphony, with several movements, and each “section” identified not by title cards but by visual cues, all part of a larger thematic work. The family sustains a devastating loss at the beginning of the film, and shows how the memory of that pain has never fully gone away, echoing across the decades. At one point, in a telephone conversation with his elderly father, the son says “no, I haven’t forgotten. I think of him every day.” There has never been a release of the paralyzing grief and shattering pain that has mortally wounded each and every family member. 

Malick juxtaposes the human suffering with images from nature and geography. There is a long section taking us through a long series of natural phenomenon that is achingly beautiful to behold, and even goes as far back as the age of the dinosaurs (the visual effects here are magnificent). Although it may sound absurd on paper, Malick intends us to understand the scope of the family’s grief against the grander scale of the cosmos. He also throws the film’s Biblical overtones into sharp relief, with both Creationist and Evolutionist theories sharing the same film. Yes, there’s also a gargantuan tree, one that anchors the film thematically and visually. Perhaps no other film in the last decade has dared to set human suffering against the cosmos, with the exception of Darren Aronofsky’s underrated masterpiece The Fountain. You could show this drama in 3-D Imax and it would look just as spectacular as Avatar or the next Pirates sequel.

Even with considerably weighty ideas present, Malick is careful not to present this as a “message” film. He is not interested in debating the existence of God or preaching Christian ideology. What he does is interpret the Book of Job within the context of this familial saga. There are no grand speeches or revelations in The Tree of Life. Instead, Malick presents us with a series of almost unbearably beautiful images and asks us how we can reconcile our misfortunes, our triumphs, our frustrations and our grief with our makers, be it God, father, mother, or otherwise. Almost all of the words spoken on-screen are uttered in voice-over, with each character taking turns to ask existential questions, to converse with God, to ask, to curse, to plead, to pray. Does God exist, or is He just an idealized projection of our quest for virtue and existential purpose? Malick, a former German philosophy doctoral candidate and Rhodes Scholar, packs the film with existential questions based on the works of Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and it informs the whole of The Tree of Life. However, his focus is not on individual choice or ethics, but on pitting Man against his Creator, and asking what one can demand from the other. What Malick has essentially done is create a big-budget philosophical treatise, or the doctoral thesis he never completed.

This is a film about remembrances, of a bygone era that exists now in the context of memory. This is not a conventional biographical picture of a family. A lot of people don’t remember conversations in their entirety, just snippets thereof. What lingers is the feeling of the experience. The Tree of Life understands and acknowledges that. Not all great films have verbose screenplays: some, like this, follow in the grand tradition of 2001: A Space Odyssey and lets the visuals do all the talking. Most viewers forget that cinema is not only a medium, it is also a language, and Malick honours this truth.

There are a few things you should know about Terrence Malick’s film career. In 1973, he exploded onto the scene with Badlands, a dangerous new talent on the cinematic frontier. Five years later, his Days of Heaven received much critical praise and earned its star Richard Gere some of the best reviews in his career. The film received an Oscar and numerous accolades for its director. Malick then entirely vanished from public life and made no films until 1998, when he released another critically acclaimed piece, the WWII epic The Thin Red Line. If one were to include The Tree of Life, his oeuvre over a 38-year period includes just five films (in 2005 he released the much-derided New World), or one every 7.6 years on average. Consider that Woody Allen has released a film almost every year in the same time period, and you’ll have an idea of how not prolific Malick is. Therefore, when Tree of Life was announced as a film in competition at Cannes, unless it had been abysmal, it was considered the film to beat for its top prize, the Palme d’Or (which it won).

Someone asked the Blogger how he could contemplate foregoing the conventional sequel or action film and instead see a “high-falutin’” art house movie. He responded, “Do you eat garbage? I don’t.” After stunned silence from his interrogator, he responded, “Yeah, I didn’t think so.” Given that the film was playing a completely sold-out screening on a Sunday morning, others feel the same way. Make no mistake that everyone who attends will be kept in rapt attention, but this is not a film that can be easily consumed by the general public. (Then again, this is coming from someone who gets bored during a car chase.) Sometimes, reminders of good taste exist. 

The Tree of Life is a truly life-affirming film, because it does not speak in platitudes. Its message of forgiveness cannot be embodied in a single catchphrase that can be mass-marketed and put on a coffee cup. This is a cinematic feast, one that soothes and nurtures the soul, and visually it puts all the car chase sequences this summer to pitiless shame. People wept at the screening. The Blogger has not yet seen, and predicts he may not see, a better film all year than The Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life is currently playing in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, and enters wide release (including the Blogger’s hometown of Vancouver) on Friday, June 17. You may view the trailer here.