Sunday, June 12, 2011
Terence Malick's Tree of Life
The general reviews on Terence Malick's new film Tree of LIfe have been very positive. Malick is something of a cult figure in cinema (this is only his fifth feature in 40 years and he is a recluse). Compared to the mind-numbingly stupid films most of these critics have to watch day in a day out, its obvious why such a serious and ambitious a film as Tree of Life has to be reckoned with. However, that also means that the standards by which this film is measured are not the same as Hangover 2 or other such dreck.
No, this is the big leagues of filmmaking where names like Kubrick, Godard, Bergman, and Kurosawa figure. By this standard, Malick's is a terribly flawed and at times embarrassingly pretentious film. Google the film for a plot synopsis, but its main theme of loss, grace, the brutality of nature and human relations are fertile ground for something interesting. The film is beautifully shot and directed. It's just that Malick who is almost 70 somehow started thinking like a typical M.F.A. film student and thought he would put forth some grand opus that would change cinema and our view of the universe. It does neither. And even more shocking is that someone as old as Malick would even think it wise or possible to do so. Normally, artists at 70 are well aware of all the things they don't know. That's called grace. Malick's Tree of Life has no grace, except for the ersatz grace of New Age Christian platitudes.
Much of the beautifully shot sequences are as artful and perfect as shampoo commercials. Lots of willowy hands reaching through gauze and water. Water is everywhere. I wanted to book my week in St. Barts right away. So much of the imagery (when it strays from the narrative of Brad Pitt's family in 1950s Texas) is accompanied by choral music of the Western European tradition--Brahms, Mahler et al. It gets very manipulative and predictable--feel God's wondrous power, quake under the awe of your insignificance. I prefer Charles Eames'
Powers of 10 to demonstrate the latter in a more imaginative way.
It is a conventionally Christian tale, but don't expect the religious right to embrace this kind of difficult work. My problem was the conventionality of so much of it. The final sequences with all the dead people dancing in the ocean (or heaven) as it were is like an AT&T commercial. The family tale of 1950s life replete with the stern father and the passive mom has been done to death thousands of times.
Much of the "big picture" concepts of the film were done so much better in Godfrey Reggio's landmark film Koyaanisquatsi (1983) and Kubrick's 2001 (1968). Finally, I would still rather sit through Tree of Life with its supreme flaws than sit through films where the endings have been market-tested and the main character is available as a doll with the purchase of a Happy Meal.