Saturday, August 6, 2011

Where God Lives (The Tree of Life)

Anyone who has ever prayed to God and/or cursed His name (i.e., almost everyone) may find themselves as overwhelmed as I was during the "creation" sequence of
The Tree of Life. Then again, you might hate it. This twenty-minute passage -- a lavish CGI set-piece documenting the origins of the universe -- has received several conflicting interpretations, the most dismissive from the peevish Barnes & Noble clerk who informed me that Terrence Malick had stopped the narrative cold for a "NOVA episode." That initial prologue, however, is what separates Malick's digression from a nature special: the patriarch and matriarch of the O'Brien family (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), living in Texas circa. 1950s, receive news that one of their three sons has died. Overcome first with grief, followed by the inevitable Malickian interior monologues, the voices of the bereaved O'Briens rise on the soundtrack and continue skyward to the stars. We don't know how their son was killed, much less "Why?", but as we watch the cosmos, the oceans, the volcanoes, the Earth and its early inhabitants come into being, a thought springs to mind: God may be too busy to listen.

I have no idea if that's what Malick wants us to think. Indeed, a rough outline may make The Tree of Life sound like the kind of "Christian movie" evangelicals would long to release. (Baptisms, sayings-of-grace at dinner, the oft-cited example of Mother O'Brien holding one of her children, pointing to the sky and cheerfully exclaiming "That's where God lives!") The overall tone, though -- as the movie shifts from a creation epic back to the story of the O'Brien household years before their family tragedy -- is non-denominationally spiritualist, transcendentalist, Deistic. If there is a God in The Tree of Life He doesn't intervene, yet Malick intimates over and over again that Something is out there, visualized in the opening and closing images as a portal of light that's as awe-inspiring and unsettling as the monoliths in 2001.

If Malick is conversing with Kubrick in the heavens he seems to be speaking to Spielberg on the ground. His work with his preteen actors -- especially Hunter McCracken, who portrays the central character, eldest brother Jack (Sean Penn plays the grownup version of the character, forgettably) -- rivals the thrilling spontaneity of the youthful cast of E.T. The trio of O'Brien sons are raised by their dreary Father (Brad Pitt) to be dutiful and disciplined; naturally, they respond by going on the prowl with other neighborhood kids I recognized only too well. They hit each other and wrestle, shoot BB guns and throw rocks through an abandoned house's windows, blow up bird eggs and tie frogs to bottle rockets. Spielberg captured how the world is experienced by a child while I was growing up; Malick reminds me of how it felt then, now.

Did childhood feel as fragmented as The Tree of Life depicts it, though? In a superb piece deserving of more attention, Matt S(chneider?) of the fine blog Catecinem argues that the revered Terrence Malick and the reviled Michael Bay actually have a "shared sensibility." Matt explains that the constant jump-cuts in The Tree of Life gave him a headache, undermining his admiration for the film's artistic ambitions; whereas he sort of enjoyed Bay's equally choppy technique in the latest Transformers movie. Matt isn't claiming that Transformers 3 is a "better" movie than The Tree of Life; what he's suggesting is a double-standard by critics and other moviegoers. "The way Bay shoots an action scene is stylistically akin to the way Malick shoots a pair of boys wandering through a neighborhood," he writes. "Yet the former is incoherent hackery, whereas the latter is stylistically ambitious....Again I ask: why?"

That's a good question, albeit one that I think answers itself. The best action movies -- The Road Warrior, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Terminator, Casino Royale, et al. -- show an intrinsic understanding of the holy trinity of space, time and movement. Despite having immeasurably bigger budgets and special-effects to play with (or possibly because of them), Michael Bay is oblivious or indifferent to these things. He's forged a signature style of arrogant ineptitude that gives hackery a bad name. (The original hacks of Hollywood actually knew what they were doing.) Malick's method is trickier to ascertain. Would The Tree of Life be more effective if it actually had standard scenes, rather than a series of fragments of scenes? Could the film's central narrative stand without the avant-garde passages that surround it?

That version of The Tree of Life might have made a good movie too. It wouldn't have been a Terrence Malick movie, however. I realize that runs counter to how I usually roll -- making fun of auteur worshippers -- but so be it. Malick's film has plenty of other qualities that normally make me retch: the aforementioned spiritual overtones, Freudian psychology, a mother-figure who is Pure and True, lots of oohing and ahhing over babies. The reason they didn't, I think, is because I love to see an artist caught up in his own grand passions; oftentimes they catch me up in them too. "This is Malick's big one," wrote David Edelstein, "his long-gestating answer to 2001 and Paradise Lost...." Yet what's astonishing is Malick seems to have grown less cynical as he's gotten older, a virtue that informs his responses to Kubrick, of course, but also to the all-grown-up Spielberg, who can no longer make the movies he once made better than anyone else nor the adult fare that real adult filmmakers still make better than he does. Malick's dinosaurs don't act like actual dinosaurs did; the compassion one shows another seems to be a riposte aimed at the jaded mechanics in parts of Jurassic Park and the entirety of The Lost World.

It's also a credit to a director when a dinosaur set-piece isn't even the nuttiest scene in his movie. Behind the narrative innovation, Malick usually comes across as relatively square, so it's a thrill to see him release his energies into confounding images: I still can't get out of my mind the giddy sight of Mother at one point inexplicably floating through the air, like Wendy without help from Peter Pan. Nor will I forget young Jack stealing a woman's dress, only to throw it in a river as a result of sexual panic. Or contemplate killing his father by dropping a car on his head. Malick isn't blind to the darker impulses of human nature, which is what makes his lingering sense of wonder all the more wonderful. On Facebook, Ryan Kelly noted that Malick celebrates "the birth of our planet as much as the birth of an infant child." And he hears the voices of his characters, talking constantly to themselves, leaving you with the suggestion that the universe, however preoccupied with its own concerns, is in its own way listening too.


Kevin J. Olson said...

Great stuff, Craig. I love what you say about the energy that Malick poured into this thing. There's just something about that montage that comes after Mrs. O'Brien says, "That's where God lives!" Right after she says that, the music kicks in, and there's an energy there that is more exciting than 99% of what you see in the cinema today. It reminded me of how exciting the movies can be.

The comment about Malick vis-a-vis Bay is an interesting one. I agree there's a double standard...and of course Bay's films aren't better, but I think that the pre-conceived notions about Bay make people blind to the fact that he does do a lot of things similarly in the way he cuts his movies. In fact, the first thing I thought about after watching The Tree of Life for the first time was how many cuts there were in the film, and how it reminded me of a Michael Bay film. Now, you rightfully state the difference between the two (and it's pretty obvious why one works and one doesn't), but this also reminded me of the debate surrounding Michael Mann and his aesthetic compared to other people (like Paul Greengrass) that use a similar hand-held style.

Anyway, great stuff as always. Oh, and that guy and Barnes and Noble is crazy! If there's one thing the movie could have used more of (and perhaps we'll get it in the extended cut) was creation footage (not to mention dinosaurs!).

Unknown said...

Although I liked the film, I actually did have a problem with the editing. When you say if scenes had played out more, it wouldn't have been a Malick movie. But, in his best films, I still believed he let scenes breathe a lot more than this.

The main issue I had with "Tree" and "New World" is that while others see some innovative editing style, I see a director employing a team of editors (5 on "Tree of Life") to try to shape something out of the material and not necessarily succeeding. It doesn't come across as experimental as much as it seems chaotic.

So when people talk about the film achieving grace, I think of how the editing and, for me, ham-fisted ending pretty much work against that feeling. The ending I feel moves from suggesting God to confirming his presence for the sake of an easy and unearned catharsis.

Like many films that I feel probably went through an editing process that suggested random experimenting rather than a true artistic vision, I feel there is a great movie somewhere in "Tree of Life". It's just not the one that wound up in theaters.

Craig said...

Thanks, Kevin and Steven.

The editing gave me whiplash in the film's opening movement, but then slowed down in the creation sequence, and did allow for some extended scenes afterward. Offhand I'm thinking of Jack and his brother making fun of the drunk guy's walk before seeing the disabled man, or the quiet sequence at the outdoor barbecue where Jack appears to be meeting black people for the first time. There are still an inordinate amount of cuts, though, and I wonder if the purpose in the editing room is to shape an unshaped narrative or to emphasize the unshapenness. For me, it's sort of the visual equivalent to what Altman achieves aurally with overlapping dialogue: "concealing" the conventions of a standard narrative through unconventional techniques.

Sometimes, as Steven said, those techniques are less successful. I avoided discussing the ending because frankly I'm unsure what to make of it. I know Kevin likes it without reservations, and has linked it persuasively to the ending of 8 1/2. The problem may be, as Edelstein wrote, that Malick chucks the entire third act, leaping from Jack's childhood straight to his redemption on the beach. Yet assuming there were more scenes with Penn, I wonder if they would tell us anything that we can't already deduce? Or is it less important to avoid cliche than it is to embrace the emotion of those moments?

Jason Bellamy said...

We don't know how their son was killed, much less "Why?", but as we watch the cosmos, the oceans, the volcanoes, the Earth and its early inhabitants come into being, a thought springs to mind: God may be too busy to listen.

If I had to pick the best two minutes in film this year, I supposed I'd go with the "Ma Vlast" montage that Kevin mentions above -- the one after "That's where God lives." It's so tight, yet so broad and full of emotion. But nothing this year has thrilled me quite like the "Lacrimosa" creation sequence, which, for all of it's 20-some-minutes in length, is concise in its own way, and is just so daring and vulnerable.

As for the double-standard: Of course it all has to come down to the effect. Sometimes rapid cuts work. Sometimes they're just nauseating. Sometimes shaky-cam works. Sometimes it's just nauseating. Maybe the problem isn't a double-standard so much as a lack of precision in take-downs of Bay's style.

Craig said...

I've only seen "Tree" once, so I can't quite yet separate in my mind the "Ma Vlast" montage from the hundred other montages in the movie. I think the creation sequence stands out partly because the pace slows down. Somehow Malick manages to make it fit with what's going on in his main narrative, although, watching "Jane Eyre" last night, I found myself wondering how the story would play with a dawn of the universe sequence.

Adam Zanzie said...

Sorry I'm so late in getting to this, Craig. I was also wondering what Malick's intentions with this movie were in terms of religion. I agree that if Malick isn't putting his faith in a traditional Christian God, he's nevertheless putting his faith in the universe instead. He probably believes that something's out there watching over the world, even if it's not something from the holy scriptures. Strangely, it reminds me of Bresson.

Richard Bellamy said...

"I love to see an artist caught up in his own grand passions; oftentimes they catch me up in them too." Well said, Craig. I felt caught up in that pure and exuberant expression of passion on first viewing and had to see it three more times. Yes, some parts may not work, but Malick's expression is so honest and heartfelt that it's hard not to get caught up in the whole thing. I admire a director who takes risks.

Craig said...

Thanks, Adam. I agree that Malick's POV isn't exclusively Christian. Then again, based on how compassionately he sides with his characters, I'd say he isn't exclusively against it, either. I didn't think of Bresson, but "Tree of Life" does make an interesting companion piece to Joe's "Uncle Boonmee" (Joe being the popular moniker of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai director whose name nobody can spell without copying and pasting, myself included). Both Malick and Joe frame their characters within the natural world. Actually, Joe, in "Uncle Boonmee," inverts Malick's worldview: he shows the natural world within his characters.

Thanks, Hokahey. I used to be a real stickler for precision in my movie directors, and while I still probably prefer it, I have grown to appreciate filmmakers who take crazy risks and swing for the fences. Malick certainly achieves that here.

Sam Juliano said...

Admittedly the ending is narratively and thematically cryptic and the most difficult aspect of the film. Like you (and unlike the Barnes & Noble clerk) I was utterly overwhelmed by the cosmic sequence! The shape of The Tree of Life is more attuned to a symphony in music than it is to a story arc in literature. This is partly as a result of Malick wanting to express himself in “movements” where each evokes moods and textures, but are unquestionably tied to the larger whole of the work, where he intends everything to come full circle. Again recalling Kubrick, the director places music as the vital component to replace dialogue in enhancing his visuals with the proper aural accompaniment to bring his entrancing ideas to full fruition. Among other notable composers, Malick, echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey makes superlative use of Brahams, Gorecki, Berlioz, Bach, Holst and Mahler, which he apparently instructed Alexandre Desplat to incorporate into his own score. The sublime choral passages underline the film’s extraordinary second act, when Malick envisions the dawn of the universe include Zbigniew Preisner’s sublime “Lacrimosa” and give the film a spiritual undercurrent that oddly meshes with the astronomical truths that have always negated theological doctrine. After a planetarium-like showcase of the galaxies in flux, Malick moves back to earth and the prehistoric era, where he captures a cruel act that will later parallel the human clashes in his twentieth centry story. Further, the human fetus in the mother’s womb is a microcosm of evolution, where millions of years are compressed into a few months. There are subsequently long stretches of silence evinced in a visual holding pattern that will allow viewers to ponder the serious questions that are rarely posed in narrative films. In keeping with the central theme couched in the film’s title, Malick aims his camera up trunks to the loftiest branches and green leaves and beyond into the sky. Basically he takes up where he left off in The New World in bringing visual adornment to the the central symbol in all it’s awe-spiring and majestic beauty.

This is a magnificent, thought-provoking piece with an equally enthralling comment section.

Craig said...

Thanks, Sam. Your comparison of the movie to a musical composition is apt. What's especially interesting to me, as I mentioned earlier, is that Malick essentially deletes what one would think would be a crucial "movement" - the piece between Jack as a kid and Jack as an adult. I have the sense it was there, "it" being scenes between the family move and Sean Penn's skyscraper ennui, scenes that I suspect got cut in the editing room. I'm on board with Malick's decision to do so in an intuitive sense; I'll need to see it again to see if that intuition is warranted and is expressible.

Anonymous said...

"Yet what's astonishing is Malick seems to have grown less cynical as he's gotten older..."

Know this?:
"Grey, my friend, is every theory
And green is Life’s golden tree."

Or this?:
"delirium escapes from necessity, casts off its heavy mantel of mystical servitude, and it is finally only then that, nude and lubricious, it plays with the universe and its laws as if they were toys” (Bataille)

In one of the skyscrapers’ rooms, the one with the aquarium atmosphere, we distinctively hear “attenzione” (Italian for attention). Eccentric, no? Like a warning, like that “exit” sign that Malick films very intentionally in the office.
Maybe it is a reference to Alberto Moravia’s L’Attenzione (The Lie, 1965). It’s an interesting hypothesis. Why this title? In the end of his book, Moravia gives one reason (free translation): “I am afraid that the narrative might seem a bit complex, and so it will also be a way of inviting the reader to concede this book the same benevolent attention that, like we should admitt, he usually grants the facts of life.”

This film was intentionally and masterly built not to be understood the first “50” times we see it. But it was Malick’s intention that one day we would.

And you won't like it the day you do. A review about this: