Terrence Malick has only made four films in almost thirty years, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line (after a nineteen-year gap), and The New World. He’s reportedly pleasant and well-grounded, but avoids the media almost completely; he hasn’t been interviewed in decades, and is seldom photographed. He shot The Tree of Life several years ago, but editing and post-production went on interminably, causing various delays; it ultimately opened at the Cannes festival, where it won the top prize. Now in commercial release, it’s probably the most debated picture of the year.
The bulk of the film takes place in Waco, Texas in the 1950s, observing a young married couple (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three sons. One of the boys will be killed at the age of nineteen, and in the present day, his elder brother (Sean Penn) still feels the loss, moving despondently through a soulless world. Malick also covers, so to speak, the big picture, evoking the origins of the universe, the heyday of the dinosaurs, and the asteroid collision that wiped them out. The “meaning” of all this isn’t entirely clear – hence the volume of debate – but seems to encompass the search for a new synthesis of life experience, based on a heightened awareness of possibility and interconnection.
The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is often astoundingly fluent and beautiful; it feels as if Malick had absorbed all the tools of cinema into his very being, realizing his vision without any intermediation (obviously a painstakingly crafted illusion). At times, the film utterly shimmers, losing itself in a cascade of evocation, intermingling life turning points and transcendent moments with weird randomness (or the outright imaginary, as for example in an unexplained shot of the mother floating in the air). It also constructs an impressively comprehensive treatment of the father – a man who spends his whole life trying and failing to make it big in business, pointlessly laying down the law at home while increasingly disconnected from his wife (the entire film only has a couple of direct exchanges between the two). She’s portrayed in highly spiritual, ethereal terms, living as much in communion with the undercurrents of the universe as within her confining surroundings; it’s hard to know how much of this (how much of anything in the film) can be taken as actuality, rather than a creation of memory and/or fantasy (perhaps in the mind of Penn’s character, or perhaps of God’s).
Much of the reaction to the film focuses primarily on its self-evident virtuosity as cinematic writing, with less emphasis on what’s actually being written. Michael Newton in The Guardian said: “The ultimate effect of all this is that your take on the world does expand. Leaving the cinema at 10 o'clock, I found myself staring up at the high clouds scudding across the still day-lit sky above brutal Rotterdam. Without Malick's film, would I have taken that look? For a brief instant it was as though the movie had expanded outwards into the city, that it had altered my way of seeing things. That Malick continues to make such films has to be a wonderful thing.”
Filming the phone book
Not dissimilarly, Geoffrey O’Brien in The New York Review of Books said: “Malick is neither neat nor witty nor dry the way one might want so philosophically ambitious a filmmaker to be. But while I would not rush to read a verbal summation by Malick of his philosophical views, I would burn with irresistible curiosity to see the film of any text he might care to adapt, whether it were Spinoza’s Ethics or the phone book. He does his thinking by means of cinema in its full range of possibilities, and that is at any time a rare spectacle.” I agree in a way, but it seems to me cinematic artistry is less a matter of deploying the full range of possibilities, than of knowing which possibilities to deploy or discard. Put another way, a brilliantly imaginary filming of the phone book might be a rare spectacle, but a close cousin to the diversions of the circus. And sitting through a two and a half hour movie every morning is a somewhat inefficient way of reminding you to look more vividly at clouds (especially if that only lasts for a “brief instant”).
Serious critics try to avoid this kind of admission, but ultimately The Tree of Life probably just isn’t my kind of movie. Ambitious, well-funded visionaries provide fine, transient experiences, but once it’s over, I find myself asking, well, where does that leave me now? For example, Federico Fellini, the subject of the current “Spectacular Obsessions” exhibit at the Lightbox, has never been among my favourites, and that title - although entirely apt – sums up exactly why: I’m just not that interested in someone else’s obsessions, if there’s no reason for them to become mine (some of the greatest filmmakers, like Luis Bunuel, persuade you that matters far from your focus of interest – like, in my case, Catholic dogma and the European bourgeoisie - are actually relevant to your own life). Ultimately, it’s not very productive to be left wondering what Malick’s getting at. Even if the question could ever be resolved, how would we be better off for knowing the answer? I mean, is he a prophet, a seer, someone with the capacity of leading us to another dimension of understanding and contentment but who, for whatever reason, forces us to travel this stubbornly obscure route of getting there? I truly doubt it.
As a counterpoint, the day after seeing The Tree of Life, I watched Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, which played at the Bell Lightbox a while back and is now available on DVD and elsewhere. This starts off as a not particularly sophisticated college sex comedy, distinguished (if at all) by an unusually pervasive gay-friendly mentality. The movie sows an odd mess of characters and encounters, raising every risk of embarrassing itself, before in the home stretch coming up with an explanation that remarkably explains just about everything that’s gone before while, by the way, encompassing the new Messiah and the end of the world. Which is structurally interesting if nothing else, but actually it is something else – it’s an audaciously kinetic expression of how a truly sexually liberated worldview would rewrite everything we think we know about ourselves and what connects us to our environment. And whether or not you agree, or share the preoccupation, it’s truly stimulating in a very topical and relevant way. I don’t suppose Araki spends as much time pondering the big, intangible questions as Malick, but I guess that’s only because he’s too busy living, and making art from, the much greater number of small, tangible ones.