Friday, August 12, 2011

Thoughts on The Tree of Life

Sitting somewhere between an elegy and a prayer, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life stands among the greatest cinematic achievements ever made. In the modern cinematic landscape it is a complete and utter anomaly, a major release with a Hollywood Star and a name director that has the courage to be avant-garde without being indulgent, non-linear yet expertly crafted and formed, challenging and difficult yet absolutely riveting. The film demands close attention and the ability to turn off the left side off your brain for a couple of hours, to the extent that you can. There is much here to decipher and analyze yet it must initially be grasped intuitively and purely, like a beautiful poem or a mournful song. The film manages to convey the same excitement and technical playfulness as the best of avant-garde cinema yet it is anchored by a profound and well-thought philosophy as well as deeply felt human emotions. There have been few films in the past fifty years that have managed such a feat.

There is not a story in place here, per se, but rather strong images that convey life and how mysteriously and intrinsically it is tied with death. Life presents itself to us in the microcosm of whirling atoms and the visual poetry of  the human body mirrored in the movement of the planets and the dance of the cosmos. Somehow light begins to shine in the darkness and life is formed. It is both beautiful and brutal. We see scenes of oceans and volcanoes, the terrible energy and force that shaped our world. Life begins to form, first microscopic and then gigantic. We see a dinosaur that comes upon a small creature that has been injured. The larger animal is about to crush the smaller yet suddenly turns and leaves. Mercy, or perhaps the closest thing to it in the animal kingdom. In a beautiful passage read by actress Jessica Chastain we are presented with the dichotomy (or complementary realities?) of the Way of Nature and the Way of Grace. Both have always been with us but it is only with the coming of human beings that the latter can begin to manifest itself through love and forgiveness.

In between the microscopic and the cosmic we have the human drama that stands between them yet also encapsulates them. Chastain and Brad Pitt play parents of three young boys (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan - all excellent) in the 1950's US. The mother represents the Way of Grace, teaching forgiveness, while the father represents the Way of Nature, believing that his sons must be good "but not too good." There are the first miraculous moments of a child being born, the innocence and purity of childhood followed by the inevitable fall from grace, the initial fascination with violence, the inability to express one's emotions, the confusion, doubt and alienation that begin to define our lives on this earth. Love and hate are deeply entwined in all of us and Pitt is simply astounding in manifesting both, by far his best achievement as an artist to date. Chastain is so ethereal she is more a symbol than a character yet Malick manages to convey a great deal of very profound things simply in the way he films her, the light around her sometimes resembling a halo of pure energy. The technical work is immaculate, the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki is especially wonderful, reminiscent of some of the work Georgi Rerberg did for Tarkovsky in the seventies. Douglas Trumbull, the master of the special effects wizardry of such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner served as a special consultant on the photographic effects. The choice of music in the film is also especially wonderful.

The Tree of Life is about as refreshing a film as you could hope for if you love cinema. Even though there are always a number of fine films released each year it is becoming increasingly rare to see anything truly innovative or exciting. Films are increasingly formulaic and common, which explains why people get so overexcited when Hollywood filmmakers do something even slightly out of the ordinary, no matter how pedestrian or superficial the results. For those who love cinema it is a rare occasion indeed to not be constantly eight steps ahead of the film. To see a film like The Tree of Life is to be sadly reminded that even the best offerings in theaters these days are usually only variations on that dubious category of the "so-so," nothing too good or too bad, just perfectly acceptable and common.

To be able to see a film like The Tree of Life in cinemas is a real treat. In fact, the film is a wonderful reminder that movies can only be fully experienced in theaters, no matter how big our TVs get or how advanced our Blue Ray players. There is nothing comparable to the communal jolt of seeing a work of art unfold with a live audience, especially one as lovingly crafted as this film. It is also a great relief to finally see a major filmmaker tackle spiritual and religious questions in such a head-on manner and without the slightest indication of fundamentalism or didacticism. Malick's philosophical training serves him well without even a hint of stale academia. Instead we are offered a lovingly crafted and poetic work that will surely and deservedly remain a classic.

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