The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011)
Malick's latest offering was the movie I was expecting the most for 2011. To me he has this Stanley Kubrick-like aura of a cult director with his final cut and a full freedom in his creations. Nevertheless, the difference between both directors is the fact that Kubrick was exploring amongst known genres. With his subtle and unique narratives Kubrick blended his style within the genres he choose to practically reinvent! On the other side Malick's an artist, he developed his own narratives and the way he writes and shoots his films couldn't be copied or remade. Well, you might see where I'm going here with this comparison but as many stated before: The Tree of Life has this weird unsettling resemblance with 2001: A Space Odyssey. But why is this parallel is made? Well, on three levels both films excel: the meaning of life or philosophy, cinematic outcome, and spirituality.
First, The Tree of Life can't be summarized or told in words, its meaning is deeper than the simple story of a difficult dad, a revolted child, or the mourning of a family over a lost son. Those are elements you will find in the film but it includes so much more than just a simple plot line. Filmed in a form of memories or dreams reminiscent, The Tree of Life is simply not composed with straight forward scenes and simple editing. The cinematography here is simply marvellous and the juxtaposition of simple 1950’s occupations with the exuberant yet beautiful shots of nature representing the many emotions and states of mind of its creators populate the 138 minutes of the film. This is probably the most personal film Malick has ever done, telling a rich story of a Texan family over the interactions between the sons, the father, and the mother. The point of view is clearly the one from our childhoods. I meant our childhood because this isn’t the childhood of the character or anyone, this is the presentation of the memories shot in against low-angle with an ever moving camera. The strength of the unique narrative by Malick here is the tight collage of the many, many images shot in a blissful way. He achieves here the status of artist and surpasses the simple job of being a movie director. His inspiration goes beyond Cinema, it is about life itself how it begins and how we live it with our love and our hate within every relationship we have. The difficult love of a father and his son, the Oedipus complex of the eldest son, the confidence between brothers, the submitted wife, the failure of the father who wants to achieve the American Dream, and finally the universality of the familial cell that is represented and which composes the genealogy of the actual tree of life...
The beginning of life is represented by the birth of the first child of the family, but also by the birth of the world, the creation. Represented with a 20 minute montage of the creation of the world and the evolution of the species until the extinction of the dinosaurs. I will insert a personal comment here, this scene unsettled me and many viewers during the projection and I almost felt attacked by the pretension of Malick that included, without any distinct premise this beautiful but frustrating sequence. Does it represent the conception of the first born child with the extraordinary visuals and the explosion of the volcanoes? Or is it the allegory of the two dinosaurs (the predator submitting the herbivore) tolerating each other representing the forgiveness evoked later in the film? I also noticed that we briefly perceive a tree in those sequences and the images of trees are a recurrence. With a step back this sequence takes a better place into my appreciation of The Tree of Life. Still, it should have been shortened to keep more scenes with Sean Penn that were deleted. In first place, the movie was over four hours long. Almost all his scenes were left out, it explains Penn’s absence at Cannes. His character doesn’t make any sense now and the few scenes involving him aren’t as useful to the film as a whole.
Terrence Malick hasn’t been the director who gave us many films, which makes everyone of his projects unique and greatly expected. But in the whole his narratives have evolved deeply and gradually he attained a level of absorption and summarization of his stories. The distinction of The Tree of Life is clear, he completely reinvented the way of telling a movie. He literally rewrote the theories of Sergei M. Eisenstein about montage and the subjectivity of his camera work. For Malick the camera becomes objective and his montage suggest many interpretations of the images pictured. In a very different manner that Eisenstein explored, Malick’s narratives aren’t as bold and eye popping as Eisenstein did with October for example.
The symbolism used by Malick touches the spirituality of humanity and it is probably his interpretation of religious beliefs and clearly his battle and dilemmas with God, on another level something like Ingmar Bergman’s confusion with the silence of God and Martin Scorsese’s revisionist version of the passion of the Christ. Except here, Malick plays within the religions without really involving one in particular but the spirituality of our existence. The discourse may be hard to follow and many aspects of it are maybe lost in the way it is showed but the global feeling about the picture reflects faith but more precise faith in life and in the humans.
Personally I was speechless after the viewing of The Tree of Life and Malick’s understanding of childhood; seemed like my own childhood and teenage years who were accentuated by a strict father figure, a hate relationship with my only brother, two moving from town to towns, and the absence of a real strong mother. The first five minutes of the film almost brought me into tears and the visual beauty and poetry of Malick’s film captivated me. The whole movie seemed somewhat too long maybe because some elements that were missing from the first four hours cut seemed useless or didn’t brought anything to the picture but I think besides the many extraordinary aspects of the film, it has some flaws in its story and in the explanation of the many images Malick targets at the viewer. On another side, I think that many elements introduced in the film aren’t concluded when the end comes and the lack of structure may be the major flaw here.
This is a film that moved me very much in my deep core, the many shots are still haunting me even a week after having seen them. The richness of it all makes it a very powerful film that will live many years after its release. On the other side, many tacky elements will probably bother the public and the popularity of the film won’t be as wide as 2001: A Space Odyssey was. Even if I think that for once the filmmaker doesn’t think that the viewers are stupid and couldn’t understand a little symbolism, Malick may go too far in his allegories. The first thought I had when I got out the theatre was the fact that this is almost an experimental film that also looked like an artistic commercial. With a little retreat, the style, the narratives, and the shots take wonderful places in your mind and the recollection of it all gives a sole place to the film in my cinephile experiences along with 2001: A Space Odyssey for its meaning and Mulholland Drive in its form.