Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE
eric pfriender, marcus pinn, christopher funderburg & john cribbs
Well, we've all now seen Tree of Life (some of us more than once...not me.)
I was wondering if we could get a little chatter going re: our thoughts on the movie? As I myself had conflicted thoughts on the film and would prefer to leach off other peoples' ideas, maybe somebody else could get this thing going?
Then maybe someday we'll fall down and weep, and we'll understand it all...all things Malick. Let's get this thing going before mommy flies away...
lol @ "Before mommy flies away"
I think I'm the one who's seen it more than once. I've seen it in 2 different countries actually (btw, French people really make it known in the theater how they feel about a movie.) Now that doesn't mean I love it unconditionally. Like you, I kinda have conflicting thoughts, too. I can't blindly defend everything about this movie. But there's obviously something that keeps me going back to it. I thought the flashback scenes of Sean Penn's youth were amazing. Malick really did a good job at portraying the typical 'Mom' and 'Dad' characters. Brad Pitt was great in it, the kid with the big ears who played young Sean Penn was really good in it too. And there was just this overall dreamlike vibe that Malick pulled off really well. I guess I'm just a sucker for that kinda stuff.
As for the shit that annoyed me... I thought Sean Penn mumbled his way through the movie (like, literally mumbling - I couldn't understand what he was saying some of the time.) Also, I normally like that typical Terrence Malick voice over stuff, but some of the voice over in Tree Of Life had me rolling my eyes. That line "Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me." Sorry, but I can't take that seriously. I doubt an 11-year-old Waco Texan boy from the 1950's is thinking that in his head. But what annoyed me the most was the cosmic space dust/dark side of the moon sequence, with the planets, erupting volcanoes, opera music and whatnot. I think that stuff woulda worked better had it been at the beginning of the movie, instead of like 45 minutes in. It's pretty to look at (for a few minutes), but I didn't think it went with the rest of the movie. It almost came off like "art house cliche."
And the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (which was made like almost 2 decades ago) looked better than those Syfy Channel-looking dinosaurs in Tree of Life. And was I the only one who went "what the fuck???" at that scene of the wounded dinosaur lying on the beach? That shit was weird.
Even with all that being said, I plan on seeing it again actually, ha ha.
Well, I think of the four of us, I probably have the most straight-up distaste for the movie – but I do agree with what seems to be the general consensus: this is Malick's best movie buried underneath of his worst. As with any Malick film, there's undeniably beautiful, affecting stuff in this film and to disregard the best stuff in Tree of Life would be so myopic (intransigent, to say the least) that I just can't do it even though the moronic New Age hippies-for-Christ mess that is the rest of the film really, really (really) makes me want to just go ahead and disregard the genuinely poetic scenes of childhood depicted in the middle section of the movie. Those scenes of the main character and his brother doing little beyond tooling around suburban Texas are the best work Malick has ever done, achieving the quiet and unadorned Naturalism that Malick has been in pursuit of his entire career: they're not undercut by the pervasive silliness of Badlands, star-extravaganza artificiality of The Thin Red Line or the Colin Farrell-osity of The New World. Those scenes feel on the level of his only other legit masterpiece Days of Heaven, but unfortunately they take up only (at best) a third of Tree of Life. And the rest of the film is atrocious. Just unacceptably terrible. Even the Malick fans I know who have decided to defend Tree of Life begin from the position of "Listen, that last 15 minutes is an embarrassment, but if you put all that aside "
Just put aside: Heaven is a beach where you walk barefoot in the surf and your mom is there and your dad is there and all your dead pets are there, too – and even NBA supertsar Shaquille O’Neal!
Just put aside: If you walk through a doorframe in the desert, you know what you’ll find? Yourself!
Just put aside: Mommy dancing in the air like a ballerina!
Just put aside: The lonely architect who lives a post-modernistic, dead-tech bullshit existence and misses his mommy.
Just put aside: "Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me."
Just put aside: It's a regular hand, now it's an old man’s hand – perhaps it will be a baby's hand next!
I can't put all that embarrassing crap aside. I just can't.
The problem boils down to this: while Malick is cinema's all-time greatest poetic realist, he is an absolutely awful fantasist and very mediocre at the historical sci-fi stuff. The dream sequences and metaphorical landscapes and heaven-and-dreams-betwixt-God-and-nature stuff is so very, very awful – he's like a poet with a tin-ear in those sections (segments? shots? moments?) He can't pull off the type of evocative dream-imagery at which he's aiming and he fails in spectacular fashion; it's truly some of the worst, most amateurish filmmking I've seen on the big screen in quite some time. The pretentious film student qualities of it are a testament to Malick's reputation as a true artist: no one else would have been allowed to spend millions of dollars on creating sub-Maya Deren and early-Brakhage rip-offs. The suits would have put a stop to it, if anyone but Malick came to them and said "I'm going to need a good size special effects budget for this so mommy can dance in the sky." And they would have been right to: this is not visionary stuff, but the kind of rote, mawkish nonsense that young filmmakers shoot the first time they pick up a camera and decide to do something "surreal." There's not a moment of giant men in attics or interpretive dancers flopping around on beaches that works in any capacity: Malick simply has no talent for that sort of thing and Tree of Life is a perfect embodiment of those cringe-inducing instances of when an artist decides to do something which they never have attempted in the first place. It's as embarrassing and irredeemable as Madonna rapping about taking pilates and checking out the hotties.
If I haven't really mentioned the most overtly surprisingly element of the film, it's because I don't think it's bad, just bland: a lot of people have seized on the whole "dinosaurs, what the shit?" aspect of the movie when voicing skepticism of what Malick is trying to accomplish., but I think all of the creation of the world stuff is more or less fine. It's standard Nova/Discovery Channel grade natural phenomenon photography, but it's not bad: slow motion shots of invertebrate sea creatures set to classical music is always enjoyable, there's just nothing here we haven't seen before. Endlessly. I think the obvious comparison for this sort of nature photography done right is Werner Herzog's work like Wild Blue Yonder and Encounters at the End of the World, which treat their subjects like something out of a science fiction movie and manage to generate awe and surprise while still taking the audience down a very well-trod path (a path that leads us to crazy five-legged sea creatures and outer-space-y landscapes.) Tree of Life's nature photography couldn't been lifted wholesale from one of those IMAX documentaries that used to dominate those giant screens before they started giving them over to Harry Potter movies and Batman sequels. Even when Malick takes us walking with dinosaurs, the shitty CGI and biological dubious creatures could have come straight from Walking with Dinosaurs, the Discovery Channel’s breakthrough tv event. It's not bad – disappointingly, it's not even weird. It's all very by the book as far the photography of celestial happenings, volcanic activity, swimming blobs and cheesy dinosaurs goes. Slap on some classical music and we're done.
My dubiousness towards Tree of Life reminds me of my distaste for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain: if you're going to try to justify your rambling, obnoxiously artsy "vision" by crying "the ambition of artistic originality!" then your vision had better damn well be original. The nature photography is decisively not special or original. But I would say the overall form is not even original: a man struggles in nature (a visceral feeling of the ground beneath his feet and the elements) intercut with unconnected shots of celestial phenomena. Did I just describe Tree of Life or Stan Brakhage's Dogstar Man? What's funny is that I'm sure Malick considers Tree of Life as the culmination of his life's work and the clearest articulation of his artistic vision just as Brakhage did with Dogstar and neither film can compare to their actual best work. Even Malick's "a poetic biography from mundane domestic details" approach to the Waco childhood segment reminds me instantly of a host of films like Pitcher of Colored Light or Jonas Mekas' work. That filmmakers like Deren, Brakhage and Mekas aren't Orson Welles or Steven Spielberg in terms of stature or notoriety doesn't mean that their work doesn't exist and that Malick invented a "new way of seeing" as so many critics are saying. Tree of Life undoubtedly belong to the long and varied lineage of experimental cinema, not Hollywood Blockbusters productions; that it was made in Hollywood and not a SoHo basement doesn't make it better or more original than those films that came before it. It's pretty obvious that it's not as good as its precedents – and that's ultimately a far bigger problem than its lack of originality.
Anyway, I could go on and on about this movie, but I have a sneaking suspicion my desire to puke all over its reputation has more to do with my inherent revulsion to its hippy New Age take on Jesus Christ. The problem is as much that I detest its lame-brained philosophies, starting with yet another glassy-eyed revision of the Book of Job. John and Eric, I know for a fact that you guys aren't good church-going Christian boys, so how can you get around the fact that this film is made by a believer struggling with a version of God as a dude who makes inscrutably cruel decisions (and bets with the devil!) and comes up with dorm-room pot-smoker answers? Marcus, I have no idea of your religious background, but your take on the religious elements of the movie are more than welcome as well. This is a movie about a Christian God – starting from that ground zero, how can any non-Christian take its silliness seriously? (Even the dream imagery and metaphorical doorways were aesthetically awesome, which they most certainly aren't.)
Was that a Mr. Show reference AND a Heat/Al Pacino reference, Chris?
I totally hear you about the religious stuff. The part when the mother twirls the baby around, then points up to the sky and goes "That's where god lives" (or something like that), made me kinda go "ughh" out loud the first time I saw this. But even with all the heavy-handed Christianity that this film clearly has, Malick seems to believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth, too. I thought Christians didn't believe in that stuff. Or is it just the crazy ones?
And even if there are strong elements of Christianity in the film, I don't think Malick is trying to convert anyone. I mean, I love Taste of Cherry (which started off with opening titles that said "In the Name of Allah"), but I didn't wanna convert to Islam after I saw it for the first time, and I dont think Kiarostami was trying to convert anyone either. I guess what I'm saying is, you can be an athiest and still watch (and possibly enjoy) The Tree Of Life.
It's interesting you've compared this to Brakhage's Dogstar Man, Mekas (I assume you're thinking of stuff like Diaries Notes & Sketches) and Maya Deren. I've been comparing certain aspects of Tree of Life to Kubrick's 2001 and especially Tarkovsky's The Mirror. Everything from the obvious autobiographical nature of the film to the scene where "mommy" floats in the air reminded me of The Mirror.
Btw, is the "mommy" thing an inside joke or something? Now you've got me saying it, ha ha.
You've taken most of the stuff I dislike about the movie (the end with everyone walking on the beach, the CGI dinosaurs, the loud overbearing classical opera music, etc) and just went in to even greater depth about why you didn't like that stuff. you're gonna make me completely hate this movie by the time this discussion is over, I can see it, ha ha.
And I wanna make it known: I don't think Tree Of Life is "original." But I hear what you're saying. A lot of (American) critics are making the movie out to be the second coming or something.
Just so everyone knows where I stood beforehand, I saw the movie at midnight the day before it opened, so I was at the first (public) NYC screening down at the Landmark on Houston. [Side note: the screening was in the big theater downstairs, which by my semi-reliable count-the-seats-in-each-row-then-multiply-by-number-of-rows math holds 400 people. The screening sold out, and they added another at 12:05, which means that well over four hundred people in New York could not wait 11 hours to see the first show on Friday. I love this fucking city.] I own 2 different versions of The New World, Thin Red Line on Blu-ray and DVD, Days of Heaven on Blu-ray and DVD, and while there is no Blu-ray of Badlands available, I have an original one-sheet in my office. So, uh... I'm that guy, I guess.
Or, more succinctly, I'm the guy described (caricatured?) in Chris' entry above. And Chris did an excellent job of delineating how I feel about the film. I left the theater feeling that it was kind of a mess, but that there was truly amazing stuff in there. For instance:
1) The sequence that starts with Father and Mother pregnant and ends when the kid is eight or so is probably my new favorite fifteen minutes of cinema. (I think its fifteen minutes. Its impossible to tell how long things last in the movie. This sequence immediately follows the creation of the universe sequence that lasts either twenty or thirty minutes, but encompasses millions of years, and its followed by something that i think lasts eighty minutes but encompasses twelve or thirteen years. But you get the point...) This section has so much packed into it. I'm still haunted by that quick shot of Mother carrying the child away and shielding his eyes as Father tends to someone having a fit in the BG. I've never seen childhood wonder portrayed so... wondrously? (This is another problem. Tree of Life is about things like Childhood Wonder, The Meaning of Life, and other huge topics that are impossible to even name, let alone discuss, without coming across as a pompous tool. But the movie is genuinely interested in them in the most sincere way imaginable. It is so out of place with everything pop culture has been about for so long. There is not a hint of ironic detachment anywhere near this thing, so much so that I barely feel qualified to think about it, never mind talk about it, because I have replaced all of my genuine thoughts and emotions with sarcastic quips and Simpsons references.)
2) McCracken's performance is astonishing.
3) The "stealing the silk nightie" sequence is the best depiction of the onset of puberty in film that I can think of. The inability to resist, the curiosity, the confusion, the guilt, the secrecy, and the weird thrill of the dawning awareness of the erotic, all of it made all the more moving by feeling like something so specific that it must be coming from a real, autobiographical place. Stunning.
4) I love Jack Fisk. I've never been to Texas, and I was born in 1980, but everything in the Waco section felt exactly right.
5) The cinematography felt new and exciting. It all felt unique (does anyone remember anything like an "over-the-shoulder reverse anywhere in there? Not that doing something different is always good or better, but making an entire film without using simple narrative tools as crutches is pretty impressive, whether or not it works for you).
Those last 2 are basically technical achievements, I guess. And there's more stuff I liked, but I should move on to the things people seem to have problems with:
1) The first dinosaur on the beach looked fine. The other two did not. I get that the scene between them had something to do with a moment of "grace," as if the spirit of Mother existed all the way back in the cretaceous or whatever, but the moment kind of falls flat before it even gives itself a chance because the CGI sucks.
2) None of the Sean Penn stuff needs to be in the film at all. Now, I like all of the metropolis stuff, because I think the way it is shot is insane (in a good way) so I'm not arguing for its removal. But the walking around the primordial dessert stuff on the way to your vision of Heaven is long, uninteresting, and ultimately silly.
3) Heaven, if it indeed exists, is neither a beach with all of your relatives, nor is it a sunswept field of flowers. (Also, if Heaven were indeed a beach filled with your entire family, I have a feeling that there are a lot of people who would opt out of an eternity spent there given the choice. The longest amount of time I've spent with my family since I was 18 is one week. I love them dearly, but one week at a time seems about right. And I like my family.)
I don't do Heaven, and I don't do religion. So my main obstacle to loving this film is with its thesis that there is indeed a God, and a point to all of this misery that we won't understand until its all over, and we will all find peace on the beach. I've always had this problem reconciling my love of Malick's aesthetic with my ambivalence about his spirituality, but the spirituality has never been as pronounced and foregrounded as it is here. When its nature we're talking about, I'm onboard, but once we move over to God, I tend to just tune out until Nick Nolte starts barking things at Elias Koteas again. I don't think the film is explicitly Christian, though. While the characters in the film attend a Christian church, none of the voice-over has any Jesus references, if I'm remembering correctly. Malick strikes me as a less-dogmatic kind of believer.
4) "Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside of me." Whether you like it or not, all of you have your parents wrestling inside of you, unless you were conceived in a lab and grown in a tube. It's unclear why this is being read as silly. It's certainly no sillier than any other voice over line from the last three Malick films.
There's a clear split between voice over styles in the early films, where there is an unreliable, single narrator basically rooted in character, and the later three films, where there are multiple narrators all musing about their place in the world and never once referencing narrative elements. Holly says things about what Kit is doing, but Witt just talks about "another world."
5) If Chris had not mentioned a terrible wire-work scene before I saw the film, I wouldn't have even noticed it. I don't understand why everyone hates it, and in any case, it lasts less than four seconds. In the words of Henry Jones, let it go.
So... when I left the theater, I thought it was kind of a mess. The more I think about it, though, the more I like it. I'm going to see it again sometime next week.
Three quick responses to Pfriender:
1) That kid's name is McCracken? That's awesome. McCracken is objectively the coolest last name in existence.
2) I'm calling bullshit: I've met Bob and mommy Pfriender and under no circumstances do they wrestle anywhere.
3) Additionally, I'm calling bullshit: The mommy sky-dancing is emblematic of all of the dream imagery problems the film has. Sure, we're harping on it, but only because it's perfect example of Malick's fantasty world incompetency and we could just as easily be making "doorway in the desert" or "tall fellow in my forced perspective attic" jokes. To pull a "oh, it's such a small part of the film, I don't even know what you are talking about really, there is a sky dancing mommy in the movie? sure, if you say so, but I just don't recall anything like that" is dishonest bullshit pure and simple. If you're uncomfortable with me harping on it, pick one of the other 45 instances of heaven beaches or smiling old man angels to stand in for it.
1) Hunter McCracken and Colt Mccoy should get together and effortlessly kick everybody's ass.
2) Leave Paula and Bob out of this.They've been nothing but nice to you.
3) Again, I'm not pretending that stuff isn't there, but you seem to remember much more of it than I do. I remember Mother flying, which i don't mind, I remember swimming out of the underwater room ,which I don't mind. I don't remember smiling angel man at all. And the heaven stuff is the heaven stuff, and not really the same as these one-off dream image shots we're talking about. I'm not saying all of the imagery works. I am saying that you and I had completely different responses to it, and my being susceptible to potentially lame sub-Bunuel surrealism does not make me dishonest.
Another thing that worked for me as a counter-argument to the notion that all of the dream imagery fails: the recurring image of the boy with the burns on the back of his head/ scalp problem. Its beautiful and scary, more emotive than about something specific. It's almost like its a suppressed memory that keeps seeping out but is never explained. It is awesome, and it works.
Funderburg and Cribbs, why must you always wrestle in front of me?
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