Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Cannes Day 6: The Tree of Life

I just love this picture of Terrence Malick.


Part hermit, part auteur genius, Terrence Malick's films are often a lot to digest. I want to (but won't) make any comparisons to his earlier films like The Thin Red Line, because I want to play by Malick's methods. He's apparently a fan of philosophy and film theory in the best and worst ways possible. For example, Malick (like Andre Bazin) treats films as their own universe, and as such, should be judged the same way. 

Where do you start with a film like this? Well, you should first watch the trailer. It will help explain the banquet of sensory pleasures that this film presents.


As you can see, there's just so much on display. It's a grandiose, mystical sweep from the beginning of time and onwards, stopping by to check out 1950s small-town Texas, where the majority of the real "narrative" happens. The first hour or so is very akin to the legendary 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film with sequences that are operatic, to say the least. This also applies to The Tree of Life, which in its first hour will show you the splitting of cells, the big bang, dinosaurs (and their extinction), and dozens of beautiful - ugh, so mind-bogglingly beautiful - galaxies. I've always been obsessed with space, and Malick's clearly a nerd about it too. Awesome.

So, visually, it's astonishing. To back that up (and give you the good-movie tingles all over), Malick provides a soundtrack that could make a grown man cry. It's angelic, epic, and lots of other good words, too.

The narrative is important to the film, but the audio-visual sequences are more so. They transcend normal critiques. The "story" element is based in Texas, with Brad Pitt as a ham-lipped, stern Mr. O'Brien, and Jessica Chastain as his missus. They have three young boys, but the real focus is on Jack. He's played by both the excellent Hunter McCracken (as a child) and Sean Penn as an adult. Here, small-town life is captured with some very verite techniques. According to the producers, Malick apparently rented an entire block, hired young and old actors to wear period clothes, and filmed their impromptu and improvised actions. The cinematography, when not focusing something out of a science textbook, is so very striking. The camera angles are innovative and dynamic, and will often leave your brain in pieces.



Penn's Jack opens and closes the film and ties it all together. It's clear that Malick intends to compare the beginning of time and space to Jack's life, which we see polar opposites of. There's not much to say about it all, as most of the dialogue is voice-overs that are ostensibly lines of poetry. That's fine, though. The lyrical messages that come across are a lovely companion to the already great A/V combos.

There are problems with The Tree of Life, but perhaps this is too personal a movie for one to really give a fair assessment of what it is that's wrong. Maybe you'll find it too long; maybe you won't be as deeply affected by the sensational nature of it all. It's also possible you find the aspects of the Texas "narrative" to be useless.

Or maybe you just won't get it.

I won't pretend I understood it all, and I think you should be skeptical of those who do - especially when they aren't Terrence Malick. Again, it's an extremely personal affair. It's as if Malick invites you into his mind for the two-something hour-long run time, and says to you "please, no photographs. Be respectful."

He didn't even show up to the press conference here in Cannes, which shows you that he just doesn't care if the movie is successful financially or critically. It's probably the furthest thing from his mind, really.

In the end, I don't want to give this movie a rating. I feel as if this is Malick's magnum opus, so really, that should speak for itself. It's not perfect, however, but I don't feel equipped with the words to tell you why.

Terrence Malick: international man of mystery.

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