Sunday, July 17, 2011

Malick's Tree of Life

Two paths intertwine in this film, the way of Grace and the way of Nature. Either way, love is the only way to achieve happiness. Such is the explicit message of Terrence Malick's film, "The Tree of Life." All else impacts us visually, soaking our psyches with visual metaphor and reaching the depths of our emotional selves with memory, gesture, and whispers from a dream-like world. The film has the sweep of Koyaanisqatsi, the struggle for the sacred in Nature vs. the destructive forces of development, money, and the quest for power. The visual beauty of Kubrick is also here along with similar metaphors of birth, death, and the archetypes of human existence in an indifferent world. At times I even sensed David Lynch's nightmarish details, especially in the extended point of view of Jack in pre-adolescence. 

There is a glimpse of the Zone of Totality, as we see the total eclipse of the sun in a series of celestial images that give the film its mysticism. At the gathering on the shore, the characters apparently forgive one another for all their transgressions. As with Kubrick, though, there is no final meaning or happy ending, and we leave the theater with as much a sense of meaninglessness as Sisyphus came to accept. The cosmos and all human existence within in, connected or not,  may have great beauty, and perhaps like Keats, Malick presents the case that this beauty and the love within it are the only truth there is.

The San Francisco Chronicle gives a thorough review of the film, noting the two ways I mentioned above and offering excellent insight into the film's merits:

Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt, top, are the parents of three boys in "Tree of Life."

The Tree of Life

WILD APPLAUSE Drama. Starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain. Directed by Terrence Malick. (PG-13. 138 minutes. At Bay Area theaters.)
If someone gave you, as a gift, a bag of diamonds and rocks, you would not see it as "a mixed bag." You would see it as a bag of diamonds with some rocks that can be easily pushed aside, and you would be happy to be rich. In the same way, Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" is at times trying and perplexing, but it also contains some of the most psychologically insightful and ecstatic filmmaking imaginable.
Malick shows you the world that you know, but he shows it in such a fever that you see it, not differently, but completely. It's a vision so alive to the mystery in everything that the simple depiction of a man walking into an office building feels like a feast of limitless possibility and geometric variety. To see "The Tree of Life" is to wish you could go through life seeing things in this way. There would be no fear of death because each moment would be so full as to contain lifetimes.
From the first moments, Malick presents his film as a contrast between two ways of understanding human existence. There is the way of nature, which sees only struggle and looks for reasons to be unhappy, and there is the way of grace, which is in touch with love and the broad movements of the universe. The way of nature is embodied by Brad Pitt as a hard-charging husband and father - it's a lovely performance from Pitt, whose control-freak facade never completely hides the vulnerability motivating it. Jessica Chastain, as his wife, embodies the way of grace. They live with their three children in a Texas suburb in the 1950s and are seen through the memory of their eldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), looking back from the present.
As in "The New World," voice-over narration, to the accompaniment of subjective shots of trees and sky, gives us the characters' inner thoughts. These produce a unique effect. It's as if we're seeing a dream of the past and hearing mental vibrations that, either randomly or because of their particular strength, happened to survive time. The feeling is one of privilege, to be picking up on precious currents of consciousness, seemingly lost to the world.
At its most basic, "The Tree of Life" vividly replicates, in cinematic terms, the way we remember. There are general memories, moods and sensations, and then there are incidents and bits of conversation that are recalled with absolute present-tense lucidity. And so the incidents of voice-over are interspersed with straightforward scenes showing this 1950s family. Malick is trying to give us life as it is consciously experienced, the unceasing inner monologue and its interplay with the outside environment, the thoughts of the past mixing with the suspended and yet always available present.
The ambition behind such an attempt is enormous, and Malick's success is complete. But he doesn't stop there. In "The Tree of Life" he doesn't only want to show what life and consciousness feel like. He wants to capture the nature of life - what life is. To this end, he films waterfalls and mountains, gives us long minutes of churning, multi-colored ooze floating in space, and even includes a brief dinosaur interlude. He is trying to give us the mind of God. No, more than that. He is trying to film God.
When he stays within the multiple minds of his various characters, Malick is working here at the level of genius. His handheld camera hovers with a sense of impending revelation. The beauty is beyond description. But when he ventures into explorations of the universe and its origins, the work becomes general and less interesting, liked warmed-over Kubrick.
Still, there is little doubt that "The Tree of Life" will stand as the cinematic achievement of the year.
E-mail Mick LaSalle at
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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