Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Terrence Malick's latest got a lot of boos and bravos at Cannes, as well as the Palme D'Or. I pretty thoroughly disliked it.  Malick is clearly aiming for big metaphysical emotional human-historical targets here, as he attempts to link fragmented scenes in the life of a dysfunctional family (Brutish Dad, Saintly Mother, Sensitive Son in 1950s Texas) with nothing less than the creation of the universe -- there's an extended sequence showing can only be the Big Bang, the formation of Planet Earth, single cell animals, dinosaurs, the lot.  And it doesn't stop there: there's another sequence set on a beach where all of the characters from all periods of the film (except dinosaurs) are shown walking around while wearing white gauzy clothes, and there are fervently whispered voiceovers about grace and so on.

I didn't buy it for a minute. For all the magnificence of the cinematography and the carefully chosen classical soundtrack, all the emotive whisperings and ever-so symbolic symbolism, the only thing of cosmic significance on display in TREE OF LIFE is Malick's failure to bring this film to anything resembling meaningful life. Plenty of distinguished works have been loaded for the same bear Malick is aiming for: Joyce's ULYSSES, Faulkner's THE HAMLET, Wilder's OUR TOWN, Tarkovsky's THE MIRROR, O'Neill's LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, Capra's IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, to name just a few, and I'm sorry but TREE OF LIFE falls very very short of being in their company, coming off instead like Tarkovsky-Kubrickified version of some 70s TV drama.  My problems with the film aren't with the film's perceived "sincerity" or "seriousness," and I'm certainly not trying to come off as all hipper than thou.  I've been deeply moved by lots of films, lots of books, lots of things in life in general.  I found more honest emotional resonance, more sheer power and beauty, in the climactic incinerator sequence of TOY STORY 3, where assorted pieces of plastic and fabric join hands to meet their fate, than in the entire two hours plus of Malick's phony, bloated piece of kneejerk high-art weepy sincerity-porn.

Believe it or not, I've been an admirer of Malick's for a long time, since college when I was knocked out by a screening of BADLANDS, still for me Malick's best film.  DAYS OF HEAVEN has its interest, but for all the visual beauty there's also the first instance of the preciousness that would overcome Malick later, in one of Linda Manz' voiceovers, when she out of the blue announces that she's thinking of her future, and wants to be an earth doctor, or some such -- it just brought the film to a halt, but it didn't last long.  I saw THIN RED LINE on its first release as well, and was very impressed with it, up to a point.  A recent revisit confirmed that, for me, the film just goes on for far too long -- the last half hour or so focussing on Jim Caviezel fell very flat for me, especially after the incredible tension of the middle section, which ends when the great Elias Koteas is transferred out of the unit.  The trademark whispered voiceovers didn't cloy as badly as they later did, and the film's astonishing beauty was, for me, unprecedented in a war film.
I seem to like THE NEW WORLD a good deal more than most people.  I didn't have problem with the slow pace, or the voiceovers, or much of anything in the film at all.  It struck me as being one of the more profound timewarps in movie history -- it really felt like I was looking back through the ages at colonial America.  What can I say -- I bought it, I went along with the leisurely pace and the radiant beauty and the film's lingering sadness.  And Malick got a real performance out of Colin Farrell, which up to then I hadn't thought was possible, and he got one of the last watchable performances of Christian Bale.
Now to be fair, there were things about TREE OF LIFE that I did like.  Mr. Malick did manage to depict the world of children really skillfully, I thought.  The whole memory of the boy entering into the neighbor's house was the most remarkable thing in the film, I thought, the kind of nagging childhood incident that resists easy explanation.  And the entire film is just flat out gorgeous.  I keep remembering that one shot of a flock of birds against the sky, twisting in and out of assorted shapes -- the kind of astonishing thing that only Malick seems to be able to capture, that shows me something everyday in a way that makes me feel like I've never seen it before.  I just wish the rest of the film had been of any interest to me at all.


laius said...

The whole memory of the boy entering into the neighbor's house was the most remarkable thing in the film, I thought, the kind of nagging childhood incident that resists easy explanation.

See The 400 Blows, Murmur of the Heart, and The Burning Secret for similar scenes (a boy sitting at his mothers dressing table which I certainly did at the same age), as the slip, like the collection of powders and paint, embody all that is mysterious to a boy in the female sex. In fact in Murmur, Laurent goes much further. Jack feels ashamed afterward telling his mother "Don't look at me", not surprising as the family were Catholics which lays a guilt trip on such natural inclinations. Not so difficult to explain after all.

Roscoe said...

Fair enough, but I think there's something interesting and mysterious about the scene in question in TREE OF LIFE, as opposed to the more straightforward moments in 400 BLOWS etc.

laius said...

I gather you see something sinister here? My take is that Jack is in kind of a panic having stolen the slip and then tries to dispose of it by burying it and then by tossing it into the river. As I said his Catholicism would have made him feel guilty first for his natural sexuality and second by stealing. I loved the film for the same reasons that Ebert and others, it was a mirror of my Texas childhood
so I really can't be completely objective here.

Roscoe said...

Not sinister, but genuinely poetic and interesting in ways that the rest of the film strove ever-so-earnestly to be without ever really managing to be.

Edward Copeland said...

Thanks for the comment on MUBI. I've left comments on MUBI for years but it seems no one has ever indicated that they've even noticed any of them until I wrote the one on Tree of Life. I tried to figure out how to respond to you on MUBI but I never play enough over there to know how to do it.

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