Hmm. That was my reaction earlier tonight as I left the cinema having watched Terrence Malick’s long-awaited Palme D’Or winner “The Tree of Life.” Hmm. Not in a disapproving way, or in an especially confused way, or even a disappointed way. Hmm, as in “hmm, this is quite a lot to think about, and now I have to go home and write about it. What a dilemma.” Despite having eagerly anticipated this film since I first got wind of it about two years ago, savoured the atmosphere in Cannes when it premiered to simultaneous cheers and boos, and read more articles and reviews about it than I’m comfortable admitting in order to prepare myself as fully as possible for the experience of watching this film…I still wasn’t ready when it came time to watch this film. I don’t know whether I wanted more from it, less from it, or just something completely different, but the upshot of it is that I have absolutely no idea where this article is going. In this way, it’s going to be very much a meta-review: as sprawling, dense and problematic as the film it discusses.
A few weeks ago now, when I wrote a piece about slow cinema in relation to “Meek’s Cutoff,” I was asked in the comments below the column about my feelings regarding Malick’s oeuvre, alongside getting quite correctly reprimanded for concluding my piece with a decidedly inconclusive citation of subjective taste being the only determiner of “good” and “bad” slow cinema. To reiterate my view of Malick, I’m firmly planted on the line in the sand separating those who view Malick as a semi-religious artist, and those who dismiss him as a pretentious hermit who all in all has read far too much Heidegger. I recently read something online that described “Badlands” as being “as thin as a blade of grass and just as perfect,” and I think this pretty much hits it on the head: it’s a beautiful, lyrical yet bleakly stark take on the alienated drifter so popular in American cinema at the time, yet within its brevity and sparseness lie almost unfathomable depths of meaning. “The Thin Red Line” is more than just the thinking man’s “Saving Private Ryan,” it’s an ambitious and powerful ode to the eternal futile conflict within the human race, a profound and damning condemnation of our ignorant assault upon nature, and a bold abandonment of cinematic narrative for a “free form” manner of storytelling Malick has taken even further in his latest work. However, I saw “Days of Heaven” once and couldn’t make head nor tail of it, and was subsequently left cold and bored. “The New World” I haven’t even got around to seeing yet, so can’t possibly comment. Once I do see it, and once I’ve re-watched “Days of Heaven” to see if my gut response has changed with experience, I’ll be able to plant a firmer flag on planet Malick, yet even then one has to take the myriad of complexities offered up by “The Tree of Life” into account. And to do that, I’ll have to watch it at least two more times. Those who’ve already seen it will understand how I feel.
To make it slightly easier on myself, let’s start with something that should be universally acknowledged of the film without any reservations: it is visually astonishing, certainly the most epically beautiful film of the year so far. From swirling galactic nebulae to sunlight streaming through the trees of a fifties Texan suburban paradise, from the shadows of children playing on the road to ominous and imposing skyscrapers reflecting the sky’s wispy clouds, the exquisite gorgeousness of Malick’s visual palette goes beyond artistic shot composition and elegantly smooth and graceful tracking shots. Malick and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have painstakingly orchestrated a film which is painterly in the way they use light, symbolism and even subtle expressionism to add great depths to the imagery of the work. This idea of cinema being painterly has always fascinated me, the medium presenting the opportunity to fuse various high art forms into a unique and intoxicating synthesis. A truly great film can boast the dramatic power of the theatre, the narrative and linguistic complexity of literature, the aural transcendence of opera or classical music, the serene choreography of ballet in the motion of the camera, and the visual texture and openness of interpretation of fine art. Composing a shot of film both is and isn’t comparable to painting: a portrait is still and film is always in motion, yet this motion comprises of still images passing in front of the eye fast enough to give the impression of movement. Film isn’t painting because even the most dictatorial and authoritative of auteurs, who manipulate the perspective of an image and all that appears within it, can ever achieve the complete control of an artist stood before a canvas: a director can, however, craft a painterly film not simply through visual beauty which incorporates the techniques of fine art, but by self-consciously referencing painting in the imagery. Thus Kubrick in “Barry Lyndon” spent many month researching art produced in the period Thackeray’s novel is set in, and when shooting the film set about recreating the visual sense of these paintings through his uses of light, costume, make-up, perspective and depth of field. So too does Malick’s camera idolise the overtly pre-Raphaelite beauty of Jessica Chastain, and equate the idolisation of her angelic grace with Biblical imagery glimpsed on plate glass windows.
Ultimately film is closer to photography than it is to painting, this much is obvious as technologically one gave birth to the other, yet when a film is particularly visually impressive like “The Tree of Life” we think of it in terms of fine art as opposed to photography. This hints at the fundamental difference between these two forms: painting is art because it is an artist’s personal interpretation and visual representation of the world, but photography does not in general occupy a similar niche. You can easily name five famous painters, but five famous photographers? Although fundamentally a photographer can control what the camera is pointing at and what appears in the frame, the potential of a photograph to provide an exact and precise image of the world means the form is much more widely associated with the creation of an alternate image reality, which has influenced the way we see the world and which I believe I’ve discussed before. Photographs are also a way of preserving memories, and this is of crucial importance to Malick’s film. The film is structured, cosmic detours aside, as a flashback experienced by Sean Penn’s adult character to his idyllic childhood in Texas during a daydream induced by what must be an especially trivial conversation. The image of him at the window of a cold, tall skyscraper in downtown Dallas bookends the childhood recollections, and as such these memories play out in a suitably fractured and transient way. Film is truth twenty four times a second, and photography is also truth: yet memories can be distorted, and there is a very real sense not only that we cannot fully trust the idyllic, nay angelic, images we see. Not only are they fundamentally distorted by the perception of Hunter McCracken, as the younger version of Penn, whose experiences are being related, but we also feel that we are only seeing memories that have been retrospectively selected. We see predominantly happy memories, infused by particularly striking negative moments, and as such are treated to a slideshow of highlights, presented as unreliably short fragments. Malick exhausted five editors putting this film together, and watching the film you can see why: it really has been edited to within an inch of its life.
The natural extension of this idea of filmmaking and editing, the only craft unique to the medium, as being a distorted and idealised presentation of memory is to consider the piece as being a work of autobiography. Certainly the time and geography depicted in the childhood segments of the film would seem to match that of Malick’s own childhood, and a clear sense of the palpable diegesis prevails despite the inbuilt consideration of the transience of memory, something Production Designer Jack Fisk can take great credit for alongside the detail of Malick’s own memory and imagination. Beyond such speculation, the film does seem strongly geared towards the meta-cinema in a number of ways. In the extensive Kubrickian dawn of the galaxy/beyond the infinite sequences, is Malick as the great individual artist marvelling at the Earth as the creation of an artist-God, and if so is Malick arrogantly drawing a comparison between himself and the almighty? Is he not also making a comment on film as an industrial process of artistic expression by deliberately juxtaposing the formidable, manufactured splendour of skyscraper architecture with the natural and elegant beauty of the images and landscapes of his childhood? There seems to be an overt distance and alienation fabricated by Malick in the “present” which is a world away from the warm intoxicating tranquillity of the “past,” and which to me could represent either the ways we see the world around us as a child and later as an adult, or on a meta-cinematic level the tendency of film to seek for transcendence within the confines of industrial production.
A clearer metaphor in the film is the way that in our development as individuals during the transition period of our childhoods, we are torn between our parents as ideal models of social existence and must learn to embrace and accept one or the other. It is the film’s central conflict, also played out on a grander scale in the birth of the Universe passages, between the way of nature and the way of grace. Brad Pitt’s authoritarian father is the former, always struggling to shape the world according to his preferences and fostering ideals of strength and invention in his children; Jessica Chastain’s luminescent and constant mother is the latter, gliding unchanged through the turbulences and changes of life: the only advice given to her as the grieving mother of a slaughtered child is that life goes on and the pain will lessen. Both parents together create the eponymous tree of life metaphor: the tree is constant, ever expanding and growing new branches, and can weather all that smashes against it, but to achieve this constancy it has had to struggle and grow into its strength over decades from a sapling into an impressive tree. The more troubling events of Malick’s evocation of childhood, and the way he explores the fluctuating gravitation of McCracken from one parent to another, suggest an Oedipal conflict. The whispered internal monologues of the child contains a plea to God to kill the father, and sexual desire for Chastain becomes more uncomfortably tangible as the boy approaches adolescence, for example when he spies on her through a crack in the door, and rummages through her nightwear. What, I wonder, had he done with the nightie before sending it guiltily and frantically down the river? In the end, his acceptance that he is more like his father than his mother is also the acceptance of the way of nature, and the uneasy realisation that his life will not be one of serene peace, but of constant struggle into paradise.
I was also going to talk about the film as an example of idealised memory being an expulsion of grief and by association a celebration of life and that Malick links this to a greater sense of compassion and ultimate happiness, or at least peace, being afforded to us all in the world beyond life. This would seem to be the best justification of his otherwise superfluous and absurdly incongruous CGI Dinosaurs, whose most important inclusion comes in the form of a predatory carnivore sparing the life of a wounded beast. Malick’s vision is therefore a comfortable one, and a message of hope.
I was going to talk about this, but I’ve already gone on for far too long. Seriously if you made it this far I owe you a drink, which you can cash in at any time. To conclude, “The Tree of Life” is a maddening elliptical film offering more interpretations than are possible to digest, and I actually enjoyed discussing the film more than I enjoyed the film itself. All in all, typical Malick fare then.