WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
So, after the high-octane spectacle of ‘Super 8,’ I headed to see Terence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ at Derby Quad yesterday. My companion was fellow film buff Nat. I’d heard that the film was very divisive, prompting walk-outs from the audience so I wanted to go with someone I knew loved cinema and would give it a fair chance.
The plot, such as it is, concerns a family growing up in Texas in the 1950s. Dad (Brad Pitt) and Mom (Jessica Chastain) have three boys. The eldest (Jack) is played as a kid by Hunter McCracken and as an adult by Sean Penn. The film keeps skipping backwards and forwards through time. We see the kids born, we see them as children and we see Jack as both a kid and the be-suited Penn, loping around modern-day skyscrapers and looking angsty. The main narrative point is that one of the boys dies at age 19. How, we’re never told (Vietnam? Car crash?). We see the mother and father’s anguish and hear the mother, calling to God to explain her loss
These family moments are amazingly told by Malick. This is the only film I’ve ever seen that seems to match how I think: time skips from now to then to now, memory upon memory being triggered by the vaguest of associations. The cinematography is stunning, there’s an almost surreal quality to how close we are to this family, these kids. Malick captures so many moments that define and describe the characters without the use of dialogue. This film at its best is a visual poem, daring and bold in its avoidance of all the conventional cinematic narrative and expositionary tricks.
And then there’s the twenty minutes concerning the birth of the universe, solar system, Earth and life on Earth (including dinosaurs). Every shot is as loving and detailed as Malick’s familial observations and the effect is to push us as an audience towards marvel, wonder at the cosmic splendour. However, there are also huge religious tones to this sequence and the film as a whole. The film starts with a quote from the Bible and throughout we hear characters’ voices imploring God to provide them with some meaning, some explanation for everything they are suffering.
This is what most jarred with me and disconnected me from the film. As a lifelong atheist, what Malick presumably intended to be spiritual and revelatory I instead found annoying, cloying and infuriating. The whole end heaven (?) sequence where everyone arrives on a beach was the most odious part. Characters meet each other, out of time and hug. Really? This is heaven, meeting yourself on a beach? I found it almost offensively theistic, particularly the part where the mother, framed by two beautiful women we’ve never seen before (angels??) intones how she willingly gives up her son. Why? What kind of god would put you through having and raising a son to kill them at 19 to prove some kind of point about morality or freedom of choice? Answer: no god I would wish to follow or believe in.
The Woody Allen Connection ~ Stardust Memories
I noticed something very bizarre as I was watching ‘The Tree of Life.’
Woody Allen’s 1980 classic ‘Stardust Memories’ is about a comic who believes comedy is beneath him. So, he wants to make important, big, philosophical films. We see clips from these films. And, blow me, if there aren’t similarities to ‘The Tree of Life.’ Near the end of ‘Stardust Memories,’ we see a clip of the cosmic film and it’s shots of volcanoes erupting, clouds scudding, waves crashing… exactly the same as Malick’s nature bit.
There’s also a scene where characters arrive from a train at a garbage dump, presumably the afterlife. They walk around aimlessly as seagulls wheel overhead, cawing wildly. Scratch the train and the garbage dump and that’s the end of ‘The Tree of Life.’
Whereas Allen was poking fun at himself and at wilfully ‘arthouse’ directors, Malick is, presumably, being stone-cold serious. So, what does it mean that his idea of cosmic wonder was parodied 31 years ago by Allen? There’s a reason that tropes become toothless and ripe for humour.
As beautifully shot, acted and directed as ‘The Tree of Life’ is, I believe it is a film hobbled by its own pretentiousness. It is trying way too hard to be profound and therefore often drifts into unintended comedy or, even worse, dullness. I confess, I couldn’t wait for it to end, the end heaven beach scene dragged on forever (eternity? 🙂 ). Checking online, it appears that Malick wants to make a six hour version!
But I don’t hate the film. Nat and I talked about it, comparing experiences. We both baulked at the religiosity, both loved the baby / toddler bits. And we were both unsettled by the film, it did affect us. She was also waiting for it to end so I don’t think she’ll be investing in the six hour cut. Then again, we did well compared to the eight or so people who actually just walked out of Quad. I think that’s the most people I’ve ever seen walk out of a screening anywhere!
It’s a shame and I do feel those early-leavers missed out as there is a beautiful family story here that is movingly told. If I could pick a version, I’d pick one without all the Christian baggage and with a less dour view of creation. After all the universe, whether it’s the birth of galaxies or the wiggling of a tiny baby’s toes is wonderful, is startling, is a miracle. Why ruin it by sticking God in there?
Or maybe Allen’s Alvy Singer was taught the most powerful lesson years ago in ‘Stardust Memories.’ When asking god/aliens about the meaning of life, how can he make things better, what about war, poverty etc., the aliens/god reply, “You’re a comedian ~ you want to make the world a better place? TELL FUNNIER JOKES!”