Sunday, March 25, 2012

"The Tree of Life": The Movie as Coffee Table Book

      Imagine two slide shows interspersed with each other.  One is an evolutionary exploration of the beginning of life on Earth.  The other shows some incidents in a Texas middle-class family’s summer some time in the 1950s.  At various times, a couple of speakers say something about that Texas
family, but it doesn’t quite relate to the images the viewer sees.  That, in essence, is the experience of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which won the Golden Palm at Cannes and was up for three Oscars.

Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt
      When people say, “What’s the movie about,” they mean state the setting and the basic plot – i.e. the conflict as it is worked out in the story.  Viewers will create a narrative out of sketches or even discrete images.  This has been proved in psychological tests and is the pivot upon which most contemporary critical methods – Structuralism, Deconstructionist, and Post-Historicism – turn.  If there isn’t a clear plot, then viewers start offering theory.  If they have PhDs, they inflict these theories on students and sometimes write books or articles that other PhDs read and offer theories about.  Terrence Malick taught philosophy at M.I.T. and he wrote a number of weekly magazines as well as writing screenplays.  He’s directed five feature films.  I’ve seen three of them and his Achilles heel is that he can’t write dialogue.  Although film is a visual medium, the progression of images need to proverbially hold water as a story.  Malick’s characters don’t use words to express anything much about themselves so he places an over-emphasis on narration.  He’s not a film director; he’s the cinema’s photojournalist.

      Neil, my Aunt, and I discussed our responses to Brad Pitt as the autocratic father (Nature) and Jessica Chastain as the engaging mother (Grace).  I admired the father, though he had a cruel streak based upon his own perceived lack of success, while I thought the mother was wan and a bit of a drip who refused to stand up for anyone.  The mother states this Nature/Grace symbolism towards the beginning of the movie, sometime after the Big Bang (or a facsimile) is shown.  
Hunter McCracken
Pitt and Chastain try to project qualities on screen and Hunter McCracken has an arresting presence as the oldest son (a stand in for Malick as a child?), but they never are allowed to work up a performance rhythm.  The movie feels like “Light/Oldest son as middle-aged man moping in outdoor elevator/Flowers and sky/Mother gets telegram with bad news/Bubbling river/Dad plays catch with three sons, etc., etc., and it seems endless.  Yes, I know it’s supposed to be experimental or abstract, but it’s an unmitigated drag.  

      Most viewers want to believe something must be profound (the creation of life coexists with the coming of age of a Texas pre-teen so the characters must be symbolic), but it felt to me like the family wanted to believe that their family history was on a par with the creation of life.  This is the ultimate example of anthropomorphism or unbelievable narcissism.  

      It’s a gorgeous procession of images as were Badlands and Days of Heaven.  Its cinematography deserves acclaim, but it’s by Emmanuel Lubezki, not Malick.  Steven Soderbergh is one of the few major directors who acts as his own camera operator.  I don’t know how Malick ‘directed’ this.  It had to have been planned, but it feels random.  The editing must have been a nightmare from hell since there isn’t a script upon which to hang the images.  There were five editors on this movie and I pity all of them.

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