The Tree of Life
November 12, 2011 3 Comments
If I were to describe this film in one word, that word would be “overrated.” On further reflection, however, words such as “disjoint,” “muddled,” “confused,” and “pretentious” would suffice as well. The only problem is that none of those words carry the same weight of disappointment that came upon me after the final twenty-some minute long climax and dénouement had finally croaked its weariness into the comforting blackness of the closing credits. Then again, perhaps that simply describes Terence Malick’s game face in general.
The film has gotten all kinds of flak and praise over the same quandary that many audiences will silently ask themselves: what, exactly, does the creation of the universe, single-celled organisms, and dinosaurs have to do with an averagely dysfunctional family rearing children in the 50s or Sean Penn gloomily staring out the windows of high-rise office buildings and glass elevators? And that’s the crux of the film, really. What do all those things have to do with each other? The short and simple answer is this: they’re the jumbled mass of what Malick’s incoherently tried to tell a story with—the story in question being an exploration into whatever Malick considers to be the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.
Given the grand scale of such a story, it’s hard to blame Malick for using such a nonlinear and disjointed method; in fact, that kind of method could expedite the story into something digestible and comprehensible, even if it doesn’t seem immediately relevant. The problem with such narratives is that it can be difficult to tie everything together into a cohesive package, which is something Malick fails to do. He presents his audience with concepts and imagery that can only be called “gigantic” or “fantastic,” but doesn’t unify them with much significance. The audience gets to watch dinosaurs and microbes and space dust whiz about for minutes on end, and gets to feast on images of deep space during divisionary sections, but these segments are literally dropped into the middle of an already jumpy story. Whispered voice-over narrations dwelling on vague ambiguities or ruminations on grace and materialism are about all that tie the two aspects of the film together. It’s no surprise that Tree of Life’s reception is mixed.
But I see—or, I think I see—what Malick’s intent was with Tree of Life. Its stream of images—from the pseudo-biographical elements of a not-so-fictional family, to the dawning of cosmos and life on Earth, to the dream segments interspersed throughout—points to an attempt to transcend the menial confines of narrative storytelling. In that regard, its success would bank on a number of extremely subjective factors—not unlike the method used extensively (and successfully) by Andrei Tarkovsky decades ago. The images themselves are gorgeous, beautiful, evocative, fill-in-the-blank-with-whatever-words-of-praise-you-will, but that’s about all they are. Their relation to the film’s characters and, more importantly, their relation to the film’s audience remains detached, distant, and—at best—crudely manipulative. A wanton reliance upon handheld camera work is probably my biggest complaint with this department, since its attempt at giving the audience a closer, “inside-view” to the family depicted is so hokey and nauseating that it succeeds only in alienating its audience even further.
But that isn’t necessarily what prevents Tree of Life from transcending narrative confines. If it had gone the route of, say, Zerkalo, and instead reveled in its nonlinear and precise stream of images without regard to specific character or narrative developments, Tree of Life would have been a more commendable effort. But instead of aiming for a direct and visceral relation to its audience, it stops halfway there; its nonlinearity and its continuous jump-cutting from one scene to the next does a remarkable job at mimicking snapshots of a family’s life, but the method isn’t pervading. Malick still holds onto an organized narrative, even if he’s done his best to obscure any kind of structure. It’s as if he gets into the groove of such a method for a few segments and then suddenly abandons it when he feels it’s time to actually try developing the characters—and in surprisingly tame, traditional, and fairly uncreative ways, no less. The result is a hodgepodge of a film that on one hand, strives to be a transcendent experience, but on the other hand, holds so dearly to traditional narrative techniques that it’s difficult to see it as anything more than some kind of aimless, confused Frankenstein of a story. Its stream of images isn’t complete, its method isn’t holistic or inclusive, and its approach to editing becomes too predictable for its own good.
A common complaint out there seems to be that Tree of Life has no plot, and is essentially a two-some hour masturbatory spiel about, essentially, loose ends or unresolved issues. I’d agree with the second half of that, to some extent. For the kind of “storytelling” Malick seemed to be going for here, I’d argue that Tree of Life had too much plot, too much certainty, too much concreteness—too much obviousness, even. It’s not just about loose ends, it’s about a relatively normal family and the conflicts and problems that childrearing, death, and general dissatisfaction bring—and one filmmaker’s account of the purpose for it all. Given how the film plays out, that can only lead me to believe that Malick is among the countless people around who are under the impression that human beings are nothing but machinations of angst who, despite retaining a capacity for understanding and what the film labels “grace,” never reach for it, and are content to remain ugly, angry, adolescent bundles of conflict and despair for most of their lives. Try to rein in the optimism there, Malick.
But maybe I’m diving too deeply. Maybe I’m projecting some sort of personal conflict against a mirror. At least, that’d be the likely criticism of my argument. Unfortunately, Tree of Life isn’t so abstract as warrant the kind of pseudo-psychological Rorschach-like speculations of audience reciprocity—unlike, say, the aforementioned Zerkalo, or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to say nothing of Lynch’s epic Inland Empire, each of which arguably cover similar themes or utilize similar techniques. The degree to which Tree of Life demands personal reflection in order to function is limited in comparison specifically because of its inability to be either a functional narrative structure or an abstract flow of expressionistic images. The halfway point it stops at may work as a stepping-stone of compromise for audiences to keep up with Malick’s vision, but it ultimately serves to sabotage the more poignant, sublime, and penetrating sense of meaning that he was trying to convey. It’s hard to say whether this was Malick’s intention or not, given his track record.
This said, most of the performances were fantastic. If Malick was truly trying to portray an unresponsive and angst-ridden youth in the 50s-60s, he managed to get young actor Hunter McCracken to nail it perfectly—likewise with Brad Pitt’s conflicted, hard, and vaguely regretful father figure and his counterbalance in Jessica Chastain’s “mother/wife of ineffectual grace.” Sean Penn’s performance wasn’t great, but then, he didn’t have a terribly large role in the film, either. In fact, I’m not even sure what he was doing there, other than to showcase some interesting architecture and some obscure dream sequences. Maybe I just don’t “get it.”
Similarly, Malick’s grandiose cinematographic eye takes center stage, as it tends to in his works. The special effects were absolutely mesmerizing, and anyone with an ounce of patience or an interest in CGI won’t even feel how long the somewhat infamous ‘creation’ scenes actually are. In fact, they’re more interesting than a large part of the drama surrounding the family that forms the bulk of the story.
As I stated earlier, the film’s success banks largely on the subjective relation the audience can form with Malicks’ imagery and drama. It’s approach to bridging that relation is uneven and inconsistent, which is the prime reason that such an approach typically fails. In spite of his marginal failure in delivering this, the film remains a visual feast with strong cast performances, so any fans of Malick will likely be pleased.