' ' Cinema Romantico: The Tree Of Life

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Tree Of Life

How does Terrence Malick choose what shots go in his movies? That's what I want to know. There are five editors listed on the infamously reclusive Malick's fifth film but I can only imagine the director was often in the editing bay with the whole lot of 'em. He'd have to be! "Okay, these shots of the street lamps, Terrence, what do you want us to do with these? And the clown in the dunk tank? Where is that supposed to go? And you have, like, seventeen hours of footage of this river just rolling. How much of this are we supposed to use?" I mean, seriously, how much footage does this guy shoot? Would it fit into the Alaskan Pipeline? Does Malick have this all planned out ahead of time? When he's shooting these seemingly innocuous images is he already shaping them inside his head for the film? Or does he just make it up afterwards? Does he go in and pick through the images to link them up with whatever meaning he's attempting to convey? Is this why he shuns the spotlight? To just make it all that much more unknowable? If he isn't around to give tidy answers at press junkets it just illuminates the Mystery Of The Universe, no?

This is all smoke and mirrors, yes, and this is because "The Tree Of Life" is basically unreviewable. Analysis and criticism is useless in the face of its vastness. I would hesitate to term it a movie and/or film. It is an exploration of a life lived. No. Strike that. It is an exploration of life - in general - lived. (You'll see.) It makes me think of Ethan Hawke in "Before Sunset" saying he wanted to write a novel that took place "within the space of a pop song." Malick has made a movie that takes place within the space of a Brahms Symphony.

Its characters are not necessarily characters, nor are they charicatures, they are more like poetic essences of the whole wide world. There really isn't a story. It's anti-story. Well, not anti-story. It moves into a realm beyond story - for the most part, anyway. In fact, when it inches closest to a conventional story, toward the end of what passes for a so-called 2nd act, is when it kinda gets stuck in the mud and turns a little boring. The lead up to this tale of a 1950's family gone wrong is chock full of images, singular images piled on top of singular images and reinforced with singular images. It's breathtaking. It moves the movie along in what passes for a grandiloquent montage except it's not a montage at all.

As you get older and flash back to your youth or to other loving years gone by, what happens? You begin to lose a sense of exactly what happened and what words were spoken. All you have is the picture. The image. Those stay, forever and always, and their power never fades. For damn near an hour Terrence Malick makes a movie of a faded youth told from that aged youth's (Sean Penn) flashbacks that he is remembering entirely via these unforgotten images. It is beautiful, balls-to-the-wall cinema that re-defines the notion of epic. And in so many ways this elongated passage is precisely why the movie has to get bogged down and bitter and boring and a bit more uninspired as it goes along.

If you don't stay in love with life, the life will get sucked right outta you.


Castor said...

The creation of the universe sequence was overlong. I feel a lot of people who are going to give up on the movie are going to do during that part of the movie.

Malick is well known to shoot miles of film and then works for months or years to edit his movies. There is funny anecdotes that he would sometime have his actors play out a scene but he would then be busy filming something in the background instead.

Nicely written review Nick!

Andy Buckle said...

I finally saw it last night! I'm still not sure what to think. I thought it was incredible. But I had a second film afterwards, so I didn't have the time to process it. A second viewing will be required. More perhaps.

You're right though...how much footage does this guy shoot? Every frame is like a mini masterpiece (and there are lots and lots). The film is like a massive extension of the trailer. Actually, I think there are some shots from the trailer that weren't even in the film. I could not believe what I was seeing most of the time, but I gave up trying to formulate a review or analysis half way through, because it made me exhausted.

@ Castor, I might be alone, but I hoped the creation scene would go on longer. I loved it!

Nice review Nick. I'm not going to attempt anything for at least a couple of days, and might even wait to see it again, when I'm not seeing 2/3 films a day.

Castor said...

@ Andrew: I hear you on writing a review after seeing this movie. It took me a whole day to put my thought together and it was painstaking to write the review.

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, guys! I agree, reviews on this are tough. I wrote this in, like, a 12 minute burst. And I hear you, Castor, on the creation sequence. I remember thinking to myself exactly what you said. I definitely went with it, though.

Derek Armstrong said...

After I got out, I thought I was unique in finding the first hour to be captivating and the second hour-plus to be tedious, but I guess it just proves that I am fairly close to the critical norm even in a film that defies conventional criticism. I just felt like he was repeating himself in the second half and that the end in particular was pretty soppy. I also thought that Sean Penn needed a bit more to do, even though it's funny to say that in a movie where none of the characters really "do" anything. I'm with Andy in liking the creation of the universe sequence, which basically means I have no problem with Malick going completely off the rails -- I just need it to ultimately produce some kind of reaction in me. The first half did, the second half did not, really. Overall, though, still a very valuable viewing experience.

Nick Prigge said...

I also was curious about Sean Penn. The character just seems to exist to allow for the story to be told in flashback. Did he take the part just to work with Malick? Was the part more beefed up in the original script? Was it an Adrien Brody situation where it got cut down in editing?

That said, he certainly appeared credibly contemplative when on camera.