10 July 2011

The Tree of Life: First Thoughts After a First Viewing

Because I am an unabashed Terrence Malick fan, there was little question that I would find something to adore in his new film, The Tree of Life. Nothing highlights the subjectivity of evaluation to me as well as the fact that I will find a way to appreciate the work of a handful of creators in various media no matter what, because something in my past experience with them has made me assume that they are in some way or another smarter than me, and my job is to learn to appreciate whatever they have created. It's a sort of subservient humility -- anybody who wants to evaluate something honestly has to approach it with at least a bit of humility and try to allow the work to offer as much as it can, but with most things, especially in realms where we have some experience ourselves, humility soon enough gives way to the most basic, brutal evaluation: I think this thing is good, bad, or ugly. Without a sense of differentiation, there is no taste, and anyone who was humbly subservient to everything would be able to appreciate nothing. But a bit of subservient humility is good, too. It reminds us that our subjectivity can be capricious, that we are not purely rational in our reactions, that the meanings we find in the world are as emotional as they are logical.
One of the things I like about Malick's films is that they are especially good at provoking emotionally positive or negative responses from viewers. They do so to such an extent that it's just about impossible for people with one response to communicate with people who have the opposite response. There are plenty of artists of one sort or another whose work I don't respond to, or whose work I strongly dislike, but whose partisans I can have a conversation with, and some of those conversations have helped me appreciate work that had previously left me unmoved. I'll never be a passionate fan of Martin Scorsese's films, for instance, but I've talked with enough people over the years about what they see in those movies, and read enough reviews and analysis of them, to be able to sit through them without being consumed by loathing (well, except for Raging Bull. I can recognize its technical achievements, but having watched it a few times now, I really hope I never have to sit through it again).

Malick is one of those rare cases, though, where I don't think I could really help someone who doesn't appreciate the films to come to an appreciation of them. I think someone who hates them is still going to sit through them in pain and suffering, or at least utter boredom, no matter what I say.

Which, I suppose, is a warning: If you've watched Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World and hated them, you will probably hate The Tree of Life, and nothing I say here is likely to change that. (Badlands is a somewhat different case, Malick's most accessible film, I think, and his least meditative. I love it, but I also think it's Malick-for-people-who-don't-otherwise-like-Malick.)

My point here, after all this prologue, is simply to record my experience after the first viewing, because I want to see the film again very soon, and doing so will obliterate the first viewing.

At the end, my general sense was that Tree of Life contained some of the best material Malick has ever shot and some of the worst. The structure of the film stayed in my mind as four sections: 1.) the opening, which is primarily a presentation of a family in grief after learning of the death of one of the sons/brothers; 2.) the macro/microcosms of the universe, including the creation of the Earth, up through the dinosaurs; 3.) the Texas childhood; 4.) Eternity. Interwoven into sections 1,3, and 4 are glimpses of the oldest child, Jack, as a sad, apparently very financially successful adult, played by Sean Penn. One of the things I will be most interested to see on a second viewing is if this schema remains as strongly distinct in my mind as it did after a first viewing.

Section 3 is the part that seems to me the best work Malick has ever done, and some of the most affecting filmmaking I've ever seen. Section 4 was disappointing, and has grown only more so in my memory. I didn't think it was terrible (this is a Malick film, and me watching it, after all!), I just thought it was flat. The characters all walk together in a timeless tidal basin, and they all forgive each other, and the mother releases her grief and her son to God or eternity or whatever. The imagery for the mother's forgiveness moment there is total kitsch, like something off a vehemently Christian Hallmark card, but I could accept that because it seemed to fit with her character -- I can see her as the sort of person who would be really moved by vehemently Christian Hallmark cards. Hers is, after all, the voice that sets up the distinction between "Grace" and "Nature" early in the film, and that distinction, it seemed to me, was not supported through the rest of the movie by what we are shown, and so seemed to me to be an idea coming from the character rather than the narrative. (But then, it's a distinction I think is nonsensical in a bunch of different ways, so my antipathy to it as a philosophy might have made me sympathize with the elements of the story that contradicted it, or might have caused me to interpret elements of the story as contradicting it.) And I might even be able to justify the muddy emptiness of the film's vision of Eternity as a subjective one, the Eternity the characters (or perhaps just the adult Jack's character) can imagine and conceive of and desire, and thus the Eternity they get. I don't know. I'm not entirely sure it matters, because this is the Eternity we're shown, and the scene offers the elements that feel most like a resolution to what we've already seen. The film doesn't actually end there, because it continues on to some quick shots of a bridge and sunflowers, then the mysterious, undulating light that served as a symbol between the film's sections, but these seemed like a coda.

The problem with Eternity at the end is not that it's bad, but that it's dull and doesn't really resonate much. Everybody gets forgiveness, and there is happiness in the dreary lands of the afterlife. Yay whoopee.

Sections 1 and 2 are ones I'm very curious to revisit, because on a first viewing, you just don't have any way to orient yourself until they're nearly over. (Indeed, occasionally I wondered if they would ever be over -- their form is so open, their meaning so mysterious, that there's little to latch on to, because for the first section we don't yet really know who these characters are, and for the second section we don't really know why we're shooting around through the universe or seeing what appear to be cells under microscope vision or watching dinosaurs in a river, and anyone whose brain has been trained by narrative cinema will probably do what I did, which is try to grasp at some sort of story or relationship from all of these images and impose linear narrative meaning on it. But linear narrative meaning is exactly what it is not about -- alas, I'm the sort of person who always wants to have a sense of where a narrative is going, a sense of its shape, and until I get that, I can't begin to make sense of what I see or read -- I'm the sort of person who reads the last chapters of mystery novels and then goes back and reads the rest, and I will frequently skip ahead in movies to see the ending and then go back to the beginning, because I can't actually see what's there until I know where it's going. Having seen Tree of Life once and gotten a sense of its shape, I think I'll now be better able to appreciate the first two sections.

Nonetheless, the first section disappointed me because Malick has been great with openings before (and endings, which is, again, one reason why the ending of Tree of Life was disappointing). Days of Heaven and The New World especially stand out as having powerful, mesmerizing beginnings that help us get into the mood and pace of their movies.

The section that I found most powerful, almost overwhelmingly so, is the longest in the film, I think, although I don't trust my judgment of how long any section is, since I didn't look at a clock while watching and my companion turned to me at the end and said, "Wait, it feels like only about an hour went by," and I said, "Yeah, I thought there'd be a second half..." We had both perceived 139 minutes as lasting roughly an hour, so I have no idea how long the Waco section is, but it felt like the most substantial part, and perhaps half the film's length. (I plan to time things on my second viewing.)

What most struck me on a first viewing was -- in addition to the fluid cinematography, the sharp editing (which bothered me a bit in the 135 minute theatrical cut of The New World, but feels utterly perfect here), the submersed, interiorized narrative -- how efficient the performances are. We are shown little, and know much from it. Such performances are not created by the actors alone, much as I would like to give them credit, but are an alchemy of acting, directing, and especially editing. We don't know what was actually shot, and Malick is famous for shooting miles of film that he does not use, which may be one reason why the actors are able to convey entire histories of action and emotion with a glance or a word. Regardless of the reason, regardless of how such an effect was produced, the effect is there, and it's stunning. Scene after scene is presented as glimpses and hints, not so much iceberg tips as samples of the air around that tip. Motivations are generally unaddressed, and yet the characters are coherent, their actions, though often surprising, are never anomalous. Also notable is how wonderful are the children's performances -- they don't feel like performances at all, but rather captured moments, and I've seldom seen a film where children's play was as meaningful, contradictory (joyfully playful, menacing, confused, awkward, exultant), and convincing as in The Tree of Life.

There is really very little dialogue in the film, especially if we think of dialogue literally as people talking to each other. There are few actual conversations. Certainly, Malick's standard voiceovers are there, and handled in the polyvocal, whispered, mysterious way of The Thin Red Line and The New World rather than the monologic method of Badlands and Days of Heaven; but they felt less comprehensive to me than in the other films, more questioning, more banal in many ways, whereas the previous films mixed the banal and the oddly insightful (or insightfully odd, I suppose). Some feel much more straightforward than any previous Malick voiceover, more traditionally voiceovery -- I think in particular of the father (Brad Pitt) coming out and stating (in what may be, if my memory is correct, his only voiceover) that he has disappointed himself, that he has not been the person he thought he could be (or something to that effect). It's a blunt statement that fits a blunt character, but is closest to the naive statements of Sissy Spacek's voiceover in Badlands, though those had a lot more irony in how they fit against the story's actions and images than anything in later Malick (one of the least ironic American filmmakers of the last 50 years), and I certainly don't perceive any irony in Pitt's voiceover.

Instead of dialogue, the meanings and emotions of the film are evoked via gestures and glances, the tone is sustained through movement and stillness, and the effect is to conjure the wondrous terrors of childhood through fragments that feel like urgent memories. I kept thinking of two of the most beautiful films I know: The Passion of Joan of Arc and The 400 Blows.

What to make of the Sean Penn sections? Aside from the Eternity end, I liked the sense of distance and history they gave us, the sense of childhood as a lost time that resonates throughout the rest of life. I wanted a bit more of that, not so much an explanation of the adult Jack as a bit more time with him; I would have happily traded some of his Eternity moments for moments of everyday life with him. Penn's role is another element of the film that I want to watch more closely on a second viewing, as is Jessica Chastain's, because while she is a powerful presence, she is nearly silent, and Brad Pitt's power as the father overwhelms her, while Hunter McCracken as Young Jack gives a stunningly complex and evocative performance, so it was impossible for me to see everything, and on one of my next viewings I want to focus on Chastain, because I have a sense that her performance contains some of the film's secrets.

To say more, though, I need to see the film again. But then, with Malick's films, to watch them is always to see them again.