Sunday, June 19, 2011

Tree of Life: Not the Only Time You'll Hear From Me About This

The first Terrence Malick film I ever saw was The New World. I hadn't even heard of him prior to this but there was so much buzz around this movie and I'd seen so many film reviewers', students' and nerds' heads explode in anticipation of its release that I figured I had to go even though I rarely go see films in theaters and I hate it when people tell the same semi-mythical American stories (in this case, Pocahontas) over and over and over again.

Needless to say I was completely blown away. I'd never seen a film before that made you feel as though you were not just watching but that you were a *part of* a nature that doesn't exist anymore. And to tell a whole story with barely any dialogue and only the inner thoughts of the characters and the way they interact with each other silently to move the plot along is…..well, its art. Plain and simple. Little did I know that this was subjectively the least moving of his films. Thanks to Ryan Potts and Netflix, I moved on to The Thin Red Line then Days of Heaven and before I knew it I'd become one of those people whose head explodes whenever a new film by this director is announced. Which is pretty much what happened when I heard about the Tree of Life. It was well known from the beginning that was to be his most personal film to date, one that he'd worked on for decades and was semi-autobiographical in story. (A big deal for someone who won't even let anyone take his photo). Its been delayed several times, so my anticipation level has been growing for months now.

And then a couple weeks ago, I read in a review that there are CG dinosaurs in the film and I was like………….…UM………..….K.

But, after a couple delays, I finally went on Friday to see it. And I can say now without a doubt that all the wait and anticipation was well felt and I have never seen such a beautiful film in my entire life.

The story centers around the childhood memories of Jack O'Brien, an architect who lives and works in a the sterile environment of the wealthy. This film has almost no dialogue but you don't need it to get the point. Glimpses of a shiny home that's almost unlivable in its perfection, conversations overheard with a coworker about his wife who wants to leave him. That kind of thing. And then we overhear a bit of Jack's half of a phone conversation in which he is arguing with his father over something unheard said by Jack about his brother who died at 19 (presumably a military death as his mother receives the news via telegram). We see glimpses of the moment Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien find out their son has died along with bits and pieces of the months following, including conversations in which people try desperately to comfort a mother who has lost her child. All of this is like memory-disjointed and unfinished before it is interrupted by the next vision or thought. And then shit gets real.

What follows this is a 30 or so minute piece in which Malick imagines the universe from the beginning of time. There is a small flame in space that erupts into the Big Bang then several minutes of lava forming into rock followed by waves in the ocean, primordial soup, close ups of microbes, sea life forming, foliage growing, DINOSAURS, a meteor hitting the earth then so on and so forth until we get to today. This part of the film that made me so skeptical is something I could watch over and over and over again and be equally as moved each time. It also helps that the person who put this together and illustrated it was Douglas Trumbull, famous for his spacetography in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Incidentally also the only good thing in that movie. Sorry film people).

The phone conversation from earlier ultimately leads to the heart of the film in which Jack delves into his memory growing up in Waco, TX with a borderline abusively stern father and a loving, nurturing mother. Each of their thoughts about life and questions to their god provide most of the dialogue while they interact with each other as any family does. We are taken through Jack's birth, his toddlerhood, the birth of his two younger brothers and his adolescence. The moments we see are pivotal and universal (Jack throwing a tantrum after his brother is born, his mother putting him to bed at night, his father reading to him, etc.) In time we see Jack and his family grow, develop and struggle just like we saw the entire universe do earlier. And we see this perfectly through a child's eyes as his mother takes on an almost goddess-like presence in some scenes while his father has a giant and terrifying one in others. Through all this, we see him search for his brother and peace with his death.

Based on the soundtrack, Terrence Malick is a music nerd as well. He very carefully chose his pieces for this film-Berlioz's Requiem (illustrates a pivotal end point in the film), Gorecki's Symphony #3 (second movement, written for a mother lamenting the loss of her son in war), Smetana's The Moldau (a piece about a body of water that starts as a tiny trickle then becomes a mighty river to illustrate the beginning of Jack's life), Bach's The Well Tempered Clavier (played by the stern father, also a great musician in the film), Mahler One (tips music nerd fangirl hat), Brahms' Four (tips hat again) and several other pieces by some more contemporary composers (The birth of the universe happens to a killer piece called Lacrimosa by Zbigniew Preisner) including the main score by Alexandre Desplat. .

But I think what really hits me about this film is the many ways it parallels Beethoven's Ninth symphony. You have a filmmaker and composer who are (were) well known to be crotchety, irritable, don't (didn't) like to be seen in public and take (took) long periods of time to produce their work. You have a deeply personal and autobiographical base to the story that each artist parallels with the story of the entire universe and how we each fit into it and how we all fit into it together. You have two artists who take (took) their genre and made things that no one else has (had) ever seen or heard before. I couldn't help but feel as I was leaving this film exactly the way people going to see the Ninth Symphony felt during its first few weeks in action. There is a powerful meditation that happens when you're faced with art like this. That a piece of music or a film could have the balls to take on the Question of the universe and succeed in satisfying the listener or viewer in some way at the end….well….it just doesn't happen all that often.

I've heard many music scholars, artists and composers lament our time. They say there is nothing new to contribute to any genre and we will never live in a world again where one genius stands out and makes something that rises above everything else. After only five films, I'm happy to report that I disagree with this whole heartedly. Terrence Malick is our Beethoven. He creates film and tells stories in a way never seen before. He is compares to the giants of filmmaking in the past (most notably Stanley Kubrick) but his work stands on its own as something that will move the viewer visually, mentally and in places art finds in our souls and bodies that we can't otherwise define. There was an event going on in Uptown when I went to see this film and many of the other people in the theater had been to it and were drunk and a little rowdy when the film started. By the middle, the theater was dead silent. No one got up during it and at the end credits which begin in silence, the air in there was so thick you could slice it. People sat with tears running down their faces until the credits were done. I've never experienced something like this before. While, like the Ninth Symphony, this may be Malick's pivotal work and maybe he'll top it and maybe he won't. But I can only hope that unlike Beethoven, he continues on for many, many years exploring storytelling and filmmaking in a way others are afraid to and keeping my faith in art alive at the same time.

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