The Trouble with Quibbles: The Tree of Life

To me, Terrence Malick seems to be an uncompromising filmmaker. And I mean that as a compliment. I respect him for sticking to his guns. The notoriously elusive director seems interested in nothing more than expressing his ideas, crafting films that are beholden to nothing (and no one) beyond his intentions. He has a clear vision, everything he commits to film is in service of that vision. This holds true with Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life. The film–starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, and Sean Penn—is a sort of “portrait of the artist as a young man,” questioning the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, wandering through a “story” centered around a suburban family in the 1950s.

AS: As soon as The Tree of Life flashed back to the Big Bang and the dawn of life on Earth, I thought to myself, “Bryan’s gonna like this movie,” whereas I found it a bit tedious at times . . . much like 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film I appreciate, but do not like.

BP: Well, wait now. Let’s back up. The story, as it is, is not too hard to relate. So, let’s start there. I’ll give it a go.

AS: And so the concessions begin . . .What story? There was a sketch of a story, sure, fragments, but nothing resembling a complete, flowing narrative.

BP: Right, exactly. Here’s what happens: There’s the bible quote, some strange light of the universe, some whispery voice-over, some flashes of the mother’s childhood, you find out a son has died, Sean Penn in modern times, more whispery voice-over, then the entire creation of the cosmos, then beginnings of one Texas family, then it settles into the familial relationship, some loss of innocence stuff, then some sort of new age-y afterlife stuff and end scene, but all done as memory. Like you said, fragments . . . flashes . . . all strung together and never-ending.

AS: And through this fragmentation, I never really care about anyone, cause Malick doesn’t stop to spend enough time with anyone to really let us know who they are. All of Malick’s work has that tone poem feeling, but there’s still been an element of prose to the poetry, here it is noticeably absent. It’s just abstraction, and not particularly entertaining abstraction, at that.

BP: I can see that, and I see the 2001 comparison too, but that at least stops to have a scene or two. You know, two-shot conversation . . . person talks then another person talks.

AS: They’re both very beautiful films, that I appreciate, but I never want or need to see either of them again.

BP: I love 2001 and I really like Malick’s previous films, The New World and Badlands especially, but you’re right, those had prose, this does not and it can be a bit stifling.

AS: The Tree of Life feels like “poetry in motion,” but to the extreme, and to the detriment of the film. He never really allows us to stop and soak it all in. So, in the end, I feel no real connection to any of these characters beyond these vague hints at broad generalization, i.e. strained father/son relationships and the hints of an Oedipus complex and etc. And given that it’s already over two hours long, I can’t really say that we needed to spend more time with these characters, but I can say that the time we did spend with them could’ve been spent more economically.

BP: Look, the movie is ambitious and isn’t really like anything else (except maybe the inverse of Enter the Void), so it is difficult to talk about it in normal terms. But, I think there are two conversations to have. One would be: what does it mean? What is it trying to say? And that conversation is only interesting if the other conversation–was it entertaining?–is a positive one. Since it set out to be different, you can’t really complain about the lack of narrative etc.

AS: Yes, I can.
I am.
Right now.
This is me complaining about lack of narrative.
Just because the film set out to be different doesn’t mean it succeeded. And since it didn’t succeed in pushing me beyond the boundaries of narrative fiction, then it must suffer the consequences of being judged as narrative fiction.

BP: It is a memory piece, told in snippets about life, the universe, etc. Now, in that type of film, the one Malick was making, were you entertained?

AS: It is not an entertaining film, in any capacity. It is beautiful, to be sure, but not entertaining.

BP: See, that is where I will half agree with you. The film is about 2 1/2 hours long.

AS: Can’t argue with that.

BP: The first 20 minutes are spent adjusting to the style of the picture, so I was invested, trying to find my balance, enjoying the imagery. Then we get the 20-30 minute creation of the cosmos stuff, which I thought was fantastic.

AS: In and of itself, it was fantastic, yes. But in the context of this movie, I found it superfluous.

BP: That depends on the “what does it all mean?” discussion, which I’m not having right now. So, yes, so far I’m watching and I’m entertained by what I’m watching.

AS: Again, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I was entertained by it, maybe in awe of.

BP: I’ve seen this kind of stuff before, and done shorter–like in Adaptation where it’s only 30 seconds–but the images are stunning. He shows something like microorganisms in ways I’ve never seen, or the giant asteroid or hundreds of hammerheads or molten rock.

AS: Yes, it was all very stunning.

BP: In this sequence and the one that followed there were so many standout images that just bowled me over, burning themselves into my retina. Not just the beauty or the photography, but the emotion of the image.

AS: I already said it was awe-inspiring.

BP: Okay, so at this point this is a movie worth seeing, right?

AS: No, not necessarily.

BP: I’d pay to see “awe-inspiring”

AS: Nature is awe-inspiring, and it’s free.

BP: Not the same.

AS: It’s exactly the same, that’s the whole point of those 20 minutes. It’s about life. Guess what, life is outside your door right now. Go ahead, check. I’ll wait.

BP: Walking down the street or in the woods is not the same as what Malick and Lubezski put on film. Anyways, after the cosmos we have the early stages of the main character’s life.

AS: When was the last time you went for a walk in the woods?

BP: He is born, he walks, he plays, he is innocent, etc.

AS: Not a park, but the deep woods.

BP: I’m moving on.

AS: I see that. I’m not.

BP: A while, okay. It’s been a while.

AS: Thank you. That’s all I wanted. Continue.

BP: The early childhood stuff was equally awe-inspiring. There’s no story it’s just images, but the images are strong. So, still entertained.

AS: There’s a difference between entertained and enthralled. I wasn’t entertained by the movie, but there was never a point when I thought about leaving or getting my money back (though the theater was full of people who did get up and leave). It’s not a movie you watch to be entertained.

BP: The couple right next to me got up 15 minutes in.

AS: Quite a few people got up and left when I saw it . . . not quite in droves, but close.

BP: I understand not enjoying it. Like I said, it gets unrelenting, but I don’t walk out of movies. I sat through Australia.

AS: Don’t remind me!!!

BP: Yes, you were there. Hahahahaha

AS: Why didn’t we just leave and go watch Quantum of Solace again!?!

BP: Cause that was terrible too.

AS: Not nearly as bad as Australia.

BP: Back on track here. My point that I’m finally getting to is that after about an hour and a half of being “enthralled” or “awed” or whatever you want to call it, despite having no reference point and the movie not really providing any characters or plot or even something as concrete as a time and place (everything has to be gleaned), I did start to lose interest. The family dynamics go on and on, and my interest sags.

AS: The BB-gun incident? Was that the moment?

BP: Before that. I’d say about the time he’s breaking into his neighbor’s house.

AS: Yeah, that was awkward, which makes sense. But still . . .

BP: It was interesting to explore the sexuality of that age, but he does it in such a Barbie doll manner. It wasn’t telling me anything new and it certainly was lost amongst the other grander themes. That’s when I was like “Okay, now where’s this going?” And that’s also when it started to go toward the finale, which is pretty crappy.

AS: Not with a bang, but a whimper . . .

BP: A pretentious, student-film whimper. A fantastically shot student film, but still, all that afterlife nonsense was maudlin and the imagery was so . . . so . . . what’s that word?

AS: Uh . . . what word?

BP: For the lameness that was the final reel . . .

AS: There are a lot of words you could use . . . anticlimactic, disappointing, uninspired, hackneyed . . .

BP: Yeah, let’s use all of those. It was building to pseudo-spiritual hokum and it didn’t work for me.

AS: For a film that begins with all the sound and fury of the big bang, it just sort of fizzles out in the end, which I guess could be the point.

BP: Still beautiful to look at, but yeah, the movie had like five editors and it still needed one more to chop off another 45 minutes.

AS: I feel weird calling The Tree of Life a movie, or considering it a form of entertainment for idle amusement, it’s like this Taoist experience to be contemplated in silent reverence. The Tree of Life isn’t a movie, it just is . . .

BP: Absolutely, which is why it feels strange to give it a grade. It’s not like all the other boys and girls.

AS: You can’t go in expecting Malick to tell you a story. It’s like going to a museum or an art exhibit (like an Andrew Wyeth exhibition); you’re just going on a trip through his reflection on the world around him.

BP: But I would still grade that trip. Grade: B

AS: It’s extremely subjective, very much of the man who made it, so you can’t really compare it to anything else. So, for what it is, I’ll say Grade: B-
But, with a disclaimer that it’s not a traditional story and thus it’s not a film for everyone.

BP: Plus, Dinosaurs!!!

AS: And yes, dinosaurs . . . but not the mama.

BP: I wish they used the same techniques for the cosmos stuff and applied it to an awesome sci-fi picture.

AS: It’s not like they destroyed everything they used to create it. They still can.

BP: Like that fiery cosmic wall of flames with the cowering moon/planet shot. That was tremendous. I will watch this movie again, but I will cook up some popcorn and grab a drink at some strategic moments.

AS: They should lend out the Big Bang segment to science museums to play on IMAX.

BP: Seriously. And people should watch Malick’s other more cohesive movies. Don’t be deterred by this.

AS: Definitely. Go see Badlands!

BP: Have you seen them all?

AS: Never finished Days of Heaven

BP: I think There Will Be Blood has some very strong Days of Heaven influence, watch it thinking about that.

AS: I could see that.

BP: The Thin Red Line has some more spiritual crap that meanders at times, but more than enough awesomeness to overcome.

AS: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Badlands is one of my all-time favorite movies. And I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed The New World.

BP: The New World is right up there with Badlands. All of the spiritual stuff, the voiceover, the free flow narrative, it all fits in that film. It works better than it does in The Tree of Life or The Thin Red Line. Criterion needs to get on a Badlands Blu-ray, ASAP!

AS: Yes, please!!!

7 responses to “The Trouble with Quibbles: The Tree of Life

  1. you guys are both stupid

  2. “I am afraid that the narrative might seem a bit complex, and so it will also be a way of inviting the reader to concede this book the same benevolent attention that, like we should admitt, he usually grants the facts of life.” (“L’Attenzione”, by Alberto Moravia, a book very probably alluded in The Tree of Life)
    Read Goethe:
    “Grey, my friend, is every theory
    And green is Life’s golden tree.”
    One more thing: Jack breaking into his neighbor’s house is central. Penn’s dream is all about it:

  3. Pingback: The Trouble with Quibbles: Melancholia | Shooting the Script

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