Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2011

The memory of Earth

Malick's 'The Tree of Life' is a magnificent recollection of life, time, space and everything in between

The Tree of Life
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Starring: Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken, Jessica Chastain, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw and Sean Penn
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 18 minutes
Now playing in limited release
(out of four)

You could describe The Tree of Life as a religious movie, and you wouldn't be wrong. It is also anthropological, autobiographical (so we're told); it is a documentary, a slice of Americana, a philosophical poem, a symphony, a memory, an internal monologue of existence itself.

It is about creation and evolution, the search for God and the absence of God, the beginning and the end of all things.

Upon the film's premiere screening at Cannes, Roger Ebert described the film as "a prayer," and I quite like that description. I don't think it applies in any theological sense, but more philosophically - in the eternal exploration for answers, for meaning.

The kinds of questions - physical, spiritual, existential - that the film may spark are much more relevant than any answers might be. I don't think writer/director Terrence Malick believes it's important that they be concretely answered - only felt. This is one of the most richly visceral film experiences I've had - a deeply felt emotional masterwork that looks upon life (in all its incarnations) in sheer awe and amazement. And a little wisdom, too.

This seems like the film Malick has been building toward his entire career. Here is a filmmaker who hit the scene in the '70s with a pair of masterpieces, Badlands and Days of Heaven, only to take the next two decades off and return in 1998 a reinvented (though still familiar) artist. Some dislike his recent films (prior to The Tree of Life, there was The Thin Red Line and The New World), writing them off as meandering, indulgent, overly philosophical and too impenetrable.

These strike me as odd complaints - not unlike criticizing a poem for not telling a coherent enough story, or an abstract painting for not drawing a clear enough picture.

In any case, of his three late-era films, The Tree of Life is not only the strongest but the most cohesive. That's not to say it's a traditional narrative - far from it. But the way he weaves his images and music - covering ground from the Big Bang to 1950s America to the beyond and unknown - to evoke ideas, feelings, memories, even smells, is astonishing.

There are moments - particularly during the extended cosmos sequence, set to Zbigniew Preisner's "Lacrimosa" - that I found overwhelming. When people talk about getting emotional over a movie, it's almost always a reaction to a recognizable human scenario - love, tragedy, war, illness, triumph, victory, redemption, etc.

But images themselves are just as powerful. No, more powerful. Is there any more magnificent sight than the formation of the universe? The beauty and grandeur with which Malick presents those images - the way he turns the intangible, the theoretical, the scientific, into a genuinely emotional experience - has to be enough to at least make you catch your breath.

Traversing an almost infinite amount of temporal ground, The Tree of Life opens on the childhood of Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) as a young girl, flashes forward to a joyful moment of her adulthood, flashes forward again to a moment of family tragedy, then shifts across time and space to find her oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), now middle-aged and seemingly unhappy. Then it shifts back to the beginning of time, from the galaxies and planets coming into shape, to the first seeds of life, to the age of dinosaurs, and finally back to what we'll call the film's "present," 1950s Waco, Texas.

The family unit around which the central portion of the film revolves is the O'Briens - the strict, domineering, self-lamenting Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt in one of his best performances), the kind but submissive Mrs. O'Brien, and their three boys: Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan).

The family-centered narrative is told in fractured pieces that paint a deeply intimate portrait of human experience. With his compositions and the masterful juxtaposition created in his editing, Malick reveals deep sadnesses, regrets, unspoken motives, hidden joys and sorrows, innocence, sin . . .

Malick and the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who was shafted out of an Oscar for Children of Men a few years ago, and no other 2011 film's photography comes anywhere near the majesty and dexterity of The Tree of Life) can create the most magical images out of otherwise mundane details of everyday life.

Surreal and serene, the film is a rare visual accomplishment in and of itself. But it's not just that - it's that the film's visual textures are interwoven with Malick's ideas and ambitions so tightly, and so perfectly.

I've talked before about the way films' seemingly disparate elements can do so much more than their technical "purpose." A musical score isn't necessarily great just because it sounds good, but because of the way it expresses what the film is about. Ditto the visuals, the production design, and on and on.

A recent example I've cited (and, coincidentally, another Pitt-starrer) is The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Consider the opening passages - the chimes of the opening musical score, the old-photograph aesthetic of Roger Deakins' cinematography, the color palette of the art direction. Before any of the "substance" of the film had even begun, we could sense what the movie was about. We heard it in the music. We saw it on the screen.

Rarely is that as true as it has been throughout Malick's career - and this is perhaps the best example of that. Certain combinations of images, music and sound say more than I could ever describe here.

The character-based story in The Tree of Life functions like memory - easy to attempt, difficult to pull off, but executed exquisitely in this case - in all its ambiguity, embellishment, mystery and beauty. Memories are inherently fractured and incomplete, invariably altered by time, experience and perception. Malick indulges that fact, crafting images and sequences that are in turn expressionistic, dreamlike, surreal, authentic, naturalistic. That's far too many adjectives for one paragraph, I know, but the film's imagery is impossible to compete with.

But that persistent idea of memory doesn't limit itself just to the characters. The entire film is pieced together and presented in just such a fashion. The experience of The Tree of Life is the entirety of existence as one long, continual, magnificent remembrance. This is storytelling in its purest form, and its most enigmatic, and on the grandest possible scale.

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