|Jack (Sean Penn) in Tree of Life.|
Grace asunder pressure
By Ed Rampell
By Ed Rampell
Here are four words I never thought I’d see in the same sentence, let alone in the same film: Sean Penn and dinosaurs. Yet they both co-exist onscreen in Terrence Malick’s latest cinematic tour de force, The Tree of Life. The movie’s meaning is as elusive as its writer-director is famously reclusive (his likeness reportedly cannot be used to promote Malick’s work, and he doesn’t grant interviews – including to yours boo-hoo truly). At its Cannes premiere Tree of Life was both booed and applauded, yet it went on to earn that famous French film fete’s coveted Palme d'Or.
Why boos, bravos and prizes? Tree of Life is composed of at least three stories; what’s ostensibly the primary plotline is the most accessible. This is the saga of the O’Briens, a Texas family whose strict patriarch, the businessman Mr. O’Brien, is portrayed by Brad Pitt (who also shares producer credits). Newcomer and Julliard grad Jessica Chastain depicts Mrs. O’Brien as a loving, nurturing mom of three sons. She’s an Earth Mother archetype in the modality of Jane Darwell, matriarch of the Joads in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, and of Hattie McDaniel, who as Mammy in 1939’s Gone With the Wind is really the movie’s central maternal figure. Chastain may be minus Darwell and McDaniel’s weight, but this is not to say that her performance as an all-embracing mother isn’t weighty. In the tradition of Italian Neo-Realism, Malick cast non-actors in major (and minor) roles, notably Hunter McCracken, who makes his screen debut as Young Jack, the eldest O’Brien boy.
The part of Malick’s epic that’s specifically about the O’Briens is actually quite conventional and rendered in a pretty linear, narrative manner. The complexity and even mystical nature of Tree of Life is deepened by its intricate interweaving with the two other storylines (if you can call them that). Sean Penn portrays the adult Jack as an alienated architect, estranged among contemporary skyscrapers and wandering in the wilderness, searching for and brooding upon the meaning of life. These sequences have a Federico Fellini or Michelangelo Antonioni sensibility, existential ruminations on materialistic modern man disconnected from his society and surroundings. Grown up Jack’s Vita is not so Dolce, his Desert is not so Red, and Penn’s performance, essentially sans dialogue, is reminiscent of the expressiveness of the great silent screen actors.
Compounding Tree of Life’s intricacy is the third leitmotif, the film’s most mystifying and obscure yet virtuoso, visually stunning sequences. The ambitious Malick and his stellar special effects/cinematography team attempt to cinematically render nothing less than the Big Bang Theory of the creation of the cosmos, the origins of life itself and the Darwinian process of natural selection. The Malickian crew is after nothing less than a filmic rendition of time and space itself, as well as what surrealist Salvador Dali dubbed “the Persistence of Memory.” Tree of Life is as if Albert Einstein has met Sergei Eisenstein.
The intense inter-cutting of these three cinematic strands is what perplexes yet enthralls viewers of Malick’s visionary film. In a nutshell, man’s place and purpose in the universe is examined, as Tree of Life asks the really big questions: Why are we and what are we doing here? What does it mean? What is the nature of being and consciousness? This 138-minute extravaganza’s title is a Biblical reference to the Tree of Life of life in the Garden of Eden, with the fruit that bestowed life everlasting.
Along the way, some members of the audience are bound to get lost in space, while others more attuned to spirituality and pondering the splendor and wonder of it all will go along for the ride, watching in hushed awe, as if beholding the unfolding of a religious experience. The former viewer will wonder what the movie is all about while the latter will become as one with Malick, a former Harvard student and Rhodes scholar who translated the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in marveling at "What's it all about?" Malick may have visualized what the quest for enlightenment looks -- and sounds -- like.
When I attended Hunter College’s film school during the 1970s there was a debate amongst cineastes about how to make films. Should movies be a strictly storytelling medium unspooling in a logical, linear manner, following a (mostly) chronological) narrative, like most novels and plays do? Or is there another path to pursue, the road less traveled by an expensive medium dominated by commerce? Should films be expressed cinematically, that is, utilizing the uniquely, purely audio-visual language, structure and attributes of the silver screen? It seems to me that since the 1970s, this film theory debate has mainly be sidelined in the American motion picture industry in favor of the trite, traditional way of making movies that tell stories like books and theatre, largely anchored in dialogue.
That’s why the appearance of a Terrence Malick movie is greatly anticipated and treated as a special event by lovers of fine filmmaking. Malick reignites this almost forgotten aesthetic debate. Although Malick is highly regarded as a movie maestro by those who prefer their cinema artsy, Tree of Life is only the fifth feature he has helmed since his directorial debut almost 40 years ago, 1973’s desperadoes-on-the-run drama Badlands, starring (Charlie’s daddy) Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. There was a full 20 year “hiatus” between Malick’s directing of the 1978 pro-labor ballad Days of Heaven co-starring Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, and his long-awaited 1998 return to the director’s chair with Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ classic WWII novel about the Battle of Guadalcanal, The Thin Red Line, with Penn, Nick Nolte and George Clooney among its all-star cast of actors eager to work with the master. Malick’s 2005 The New World, inspired by the Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell) saga, was full of the expressive visual verve and cinematic sensibility that is the poetic hallmark of Malick productions.
The Tree of Life of Life is the best rendition so far of Malick’s cinematic palate of pure pictorial panache. This auteur strives to return to that rich wellspring of silent screen filmic artistry, a largely lost language derailed by the emergence of talkies, which then wedded movies to dialogue and story, as opposed to imagery. And like so many marriages, this narrative union has lost its luster. I hasten to add, however, that Tree of Life’s sonorous soundtrack includes compositions by Bach, Berlioz, Brahms, Mahler and perhaps most memorably, Bedrich Smetana’s The Moldau, a musical evocation of a river in the Czech Republic that works wonderfully onscreen. Malick marries music, sound and sight as he strives to create a film form that is one with, and organically expresses, content.
Tree of Life is in the tradition of experimental cinema, exemplified by Stan Brakhage's Dog Star Man and Jonas Mekas type films. But unlike his moving picture predecessors, Malick has managed through Fox Searchlight (for god’s sake, a Rupert Murdoch company!) to create a big budget avante garde movie with high production values. In this stylistic sense, and in terms of its special effects and combination of a conventional linear story (the O’Brien family tale), unlike the Brakhage/Mekas hallucinogenic sojourns that completely eschewed the narrative, Tree of Life is actually closer to Stanley Kubrick's 1968 sci fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was similarly obsessed with evolution and our role in the cosmos.
Indeed, Malick recruited the venerable Douglas Trumbull, the special photographic effects supervisor for 2001, as well as for other sci-fi epics: 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the first Star Trek feature in 1979, 1982’s Blade Runner and 1972’s Silent Running, which Trumbull also directed. Malick’s vision-eers also include visual effects supervisor Dan Glass (Matrix Reloaded, V For Vendetta), production designer Jack Fisk (The Thin Red Line) and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World).
I also want to give a shout out to another Malick alum, the preternaturally exquisite indigenous actress Irene Bedard, who was so splendid in 1998’s Smoke Signals and portrays the Messenger in Tree of Life. Previously, in a piece of canny casting, Bedard played the mother of Pocahontas in The New World, which was apropos since a decade earlier Bedard had given voice to Pocahontas in Disney’s animated feature of the same title. Her role as Tree of Life’s Messenger is in a continuum of celluloid iconography of the “Indian maiden” as a sort of Ur woman, and it’s delightful to see the lovely Ms. Bedard back on the screen, where she belongs.
Some may be left in the dark by Malick’s The Tree of Life of Life, puzzled and feeling that the epic length work is pompous, pretentious and portentous. I, too, confess to not understanding everything on my first viewing; your humble scribe scratched his noggin more than once. But if bewildered I was also bewitched, going with the filmic flow of solar nebulae and, yes, the aforementioned dinosaurs. It's important for this type of experimental, experiential cinema to be pursued and that there be a place for it in our commercialized motion picture industry, where adolescent mall males at multi-plexes determine so much of our cultural "product." After all, one filmmaking size does not fit all.
I hope that audiences and critics won’t piss on this Tree of Life. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, “film must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of artists and studio suits. It is its natural movie manure.” Malick has created a cinematic solar system of outer and inner space for us to explore and experience. And I, for one, look forward to Malick’s 2012 as yet untitled feature, starring Chastain, Rachel McAdams, Ben Affleck, Rachel Weisz and Javier Bardem. Hopefully, the response to Tree of Life won’t cause another two-decade interregnum between the films helmed by one of moviedom’s most singular stylists and poets. 2032 is just too long to wait for another Malickian road trip through cosmic consciousness.