Monday, July 4, 2011

Tree of Life

Wow. Amazing film. I'll get back to that. But, first, here's a chunk of film philosophy ...

Film is a visual art, like painting. Film is a narrative art, like novels and short stories. Filmmakers are torn between these impulses. Either paint with light, or tell stories with moving pictures, that is the question.

99.99% of all filmmakers tell stories. That's true, because 99.99% of all moviegoers are bored to tears by collages of imagery with no storyline. Me too. So, Kubrick, in his heart of hearts, wants to do an imagist collage in the tradition of Cocteau. He does "Eyes Wide Shut." I understand the impulse. But I wind up kicking the back of the seat in front of me and, like Ralph Kramden before me, growling WOULD YOU GET ON WITH IT? Call me a plebe, but I love storytelling. And I have a short attention span.

But I surrendered to this movie. And I'm glad for it.

Terrence Malick is one of the .01% of the filmmakers who want to paint with light. The Tree of Life is defiantly non-linear, fiercely imagistic. On one basic level, it functions as a series of wicked cool images on the screen. He's showing you stuff that looks good. He's painting with light.

That said, there really is a story behind it. Telling the story is not his main concern. But it's there.

Basically, a family grows up in Texas. Dad (Brad Pitt) is a frustrated artist (a masterful organist/pianist) who's sick of taking shit from the bastards he works for. He does his best, but he boils with frustration. He pressures his sons -- especially his oldest son, Jack -- to "be your own boss." He teaches Jack to fight, demands a fierce respect. Jack wrestles with hatred towards his father and Oedipal impulses towards his mother (Jessica Chastain). The middle child (and DAMN if I can find the name online) is sensitive and artistic; his father's musical DNA has passed to him. Jack grows into adolescence -- and takes a turn to the dark side, with acts of vandalism, break-ins and animal cruelty. He gets over it, but a certain joy is lost. Dad loses his job and has to move, and there's a long, painful look back at the family home. Years later -- when the sensitive, middle child is 19 -- he puts a shotgun to his head and kills himself. Jack wrestles with survivor's guilt for the rest of his life. Then, amidst the cold, modernist architecture of Dallas, he has an epiphany -- not necessarily standard-issue religious -- but a revelation, nonetheless. A glimpse of the communion of the saints, perhaps. Jack finds acceptance.

A bright first-year film student could cut out all Malick's mystical imagery, put the story in linear order, add a To Kill a Mockingbird first-person voiceover, and make a very conventional story out of it.

But Malick didn't want to do that. He wanted to say, "This is life! Look at it! Look how beautiful it is!"

Malick opens the doors of perception. He fragments the narrative with trippy images -- the scenes that fascinate a child's mind and bore an adult's; the scenes an adult mind edits out, because they're insignificant. Mommy's ankle against a sprinkler; the dance of wind chimes ...

Malick takes this fragmented, trippy collage, and throws it up against the background of a long 2001-style creation narrative. (And hired some top-flight CGI people to do it, I assume.) Basically, he takes you from the beginning of creation, to the origin of life, to the rise and fall of the dinosaurs, to the death of life on earth. No lie. The impulse is part artistic, part scientific. He loves life -- but life specifically -- with the eye of a botanist or paleontologist.

On top of THAT, Malick punctuates his interpenetrating collage of evolution and a suffering Texas family with enigmatic images of a light sculpture.

So what's it about?

It's about grace, God and glory. And sunflowers. Malick is shouting, "Wake up. We already live in a world of grace and beauty! See it, or you're going to lose it! You're squandering it!" It's a tone poem and an opera. It has movements and elaborate motifs like a visual symphony. It's seductive and hypnotic. And, as a bonus, if you grew up in the 1950s or 60s, it's an addictive shot of nostalgia. There's a quiet beauty and sorrow to this film. And a deeper joy. (Thanx to my friend Su Byron for various stolen insights.)

Don't believe what people tell you.

See this film. It's a long journey. But it's worth it.