Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tree of Life

So the other night I went to the movies with my youngest son and oldest son's girlfriend. We had a bit of a hard time choosing a film, but I has seen and heard good things about "Tree of Life" and so we settled on seeing it. In my family, I am sometimes known for being the one who drags everyone to quirky independent films on occasion - with two distinct results which are usually either "Wow! I never would have gone to that movie, I'm so glad you made me go!" or "Geez that was weird/awful/boring/slow/sad/odd/bizarre, why did you choose that?!" I'm never sure which reaction I'm going to get which is why 99% of the time, I go to the movies by myself. And even though I sometimes am not enamored of a film myself, I'm often very happy to be sitting there enjoying it all by myself without having to worry about whether someone else likes it or not. It can totally ruin the whole thing if I love it, and the person I'm with really hates it. So I knew Tree of Life was a bit of a risk.

So let me give you our takes on the film:

Tree of life is this beautiful little piece of artistic brilliance. It's poetic and visually gorgeous. It's challenging, but not unduly so. It has an emotional resonance which I thought was astounding. How is the director able to convey so much with little dialogue? The characters emotions are so true, you really do feel that they capture real people having real emotions. It's epic. In the sense that it attempts to capture everything from the creation to death to birth to all the big existential questions of life. And yet, it's quiet. It is soft and visual. It's a visual journey that you just let go, and let wash over you like waves. Every frame, every shot, is a little piece of art in and of itself. Hands being washed in tap water, a lit candle, wash hanging on the line, curtains flapping in a window breeze - it's all beautiful. Which is part of what I felt the film was meant to convey. We have all these BIG QUESTIONS - we have issues of faith and the pull and tug of logic vs. spiritual knowledge, happiness and sadness, loss, love. The big WHY questions we don't have answers to most of the time. And yet...

We are surrounded with beauty literally everywhere. Even the amazing scene where young boys are playing and dancing around in the big billowing smoke clouds of all DDT chemicals being pumped out of a truck by the city of Waco on to the suburban streets. That scene could be interpreted in so many different ways. It's gorgeous. It's dangerous. It's naive. But the image is stunning in it's simplicity and complexion.

Mother is grace and truth and beauty and forgiveness and love. Father is ambition, complication, striving, yearning. Mother is grace. Father is nature. Mother is the spiritual world. Father is the earth. Mother nudges us towards God. Father reminds us to keep ourselves grounded here on earth. It is the eternal push pull. It is the internal push pull.

Do I sound like I loved it? I did. Ultimately it is about how we find faith, when we don't know how to find faith. What faith really means. THAT is an ambitious topic and I feel like this movie encapsulates it in a way that really truly works, when most movies can't even attempt to answer a question that big.

Now of course remember I had two other people with me.

My son actually loved it. His head is very comfortable with science and logic and yet he has a spiritual side, a softness, and big love for humanity and all living things. This film spoke to him.

My older son's girlfriend is smart and articulate and ambitious and fun and funny and great fun to be around. Ans she said "what was all the water about?" "why did she get a letter that her son died?" "which one died?" "I was getting so antsy with all those images in the middle...why were we looking at all of that?". Even the next day she was texting me her questions about the film. For her, a type A personality and linear thinker, the film was just this somewhat baffling array of imagery that in the end made little to no sense at all.

I've seen it again since the first time and noticed new things and saw little bits of subtle symbolism I didn't notice the first time. I saw it with a friend who is an artist and who is very smart.

We had a long discussion about it afterwards (I had tried to warn her it wasn't very linear but I figured as an artist the visual aspects of the film would be a good payoff). She appreciated some of it, but some of the explorations of the family dynamics felt painful to her, the camera angles made her feel queasy at times, and ultimately she felt like maybe it was all just a little too ambitious - a little too much.

Which leaves me to believe that every person might get something a little different out of Tree of Life. Much like a great piece of art - a poem, a painting, Tree of Life is to be experienced, and not everyone is going to come away with the same thing.

Just for fun, I thought I'd look up another review as I was about to publish this blog. So to further give you some insight, here's the review by the New York Times:

TERRENCE MALICK, the reclusive filmmaker who dislikes having his photograph taken and has not given an interview since the 1970s, could hardly be more out of place than amid the swarming media circus that is the Cannes Film Festival. But thanks to his scarcity of output, his sphinxlike reticence and the near-religious fervor of his fans, the elusive Mr. Malick also provides exactly what Cannes thrives on: mystique and anticipation.

His new film, “The Tree of Life” — which had been expected to show at last year’s festival and is only his fifth feature in 38 years — was finally unveiled on Monday to an eager press corps, before its United States release on May 27. “The Tree of Life” has big stars, celestial spectacles and a few digital dinosaurs, but it is no one’s idea of a summer blockbuster. Even more elliptical than Mr. Malick’s previous two films, “The Thin Red Line” (1998) and “The New World” (2005), the film tells the story of a 1950s Texas family (the parents are played by Brad Pitt and the relative newcomer Jessica Chastain) whose oldest son grows up to be a morose Sean Penn. But it also tackles, metaphysically speaking, the whole kit and caboodle: the origins of life and the history of the universe.

The intrigue surrounding “The Tree of Life” has much to do with the stories and rumors of its long gestation. Before he vanished off the filmmaking map in the late ’70s, after two well-received films, “Badlands” (1973) and “Days of Heaven” (1978), Mr. Malick, who turns 68 this year, had been developing a movie called “Q,” for which he reportedly dispatched cinematographers to far-flung corners of the world to capture an array of natural phenomena. (Emmanuel Lubezki, the cinematographer of “The Tree of Life,” confirmed that some images in the new film date from earlier periods of exploration.)

Mr. Malick’s films have returned to the mythic premise of a lost Eden, but while they have linked the metaphorical Fall with historical eras — the advent of the industrial age (“Days of Heaven”), the establishment of the American colonies (“The New World”) — “The Tree of Life” treats the loss of innocence as part of the eternal human condition. It’s safe to assume that this passion project is also, for its fiercely private auteur, a deeply personal film. Some aspects of the movie correspond with the morsels of biography that have surfaced over the years: the Texas childhood, a strict father, the death of a brother.

“I was shocked by how personal the story was when I first read it,” said the production designer Jack Fisk, who has worked on all of Mr. Malick’s films and has known him since they were students at the American Film Institute. “But when I watched the film I just think how universal it is.” A recurring refrain among Mr. Malick’s collaborators was the degree to which his scripts are mere starting points, extensively revised, even discarded, once shooting begins. Bill Pohlad, a producer of “The Tree of Life,” compared the film’s screenplay to poetry; Mr. Lubezki likened it to a Russian novel.

Since “The Tree of Life” is less bound to dialogue and plot than Mr. Malick’s previous films, Mr. Lubezki, who also shot “The New World,” said he was able to more fully embrace Mr. Malick’s preferred approach, avoiding traditional camera setups and instead emphasizing handheld mobility, natural light and the search for the unrepeatable moment. Because the interior spaces are not lighted, Mr. Fisk typically adds windows to houses or cuts holes into ceilings on Mr. Malick’s sets; on “The Tree of Life” Mr. Lubezki consulted paintings by Vermeer, in which shadowy rooms are illuminated by a window’s soft light. Three houses were used for the principal location; the production moved from one to another depending on the direction of the sun. “Terry’s not really a stickler for continuity,” Mr. Fisk said.

Despite his reputation as a perfectionist, Mr. Malick by all accounts strove for a documentary-style spontaneity on “The Tree of Life.” “It’s more found than planned,” Mr. Lubezki said. “Terry would say, don’t worry about getting a piece of dialogue or an interaction of the actors, but try to get the feeling of the first time being in a room with them.”

The mood on the set matched the subject of the film: a heightened alertness to the world. “When you’re shooting with Terry, everybody’s very aware of their surroundings,” Mr. Lubezki said. With their birdsong soundtracks and their signature images of nature and the elements — light through treetops, windblown grass, flowing water — Mr. Malick’s movies are both more concrete and more abstract than most. They pay close attention to the sensual materiality of flora and fauna, places and things (“Tree of Life” locations include the California redwood forest and the Utah salt flats), but they also seek “to put emotions on film,” Mr. Lubezki said, “which is something there’s no manual for.”

It can be hard for actors to find their place within the willful, perpetual flux of a Malick production — some members of the large ensemble of "The Thin Red Line" were unexpectedly sidelined, or even eliminated.

“Actually, he’s an imperfectionist,” Mr. Pitt said of Mr. Malick, speaking in an interview at the Carlton Hotel here. “He finds perfection in imperfection, and he’s always trying to create the imperfection.” He added that working with Mr. Malick was “liberating but exhausting,” a rare opportunity to fulfill what he called “this actor’s quest of always trying to be in the moment, which is a bit precious but very true.”

Mr. Malick often calls for his actors not to create a character so much as embody a concept or a feeling. Ms. Chastain said that her audition consisted mainly of “acting out behaviors, like putting a baby to sleep or looking at someone with love and respect.”

It also falls upon the cast to deliver Mr. Malick’s distinctive voice-overs. In “The Tree of Life,” as in “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” the hushed, dazed narration — handed off from one actor to another — has the tone of a prayer. From the start Mr. Malick has tried to find uses for voice-over that go against and beyond the traditional explanatory purpose. “When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clich├ęs,” he said in a 1975 interview with Sight & Sound, referring to Sissy Spacek’s narration in “Badlands.” “That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them.”

Ms. Chastain recalled that when she told Mr. Malick she wouldn’t have time to memorize the long monologues that he would present to her minutes before shooting, his response was that she should “just say whatever you remember because that’ll be enough.” But Mr. Malick’s insistence on freedom does not preclude obsessive fine-tuning: after the shoot, he called her in — by her count, more than 30 times — to record new lines and re-record old ones.

As Mr. Malick’s films grow increasingly allusive and amorphous, he seems more than ever to find them in the editing. “Our focus was to make it more of an experience and not about plot,” said Mark Yoshikawa, one of the five editors who worked on “The Tree of Life.” “The flow of the film was an ever-changing animal.” Without a linear story to guide them, the editors had to integrate live-action scenes that shift between two time periods (and more than one reality) with nature shots and special-effects sequences. Mr. Malick, an avid birdwatcher, had previously used computer-generated effects only once, to add a now-extinct parakeet to the Virginia wilds of “The New World.” “The Tree of Life,” which depicts the Big Bang, the beginning of precellular life and the Mesozoic age of dinosaurs, called for extensive effects work.

Dan Glass, the senior visual effects supervisor, said that the guiding principle was realism: “There’s not a shot that doesn’t have something natural or organic in it.” Even though entire movie worlds are now routinely digitized from scratch, Mr. Glass and his team worked with existing satellite and space-probe imagery and used optical tricks, like manipulating film speeds and camera lenses.

For the astrophysical sequences, Mr. Malick turned to the filmmaker and special effects veteran Douglas Trumbull, best known for his work on “2001: A Space Odyssey.” They set up a lab in Austin, Tex., where Mr. Malick lives, and essentially conducted chemistry experiments: photographing paints and liquids (like fluorescein dyes and half-and-half) in tanks of water at high speeds, which produced images that could be digitally composited to resemble astronomical phenomena like interstellar clouds. “With computer graphics everything is based on some algorithm and there’s often a predictability to it,” Mr. Trumbull said. “Terry and I wanted randomness and irregularity that seemed truly natural.”

“The Tree of Life” deepens and complicates Mr. Malick’s view of nature. Detractors make him out to be a moony New Ager, but his films are not just awestruck paeans to nature, nor are they simple assertions of man’s place in nature. “The Tree of Life” distinguishes the way of nature (equated with the father) from the way of grace (the mother). Ms. Chastain interpreted her character as a personification of “the spiritual world,” a contrast to the natural world, “which is all about survival of the fittest,” she said, and which, in the movie takes the form of Darwinian natural selection and American bootstrap capitalism.

Mr. Malick’s work has long been discussed in philosophical terms — his background as a Heidegger scholar is often invoked — but increasingly his films bespeak an unfashionably overt interest in spirituality. Biblical references run through the films, and “The Tree of Life” opens with a quotation from the Book of Job. But Ms. Chastain, who prepared for her role by studying paintings of the Madonna and practicing meditation, said she does not see it as a film about Christianity. “I consider him more of a spiritual person than a religious person,” Mr. Fisk said.

Mr. Pitt described Mr. Malick as someone with “a strong belief in God but also in science.” Watching “The Tree of Life” again at its Cannes premiere, he found himself leaning toward an agnostic interpretation. While we “try to comfort ourselves and pillow ourselves with religion,” he said, “maybe the real peace and beauty is to be found in the unknown.”

Mr. Malick has already shot — and is starting to edit — his sixth feature. Set in the present day, the still-untitled film stars Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams, and has been described as a romance. As always, everyone is tight-lipped, but Mr. Lubezki and Mr. Fisk, who both worked on it, said it is his boldest film yet. “It makes ‘Tree’ almost seem old-fashioned,” Mr. Fisk said.

Growing more radical with age, Mr. Malick seems intent on evolving the language of narrative cinema, on finding a form free and flexible enough to encompass the big, unanswerable questions of human existence. “Every film now is almost a frustration, because Terry doesn’t know if he’s said enough,” Mr. Fisk said. “But I also think he’s finally making movies exactly the way he wants to.”


calizona said...

Hey, I said I felt carsick, not "queasy". This was a moving experience. There was nothing about this film that felt contrived even though it was generously endowed with rich, rich texture and movement and meaning. Your review really helps capsulize it, and the Times review is wonderful to fill-in interesting facets of the production.

I think the way they illustrated the growth of a family with the birth of each child was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. In fact, it felt like I was presenting my own new baby to his sibling.

Drinking up the visual and musical flow of this very fascinating film was a little over-whelming last night. But today, I am pondering it even before I noticed you posted about it. The music was thrilling. It was gripping how beautiful music presented in one context became the very vehicle by which we were drawn into the ominous later.

It was painful and personal. But you are right. It was also very beautiful.

I wonder if the director really understood the variations his film would be received. This kind of expression is definitely interpreted very differently according to the life-experience or perception of the viewer.

Bandanamom said...

Aren't queasy and carsick the same thing? :)

I think you're right that it can be overwhelming at first. I must say that here I am a couple of days later and I'm still thinking about it quite a lot. How often does that happen when you see a film?

I listened to another review (there's a podcast I like called "filmspotting" put out by WBEZ Chicago, the same folks who do This American Life) and it was interesting to hear their takes on it. Both of the guys loved it, but they each had slightly different things that they got from the film too. One compared it to a really long poem. I think that's pretty apt.

I think it's interesting that Malick doesn't do interviews and therefore, we probably will never know exactly how personal this film might have been for him. For sure he's not going to sit around and navel gaze and explain it.

There is one scene I've been thinking about and wondering what it meant exactly. There's moment when Sean Penn is in his house with his girlfriend or wife and she is outside for a moment and walks in with part of a tree branch and then she sets in on the credenza inside their beautiful modern home. It seemed significant, but I'm not sure what it meant. I didn't notice it the first time I saw the movie, only a second viewing did a start to take note of little things like that.

Unfortunately for those who won't see it in a theatre (and many won't because it's still in limited release right now, and other than the typical hipster markets I doubt it will get wide release), I'm afraid the impact won't be nearly so grand. It will still be worth seeing - but having it huge in front of your face seems really really important with this film.

Which brings me to another thought. I'm so grateful to live in Phoenix for many reasons, but having access to so many great independent and foreign films is a big one. I do like to just go to a funny or escapist movie now and then (as you well know Cindi) BUT, I see film as another avenue of art that we can just enjoy for a solid 2 hours or so when we see a really well made film. I know some people don't feel that way about films - but when a director and the actors and the DP get it right, the vehicle of film is such a powerful way to convey artistic expression, in many ways it's unparalleled.

terri said...

Sean Penn's wife in the movie is putting the branch in front of a picture of the brother that died. They then light a candle together. It might have been the anniversary of his death, or his birthday? Beautiful movie, so much in it, so much symbolism in every frame.

Bandanamom said...

Thank you for the comment Terri, I was really wondering about that. I still think about this film a lot - even though I saw it a couple of weeks ago.


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