Tuesday, 19 July 2011

The Tree of Life, dir. Terrence Malick: Cinema Review

Drink with this: Absinthe. 

Its hallucinogenic properties can only enhance the overall experience. Pleasingly green so you will feel at one with nature and the universe.

I’ve never been to see a film which so obviously divided its cinema audience. No less than eight people walked out of the cinema when I was there; yet there were lots of moments – especially in the parenting scenes - which had everyone chuckling in recognition. Many groups outside the cinema were involved in passionate debate – I heard a lot of discussion about how beautifully it was shot, but how long it felt. As we left our seats, one half of the couple behind us muttered fervently, “THANK GOD THAT IS OVER”. (Cap locks fully necessary as he was totally whisper-shouting.) “That was….painful” his girlfriend responded.

In a way, the whole experience really helped to reaffirm my own relationship. Six years ago my boyfriend thought Fellini was a type of pasta. Last weekend, he quite enjoyed TTOL, or at least pretended to, so I wouldn’t shout at him. I consider that a personal life achievement, which may or may not have influenced my opinion of the film.

"There are many reasons you might hate this film."

But to the plot. (Such as it is.) The film follows Sean Penn as an adult reflecting on the meaning of life and the existence of faith, as he remembers the death of his brother and his childhood in the 1950s.


"There are many reasons you might hate this film." It is undoubtedly pretentious, pompous, and tedious in parts. Lee Marshall,writing on Screen Daily, summed it up thusly: ‘If ever a whole film were on the nose, this is it.’ At times it seems almost to be inviting a spoof of itself to be made. It chunders along without the slightest self-awareness, or postmodern acknowledgment  that its earnest look at such ponderous issues could so easily be ridiculed. 

"Fantasia meets Revolutionary Road, as imagined by Stanley Kubrick while smoking opium."

But even the negative reviews all agree that it is a strikingly beautiful piece of work. The cinematography alone is breathtaking, and the sheer audacity of a film which spends several minutes on shots of the sky viewed through tree branches must be applauded. The acting’s superb, with a wealth of emotion and intensity packed into Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt’s few lines.
So far, so obvious. What I really loved about it, and what elevates it from a masturbatory exercise in self-aggrandisement to something profound, is the way it manages to evoke childhood so perfectly.

The kind of childhood depicted in the film was different from mine in a million particulars, but the essential truth felt the same. It pinpoints the nature of sibling and parent-child relationships so exactly that somehow amidst the shots of dinosaurs and grass shoots it made me cry. (Ok, I cry at Mastercard adverts, but still.) Tree of Life deserves to be lauded as an American coming of age story in the same way as Stand By Me.

Verdict: Let’s forgive Malick his excesses. He is making brilliant, beautiful and thought-provoking cinema. All the people who leave the cinema and hate it should ask themselves why, and what this says about their expectations of film. That in itself is a conversation worth having. In consumer-driven Hollywood, Malick is trying to make a masterpiece. Tree of Life might not quite succeed at this, but it comes close enough to compensate for any number of quasi-mystical shots of sunlight on the ocean.

Take Two: This could easily be broken down into a series of shorts. In fact, in some ways the film resembles more closely several short films strung together, with certain motifs in common. Three minute sequences would be more digestible, and perhaps increase appreciation of the cinematography involved.

Highbrow/Lowbrow: Fantasia meets Revolutionary Road, as imagined by Stanley Kubrick while smoking opium.

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