Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Pretentious Masterpiece? Yes, on Both Counts -- Reflections on "The Tree of Life" (2011)

A Must-See on the big screen, for reasons only this image can explain...

A good film is an experience. A great film is a definitive experience.

The Tree of Life is a great film.

Like Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Tree of Life is startling, perplexing, and challenging. And like 2001, it does not tell much of a story -- it's more-or-less a cinematic poem about life, death, and all the messed up stuff in between. Director Terrence Malick has given us a window into his soul by trying to show us the events that shape the soul. It is powerful, moving, and spectacular.

A friend of mine asked me if Tree of Life was a masterpiece, or a pretentious piece of shit. My answer to this question most definitely has to be: both. I would have to omit the "piece of shit" part because that doesn't apply, but Malick's film is both a work of art, and quite pretentious. Any film that takes on the not-so-subtle themes it addresses, in the way it addresses them, almost certainly has to be pretentious. I contend that all great art is pretentious on some level -- it almost has to be, because greatness has to aspire to be great, and the greats are almost always aware of how great they are.

It must be said that Tree of Life is not for everyone. It is for people with deep minds who love to think about heavy ideas and both appreciate and analyze the things of this world. This is a movie for lovers of art and science, who love to engage in heady debates about the meanings of things. It is not for people who believe Transformers: Dark of the Moon is an excellent movie. Whereas Transformers and its action-packed brethren are junk food on par with Milk Duds and Sweetarts, The Tree of Life is a gourmet dinner of filet mignon. Is that pretentious? Yes. Does it change the fact that the gourmet dinner is better than junk food? No.

Basics: This is a film without much of a plot, but here's a brief synopsis. Jack (Sean Penn) is an adult who is trying to come to grips with his life and his relationships with his parents after the death of his younger brother. Malick's script takes us back to his childhood where young Jack learns to hate, fear and love Father (Brad Pitt) while falling in love with and resenting Mother (Jessica Chastain). The film takes lengthy detours to show how exactly Jack got to be where he is, going all the way back to the beginning of time (the Big Bang, early evolution, dinosaurs, etc.). Terrence Malick makes it pretty clear that our being here is a miracle of both science and faith, and how we choose to live our lives is a product of both, too.

Questions of Point-of-View: Throughout the film, one of the most interesting elements of Malick's screenplay is the switch of perspective. We hear a lot of characters whisper in voice-over. This leads me to believe that while this story is most certainly Jack's, the perspective we're witnessing it from is in fact God's. It's almost as if Malick is trying to imagine how God -- if such a thing exists -- views His creation from start to finish. It's a daring choice if that was the intention, and makes the film ripe for further analysis. I love the idea that Malick does this, though -- because it enables us to view a story in a way movies are seldom capable of achieving: with detached interest.

A Window Into the Soul: Unlike other films by Malick, like Badlands and Days of Heaven, Tree of Life feels remarkably personal. I sense that Malick is working out his own issues with his parents and family in this movie. He sees the parents as archetypes that he must come to grips with -- his mother as the free-spirit, his father as the Authority. It's in these interpretations of the characters that I was able to see a bit of myself, which made the experience all the more moving. Also, as a native Texan, Malick brings to life the streets of his hometown in all their glory. The setting feels like something nostalgic, although you can't quite be sure that any of what's happening is actually worth longing for.

On Moviegoing Experience: I don't usually mention this, but there is a distinct difference between seeing a movie on the big screen versus watching at home. Home theater has gotten to the point where most movies are actually more enjoyable at home. But some films are meant for a big screen with its bright colors and immersive experience. Tree of Life is one of those films. It is a visual spectacle, which I think will be lost in translation on the small screen. Granted, it will be appreciated, but like 2001 before it, you need to be swallowed by the film for it to have its fullest effect. Because it is a smaller film, despite its impressive acting and directing pedigree, you will be hard pressed to find theaters close to you showing it. I saw it at the Arclight Theater in Hollywood, which is Los Angeles' best theater.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful analysis.

    Never seen the movie but read many good things about it. This is was the cherry.

    Thanks for the great piece. Will definitely watch it soon.