Sunday, May 13, 2012

Review: The Tree of Life (2011)

“Fuck a historical event. Let’s use all of existence.”

In the beginning, there was an explosion of matter, space, and time. There was intense heat, followed by a cooling period and some really shitty looking dinosaurs. Approximately 13.75 billion years later, Sean watched The Tree of Life and thought about it.

That above paragraph doesn’t tie into anything other than a vague satire of the film. Yes, you should be pissed at me.  Assuming that you experienced the same sort of childhood as Terrence Malick (and feel as intensely confused about it), the film might make some kind of immediate sense. For the rest of us, one would have to know going in that 1) we are in the Present in spite of the actors not looking sufficiently aged and Past Texas and Present Texas are too similar, 2) Sean Penn and Brad Pitt are related, 3) these are Sean Penn’s memories and musings, disregarding the contributions of the other characters to the narration. Either I am a somewhat dense individual and it is my own fault for not picking up on this, or, as I am more inclined to believe, it is the film’s fault for not speaking the language of cinema and is just jumping around in a self-indulgent manner willy-nilly. Hopefully I can convince you it is the latter. And off we go.

Here is what it looked like out the gate: we hear of the death of a character we haven’t gotten to know yet. Brad Pitt laments choices he made as a father we don’t get to see yet. Sean Penn mopes about a lost childhood we haven’t gotten to experience yet. And before we get to know any of it, we first have to endure the creation of the universe set to some overbearing choral score that seems like it is overcompensating. By this point, it is too late to be truly engaged by what is going on without that personal relation to Malick. It cannot even be enjoyed on a level of pure style (see: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) because, until we get to the shot of the bats racing across the sky, the film can’t hold on a shot for longer than three fucking seconds.

The Tree of Life suffers from a constant arrhythmia, its biggest folly also its most noticeable, and you’re not even twenty minutes in.

Throttling back a bit to talk about the story. After hearing about the death of his brother, Sean Penn slips into memories of growing up in Texas. Well, first we are shown the Big Bang and it is unclear if this is Penn’s doing or if it is illustrated to us by the universe itself. Anyway, we are submerged into childhood for a long time, witnessing the tiny nuances that make up the family’s ordinary life. The father tries to enforce discipline, the mother insulates them from father, the children act out, the family moves out of the house. Every once in awhile there is an out-of-place image inserted in the middle of the scene, or a voice whispering a question that given its placement in the narrative, can only be rhetorical. The final portion of the film is, spoiler alert, some more stuff.

Using the stone-to-statue analogy yet again (I’m proud of it, can you tell?), Malick has an immense stone slab of his own life and the life of the universe itself, which means a daunting amount of choices to make and near-infinite possibilities. It is clear now that it is beyond his ability to make the right ones, for the choices he makes are all the wrong ones, and he is content to do so. He had options of beginning the film with the abstract images of: the space ribbon, the Creation of the Universe, or the blue candle that Sean Penn lights in his apartment. He “chose” to begin with the Nexus, but went on to include the others anyway, at points chosen arbitrarily. Like they all deserved a share of the theme. Which they don’t. He could have chosen a linear story, saving the meditations for the end after we’ve experienced his past, the source of his pain. Instead, he scatters them everywhere. He could have found some way to focus, as he has done before. He is not interested.

The ultimate shame is that, like Christopher Plummer has eloquently stated, the photography of Creation and Earth’s evolution is nothing short of extraordinary, and in a better film would be wielded as such. Because we are spending an extended amount of time with Malick surrogates, an ideal theme would be that the trials of these people are part of a cosmic fabric, as beautiful as the formulation of a universe which may or may not possess consciousness (and which may or may not be an old man with a beard masturbating into an abyss, as per popular theory, but that is not the portrayal here). With the current juxtaposition, the characters aren’t endearing, but petty and goddamned irritating. Is that what he is meandering towards? Again, I could have stayed at home and you could have iterated this with a phone call. You stupid stupid asshole, why does it seem like you’ve suddenly unlearned everything?

It is quite a feat to create something more uninteresting than The New World. We have gone to an even further thematic impotence. “We test the boundaries of an impenetrable adult world by waging acts of wanton destruction.” And? “Our mother will always love us.” And? “We will eventually become our father.” So? Too, there’s something inherently incorrect about the statement of the film, nature vs. grace. There’s nature, the intense emotional reactions that accompany a dangerous situation, where the “grace” of going hungry over a dying dinosaur or crying over a woman’s underwear actually belongs. And there’s logic, the final causation, the search for meaning we assign form and function, how we order the universe after we see its effects, which is in a different class than both. You aren’t surrendering to the way of “grace” if you stumble around a city, looking up at the buildings and acting confused and then smile as you give up the struggle to understand your life. You’re a dumb animal, returned to the primitive, equivalent to the state of “nature” that you fear.

What do I want out of the film? Do I want a quicker pace? Do I want something “less personal,” whatever that is? Do I wish for a bank heist and some titties? Well, I want what I want from all films: a good product, both in economic and thematic terms. The Tree of Life is an inferior product, in both. It is inferior to The Fountain in terms of a love story dressed in science fiction's clothing, to 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of mankind breaching the unknowable, to Neon Genesis Evangelion in terms of an adolescent male’s psychological struggle, in marrying science with religion, in asking the big questions about existence on this planet… and just about everything else. Worst of all, it fails to be interesting.

And yet gorsh, I went on and on about it, didn’t I? Fuck me, I guess that deserves some credit. I’ll admit that for all its wretched stylistic choices, it is certainly a puzzle I want to solve, perhaps brought on by glowing reviews, which baffle me. I mean, it certainly is a puzzle. It’s broken in some way, and there's a clear picture in there somewhere. My desire to fix it is what is keeping it above the median line. If barely.

 I would hate to have been a producer on this thing, but not an editor. Hell, I’d really like to take a crack at re-editing this film right now, at least moving the creation of the universe to the beginning and the dreamlike imagery that is scattered throughout, to the end where the shots goddamn belong. I have to believe that at least one of the six editors (maybe even the first five) suggested this. When placed there, a question is asked. What eventually happens to the data we’ve gathered? Does it finally make sense or does it start to come apart? Is there more to do afterward? C’mon, Bruce McDonald made that possible for The Tracy Fragments, why not put the raw footage for this one online too?… You say it’s 2,000,000 gigs worth? OH.

Summary paragraph time. Speaking Malick’s language, The Tree of Life has been raised from a rough childhood from many different fathers who strive for balance and structure, and one mother possessing unconditional love and infinite patience but sheltering his child from discipline, boundaries, formulation, a common language… the unfortunate symptom of which is finally a lack of synthesis. Malick eventually steps away, as one has to, declaring “I am done. This is all I can do.” (See within the film the derision of the ‘not good enough yet’ mentality). More time or a stronger fatherly influence would have prevented this kid from being a total fucking brat.


  1. I gave this thing three and a half stars when I first saw it. Obviously I liked it. In retrospect, I'm not sure were that came from. Ponderous stuff. Pretty though. And I liked the dinosaurs.

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