Apr 262012

Apropos of nothing musical, I’ve had the strange fortune this week to catch, first, the last half hour, of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and then, a couple of days later, the first half hour of the film. Has anyone seen this, either in full or in part, even out of sequence? As I await delivery and posting of a really cool interview with a key artist in the Hall, I thought I’d share my thoughts on what I saw.

SPOILER ALERT! I may be giving away some key plot developments…after the jump, but probably not.

Beside Mallick’s first movie, Badlands, I’ve found his films excruciatingly beautiful and boring. It’s like he’s making nature porn. In those terms, what I saw of The Tree of Life was hardcore nature porn, not the “tasteful” softcore nature porn of that movie with a young Richard Gere and some woman who may have been Mrs. Robinson’s daughter sitting in a wheat field, or whatever. However, I found the moving pictures of his newer movie fascinating, for as long as I could suspend my cynicism.

The Tree of Life could have been entitled Earth Odyssey: 2001. Like Kubrick’s groundbreaking work of space porn, the 2 half-hour sections I watched relied solely on Laser Floyd–worthy visuals and classical music, some of which may be classified as opera. There was one stretch, for instance, that my wife described as having the visuals ruined by “that annoying, high-pitched screeching.”

I liked the last 30 minutes, which I caught first while channel surfing, better than the first 30. The last 30 minutes featured Brad Pitt; Sean Penn; Jessica Chastain (?), the red-headed actress who seems slated to inherit Patricia Clarkson’s former roles for the next 5 years; and 2 young boys, clearly the sons of Pitt and Chastain’s characters and possibly one of which the flashback version of Sean Penn walking around on a beautifully filmed beach, more or less unaware of each other, and with faraway looks in their eyes. It was like a more pleasant version of REM’s “Everybody Hurts” video. Occasionally an offscreen voice whispered something, and occasionally the film cut away to spectacular nature scenes or scenes from the boys’ childhood in some delightful suburban town from the Golden Age. Nobody on the beach conversed, nobody seemed to have a purpose on this beach. In fact, nobody was wearing a bathing suit or even sunglasses. At one point Pitt’s character picked up one of his boys, held him up to the heavens, and looked meaningfully into his eyes. I was actually moved by that brief scene. I’m a sucker for any movie scene involving memories of the joy between a father and son. Perhaps that’s what earned Pitt his Oscar nomination.

The first 30 minutes of the film was nothing but Laser Floyd: slo-mo scenes of stuff exploding, lava bubbling, vegetation growing, clouds moving. Someone needs to replace that movie’s soundtrack with whatever head music kids are into these days and show The Tree of Life as a midnight movie for stoners. There was not one human or actual line of dialog during the opening 30 minutes, just some occasional whispering from a female god, I suppose. The opening of the movie required too much for me to handle, but I hung in there in hopes of seeing the dinosaurs I’d read about. Sure enough there were a few scenes with really cheesy looking dinosaurs. At that point I’d had my fill. My wife went to bed and I flipped over to a sports network.

For those of you who’ve seen this 2 hour 30-minute film, does the 1 hour and 30 minutes in between the beginning and the end feature any dialog, character development, and plot, or did Pitt simply get his Oscar nod for how good he looked in conservative ’50s guy hair and the way he swung the boy playing his son up into the heavens? Didn’t Chastain get an Oscar nomination too? Was that her character whispering stuff throughout?

I look forward to your insights.


  16 Responses to “Apropos of Almost Nothing Musical: The Tree of Life

  1. misterioso

    (Sighing.) Mod, I saw Tree of Life, the whole thing. I am 100% in agreement with you on Malick: loved Badlands, had no use for anything else. Tree of Life is preposterously pretentious, so utterly convinced of its importance and profundity, but delivers so little of the genuinely profound as to be rather silly. There are some truly powerful moments between Pitt (who was rather good) and his kids, moments where I felt that some actual character development rather than Cosmic Slop would have been welcome. I really don’t have any allergy to arts-fartsiness in movies or non-linear structure or what have you. But more or less ALL of the Sean Penn segments and certainly the Story of Creation and the Land of the Lost interlude were so hopelessly lame that they practically should have had intertitles declaring “PROFOUND SYMBOLISM” or “SEEMS IRRELEVANT TO SMALL-MINDED MORTALS BUT ACTUALLY QUITE SIGNIFICANT IF YOU ARE PROPERLY ENLIGHTENED,” you know, just to make sure the point was made. The characters themselves, their relationships: aren’t these important enough on their own? Apparently not to Malick. But dinosaurs? Hell yeah.

  2. Mr. Mod, I saw the entire brooding, boring affair, and my wife and I both came to the conclusion that it was waaay over praised. I probably would have enjoyed the film much more watching it the way you did.

    As for Mr. Pitt’s oscar nom…that came via ‘Moneyball’ not ‘Tree of Life’, and THAT film is extremely good. I’m biased being a baseball fan, and having loved the book (and the whole notion of sabermetrics).

  3. Thanks for clearing up my Oscar confusion. I still need to see Moneyball. I liked the book.

  4. ladymisskirroyale

    One woman cheering section over here. I liked the movie. The main flash-back part was a beautiful and slow meditation on grief. Ponderous, yes; Sean Penn moments unnecessary. But the central part was very moving to me.

  5. misterioso

    Flash-back? You mean the dinosaurs, right?

  6. ladymisskirroyale

    Yes, I grieve the loss of those big guys.

    No really, I liked the central family portion of the movie, which I guess was a flash back from Sean Penn’s point of view. I like that the story was told more through a mood and through sensing what was going on, rather than an explicit narrative.

  7. misterioso

    I pretty much agree. I didn’t entirely hate the movie, but it really irritated me; all the more because what I thought , and what you seem to think, was the “main part” of the movie had some real resonance. It just seems to me that Malick didn’t believe in the power of that–the human dimension of the film–and he had to construct this elaborate, pretentious, and totally hollow pseudo-philosophico-paleontologico bullshit to “elevate” it to some allegedly higher level.

  8. underthefloat

    Sorry, this got way to long. I agree with ladym. Only I not only liked the film, I loved this film. I’m late the discussion and I know I won’t change anyone’s mind about it (nor could I). I agree with LadyM the primary flaw to the film is the Penn scenes, while I get why he had them in the film, they don’t always work. His rumination over loss in the present is needed but starts to feel stagnant and in a way that takes you out of the “meditation” theme of the film.
    I think there is a lot of backlash on this film. Either people find it pretentious or just say it’s stupid, that it didn’t make any sense. The first response I get, the second I don’t at all. When I first started watching the film I reacted as many here..this feels like pretentiousness gone wild. But, I gradually accepted it and went with it. To even have a chance with this film you have to just “go with it” so to speak. To try to talk about it will only trivialize it because it is an “art film” (I can hear the groans) but the film seems to me in part about the process/meditation of finding meaning through loss…thus, even questioning “what’s it all mean” if you can lose a child..thus, even the mediating on the very creation of life, the solar system, etc. is done in context of “if this can happen, what does it all mean”. It’s more of an emotional, spiritual film and yet is a very intelligent film, I believe. Other themes of “grace” vs “nature” reflected in the mother and the father respectively or even when say the dinosaur raises it’s foot and doesn’t crush the hurt dinosaur just because it can (is I think, a prehistoric moment of “grace”). The connections to nature, water, etc…I believe simply are connections to spirituality or meaning (whatever you want to call it). Like it or not…can anyone deny the cinematic beauty of this film? I’m sure the answer for many is yes..per if it bores you then it bores you..
    Finally, another thing I love in Malick films is that he captures so much with a simply shot to evoke a feeling rather then with words. One example, is the boys have a friend who dies. They show them at the funeral looking sad, all dressed up in their suits. Soon after the service, these same boys are back being boys, doing summer-salts in their suits near to the church. Moments like that which to me seem simple but seem very “true”. He captures many moments that remind me of being a kid.
    I totally get that this is a film many will hate or think it’s to pretentious. It is pretentious almost by definition to try and make a film that mediates and struggles with all the big questions of life, meaning, death and beyond from a few different points of view reflecting on this. All this largely told with visual images and soft voice overs as if your simply hearing their questioning thoughts of self reflection. I quickly forgave him for this pretentious quality per I prefer to see someone make such a film once in a blue moon then the standard movie experience with a straight linear story. This is more like a dream state or something. I thought of Yes, I think it’s a flawed masterpiece. One of those rare “art films” that really is art.

    side note: for some reason I think of Inception related to this movie. It’s like the other end of the spectrum. Highly intellectual film about an internal states of consciousness/dreams. I thought Inception was not a very good film per it was all head, no emotional connection and rather contrived about “levels” of dreams (huh). Working way to hard…

  9. underthefloat

    PS: I have few sentence problems above. But, I have to point out at the end I didn’t intend to say “I thought of Yes”, as in the band (gawd!). Just a blurring of thoughts with some run on sentences..


  10. That was good stuff, underthefloat. For the record, the point of me writing about my thoughts on the 2 half-hour sequences I managed to catch out of sequence was not to say that I “hated” the film or anything like that. I simply felt there was much to chuckle over while contemplating its strengths and shortcomings. I’m enjoying reading what others have to say on the film. Keep it coming. As you know, it’s rare that anyone’s actually “too late” for chiming in on a thread around here.

  11. ladymisskirroyale

    Yeah, I don’t know why he had to add all that. The Giant Lizard segment was also incredibly stupid and did a lot to kill the mood.

  12. ladymisskirroyale

    Your write up is great. I wish I could have captured it the way you did.

    Mr. Royale and I were talking about (ironically) the difficulty of discussing something that resonates very strongly emotionally. I’m a pretty verbal person and am generally not at a loss for words (and he is a better wordsmith, jokester and writer than I) but there are some experiences that are just too difficult to explain or get across to others. I have all sorts of neurological thoughts as to why this is but the bottom line is that this movie really resonated with me. I’m not a big crier at movies but this one did get me going and it’s hard to explain why. It had it’s detracting parts but the central tenet of the story (‘Grace’ as you put it succinctly and well) was very powerful.

    I hated “Inception” and turned it off mid-way. The main reason I hated it was because of the miscasting. I just couldn’t handle Ellen Page and Leonardo DeCaprio in those roles. In contrast, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain really inhabited their roles. It’s hard for me to see Jessica Chastain in anything else and imagine her without that spiritual calm.

  13. underthefloat

    Thank you. That is kind of you to say. I always seem to have some messy bits when I write but glad to hear some thoughts I wrote struck you.

    The mom has a “voice over” near the start of the film reflects on living one’s life via grace or nature and what that means. I think the themes play out in many ways over the film. Even the children reflect these themes at times.
    I agree it’s hard explain why something moves you on an emotional level and especially when it at times might resonate and as you state, you as the audience are surprised by your own response. I love when that happens too. I found the film totally engaging and moving. I saw it a second time and in someways enjoyed it even more. I do think it’s a movie to see on a big screen. I don’t think it’s perfect but I really love it.

  14. underthefloat

    Thanks Mod!
    For what it’s worth, I really was speaking in general beyond even posts here that I’ve read… backlash from film types (mostly a yahoo film discussion group) that don’t like it for the complaints I mentioned.

    When I saw it many people left. The dinosaurs really got some people running from their seats.

  15. ladymisskirroyale

    Geez, that’s pretty narrow minded of them. Couldn’t they have seen it through? I thought the dinos were pretty low-tech given the rest of the film but that wasn’t worth leaving the theater. Unless they were critics and saw as much as they wanted to see and therefore already had a preconceived notion.

    Along these lines, Mr. Royale and I started to watch the 2010 biopic of Serge Gainsbourg, subtitled “A Heroic Life.” So far, the use of puppetry and animation do a much to detract from the idea of a heroic life. So he got to schtup a lot of beautiful women (unexplained why) and he was battling with his Jewish side but I don’t really understand the use of the giant nose figures other than to be clever. Did you see it?

  16. underthefloat

    Actually, when I think of it, this was the second time I saw it. We saw it at a second run theater in one of the burbs here. Anyway, the place was packed per the 3 dollar ticket and it being a Saturday night. My guess is that many people came for the price and for stars Pitt and/or Penn. So, I “think” the dinos were more the tipping point of “what the hell is going on..I gotta get out of here moment”. A lot of talking during and after the film about it being “weird” and “not making any sense”. I don’t mean it to sound patronizing but it likely wasn’t the usual Hollywood type film that would be shown there. It just likely wasn’t what the thought they signed up for.

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