Saturday 9 July 2011

Roots: "The Tree of Life"

A heady week, this, for the cinephile: new works from Terrence Malick, Jean-Luc Godard and Bertrand Tavernier to consider, not to mention Resnais' reissued Last Year in Marienbad to wrestle with all over again. Maybe, just maybe, after the all-out assault of a Transformers movie in 3D, the heavens have chosen to look favourably upon us this weekend, or the planets have realigned themselves to our advantage. If the above strikes you as rather grandiose in its speculation, I can only attribute my choice of words to the experience of watching Malick's film, which is nothing if not a grandiose conception, and equally florid in its imagery. The Tree of Life qualifies as an event movie of a sort - it arrives hot from Cannes, where it won the Palme d'Or - but it's an unusual one to open at the very height of the summer season: its essence isn't wholesale destruction, but the miracle (and fragility) of existence, progressing from the dawn of mankind through to some kind of afterlife. You can leave your 3D glasses at home; some hemp wouldn't go amiss, though.

On one level, the film is a (possibly autobiographical) recreation of a 1950s childhood in the American Midwest, observing the three O'Brien brothers - Jack (Hunter McCracken), R.L. (Laramie Eppler) and Steve (Tye Sheridan) - as they venture forth beneath the stern eye of their engineer father. Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt) is an engineer, and a representative of the corporate mindset, the iron will and fists - he schools the boys in backyard boxing - that would shape America into what it presently is, for better and worse. Mrs. O'Brien, however, is a floaty, ethereal redhead (Jessica Chastain), and the only 1950s housewife to spend her every waking hour twirling barefoot around the garden: when food somehow appears on the family table at night, it truly is as manna from heaven, to be mopped up with daily bread. One brother will die; the eldest, Jack, will fall none too far from the tree, inheriting his father's cruel streak, and emerging - in a handful of latter-day scenes - as Sean Penn, an architect who shambles miserably around a city in the now-standard Penn fashion.

Plot, though, turns out to be less important to the director than textures, sounds, visual rhymes, a prevailing atmosphere. Malick abandons the scene-setting - or, rather, takes a different tack to same - after half an hour, for an interlude detailing no less than the creation of the universe. With its roaring volcanoes and protoplasmic lifeforms, its remarkably skilful blending of archive nature footage and state-of-the-art digital wizardry (overseen by Douglas Trumbull), this is about as spectacular as backstory gets: Kubrick by way of David Attenborough, or - given there's a bit with CG dinosaurs that can't help but recall one or other of the Jurassic Park features - Kubrick meets David and Richard Attenborough. In space! Yet while The Tree of Life has something of the spirit of adventure and curiosity with which Kubrick (and Trumbull) undertook 2001: A Space Odyssey back in 1968, at a moment when it looked as though society was all set to reconfigurate itself, there are crucial differences in personality and outlook between these two reclusive filmmakers.

It remains a source of astonishment that the director who once made the 95-minute Badlands (1973) and 1978's 95-minute Days of Heaven (still Malick's greatest achievement, to these eyes) should have returned to circulation, after a two decade absence, with films that very nearly run to the length of those two earlier works combined. The 170-minute The Thin Red Line (1998) was an anti-war combat movie that bore all the hallmarks of a director re-emerging from the wilderness, still struggling to make out the wood from the trees - literally so in the way Malick's camera seemed for long stretches to get lost in the jungle. 2005's The New World, whose various running times spanned anything from 135 to 172 minutes, was a retelling of the Pocahontas legend couched within such a flat renunciation of the modernity alluded to by the title that it barely seemed worth the argument. The Tree of Life appears a more substantial proposition, because - like 2001 - it's underpinned by evolutionary thought: its primary concern is how we got here, and what we might have lost along the way.

Throughout, I found myself trading off the best and the worst of Malick. The director's dippier tendencies are evident in the manner one shot of bleak factory chimneys, belching toxic smoke into the sky, is meant to define the father, much as Chastain's pregnant earth mother is defined by the way she's seen leading her children into the woods. His view of the 1950s is truly childlike, and at all points awestruck: the decade becomes an endless backyard to be chased, scurried, gambolled through, in (yet another obvious) contrast to the cold claustrophobia of the Penn scenes, which resemble the same spaces with all the love and warmth drained out, a vacuum that may very well be Malick's perception of the new world. Yet you surely cannot fail to be struck, and possibly wowed, by this director's maverick tendencies, those of a filmmaker who's never been told what one can and cannot achieve upon calling "action", who has never had to concern himself with the front-office thinking that has dominated the American cinema of late.

The camera in The Tree of Life never merely moves: it roams, floats, drifts. (At times, it looks up, like a penitent in search of forgiveness.) The editing, the work of a five-man team busily knitting together Emmanuel Lubezki's gorgeous pictagrams, is often counterintuitive. Much of the film is wordless, unable to speak when faced with such beauty, and it's this sense of rapture Malick seeks to instil in the viewer: he wants us to shuck off our jadedness, and consider the world anew. To this end, the film is full of images that can't fail to make you laugh or cry or feel good in some way, whether about yourself, your planet, or the possibilities of the cinema. I loved the idea of the womb as a flooded child's bedroom, from which the child swims up fully formed into the light; and I admired the contributions of Chastain and, in particular, Pitt, who work hard, in the absence of much spoken nuance, to make something human out of the archetypes the O'Briens sometimes seem to be being presented as.

Yet where the film differs crucially from 2001 is that it's almost entirely defensive and backward-looking. Malick remains the most obsessively prelapsarian of directors, in part perhaps because he failed to make a feature in the 1980s and 90s, the decades in which - under the influences of Spielberg and Lucas - American cinema became aggressively commercialised. (Kubrick, at least, had The Shining, adapted from a Stephen King bestseller, to show for himself from this period; Malick never had to eat the Apple™.) The Tree of Life felt to me like an act of holding onto some hazily remembered, idealised past, and were it not for the grandeur of its design, it might easily be dismissed as an irrelevance, an anomaly that has precious little to do with the times we're living in.

In so far as I was able to connect with the Penn character - in my role as, ahem, an architect of the modern world - I felt less inclined to blame the Mr. O'Briens of history for the depressing state of things than I do the sellouts of the 1970s and 80s - which is to say Malick's contemporaries, not their forefathers. It is true that after the awesome son et lumière of Malick's Creation, the film settles into comparatively conventional thematic terrain: the business of fathers and sons that has sustained American filmmaking since precisely the year dot. The telling, granted, is rather less conventional, but marked by the director's entrenched fustiness; the relentless laying on of classical music - sometimes effective and moving, sometimes not - makes one wonder if Malick ever heard a pop song growing up. Kubrick may have fallen back on Beethoven and Strauss, but he at least gave us the record shop sequence in A Clockwork Orange, and thus Heaven 17. Malick, for his part, clearly knows nothing of "Temptation".

The film's saving grace - the reason you should see The Tree of Life even if you find you cannot give yourself to it, as Mrs. O'Brien gives up her son to God - is that it is a Big Picture, big enough to encompass both swathes of Christian imagery and the Big Bang theory, big enough to be exhilarating and exasperating and to still leave room for mystery, to be both grounded and hovering two feet off the ground; big enough to seem to absorb such similar features as The Fountain and Stand By Me and to be nothing very much like either one; big enough to allow the viewer both space for contemplation, and time for a power nap. At its most transcendent, The Tree of Life seems like a four-dimensional movie, and that vastness, in a cosmological sense, is enough for it not to look out of place in the summer movie schedule - and perhaps explains its healthy U.S. box-office performance, where it appears to have drawn in even those who wouldn't dream of seeing a Terrence Malick movie if it didn't have Brad Pitt on the poster. That cinema managers have had to resort to putting up signs in the foyer, warning patrons the film is an art movie, not a Pitt star vehicle, is both a funny state of affairs, and Tree's most piercingly accurate review; for this is a work big enough, and singular enough, to astound you for an hour, and thereafter confound you with the bagginess of its own brilliance.

The Tree of Life is on selected release.

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