Sunday, June 26, 2011

Quick Thoughts on The Tree of Life

Finally got to see this this afternoon, at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma.  My audience was fairly annoying, but not as bad as what I've been hearing.  Only a couple people walked out.  We were the youngest people in attendance (2:30 on a Sunday, that's not that surprising).  There wasn't any inappropriate noise for the most part, though I swear I heard someone listening to a radio while Jack was stealing the neglige.  Everyone got up immediately, chuckling and baffled, at the end of the film, breaking the spell of the soundtrack (nature noises, followed by piano and then some other bit of music).  I couldn't move until the film shut off.

There are spoilers here, though I can't imagine this is a film that can be spoiled.

As the film begins, a series of dualisms are set up (Grace/Nature, Mother/Father, natural world/modern architecture) but I think the film concludes by eliminating those oppositions and embracing a whole.  This plays out in Jack's reconciliation with his father and in his seeing the cloudscape reflected in the skyscraper.  It's the final image of the film: a bridge spanning water.

Water is a vitally important image in Malick's last three films.  It is time and interconnectedness.  It is Pocahontas's mother/god, its the eternity that life struggles to conquer in the ghostly final image of The Thin Red Line.  The eponymous tree here I thought was really beautiful, haunting the film like a cousin of the monoliths of 2001.  The imagery isn't particularly obscure, but as always with Malick, it is utterly sincere.  

The editing is like nothing we see, or have seen, possibly going back to Soviet montage.  The film is rightfully praised for the beauty of its individual images, but the way Malick builds meaning and such profound emotion out of such brief images, as often as not of inhuman elements is remarkable.  It's the editing that makes the film Transcendentalist more than anything else: trees and clouds and rivers are imbued with soul through montage.

I don't know if Penn is dead or not at the end, I suspect not.  I see the "afterlife" as his vision of what the afterlife will be like, when he'll be reuniting with his loved ones.  Fundamentally, the film isn't all that different from Lost, is it?

For some reason I thought the brother that died had killed himself.  Did anyone else get that impression, or did it spring entirely out of my own mind?  

I can't think of a better film to pair this with than Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

There's a repeated shot up through a canyon that looks like the canyon in 127 Hours.  That, in turn, reminds one of the caves in Uncle Boonmee and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  Something in the zeitgeist?  The weird thing is that the womb image here is not a cave, but a house floating in water, with the child passing through the door and swimming up to the air at birth (and rebirth).

There's a long section, after we see the creation of the universe (all of which is prelude to the birth of Sean Penn) where we see Penn as an infant.  His earliest memories, flashes of images and sensations and emotions that has instantly become one of my all-time favorite movie sequences.  I've never seen a film that so captured memory, in all its incompleteness and fragmentation and sentiment and beauty.

Really all of the musical sequences with Pitt are fantastic: stopping in the midst of yelling at your kids to freak out about Brahms?  Jack watching as his Father loses himself in Bach, finally sitting next to him in one of their rare moments of closeness.  Most importantly, when his middle son is playing guitar and he begins to accompany him on piano.  He's so proud of the one son, while the other is heartbroken that he'll never share that connection with his father.

I think Pitt played him great, but his character is so well-conceived.  He's certainly got his faults, but you feel the struggle of a whole generation of men who came of age in depression and war trying to not only survive the peacetime but raise children who've never known struggle and don't understand why their thoroughly traumatized parents are so emotionally distant.  It's sympathetic to him in a way we very rarely are.

One of my favorite single images, representative of the film in both its beauty and its at times almost comical on-the-noseness: a newly formed galaxy, framed by more distant galaxies, forming a God's Eye.  Malick can get away with that kind of thing because of his sincerity.  There aren't enough honest artists out there these days.