Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Tree of Life (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick is a unique director. His film "Badlands" (1973) with wide expanses of Western earth and sky together with the deadpan and sly acting of Martin Sheen was a classic of its time not least for its neutral attitude, neither moral or amoral. In Malick's films, the land itself is just as much of a character as any other role, if not more so.

In his latest film "The Tree of Life", Malick strives to orchestrate a vast drama, giving a bird's eye view--- or is is an angel's?--- of the interplay between our human selves and amoral nature, mainly sky and the reaches of space.

Right off, this film has some of the most eye-grabbing images of nature that I've ever seen. Huge jellyfish are shot in deep closeup as to appear abstract, along with shots of swarming bees or some type of winged pestilence that seems about to collide into a skyscraper. The towering edifice looks like an imperial icicle thrusting into the sky. This is one of the more arresting images in the film. Haunts, I feel, that recall the Trade Center.
The opening scenes in the film are singularly provocative and owe a debt to the non-narrative filmmaker Stan Brakhage whose quick cutting and in-camera editing put him on par with many Surrealists.

But when Malick introduces a dinosaur drama into the mix, as novel as this may appear, he stumbles. The scene appears kitschy and anthropomorphic--a theme park mix of Darwin ala Disney.

The human portion of the film focuses on a suburban American family. Brad Pitt plays the somewhat scary, somewhat sensitive dad: a modest inventor with a military mindset. Jessica Chastain plays the long suffering mother. If she's not suffering she's running and you half expect her to go around chasing butterflies. Pitt does a good job at forgetting his good looks and sly smile. He becomes caring or violent to his kids in the blink of an eye and this, to Malick's credit is done without melodrama, in the same lens that made the director a legend.

The film deftly illustrates the supernaturalness of childhood, the savagery at play equal to the tone of The Lord of the Flies or the photography of Sally Mann. The image of children with their shadows projected on the sidewalk has an extra terrestrial eeriness to it. And the shot of children getting ready for Halloween might make you think of strange rituals, Satanic or otherwise. Malick is not one to conceal his camera. And its a good thing that he didn't pull back. The film's strength is in its ability to illustrate a vivid childhood. If it had just stopped there, "Tree of Life" could have made Ray Bradbury proud.

Yet, when the film goes on and plunges into the realm of the cosmic and The Far Out, it loses its potency, and becomes a spaced out "happening" film for the new century as well-crafted as it is.

Sean Penn makes an appearance as an over-tired architect, the grown up son. He only has one line and a few mumbles. For the life of me, (or for the life of the film) I'm not sure what on earth he is doing in this movie. Should I ask Yahweh?

The film has some startling imagery, mostly when focusing on the children. The film is at its best, I'll say, when it is impressionistic and silent with an objective mysticism.

I was tripping with Malick's poetry all well and groovy. But then the clouds opened up and the seas parted. The whole cast of the film arrives on a heavenly beach with photographic quotations that seem directly taken from a United Methodist Church commercial. (Open hearts. Open minds) What gives Malick, man? Such a heavy handed bummer.

Should I wait for your Second Coming?

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