Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tree of Life: Film as Poetry

 "the rising world of waters dark and deep/won from the void and formless infinite."
                                -Book 3 Paradise Lost

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life glows with every frame. Malick's film stands along side Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of scope and ambition.  Profound questions are raised: What is the purpose of life?  How do human beings reckon with being part of a universe far beyond their imagination?  Is there a mysterious power behind existence?  Kubrick's 2001 focused on the relationship between humanity and technology and its dual nature - to both build and destroy - as well as our growing dependence on it for survival and to venture "to infinity and beyond."  Malick is concerned with the struggle to find meaning within existence.

Tree of Life is poetry in motion.  Every shot conveys deep thought and emotion.  The film opens with some fragments from the major narrative centered on a family in 1950s Texas.  The father, Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), is stern and keeps a firm grip on his three sons in contrast to the mother Mrs O"Brien, who is calm, playful, patient.  Before going into the main story, there's an artful sequence depicting the creation of the universe. Animations of the sun coming to life, the primordial soup of life, the movement of life from water unto land, and the rise and collapse of dinosaurs are sublime.  To cynics, these sequences may call to mind a Discovery channel documentary.  But they are handled with a beauty most films never approach (special effects designed by Douglas Trumbull who worked with Kubrick).  Then the film shifts millions of years ahead into the future for the birth of the O'Brien's first son, Jack.

A common criticism of Tree of Life is the disconnect between the Cosmos like portion of the film and its connection to the family (by all accounts autobiographical).  There's something moving by juxtaposing the vastness of universe with the the life of one family residing on an obscure planet orbiting a star on the fringes of the Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers have a clear picture of the size of the universe our own place in it seems insignificant and barely a ripple in the tapestry of living.  By realizing we are part of something bigger, and accepting the mystery surrounding all aspects of existence is an idea easy for modern mind to scoff at.  Malick unabashedly expresses his own belief through the language of cinema with some Miltonic flourishes.

The style is pure expressionism.  The innocence and frivolity of childhood are captured as the camera seems to glide through the house.   Dialogue is kept to a minimum. The images tell the story.  All the actors did a fantastic job of capturing emotion without dialogue.  Brad Pitt brings a strength and vulnerability as the father, while Jessica Chastain is grace personified.  Sean Penn's section of the film feels undeveloped.

Malick is unique among directors for making two masterpieces in the 1970s , Badlands and Days of Heaven.  Then he went on a 20 year hiatus. In 1997 he returned with the meandering World War II film, The Thin Red Line. His recent 2013 film, To the Wonder is in limited release and he has two other projects in post-production so thankfully for us he is making up for lost time.

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