Monday, 11 July 2011

Terence Malick's The Tree of Life

Any Malick film is a cultural event: readers, I am ashamed to say that I hated it, or at least parts of it. There were too many babies, and not enough dinosaurs.

Having been moved to tears by the first few minutes of Malick's The New World (review here), I was expecting to be rubbled into nothing by all this cosmic-yet-intimate, curling water, wind-through-grasses stuff. Instead, I was simply bored for quite long stretches---the film truly resembles life itself in that regard---and often felt quite guilty in the manner of the sheepish visitor at an ashram.

The whole thing is a mess, to my mind. It could have been a piercing meditation on the Book of Job---and at moments it looks very much like it's heading that way, from the opening quotation to the astounding CGI 'early universe' sequences---but it's grafted onto the unremarkable story of Sean Penn's Everyboy/man, Jack O'Brian. It feels like a splice of two different films: all the cosmic stuff might have ended up as a higherbrow, Blakean version of Ron Fricke's 1992 Baraka. The shots of the creation of the universe and the beginning of life rank as some of the most powerful images I have ever seen in the cinema: amid swirls of gas and igniting stars, galaxies form with peals of soft thunder. At one point, as a female vocal cries out 'Lacrimosa! Lacrimosa!' you see a single spiral galaxy glowing with its one hundred billion suns. At that point, my eyes did prickle with tears of wonder. I could have watched hours of it: pulsing veins, dividing cells, drifting jellyfish and beached plesiosaur, the whole lot. Kudos to Malick for the dinosaur sequence: first for making his CGI dinosaurs look entirely convincing as real animals at home in an ecosystem, with the rightful, organic beauty of living creatures, and second for having the boldness to deal with the issue of religion and deep time. This used to worry me as a child: what could we possibly be to God, as infinitesimal beings that had evolved with the slowness of aeons from water and rock!? I kept thinking of Kathleen Raine's lines:

Who but I
Speaks for the mute stone?
For fragile water feels
With finger and bone?

Malickian sentiments indeed.

The rest of the material---Jack's spiritual Bildungsroman---could have been repackaged as the story of a sensitive man's alienation from nature in Malick's usual Heideggerian way, which would have made a film much more like The Thin Red Line. The young Jack was played with exquisite melancholy; Jessica Chastain as Mrs O'Brien had the unearthly, haloed beauty of a Flemish Madonna, the camera lingering on her long, tapering Holbein fingers. But instead the splicing of the material engenders an awkward pushme-pullyou, a half-arsed theodicy.

There is a lot of God in The Tree of Life. Prone as I am to oceanic, contemplative states, I nevertheless found the film tranquillising rather than inducing excessus mentis, as medieval people termed it---the suspension of the chattering intellect in focused absorption and loss of self-consciousness. It's a measure of Malick's solemnity that I went in hoping for mystical self-naughting, which is quite a horizon of expectation to erect around any director's film.

Further, watching as a theologically-literate individual, I felt alienated by the film's constant rehearsal of the problem of suffering ('Why do bad things happen to good people?') without either the incarnational resolution of the Cross or the cooler emptiness~compassion of Buddhism, both of which were gestured towards. Going back to the problem of 'deep time', it's very hard to make an aesthetic case for Christianity in this kind of cosmic context, though not impossible; a cramped, parochial, made-in-Taiwan feeling tends to steal over the theological landscape. Watch Malick's galaxies coalesce and stars foam in the heart of nebulae, and then try worrying about monothelitism or whether the absence of episcopal oversight in Methodism renders its orders invalid. Go on, try.

Buddhism is perhaps a little better at this sort of thing with its vast timespans---Malick's film deals in kalpas, the unimaginable ages of eastern thought---but the Buddha famously eschewed metaphysical speculation about suffering's causes, preferring instead to preach its cessation. Malick doesn't push this far enough: the film seems to evoke emptiness in the technical, tongpanyid sense---that all things are impermanent and intrinsically empty of a separate self---only to climax with a baffling scene on a beach which seems to be intended to be heaven. (Families reunite while milling around on the strand.) Unfortunately, this section looks like a particularly beautifully-shot scene from a straight-to-DVD Christian movie. The metaphysic here seemed to me to be rather vacuous, if I didn't altogether misunderstand, but then I'm not a Christian. Indeed, there's an especially dodgy moment in this scene where you see some bare feet in the sand and the end of a white robe: my heart sank. Oh no, I thought, please don't tell me Malick's going to bring on Nazareth's gift to the Joy of Nations. But he wisely restrained himself.

Altogether a baffling, disappointing, beautiful, and flawed thing, 'worth seeing' (as Dr Johnson said), 'but not worth going to see.'


Fionnchú said...

Hey, I cried at the final few minutes of "New World," Bo. Recently re-visited "Badlands" & "Days of Heaven," and I'd say "Tree" as with "NW" & "Thin Red Line" is his mature, ambitious period. He makes films he wants to, not what pleases us. While I was let down by that beach scene, I was moved by the dinosaur one which fits despite what the naysayers jeer into the later part of the film neatly if subtly.

At this site you'd love, "Religion Dispatches," two critics weigh in on the film. I disagree w/ Plate somewhat and Michaelson whom I generally admire tilts more than I do towards a Catholic reading, but both are recommended.

Lots of backlash ever since Cannes for this; people appear unable to let the film take its meandering way with their time. As for me, as with the rest of his films, I'm content to let it linger and to return to it when the spirit moves me. I still prefer Malick to the manufactured fantasies of Pixar, Disney, or Spielberg.

Bo said...

I agree entirely: it's not the idea I object to (at all!! I was moved to tears by the trailer), it's the broken-backed feel of the execution. Somewhere it all just got a little *too* ripe.

Zoe said...

"Prone as I am to oceanic, contemplative states" - just checking you've seen Solaris (the original, of course) Zx

Zoe said...

"Prone as I am to oceanic, contemplative states" - just checking you've seen Solaris (the original, of course, by Tarkovsky) Zx

Bo said...

I have indeed, Zoe! How are you? I need to get in touch with your dad, oddly... xxxx

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