Sunday, September 8, 2013

My first Notes on The Tree Of Life

This text is written a few days after I watched this film the first time, the unforgettable press screening on June 1, 2011. It was first published in the web magazine INDIAN AUTEURS. Even though a lot of ideas I had on this film were not yet expressed properly, but this text was the start of more than six month when almost only one single film occupied my mind and that was THE TREE OF LIFE.

  | Monday, June 13th, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE takes place in a small town in Texas in the 50s. There is a family, father, mother and their boys. Later we will see that all these scenes in this little town are childhood memories of the architect Jack (Sean Penn)
Terrence Malick (born in 1943) is (too) often labeled as the great mystic person in contemporary cinema. After his two first films BADLANDS (1973) and DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) he disappeared for 20 years from the public eye until his comeback with the modern Odyssey about nature, men and war THE THIN RED LINE (1998). In the 70s he was
celebrated as one of the biggest talents of the so-called “New Hollywood”. After DAYS OF HEAVEN he was frustrated
about interventions by producers into his artistic decisions and worst of all – after working 2 years editing DAYS OF HEAVEN he was mentally burnt out. Since then Malick avoids all kind of public appearance, press conferences or interviews not even photographs. From time to time he appears surprisingly at screenings of his films like 2004 during the screening of DAYS OF HEAVEN at the Retrospective “New Hollywood” of the Berlin Film festival. Actors, actresses or other collaborators describe Malick often as a very intelligent, polite but very humble and very shy man.
With Kubrick (whom he is often compared with) he has in common that his films are produced with big Hollywood budgets but created in an independent spirit only following the filmmaker´s vision. As his early films are canonized as his most famous ones I prefer his three last films, THE THIN RED LINE, THE NEW WORLD (2005) this elegy about the discovering and conquest of America and his latest work THE TREE OF LIFE.
All these works have the typical stylistic elements of Malicks last films : fluid camera-movements, mostly with Steadicam, the use of natural light sources, a narrative structure which resembles less a story than a long narrative poem.
The most significant aspect is his use of long, sometimes even whispered over-voice monologues. They can be seen as the inner reflections of the protagonists but mostly they have the quality of a poem and sometimes even as a prayer. If there is someone who can be compared with Malick in American cinema than Trinh T. Minha, the Vietnamese-American filmmaker in her use of over-voice narration and especially her film SURNAME VIET GIVEN NAME NHAM 1989).
Malick, actually a philosopher turned into film studies in his late 20s. He has the reputation of a lover of nature and as a person equally interested in religious and scientific questions. THE THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD deal with incredible beautiful natural landscapes and natives still in touch with their natural environment. These paradises will be disgraced and destroyed in the first film by the war brought in by American soldiers in World war II. or by English colonists in the almost untouched America of the 17th Century in the other film.
THE TREE OF LIFE takes place in a small town in Texas in the 50s. There is a family, father, mother and their boys. Later we will see that all these scenes in this little town are childhood memories of the architect Jack (Sean Penn). The plot is a small “coming of age” story. Malick connects this part with an excursion about the birth of the universe, the birth of our planet and finally about the beginning of life.

The scenes have more the quality of associations and memories than chapters of a story. The film begins when the mother(Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram that her 19 years old son (the brother of the main protagonist Jack)has died. We do not know how and why he died, we are just in the elegiac introduction of this film. We see the mourning mother and the father (played by Brad Pitt who tries to hide his feelings. In short scenes we see Jack as an adult, an architect who seems a prisoner in a gigantic city of glass and stone. As we realize that Jack is the person who recalls his childhood, the“flashbacks” are exactly working like human memories including its often fragmented character.

Emmanuel Lubezki camera is always in motion and it seems to move beyond all laws of gravitation like an invisible undefinable protagonist.

Than suddenly – a small 20 minutes long excursion interrupts the main plot for a while and we see the birth of the universe, our solar-system and our earth. The first traces of life, than Hammer sharks and later dinosaurs. One of them lies exhausted in a riverbed, another small saur is caught by a big one. The big dinosaur leaves him after a moment and disappears. Rather like music, Malick uses “Leitmotivs”. One of them is the mothers sentence:”There are two ways of life and you have to choose which one you follow. The one is the way of nature, the other the way of grace.” This small scene with the dinosaurs gets much more weight in the context of the whole film. While the father is preaching a kind of simple darwinism about the right of the stronger as a natural aspect in life, Malick presents in this small intermezzo an animal which follows the “way of grace”.

After this segment about the beginning of the life the narration continues with the birth of Jack.

This “way of nature and the way of grace” is much more than a thematic keyword for the film, because it has also to do with formal details.

The film which uses obviously the finest modern technology from steadycam until even the computer animation in the excursion about the beginning of the world never gets pompous. Malicks most sophisticated approach in his last three films, especially in THE NEW WORLD and THE TREE OF LIFE is that his use of a the high complex apparatus of film is never imposing and disappears often in front what it presents. Beside that high epic ambition it also seems to be at the same time a very personal film.

Malick just doesn´t film playing children, in his cinematic point of view his cinematic eye has a tendency to become part of these children or turns into a playing child as well. In such moments Lubezkis fluid camera movements loose the character of its technical perfection – it becomes a child, a dog, a branch, a treetop, a butterfly or it trails off to the sky. His collaborationwith the Mexican cinematographer Lubezki the consequent sequel of this wonderful duet between the fluid moving camera and the movements of Q´Orianka Kilcher as the native princess Pocahontas in THE NEW WORLD. The camera is not anymore a distant voyeur, it tries to be one with this adolescent girl who is still in harmony with the world she lives in. These moments emphasize Kilchers presence and the camera as the cinematic apparatus seems to disappear.

The beautiful sentence of the young deserter in THE THIN RED LINE:”Maybe all men got one big soul where everybody is part of it” ( a sentence I quoted already wherever an occasion is offered) describes Malicks cinema quite accurate.

The often mentioned spiritual or even religious tendencies in Malicks film remain on a level where they don´t force to a simple and easy interpretation but to offer quite a variety of possibilities. Beside the “big questions” of our existence the existence or non-existence of god, or the mysterious history of the universe, Malicks film asks with the same intensity the worldly concrete questions about the visible matter we and the world around us are made of. At the beginning the boys definition of father and mother are two different definitions of god. She the loving and protecting one, he the cruel one most focused on the material surviving. Later Jack realizes that his mother is a slave of his father and his father a slave of the factory he works for and which finally fires him or blackmails him to take a lower job. Quite a concrete comment to the failure of the “American Dream” (often preached by the father)in a film who often was labeled as esoteric. While Jack still hates his father and his machoism, Brad Pitt has one of the most moving scenes in his career. Clumsily he tries to apologize to his sons. He regrets “not to have realized beauty around him he was unable to see”. He even asks his attitude in life. Even though he is exposed in all his meagerness, it is one of the most tenderly scenes in the film. A wonderful episode about the fall of the father authority which can be compared with the father in Ozus UMARATE WA MITAKREDO (I was born, but.., 1932) That is just one short scene but it is representative for the richness of themes in this film which can´t be measured after having watched it only once.

We see a lot of hands touching other hands, other bodies, grass, trees animals or the mother pets the wing of a butterfly.
Malicks films doesn´t only celebrate the big questions beyond the fragile existence of life, he celebrates with the same intensity the concrete material world. The swollen belly of the pregnant mother, the tiny foot of the newborn held in the hand of the parents. Malicks celebration of the fragility of living bodies especially in their mortality is a strong and even heartbreaking contrast to the inevitability of the fact that one day all life will disappear when our sun will turn into a red giant.
I have to recall a small conservation with an Indian Muslim, a film critic in Bombay about Malick. He told me about his idea that Malick has strong affinities to Sufi-poetry, a poetry who celebrates the worldly joy in life as much as they faith in
While I am writing all this, I feel it is incomplete and not only because these are the impressions after having watched this film only once.
In all these years of my passion for cinema I collected a certain kind of “knowledge” or approached a kind of an own personal order. In the last 10 or 12 years very few directors I discovered confused this self-satisfied order like the films by Ritwik Ghatak or Terrence Malick. A lot of films I discovered in these years, I was prepared for. But I was not prepared for the emotional impact the films Ghatak or Malick had on me. In different ways they evoked more than admiration.
Beside all their brilliance, they opened my sense for a certain kind of vulnerability. Long before I learned about Ghataks biography I was sure his films were at first very authentic documents of a very disturbed soul, yes they became in its nakedness of human emotions the films which define pain in the strongest way, I ever saw in cinema. In another way Malick also seems to me both, as a master who created his own cinematic language, but at the same time his films,
especially his late ones evoke in me as well my image of Malick as a filmmaker with a delicateness of a child. When I saw first THE NEW WORLD at the Berlin Film festival 2005 I felt in the gentleness of Q´Orianka Kilcher as the teenage native princess Pocahontas the ideal embodiment of Terrence Malicks cinematic point of view. To enjoy Malicks films from a certain distance from the safe position of a voyeur is impossible for me. These films are going through my body and soul or they don´t happen as films to me at all.
I am sure what makes these films even more vulnerable are their lack of cynicism. That makes them easy to attack,
especially by a bunch of frustrated journalists on a big film festival. DAYS OF HEAVEN, THE NEW WORLD have strong elements of and THE TREE OF LIFE is a kind of coming to age-film at all and it is significant that most of Malicks films deal with one of the most sensitive phases in human life. TREE OF LIFE (especially time and location) seem even has autobiographical elements. I am less impressed by the obvious visible craft ship than in its total lack of vanity and this strange kind of vulnerability which is unique in Malicks late films. There is an image for my feelings for his films. To watch a film like THE TREE OF LIFE is like to pet the wing of a butterfly.

Rüdiger Tomczak

my long text on Tree of Life is here

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