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Art school 101: Thoughts on The Tree of Life.

December 30, 2011

Before I get branded a Philistine let me start by saying that the performances in the 1950s segments of this film are astounding, in a pent-up, minimalistic way – especially a graceful Jessica Chastain (in archetypal angel-Mother mode). Brad Pitt is also utterly convincing as the frustrated, strict father, almost always on the edge of losing control. Director Terrence Malick elicits restrained and realistic performances from the three small boys and their scenes are poignant – everything an elegiac glance back at one’s American childhood should be. If I could cordon off this chunk of the film I would probably nominate it for numerous awards.

However, I found the, yes, beautiful, planetary/evolution/creation of life segments of the film highly pretentious and obvious – but perhaps that’s because I was trained in the visual arts. We were discouraged from making work with grand themes that were overdone or cliched – like birth, death, life etc. And if we did attempt these themes, usually in the early years of our studies, we were encouraged to make them new and fresh, at the very least.

That said, I am sure that for many viewers, Malick’s awe-inspiring cosmic imagery rings with meaning and truth. It appears to transmit Great Messages about our origins and existence, boiled down to the minutiae of one small (and relatable) all-American family’s life and, in particular, one misunderstood boy’s relationship, and path to healing, with his father.

The boy grows up to be Sean Penn (a casting choice that immediately alienates me! The scowling Penn is so very unsympathetic) and finds his family again on a nameless shore, a heaven if you will, surrounded by other families meeting and loving each other. While cathartic and extremely  moving this sequence is, again, somewhat hackneyed and obvious.(Tree of life, shores of time etc)

So as a treatise on the complexities and longevity of familial love, Malick’s film is subtle and emotionally true. But the extended cosmic sequences and dream-like scenes of Penn wandering deserts and beaches, while beautifully shot, diminish, rather than add to, Malick’s thoughts on/explanation of Life, the universe and everything.

The end result is a very mixed bag and a film that in my opinion does not deserve the praises heaped upon it. If it were just a thing of beauty, an exercise in aesthetics, then I wouldn’t have minded even though such self-indulgent film-making does alienate me. But the film’s cerebral, spiritual, aesthetic dimensions – so demanding of the viewer’s patience and so suspending of narrative – sit uncomfortably with the much more profound and simple truths to be found in the family segments. These fine scenes did not need swirling metaphysics or dinosaurs to make their meaning felt. All in all, a little less pretension would have made the film better (I admit I always felt this way about similar elements in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). But then I suppose it would not have been so popular with critics (less so ordinary viewers).

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One Comment
  1. OneStrangeLoop permalink

    Saw this. Meh big-time, in my opinion.. extremely forgettable, totally unenjoyable, felt like watching a long, pretentious screensaver with some boring bits inbetween.

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