Sunday, July 3, 2011

Tree of Life--Also, Days of Heaven

Well, it took me a couple of hours (and a loss of sleep two nights ago) to catch up on the big Tree of Life discussion and here are my nutritional facts:

80% of your daily allowance of Apologizing
110% of Discussion about the Discussion about Tree of Life
55% of Defending/Disregarding the general filmgoing public
15% of Actual observations about the film Tree of Life by Terence Malick

So don't feel bad, Ben, you didn't miss much. I would still like to hear more specifics about what film club members think of the film itself, without all that other stuff. Of course I missed the in-person discussion, so maybe I'm just SOL.

A couple of things stick in my mind from what I read, however. I really liked John's analogy to a symphony. I actually thought that myself while I was watching it. I like the idea of repeating themes and movements. I'm not a big classical music fan, but I have listened to classical music that felt like a story. Tree of Life was a multimedia symphony: music, lyrics, and visuals.

I also thought Jeff's first post about the film really captured a lot of what made the film meaningful to me, and this bit here almost said it all for me:

"I think it might be unfair to lump Terry Malick in with someone who would shoot a 10 hour film of a brick wall or something. I think he’s too genuine and sincere for something like that. If someone like Hanake (who I really like mind you) made a film like that, I wouldn’t be surprised because he’s an asshole and he likes to pontificate. Malick isn’t like that to me though. He really is sincere, almost naively sincere you’d think at times. He’s just a kid with a movie camera who is in love with everything he sees. He treats every image with reverence. He’s Ginsburg at the end of Howl shouting “Holy Holy Holy Holy Holy Holy.” He’s got an earnest poetic spirit that is just rare for a filmmaker, which is one reason I love him so much. He’s one of the only people who can shoot an image of grass swaying and REALLY REALLY mean it."

Not bad for an atheist. Are atheists spiritual, by the way? How exactly does that manifest itself?

In terms of it being accessible, it really was for me. I didn't understand it all, but my mind is only one part of me that I bring to a film. My eyes were glued to the screen the whole time. I actually held my pee for about a half an hour longer than I should have because I didn't want to miss a single frame. Not bad for a film that has been criticized for not having a story. Besides, Malick told us exactly what the film was about right at the beginning. Nature vs. grace. Granted, there's a lot you can do with that, but the film was a meditation on those two themes and how they relate to and oppose each other, as far as I could tell. I didn't need any more than what I was given. I was (and am still) okay with not understanding.

And in terms of the narrative, I was actually able to connect quite strongly to it. I know Lisa took issue with the emphasis that was placed on the whole father-son aspect of the film, but that was very powerful to me. Here's a little personal tidbit, too. I felt that it validated me as a father. I inherited a son when I got married and have struggled with legitimacy as his father because I came into his life later on. But we struggle in some of the same ways Jack and his father struggled. And I ached for them both because I know hard hard it can be to connect and to guide, to be both transcendent and imminent to your son. And then to try to be human yourself. Tree of Life made me feel like I am a real father. 

I have never seen anything like Tree of Life. I don't even think I can categorize it. I watched it with my wife (who also was moved by it) and felt closer to her because of it. We had experienced something important together that was beyond words. I am trying to figure out when I can see it again in the theater. I feel sad to think of what it will lose confined to a smaller screen. Malick was able to capture something that I have seen few other filmmakers able to. It's true that being genuine has a lot to do with it. A lot of auteurs can come off being a little cynical or detached, even if they don't mean to be or don't want to be. You become a good director because you can see things that others don't, and unless you have a lot of faith, there's a lot in this life that can get you down. But there is no pretension in Tree of Life, no guile, no double entendre. There is hope and doubt and faith and loss and life and relationships and death. I loved it. And I want to write more about it after I see it again.

I watched Days of Heaven tonight, and I'm sorry to say but I was disappointed. Crazy, I know, but do you blame me? After being spoiled by Tree of Life and The New World, it's hard for Days of Heaven to compete. Don't get me wrong; I liked it, but it was a shadow of what was to come for Malick. I also wish that dramatic movies didn't always need to have someone important die in order to be dramatic. It's why I liked King of the Hill so much. There was real suffering, but the family got to be together at the end. The end of Days of Heaven, as my wife said, seemed to fizzle out. She also said that she felt that the Shepard's character seemed out of character when he went crazy. The burning of the field makes sense, but not tying up his wife. So I liked it, but it was a little too sad at the end for me. And maybe it's just the mood I was in. Tree of Life made me feel uplifted by the end, and so did The New World (I mean, we knew how Pocahontas died already anyway). But I kept hoping that Days of Heaven wouldn't end like I had a feeling it was going to. And, Lisa, you might appreciate this, but I think I would have enjoyed it more had I not known it was by Malick. I had higher expectations than the film deserved. I really hope you see The New World, Lisa, I have a hunch you will like it and it might help you to understand Tree of Life better. Or at least make it more accessible.

I haven't seen Thin Red Line in a long time, so I only have a vague impression of it. But it still seems like there's a definite progression in Malick's films, moving away from traditional narrative into a more visual (symphonic?) narrative style. I think he'll have a hard time topping Tree of Life in that regard.

Also, I don't think Tree of Life was anything like any of Kubrick's films. Even the most obvious film to compare it to (2001) doesn't have a heart like Tree of Life. It has beauty and evolution and even awe at the vastness of the universe, but the killer robot ship kind of makes it the opposite of Tree of Life. I'm sure I will be taken to task for that simplification, but I just don't see Malick as being like Kubrick in many ways (except for the last three letters of their last names).

One more thing. The ending of Tree of Life took me out of the the film a bit, because it was so abstract. It's not that I didn't like it, though; I wasn't expecting it. I think I might appreciate it more the second time around.

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