Friday, November 11, 2011

The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick, 2011 (9.2*)
Palm D'or, Cannes

Rated only 7.3 at IMDB by fans, received much higher 8.5 from 43 critics at Metacritics. I'd say it's even better than that, worthy of at least a 9.0; it's more a work of art than a film. I believe this film will take more than one viewing.

As it is now, it really seems like two films. There's a short one of cosmic creation that looks a lot like weaker, but still effective versions of Jordan Belson’s short art films (from the 60’s forward), the man Stanley Kubrick wanted for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but who refuses to work on commercial films. His 'non-object' films defy description -suffice to say they are the most metaphysical ever made.

The other film is a story of a dysfunctional 50’s family in Waco, Texas led by a strong-willed Brad Pitt, who appears to be a loving father of three sons, but who in reality is alienating all three and his wife, newcomer of the year Jessica Chastain, by being too stern and demanding, and basically robbing the boys of their grace of childhood, of the innocent joy they feel just running in the yard with each other and their mother.

He seems to be a typical American materialist, making a comment to the effect that the world operates on trickery and if you don’t take your own share, you won’t have anything. On the other hand, he’s an industrialist who holds several U.S. patents, they just don’t seem to be enriching him, a fact that he shows bothers him in small ways, as he's often mentioning richer men in town.

The film doesn’t follow a straight narrative, sometimes jumping to one of the sons played by Sean Penn as an adult – which son is not clear, and is really not important. (Leading Penn to criticize Malick for his role in the final film; he claims the script was more touching than the result). The film is really more of a series of images, and the story will be largely up to the viewer. In this respect, the film attempts what Michaelangelo Antonioni perfected in L'avventura (1960), a film whose story is told more pictorially and less with dialogue, action, or plot. In fact, that film won a special jury prize from Cannes for “cinematic beauty and giving us a new way of looking at films.”

Though this was is a very creative endeavor, it did remind me visually of Jordan Belson’s films in the cosmic scenes (though those did feature some entirely unnecessary and confusing dinosaurs at one point!) and then Antonioni’s in the family story, but an homage to the influence of each. Throughout all, there is a strong classical music score, used in much the same way as 2001, and others have brought up comparisons to 2001 as well, as Malick sought technical advice from Kubrick's special effects director Douglas Trumbull for this film, since he used more traditional (non-digital) film techniques. Some say having planets doesn’t make it similar, but they’re ignoring the use of classic music along with those images, and also that each film basically deals metaphorically with creation and evolution of life. So it’s more similar to Kubrick’s classic than even I realized while watching it.

For that matter, both this film and Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006) use a tree of life metaphor, and that film was also spiritual in nature, questioning the nature of god and life and the apparent fragility of individual human lives, which is a major theme of Malick's film. Aronofsky's was even more complex than this, weaving together three stories, from a mythical past, a present, and a visionary future.

This is certainly one of the most beautifully shot films in recent memory, with stunning cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki - look for an Oscar® here. Though many of the space images are really just Hubbell telescope photos (and one I’m using as wallpaper currently of my favorite nebula), some are abstract and in motion slightly (some special effects were added) and those resemble the Belson films most closely.

A Malick film is like a Kubrick film in another way, since he has made only five, and Kubrick only made 11 in his lifetime, so he’s on a similar pace. All of Malick’s films are very good, but he’s still about three masterpieces short of Kubrick however: 2001, Dr. Strangelove (1964), and A Clockwork Orange (1971). And one short of Antonioni, L’avventura. But he’s getting closer with efforts like this one, his best film yet, though Badlands was a very good debut film.

Winner of four awards so far, out of 7 nominations, I'm sure there will be about 30 more to follow.

Note: Several of Jordan Belson’s short art films are available on one dvd now, online, for around $35. Most were award winners, and they are like nothing else on film, created frame by frame by hand, taking years for a few minutes of length. He also created the soundtracks himself, sounds which changed as the images changed as if they were co-dependent. Wikipedia calls them “non-object films of spiritual content”.


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These are the individual film reviews of what I'm considering the best 1000 dvds available, whether they are films, miniseries, or live concerts. Rather than rush out all 1000 at once, I'm doing them over time to allow inclusion of new releases - in fact, 2008 has the most of any year so far, 30 titles in all; that was a very good year for films, one of the best ever.

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