Last Wednesday, I watched Terrence Malick's fifth feature (in a career that began almost four decades ago), "The Tree of Life", for the second time. I saw it for the first time on opening night at a local theater this past summer, where I brought two friends (who brought two friends of theirs) with me, and we were all fascinated by it. There were definitely not more than twenty people attending the screening, and I saw at least three people walk out during the first half hour of its 139-minute runtime.
"Tree of Life" is, without a doubt, the most polarizing film of 2011. Visually and existentially speaking, it's a "literal" film. Its non-linear, absolutely unique and personal narrative (experimental and visually stunning, Malick's trademarks), however, left many viewers baffled. A movie theater owner in Connecticut even wrote an open "no refund policy" letter to warn patrons that this is an art film, and they would gain a lot from seeing it - but shouldn't get their money back if they decided not to watch it until the end.
Winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I can't stop relating "The Tree of Life" to Lars von Trier's haunting, mesmerizing, and absolutely gorgeous meditation on depression and the end of the world, "Melancholia", which I also saw for the second time this past weekend and competed with Malick's film at Cannes. Although both films are different at the core topic, they are both existential, visually hypnotic pieces; somewhat experimental, and with extraordinary use of classical music. They're the two most unique cinematic experiences I've had all year so far; and I would argue, two masterworks for the ages.
Although I agree that only time can tell what films are the real classics, it is hard to deny the power of a film like "The Tree of Life", and its impact on the audience and critics. Made with an estimated $32 million budget, it made only $13 million at the American box-office. It is not a financial success by any means, yet people cannot stop talking about it. Now available on DVD, word keeps spreading out of what an astonishing film/what a massive piece of crap "The Tree of Life" is. There's no middle ground. People love it or hate it. But they're never indifferent to it (except those who walked out after twenty minutes, but I don't think they have the right to say anything about a film they didn't see; although it's arguable that this is not a sign of indifference but rather ignorance).
Malick is an auteur, a truly fascinating artist (like Von Trier, Kubrick, Bergman, Welles, Murnau, Altman, Fellini, Godard, and a few others) unafraid of taking risks, provoking and instigating us as an audience, and elevating the film experience to another level. "The Tree of Life" begins with a passage from the Book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" In the Bible, Job is a man tested by God after Satan wagers Job only serves God because of His protection. When Job loses everything - family, wealth, health - he will rather curse himself than God. That was also a concept explored in the Coen Brothers' searing "A Serious Man" (2009). But "The Tree of Life" is not a black comedy, but rather a poetic testament, like Malick's films tend to be.
The main character, Jack O'Brien (played as a child by Hunter McCracken, and by Sean Penn as an adult), whose initials are, not by chance, J-O-B, is unhappy in spite of what it seems to be a very (financially) successful life. His childhood memories (growing up in 1950's Texas) are what we see for most of the film - paralleled with images of the foundation of the earth itself, from the black void to the damned dinosaurs. It's not hard to realize Jack is Malick's alter ego. Like Malick, Jack has two younger brothers, and one of them died at a fairly young age. Such loss was obviously devastating to the patriarch, a domineering Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), and a loving Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain), a woman who used to believe in taking "the way of grace" through life - in other words, to never ignore traces of divine glory in the world. Except sometimes the way of nature brings such obstacles and tragedies our way that the scars won't easily heal - you want to die with the loved ones you've lost. Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien are the pillars of Jack's foundation; his brother's death and his father's severity, the crosses of a lifetime.
"The Tree of Life" provides more questions than answers. It is, after all, a meditation (and not an analysis) on the human condition. And there lies its richness. Groundbreaking as few films these days are, it's no wonder it's been compared to Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (Malick even hired Douglas Trumbull of '2001' to design the film's visual effects - Life was Trumbull's first film since 1982's "Blade Runner"). Time will tell how this Tree will stand, but it has, right from its birth, some deep roots in film history.
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