|The Thin Red Line|
|The Tree of Life|
The Tree of Life does achieve what only the finest experimental works can claim (and, make no mistake, it is an experimental film, grand scale): allowing us to journey within ourselves through the world of the work of art. Added to that, the film allows us to reflect on the many films it evokes while remaining wholly original in a way that can only be claimed by the likes of Kubrick, Tarkovsky, Lynch. In fact, The Tree of Life had me cross referencing the most disparate array of styles that I can ever remember a single film evoking. Initially, I thought of Stan Brakhage, the great journeyman of light and grandfather of American experimental film.
|Stan Brakhage's Night Music|
Malick begins The Tree of Life with an image that flickers into being like a psychadelic campfire, hovers above the audience for a moment, and then disappears. Like the best of Brakhage's experimental, hand-made films, it leaves the audience with their attention oddly displaced. Malick has us first noticing ourselves with the first pass of this strange, warm, abstract image, which will soon become a primary refrain of the film; he reflects the light and the focus of the film back on us and, with a minor nudge (soon to become a unapologetic shove), puts us on the edge of our seat. With this image, like the barber Bunuel, Malick parts the collective eyelids of the audience. Ready or not, here it comes.
|Un Chien Andalou|
The Tree of Life continued to evoke for me the the more avant-garde figures of film history, and reminded me that it is important to read Malick's sensibility through the lens of the experimental and poetic. There are touches of Maya Deren, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Dennis Hopper (The Last Movie, anyone?) lingering in the film, particularly as we reach the more desolate landscape of thresholds that Penn's character stumbles through late in the film.
There are those that will want to read Malick's beach through a singularly Christian lens, but the cold, confusing nature of that beach may ultimately be more of a critique of Christian belief than a reiteration of it. As in the Coen Brothers A Serious Man (2009), another recent experimental film to reach a fairly wide audience, Malick wants to raise the questions of faith and meaning without answering them for us. Certainly, if going to the cinema to grapple with the spiritual or cosmic aspect of our lives is not appealing to you, then The Tree of Life may not be for you. But, Malick's film can't help but remind us how frequently we engage passively with movies. Malick demands an engagement beyond traditional understandings of character and plot, and leaves behind those who are not willing to engage with the way in which the characters and their actions reflect the aspects of grace and compassion in the world, the temptation of violence, and our relationship to the spiritual realm. How many churches can claim that same level of engagement? The Tree of Life reminded me how much modern church-going shares with the state of modern cinema-going: we show up, we endure, we wait for something to happen.... The Tree of Life, like the greatest of Brakhage's films, is what church should be: challenging, engaged, dense, and exhausting.
Two quick addendum:
1) Malick is most likely the most revered filmmaker with the sparsest filmography, including only 5 films as a director between 1973 and 2011. There are other films that Malick has worked on as a writer, but the primary film of note among these is the disastrous Pocket Money directed by Stuart Rosenberg in 1972, starring Paul Newman and Lee Marvin, two actors who have been in some of my very favorite films (Newman in The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963); Marvin in Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), Point Blank (1967), and Hell in the Pacific (1968). I only saw Pocket Money after seeing The Tree of Life, and I was just astounded at how three artists that I truly adore (oh!--throw in the great Strother Martin and cinematogrpaher Laszlo Kovacs!) could make such a monumental turd. Also fascinating in its failures, but in an entirely different way.
2) The article I really want to write about The Tree of Life is one that explores it's similarities to the dreadful auteur Coleman Francis's endure-a-thon The Beast of Yucca Flats, featuring Tor Johnson (some may remember it from an epsiode of Mystery Science Theater 3K). TBOYF features a similar, sometimes confusing use of voice-over as TOF. Also, elements of naturalism creep in at the end, as an unscripted bunny rabbit sniffs Tor's radiation saturated corpse.