Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Tree of Life

I was a bit excited when I learned that Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life won the Palm D'Or at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. A film several years, if not decades, in the making, it was full of ambition and seemed to offer something unique. Given Malick's previous stints at directing, those films tended to be technically superior films, but lacking in something else.

After seeing the film for myself, I can understand why the film received such a polarized response from moviegoers and critics. The Tree of Life is not an easy film to digest.

Jack O' Brien (Sean Penn) as he deals with everyday life as an architect. Around him the concrete walls of the city trap him, with corridors seemingly stretching out for miles, jungles of stone and steel. He begins to remember back to the time when he was still a boy growing up in the suburban America of the 20th century. He recalls his life with his two other brothers, his mother (Jessica Chastain) and his troubled relationship with his father (Brad Pitt.)

But to say that the paragraph above is the 'story' does not do justice to what really goes on. The Tree of Life is more an experience, a compilation of feelings and emotions and dreamscapes and memories. As such, the structure of the film is not linear; from one moment we see ourselves in the characters in the present - and in another we see the creation of the universe itself. A large portion of the film is bereft of dialogue, and we are left to bask in images and sound. Maybe Malick is channeling his own inner Kubrick here, ala 2001. Either way, he's not a director who likes to use dialogue too much in his films.

Some viewers have drawn religious undertones to the film, and indeed the music of the film is patterned like a prayer from start to finish. Others have likened it to a person's mental process in understanding the world or life itself. People have drawn other conclusions from the film, and that is, in my humble opinion, is what makes this film work - the sense that it draws a spectrum of reactions from different people. That is film as art, in its pure form.

It is quite surprising that some of the more impressive special effects in the film are NOT generated by computers. Douglas Trumbull, who did the special effects in iconic visual feasts like 2001, Blade Runner and the first Star Trek Movie was responsible for the effects in this film.

Then again, the film has its shortcomings. It demands a lot from its viewers, leaving others wanting. This is definitely not a film that anyone can watch. Junkies waiting for the next boob or explosion need to look elsewhere (and there's nothing wrong with that.) The existential angst piles up almost to the point of pretension. Whether it crosses the line by being too heavy handed, I leave it to your own personal interpretation. Again, that's the beauty of this film - people may love it or hate it, but they will have an opinion of it, good or bad.

Towards the end of the film, one may ask oneself: have I come to terms with my own life? What about the people I've left behind? The film may not give any concrete answers to life, the universe and everything, but that's because there really are no concrete, generalized answers for any of us. So maybe the scenes of cosmic birth and destruction means that our lives are infinitesimal in comparison to the rest of the universe. So then, what gives our lives meaning? Is it love?

Now excuse me while I watch some boobs and explosions.