by James Killough
It would not be wrong to describe Terrence Malick’s Cannes Palme D’Or-winner The Tree Of Life as a two-hour-fifteen-minute ad for a fictitious Calvin Klein “Existence” perfume, brought to you in part by the Museum of Natural History, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and the Episcopal Diocese of Waco, Texas.
Tree is for lovers of films with no conventional plot like Baraka and Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi series. In other words, smoke a hefty spliff, stack up on the muchie rations and prepared to murmur “wow.”
I wasn’t in Cannes this year, and per my earlier post it is unlikely I would have seen the rest of the films in competition even if I had been, but I can understand why awarding the Palme D’Or to this caused so much controversy. It’s beautiful, yes, but it is not great cinema by my standards. And this is coming from a huge Terrence Malick fan. It isn’t even intellectually stimulating from an esoteric spirituality point of view. But, after all those years in India and with the Sufis, I’m really jaded that way.
Again, Tree has no real narrative in the traditional sense, so don’t go looking for Aristotelian principles of drama because there ain’t none. There’s no first, second, or third act. No character arcs, either. It’s a meditation. And for those of you not astute enough to understand it is a cinematic symphony set to classical symphonic scores, as opposed to the traditional movie structure we were all whipped at film school to create according to that Ancient Greek’s wise guidelines, Brad Pitt holds up a Brahms symphony record and points to it just to be sure you get it.
So, let’s review Tree as a symphony, movement by movement, bearing in mind that the symphony was the ultimate early 20th century composer’s ego trip. Of course, Malick is famously camera- and press-shy, so we can’t credit him with as much egotism as, say, a Lars von Trier, who rattled this year’s Cannes with his Galliano-esque comments about how much he loves Hitler, the fat Danish douche.
Oh, wait: Spoiler alert! Although that’s sort of like saying “spoiler alert!” before you say the film “is about stars” to someone going to watch the show at a local planetarium.
The opening of this symphony captures your attention because your mind naturally tries to piece together the various images and how they might relate to a drama that never really transpires, but which you are naturally predisposed to expect. For those of you who know Malick’s work, he favors gormless-looking actors turning and looking slightly to the side or above the camera, low angles of the same gormless-looking actors in diaphanous garments, hands brushing tall grass/wheat stalks/textured surfaces, and even lower angle girating shots of trees. God he loves those trees.
The second sequence, the Birth of Existence, is breathtaking, and I regret I hadn’t smoked a hefty one before watching this part. It might even have been worthy of dropping the sort of acid “that makes you meet God,” as an old hippy friend once described a superlative batch of LSD he was getting for me. This is our contemporary 2001, A Space Odyssey, as many other reviewers have noted. But it is far more beautifully rendered, of course, given where we are with special effects these days. I’m not sure what I was more smitten with, the formation of DNA portion or the dinosaurs. Either way, from a filmmaking standpoint, it’s inspiring to see how Malick, someone who usually only creates imagery “in camera,” or without the use of effects, uses CGI. The wounded plesiosaur on the beach was balletic, a Jurassic dying swan.
Then comes the middle. As with any symphony, you are forgiven for diverting your focus from the musicians to revel in your own thoughts, prompted by what you are seeing/listening to. It’s long, needlessly long, but it’s the only element of the film that has some semblance of narrative. This is about any American family, most of all the relationship between an eldest son and his father and mother. Which, as an eldest son, resonated with me somewhat, although I’m really glad my father didn’t look like Brad Pitt or I might have had some serious reverse Oedipal complex going on there.
Like my father was with me, Brad Pitt’s character is severe and tough on his sons, but, as Malick notes by peeking into other houses on the street where the family lives, this is the norm in our culture. While watching it, I was reminded of what DH Lawrence said about us: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” It is from this embryo, which Malick dwells on tediously, that We The People are formed, particularly those of us who were born or grew up pre-Sexual Revolution, before Americans began to understand that children, like saplings, need to be nurtured, not hacked at. We assume that the rest of the world is like us in this regard, that they have had the same brutal, “tough love” upbringing, but it isn’t, and that is one of our greatest problems with how we relate to Our Provinces on an interpersonal level. Only the other English-speaking nations are remotely similar, most notably Australia, where my mother is from, which is very alike in so many ways to Texas, where much of the dramatic part of the film, if you can call it dramatic, is set.
There’s nothing much to say about Sean Penn or his character except I kept thinking how brave Scarlett Johansson is to put up with all those wrinkles, and by extension how the young ‘uns I date are putting up with me, seeing as Penn is only a few years older than I am. The boy who plays him as a young lad, who is in essence the protagonist, Hunter McCracken, makes a decent Calvin Klein “Existence” perfume model-in-waiting: you wonder how he’ll look as a man, or maybe that was just my mind wandering as the camera followed him ambling down the street, ambling through the fields, ambling through the forest, smashing a rock through a window. Snore.
I was shaken out of my stupor, and out of my reminiscences of my own emotionally brutal upbringing as an Australo-American modern cave-child, by the sublimely ridiculous last movement of Malick’s cinematic symphony. Apparently, everyone you’ve ever known or loved attains a state of grace and you meet on a sundrenched beach en masse, greeting each other, hugging each other, paddling in the surf together. Then there’s a shot of the sun — one of hundreds of shots of the sun in this film, with flares on the lens — and the camera pans down to… a field of sunflowers, at which point the two California dudes straight out of Central Casting I was sitting next to, whom I didn’t know from Adam, burst out laughing, and so did I. We laughed so hard I muttered, “Stop.”
And I, like, totally don’t think it was meant to be funny.