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The Tree of Life


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When I awoke this morning I had a singular panicked feeling… that I had missed the screening of TREE OF LIFE this morning. It was the thought in my mind. Upon seeing the film, I’ve decided that I can not pollute the ruminations of my mind with a press screening in the armpit theater of Austin for PIRATES 4.




It would be a disservice to do that. Today is Malick’s day for me. TREE OF LIFE could wind up being my definitive Malick odyssey that I’ve been raised towards. Unlike many of my friends, I did not come to Malick via Film School… My parents took me to Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN and BADLANDS upon initial release – and while I was far too young to fully appreciate those films – his eye, that magnificent lens captured me. It helped to inform how I would look at the world in wonder.




When I was a child, my parents took me to every movie. I was told to pay attention to the films, because we would… as a family… discuss the films afterwards. When I remember my life, the jungles & pyramids of the Yucatan, the Renaissance Faire that was nestled in the Piney Woods, growing up in Hyde Park in that Victorian home surrounded by epic trees. The Ranch with its rolling plains that practically spoke each season. Then my adult life in Austin with the various travels. I remember those times and they look MALICKy in my mind.




In THE THIN RED LINE, Malick took me to war, and through that war I discovered the true depth of his soul, that he could find the beauty in the chaos & horror of war. With THE NEW WORLD he took me to a virgin America. But TREE OF LIFE – it is about something far greater.




To me, TREE OF LIFE is a film about that point in your life when your brain woke up to the big issues. When your parents ceased to be heroes, when your mind was confused by the allure of the unknown, when death first touched your life and the world became scary, when you started ruminating about God and the birth of everything. When life was pretty simple and blissful, but then the first big PROBLEMS occurred.




The film is a combination of poetry, prayer and personal exploration. In the hours after watching, my father, wife, Quint & I began a discussion that was less fixated purely about the film we’d just seen, as much as how we saw ourselves in a reflection of that film.




I thought of Angel Pena. I knew him in 3rd & part of 4th grade before he died. He had a blood disease that required fairly frequent complete blood transfusions – and he loved life. He had a Hero/Monster maker and lived in a tiny house. The first house of a friend that was a completely different economic level. It was around 600 square feet and a family of 7 lived there. My house was a Victorian Mansion, very similar to the houses in TREE OF LIFE. In fact the upstairs sun room was built very much like the one in the film. I remembered that I believed that Angel could beat the disease that ravaged him. I remembered when the Blood Bank showed up at my school for the express purpose of collecting blood for Angel – and I remember crying that they wouldn’t take my blood because I was the wrong type. And I didn’t believe them. I was convinced my blood would save Angel’s life. And I learned… miracles don’t always happen.




In TREE OF LIFE, you have Sean Penn in the modern day – living his life, but for some reason… he’s haunted by a period of time leading up to when his family left his childhood home. He thinks about his brother who died later on, but who was so alive in the course of this story. He remembers being terrified, in awe of and unworthy of his father… a man who had idly wasted his talents as a musician, to have a practical life… and as a result is trying to raise his kids with a do it yourself edict to work for yourself. My father was similar in a lot of ways.




I can remember being taught to box with my Dad. Being told to hit him & being terrified to hurt my Dad. I can remember the lectures about the damage to your soul that is done when your work is soulless and not your own. He taught me that I could survive in this life by creating artwork, collecting and selling cool stuff & fully reinforced my passion for animation, martial arts, film & all things geek. I was raised to think about how we (a people) came to be…




Malick’s film conjures these kinds of memories. The film is essentially a classical musical depiction of the history of life as we know it leading up to this particular O’Brien family in Smithville, Texas.




When I was 11, my family was destroyed by divorce. I left the Victorian mansion that I grew up in and was whisked off to THE RANCH, where I spent my Junior High & High School years – but in many ways – this film captures the memories and the sensation of those memories for my pre-divorced years. There’s an idyllic quality to those years in my mind.




Now, I’ve no idea about most of your personal childhoods. When they first began to be over. What kind of father you had, what your parents were like, but if you have issues – or if you’re having a trouble being a parent and a family right now, there’s a chance this movie might not set well with you.




Very few films capture childhood and the epic way we sometimes view our Fathers. Back before they became demystified, if that day has ever come, my Dad still fucking rules. There’s towering Fathers like Atticus Finch… but more often than naught, there’s fathers like Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien… Flawed in some manner. I think people are being hard on the character. I think he was a noble man of a different era. He was of the “greatest generation”. He had music in his soul, but then the war happened. His life took another path. He is jealous of others gifted lives. He believes to survive this world you have to be tough mentally & physically. That being a good man is not necessarily how to be a successful man. He goes through the motions of Church, but doesn’t really take it to heart – as he has his own particular gospel he is passing on to his boys. For me, this is a film about my grandfather on my father’s side.




It helps that TREE OF LIFE was shot around here, and one of the most poignant moments of the film takes place where I first learned how to swim & love to go swim with my wife today. Seeing this area in that other time period helps to inform about a generation that questioned the existence of God and were not burnt for it. And that generation led to mine and yours.




This was the period when Walt Disney’s FANTASIA was an incredibly powerful film that reflected a societal change that fully embraced evolution, the power of science and the death of innocence. This film reflects that same era with the same sweep and beauty that Disney gave us with FANTASIA.




OH – and then there’s the visual sweep of the film, which is just awe inspiring. I saw TREE OF LIFE exactly how I didn’t want to see it. In a tiny screen, in the furthest seat from that screen, with the most annoyingly loud rustling popcorn eating fella to my left and security guards that were quite obtrusive, even coming up to ask me a question after the movie was about 8 minutes into it. And don’t even get me started on the CRITIC with the loudest pager in the history of mankind going off.




TREE OF LIFE is to be seen in your favorite church of a theater. The best seat in the house. An audience that is all there to believe in Malick. Go into this film and be swept away. Allow the film to take you where it may. For me, I was a child that had run of the city of Austin with the safe base that was my home on Red River. It made me consider the kinds of scenes that belonged to my father’s childhood… and it made me consider the strength of my grandfather… a man that took his family to a whole different economic class than where he began. The film has me pondering the birth of atoms, the expansion and creation of galaxies, the beauty of the birth of life in its most microbial form, the paradise of the Dinosaurs and the beauty that we live in today. A world everything has led to. Where do we take it from here?




What a wonderful thing for a film to do. To ask God, “Why?” and to have the answer be “Creation.” - wow. LOVED IT!




This is a film that doesn’t answer any of the questions, but it gets you to think about them. There’s a film I’ll be reviewing next that is kind of the answer to this film. It’s called THE TRANSCENDENT MAN – and it is an entirely different kind of genius in the form of a documentary and a man.




If you love your Malick to be a mirror for our soul, you’ll love TREE OF LIFE.

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This is what happens when we turn our filmmakers into religious figures.


I can barely express how much I adore the first three films by Terrence Malick. I saw "Badlands" for the first time in college, and it was one of those lightning bolt moments for me. I love everything about that film, about his aesthetic sense, about the performances by Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I think of that movie, and I think of a dozen little moments, about the use of score, about that stunningly gorgeous light that the entire film is bathed in. "Days Of Heaven" is one I love even more, and that Blu-ray has been played at least three times since I got it. It's a remarkable film, a simple story but a rich and wonderful slice of history captured as if by magic. Again, it's the performances I come back to in that one. Brooke Adams, Richard Gere, and Sam Shepard are all at their very best, and young Linda Manz is so strange, such an unusual narrator, that I find myself wanting to put the film on right now just to hear her voice again. For the longest time, that's all there was, those two movies, and then we finally got a third film out of him, his adaptation of the James Jones novel "The Thin Red Line," which managed to start life as a fairly straight adaption only to become something totally different in the editing room. That year, many people tried to pit "Saving Private Ryan" against "Thin Red Line," but aside from being set during WWII, the two films couldn't be more different. Malick's God's-eye view of men at wartime is a piercing character study and confirmed that even after almost 20 years away from filmmaking, he still maintained a rigid control of every element of what you saw onscreen.


"The New World," however, is a more problematic film for me, and in that movie's weaknesses, I see the seeds that have blossomed in "The Tree Of Life," a beautiful, at times infuriating, undeniably indulgent new effort that comes dangerously close to self-parody at times. There are many moments in this new film that I think are compelling, and the work by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki is above reproach, absolutely ravishing. Any random five minutes of the movie looks like a work of overwhelming film art, and taken simply as a visual experience, "The Tree Of Life" is remarkable. But the film makes its thematic points early on, and in surprisingly overt fashion, then spends the next two hours making those same points again and again and again. Considering how much ground the film covers, it has very little to add after making its initial points.


The basic spine of the film has to do with the O'Briens, a family in Texas in the '50s and the battle of wills between a harsh, demanding father (Brad Pitt) and the oldest of his three sons, Jack. At the same time, we also see Jack as an adult, played by Sean Penn, grappling with his memories, the death of one of his brothers, and the lessons passed down by his father. While individual moments between the family members are compelling and even harrowing at times, I can't help but feel that the material is, in the end, somewhat thin. With "Badlands," Malick dealt with America's love affair with evil in the media at a time when that subject was still fairly fresh, and so many films since then have taken their cues from the way he dealt with it. Here, his handling of the family dynamic falls into a few basic shapes, repeated many times over the course of the two hours, without ever really illuminating much beyond the idea that Mr. O'Brien is frustrated with his life and determined to push his sons to do better than he did. There are some nice details, like his love of music and his gift for playing, but there aren't enough of those grace notes. I'll be honest… I had to look at the press notes to come up with the name of the family, because they are symbols more than characters, and no one more so than Jessica Chastain as the mother of the family. She's lovely, and there is an ethereal quality to her work, but she exists mainly to either give Brad Pitt disapproving glances or to play with the boys in montage. She never really becomes a person. She might be a very good actor, but I'm not sure based on her work here. I can't be. She doesn't really do anything. And I've written at length about how much I admire Pitt, and how I think he is one of our best movie star actors. He's like a strong character actor wrapped in the skin of a leading man, and I love his eccentricities. Here, though, he feels muted, underplayed to the point of invisibility. One might argue that all of this is simply Jack's memory at work, since Penn does bookend the movie, but that ignores the epic digressions Malick makes to the beginning of the world in one of the loveliest and most frustrating sequences I've ever seen.


Yes, we have dinosaurs. And while I understand that Malick is illustrating what he sees as the two ways through life, the way of grace or the way of nature, I'm not sure I've ever seen as much energy spent to so little effect. The entire section of the film involving the early days of our planet is gorgeous, and the CGI in the sequence is exactly as good as you'd expect from a meticulous perfectionist like Malick. But ultimately… so what? I say this as a fan of experimental cinema, as someone who loves it when people push the boundaries of narrative, and as a fan of Malick's. The time spent on that sequence could easily have been spent fleshing out the family so that I felt something for them. This is, ultimately, a movie of surfaces, and that's where I think Malick is on the verge of becoming a sort of joke on himself. By indulging all of his stylistic flourishes here at the expense of his characters, he has lost track of what made his work great, which was the balance between the two. I love the characters in "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven" and "The Thin Red Line" just as much as I love the visual work, but here, I don't feel like I got to know any characters. It frustrates and saddens me, and it leaves me less interested in revisiting this one, something I'd never expect from a Terrence Malick movie.


I'm glad he's already got another film shot, and that it was something that came together fairly quickly. Maybe we'll see a more spontaneous Malick in that one. For now, though, while "The Tree Of Life" is gorgeous throughout and even occasionally affecting, it never achieves the transcendence it so desperately chases. By the time the film reaches its final "big moment," which I thought was pretty close to dopey, I found myself genuinely upset. I thought I'd spend my whole morning in a frenzy, digging deeply into the text and subtext of the film, and instead, I find myself hard-pressed to find much more to say about the movie.


For me, this is a pretty crushing disappointment, something that's hard to admit and even harder to write.

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