There have been a few movie-going experiences where I felt I was having a life experiencing moment. Lawrence of Arabia, War And Peace, 2001: A Space Odyssey, All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now. Films that transcended the standards of filmmaking, either by the driving talent of a single individual or by the collective talent involved, to create something that truly stands alone – as breaking through the barriers to present something that has never been seen before.
There are a lot of words of high praise bandied about when describing movies, but one once in a great, great while can you honestly say that as you were watching a movie that you felt that you were witnessing genius.
The films above were some of the genius moments I’ve had in my lifetime of seeing movies. A new title is now added to that list –
The Tree of Life – written & directed by Terrence Malick.
His storytelling style has steadily evolved. Using less dialogue with each film, fragmenting the story structure almost to a point of obscurity at times. But there is so much honest and naturalness to the performances.
Photographically they are all breathtaking. There is no effort to dazzle with eye-popping lighting set-ups and snappy, choreography camera moves. Malick goes the opposite route, making his films look almost documentary in their look, eschewing lights in favor of the real light that is there. He’s known to change everything at the last minute and move everybody over somewhere else because he likes the light better or to include the clouds in the sky. There is rarely direct sunlight on a scene or an actor’s face, preferring to shoot into the shadows, or with the sun directly behind an actor’s head. His camera is free and unpredictable, usually handheld or on Steadicam. On a Terrence Malick film you can almost count the number of shots involving actors that were shot using a tripod on your fingers and toes.
The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival a few months ago, the grand prize for the best film in the festival.
The film is about a family in 1950s Texas. Brad Pitt, in his finest performance, plays the father of three boys and is told, for the most part, from the point of view of the oldest boy. Without a doubt it is the most authentic depiction of childhood, certainly boyhood, that I’ve ever seen. All the children are entirely real. There is not a single appearance of acting in any of the children, or any of the adults for that matter.
There are also sequences including Sean Penn in contemporary times as the oldest son grown into manhood. He plays a man haunted by his past, as we all are.
The film is told in a non-linear way, moving back and forth in time, even a sequence depicting Creation, the universe, the evolution of the earth. Structurally, screenwriting teachers will be pulling their hair out about this for millennia to come. But it is beautiful, spiritual, and every frame is a masterpiece that I would like to have hanging on my walls. My own take is that this sequence is showing how, as small as our own lives may appear on relationship to the enormity of humanity, we are all connected to the universe, we are all part of the same original elements of creation, and we are all part of the on-going history of the planet and the cosmos.
In deed, I heard a few low whispers behind me during this saying, “What is this?” “Did you read anything about this movie before you picked it?” But that was the only talking I heard during the entire screening
The Tree of Life is 2 hours and 18 minutes of montage of images, sound and classical and religious music. People of faith should find a particularly personal connection to this film.
I’ve read that Malick started writing this over twenty years ago, drawing inspiration from The Bible and The Book of Job. There is nothing specifically religious in The Tree of Life, yet there is an overall thread of personal spirituality. If anything, the mysteries in this film mirror the mysteries of faith – something that can only be felt and experienced, yet without being fully explained.
It is a film less of story than it is of experiences. As if watching a cinematic collage of someone’s life and dreams. Throughout it I found myself responding to the images of boyhood and the relationship to the father and mother by having my own flashback images to my youth, to my childhood home, the yard I did chores in, the neighborhood streets I would wander. I felt totally connected to the oldest boy, the main character in the story.
Adults speak nostalgically about the idyllic times and innocence of youth. This film captures what I remember most, and have wanted to forget. The insufferable boredom, the long and hot summer days with nothing to do. The directionless wandering around with other kids, nobody knowing what they are doing. A time before an understanding of anything. A time when adults and the world of grown-ups was a veiled mystery.
The time of growing into the early teen years and having curiosity and anger and bursts of hostility, without understanding where any of it was coming from. There’s a deeply poignant sequence where the boy does something that he knows he shouldn’t be doing, then the exhilaration of getting away with it, followed by the self-punishing shame of knowing it was wrong and wanting to be clean again.
There are images of seeing your neighbors through their window in private moments, having arguments, of seeing people in your community and not able to take your eyes off them.
This movie contains what must be a hundred different moments, or perhaps hundreds of different moments, that I felt had personal connections to my own childhood. As well as of being an adult and still carrying all of these moments, skeletons, ghosts, with you.
The Tree of Life is a staggering achievement. Both beautiful and haunting. It’s the rare kind of a film that you can’t go into with any expectations of what a movie ought to be. The Tree of Life is entirely its own film. You may never see anything like it again in your lifetime.
The Tree of Life is easily one of the greatest films I have ever seen.
Terrence Malick films:
Days of Heaven
The Thin Red Line
The New World