Wednesday, August 10, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE: MOVIE REVIEW


Cast: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler
Director: Terence Malick
Runtime: 139 min.
Verdict: Your senses might not be entertained any better all year.
Genre: Drama

(Opening note: The film is quite literally a sensory overload, and to sort of experience the consciousness of another is positively overwhelming. I might err on details. I have surely forgotten a hell of a lot of them. I would have to say, that this might hardly end up being a review at all. Just a few notes, maybe, and maybe the feel of my experiences might inspire you to experience Mr. Malick’s, and then feel your own. It is that kind of a film.)

        The mother (Ms. Chastain) receives a telegram. Her son’s dead. We don’t know the age, we don’t know how, we never shall. Mr. Malick has stripped every bit of content a.k.a plot from his film, leaving only the emotions as residue, and probably telling a whole lot of us that specificity doesn’t equate to plot details. The father (Mr. Pitt) receives the news too. Via phone. He looks at his son’s stuff. A guitar is one of them. We know that it is the dead son’s guitar because movie-grown associationism has conditioned us into believing that when a shattered father stands around frozen looking at stuff in a room, it is either that the kid has left to join college, or the kid’s dead. We later see R.L. (Mr. Eppler) indulging in art and music (guitar), and being a much gentler soul than his riskier elder brother Jack (Mr. McCracken/ Mr. Penn). We know that is him, or maybe the objectivity I am associating with “knowing” here, and the usage of a plural pronoun, quite conveniently assuming, in one sweep, a collective conscious driven by similar sensory perceptions, finds me standing one-legged on a slippery ground. A whole lot of folks are wondering as to which brother’s dead. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, whose review is a masterpiece in observing detail and then analyzing its status as a piece of evidence (is Mr. Vishnevetsky, a most keen observer of objects and their life cycle, a phenomenologist?) is arguably the most brilliant piece of writing on the film, and it questions this little piece which I readily assume as evidence. The Tree of Life, with its blink-efficient shift of perspectives (achieved mostly by our reliable old friend close-up) and its super-detailed designed random time-jumps and movements leading you into prematurely describing as “stream-of-consciousness” filmmaking when a little thought would make you realize how the stream’s flow has been so elaborately mapped, is a virtual pitfall of such intersubjective assumptions. But a pitfall that deserves its pit.
        We meet a kid in Jack’s neighborhood who has had the rear end of his scalp accounted for by a fire accident. He doesn’t look ghastly you know, not Eraserhead-ghastly but different enough to cause reluctance in being friends with. The kid hangs about the neighborhood group. I had a classmate in my fourth grade, Sandeep, who was the obligatory polio-stricken kid we used to have in our schools, and he had big teeth and his legs were always dry and scaly and during conversations his mouth would always have excess strands of saliva, and I don’t know if I ever felt hanging out with him. Even though he was one of the group. We were kids and godly compassion came a bit difficult to us. But sympathy came easy. And there was always this paranoia that it might happen to us. Like a skin ailment, or blindness. Every one of my first days in school, my bonding had a pattern, and time was usually a factor. Eyebrows, or a lack of them, are a factor too, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want to list all of them here. It is human behavior, to align, and Jack’s instincts towards that burnt kid are perfectly natural. That he later puts his hand around him, becomes good buddies and shares a smile is another experience Mr. Malick slips in stealthily, through his stream-of-consciousness, making us realize a boy has come of age and has discovered grace. Either that, or the elder version of Jack is suffering guilt pangs and wishes he could change time. There’s surely an arc there somewhere, an arc stringing these images ever so delicately and precisely, and Michael Sicinski was bothered with these “storytelling values”. It is storytelling, surely, but the thing is there’s no story. Keith Uhlich calls it “evolution of narrative through reverie”, a reverie that hardly contains any semblance of the past and is in fact so firmly rooted in the now (with its ever gliding camera almost giving the impression of a free-willed reminiscing device), it creates the most immediate of experiences for the viewer, except for that its texture, which is quite soft with a little hint of green in everything that almost gives the feel that the sun comes out less and when it does it is easy on the folks and that a little drizzle is just around the block, is radically opposite to the harsh lighting providing for what seems like a very dry urban world that the older Jack (Mr. Penn) walks around in.
        The Tree of Life, via Jack, relentlessly bombards us with sensations. If you happen to be a viewer hardly concerned with the filmmaker’s intentions, and primarily harboring voyeuristic desires, the film is a treasure. Jack sees disfigured men, he sees arrested criminals (criminals who would have a terrific career in a Sergio Corbucci film) forced into cars, he sees his mother helping one of the bearded criminals with a glass of water (I think I saw a ray of light, or at least the sun, and one cannot help but be reminded of Christ and his thirst during the crucifixion), he sees a man having a seizure and the mother covers his face. She is an angelic presence, Ms. Chastain, with her golden hair and pale skin (what Mr. Vishnevetsky refers to as Pre-Raphaelite, although I would have no idea) and a slender figure. Was I reminded of Ms. Claire Danes, ehm, I don’t know. One ought to see the difference in the camera movements and the attitude it assumes when filming the Mother as against when filming the father. We see her as a kid, and by God I tell you I often wonder what kind of a girl my mother was in high school and college, and what would she dream of. Most of us do, just to understand what’s behind that fa├žade whose purpose and dreams otherwise seems to be only the kids. Mom’s a mystery, and Dad’s Clint Eastwood. The thing is Mr. Malick sets up an arc, a solid Freudian arc, right from the very first moment we see the mother, and what’s bothering me is he sort of delivers on that set up. I am reminded of Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo (note: Mr. Malick earns every one of his image and drawing any resemblance to Tarkovsky’s might be a bit reductive; Tarkovsky deals with time and lets the image acquire its own life, while Mr. Malick, at least in The Tree of Life is being more of a montage player and as we shall see ahead his strategy, and yes there’s a strategy, sort of pins him more towards horror guys. I think Brakhage was a horror guy. And boy does he set us up.). Tarkovsky showed Margarita Terekhova, who also played the mother, running…er…bouncing through a slight drizzle and then having a bath, and then later on as an angel, suspended in mid-air. His images and their emotion were straightforward and complex, and they never gave the feel that they were setting us up. Mr. Malick catches her running, the wind blowing her gown and her hair, climbing trees and hanging from them and these are powerful enough moments/images to convey a growing kid’s Freudian wonder for his mother, more so when they are hardly any girls around the neighborhood. But then subtlety has never been Mr. Malick concern, just as brevity has never been mine, and after an episode with a neighbor’s negligee (think Malena without all the pop-stuff), he sees his mother inside her room, I guess a little underdressed, and he sees her just for a moment. It is a painfully honest moment, a sort of self-incrimination, but then it sort of made me interpret all the preceding images as a tease, and it doesn’t help that this incrimination comes towards the later stages of the film. One might even be tempted to ask if the reverie was addressing the filmmaking, or if the filmmaking is addressing the reverie.


        The camera moves briskly and the edits are blunt when we seek the nature of the Father. He leaves for work with big long strides, pushing the door open and it doesn’t close as much as it shuts behind him, and the camera thunders past him. He is a force of nature, or at least intends to impress that upon his kids. We see a whole lot of him walking, in the home, at the factory, wading against the wind which lets his tie fly in every which direction. Mr. Malick cannot control his urge to elevate his characters into symbols/archetypes/representations, and for his life cannot trust his characters, or for that matter us, to understand the nature behind them. But then dad and mom were archetypes through my childhood, a sort of ideals who always did what was right and who defined right. Jack always looks at his dad, helping the man having the epileptic seizure, jumping first to help a drowning child (the child drowns though, I believe) and the point is Jack always seems to find his dad at the center of the action. I would never forget my dad push through a queue to get two tickets for Mein Khiladi Tu Anari and that was for some odd reason an image-breaker for me. Mr. Malick’s impulse is what re-creates that indelible impression – an amalgamation of both the specific and the archetypical – our parents leave on us through our childhood. It would sure be shattered one day, revealing two very real people, warts and all, and we see a mask sinking in the water at the end. I wish Mr. Malick hadn’t resorted to that symbolism, but then that is who he is.
        And so I question my initial assumption, about the shift of perspectives, and the question of point-of-view? Is Mr. Malick talking and seeing through his protagonist(s) or are his characters living and breathing within and for him, their memories serving nobody but Mr. Malick himself. It is convenient to assume, and even rightly so, that The Tree of Life’s setting is a straightforward intersubjective dream/memory-scape of Jack. Jack (Mr. Penn) is meandering through an urban landscape towering over him, with only a solitary tree in the mix, and he is found, or rather lost amidst a dry rocky terrain and his own memory. We are served with what ought to be the most elaborate establishing shot ever, not merely with respect to space but right at the beginning of time. The big bang, which my science lessons concluded was an explosion, is merely a dancing cloud of fire here, which has no sound, and yet there’s music. The explosion was beautiful enough for me to realize it only later that it was The Bang. And then we meet the dinosaurs, a most archetypical moment. An elasmosaurus with a fatal wound around its abdomen is lying at the beach, looking at the sun, probably contemplating its life, you know like King Kong. Elsewhere a troodon gently places its foot on a wounded parasaurolophus, and we are served with the former’s point-of-view. Keith Uhlich argues on this incident, and I cannot help but think of Cloverfield, which unlike most other cinematic creatures is completely opaque. And right towards the end, after Jack crosses an imaginary door frame in the middle of the terrain, and he sees his younger version, and we see him on the beach. Maybe he is wounded just like that elasmosaurus, and maybe the final few moments where everybody living and dead are walking on that beach is an internalization of that creature’s state of mind. Neither Mr. Malick nor his filmmaking can enter the world of the animals, but they can seek some success in that enterprise through the lens of the human consciousness. He might or might not be attributing human emotions to those dinosaurs but he sure as hell is generalizing every living and breathing human being. We see, just for a fraction of a second, an old wrinkled hand, and my plausible bent has led me to believe that it is Jack at a much later stage of his life, a stage where both Jack (Mr. Penn) and Jack (Mr. McCracken) are past enough to be considered in the same timeframe i.e. now (the only time Mr. Malick’s world feels), and a stage where, life stops giving and is well past into taking.
        Does the film deserve the cosmic stuff, where the residues of the explosion expand and move in every which direction, and well past the frame, and through which Mr. Malick probably wants to explain why his film has the “feel” of randomness? My good friend Srikanth Srinivasan says there is more to feel in one single crane shot of High Noon than the entire cosmic overload, and I cannot disagree. But then, is there anyway we can extend our phenomenological understanding of our world to the entire universe? Can we imagine about dinosaurs through Jack and his family. Solaris slapped us with a firm no. But isn’t that our basic nature? You should experience and feel The Tree of Life and have your memories fingered and your own questions kindled. Anything, but don’t look towards Mr. Malick for answers, for he has his own questions and his own confessions. Meanwhile I wait for my second viewing of the film, and the six-hour cut, and find the answer to my two biggest questions – (a) how in the lord’s name did Malick achieve that precise effect through what is extensively a montage, and (b) what kind of memory-enhancer the editing team is on?

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