The Tree of Life
This has to be the most polarizing movie of the last decade. Critics almost unanimously loved it. Viewers at the IMDb and Metacritic were almost evenly divided between those who gave it a 1 and those who gave it a 10. Very little middle ground. What’s the deal? I read a few of the 1s, thinking these were probably mouth-breathers for whom Green Lantern was intellectually challenging. Not so. Many of them went out of their way to point out that they loved foreign movies, arty movies, experimental movies. But this one stonkered them.
Having seen it now, I will join the minority and give it an 8. This is mostly because in the scenes with people, the dialog is overly dreamy, ethereal, whispered, very brief (I was glad of the English subtitles on the DVD) and a little of that goes a long ways. But most of it, I liked a great deal.
I’d call this an impressionistic movie. When Monet and Sisley and Renoir started painting the light of a scene, rather than the objects, many people couldn’t deal with it. In a photograph, the closer you get the more detail you get (until it all breaks apart). In a Monet, when you get moderately close you just see daubs of paint. I think most of us, even those who profess to like difficult movies, movies from the heart rather than from the pocketbook, go to the movies expecting to be told a story. And 99.9% of the time, that’s what you get. But what about wonderful films like Koyaanisqatsi, or Baraka? They are nothing but a series of images, and I love them. People went into The Tree of Life and were fooled into thinking they were going to see a story about a family, because there is a story about a family in it. The father is very strict, the mother indulges the children. And then … what’s all this shit about the creation of the universe?
This movie reminds me most of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It deal with nothing less than the creation of the universe, the formation of galaxies, stars, planets, the evolution of life. There are even a few brief scenes with dinosaurs. What does all this have to do with the “human” story, of Brad Pitt and his family in a small Texas town? Nothing, and everything. Where you can go wrong is in thinking that this is a story, in the traditional sense, and that it’s about them. It’s not. They are a slice of Terence Malick’s life, autobiographical. And it all means no more, in the end, than the dying dinosaur stranded on the beach. We are part of the vast tree of life and death, of billions of years of time and billions of galaxies. That’s a pretty simple message, but I’ve never seen it so beautifully delivered. It’s also the biggest story ever put on film.
On a personal note … the scenes of the family were oh, so familiar to me. Much of it was filmed in Smithville, Texas, which is 175 miles southwest of the little town of Corsicana, Texas, where I spent a lot of my weekends and summers growing up. It reminds me of Corsicana. It also reminds me of the little town of Nederland, Texas, 200 miles due east, where I lived from the third grade until graduation. Nostalgic? You’d better believe it. I knew these kids. At one point they chase what they call a frog. It’s really a toad, of the kind we used to chase and pick up. (They’ll piss on you if you aren’t careful.) I killed dozens of them with the lawnmower. Never intentionally! If I saw them in time I’d move them out of the way. But they hid down in the grass, and the first thing I’d know of them was an explosion of toad guts, blood, and bone. The kids also run out into the street into the DDT fog when the mosquito-control trucks some by, getting it on their skin. We did that all the time!
Finally, another reason it reminds me of 2001 is the special effects, which were supervised by my old friend Doug Trumbull. As he did in the Kubrick film, he created the impression of stars and explosions and galaxies without digital effects (which didn’t exist at the time). He used liquids and lenses and all sorts of other tricks, but what you are seeing is what is actually happening. They are so good that I want to see it again to take a closer look.