37: The Tree Of Life (cinema)

Terrance Malick’s divisive The Tree Of Life is probably my favourite Malick since Badlands. Which isn’t saying an awful lot, me and Malick have rarely clicked, but I was much more engaged with it than I was with even The New World (which I saw in an excellent double bill with Pocohontas so I knew what was going on)*. And I cannot say I particularly liked Malick’s everything but the kitchen sink history of creation / forensic family drama. But it was very interesting, a fascinating watch stylistically but, and this is where I usually part company with Malick, also narratively. Particularly if you top and tail the film, lopping of the National Geographic and the Ten People You Meet In Heaven segments, you are left with a ninety minute impressionistic view of a disfunctional fifties family.

Or at least cinema, and cinematic technique, wants us to feel it is disfunctional. The air of dread around the dinner table and Brad Pitt’s hard, driven father figure all suggest that there is more to this scenario than meets the eye. The undercurrent of tension plays well, the kids are our viewpoint characters and as there is barely a narrative, tension fills the gaps. But even when Pitt’s father explodes, the film suffers from a difficult dichotomy. Film has taught us that aggressive dads are bad, that dramatically there is no smoke without fire and dread has to come from somewhere. But at the same time Jessica Chastain’s mother is so gossamer thin, an angel made flesh in her sons eyes that any comparison with the father will make him feel wanting. The most burning question I wanted to ask others on the way out is if Brad Pitt’s father is a bad dad? Or at least is he abusive, bullying or just the way Dad’s were in the fifties? Because it strikes me that I knew the dread around the dinner table, there was real sanction in “wait til your father gets home“, and the role of the father as disciplinarian was often out of necessity and not seen as a bad one. It was the way that, up until recently, Western families were.

This is when the lightbulb tinged, possibly annoying everyone else in the cinema. The Tree Of Life starts with big whispered questions, around loss, around grief. Asking God why could he take a child. We then get the already infamous creation/evolution sequences – and a dinosaur standing on another dinosaurs head. This is all shared history, and definitely shapes some sort of secular spiritualism for the film(being set to religious choral music). And then, after half an hour or so, we finally settle into the Wonder Years or Stand By Me, just in the fifties in Waco, Texas. Impressionistic shots of a summer with three boys playing, with a kind of detail which suggests that this is autobiographical. It may be, but that doesn’t matter. The small details feel right, which means you don’t miss what is actually missing. And what is missing is context, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no history, no future. Its a bubble of archetypes, a bubble of the standard American, if not Western, nuclear family in the boomer years. And if the film connects, as it did with me, its all about getting the nostalgia right. I did not grow up in fifties Texas, but I did grow up with a similar family set-up: Dad out at work, Mum as a housewife, playing in the streets, being naughty, pushing at my parents. Something I did not expect from a Malick film, an emotional narrative connection, was created.

Then the cynic in my took over. This could be an intensely personal project. This could be autobiographical. But does it harm the films accessibility, its surprisingly wide release for example or its awards potential with a Cannes Jury or Academy who will have similar childhoods? Because I think the nostalgia seeping through those sequences is so strong that for all the guff surrounding the central sequences, its difficult to not connect, and not be moved. Unless it feels universal because its very much a boys view of his mother and father and I was a boy once. I am not sure I have seen many female reviews of this film, which may be interesting since this film deifies** the mother, and the boys relationships with their father is partially based around their masculinity.

In the end Malick has spliced a natural history film with a Hallmark family movie, shot it in a way that invites study and throws Sean Penn in the mix to suggest that it all means something. I don’t think it adds up to that much, nostalgia is at best a self-indulgent wallow, and the cod spiritualism almost completely derails it. But it is an interesting way of spending a couple of hours, and crucially shorter than Transformers 3.

*Neither are a patch on Adams Family Values take on the same story.

**There is an interesting reading of the film in which the mother is so angelic because she actually is an angel. She barely interacts with anyone outside of her own family, and only really exists for them. It would fit a few of the trickier bits of the messy end sequence too. And explains why she is flying in the bit where she flys.

Film 2Oh!! is an attempt to write about every film I have seen this year which I am not helping with by seeing lots of films all the time. This year I have seen 143ilms, written about 37.