Monday, November 30, 2015

Birthday Take: Terrence Malick in "The Tree of Life" (2011)

Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Terrence Malick
Born: November 30, 1943 (72 years old) 
Nomination: Best Director (nominated) for The Tree of Life

The Take

There is a good chance that less informed audiences came to know the director Terrence Malick through The Tree of Life. Despite having a prolific career spanning many decades, there was something empowering about that film upon its release. It wasn't just an art house movie with nonsensical imagery. It was a film so powerful to certain facets that it even created epiphanies of life and exuberance. It was beautiful imagery that made even its stars (notably Sean Penn) later complain that he didn't know what was going on. Is there a value into making a film like this? To an extent, there is. It's just that not too many people do it in ways that are all that satisfying. While Malick has since gone on to be slightly more *prolific*, he's still likely to be known by modern audiences as the director of The Tree of Life.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I am by no means the Malick aficionado that most of my peers are more likely to be. Beyond this film, I have only seen To the Wonder (which I might favor more?). I am more aware of his style through parody than hours of becoming immersed in his technique. He comes across as the hippie director, mixing poetry with beautiful scenery and passing it off as art. The only difference between him and more extreme hippie filmmakers is that he is able to ground it in a sense of ambiance. To witness his films is to enter a stream of consciousness the likes of which aren't often achieved. His films don't have to make sense because they're all tonal projects that create an emotional response. It's challenging, especially for a culture that's more primed for deliberate stories. However, the alternatives aren't exactly the best.

I don't have a great affection for The Tree of Life. It isn't that it's a bad movie. It's just that I didn't buy into the hype that lead many to call it the "2001: A Space Odyssey of our generation" (same was later lobbied onto Under the Skin). I was less educated as a cinephile when the film came out, so I was unable to process it as clearly. As it stands, I am thinking of it four years later, and I am merely reminded of images more than entire passages. I have to side with Penn on this. I don't know what's going on. I don't even know if I like it, even if I receive a barrage of acknowledgment monthly about its grandiose perfection. Part of me wants to rewatch is so that I can clear up this block. Another wonders if it's even worth doing before I see his potentially better movies.

The only thing that I remember for certain is that upon seeing it, I was fine with what I saw. My general complaint came more from my friend noting that the dinosaur portion was actually borrowed from another Malick project. Speaking as I don't remember what the film is about now, I surely wasn't willing to put up with it in a clearer mind. I am fine with the more experimental sides of the film, but there was something unpleasant about having a film that is already overlong with content to use something else. I don't know why it bothers me so, but it may be the general flaw in my appreciation of The Tree of Life. Otherwise, I remember it more as a series of images than any powerful statement. It's my fault, even if I accept that the film means something to someone else. 

I just hope that one day I can look beyond that film into Malick's bigger filmography and find a bigger appreciation. I do think that I am doing a great disservice by suggesting that the next film of his I see is likely Knight of Cups and not one of the more readily available titles. I accept that he makes beautiful-looking films. I just wish that I could say that they're beautiful period. He's not a bad director, but one that I just don't understand entirely. If forced to give an opinion, I wouldn't be able to say something sincere, just that "he's good." Is that a bad thing? I don't know. I want to like Malick more than I do, but I don't even remember if I like The Tree of Life. I don't know if I even remember The Tree of Life. That's honestly how I feel about that.

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