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The film of the century,
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This review is from: The Tree of Life [DVD] (DVD)
Much has already been written about this controversial masterwork, and an immense amount more will certainly be written. It is undoubtedly deeply autobiographical. We know little of the reclusive Malick himself, but he grew up in the town where the film is set (Waco, Texas), and his own brother committed suicide at the same age as the brother in the film at his death. Critics who knew small-town Texas in the 1950s say that its portrayal in The Tree of Life is uncannily accurate. I would hazard a guess that the parents in the film are based closely on Malick's own parents. It seems unlikely, however, that the morose character Jack O'Brien representing (presumably) Malick himself, played by Sean Penn, is much like the director; those who have worked with him say he is a most delightful, friendly, and helpful man.
The Tree of Life is like no other film you have seen. Its nearest equivalent I know of is Tarkovsky's Mirror (1974), another autobiographical work about a man's childhood memories, though deeply rooted in mid-20th century Russian history. Other reference points are Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), for the controversial 18-minute sequence illustrating (seriously!) the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang, and Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963), for the broadly similar ending.
Apart from the portrayal of childhood in a Texan town, as seen through the reminiscences of a middle-aged man, the film is of course concerned with Big Themes, ultimately religious. The quote from the Book of Job which opens the film, "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?", is God's response to Job's crying out about the woes with which he is inflicted, like the woes inflicted on the O'Briens through the death of the son. The "history of the universe" section is Malick`s illustration of this, a kind of revelation to the adult Jack in his midlife crisis. There is the theme of "nature versus grace", represented by the tough-love father (Brad Pitt) and the saintly angelic mother (Jessica Chastain). There is the conflict between our ideals and our actions, expressed in St. Paul's letter to the Romans, and articulated at one point in Malick's film.
All seem to agree about the quality of the acting. I would particularly mention Jessica Chastain; just watch how her face flickers at moments when Brad Pitt unfairly chastises one of his sons, and she feels it is not her place (in 1950s America) to intervene against her husband. Equally memorable is Hunter McCracken as the young Jack; Malick clearly has a great gift with child actors.
Even those critics who do not warm to The Tree of Life, who use words to describe it like "pretentious" (which says more about those critics than about the film), admit that it is stunning to look at and to listen to (a whole range of European composers, both classical and modern, are featured). Admittedly there is no real storyline, and, as in Malick's earlier films, there is relatively little spoken dialogue, much of what there is being characters' interior thoughts and feelings. So if you want a good strong plot, with one scene following another in temporal sequence, The Tree of Life is not for you. But if you want a personal testament by a greatly admired filmmaker, like the aforementioned Mirror and 8 1/2 , Malick's masterwork is for you. I would make just one suggestion for the DVD-watching: switch on the subtitles for the hard-of-hearing, not just because much of the dialogue is whispered, but also because you can't always tell who is speaking, and the subtitles tell you. I found this very helpful for extra understanding.
In my opinion this film is destined to be ranked alongside the likes of Citizen Kane, The Godfather, and (in our own century) There Will Be Blood as one of the Great American Films.
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Showing 1-10 of 15 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 17 Sep 2011 15:32:21 BDT
H. Carlton says:
In reply to an earlier post on 17 Sep 2011 17:53:17 BDT
I agree it has no humour or wit, but this is not necessary for "a brilliant work of art" (much of Shakespeare or Dostoevsky has no humour or wit). I was merely making a prediction that The Tree of Life will come to be seen as a landmark in U.S. cinema; time will tell. I totally disagree with your comment "meaninglessly jumbled together". It certainly has a script, though Malick (like for example Renoir) tends to improvise during the shooting, and to spend lots of time on the editing.
Posted on 6 Oct 2011 07:20:00 BDT
In reply to an earlier post on 6 Oct 2011 09:15:03 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 Nov 2011 21:36:47 GMT
Obviously the words "so far" are implied. Remember how every big trial in the last century (Eichmann, Nuremburg, the Maxwells, that American sportsman whose name escapes me, etc.) was described at the time as "the trial of the century".
In reply to an earlier post on 18 Jan 2012 19:10:53 GMT
Nicholas Hill says:
Of course, you're right. It's certainly on a par with Tarkovsky's Mirror (1974), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), and very little else can touch it. Comments like 'it has no script'; well, we'll just pretend these people don't exist and the world will be a nicer place.
In reply to an earlier post on 6 Dec 2012 18:23:13 GMT
Last edited by the author on 10 Dec 2012 21:22:18 GMT
Rob C. says:
This review is, from my perspective, like justifying The Emperor's New Clothes.
I have seen '2001' when it came out, which is rapid when compared with this tortoise of a film. Why did we have to see 'The Creation of the Universe' in Real Time?
Maybe the idea is that if the message is said slowly enough and whispered so it is subliminal, then the thick people will get it?
I understand about the Theories on Origins of the Universe, Evolution, Man is just a grain of sand in the 'Egg Timer of Life' sort of stuff. Did we need two hours to say that? See, I said it in a line.
If it had just stuck to pictures with music it possibly could have been like Fantasia, but it did not.
But this is no Fantasia, contains no life changing insights and stretches the concept of Abstract Art to the point destruction. It was more like a photo representation of an LSD Trip.
This film may be summarised as - Beautiful photography, a stream of abstract imagery, irritating mutterings, pretentious, slow, drivel.
Citizen Kane was a Cinematographic Tour de Force, there is simply no comparison with Tree of Life, which is more like a strange slide kit full of images, the sort of thing that used to be projected on the Disco Ceiling.
Tree of Life - The film that felt like a century.
So sorry, I do not agree with you, but each to their own.
In reply to an earlier post on 7 Dec 2012 08:09:26 GMT
I know your view is held by some, but I cannot agree. The film is hardly in "realtime"; the section you refer to takes 20 minutes at most, and the rest of the film covers years. You have to sewe the film with reference to the quote at the start, from Job; it represents the character's reflections on the whole of time and the universe compared to his mid-life crisis (as it appears to be). I would also mention that Sight and Sounds critics' poll ranked this film the best of 2011, by a large majority.
In reply to an earlier post on 7 Dec 2012 09:24:23 GMT
Last edited by the author on 11 Dec 2012 00:25:02 GMT
Rob C. says:
So you like slow `artsy' films, that is fine.
The thrust of my comment was that I did not agree with you, so it is a sort of tautology that you do not agree with me.
As far as I am aware the Universe has been in existence for almost 14 billion years so clearly the point I was making about the films' slow pace was ironic. The film (proper) did not start until 50 minutes in, now that's long winded.
As the story of the Emperors New Clothes indicates, some will feel it `correct' to agree with an empty proposition, so the Palme D'Or Award and Sight & Sound rating cut no ice with me. You did not mention that it received boos at the Cannes Film Festival press screening.
Plenty of people like Prometheus and Transformers, does that make them `good films' or instead films that some people enjoy.
You mentioned Citizen Kane and Godfather in the same breath as Tree of Life. Both of the former had a story that took you along even though they were long films.
The technical skills in Citizen Kane were innovative, that cannot be said about Tree of Life which was rudimentary, choosing not to use CGI but instead techniques that would be more at home in the 70's.
You said that Tree of Life had no story line, it did. It was just badly told and drawn out. The story lacked wit and was colourless. Sean Penn is on record as commenting on the film indicating that it could have benefited from a clear and more conventional narrative.
You say that much of Shakespeare or Dostoevsky has no humour or wit. I will have to defer to you regarding your understanding of Dostoevsky.
However, with regard to Shakespeare, I would have said that one of his great achievements is his use of wit and humour, even in (or probably because of) dark situations, not to simply provide relief, but to enable the audience to gain a wider understanding of what is happening. Shakespeare was also able to express views that might have been deemed 'treason' or 'anti-establishment', which were defused by the comic delivery.
So I am not sure that I would agree with your thoughts about Shakespeare.
Quoting Job does not make this a Religious Experience. I do understand that in the Christian Bible version of Job he holds an on going conversation with God about Why S""t Happens.
Life is not fair and bad things do happen, but this film does little to develop this apparent contradiction in 'The Behaviour of God'. It is rather ironic that in certain versions/translations of Job, he gives up on God rather than being rewarded for his stoicism and piety (walking metaphorically off into the sunset).
I love a range of Classical Music and Art, but adding them together in a hotch potch does not automatically confer Class to the film. I know an 'Unmade Bed' when I see one (and that won a prize didn't it?).
For me this film is like listening to Beverley Moss's pretentious views in Abigail's Party.
Finally, this film is now being `given away' in the bargain section of Tesco's, so maybe not as many people agree with you as you would like to think.
Anyway, we are not going to agree because the very things I hate about the film you love. So, as I said before, each to their own, this just a film after all.
Posted on 29 Jun 2013 09:29:29 BDT
Re one of your comments above: Much of Shakespeare has no humour or wit! What on earth are you taliking about? The humour may have dated, but to say he lacks humour and wit is ignorant & absurd, plain wrong in fact.
Glad you compare this beautiful yet vapid film with Mirror & 2001 - two other gorgeous but empty films. Mirror is too esoteric and obscure to `let the viewer in` and 2001 is ponderous, overrated and too in love with gleaming machinery and the ethereal vagueries of space.
In reply to an earlier post on 29 Jun 2013 11:13:07 BDT
I didn't say ALL of Shakespeare, just much of it. Mirror is not obscure if you know something about modern Russian history. I agree 2001 is overrated, but there is much to admire in it, and the special effects are by the same man as The Tree Of Life.