Friday, June 17, 2011

Patience Required for "Tree of Life"

On Thursday evening, I went to see Terrence Malick's film Tree of Life, which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May even though it was booed after it was shown to audiences during the festival. This illustrates the "you either love it or hate it" nature of the film. I became a fan of Terrence Malick after I had seen The Thin Red Line, The New World, and Days of Heaven (in that order). I was stunned by his ability to capture beauty on film. This is most obvious in the World War II film, The Thin Red Line. It is quite simply, "the most beautiful war movie ever made"! I regret not seeing it in theaters, but it had the misfortune of being released the same year as Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. It took me a long time to work up my desire to see a war movie (the most heaviest film genre out there. They take a toll on me, so I always have to work up my mood to see such a film). After I nearly passed out watching Saving Private Ryan, I decided not to see The Thin Red Line, even though a friend of mine raved about it. When I finally saw it on DVD in the early part of last decade, I was absolutely stunned by the cinematic beauty. The message of the film seems to be a contrast between the beauty of the natural world and the ugliness of war, and how even in the midst of such destruction, one soldier is able to appreciate the beauty around him.

When I learned a little bit about Terrence Malick, I was impressed. His current film The Tree of Life is only his 5th film in about 35 years. There was a twenty year gap between his second and third film. He's known to take his time. I was excited to see his latest offering, which comes six years after his last film about the Pocahontas legend, which did not do well at the box office but I loved because of the actress who played the famous Native American. One thing I noticed with that film was how often the focus was on her hands and she was quite graceful in how she moved them. There was a spiritual element to the way she used her hands. Its details like that which make watching a Malick film a pure pleasure. His movies are the equivalent of viewing a masterpiece painting in a museum. So many details to look at. His latest was no different in that regard. Many critics have raved about this film.

After I watched Tree of Life, I did not know what to think. It was different from his other films. He alternates between the cosmos and the dramas of a 1950s family. Never before I had ever seen the creation of the universe on film! It was like a documentary. That part of the film truly fascinated me. Interspersed with that, though, was a confusing story that jumped between a family in the 1950s and a man in the modern day. A lot of the family scenes were unspoken. The film really tries one's patience in this slow moving story line, with emphasis on the mundane aspects of life. This is why I view the movie similar to viewing a big canvas masterpiece painting. You're looking at the details and taken in. You need patience, but you definitely feel something as you watch.

In the human drama part of the film, Brad Pitt plays a man in the 1950s with a beautiful wife and three sons. These scenes require patience, because in many of them, there isn't much dialogue. We, the audience, are like voyeurs into the life of this family. As I learned in the discussion group afterwards (many of the people in the group are old enough to have experienced the 1950s), this was an accurate portrayal of their childhood. The man was the head of the household and when he wanted silence at the dinner table, he got it, dammit! When he brutally threatened his sons, his wife sat silently. Uncomfortable, perhaps, but knowing her place in 1950s society. I'm so glad that I was a child of the 80s and too young to really remember the 70s. I could never be in a marriage where the wife was silent and didn't challenge me. A couple is supposed to push each other to be the best that they can be. The idea of the man demanding complete silence and compliance during dinner is just too oppressively depressing!

After the film finished and the group walked out of the theater, some in the group asked me what I thought of it. I replied, "I have no idea what to think." My first impression is that I do not like this film very much. Sure, there are quite a few scenes that are just gorgeously shot. It is another beautiful film made by the visual master Malick. However, he did not hit what I call a home run with me, which can be good news since I really hope that The Adjustment Bureau will remain as my favourite film in the year 2011 (its out on DVD on Tuesday!). Malick's film was the only possible threat to that status, but since it did not hit a home-run with me, it won't place in the Top 5 films of the year (meaning, I already like five films I've seen this year more than this one).

The group went across the street to an Asian restaurant in the Paramount Hotel. I haven't eaten here in several years, when I had happy hour with a few co-workers at That Awful Place That Shall Not Be Named. This time, I decided to try a Thai curry dish and it was truly fantastic. The group of us (11 people, with me being the youngest!) took turns giving our impression of the film, before a dialogue emerged about various aspects of the film. I really loved hearing other people's perspectives, because they caught things that I did not and their impressions or interpretations of what they saw added appreciation to the movie. If I had seen this film alone, I would have walked out of the theater disappointed. Hearing other people's opinions actually made me interested in seeing it again, though I probably won't. This is one film I will not be owning on DVD.

The final message mentioned in the film is about how love is the only thing worth pursuing in this world. I wish the delivery of such message would have been better. Tree of Life is worth viewing once and mulling over, but its going to require a lot of patience. Just think of it as a "meditation of life." During the scenes of the creation of the universe, it brought me back to my childhood obsession: who created God? and What if the universe never existed? These thoughts can get kind of scary, though. All that matters is that we are here and what will we do with ourselves in the time that we are given?

No comments: