Monday, July 4, 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is pompous, self-indulgent, much too fond of its own flakey bullshit mysticism, not fond enough of coherent thought, and quite possibly the best film to be released this year. Terrence Malick gets full marks for ambition, even if he has to take a few deductions for the windy ending and bloated beginning of his cosmic memoir. But the film’s middle section, a tour de force that recounts the childhood of Jack, the eldest of three brothers, is one of the most lyrical evocations of adolescence yet to make it onto the screen. Just look at the montage of Jack’s earliest years, which turns the years to minutes and exemplifies the potent mix of nostalgia and dread that makes this film so hard to shake. Seen largely from the child’s perspective, images rush by: two sets of hands floating in a mirror, a man collapsing into seizure on the front lawn, light refracted through a mobile forming a dancing ghost on the wall. The whole world seems mysterious, terrifying and deeply wonderful. Malick, as ever, makes one very grateful for the simple pleasures of seeing.

Equally true to form, Malick also makes one much more ambivalent about the act of hearing. While the use of classical music is well suited to the material, the voiceovers remain ponderously poetic, pricking holes in the corner of scenes and slowly sucking the air out. Let the moments breathe, please. They’re so fragile they need all the oxygen they can get. Then, when the film finally screams out for some sort of context, the voiceovers fail us, and we are left drifting through Malick's subconscious doodlings with nary a whispered epigram for guidance. Suddenly, this humble family drama is tied to all history, including the birth of the universe, the creation of life, and two dinosaurs attempting to reenact “The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac” on a riverbed in the Mesozoic.

The juxtaposition of the grandness of all time with the smallness of our memories, the unity of all life into one great tapestry of pain and forgiveness: well, that’s just got to be more fun than Green Lantern, but does it actually hold together? Not quite, which makes this film as frustrating as it is pleasurable. Malick has set out to do nothing less than make a film capable of holding the entire universe. Unsurprisingly, he comes up a little short (I think he missed Pluto, understandably considering how tiny it is, all tucked away back there). Still, in these dire movie-going months, when so many big-budget beasts are too bloated and lazy to leap even the lowest hurdle to achieve mere mediocrity, there’s something noble in a film that sets the bar so high it can’t help but fail to ever jump over it. May we all fail so splendidly in our endeavours.

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