Thursday, August 11, 2011

Forfeit the eel, O Effete Hitler (and other muddled notes on the tree of life)

Shortly after watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I discovered that the film’s title can be rearranged to spell “O I left the reef”, “I tether elf foe”, “File other feet”, "O I feel the fret", “Felt heifer toe” and “Feel it thereof”, among other phrases. (Go on, add your own.) All these anagrams are thematically consistent with the film’s content - and how could they not be, given that The Tree of Life encompasses EVERYTHING?

I’m a Malick fan with high tolerance for the massive self-indulgence of his cinema (two earlier posts here and here), but I thought this film was portentous and overblown even by his usual standards. Main gripe: the randomness inherent in taking vignettes from the lives of a specific 1950s American family and placing them against a canvas that tries to accommodate the history of the Universe as well as key questions about existence and consciousness. While the ambition is admirable, a two-hour-long film is scarcely enough to deal with such a subject on the scale that Malick wants to deal with it. (Quite possibly, even a 12-billion-year-long film wouldn’t be enough. Even if we’re living inside it.)
Jim Emerson once pointed out that some movies work better when seen in private, because they are too personal to share with an audience. If you watch a film you feel strongly about alongside a bunch of indifferent or critical viewers, it’s a bit like “having other people in the most private recesses of your consciousness, making fun of your dreams as you're dreaming them”.

Malick's films fit this thesis well, and I may have liked Tree of Life better if I had seen it in solitude. But a south Delhi multiplex hall is about as far as you can get from the private viewing experience; within the first 20 minutes, I realised this was going to be an effort to sit through. And though I was irritated by the viewers who knew nothing about Malick and had come to see “a Brad Pitt movie”, I could also feel some sympathy for them.

One such lady was sitting behind me with a companion (whose sex I’m unsure about because he/she didn’t say a word; or maybe the lady was talking to herself throughout). She tried to follow the anti-narrative but eventually took to shifting about in her seat, sighing loudly and flapping her hands like one of those poor tortured trees in Malick’s last film The New World. During the lengthy passage that deals with nothing less than the birth of our solar system, the dawn of single-celled life in the primeval soup, and the gradual appearance of “higher” forms (eventually resulting in the multiplex audiences of today), she said: “I think they must be showing what happens to that guy after his death.”

Not a terrible interpretation really, when you consider how abstract the sequence is (especially for those who haven’t brushed up on their evolutionary biology), and how seemingly unconnected to the 1950s family story. The problem is, she went on saying it even after the dinosaurs appeared. (The Afterlife is Jurassic Park? Who knew.)

And so it went until the lights came on, whereupon some people hooted loudly and others stumbled out of the hall wailing.

Personally I was disappointed too. On one level it’s pleasing that a respected filmmaker – with resources and big-name actors willing to perform cartwheels for him – is going all out to realise a deeply personal, audience-alienating vision. But in this case I didn’t think the vision was worth the effort, the money and the time.

So, zero stars. (And you know I don’t believe in giving marks or stars to a film.) That’s right, a big round zero. Not even a consolatory half a star for nobleness of intention or grandeur of vision.

But would I pay multiplex-ticket money to see The Tree of Life a second time? Yes – in a heartbeat. (Only if I’m assured an empty hall, or at least one with where I wouldn’t be able to hear any boos or chuckles.)

P.S. I don’t spend a lot of time reading film reviews these days, but I made an exception for Tree of Life, because it’s interesting to observe the different ways in which good writers react to Malick’s cinema (and my own responses to those writers are always pleasingly muddled). Of the reviews I’ve read, the one I most agreed with overall was this negative one by Stephanie Zacharek (“Malick’s slavish attention to detail is more a kind of ADD distractibility, where every flickering butterfly passing by, every dust mote dancing in the sun, is supposedly loaded with so much meaning that in the end, nothing has any weight”). At the same time, unlike Zacharek, I admire Malick’s refusal to take an anthropic view of life. (I was
puzzled by the critics who complained that The Thin Red Line wasn’t so much a World War II movie as a film about a beautiful island and its flora and fauna, where a few human beings just happened to be busy killing each other. Surely that was a large part of the point.)

Meanwhile, Peter Bradshaw goes magnificently, shamelessly over the top about The Tree of Life in this review, and I liked the fact that Roger Ebert looked at the film largely through the prism of his own childhood memories of growing up in a 1950s Middle America very similar to the one depicted here. (I can completely see why someone with a life trajectory similar to that of the Sean Penn character might have intensely personal feelings about this film.)

And from Andrew O’Hehir’s ambivalent piece in Salon, a good summation:
We are here, living and dying on this little blue rock in the middle of space, mesmerized by the mysterious relationships between parents and children that define our lives, connected at every point – a tree we plant, an animal we feed, the earth we dig in, the thoughts we think – to something much larger we can't really understand. Trying to get at some of that in a 2011 movie-star vehicle that cost many millions of dollars to make, and is partly an autobiographical family story and partly an indecipherable spiritual allegory – well, that's nuts. Right now I suspect that "The Tree of Life" is pretty much nuts overall, a manic hybrid folly with flashes of brilliance. But even if that's true it's a noble crazy, a miraculous William Butler Yeats kind of crazy, alive with passion for art and the world, for all that is lost and not lost and still to come.


  1. Finally you have given some rating
    :-)...I will watch it in private now...Don't know why but I had some anticipation about the public reaction on The Tree Of Life and dropped the idea to watch it in public n your article proved my decision was right.

  2. Anuj: yes, well...but as I've said here, I was pretty much on the side of the "public" this once!

  3. I enjoyed it - but I have to admit I dozed off for a bit during the big "how life began on earth" sequence.

    What really annoyed me though was that story was elliptical to the point where I got a little frustrated. For instance, it's clear one of the boys dies - we see that in the beginning - but which one? And how? I assumed, at the beginning, that the son who dies does so, far away, on an army base, which is why it is a phone call that gives his parents the news. But that didn't turn out to the case - since the boys are still young when the death happens.

    At the end, I just wanted to go back and watch the beginning again, so that I could sort it all out.

    Perhaps that is the whole point - it isn't important to know who does and how, just that there is death and life goes on - but it still annoyed me.

  4. Hmmm ...

    I saw the movie in San Francisco so the crowd was very disciplined. The movie was great ... after all it does challenge the language of cinema ... in scenes you are actually there with the family and everything you need to know is revealed without exposition ... if Tree of life is no good then 2001 a space odyssey is also suspect.

  5. ".... I could also feel some sympathy for them."

    Its a Brad Pitt film, we came to see a Brad Pitt film! Why be sympathetic for them? Its perfectly normal if we expect a Brad Pitt film. Isnt that how they sell the film? For many Brad Pitt was all they knew about the film.
    A film is a film. Its not binding on anyone to know who's Terrence Malick, or what he's done. Nor Brad Pitt for that matter.
    Why cant we judge films without what went behind it? Most dont want to know if you spent so much money or a decade or mammoth collaborations to make it. It seems its just critics who look at it from that filter.

  6. A film is a film. Its not binding on anyone to know who's Terrence Malick, or what he's done. Nor Brad Pitt for that matter.

    Nikhilesh: not binding, of course, but it's always useful to have a bit of prior knowledge about context and what sort of film it is. (And it's not like Brad Pitt hasn't done non-mainstream films in the past.)

    Why cant we judge films without what went behind it?

    Huh? Most movie viewers do this all the time. But do allow us "critics" - the ones who have a relatively higher level of engagement with cinema and its history - some latitude as well!

  7. if Tree of life is no good then 2001 a space odyssey is also suspect.

    Anon: I don't subscribe to this view (not that I'm carrying a torch for 2001). Never understand it when people say "if you liked this film by this director, then you'll definitely like that film as well". It often doesn't work that way for me. And in any case there are many factors, including the mood you're in when you see a film, that affect your response.

  8. feeling sympathy for the crowd shouldnt what critics be doing if they have higher engagement with cinema. Not knowing can be a blessing. It can give a perspective to the film which nobody thought of.

    as in the case of the lady behind you........well, then the dinosaurs came.
    That point of view, some critics can never have.

  9. feeling sympathy for the crowd shouldnt what critics be doing if they have higher engagement with cinema.

    Disagree. It doesn't have to be an either-or situation. And as I've indicated in this post, it's possible to know about the career of a nonconformist director (and even be appreciative of a lot of his work) while still having serious reservations about a specific film.

  10. I love this blog. Even if I haven't seen or read what he reviews or even intend to, it's always an excellent read. And the random colors and puppy and dandelions? I can't begin to imagine. Mischief maybe? Yea, He's probably just fucking with your head. In a good way. I came here to read a review of my book, and have never left. (FB)

  11. And the random colors and puppy and dandelions? I can't begin to imagine. Mischief maybe? Yea, He's probably just fucking with your head.

    Umi: heh. Well, the "puppy" is my canine child Foxie, who has made various other appearances on this blog. As for the dandelions - I didn't even notice them until someone pointed them out to me a few days after I finally got around to changing the blog template (the only reason I chose this one was that the green was somewhat similar to the one in my ancient template).

  12. I should add that the dandelions have been considerably more noticeable since I added Foxie's photo to the masthead - earlier, they were lost in a light-coloured background.

  13. Its a pleasant change to see a "negative" review of this film. Days of Heaven (very Malick take on Henry James) and Badlands were good but for the most part I find Malick a bit of a poseur. And the prettiness, the awful seriousness is a tad too much at times.

    Reading this blog after a long time, the new look is pleasant, also makes for an easier read.

  14. By golly, aren't you always quibbling about people who sit behind you in theaters?

    Acquiring knowledge is your defense against not to feel anxious about yourself. Think.