Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Tree of Life

It's hard to argue with an artist. Terrence Malick is an artist. He can be maddening and intimidating. You take his guff because he gives the goods.

I will thank Mister Malick for saying what he had to say and not talking down to his audience. I will ask him why he felt the need to bring me up to speed on the formation of the universe. It looked beautiful, undeniably so. I understood what I was watching. I even felt awe briefly. I think I saw God without a face. Then it kept going and going. I will admit that I needed the voice over to break up the beauty. I was waiting through the beats of evolution and time for a human voice to break through. I was waiting for Miss Jessica Chastain and Mister Brad Pitt (their performances a wonderful dichotomy of restraint and intensity respectively) to return to view.

The goods was the human story. I didn't grow up like the eldest boy in the film. My mother and my father didn't raise me in the same manner, but I will tell you quite honestly that I was struck by how true this loose narrative was. Terrence Malick knows what its like to be a son, to be a brother, and to be a boy. I recognized myself in Young Jack. If I'm to believe Adult Jack is recounted through a loose, disjointed trip down his childhood memory lane (and I believe I am), then this is the way to do it. At once immediate and distant like a memory, the journey is wonderfully executed.

Malick can be a poet. In fact, I would say he's more a poet than a filmmaker. It's not a slight. I just can't understand how someone can write The Tree of Life. Honestly, it had to appear on the page more as poetry than the format of a script. A moment is a moment and changes to the next. The cuts are quick and artfully seamless. I was prepared to hail the herculean triumph of a single editor, but the film's IMDB page credits five editors. It remains a supremely edited movie. It's the sum of whispers of moments, at once memorable and fleeting.

I was hearing Christopher Plummer's voice in my head throughout the movie. Plummer has said that he'll never work with Malick again, and Malick overwrites everything to the point of pretentiousness. I saw his point, but respectfully counter with "if that's overwriting, what's underwriting?" Malick is full of big ideas and a grand vision, but I can say with certainty that each word audible in The Tree of Life (though numbering a relative few compared to, say, Aaron Sorkin's works) matters immensely and is always meaning more than what we hear. There's a strange economy to his dialogue. It is art. It screams skill. How else could he write a film both bombastic showy and utterly basic?