Staff Reviews/ The Tree of Life

Cornerhouse AV Techician Dave Petty and Front of House Manager Marshall Trower take two different views on Terrence Malick’s Palme d’Or winning, The Tree of Life

Dave Petty
Cornerhouse AV Technician

I have struggled to begin film reviews in the past. It’s not always the easiest thing to commence what should amount to a concise assessment, a standalone piece of text that allows the reader to get a feel for what they may be about to see (or have just seen) and hopefully allow room for reflection – the last thing you want to do is sledgehammer a point home only to alienate the reader, one way or the other. The same thing could be said of filmmaking. Every director has their unique traits, but they’re all arguably trying to follow a similar path, in some way, no matter how they succeed, to entertain their audience. And I mean that in the broadest sense. Not every filmmaker sets out to make populist, blockbusting ‘movies’, because not everyone wants to be ‘entertained’ in that manner. But then entertainment is entirely subjective, which to a certain degree puts a spanner in the works as far as the rest of this review is concerned. Because in my view (and I do stress my view) there comes a point where what could very well be considered art becomes an exercise in towering pretension that borders on the obtuse – that point has been crossed with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
There has been much hoo-hah in the press already regarding this absurdist, cod-philosophical, rambling patchwork of cinematic nonsense and thus far I feel I’m in a critical minority sitting firmly in the ‘against’ camp. The film won the Palm d’Or at Cannes this year after having endured both cheers and boos from the audience at its festival screenings. In my eight years at Cornerhouse I don’t think I’ve ever watched a film that may be as polarizing as this one – even Von Trier’s Antichrist, the last film in recent memory that seemed to want to ‘provoke’, is tame in comparison to the laughable faux-existentialism that Malick foists upon his audience for 138 minutes.
It’s as if Malick is the only one who has a handle on what he is trying to achieve, which makes viewing the film such a tiring ordeal. I once wrote a rather poor stage play at University around the second coming of Christ – by my own admission it was pretty dire because in trying to be clever, I’d incorporated a ton of obscure biblical characters and references in the hope that the audience would ‘get’ them. Suffice to say, they didn’t – I was the only one who knew what was happening. Similarly, when Sean Penn is ambling around an idyllic beach, looking for all the world like he’s being filmed for an aftershave commercial, his weathered visage and sunken eyes screaming SERIOUS ACTOR AT WORK, it’s clearly supposed to mean something. When we witness what has been labelled the ‘creation of the universe’ segment, yes, it is dazzling, but it’s so devoid of context that we sit dead-eyed, not in awe, but in amazement that a filmmaker of Malick’s stature can seriously be getting away with this. Voices whisper, dinosaurs tussle, characters gaze into the middle-distance – but it amounts to one big pile of nothing.
There have been several films that have tried to encompass life, the universe and everything – some more successfully than others. It’s a grand palette to paint on, and you’d have hoped that Malick would have had the foresight to offer up something new. But what The Tree of Life ultimately feels like is a hotchpotch of half-baked ideas from other films, strung together in a way that amounts to far less than the sum of their parts. 2001: A Space Odyssey has already been cited as a comparable piece of work, but you can throw Magnolia, Baraka, Gummo, Short Cuts and The Fountain in there for good measure as films that have dealt with these grand themes in ways that The Tree of Life could only dream of. The Fountain is bonkers, but even if you hate it, I’d hope that it could be argued there’s a semblance of an engaging story there. The same goes for the rest of the films I’ve mentioned, which is more than can be said for Brad Pitt’s trivial family strife in 50s Texas, taking up a good two-thirds of The Tree of Life whilst going nowhere in particular. But then entertainment is subjective, and I actively encourage people to disagree with me wholesale on this one.
The Tree of Life looks beautiful… but that really is the best I can muster in its defence. I’m all for a good rumination on our place in the universe, but when it’s pulled off with such an impossibly aloof sensibility, it’s a complete non-starter to engage with anything the director has to say – if in fact he is saying anything. I realise I haven’t covered much in terms of plot, but with its non-linear narrative and almost collage-like approach to editing, such trivialities as the plot fall far by the wayside. But whatever I say certainly won’t stop anyone from seeing it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way – there’s nothing like a good post-film debate, and The Tree of Life will undoubtedly set tongues a-wagging.

Marshall Trower
Cornerhouse Front of House Manager

Like Dave, I struggle to reduce an experience into that of words on a page – not for lack of understanding but instead for fear of not doing justice to the subject. Like all great art, The Tree of Life is impossible to reduce into concise descriptive sentences, and any attempt to do so fails as it does not capture the emotion and power of watching such a film. Whatever is said in any review for the film (positive or negative), it will always fail to capture something that can only really be experienced.

The Tree of Life is clearly a very personal film for Terrance Malick and a natural progression of his work which, although sparse, has spanned nearly 40 years. For me Malick’s cinema has always been about individual emotions and dilemmas framed against a larger backdrop of nature and time. The personal story of a young Texan growing up in the city of Waco is bookended by the creation of the universe and contemplation on the afterlife. I’m still not sure if Malick is saying pain is universal in its appliance or insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but how he manages to capture the intricate aspects of youth and family is easy to relate to and beautiful in its complexity and detail.

Like most people, I find it easier to describe something by saying what it is similar to. 2001 A Space Odyssey is getting used a lot and yes, it is similar in scale, but for me that misses the personal honesty of most of the film’s central sections. This is where Tarkovsky’s Mirror has more in common, as both are beautifully constructed (you could put either in a gallery) and they allow the audience to share the filmmaker’s nostalgia about growing up.

To close, I’d like to defend not only The Tree of Life but all poetic cinema that has been unfairly criticised. These sort of films are rarely judged on their own agenda and instead they are attacked for being different to what is commonly available. I’d love to discuss how overt the Oedipal triangle is or the beautiful cinematography or the acting (every character is note perfect for the piece). But instead I have to defend the lack of narrative or the confusing or apparent lack of structure. This isn’t narrative cinema about cause and effect or some character piece with a three act story structure (and I’m annoyed that I have to point this out) but beautifully crafted personal cinema that you immerse yourself in. Like other filmmakers before him who have made intensely personal works which don’t use conventional cinematic language, Malick will be attacked by those who don’t understand what he is doing. The same words arose when Derek Jarmen’s Blue was screened or Peter Greenaway’s ‘Prospero’s Books’ (pretentious is one I’ve always been confused by as I don’t know what The Tree of Life or any of these films are pretending to be?) and the same questions of ‘is this a film?’ or ‘is this art?’ – my only answer is yes, this is what cinema should be.