26 November 2012

Branching Out



For some reason there are certain things that just seem impossible to photograph. The Loch Ness Monster, Big Foot, and Terrence Malick are all undeniably camera shy with some people even doubting whether or not they actually exist. Since his feature film debuted in 1973, there have been many reported sightings of the reclusive filmmaker although most have been debunked as simple hoaxes. If the camera isn't out of focus or too shaky, then the odds are that it's just someone wearing a rubber Malick suit in the distance. In actual fact I once thought I'd spotted the legendary movie maker surfacing for air in the middle of a lake. Turns out it was just a rotten log and a dead badger.

Since releasing Badlands almost forty years ago, Malick has become one of the most respected and critically adored filmmakers of all time, which is impressive considering that in the entirety of the last four decades he's only made about five fucking films. In half that time alone, Michael Bay has produced enough shite to fill an entire cathedral with bollocks movies. Until recently, the only two Malick films that I'd seen were Badlands and The Thin Red Line and I was obviously a huge fan of both. They were meditations on the nature of humanity and both were shot with a poetic love for life. The Thin Red Line has a huge cast consisting of cinema’s most famous faces and yet it’s shots of leaves and crocodile shit that Malick decides to focus on the most.

The latest of his films to be released is The Tree of Life which, despite being heckled at Cannes, managed to end up winning the 2011 Palme D'or. I know a film being booed is usually considered a bad thing but when it's coming from the French, I'll generally make an absolute effort to love it. With this in mind I finally got around to watching it the other night and was absolutely blown away. How the French can boo what is obviously a masterpiece is completely beyond me. First they surrendered Paris to the Nazi's and now this. It's just one stupid mistake after another with them, isn't it.

Jeff Spicoli: Earth's Mightiest Hero
It's hard to kind of describe the plot of The Tree of Life, but I'll have a go anyway. So- for some reason it starts with Sean Penn walking around aimlessly in a modern day city. I'm not sure what he's doing there but I don't think it really matters. It's Sean Penn, so he's probably just roaming the Earth, looking for some political injustice to get angry about. When the world is controlled by shadowy Corporations and corrupt Governments, it honestly makes me feel so much safer to know that we're being protected by an ageing Jeff Spicoli.

The film then starts to depict Penn's birth and childhood. He was raised in the 50's in Texas by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. He has two brothers with the family grieving over the sudden death of their oldest son. His mother is depicted angelically as a woman who wants to instil her children with a sense of wonder for the natural world. Brad Pitt on the other hand has the temper of a cunt and thinks the world's going to shit. Whilst she's outside pissing about with butterflies, he's inside teaching the kids that society is a manipulative rapist that will sly-fuck them into the grave. At one point, he educates his son on how to defend himself by asking him to punch him in the face. For some reason though the child seems bizarrely reluctant to physically assault his own Dad. As we all know though, when Brad Pitt asks you to hit him, you do so immediately and you aim straight for his fucking ear.

Whilst Penn's character’s childhood does take up the bulk of the film, there's also a few other things thrown in for good measure. Every so often, we're randomly treated to some scenes from the creation of the Universe which, to be fair, are absolutely mesmerising. Responsible for these shots was legendary special effects Supervisor Doug Trumbull who had worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and whose previous film had been Blade Runner almost thirty years previous. I watched his work on The Tree of Life and was in absolute awe of how eye-bleedingly gorgeous everything looked. I seriously wouldn't recommend watching whilst stoned though as you could easily lose a few hours to gawping at any single frame of this film, though having said that, I did also once lose about fifteen long minutes by just staring intently at a door handle. It looked so plastic and shiny that in my stupor, I seriously couldn't believe my luck.

"Clever girl..."
There's another scene thrown into this film too which actually received a little bit of criticism. A dinosaur is lying helpless by the side of a stream when a larger carnivore heads over to eat it. Before the sharp tooth chows down however, he has a second thought and decides instead to scuttle off without murdering his intended victim. If only OJ Simpson had a similar epiphany then perhaps that murder that he 'didn't' commit wouldn't have happened either. This is apparently supposed to represent the birth of conscience with the meat eater feeling too guilty to kill its helpless meal. Most critics seem to think that overall this section is just a little bit out of place but fuck it, they're all wrong. In fact I don't think there's a single film out there that couldn't be improved with a few extra dinosaur scenes thrown in for good measure. Sure The Godfather is great but is a T-Rex's head not more threatening than a horse’s? If there was a risk of a Raptor attack in any of Katherine Heigl's movies, one of them might even be in danger of being watchable. There's a big emphasis on the word ‘might’, there.

So as is probably obvious, The Tree of Life doesn't have a standard and straight forward narrative. In a way, this film actually consists of two separate halves. The first is a montage of those above sections, highlighting the poetry of love, death and nature. There's the beauty of the universe, the kindness of a species and the sheer joy of Penn's youth. In fact I think this could be the most exuberant depiction of childhood that could exist without an XBox or widescreen TV. On one of the rare occasions that my boyhood self decided to play outside, I ended up finding cans of beer and grotty pornography in the bushes. It was one of those ‘reader’s wife’ magazines featuring such a manky standard of fanny that I think I was genuinely traumatised for a good few years by it. The young Penn however luckily just plays ball games and frolics in fields with his brothers.

"Ah... Flash back humour."
If it wasn't for Pitt's brooding bulk of insecurities then everything in the boy’s life would be great. It's not that Pitt doesn't love his kids; it's more that he wants to ensure they're hardened to a world that's disappointed him. He'd dreamed of being a musician but ended up being a failed business man. In fact everything that irks Pitt here was cheerfully summed up by Pitt in 1999, “We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off”.

The second half of the film tones down the collage of beauty and instead focuses a little more on the 50's upbringing. The young Penn also starts to become angry and disillusioned by his father after noticing the hypocrisies of what he preaches and how he acts. In fact the film surprisingly starts heading slightly into Badlands territory as the young boy goes a little off the rails turning slightly into Sid from Toy Story. He starts vandalising buildings, assaulting people and abusing animals. At one point he ties a frog to a firework and sets it off. I'd like to say this scene ends with the frog, “falling with style”, but it doesn't, he just explodes like a big green twat. I can't say for sure, but I suspect this is about the point that the French audience probably started booing.

Moustache, coffee stain or caterpillar?
Easily every single thing about this film can be described as beautiful. Generally I hate that word because it has too many vowels and makes me sound either a little pretentious or a little gay. However it really does apply to every single aspect of The Tree of Life. The visuals, the music, the themes and Jessica Chastain are all heart stabbingly beautiful here. The acting is also inspiringly great with particular praise being owed to Hunter McCracken. McCracken is the chap who brilliantly plays the young Penn with the character really appearing in his more youthful form for ninety-nine percent of the film. It would have been fairer for me to instead refer to Penn's performance as the Older McCracken but fuck it, since when was life fair? If he wants to compete with Penn for fame then he's got to spend the next few decades churning out brooding performances, engaging in political activism and growing a distinctively shitty moustache. Beating the living shit out of Madonna once or twice would probably help too.

"I'm 21 and wearing nothing but nipple tassles."
So anyway I guess I should say what The Tree of Life is actually all about but in honesty I haven't got a fucking clue. I mean, I can see that it's examining the meaning of life and exploring the presence of God or divinity in nature but I'm not sure what's concluded. However I don't think that it's a film that intends to provide any definitive answers either. It's one of those movies with enough openness and ambiguity that I think it will just feed back to you with whatever you go in looking for. Kind of like having a conversation on one of those sex lines where they're always just going to tell you what you want to hear.

Special Effects aside, this film obviously has a lot of thematic and narrative similarities with 2001: A Space Odyssey as both are films that look at the origins of life, the purpose of existence and how everything links together. However, where Kubrick's film can appear cold-hearted and pretentious, Malick's plays out like it's straight from his heart. In my opinion, 2001 has a kind of lecturing feel whilst The Tree of Life is more like a poetry of observations and of optimistic expressions.  If Kubrick was the strict Professor shutting the class room blinds on a sunny day then, Malick would be the soon-to-be-fired hippy teacher dicking about in the leaves and mud outside.

Malick on set of latest film?
It should probably also be pointed out just quite how autobiographical and personal this is for Malick too. He was raised in a similar place at a similar time and within a similar family setup. The film contains all of his usual nuances such as whispering voice-overs, use of natural light, a warm but smothering sense of existentialism and of course, a couple of neglected A-List actors. Sean Penn was allegedly pissed off with the film because his character ended up with significantly less scenes than he'd filmed. Although I can see why he'd be annoyed, I wasn't the one who spent time filming them, so fuck him.

The Tree of Life is such a phenomenal and joyous movie that I genuinely think it should be shown and discussed in schools. Teachers put plenty of effort into convincing kids to read books but not enough into weaning them onto decent movies. It might sound like a sit off, but encouraging children to write an essay on their perceived philosophies of this film would probably be more beneficial than pretending to read Macbeth for the five-hundredth time. If we taught them the joy and truth of cinema then perhaps cunts like Michael Bay wouldn't be so rich. When I was in school, there was a teacher who was a domestically abused, alcoholic with a lesson plan consisting of simply handing out word searches. As much as we used to enjoy how her horrific personal life would allow us an easy lesson, a movie from Terrence Malick would probably have been somewhat more educational.


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