Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Jason watches THE TREE OF LIFE

And I feel like I've been pummeled into submission by beauty. The cinematography really is unrelentingly, oppressively beautiful for every frame of the film. And so I'll begin by possibly committing blasphemy or at the very least subjecting you to the ravings of a lunatic...I'm going to compare and contrast Terrence Malick and Zack Snyder.

See, Zack Snyder also tries to make his films oppressively beautiful (or at least impressively awe-inspiring) for every frame of the film. And it's just exhausting. When every seen is supposed to be the most awesomest thing ever, ultimately nothing is awesome...or even impressive. I've said it before, and I thought it was a truism, that beauty needs a little contrast. You must spend some time looking at non-beautiful things in order to better appreciate beauty when you see it.

It turns out, this is not a truism...it's not even necessarily true. I don't know how he did it--call it a minor artistic miracle--but Terrence Malick created over 2 hours of pure beauty, and it was still beautiful in the closing scenes. Now I'm an atheist, but if I were a believer I might say this is because Malick gets his sense of beauty from his God, while Snyder gets his sense of beauty from his balls.

And it's important to recognize this as a deeply Godly movie. And I choose the word "Godly" carefully. I wouldn't call it a "religious" movie. It's not about religion--the establishment of a church/system of worshiping God on Earth. Nor is it a "spiritual" movie--the nebulous cop-out of people who don't subscribe to a religion but believe in 'some higher power.' It's a Godly movie, in that it is a movie about God, and presumably deeply informed by Malick's personal relationship to God (which, as an atheist, I have to point out is his own hallucination).

And now I will attempt to explicate 'what the movie is about.' Out of courtesy, I will announce spoiler alert, but it's the sort of movie where even if I have this right you'll still have to see it to experience it (and decide I'm completely wrong).

The entire movie takes place inside the head of Sean Penn's character, Jack O'brien, as he's attempting to understand/come to terms with/change his place in the universe. See, when he was young his little brother died. We never see exactly how it happens, but there's ample evidence that it was his fault.

But first let me go back a bit. The movie actually opens with the dichotomous choice every human has to make--to live a life of nature, or a life of spirituality. In this worldview, nature is not spiritual (take that, hippies!). Nature is striving for superiority, survival of the fittest, etc. Spirituality is seeing beauty everywhere and feeling only love. If you choose nature, no matter how successful you are, you will still see pain and ugliness and failure and you will never let yourself be happy. Jack has chosen nature, and has become a towering giant of industry--even getting the CITIZEN KANE high angle make-me-look-like-a-giant shots. But he's miserable, still haunted by his brother's death, and so he tries to make sense of his place in the universe.

And to do that, he starts at the start of the universe. Cosmic light, the Earth forming, and dinosaurs. I know all the reviews have to question the dinosaurs. Maybe they're not necessary, but I will defend them as a) beautiful, and b) sort of make sense. At least, there's a scene in Jack's childhood when he's playing in a field, finds a bone, and declares it a dinosaur bone. So if it's all taking place in his head, and he remembers that scene, it makes sense that he thinks of dinosaurs (also, I think he might have been an oil tycoon, so possible dinosaurs are directly on his mind as his source of revenue). Oh, and they're beautiful enough that I would pay good money to see a 2 hour Terrence Malick dinosaur movie, screw everything else (DVD extra, please?)

So we jump from the dinosaurs directly to Jack's birth. And his parents, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain--the living embodiments of Nature and Spirituality. Things are fine, until they have a second and third son, and Jack is no longer the center of attention and starts acting out. As he gets older, his father also starts pushing him more, trying to turn him into a classic 'survival of the fittest' success. And I have to praise Brad Pitt's performance, which avoids the cliche 'strict father' stereotype by putting in some very genuine moments that show he loves his sons, and that he dreamed of being a musician (a church organist, in fact), before he became a businessman (and ultimately, a failed businessman).

Well, Jack's playtime with his brothers gets more and more dangerous, but unless I dozed off for a moment we never actually see how his brother died. I assume (and assume I'm supposed to assume) that Jack was responsible. And then we go back to modern times, fully grown industry giant Sean Penn thinks back on all of this, and in his mind rejects the path of nature and embraces the path of spirituality. And then we somehow jump to the desert, where we see the crevice from 127 HOURS, and then to the beach where all the people from Jack's past (including his parents and his dead brother) are there to greet and embrace him. And they all lived happily and spiritually for ever and ever, the end.

So yeah, it's beautiful. And yeah, it's pretentious. But you know what, it was pretentious in a way that makes pretension seem like the most natural, obvious thing in the world. I mean, he made a movie, over 2 hours of moving pictures with synchronized sound. And somehow he thought not only should we see it, but we should pay good money to see it. And he's right. The very act of making a movie--of making any art, really--is pretentious. So if you're going to be pretentious, you might as well be pretentious about big ideas grandly illuminated.

Running Time: 139 minutes
My Total Minutes: 241,558

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