Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Tree of Life

(You can whisper this review to get the aural feel of The Tree of Life. Not that the narration of Terrence Malick's film made any sense. Words are only there as a vehicle for the narrator's solemnity.)

A child walks down the middle of a small town street at dusk.

The camera floats behind him, before him.

A woman caresses the boy's shoulder, his closely shorn head.

Tilt up to new spring leaves in a tangle of tree branches.

A face of pain.

Laughter for no discernible reason.

A woman runs and plays with her children, with no cares, no chores, no friends, no inner life except that of the joy and pain her sons and husband give her, no connection to the actual life actual women live.

A man who cannot escape being The Movie Star Brad Pitt moves through the frame as the father. His face shares the same lines as the boys', but harder, embedded in failure and bitterness, uneraseable, unforgiveable and unforgiving.

The suburban streets of 1950's Waco, Texas, but never in the heat, only the soft air of spring twilight.

The mother's perfect period dresses. Plaid, pink, oversized buttons.

Light on a river.

I sit in the theater and I think, Watching this film is not entertainment. There is no diversion here, or escape. None of the typical rhythms of Hollywood - setup, punch, setup, punch. This is work. This is beauty; this is Art with a capital "A."

I know Malick took over an entire neighborhood in a small Texas town, sent the residents away and shot hundreds of hours of improvised footage, just searching for "the unrepeatable moment." The way the boys and their parents move in the home and yard and street reminds me of paper dolls being bounced around by a child in aimless play.

Cut after cut after jarring cut from street to backyard to frog to pained face to garden to wandering figures in a green, deserted landscape. People in rooms full of light and empty of life.

The mother gets a telegram and weeps.

Sean Penn in a cityscape. Sean Penn's silent, nameless woman.

Vague words on the soundtrack. Something something something about grace or knowledge. Nothing clear enough to be poetry nor plot, except Sean Penn's voice saying: "My brother died when he was nineteen years old."

The film takes on the shape of grief. The initial chaos. The flood of memories. The search for meaning.

Attempted comfort from an older woman, perhaps a grandmother, that only deepens the pain on the mother's face: "You still have the other two boys."

Babies. Toddlers. Mother's kisses, Brad Pitt's wonder at a baby foot.

And then.

An enormous flock of black birds, fluid as mercury, undulating, glittering, amazing. A shot worth the entire film.

Lava. Smoke. Worlds beginning. Glowing cells. Hordes of life. One hundred hammerhead sharks shot from below, silhouetted against the glowing surface of water. A glistening sea dinosaur at rest on the sand at the moment the sun has slipped below the horizon.

The film comes alive for me. After great loss, this is the only place to go, to the place of greatest abstraction, back to the beginning of beginnings, to the ends of time, in search of answers that are not there, but must be pursued, nonetheless.

I grab Randy's hand -- he had been sucked in from the first moment, he tells me later, but that's him, the image guy while I'm the word girl. Our compared experiences later were almost opposite -- my slow warm up, his problems with last half hour, my appreciation of the moment when Sean Penn meets himself as a child.

"Why is that woman walking down the middle of the street?" I had whispered to Randy, exasperated, before the dinosaurs won me over. His answer, from one who works with beauty shots every day of the working week, "Why is that woman walking down the street? The tree canopy looks the best there. Don't look for logic." He could hardly believe I asked the question.

And it is a man's film, after all, much time spent with boys wandering through overgrown alleys, their random innocent violence born out of boredom and experimentation. Themes of a father's terrible love for his sons, a boy's adoration of his mother.

I understand Cannes giving the film the Palme d'Or; I also understand my sister-in-law in Orlando laughing her head off at the entire thing.

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