Sunday, August 7, 2011

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011)

I don't know much about Terrence Malick.  Only what I read.  We saw Tree of Life basically because lots of people we knew had asked us if we'd seen it yet.  We came out of it quite glad we saw it.

Me partly because it plugged into something I'd already been thinking about as a result of seeing Happy Together a couple of nights before:  film as something other than dramaturgy.

Tree of Life has a story, certainly, and scenes and actors and performances;  but that aspect of the film is so intentionally attenuated that I came away thinking that the story (and I'm sure if you know Malick this is obvious) isn't really the point.

But that's not quite the same as saying, as I would about much of Wong Kar-Wai's work, that the patterns of imagery, or the pattern-imagery, is the main point and the story is only incidental.  Rather, I came away from Tree of Life feeling that the story was of paramount importance, just not as a story.  Not as drama, the way we commonly think about it.  Rather, it seemed to me that this film is story as ritual - drama as ceremony, the way it began in most cultures - this film is like a mass.

Viz. The story is one of brothers growing up in Waco, Texas, in the mid 20th century:  we get to know them and both of their parents.  But despite some memorable specificity in several of the scenes I'd argue that we don't really get to know any of these people as individuals, but only as archetypes - the Lawgiving Father, the Lifegiving Mother, etc.  And the life events they go through are presented as universal stages as well - the Oedipal stages that the firstborn son goes through, for example. 

We're being shown, not specific lives, but essentialized Life.  And that's why it makes perfect sense thematically (even if it's a bit jarring) for this film to digress and go back to the beginning of life, tracing evolution through, yes, the dinosaurs up to the present day.  Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, right?  And ontogeny begets ontology, in this case:  we're being shown the life of Life, as well as the life of Man, in its most essentialized outlines, to enlighten us.  We're being told the Story of Life, in order to help us find some transcendent meaning in it.  Just like the liturgy of the mass tells a particular story of the universe and our place in it.

I don't think I've ever seen a film do that before.  At least, no film meant to be seen in theaters, rather than church rec halls or other dedicated spaces...

No comments: