Posts Tagged ‘Terrence Malick’

People walking out? It must be a great film!

July 1, 2011

Sean Penn in "The Tree of Life" (Photo courtesy of Merle Wallis/Fox Searchlight Pictures)

At the end of its screening at Cannes, where the movie took home the Palme D’Or, the festival’s award for best film, part of the audience applauded, and part of the audience booed. When I read about that, I knew I would love The Tree of Life. I was on writer/director Terrence Malick’s side, even though at the time I had never seen a movie by him. (He did co-write the screenplay for Dirty Harry, however, which I have seen.)

I was on his side because one of my favorite theologians had given him the thumbs up, and I had a hunch that if one were going to make a serious and stunningly beautiful movie that purports to say, among other things, that a loving God is responsible for our universe and the life within it, how else should it be received except as deeply divisive? On the art-house circuit, the most acclaimed filmmakers usually get props for creating films that are shockingly ugly, violent, and destructive. What happens when a filmmaker makes the antithesis of that—something shockingly beautiful? Witness the reaction to The Tree of Life.

It reminds me of my favorite artist. Listen to Bob Dylan’s Live 1966: The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert and listen to the divided reaction that he got from his audience. (This was the performance at which someone shouted, “Judas!” Dylan said, “I don’t believe you. You’re a liar!”) This is what artists have to do sometimes. They can’t wait for the audience to catch up with them. But they’re proven right in the long run—not that it matters to them.

With that in mind, I listened with amusement to an NPR All Things Considered piece yesterday (full audio not available) on the unusually large number of people walking out on the movie and asking for a refund. One theater manager described what was happening in his theater.

About 25 to 30 minutes into the film, he says, when it goes into “celestial, very beautiful space photography … that’s usually the first point that people walk out on. … There’s absolutely no narration and no narrative to it whatsoever, so I think people aren’t ready to necessarily accept that.”

And as the 5 to 10 percent of the audience that typically walks out leaves, he says, “they’re either angry or they’re baffled.” They’re wondering what the critically acclaimed film about a Texas family of the ’50s, starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, is all about.

I guess we Atlantans are more sophisticated than audiences in the Northeast. I didn’t notice anyone leaving.

Not to sound like your grandpa, but with all the garbage American moviegoers pay money for and sit through, they walk out on this? It boggles the mind. Except… The flip side is that 90 to 95 percent are staying, and the box office returns are good enough for it to stay in theaters another week. And many, perhaps most, people who’ve seen it have loved it. So stop being so grumpy, Brent!

“The Tree of Life” is a great movie. You should see it.

June 29, 2011

I mentioned a while back that I fell in love with a movie trailer—the one for The Tree of Life. I saw the movie the weekend after it opened, and I’ve refrained from commenting until I had time to reflect on it. I need to see it again (and again). It’s not a film one can take in in a single viewing. (That’s what DVD is for, I guess.)

Also, there was simply no way I wasn’t going to love it—not with whatever combination of tastes and prejudices I share in common with its writer and director, Terrence Malick. So take my words with a grain of salt. But as you do, please go see it. You’ll have to go to an art-house theater. It won’t be at the big multiplex down the street. But it’s so worth it. It’s a great movie. Powerful. Heartbreakingly beautiful.

From a purely aesthetic point of view, the movie features the most beautiful cinematography I have ever seen. I think Slate or Salon did a parody of Terrence Malick’s films a while back called “Nature documentary or Terrence Malick film?” Whatever. The nature part of this film, which includes the Big Bang and CGI dinosaurs, along with some spectacular astronomical and microbiological shots, is astonishingly good. These scenes communicate to the viewer, life, any and all life, is miraculous and good.

The heart of the movie leaves Jurassic Park behind after while (too long a while, Lisa, my wife, would want you to know) and settles in a small Texas town (Waco? I can’t remember) in the 1950s, with a family of two parents and three sons. We already know—I think it’s the opening scene in the film—that one of the three sons has died at 19. The mother gets word by telegram.

The movie seeks to probe the meaning of the son’s life and death. The tip-off is the quotation from Job, the beginning of God’s response to the put-upon victim of the Satan’s wiles: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding.”

Biblical allusions abound. Here are a couple. When the oldest son (played as an adult by Sean Penn) is coming of age, around age 12, he says in a voiceover, “I can’t do what I want to do, but what I hate,” echoing Paul’s words in Romans 7. Another Romans reference: When the stern, ambitious father (played wonderfully by Brad Pitt, by the way, in a role intended for the late Heath Ledger, who would not have been better) loses the job for which he had sacrificed so much, he has a moment of self-awareness. He says to his wife, whom he accuses earlier in the film of being too soft on the children, “I missed the glory” (echoing Romans 3:23).

I have never seen a movie that said as much with so few words—not even close. The film is completely comfortable letting images (and the musical score) tell the story. Everything feels un-rushed, natural. The dialogue, such as it is, feels overheard, rather than scripted or staged. Watch the scenes in which the oldest brother, about three years old at the time, plays with his baby brother. The camera just lingers there! I’ve never seen that before. It’s so incredibly beautiful! Again, it communicates, life is miraculous and good.

I felt this way about many other scenes, including these: The brothers’ running through a field and rolling down a grassy hill. Or children playing in a fog of DDT behind a pesticide truck.

A couple of recurring symbols predominate: The sky is God. Not that we needed to hear this, but the mother tells one of her sons earlier, “God lives up there.” With that in mind, I’ll have to think about the differences between shots of open sky versus the sky mediated through windows (another motif). Water is grace (I think). There’s a surreal scene in which a child is swimming in his room (which is underwater). But there’s also a scene in which a child drowns in a pool. Hmm… I’ll have to think about that.

Again, that’s what DVDs are for. The studio didn’t send me a reviewer’s copy.

In one of the film’s more controversial series of scenes (controversial because it goes against the grain of a deeply pessimistic popular culture), Penn reunites with his brother and family—in a heavenly place, represented by a beach and ocean, naturally. This appears to be a vision—rather than Penn’s character’s afterlife—because after this reunion, we see him in present time, with a faint smile on his face. We know that he’ll be O.K.