Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Strangers / with wet hair: TREE OF LIFE (2011) and EMA's Past-Life Martyred Saints

There was an annoying commercial awhile ago with a cute 'brother and sister' ordering movie tickets on their cell phone while pretentiously announcing in that Madison Avenue version of Williamsburg Daria hipster flatline voiceover that "images are important to us." Because they're photographers. So they go to a lot of movies together, which is about $25 per film between them, not including popcorn or bedbug removal. If nothing else, THE TREE OF LIFE proves that images are important to Terrence Malick too - he is a cinematographer...

Malick even acknowledges this weakness in a perhaps autobiographical scene where a child or his sibling finds a sheer nightgown in a neighbor's drawer and steals it. One might imagine he does something icky with the garment, but Malick has never cared about sex, onanistic or otherwise. His Texas is not the Texas of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and its coming-of-age deviant cataloging or of GIANT and its lustful Deans. For Malick, women are symbols meant to glisten with beauty, particularly if they have long red hair that looks good in the setting sunlight (Chastain could be Sissy Spacek, after Martin Sheen's been sent up the river of life), and if they're wearing shimmering sheer nightgowns it's so the light can send a lace shadow over the lawn. Malick brooks no pornographic, only the Joycean aesthetic arrest, so the theft of the nightgown is the first guilty moment of a future cinematographer--the 'capturing' of a gorgeous ephemerality-- the nailing of butterflies to celluloid ala Stan Brakhage. But without a film to bury the image in, there's no reliable 'container.' The kid notably tries first to bury the nightgown under some mud (too much like sending it to the editor) then decides to release it into the stream, into the flowing fleetingness; the cinema he can't himself witness without a helicopter shot (and there are many); the night gown so ephemeral the only eye that can possess it is the fleeting eye of the all-seeing viewer, the 'God' eye-view. The little river/stream itself is something like a long band of film, and each nightgown tossed onto the waves is a little baby Moses of possible meaning and interpretation before it goes over the falls only to return in the next full rotation of the astral take-up reels in time for the next show, and it's never the last... til it's the end of the run.

Unrepentantly personal as Malick's TREE is, so inflated yet intimate are its emotions, it may help to be on substances or dealing with a recent or impending death in the family while viewing. My dad is very sick after chemo-therapy, so a combination with that and other things made these tight little catalogs of instances between Brad Pitt and his tykes extra pronounced for me. And I grew up with a younger brother who I felt the need to dominate via fake wrestling and we were into war, and violence, but with fake punches always and always treated like real punches in scope and dynamic chin swings and dying falls. If TREE was about girls growing up, I can imagine being bored. Real bored, or if I didn't have a little brother, or was on so many drugs and grief and guilt, bored, real bored.

There's no reason to analyze my deep connection too closely, except that if I made too light of death in past posts, I'm sorry now. Preparing for the possibility (which means also, acknowledging the inevitability) you are going to lose your father is like you're going off a slow motion clockwork cliff and realizing you don't even know how deep is the gorge and no one really cares if you scream all the way down - a fall that could take seconds or decades. There's no way they can stave your fall, so they won't try. Malick is Christian enough to know that guilt is the quickest route to humility, which is the quickest route to God. I know I wasn't the only one amidst the sacrosanct BAM audience breaking down in free-flowing tears once or twice, but then a few scenes later, sighs of exasperation and douche chills at trite symbolism; even at the mighty BAM, cell phone blue lights came on like rows of stars below the screen. For shame!

So it's arty, but is it art? Getting the special effects guy from 2001 and BLADERUNNER (Douglas Turnbull) to work on your big bangs might make you cool but Kubrick and Scott were making science fiction not 'mere' student art film abstraction. Kubrick and Scott were showing what might be, stressing the banal aspects of space travel. Making Texas seem to hurtle through space and turn on an axis is only to reveal that which is already is, to undo the tinny illusion of how we seem to be standing still as we whirl around like a mad spinning top across the infinite playroom floor of space-time. Since you are, then, just revealing the real, why presume you're saying anything other than the trite science bombs of a freshman first-time pot smoker? The image of Sean Penn walking through a mysterious desert door frame is the sort of thing they wince at in hip student film festivals, but it still made me cry, not least of reasons being seeing an A-list thesp like Spicoli really commit to such an old trope. Hasn't everyone who ever visited that splotch of desert shot film of themselves going through that door? Only Sean and Terence have returned, dared to bring their experience and weight back to the idealistic naivete of their BFA years.

Malick's going for 'the big fish' as David Lynch would say, and when an artist goes for the big fish they have to get pretentious as a matter of course, lest their spiritual aims get obscured by plot or drive or other tricks of attention getting, or else become boring like Ozu. But in the end, the little bits of character development undo their own seriousness - Brad Pitt's playing the organ at church is undone by the fact he only plays Bach onscreen and we're not subject to tired hymns sung by dusty congregations in fitful slow starts. This isn't the world we're seeing--or even memory with all its weird time images--but an uneasy combo of both, with a biology textbook and Hallmark birthday card stacked on top. I'm amazed I even remembered the dinosaur name 'Ornitholestes' while watching this -- the word coming to me as if from a lost dream of a five year old who learned to spell dinosaur names before he learned how to tie his shoes but hasn't articulated the word 'ornitholestes' in at least three decades - thanks, TREE!

Jessica Chastain as the mother certainly helps redress this Iron John blood poisoning. She reminds me of a girl I wronged, adding all sorts of psilocybic resonance to her wounded dove close-ups, which are so well shot that you can see the 'signature' stamps of alien DNA in her Celtic pale skin, that fair-haired mossy coastline fairness that if you look closely reveals blue webs of capillaries just below the translucent skin, flushing with blood when hot emotions come across her face.

Another plus is the Texas apocalypse angle, which I've written about as far back as 2007, 'the year of the Texas Apocalypse Cinema,' since then we've also had SOUTHLAND TALES (apocalypse-dependent), and Tarantino's DEATH-PROOF (see: The Foxy, the Dead, and the Foxier), all of which are Texas-style apocalyptic if you know how to dig. And for THE TREE OF LIFE, you don't need even need a shovel, as meaning is excavated and then spread upon the bread of the earth. And the earth is without crust, as Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki, who was the cinemographer, likes it, as noted by co-producer Nicolas Gonda, “Chivo Lubezki is a vital part of Terry’s process.  In a sense he had to be as much a writer as a D.P. because when the two of them are on the set, things can change in the moment.  It’s a dance between the two of them riffing creatively off each other.”

It's certainly interesting to read the accounts of how they came up with the trippy visual effects in the film--pouring milk through funnels--but who came up with the soundtrack? Better they should have gone with the guy who did the amazing score for THERE WILL BE BLOOD, or Wendy Carlos, or The Stooges' "We Will Fall."  You can get by with being spiritual and non-alienating to atheists. But pick a hymn and you pick a fight.

There's other moments here, like when you see Sean Penn wandering through the steel and glass structures where we works, that conjure Antonioni and his captains of industry striding around glass offices with their manly scrolled-up blueprints -- Rod Taylor in ZABRISKIE POINT; Richard Harris and Carlo Chianetti in RED DESERT. In the equations of Malick, God, Mary Jane, and the theater audience are ultimately indistinguishable, so is Malick referencing Antonioni, or just recreating him, ala Borges' Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote?

I can't help but feel that Malick's searching through the miasma of time and evolution, in dopey whisper-overs, is not for God, or his true Dad, or Brecht, but for an ideal art film audience, the kind that 'got' Antonioni and didn't fall asleep or walk out halfway through. He wants a human mind's eye gallery for his photographs, which slowly move--ala Bill Viola--so slow down and weep along or kindly check your messages with your hand over the blue screen. Images are important to us. If the film says anything, it may be "I Am a cinematographer. But is this stuff Tarkovsky, Eisenstein? Ain't no Russians, ain't even any atomic age. I was kind of shocked the mushroom cloud wasn't even addressed, when surely the age of atomic anxiety was at least worth mentioning, or television. Can a family really get along on nothing but prayers and piano lessons? No wonder Brad Pitt's cranky! No wonder that poor son is so starved for images he has to steal female undergarments and hold them up to the light. Unlike the rest of us, he didn't grow up bombarded with TV and in-class movies and filmstrips, and comic books. That lack has made him hot for images the way a reformed Mormon is hot for the pleasures of the flesh. If you've ever made it with an ex-Mormon you know what I mean. They take to your body like someone dying of thirst to an ice cold beer. This is how Malick takes to the image --guilelessly and openly.

But even here trouble arises, for that Mormon might then decide she loves you, and here you're just a no-good tomcat on the prowl, hardly worthy and never intending to stay. Now you have to live with the secret guilt of the dirty Mack every time an actress reminds you of her. Malick's image-worship justifies his lack of familiarity with the lure of scopophilia, or the pornographic, so we never get the idea he's had to lay his tomcat cards on the table. As that old SNL Freud sketch put it: "sometimes a banana is just a banana, Anna." Or in this case, a tree is still a tree, a sigh is just a sigh. A fundamental thing that doesn't apply is that omnipotent POV: What 'eye' is watching the earth form from clouds and dust? What viewer can there be who would have such a correct view of the unfolding universe? Before there were eyes to see, this stuff didn't exist at all. What Malick knows and has seen is brilliantly reproduced: a younger child watching the in-fighting of parents well captured from low, cringing camera angles, and in these scenes culled from foggy memory, flashes of stuff we remember from our own childhood are unearthed and dislodged, relentless as the search for lost keys, or remotes, all that sense of 'fleeting' works devastatingly well. But is that 'lost eye' ever addressed?

2001 has reaction shots: we know who's seeing what for the most part. When David Lynch shows us images where no eyes can be, we shudder with uncanny frisson: a traffic light changing from green to red at a deserted night crossroads, a phone ringing and no one answering, or maybe even calling. We get even with Antonioni this sense of scary freedom when no one is around to see what we see, as in the amazing ending of L'ECLISSE. Gaspar Noe shot an entire film like this in ENTER THE VOID. But the frisson of the disembodied spectator is one sense of the scopophilic gaze that Malick hogs for himself. He's already seen 'deeper' into these images than we ever will.

In its way BIRTH (here) said far more on this subject and aped Kubrick slightly better, and even had another translucent redhead in long lysergic close-ups (Nicole Kidman). For the cosmic journey of TREE we see some in utero light shows, some random arrests, a death at the community pool, the telegram of the older son's death (never explained or seen), mourning, early childhood; glimmers of a dad whose misgivings about the fairness of his business leads him to inflict violence on his kids and their ultimate refusal of that violence. After two hours or so, Malick seems to realize he needs to wrap it all up so pulls a Fellini with an ending on the beach that Woody Allen would make a cliche back in the 1970s.

But perhaps your own parents and children are ultimately strangers, and no amount of reconciliation can change the fundamental separateness unless you all meet in jazz heaven. Perhaps we are all unknowable even to ourselves, and the closest thing to paternal union may be acknowledging the sad frailty at the core of our once-invulnerable father - that precious moment, never really explored in this film, where you and your dad get drunk together and he suddenly seems so painfully vulnerable, and he's suddenly just another dude you hang with, more like you than you dared admit before. Or you can turn back through the whiskey mist and see him having wrestled with everything you've wrestled with, made dumb mistakes, but found in you--maybe, if only for a little while--something to be proud of, a one certain time when he could say this I did right, even if shortly thereafter you were busted for pot, or guns, or car theft.

For the last few years I've lived my life according to the myth of A Star is Born, with me the boozy has-been author, my ward the younger ascendant star in blogging. Then, a couple weeks ago, while listening to my iPod on random shuffle and flipping through TV with the sound off, I stumbled onto TCM in the midst of the long scene of James Mason gearing up for his suicide in the George Cukor-directed 1954 version of A STAR IS BORN. Now, I've seen this version only up to the intermission, but I knew, because of the song on the shuffle, "The Grey Ship" by EMA what the long shots of Mason looking out to sea, saying tearful goodbyes to Judy and friends really meant, what was going to happen. As sometimes happens, the editing and beats matched so perfectly that I knew it was a cosmic message as I thought "Look a ghost grey ship is coming my way," And it didn't even have to stop.It just kept on going. My intermission was over, and the long voyage into the infinite was now underway, like back when I stumbled onto FLATLINERS in 1991 (see here)

I've had other weird synchronicity moments but this was another symbolic death, a substitute for an actual death imagined in my chosen Star is Born mythos. Norman Maine did the long swim so I wouldn't have to. Either way, old personal myths are inevitably shed like a snake's old skin, like a snake of life, and you die for real  many many skins down the line - but as TREE shows, your skins come fast... and furious.

I mention this for several reasons, not least is to credit BORN's director Minnelli with achieving in this scene (with EMA's scoring) what it takes TREE over two hours to do -- to see the way cosmic myths descend on us during key moments in our life - and that every moment, in a sense, can be seen in heavenly hindsight as profound, every breath and touch as vast as a 2001 obelisk, and yet a yellow filmy fog descends on this sense of wonder and dread just so we can get on with business and not waste the day away being awed at a sunflower. And if our every action isn't awash in mythic resonance, whose fault is that? It's the fault of the cinematographer, dictating the direction we look, and how long we look there, and when we decide to walk away, and look again, from farther off, until the final screen recedes and the credits rain down from heaven like an unstoppable flood, and the tree of life is buried once again in a flood of flood footage.


  1. Malick is a hybrid of Godard and Griffith who wants to use every cinematic trick in the book to make you feel rather than think. Maybe that makes him a postmodern primitivist, but it results in some wild brilliance interwoven with pompous banality as he strives to make the individual universal. Tree of Life is a fascinating mess that I enjoy for its willful personality, and George Cukor directed the '54 Star is Born.

  2. Right, thanks Sam. My days of automatically getting the right info from my brain is over. Why did I think Minnelli directed that? Oh well. And that's a good point about primitivism... yea, and willfullness.

  3. Erich, a lovely analysis of The Tree of Life, especially on the stealing of the sheer gown!

    Keep up the good work!

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