The Tree of Life (2011)


CHRIS: Have you ever seen a Harry Potter movie? You know how the photographs in that universe are like little 10 second animated gifs or video clips? That is how my memories are, and I would wager that yours are the same way, too. When I look back at my childhood, I get snapshots of a life I experienced – MY life – but they are incomplete, snippets of time I can never go back to. Yet, the emotions from those times are still real. How is it that something that happened to me when I was 15, or 10, or even 5 can still move me so much today, can still be so raw, so powerful? Happiness, misery, it’s still real. Even as the angles on the faces soften, and the details blur, the emotion is still sharp.

That’s what The Tree of Life is for me. It’s a series of someone else’s memories as they look back at their life and deal with the feelings that still remain a part of them. Interwoven with those memories is the birth of the universe, and then the birth of our planet, and then the birth of the living creatures on our planet. Director Terrence Malick contrasts the insignificance of our existence with the significance of our being, if that makes sense, all the while showing both the beauty and pain of life, of everything.

Just to tone this down a bit, essentially you have two characters, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) and Jack (Sean Penn). O’Brien goes through what I described above in “real time,” by which I mean her present day, whereas Jack is in the present and looking back at those same experiences.

There is a plot the characters are involved in, but it is only there to establish the situations that lead to elation and despondency. There is no story arc. That’s not the point of the film, and in fact it might even distract from the essence of the movie. The characters reflect, and there is the good, the bad, and the unknown. Why is asked but never answered, and we’re left thinking that it never can be. That’s the nature of being.

I’m also continually amazed that Brad Pitt has such an impressive resume. The guy seems like a dolt, but his taste in movie parts is almost impeccable. I only see it getting better with time, which is interesting considering this web site’s discussion of older actors getting flat with age.

Anyway, I realize this review may come off as sounding like pseudo-intellectual gibberish. I hope not. If there’s only one thing you take away from this, it’s that there is no other movie like this that I have ever seen. If you want a real movie experience, and not something where giants robots hump each other in 3D, then see this. You don’t have to like it, but you should definitely live it.

Mick LaSalle of the San Fran Chronicle has a nice review which mirrors my thoughts on the film more than the other articles I’ve read on the topic.

SVEN: In my head, the words “movie” and “film” have always had a slightly different connotation. “Film” refers to the idea of the moving picture as an art form, while “movie” references the streamlined, two-hour, three-act, commercially viable, popular manifestation of that same idea. When movie cameras came to the fore, it was conceivable film as art could evolve in any number of directions. For better or worse, the plot-driven “movie” won the day.

By a lot. From a mainstream perspective, the movie was the most popular medium of the last hundred years. Movies have become so honed, in fact, that it is now entirely possible to experience something that is a “good movie” and not necessarily “good art” (and vice versa). Two examples:

1. Dumb and Dumber is an effective, funny comedy. As a movie, it’s great. It nails everything it goes for and delivers the optimum silly comedy experience. Beyond the yucks, though, there’s not much of artistic value. I am a huge fan of this movie, but even I would hesitate before calling it “art.” On the other hand:

2. The Tree of Life is a technically brilliant cinematic showpiece that almost completely eschews traditional filmic narrative techniques. Watching it is more like looking at a painting than observing a story. The objectives of Tree of Life are entirely different from almost any other movie I’ve seen. Reviewing it against the accepted conventions of celluloid storytelling is folly. Tree of Life lacks cohesive structure and end-tying conflict resolution. As art, however, it doesn’t need these things.

The question, then, is this: Which path interests you? Do you watch movies because you appreciate art? OR Do you watch movies because you love movies? Neither perspective is inherently “right,” but your stance relative to that indistinct line likely dictates your reaction to Tree of Life.

Personally, I love movies and carry a passing (perhaps slightly above average) interest in art. As such, I appreciated Tree of Life a bite more than I actually enjoyed it. The photography is phenomenal and (ironically) the story parts that there areare incredibly poignant. Simply because the movie is so different from everything else, I’m comfortable giving it a blanket recommendation. My experience was not transcendent (like Chris’ (who, by the way, wrote an excellent review)), but this is likely because I am who I am. For clarification, read the next paragraph:

Jessica Chastain is absolutely resplendent in this film. More than just her physical appeal, the emotional context she’s presented in easily puts her character in the all-time pantheon as far as beautiful women on screen are concerned. Beautiful. That’s the only way to describe what she is here. “Hot,” “fine,” “smoking,” and the other lax descriptors one might employ simply do not fit. I recognized this. I appreciated this. However, despite knowing that it would ruin the effect and run counter to the film’s very essence, I could not help hoping she’d take her shirt off.

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