The Tree of Life (The Cornfield #33)

Somewhere in Andrei Tarkovsky’s book Sculpting in Time, the Russian director approvingly quotes an anecdote about Picasso responding to an interviewer’s question by offering a definitive statement of self-possession. The questioner asks about an artist’s “search,” to which Picasso snaps, “I don’t seek. I find.”

Terrence Malick would have to be categorized among the searchers. It’s funny that in talking about Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life, writers have frequently mentioned the names of Tarkovsky and Stanley Kubrick as measuring sticks for this head-trippy movie, because those directors (whether you care for their films or not) are surely finders, while Malick’s work looks like the struggle of a very serious person to figure out how he wants to say what he wants to say. Will he say it in 138 minutes, as the theatrical release of The Tree of Life has it, or will there be a six-hour version, as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has hinted? The New World has already come out in three different versions, and while the extras on the Criterion release of The Thin Red Line contain a mere fifteen minutes of cut material, the testimony of the actors involved suggests many other plot lines considered during the actual filming but left aside during the editing safari.

What’s on screen is what counts. There is no single way to make a movie: you want to shoot things from precise storyboards and “cut in the camera” to a rigorously pre-determined design, great; you want to carry a camera into an partly improvised situation and shoot hundreds of hours of material that can later allow the filmmakers to “find” the movie in the editing room, also great. It is not important to know that Malick’s approach puts him in the latter camp, but the evidence onscreen does, in his case, reflect the sifting-out method.

I found The Thin Red Line a largely hypnotic experience, so Malick’s style – the contemplation of nature and objects, frequently divorced from anything like storytelling; the near-musical use of narration; the curlicues of scenes that suggest some larger sequence tantalizingly shorn away – is not something I abhor. It’s the “what he wants to say” part that is increasingly a problem. The New World certainly summoned up a sense of rapture in its waving leaves of grass, but I couldn’t shake the suspicion that the whole thing boiled down to an alarmingly banal recap of the Paradise Bespoiled scenario, rendered with very few surprises.

You may have heard about The Tree of Life. Corporate man (Sean Penn) recalls past life as child in Texas, punctuated by an extended detour through images that suggest the Big Bang, a brief account of dinosaurs demonstrating how we might all get along (in contrast, perhaps, to Kubrick’s declaration of monkey violence as the Dawn of Man in 2001), and shots of the Earth being born, with possible connection between founding of planet and conjoining of sperm/egg. Most of the film is the Texas material, which is achingly exact in its re-creation of a world: I didn’t live anything like that childhood, save for fleeting visits to midwestern grandmothers’ houses, yet Malick’s view down the rows of long, long front lawns is like an ancestral memory shared by all of us in some mysterious way, even if we mostly recall it from a Ray Bradbury novel. Malick deserves praise for his vision of that (and for the marvelous acting of the three boys who play brothers, and for Brad Pitt’s strong performance).

It’s vivid and fine, yet the longer it goes on, the greater the sense of floundering becomes. Even filmmakers who “seek” can carry a sense of authority into their work. Wong Kar-Wai, another director who makes movies out of last-minute inspiration and the journey of the editing room – carving a movie out of a mound of raw material or switching gears in mid-production – has that quality: I like some of his movies (Chungking Express) and don’t care for others (Happy Together), and I deduce that part of the unevenness of his oeuvre comes from his assemblage methods; yet the authority is always there, in each shot and cut. Malick, more so in this film than before, is searching. There are people who find this search enthralling, and I like the searchiness of The Tree of Life too, sort of. If only the ideas at the end of the search didn’t seem so simple.

But, you’re saying, it’s not about the ideas; it’s about creating an experience, a journey. Or, it’s about sheer filmmaking dazzle: the ideas contained in, say, Metropolis are utterly banal, but the movie itself gives off thrills like an electrical storm. (Of course, you look up “authority” in the film dictionary, and you see Fritz Lang.) Many ecstatic critics/reviewers/dudeswithablog are having those kinds of thrills with The Tree of Life, some of which is fascinating to read, some of which feels like the need to claim a movie as “ours,” in the way that every generation would like to discover its 2001, and not be one of those naysayers proven wrong by film history.

Still, I say nay. And will leave it at that for now: I have a whole thing about the use of Klassical Greatest Hits and Murnau and the “Moldau” I’ll get to at some point. (I reviewed the film for the Herald, and my review is here.) I hope to write about The Tree of Life again when I’ve seen it a second time, preferably before it emerges in its six-hour form. But I have the feeling I’ll still cringe as often as I swoon.