If it is true that the execration of American cinema is its need to package, to sell something, so that the true aesthetic judgement becomes a valuation of whether the packaging has enough heft, then Tree of Life, only the fifth film by director Terrence Malick in forty years, must represent a reaction to that relentless sell. And yet.
Not really even a film, more a impressionistic meditation, what it lacks in dialogue it almost makes up for in a maddening, vaulting ambition. At 140 minutes it demands a lot of you – yes, you with the popcorn: and what help does it offer? Precious little, or so it seems. Why pay for those big stars Brad Pitt and Sean Penn if they say little or nothing? Set in Helvetica 12 point, I doubt whether all the dialogue would cover one side of A4. And yet…
The narrative drive, not writ large in Malick’s earlier movies, here disappears completely, to be replaced by some rather arch symbolism, and a twenty minute cosmic central section that attempts to illustrate the origins of the universe and….well, you and me, and how we began as single-cell blobs. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with some technological help, produces some ravishing images here, but it simply felt like something that David Attenborough would intone over, rather than an integral part of the film – dropped in, to explain to the brain-dead, that this is not going to be a movie with a car chase, that this film has been created after twenty years of contemplation, by an MIT Professor, Rhodes Scholar and all-round egg-head Philosopher, and don’t call me Terry.
And yet, for me, it stayed just shy of Pseuds Corner. The constant movement of the camera and the jump-cutting was intrusive; but I can’t remember a film that made me think as much as this one. There is no message, but simply… this is how you should live your life. And if you become a big cheese in a suit, and you work in a glass tower in Houston, you will probably be just as miserable as your father, who failed to become the great musician he should have been, and went on to fail as a business man and a parent, his vapid wife adding little to the sum total of his life.
Winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes the other day, it was received with a mixture of applause and derisive booing, much as it was in Clapham when I saw it, minus the applause.
But I urge Dabblers to see it. For those who love a yarn, like a bit of character development, a plot twist here and there – it is thin gruel. But if you fancy a couple of hours of spiritual searching, contemplating say, the nature of God and the universe, or the woof and weft of everyday life, this behemoth was made for you.