“Tree of Life” Leaves Viewers Out on a Limb

Well,  I can’t say I wasn’t warned.

“Some people found it kinda … boring” said the young woman behind the video counter as she handed me a copy of The Tree of Life DVD.

No problem, I assured her. I figured I had read enough about the film to know that it wasn’t your typical crowdpleaser.

Still I gotta admit that I began to shift uncomfortably on the sofa at around the two hour mark.

Full of Sound and Fury Signifying Something (Now All We Gotta Do Is Figure Out What)

The latest masterwork by TERRENCE MALICK (only his fifth turn as director in the last 38 years) is about nothing less than the beginnings of the universe and how it somehow ties in with the lives of a Texas family in the 1950s.

"If I hear the word 'metaphysical' one more time ..... "

Brad Pitt plays the strict authoritarian dad, Jessica Chastain is the tender-hearted but weak-willed wife and mother of three boys.  One of her sons,  Jack, is played as a rebellious youth by Hunter McCracken and by Sean Penn as an embittered adult, looking back on his boyhood.

Threaded into the family saga are a lot of trippy visuals courtesy of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.

"Trippy, dude!"

I haven’t used “trippy” as an adjective since my hair was a lot longer but it really seems to apply here.

Folks have compared Tree of Life to Stanley Kubrick’s epic 1968 headscratcher 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

In fact, Malick says he has been playing around with the idea for Tree for at least 30 years.

Too bad he didn’t make it then. Cuz back in the day the minds of young movie buffs were much more, um,  open and/or blown.

Truth is, most of us would have been grooving on the visuals and wouldn’t have cared whether the movie made sense or not.

And, as far as the running length was concerned, um, how shall I put it, time was more of a concept than a reality in those days.

Terrence Malick: "Trippy? I haven’t heard that word since ..... "

Typically, this is one of those movies that a lot of middle-aged critics love and the majority of moviegoers either hated or ignored altogether.

Former Variety mag stalwart TODD McCARTHY, writing in the (revamped) Hollywood Reporter, raves that the film is: “an impressionistic metaphysical inquiry into mankind’s place in the grand scheme of things that releases waves of insights amid its narrative imprecisions … ponders the imponderables, asks the questions that religious and thoughtful people have posed for millennia and provokes expansive philosophical musings along with intense personal introspection.”

Not Everyone Is a Fan

In contrast here are some posts on Internet Movie Database (IMDB) message boards from  people who actually paid to see the movie:

“One of the most pretentious pieces of pseudo-intellectual garbage I have ever seen, ” Pekman (Portugal)

 “No matter how abstract a movie is, there must be something the viewer can cling to, something the viewer cares about. This movie has nothing like that.  azelenkovas (US)

(Okay, at least I understood that.)

Of course, the message boards aren’t completely filled with negative posts.

ruiresende84 from Porto, Portugal praises the movie for its “circular meta-narratives, where you can pick up on any spot (i mean any) and you can create whatever inner narrative you want. A sky of images where you can pick your own choices, and create whatever story you like. Or you can choose to frame the more palpable story visible in the film in whatever fashion you want …. the challenge is that you have to test the limits of your own imagination to live the film in its full extent.”

(Sorry, buddy or ma’am but you’re not exactly making the film more accessible.)

The gap between critical raves and audience reactions may also explain why the movie won the Palme d’Or at Cannes (the film fest equivalent of Best Picture) and then went almost straight to video. (According to imdb the film made $13 mil at the domestic box office against a $32 mil budget.)

Given the ecstatic critical reception The Tree of Life has been nominated for  Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Malick) and Best Cinematography (Lubezki)

Which means more people will flock to the video store to see what all the fuss is all about leading to more postings like this:

After seeing this movie, I sincerely cannot comprehend all the hype and the excellent reviews that it has attracted … one of the most pointless and most boring movies I’ve ever seen … I still do not understand what the director was trying to portray with the shots of volcanoes, planets, dinosaurs …  and jellyfish (??).   Nema Jhurry (U.S.)

I’m not saying it will win those  awards. Malick’s The Thin Red Line was nominated for seven awards but went home empty-handed.

However, in this case, I think an Oscar for Lubezki is a given (he has been nominated by the Academy four times and has yet to win.)

And although screen newcomer Hunter McCracken didn’t get an Oscar nod he is definitely a talent to reckon with.

“How am I gonna explain this movie to my parents?“

I knew the video clerk was going to ask me about the flick when I returned the DVD.

And it just so happens that I read a review on rottentomatoes. com that  summed up my feelings on the flick exactly ... and did it in just four words.

I figure it is okay to quote someone if you give them credit for it.

So when she asked me what I thought about the film, I simply replied.

“Well, as Bill Goodykoontz wrote in the Arizona Republic (and,  yes, that`s his actual name), I found the movie beautiful, baffling, poetic and pretentious. “

(I wish I’d written that.)

“Only 139 minutes? We wuz robbed!“

PS Even Sean Penn couldn’t figure out what was going on. But that was only because, judging from his comments in the press, he didn’t think the movie was long enough!

“I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read,he is quoted as telling French newspaper Le Figaro (via The New Yorker). “A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact …  Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! …  Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”

According to thewrap.com a six hour director`s cut may be in the works.

“There was going to be a long version of the movie at one point, and I don’t know if it exists or not,” Lubezi is quoted as saying. “I saw many edits, and one was probably close to six hours, and it was incredible. And I was hoping that they would finish it, even if it was just to make some DVDs or Blu-Rays, because it was fantastic.

Tree of Life: Impressive Feet








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