Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

First of all, I should say that I didn't get a lot of sleep the previous night. Andrea and I were up late playing Scrabble on Facebook and I guess I just lost track of time - not that I regret it. She's taking a long European vacation this summer, so I feel the need to get as much of her as I can before she goes. I can't help but be worried as to whether she'll be alright, but it's a trip she's been wanting to take for years. It's the fulfillment of a dream for her, and it'll make her happy. Hard to argue with that.

Also, the timing was slightly awkward. Vija, as I've mentioned, has a sideline as a painter, and a few years ago she started what I jokingly refer to as a "support group" for other artists. It's basically an excuse for several of her artist pals to get together for a museum outing or to talk about current projects or what have you. (Perhaps one day I'll go into more detail about it.) Tuesday was to be the date for our next get-together, at a cafe on Fifth Avenue, and I told her I'd probably be late, if I made it at all, because I was gonna go see The Tree of Life. (Tuesdays are discount admission days at the Kew Gardens.) I hated the way that sounded - as if I'd rather see a movie than hang out with pals - but I did tell her I'd hurry back into the city if there was time.

I did make it back into Manhattan, but when I got to the cafe, Vija was the only one of us there. Turned out she got a few last-minute cancellations, something that almost never happens. So it was just the two of us, which suited me fine. We had already had a nice long conversation last Saturday, when I called her from Coney Island, but seeing her was even better. She's currently engaged in a big project where she's painting a bunch of portraits of famous women in history, and she's a little more than halfway done, although it's taking longer than she originally suspected. 

Her work is generally realist but she's been known to switch styles from time to time. For instance, she went through a phase recently where she was painting black-and-white abstract images of animals, yet it was still somewhat recognizable as her work, if you knew what to look for. I've known her so long that I can pick her work out of a lineup fairly easily. She's been doing some commissioned work in recent years too.

So I finally saw Tree. The Kew Gardens didn't show it in their main auditorium, which was a disappointment not only to me, but to the guy in front of me on line. He specifically asked whether or not Tree was playing in Theater 3, the big one. Maybe it did when the Kew first got it, because at the time, the showtimes on the website had hourly showings, so it was likely playing on more than one screen. Now though, it's only on one screen, in one of the smaller theaters, and Midnight in Paris is in Theater 3.

A lot of old-timers came to this screening. When I saw how many there were, my first thought was of the recent story about the Connecticut theater that had to defend Tree from patrons who didn't understand it. How many of these people with me now were familiar with Terence Malick? Were they aware how unconventional this movie is? I know I shouldn't assume that they were incapable of grasping an art movie simply because they're old, and I wouldn't have if there weren't so many of them. It took me a bit by surprise, but then, the Kew does tend to draw an older crowd in general - although there were a couple of cute younger chicks that sat behind me. I think one of them had a cellphone that vibrated loudly, though it didn't ring.

Wouldn't you know it - during the movie I could hear the oldsters across from me muttering every so often. They had to be shushed just as the whole "birth of the universe" sequence began, and after that, their running commentary was limited to the occasional stray remark. For instance, there's a scene where Jessica Chastain wakes up her kids with ice cubes down their backs, and one of the oldsters laughed and said "That's one way to wake somebody up!"

Recently I wondered whether "boring" movies had any value, and I used Tree as a basis for conversation - and now that I've seen it, I think I can guarantee that you'll not see another movie as boring as this all year. I also said that I didn't believe Malick was being deliberately obtuse with this movie, and I still believe it. Whatever else Tree may be, it's definitely made with craft and skill and a deep intellect, and I found myself admiring the craft of the movie more than the story, such as it is. In that respect, I believe Tree has value.

I get the impression that Malick is attempting to ponder the Big Questions with this movie, such as why do bad things happen to good people, but I didn't care enough about the characters to ponder along with him. I got that Sean Penn's character as an adult was looking back on his childhood and perhaps feeling some regret over his adolescent rebellion against his father or sorrow over the loss of his brother, but what about his life as an adult made him want to do this? His character as an adult is a complete cipher; he barely even has any dialogue. If this had been a simple coming-of-age story, that might have been different, but the churning planets and exploding stars and dinosaurs make it all seem more important than it actually is, because ultimately, I don't see what's so special about this family, given when and where they live.

Near the finish, I was slumped deep in my seat and no longer cared if the oldsters were still muttering. I just wanted the movie to end. I couldn't tell how the oldsters felt about it. They seemed contemplative, but not as bewildered as I'd perhaps imagined. When I left the theater, my mind was already on seeing Vija again. At the least, I'd have stuff to tell her about.


  1. Such a divisive movie, no? The other night I described it as a film that made my mind wander more than any movie I'd ever seen...but in a good way.

  2. I'm glad I waited to see this, though. I think I'd have been even more disappointed in it had I rushed out to see it opening weekend.

  3. Midnight in Paris is doing much better at the box office though so it's quite predictable they would relegate Tree of Life to a smaller screen.

    Glad you still believe that Malick doesn't intentionally try to confuse his audience needlessly. There is definitely a few sequences that could be considered "boring" by most people so I can't blame you for saying it was a bit bland to you.

    Now, I don't think we are supposed to care for the characters rather than see ourselves in them. I don't think they are meant to be "special" in any other way that makes each of us "special". I think Malick is saying that even though each of us are basically insignificant in the grand scheme of things, the universe resides within all of us and a life reflects that.

  4. But if this is supposed to be inspired by Malick's childhood, shouldn't there be a greater level of specificity to the characters? Not so much that they resemble Malick's family but more that they resemble people and not archetypes. I mean, we know that this is set in Waco, Texas; we know that it's in roughly the 50s or so. If the O'Briens are supposed to be a generic family, why do we even need this much information?

  5. I'm nodding my head in agreement as I read your review- very good points. I wasn't into this movie for similar reasons (among others), and I'm happy MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is doing so well!

    There were a lot of senior citizens at my showing too, and it did get some comments out of them!

  6. Roger Ebert talked about how 'Tree' captured the essence of his childhood in a small town. Could be that seniors who are seeing this movie are responding to that as well. Maybe.


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