The Tree Of Life” — Terrence Malick

At the core of Aristotle’s Poet­ics is the dic­tum that every sto­ry must have a begin­ning, mid­dle and end. As far as the mod­ern medi­um of film is con­cerned, this trans­lates into three core ques­tions; whose sto­ry is it, what do they want, and what’s stop­ping them?

Many films fall short by fail­ing to address that third ques­tion, so that, as Robert McK­ee points out, there aren’t suf­fi­cient forces work­ing against the story’s pro­tag­o­nist (and if you have any inter­est in writ­ing any­thing, you need to get your hands on his sem­i­nal “Sto­ry” These films tend there­fore to have begin­nings and mid­dles but no end­ings, as where the film is going is invari­ably all too obvi­ous. Oth­er films fail because their char­ac­ters are unclear, or worse unin­ter­est­ed, as to what it is that they want. These so say char­ac­ter stud­ies pro­duce a series of uncon­nect­ed events that take place casu­al­ly rather than causal­ly, and fail again to pro­duce an end­ing, and often very much of a mid­dle. But a sur­pris­ing­ly large num­ber of films fall at the very first hur­dle by fail­ing to decide who it is that their sto­ry is about. So all they do is pro­duce a series of begin­nings, and a smat­ter­ing of pos­si­ble mid­dles. Ter­rence Malick’s The Tree Of Life is yet anoth­er in this lat­ter category.

In fair­ness, it’s a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment on his pre­vi­ous attempt, The New World (‘05), where his fond­ness for Hei­deg­ger was all too evi­dent in the dis­in­ter­est he dis­played in the actu­al peo­ple in his sto­ry, which verged at times on dis­dain. Here, hap­pi­ly, he is very vis­i­bly engaged with what is clear­ly a very per­son­al top­ic. But, pos­si­bly because of which, he can’t decide whose sto­ry it is.

It pre­sum­ably start­ed out as the young boy’s sto­ry, por­trayed in occa­sion­al flash-for­wards by the adult Sean Penn. But it feels more like the sto­ry of the boy’s father, played by the supreme­ly com­mand­ing Brad Pitt, and not just because of the force of his tow­er­ing but mea­sured per­for­mance. But you could just as eas­i­ly make a strong case for sug­gest­ing that it’s the sto­ry of the boy’s moth­er, played by the lumi­nous Jes­si­ca Chas­tain. Because Mal­ick can’t decide whose sto­ry it is, there is no sense of what they might want, and con­se­quent­ly there’s no actu­al story.

Pos­si­bly, he thinks that he’s pro­duced a char­ac­ter study (he’s won­der­ful­ly ret­i­cent about explain­ing any­thing about any of his films, which is fan­tas­ti­cal­ly con­ve­nient, and is, as Michael Cor­leone would say, very much a smart move.). But char­ac­ters like peo­ple are defined by their actions, and if you can’t decide what your char­ac­ters want, then obvi­ous­ly they can’t act wil­ful­ly. And bereft of the capac­i­ty to act, they remain but sketches.

He does attempt to tack on an end­ing, by meld­ing the finale of La Dolce Vita and 8½. But Mar­cel­lo ends up iso­lat­ed on the beach in the for­mer because of his inabil­i­ty to con­nect with the world he lives in and the peo­ple who inhab­it it. And the the­atri­cal cur­tain call that the cast of the lat­ter con­clude with is an appro­pri­ate end­ing to a film that deals with the hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry if col­lab­o­ra­tive process that the pro­duc­tion of all works of art demand. This just feels like the sort of thing a stu­dent would dream up on first dis­cov­er­ing the films of Fellini.

And there’s the rub. The whole thing feels like one of those inter­minably bloat­ed scripts that all film stu­dents pro­duce dur­ing their sec­ond or third year at film school. That clum­sy, cos­mic flash­back bla­tant­ly belongs to a dif­fer­ent script, and should have been binned. But like all stu­dents, absolute­ly every­thing that Mal­ick writes is so impor­tant that it all has to be includ­ed and couldn’t pos­si­ble be tam­pered with. He ought to have been forced to cut 80–90% of it, and told instead to con­cen­trate on the three very strong and poten­tial­ly inter­est­ing prin­ci­ple char­ac­ters, decid­ing whose sto­ry it was, and how they would each be effect­ed by it, and to pro­duce a no more than 90 page sto­ry with a begin­ning, mid­dle and end.

But Mal­ick isn’t inter­est­ed in sto­ries. Which is why he should nev­er be allowed write any of his own scripts. He’s per­fect­ly com­pe­tent tech­ni­cal­ly speak­ing, though whether he’s any more than mere­ly ade­quate is hard to say. After all, few film stu­dents would have any dif­fi­cul­ty in mak­ing Jes­si­ca Chas­tain look lumi­nous. But one or two of the scenes are gen­uine­ly mov­ing, and he clear­ly has a way with actors.

Mal­ick is like the old­er, smarter teenage broth­er of Michael Cimi­no. Where the for­mer hides his inabil­i­ty to tell a sto­ry with a cacoph­o­ny of noise and by clut­ter­ing every image with a moun­tain of stuff to pro­duce the visu­al equiv­a­lent of a pound shop, Mal­ick does so by craft­ing impec­ca­ble images which he drowns in very pleas­ant if hope­less­ly obvi­ous clas­si­cal music (match­ing Wagner’s Rhein­gold to water imagery in The New World was just plain lazy). It’s unde­ni­ably pleas­ant to sit through, it just doesn’t go anywhere.

There’s talk of a 6 hour cut of The Tree of Life, but per­haps he should think instead about pro­duc­ing a 60 sec­ond ver­sion. The abil­i­ty he has to sug­gest a sto­ry with­out actu­al­ly telling one indi­cates that he’d be far more at home in the world of adver­tis­ing than he is in that of fea­ture films. Unfor­tu­nate­ly though, as the 2011 Cannes Film Fes­ti­val once again demon­strat­ed, there is such a dearth of ideas in con­tem­po­rary cin­e­ma, that any sug­ges­tion of them is wel­comed blind­ly with dis­ap­point­ing­ly open arms. Expect the mul­ti-disc Director’s Cut box-set any day now.

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