On Sunday I saw Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE.
This is the most abstract, philosophical, visionary movie I’ve seen since (as far as I can remember) 2001: A Space Odyssey. I knew enough going in, from glancing at (though never reading thoroughly) the reviews, to know that this was *not* a typical Hollywood plot-driven movie, that it included abstract, special-effects-driven scenes depicting the origin and fate the universe, in addition to a personal story about growing up in a small Texas town in the 1960s.
No doubt some audience members did not quite know what to expect, perhaps seeing only ads for the new Brad Pitt movie. Quite a few folks walked out in the first 20 minutes.
I was delighted and moved by the visuals and by the music, and to some extent by the story, and to a lesser extent by the philosophical conclusion, such as it was.
(As an aside — the entire theater complex — the Arclight in Sherman Oaks CA — experienced a power outage about 1/3 of the way into the film — just before the birth scene. Ushers came in to advise us that it was being worked. Power was restored, and the film recommenced, about 15 minutes later. Sorta broke the mood, though.)
I have always been highly influenced in my appreciation of films by their music. I understand the problems music afficionados had with the use of classical music in 2001, but since I saw that film at age 13, it didn’t bother me, and in fact cemented into my consciousness that particular use of that certain music (e.g. Strauss’ Blue Danube) and introduced me to music (i.e. by Gyorgi Ligeti) I might never have otherwise heard or appreciated, but which with that exposure became a lifetime taste.
Of course as I’ve become exposed to more classical music, the use of it in films has become more problematic and distracting for me; for a while Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” turned up with annoying frequency. OTOH last year’s BLACK SWAN managed a glorious interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s music (by Clint Mansell), and I would add THE TREE OF LIFE as one of the best filmic uses of existing standards — you can’t get much more standard than the opening of Smetana’s MOLDAU, which nevertheless worked beautifully in certain scenes (and in the trailer).
Other highlights: the first classical cue in the film is over a death scene, and it’s the opening bars of Mahler’s 1st symphony — music which in the context of the symphony is like a dawn, an opening which soon blossoms into full expression. In the performance used in the film, it had a markedly different tone, much more ominous, and much more interesting. Mahler’s 1st is ordinarily my least favorite Mahler symphony, but I tracked down the list of music used in the film and ordered this recording.
Also: happy to hear one of my favorite unknown composers, Zbigniew Preisner, used prominently in a couple of the origin-of-the-universe sequences. The Respighi sample was elegantly appropriate. Other music I was not familiar with I’m happy I can identify via that link above, though apparently there’s no recording of the film’s source music — the soundtrack album is just the music by Alexander Desplat, and to give him credit, his music blends expertly with the classical cuts to the point that you’re never sure what music is his, and what is some source music you just can’t identify.
About the film — I thought the film’s subject, its intent, was fairly obvious: what is the significance of an individual human life in the context of, well, everything – the universe. (And to a secondary extent, with some slight SFnal appeal, about the wonder of discovering the universe as you are born and grow up.) You see long blocks of spacial imagery, to emphasize how vast the universe actually is, compared to the tiny human life. The POV character, Sean Penn, seems to reach a conciliation at the end, and the final images are of doors, of bridges — of the sequence of generations. That’s fine. There was a tad too much religious undertone for my taste; I sympathize with characters looking to the sky, asking questions that are never answered about the meaning of it all. Yet the beach scenes near the end were a bit too reminiscent of naive images of heaven, when everyone you’ve ever known will gather together for…endless strolling? Other films have done this — I recall LONGTIME COMPANION, with its gathering of characters who had passed; and wasn’t there some similar scene in a Sally Field movie..? — but those seemed more symbolic than literal. Still, I appreciated the film’s relative non-insistence of any meaning — other than that endless cycle of generations.
Anyway, it’s a film to see more than once. Rich and thoughtful, and beautiful.