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Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth

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Don't Wait to See Tree of Life -- It May Be Too Good to Stick Around

Posted: 05/25/11 12:54 AM ET

The Tree of Life won the Palme D'Or for Best Picture at Cannes, but if you plan to see it, you'd better go as soon as it opens -- in most cities, it will be out of the theaters very quickly.

The presence of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn won't lure the mob.

Curiosity about Terrence Malick -- who has given no interviews since the 1970s and who has made just five films in 38 years -- will be limited to film buffs.

And then there's the small matter that The Tree of Life is not exactly entertaining.
Let's pile the negatives on, shall we?

The film is slow. There is no plot, in the sense that The King's Speech has a plot -- the story reveals itself, incompletely, in fits and starts, and if you drift off or leave the theater for more caffeine, you might miss an important moment.

No one will think Aaron Sorkin had anything to do with the dialogue; these characters talk more in voice-overs than they do to one another.

And most of the music is classical.

So why, a week after seeing it, am I still haunted by this movie? Why do the images float through my dreams? Why can't I look at our daughter without thinking of the children in Malick's film?

There's a story I like to tell about Marcel Proust. He showed up one night at the dining room of the Hotel Ritz in Paris, whereupon a huge fuss was made over him. A Prussian general noticed. "Who's that?" he asked. His aide said, "Marcel Proust -- he's a novelist, sir." The general asked, "What's his book like?" His aide replied, "It's not 'like' anything, sir."

And so it is with The Tree of Life. It's not "like" anything. Well, maybe, 2001, because there's Big Bang imagery and a large question at the center. But nothing like films as we know them. More like this:

I'm conflicted here. There is information I want to share, but if I do that, I diminish your experience of the film. So let me just say that Malick grew up in the 1950s in a Texas town much like the one we see in the film. That he had a very tough father. And that he had a brother who died.

In the movie, Brad Pitt is the father of three sons. (Sean Penn is the oldest, but because he's seen only as an adult, he's barely in the film.) He represents the way of nature: acquisitive, self-serving, relentless. His wife (Jessica Chastain) stands for the power of love.

Pitt should have been a classical pianist. He made the practical choice and gets a regular paycheck, and that enrages him. Men no better than he got lucky and made fortunes; the best he can hope for is that his kids grow up strong and successful. His ever-nurturing wife has other ideas.

That's the background. In the foreground, we watch children at play. These are moments so beyond anything I've seen in films that they're breathtaking -- even though all the kids are doing is running around or playing in the bathtub or getting into typical kid trouble. Real life, closely observed. Innocence, celebrated.

Things do happen in this film, and they resonate. One of the boys dies. (I think it's the second son, and my guess is that he's killed in Vietnam, but that's just a guess.) Death and rage provoke obvious questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Is nature cruel or kind, or both? Is luck random? And, the ultimate: What does it all mean?

Films don't ask questions life this, and, most of the time, we don't either. With good reason: we're scared to know what we think, we desperately don't want to look up at the stars and confront how very small we are. The Tree of Life goes there, and stays there. It's a forced meditation. And it shreds you.

It shreds you even though I suspect the "answer" that Malick is driving toward is inspiring --- I look at the many scenes of people touching, holding one another, affirming the most basic connection, and I conclude that the film is a hymn to the beauty of the world and the power of love.

And maybe not. "Someday we'll fall down and weep, and we'll understand it all, all things," Pitt says. At the end, Sean Penn drops to his knees. In awe? In gratitude? In -- just possibly -- understanding? I don't know. I do know The Tree of Life had me on my knees.

BONUS

One of the key pieces of music in the film Henryk Górecki's Third Symphony. It's possible you own it -- a recording with Dawn Upshaw sold a million copies, very quickly. Which is astonishing, because it is slow, stately -- almost funereal -- and minimalist music, a third cousin to the music of Arvo Part.

There are no accidents in a Terrence Malick film, so I see it as a clue that the inspiration for this symphony was a line written on the wall of a concentration camp in 1944 by 18-year-old Helena Wanda Błażusiakówna: O Mamo nie płacz nie --Niebios Przeczysta Królowo Ty zawsze wspieraj mnie (Oh Mama, do not cry -- Immaculate Queen of Heaven, support me always). That is not a plea for help, or a howl of pain. It comes from a much deeper place, maybe the deepest. [I've been listening to the recording by the Warsaw Philharmonic, a crazy bargain at $8.68. To buy the CD from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]



Cross-posted from HeadButler.com