Daze of Heaven: The Tree of Life ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 18, 2011)

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Q: What did the Buddhist say to the hot dog vendor?

A: Make me one with everything.

Oh…wait-I’ve got another one! Q: What do you get when you cross The Great Santini with 2001: a Space Odyssey? A: Something resembling Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life. Clocking in at a butt-challenging 138 minutes, this existential opus is the most self-consciously non-commercial film to sneak into multiplexes since Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, N.Y.  managed the feat 3 years ago.

This is also one of those films that critics pray for every night, because it gives them an opportunity to flex their writing instrument; especially those frustrated doctors of philosophy who don’t normally get the opportunity to roll out one-sheet friendly quotes like “lyrical tone poem” and “transcendent visual feast” while parsing Justin Bieber: Never Say Never or The Hangover Part II.

Then again, so few films are green lighted any more that demand contemplation of The Big Questions (you know-like “Mr.Natural! What does it all mean?”) I think neither critics nor audiences know how to react when we do stumble across one…especially when it can’t be summarized in 140 characters or less.

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If there is a signature stamp by this enigmatic filmmaker (who has directed but five films over a 38-year period) it is that inevitable POV shot (or two) where the protagonist takes a moment of Zen to contemplate the Awesomeness of Nature. It could be an event as microcosmic as contemplating a caterpillar inching up a blade of grass, or as nebulous as a lingering gaze into a clear blue sky. More often than not, it is soon followed by another example of the Random Cruelty of Fate.

In this film, Malick not only revisits those themes, but he takes a stab at answering the ultimate question-about life, the universe and everything. But (you may wonder)-does he also tell us an interesting story? Well, sort of.

There are two distinct narratives. They both “branch” (if you will) from the racing thoughts of a brooding yuppie named Jack (Sean Penn, in a largely internalized performance). The primary narrative unfolds through a random series of episodic sense memories from Jack’s childhood, growing up in a small Texas town in the 50s with two younger brothers, a loving but strict father (Brad Pitt) and gentle-spirited mother (Jessica Chastain).

The second thread is less tactile and much more abstract-which is where The Big Questions come in. As Jack veers off memory lane to mull over the meaning of God and life itself, his musings are accompanied by a Laserium-worthy reenactment of the Big Bang (impressively handled by a special effects team that includes legendary Kubrick collaborator Douglas Trumbull), followed by a visual Cliff’s Notes take on the origins of life on Earth. And yes, as you’ve likely already heard…dinosaurs are involved.

Now, on paper, this may look like I Remember Mama meets Jurassic Park-but it’s not anything like that at all (I’ll give you a moment to purge the image of Irene Dunne being stalked by a velociraptor). The less said about the narrative, the better-because this is a movie that is not so much to be watched, as it is to be experienced.

I think it’s safe to say that The Tree of Life isn’t like anything else currently in theaters. Hell-anyone who claims to appreciate the art of cinema has a duty to watch Terrence Malick’s films. And don’t be intimidated by any 10,000 word reviews you may come across; if you find yourself scratching your head as credits roll, here’s what you do (hey, it worked for me):

First, if you’re worried about saving face  with your date (or  fellow moviegoers), be sure you’re caught nodding slowly to yourself while thoughtfully stroking your chin as the lights come up. If you can swing it, an enigmatic, knowing grin adds a nice touch. Next, you must “unlearn” what you have learned about traditional film narrative.

Now, you need to visualize The Tree of Life not so much as a “movie”, but rather as a dim sum cart full of interesting ideas and Deep Thoughts that Malick is bringing to the table. You can pick any of these items that strike your fancy and arrange them on your plate as you wish, in order to make a full meal. You are in control. What you take away from the table is up to you as well; there are no “right” or “wrong” interpretations in this kind of exercise.

Now, if you’re still not feeling “full”-no worries. Take a deep breath. Take a little walk around the block; maybe stop and contemplate the Awesomeness of Nature. Then, on your way home, stop and treat yourself to a nice hot dog. One with Everything.

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