So, on Thursday July 7, 2011, I went to see The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s mournful stoner tribute to BBC’s Planet Earth, starring The West and all of its Judeo-Christian nuclear family angst. I paid the full price to see it, because every single review I’d read was raving. Slavering. Awestruck. And, it turns out, insane!
Apparently Hollywood is desperate for an opus. I heard that they rushed this one, and they really shouldn’t have. Sometimes an opus is just kind of like a really long diary entry after an unexpected bender, and what feels like the discovery of a universal connectedness, or some crucial strain of human existence, is more along the kind of mystic experience wherein one realizes that everyone gets cold in the winter, or that everyone has feelings. This is that kind of opus. But stepped down a notch, to appeal specifically to everyone who is (or, considering recent economic turns, has nostalgia for being) middle-class and white in North America.
(Talking to people about this in the past couple of days, and by “talking to” I mean “ranting at,” I have been encouraged to make my opinion official by sending it in to somewhere. Possibly to make me stop spitting and waving my arms around, but also because apparently there aren’t really any critical reviews of it published. I have not scientifically investigated the truth of this general sense about the reviews, but I did go ahead and write out my own. Which is, I hope, scathing.)
First of all, Malick seems to be attempting, in the first 30 to 45 minutes, to portray nothing less than the creation of the universe by God. Complete with what appear to be not-at-all-veiled representations of God’s vagina and (b/c what if God is a man?) God’s butthole. (Male gods birth universes out of their butts, don’t you know. Or maybe just hell. Or maybe that was actually the tip of God’s penis, I don’t know. Anyway. If what I am saying here seems offensive let me remind you that I am not the one who made the cinemagraphic choices that I am describing to you.)
This (very long) part of the movie must be the part that was referred to in some reviews as a “Kubrick-y” [not sic], but more humane, depiction of the emergence of civilization, or whatever the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is supposed to be about. Well, color me knocked out with a humanity hammer. I already think humans are the worst, but after 4,000 minutes of CGI-ed god-clouds, lava, and cosmic space-scapes, overlain with an operatic soundtrack crying ‘lacrimosa,’ and alternated with flashes and vignettes of childhood, first love, marriage, pregnancy, birth, childhood, birth, I bet almost anyone could be converted to misanthropy.
The intense and hackneyed grandiosity of paralleling the birth of one human (and the traditional Western nuclear family life cycle in which it takes place) with the birth of, again, the universe, combined with the sheer hubris of deciding that one is capable of directly portraying that idea on film, rather than alluding to it or using it as a theme, had me wondering exactly what was meant by the people who described this work as “stunning.” I can only assume that, being seasoned film critics and taste makers, this means that they were literally stunned, like basically tasered by incredulity, kind of painfully, and were not using that word as a form of praise.
This part of the film also had me wondering exactly how many BBC documentaries Malick has watched while smoking hash, thinking, duuuuude. Blue Planet would be so much cooler if Brad Pitt was in it. And, duuuuude, this is like, totally the spirit of the world. God is All Around Us! (A point made clear, when, spoiler alert, in one of her more extravagant deliriums of sheer family life ecstasy, Mrs. O’Brien [Jessica Chastain] embraces her young son, points to the clouds and cries, ‘That’s where God lives!’)
Admittedly, though I already knew that God lives in a cloud and that his/her front door is a sunbeam, I did learn a few other things. The CGI lifeforms-cosmic soul-creation-of-evolution veneration part of the film certainly demonstrated to me how spoiled my eyes have become by, of course, the internet. As well as the fact that David Attenborough is the best narrator and no one else should ever try to narrate anything again. And also the fact that nature is gross on the big as well as the small screen, as well as in real life.
Death! Fecundity. Death! Ebb & flow, swimming filleted penises, sands of time, Land Before Time… the shit that falls out of a Tree of Life when you shake it! Seriously. There are dinosaurs in there (for real)! Put that in your shoe & smoke it, Raffi.
So. Those were my impressions of the first half. Space placenta! And also a question I posed to myself: is this is the kind of cinema I’ll appreciate when I’m older, and closer to death, and… therefore less jaded?
Second half: I remain apparently too spiritually impoverished to marvel at the miracle of life for extended periods of time. I also remain too cold-blooded to make the intellectual transition from recognizing the story in the film’s second half as a cliche, chock-a-block with every single stereotype, to understanding it as representing a story that is universal to humanity. I’m sorry to burst this gross bubble, but it isn’t. The story in this film is only universal if universal means parochial, and if one’s sphere is some generic small-town clapboard post-WWII middle America where both blacks and whites don’t mind the segregation, and which feels and looks like a mildly dystopic Beverly Cleary book. This is the part of the movie where “everyone has feelings” is supposed to somehow be enough to surpass the actually totally crass West-centricity of the portrayal of “humanity” and “life” and creation. Give us a break. Go colonize another planet.
I did find the secret little kid conversations with God kind of endearing and empathetic, though, I’ll admit, and I liked the evocation of what a weird and confusing, deafening void and vortex everything can seem like when you’re a kid — but then afterward in the fresh air I realized that that was in large part because I was becoming desperate. Stockholm syndrome, even. I think I was about to start making the same prayers the kid did, after 100 minutes of immersion in Malick’s ego: You just let anything happen. Why should I be good, if you aren’t? Are you there, God? It’s me, I can’t stop laughing inappropriately.
Final analysis: ok! Do we all understand that Terrence Malick is old and white (or wants to be, I don’t actually know) and likes to make pictures about his mind, and that most film “critics” are, apparently, in the midst of baby boomer babies midlife reassessments of the presumptions that have allowed them to carry on their lives, unperturbed, until now, and so are therefore experimenting with the crack and the marijuana? These are the things to bear in mind while reading ALL MOVIE REVIEWS, especially the ones about The Tree of Life.
Alright, they probably aren’t smoking crack, but I do think that the apparently total lack of criticism of Malick’s vision here betrays a cultural myopia that, while unsurprising, given the source of box office revenues and the need to stroke it the right way, is pathetic at least, and upsetting, and should confirm anyone’s sense that Hollywood is bad for the world, even when it’s trying its hardest. That said, I predict an Academy Award nomination for The Tree of Life.
[Post-Final analysis Script: OMYPLANETARYINTERACTIONS!! I googled Mr. Malick, just now, to see if he is, indeed, white and old. Not only is he, but I now know that he ALSO is the magic mind behind my top-hated movie EVER: The New World, starring Colin Farrell as sad-buggery-eyed colonial-orientalist, Captain John Smith, and Q’orianka Kilcher, now a household name, as Pocahontas. Pocahontas who literally at one point in The New World is actually for real, seriously but incredibly, made to wear a doeskin teddy as she runs through the sun-dappled fields of the once upon a time totally real savage purity of the New World as yet undecimated by greed and alcholism. I mean, smallpox and microbial epidemics. Er. STIs? I’ve never forgotten nor forgiven that stunning film, and it makes PERFECT sense that The Tree of Life emerged from the same navel that granted The New World to its owner’s gaze. STOP WANKING ON US, TERRENCE MALICK! The only way that these movies are okay is if they are sarcastic.]