TREE OF LIFE exegesis, duly pruned

Published on: July 17th, 2011

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“Only when we are able to dwell can we build”
—– Martin Heidegger, Bauen Wohnen Denken
—– (Building, Living, Thinking), 1951/2


 

“It’s disappointing that so many of the techniques and approaches deployed in The Thin Red Line are recycled wholesale here [in The New World]. Has he [Malick] run out of ideas? This is a relatively minor work from a man capable of greatness, but [who] is becoming fatally hampered and narrowed by his own mystique. Malick seems content to become the Kubrick of his generation: American cinema always has room for (indeed needs) a poet/painter/magus figure to give ‘lesser mortals’ someone to revere, and also to bolster [American cinema’s] world status. Malick clearly fits the bill in many ways…”
Jigsaw Lounge, 26th January 2006

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Half a decade later, the belated follow-up to The New World provides further confirmation that Terrence Malick is “a man capable of greatness… becoming fatally hampered and narrowed by his own mystique.” The Tree of Life is by some measure the least satisfactory of his five features to date, and so of course was duly honoured with the Palme d’Or at Cannes – an award which, like Best Director at the Oscars, seems to be decided on the principle of “Buggins’ Turn,” frequently going to deserving film-makers for their relatively less-deserving works1.

Confronted with a film so strenuously striving for greatness, the Cannes jury may have felt little choice but to humbly genuflect2. Robert De Niro, Jude Law, Uma Thurman and company perhaps felt justified in gambling that the elusive, reclusive Malick will be judged by posterity as a mighty magus of the trans-millennial decades, a Heidegger-translating philosopher-king who, like Sergei Eisenstein, Ingmar Bergman and Luis Buñuel before him, deigned to choose cinema as his principal mode of self-expression. And if the results of that self-expression should be a fractured kaleidoscope of images, moods and ideas, so much the better — so many more opportunities to intepret its manifold voids and lacunae as invitingly limpid pools of profundity.

Any attempt at a conventional synopsis is foolhardy indeed, but the main narrative takes place in 1950s Texas, where Mr (Brad Pitt) and Mrs (Jessica Chastain) O’Brien raise their three sons – he loving but increasingly strict, she a shimmering incarnation of evanescent mother-love. There are occasional flash-forwards to what looks like the present (a notable first, given that all of Malick’s previous pictures with the exception of his self-suppressed 1969 short Lanton Mills have been set in the recent or distant past) in which a middle-aged architect (second-billed Sean Penn, in what’s really little more than an extended cameo) – evidently the oldest O’Brien son – is enduring some kind of unspecified work/stress/family-related psychological crisis. And there are also non-narrative interludes depicting the creation of the universe, the Sun, the Earth, and the development of life – which may be the reveries of Mrs O’Brien, her son, or both, or neither.

Whatever the deficiencies of The Tree Of Life, they don’t detract one iota from Malick’s achievement with his twin masterpieces, Badlands (1973) and The Thin Red Line (1999), the latter his return to film-making after a self-imposed twenty-year exile. But these pictures dwarf those which came a few years after – Days of Heaven (1978) and The New World (2005), and The Tree of Life, arriving “only” six years after The New World, is another step down. Malick is thus rather like a champion racehorse who only shows his full ability when “fresh”, this requiring long gaps between his racecourse appearances.3

It was also a worrying omen that The Tree of Life took so very long to gestate in Malick’s mind: the project was, according to all reports, originally conceived as the follow-up to Days of Heaven, and its problematic development (as Q – Spike Milligan reference presumably unintentional) in the early 1980s was a key element in Malick’s walking away from cinema altogether.

Simultaneously a cosmic epic – spanning the entire history of the universe from the big bang to the present day – and a domestic drama with heavily autobiographical elements, The Tree of Life falls squarely into that most unpromising of categories – the “dream project” which is nursed/pursued over the course of decades and which, despite its dubious commercial prospects, favourable circumstances eventually bring into fruition. Movie history has no shortage of such enterprises, the vast bulk of which prove much too personal, and much too worked-over, to carry the weight of expectation.4

And The Tree of Life – in the 138-minute version shown at Cannes and now on general releae – is exactly the kind of hermeneutic self-reflexive self-indulgence one would expect from its development. The film’s budget has been notably difficult to gauge – estimates range from $32m to $145m – but it seems likely to be Malick’s largest, eclipsing even the $52 of The Thin Red Line. Malick seems to have enjoyed a rare creative carte blanche, working with a hand-picked cast and crew, and a “flexible” shooting timetable which allegedly yielded two million feet of film (double that shot forThe New World, itself known as a prodigious undertaking in that particular regard), followed by a post-production period of over eighteen months.

The crucial detail with assessing The Tree of Life is surely the fact that no fewer than five editors are credited:

Hank Corwin (best known for his Oliver Stone pictures), Jay Rabinowitz, Billy Weber, Brazil’s Daniel Rezende (City of God, The Motorcycle Diaries, Elite Squad) and Mark Yoshikawa. To which quintet one can also surely add Malick’s own name – these days it’s almost unheard of for directors not to have intimate involvement in the editing process – and that of Christopher Roldan, a longtime Richard Linklater collaborator here identified as “assistant editor,” and who seems to have played a crucial role as each editor came and went. Dennis Lim, writing in The New York Times, goes so far as to describe Roldan as “key to the project.”

The crediting of multiple editors is unusual, though not unprecedented: The Right Stuff‘s quintet collectively won the Academy Award in 1983, while six were nominated for The Fugitive a decade later. But as a general rule, the “too many cooks” principle applies equally to cinema as to culinary matters5. According to Bilge Ebiri, writing in American Editor magazine, four of the Tree editors worked separately for three months each, with Yoshikawa remaining on the project the longest – from spring 2009 to September 2010.

Yoshikawa had been one of the four credited editors on The New World – along with Corwin, Richard Chew and Saar Klein. Klein, in turn, had been one of The Thin Red Line‘s editing trio, along with Weber and Leslie Jones (who happens to be the only female editor Malick has ever employed, and whose other credits include Paul Thomas Anderson’s peerless Punch-Drunk Love). Weber edited Days of Heaven solo (confusingly, he was also editor on Tony Scott’s similarly-monikered Days of Thunder), just as Badlands was handled by Robert Estrin alone – who reportedly took around ten months to mould the footage into shape, and who seems to have retired after 1995’s The Perez Family.

Malick clearly likes to maintain a certain degree of continuity in his choice of editors, and of the “newcomers” on Tree of Life the most eyecatching name is surely that of Rabinowitz. As well as working on Darren Aronofsky’s epic/cosmic/romantic The Fountain – the single project to which Tree of Life has been most frequently compared – he also cut Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There, Haynes having been forced to seek a new collaborator after the sad, premature death of his long-time cutter (and partner) Jim Lyons.

Rabinowitz had previously proven his chops with his brilliant contributions to Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (American film editing is evidently a somewhat tiny universe), but his sensibility for some reason just didn’t “mesh” with that of Haynes – with results that were even more dismayingly incoherent than The Tree of Life.

 

So, to sum up: three editors on The Thin Red Line, a masterpiece; four editors on The New World, a flawed but fascinating work with flashes of greatness; five editors on The Tree of Life, in which the grace-notes of genius and beauty are, while undeniably present (and magical), disappointingly few and far between. As Lim notes, “As Mr Malick’s films grow increasingly allusive and amorphous, he seems more than ever to find them in editing.” Find them? Or lose (sight of) them?

In the same Times piece, Yoshikawa comments that “our focus was to make it more of an experience and not about plot… The flow of the film was an ever-changing animal.” That last line can surely be interpreted as Malick (the source of the “flow”) himself becoming uncertain about which direction to take, eventually giving us only confusing mini- and micro-episodes of “plot” within a disorienting, aimless bombardment of images and moods.

But whereas in Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line he relied heavily upon narration to tie things together and give them coherence (probably too heavily in the case of Days of Heaven), here even the voice-over – while abundant and near-incessant – has itself been subjected to a kind of cut-up technique, scrambled into a breathy, whispered punctuation of portentous phrases and stream-of-consciousness ruminations, sometimes numbingly repetitive in their gnomic banality6 (the “dialogue”, when we get to hear it, is almost entirely of the tin-eared $3-bill variety, unrecognisable as having been written by the same person who came up with such stunningly natural late-50s chatter in Badlands.)

Malick does have “form” when it comes to excessive post-production and excessive editing: Days of Heaven ultimately became little more than a series of stunningly beautiful images accompanied by Linda Manz’s near wall-to-wall v.o. And on The Thin Red Line the performances from numerous stars and character-actors ended up as the most fleeting of cameos – or were excised altogether – while Adrien Brody, whose character was a principal focus of James Jones’ original novel, was famously surprised when he saw the finished film and found that almost all of his lines had been cut (indeed, it becomes something of a cruel running “joke” that whenever Brody is about to open his mouth, the scene abruptly ends.) The Tree of Life takes this a stage further – and while it’s often ravishing to look at thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography (mostly shot on 70mm, mostly hand-held), the film is, as Danny Peary said of David Lynch’s Dune (1984), “big, beautiful – and a bust.”

Actually, Peary was harsh on Dune, Lynch’s attempt to cram Frank Herbert’s science-fiction saga into a single film: an intoxicating quart spilling out of an opulently ornate pint-pot, if you like. Initially derided, Dune has steadily established a very solid cult following and today stands as a rather splendid sui generis oddity – a very rare example of a major Hollywood studio (Universal) hiring a “visionary”, avant-garde director and giving him something akin to creative free rein (among current directors, Michael Mann arguably comes closest to straddling the various cinematic ‘spheres’) – although in the case of Dune, crucially, this didn’t extend to final cut.

Lynch’s relative inexperience – he was 36 when pre-production began – was offset by producer Dino De Laurentiis hiring veterans for key behind-the-scenes roles: editor Antony Gibbs (in his late fifties) had credits stretching back to 1960’s Oscar Wilde, while cinematographer Freddie Francis, who had also shot Lynch’s previous outing The Elephant Man, was in his mid-sixties and had been a DoP since the 1950s (in tandem with his own distinguished career as a director.) In the case of Lynch, the more editorial “assistance” the better – after decades working with (his partner) Mary Sweeney, he cut INLAND EMPIRE himself with predictably dismaying and undisciplined consequences.

 

Malick has evidently found his Freddie Francis in Lubezki (having employed three cinematographers on Badlands, he’s since opted for a single DoP, with Lubezki filling the bill on bothThe New World and The Tree of Life). What he really needs is perhaps an Antony Gibbs, or ideally a lured-out-of-retirement Robert Estrin: a single individual capable of honouring the director’s vision while successfully conveying it to the audience.

The most common epithet applied to individuals who spend far too long in the editing suite is “Scissorhands” – Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein being the most notorious example. But Malick is much more of a ‘Tinkerbell’, tinkering and fiddling near-endlessly until his film ends up spiralling into obfuscaton and abstraction.

He most likely amassed the raw material for a third masterpiece here, but in his seventh decade he increasingly seems to think in terms of extended “director’s cut” versions running three, four, five or even six hours – meaning that the shorter versions delivered for public consumption are necessarily no more than severely reduced, severely compromised condensations. Scenes and shots flit by in the rat-a-tat style now more associated with Michael Bay – but whereas Bay’s frenzied editing is blasted as an example of ‘MTV’ cutting, catering to (and further exacerbating) the reduced attention-spans of teenage boys, Malick is hailed as a visionary of the near-subliminal sublime.

Though naysayers have been vocal, the majority of critics have sided with De Niro, Law and company: according to thecriticlist.com, Tree of Life is the best-reviewed UK release since 2007’sThere Will Be Blood (another picture which falls some way short of greatness partly because it endeavours so nakedly towards such a lofty goal.) Just like J M Barrie’s Tinker Bell – traditionally depicted on stage as “a darting light” rather than a corporeal presence, and thus distant cousin to some of Lubezki’s grace-note effects here – Malick’s “magic” only exists so long as enough people believe in him. Not that he should worry – there’s evidently no shortage of folk out there who truly, genuinely, still want to believe.

Neil Young
16th-17th July, 2011

THE TREE OF LIFE
 : USA 2011 : Terrence Malick : 138m (BBFC)
seen at Vue, The Light, Leeds (35mm) : 13th July 2011 : £6.60

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1 Roman Polanski for The Pianist; David Lynch for Wild at Heart; the Coens for Barton Fink; the Dardennes getting their second Palme for The Child (instead of The Son); Ken Loach for The Wind that Shakes the Barley; Michael Haneke for The White Ribbon.

 

2 Other options are available, as with David Thomson’s reaction to Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice: “The perfection has something monstrous about it, as if trouble had made Tarkovsky into a magnificent island gradually receding from the rest of the world. For this viewer, there is something tyrannical about it that spurs irreverent thoughts of resistance.”
Or, as that sage Roman Castavet remarked about the Pope in Rosemary’s Baby, “You don’t have to have respect for him because he pretends he’s holy.”

 

3 The best current example of this would be the enigmatically brilliant – and beautifully named – four-year-old Rewilding, a “surprise” winner of a Group 1 event Royal Ascot in June, on his first outing since March.

4 There are many parallels in other art-forms: look at Cormac McCarthy (in terms of reclusiveness and American-magus mystique, a decidedly Malick-esque figure), toiling for more than 20 years over what eventually emerged as the notable commercial belly-flop Suttree (1979) – during which time he knocked out three shorter, simpler, more effective novels in The Orchard Keeper, Outer Darkand Child of God – paving the way for what is generally regarded as his masterpiece, Blood Meridian(1986). Malick himself has reportedly completed his sixth feature during post-production on his fifth, and the odds are surely short that this next work – provisionally titled The Burial – will turn out to aim rather lower than The Tree of Life, but will also come much closer to hitting its ‘target.’

5 As with screenwriters and producers, a multiplicity of editors is almost invariably a Bad Sign. Of the Jigsaw Lounge top 20 films premiered since January 2000, only seven had more than one editor:With a Girl of Black Soil, The Call of the Wild, Fantasma and Innocent Saturday had two apiece; there were three for United 93, Dead Man’s Shoes and Who Killed Cock Robin?
It’s a similar story if one looks at the winners of international film-critic body FIPRESCI’s annual Grand Prix since the turn of the millennium: of the eleven successful movies, only one (Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Uzak, which the director co-edited with Ayhan Ergürsel) has more than one editor. Likewise with the Best Picture winners at the Oscars over the same period: The Hurt Locker, No Country For Old Men and A Beautiful Mind had two editors, the other eight just the one.

In the Best Editing category, the sole triple-handed nominees since 2000 have been Avatar andUnited 93 (neither won); in the 1990s the half-dozen included The Fugitive with six individuals. And in the current top ten among readers of the Internet Movie Database, only The Godfather Part II has more than one credited editor (3), with The Godfather, The Good the Bad and the Ugly and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on two apiece.

 

 

6 The most thought-provoking thing in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking.
— 
Martin Heidegger, Was heisst Denken? (What Is Called Thinking?), 1954

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Creepy little creepers are insinuatingly
curling up my spine (bringing the message)

saying, Boy!, are you writing that great poem
the world’s waiting for: don’t you know you

have an unaccomplished mission unaccomplished:
someone somewhere may be at this very moment

dying for the lack of what W.C. Williams says
you could (or somebody could) be giving: yeah?

I mean, take my yard maple—put out in the free
and open—has overgrown, its trunk

split down from a high fork: wind has
twisted off the biggest, bottom branch: there

was, in fact, hardly any crowding and competition,
and the fat tree, unable to stop pouring it on,

overfed and overgrew and, now, again, its skin’s
broken into a disease may find it and bores

of one kind or another, and fungus: it just
goes to show you: moderation imposed is better

than no moderation at all:

. . .

A R Ammons, Garbage (1993)

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