Saturday, May 28, 2011

Beautiful Failure

I saw Tree of Life this afternoon without having any idea, really, of what I was getting myself into. About the only thing I knew about it was that Terrence Malick was its writer and director, which was, for me, an instant recommendation. (I love both Badlands and Days of Heaven, which amount to almost half of his forty year oeuvre.)

And what a strange film it was. I'm still trying to make sense of it. Ostensibly the story of a family in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s and 60s (Pitt plays the proud, abusive patriarch), it also tells the story of the natural universe. So we see underwater shots of the sea, perspectives of outer space, magnified human chromosomes, and even one short, dramatic encounter between dinosaurs. It quite a departure, needless to say, from conventional narrative, and after a certain amount of internal grumbling--my expectations disappointed--I sat back and tried to enjoy the ride.

As much as I could, anyway. I have to admit, although I found the images, and even the intention, admirable, I never really felt myself dissolve into Malick's film, be carried away into the experience of its characters. Although visually rich and philosophically ambitious, its comparative narrative poverty disappointed me. I could only admire from a distance. I was never invited to enter.

Later, quite by chance, I was reading an essay on the Rumpus about a totally different subject (Sherwood Anderson's short story collection, Winesburg, Ohio) when I read a sentence that summarized, fairly accurately, my complaints about Tree of Life: "Without sound narrative structure that permits and coheres with characterization, a piece of fiction becomes merely a rumination or catalog of observations, no matter how beautifully wrought."

Malick's film is a beautiful rumination, no doubt--on why, in critic Andrew O'Hehrir's words, "we are here, living and dying on this little blue rock in the middle of space, mesmerized by the mysterious relationships between parents and children that define our lives, connected at every something larger we can't really understand--but not, ultimately, a story.

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