The Tree of Life
Back in film school, in my 16mm production class, one of our projects was to do a self-portrait film. I took it upon myself to make a two and a half-minute mishmash of nonsense. I took a paper mache model I built for a crappy 101 art class I was taking at the time, and just filmed it in weird locations, made everything look as artsy as possible, and combined it with a slew of sound effects that I recorded that had NOTHING to do with imagery (frying an egg, opening a door, moving some sand, etc.) Just random images with random noise, none of it had any significance to myself, or basically anything. I did this with the intent that I could bring it to class, not say anything, and everyone would think it’s some sort of powerful symbolic statement. I couldn’t have been more right. I got oddly in-depth analysis from my classmates, a big thumbs up from my professor, and an easy A. It was crazy. I learned a big lesson by doing that project. Basically, if you make something with a lot of unexplainable random nonsense, people will think you’re an artistic genius. (For the record, the rest of my film school work was actually done with creativity and hard work, but I had to do that self-portrait film to prove a point about film analysis… …to myself, I guess?)
Anyway, The Tree of Life almost immediately reminded me of that project as I was watching it. I can’t say for sure the intent of Terrence Malick, I’m actually leaning towards he actually did have some vision, and the images he used actually made sense to him. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the other way. Just a giant hack job, filled with nonsensical explosions of color, begging for unwarranted analysis. I can imagine what editing this film was like:
Malick: OK great, dinner conversation scene, good good, alright CUT TO CARNIVAL SHOTS.
Editor: Wait, what?
Malick: Yeah Carnival shots, then kid in the attic, the same kid 8 years later walking down the street at night, OK OK, now BOOM dandelions, LOTS of dandelions.
Editor: Oh, well we were doing the dinner sce- Ya know what, I think I understand, come back tomorrow morning Mr. Malick. I’ll handle this.
Malick: Good, don’t forget the dinosaurs.
(editor puts the footage in two and a half hours of random order, writes TREE OF LIFE really big in sharpie)
I don’t care if I get criticized for not wanting to do any film analysis on Tree of Life, it’s all just too obvious for that. That’d be letting Tree of Life win. I like when you can read deeper into movies for added value, but I don’t like it when you CAN’T watch it without being FORCED into reading into it.
Basically the movie is a below average, fraction of a story told in an unconventional way. That fraction of a story is SURROUNDED by gratuitous footage. And it is a story that’s definitely not strong enough to sustain an audience without the additional mayhem around it. Restraint is a concept that was nowhere near this production. So many long (albeit pretty looking) shots that, in my opinion, don’t make that much sense. Maybe I didn’t get it? I probably don’t, actually. I know, though, that I didn’t like it. And it was kind of boring.
All the best moments came from tension caused by Brad Pitt’s character being an a-hole. Which was usually followed by three minutes of shots of people walking down streets. Cue random voiceover. Go back to the shred of a story that’s in the film for two minutes. Closeups of flowers. Space explosion. Brad Pitt reading newspaper. Dinosaurs. Horrible, unsatisfying ending. Let’s call it a day.
Don’t even get me started on Sean Penn’s character. Why was he even in this movie? I can’t believe he gets billing over Jessica Chastain. He has one line of dialogue in the whole film!! I can see why people would like this film, though. It does have ambition, I’ll give it that. Ultimately, the ambition ends up killing anything that resembles a functional movie. The cinematography is fantastic, too, it’s well shot. But yeah… I did not like The Tree of Life. But I still liked it better than Sucker Punch.
[Scott Roberts] "Basically, if you make something with a lot of unexplainable random nonsense, people will think you’re an artistic genius."
Scott, that is a classic, hilarious story and sadly, so, so true. I remember critiquing Ballet Mecanique in a class and basically calling it random nonsense. Not a good way to get a decent grade. Out of necessity, I later learned to embrace the "make up some meaning and go with it" system.
Video production... with style!
Maybe one of your guys can explain "Eraserhead" to me now....
No, I'm serious.....
Senior year of college, for the first time in its decades-long communications program, there was a group of students who desired more than the boilerplate video classes that had been on offer for centuries.
One of the new classes invented for us was called "Video Postproduction Editing" and it was taught by the video professor at the Hartford Art School. It turned out they had their own tv studio, which was mostly hidden from the communication students. We were interested in producing live newscasts and making tv commercials. The art students used their studio for - you know, I actually don't know what they used it for.
Anyway, there were three major assignments. The first was "Record 3 minutes of audio, place into a box, shake, and edit video to someone else's audio." The end result was, in most cases, a mishmash of video effects and random shots. He who had the most randomness tended to get a good grade.
Another assignment was "Record 1 minute of video and use it to create a 3 minute video." Basically this involved repetition, slow motion, etc. What he was going for was to create a repeatable motif.
Final assignment was "Do whatever you want, as long as you edit in the online bay and turn in your handwritten EDL."
A big part of the class was the almighty EDL which we had to write in long hand before editing then use as a guide when we go to do the edit. Since we only had 1 online edit bay (two if you count the art school studio which was pretty rickety), this involved a lot of late nights for a lot of people.
We hummed and hawed about the EDL. This was before AVID was available to the masses but at the time and for some time later, you would do your offline on the AVID, export an EDL, build your B-reel, then go to an online edit bay to assemble the final video. So what the class was doing was preparing us for this workflow, although I don't think the professor knew this.
Well, the next Spring when I got my entry level job, my first assignment was to re-do an edit that the previous editor had walked away from. And to my great surprise, this entailed interpreting a very long EDL (the old edit controllers saved the EDL to a floppy disk and had dot matrix printers attached so you could have a hard copy of the EDL for safe keeping.)
Sorry for the flashback. Think I might wait for the DVD of Tree of Life - I had high hopes.
Tree of Life is now on heavy HBO rotation. I recorded it and have now finished it in two sittings.
If Malick ever did an interview I'm sure he'd admit to being a Kubrick admirer. I admire them both.
Yeah, what Scott said is mostly true.
But the film, while not for the casual "honey get the latest Ben Stiller movie from Red box" viewer, has a lot to offer the cinema fan.
Ben Stiller movies are not cinema. They are movies intent on making money.
Few directors can pull off what Tree if Life has. A film that asks the viewer to ponder their own existence while forcing subconscious flashbacks to childhood. While I did not grow up in the 50's, the 70's were a lot like the 50's in Western Massachusetts.
The whole "big bang to present day" sequence that got so much press was kind of unnecessary but fits into Malick's images before story method.
And it is working for Malick who after making 5 movies in 38 years now has 34 movies in production starring neatly every working actor and a few dead ones.
Seriously I will try to see the next one in the theater because movies like this are not very frequent.
This post is kind of a a mish mash, just like the movie.
Here is an interesting video about the making of "To The Wonder" - actors such as Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams are not shy about saying "we were not given a script - we were asked to read Tolstoy and then Terry would find scenes from our experience - knowing that a lot of what we do won't be in the movie" I paraphrase.
But you know what, if Terry Malick can get away with this stuff, why shouldn't others. Check back to this thread in a year.