Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Sons Who Grow Up, and "The Tree of Life"

My sons and I went to go see "The Tree of Life" this past weekend. And the fact that we went to see it together is probably more important than anything that I could say about the film itself.

My first "real movie in a real theater" experience with one of my sons took place in the summer of 1994, when I took son #1 (who will turn 21 in December) to see "The Lion King." Two memories from that day will always stick with me. One was before the movie started, when he told me sternly that we could only eat our popcorn one kernel at a time, because "it had to last the entire movie." The second was during the wildebeest scene, when he climbed up into my lap and told me, "I don't like this movie." I told him not to worry, that this scene would be over really soon, and then it was going to get really funny. Fortunately, Timon and Puumba came through for me on that day.

To young parents who worry about what things are going to be like when their kids turn into (potentially surly) teenagers and stop being those cute little things who show up in photo albums and on homemade family calendars, I always say a variation of the same thing - don't worry; one age is not better than the other, they're just different - both are difficult, for different reasons; but both also have a lot to recommend them. For me, one of the best things has been to enjoy together the kinds of TV shows and movies that we either had to tape, or miss entirely altogether, when they were wee ones.

In the past couple of years, we've seen a lot of good-to-great movies together, but I'm pretty sure that we've never tackled one quite as difficult and complicated as "The Tree of Life." To say that Terence Malick's fifth movie in four decades of film-making is ambitious is probably the understatement of the year. As a work of art, it reminds me of The Clash's Sandinista - a work where the artist in question basically says to themselves, to heck with it - damn boundaries and limits; I'm just going to take this thing as far as it takes me, and then we'll see where things end up.

The first thing that shows up on screen is a quote from The Book of Job:

"Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

And that begins a journey that takes us from the beginnings of the universe, the evolution of the cosmos and life on Earth, a brief encounter between two dinosaurs, the story of a family in Waco, Texas in the 1950s, snippets of the modern-day life of a son now grown up, and a denouement which may or may not be Malick's depiction of Heaven itself.

In its scope and sprawl, "The Tree of Life" will cause many to think of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." I have to admit that I've never quite understood how "2001" came to be considered one of the landmarks of modern-day cinema, but I've never doubted the strength of its individual parts. For me, the whole of Kubrick's film was less than the sum of those parts.

With Malick's film, I think the opposite may be true - there are pieces of the film that fail to hit lofty heights, but blended together I think they result in a very moving whole. And thanks for that goes to the most important section of the film, that which tells the story of the young family growing up in Waco, Texas. The big star in this section is Brad Pitt as the father who has been disappointed by life, and is loving with his sons one moment while being barely able to conceal his frustrations and failures in another. But the performance that people will remember 50 years from now may very well be that of Hunter McCracken, who plays the oldest of three sons at an age where he is just beginning to figure out exactly how confusing life can be. How good is McCracken? Let's put it this way - I would say the gold standard for child performances in a movie is represented by Mary Badham in To Kill a Mockingbird and River Phoenix in Stand by Me. And this performance, at first blush, seems to me to be just as good as those two.

Sean Penn plays Jack as a grown-up, and while his scenes are brilliant from a cinematic point of view, as drama they don't come close to meeting the standard of the 1950s scenes. But you have to give Penn credit, because he does lend some emotional authenticity to the character, and it had to be painfully clear to him that his scenes were really little more than a vehicle by which to examine his memories of what things were like growing up.

It's not a movie for everyone, but it's well worth seeing and thinking about.

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