Introduction to The Tree Of Life (Terrence Malick 2011)
Here’s the text of a talk I gave on Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, at Derby QUAD on Tuesday 9th August 2011.
Introduction to The Tree of Life
At the 1973 New York Film Festival, a duo of films premiered that became instant classics and launched the reputation of two of America’s most exciting filmmakers. One was Mean Streets, which Martin Scorsese has followed up with nearly twenty fictional movies, countless documentaries, music videos and even a TV show. The other film was Badlands, whose director Terrence Malick has released only four films in the 38 years since – of which the fourth is tonight’s film, The Tree Of Life.
Yet, despite the disparity in output, both Scorsese and Malick have a similarly high standing amongst connoisseurs of cinema – and it is precisely because Terrence Malick takes so long that he inspires an almost evangelical worship amongst his fans. These aren’t movies; these are near-religious experiences that can leave their audience awestruck. Check out the titles: Days Of Heaven, The New World, The Tree Of Life. In an age where directors are making films about wizards, robots and superheroes, here’s a director obsessed with the mysteries of creation and a spiritual contemplation of life.
Terrence Malick himself is an enigma. He hasn’t given an interview for years, never allows his image to be used in his films’ publicity, and disappeared from filmmaking for a whopping two decades – a period where it’s still hard to say exactly where he went or what he did. But he inspires such passion that everybody in Hollywood wanted to sign up for his 1998 comeback, The Thin Red Line, with Sean Penn famously telling the director, “Give me a dollar and tell me where to show up.” On the same film, Woody Harrelson hung around on set for a month after he’d shot all of his scenes, just to watch the director at work.
And because of the lengthy gaps between projects, each new Malick film becomes an event. That’s certainly true of The Tree Of Life, a project that Malick has reportedly been developing since the 1970s, and which combines a 1950s family melodrama with an odyssey into the beginnings of life on Earth, and which arrives in Britain having already won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Terrence Malick was born in Waco, Texas (incidentally, the setting for the childhood sequences in The Tree Of Life) before attending Harvard and Oxford universities, and starting a career in journalism. But, still in his twenties, he discovered filmmaking and started out doing uncredited rewrites on Hollywood movies – the notable example, believe it or not, is, Dirty Harry.
Badlands established him as a force to be reckoned with – many called it the best debut film since Citizen Kane – and his follow-up, 1978’s Days Of Heaven, won major prizes at Cannes and the Oscars. The films shared elements that have become Malick trademarks. A gift for visual imagery – most of Days Of Heaven was shot in the so-called “magic hour” before dusk. A knack for complex, ironic voiceover. An intuition for casting future stars before they became famous: Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Badlands, Richard Gere in Days Of Heaven.
But mostly, they share an otherworldly presence quite unlike other movies. In a rare interview around the time of Badlands, Malick remarked, “Nostalgia is a powerful feeling; it can drown out anything. I wanted the picture to set up like a fairy tale, outside time.” To achieve the effect, Malick would ignore usual filmmaking practicses like the call sheet which most directors use to plan out their day – instead, he would shoot spontaneously, as the mood or the weather took him. It wasn’t uncommon for Malick to shoot more a million feet of film…and then spend years in the editing suite cutting it down.
And then, at the start of a major career, nothing – until two decades later he suddenly announced he was making a WWII action movie. The Thin Red Line was dwarfed on release by the similar, if simpler, Saving Private Ryan, but Malick’s film has grown in stature in the years since – not least because of its sheer ambition. Malick took half of Hollywood’s actors to make the film, and then left many of them on the cutting room floor. You could make several movies simply from the actors who don’t appear in the finished film: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Gary Oldman, Viggo Mortensen, Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman and many others.
For anybody else, this would be career suicide – but Malick was now above the normal standards applied to filmmakers. Except for one thing: next time, he wouldn’t wait 20 years before making another film. Instead, he only took seven years, although The New World – a retelling of the Pocahontas story starring Colin Farrell and Christian Bale – still took months to shoot and longer to edit. Malick was ordered by studios to submit the film for Oscar consideration before he’d properly finished, which is why the version released to ensure eligibility in 2005 is different from the one widely available today. Again, it did poor box-office business…but like all of Malick’s films since Badlands, its reputation grew until it ended up on many critics’ list of the best films of the past decade.
Which brings us to The Tree Of Life, filmed in 2008 and finally released after three years of tinkering. Admittedly, Malick’s ambitions this time around have been bigger than ever before – this is a film about (as Douglas Adams once put it) life, the universe and everything, which combines typically beautiful camerawork with radical special effects. But Malick hates computer generated imagery, so he brought back Douglas Trumbull – the special effects pioneer who worked on 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind – to experiment with organic methods to build the film’s visionary images.
How do these sequences fit in with the story of a boy growing up in the 1950s with a domineering father, played against type by Brad Pitt? And what does footage of dinosaurs have to do with present-day scenes in which the boy, now grown up and played by Sean Penn, reflects on his life? Big and small are presented as part of the same infinite, cosmic experience.
Such spiritual filmmaking isn’t for everyone, and The Tree Of Life has had mixed reviews since its debut at Cannes. But that’s entirely in keeping with Terrence Malick’s career – and as ever his advocates were passionate enough to see it awarded the festival’s biggest prize. Jury President Robert De Niro, explained the decision by saying, “It had the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” Don’t be surprised to see The Tree Of Life grow deep roots in people’s affections.
Amazingly, Malick has already shot Film #6 but, given how long the editing process takes, we’re unlikely to see it for a while. Even so, this will be the first decade since the 1970s in which Terrence Malick will release two films – by his standards, this is prolific, although he’s still got a long way to go if he’s to catch up with Martin Scorsese.
Check out more of my film introductions here.