Once in a while, you get an artistic film like The Tree of Life that almost drives you out of the cinema half-way through and makes you wonder why you didn’t buy tickets to Friends with Benefits instead. To be completely honest, if I watched this on DVD, I probably would never sit through it.
But to watch it in the cinema was quite an experience. A half hour into the movie, I heard people fidgeting in their seats, turned and saw the man next to me look at his mobile phone, and about forty-five minutes into it, a quiet snore emerged from somewhere, then a soft sigh. As for me, I was desperately trying to figure what was going on.
The Tree of Life is like an art-cum-national-geographic documentary, layered in between a dramatic plot of a family who has lost a child, all the while moving in a slow, non-linear fashion. There is little dialogue and hardly any climax and if you want to know the plot, it is best you refer here.
There are several voice-overs throughout the film that will fly by you if you don’t pay attention. As you watch merging organisms, erupting volcanoes, orbiting planets unravel their mystery right before your eyes in slow-motion, someone whispers a thought and leaves you thinking if that is meant to coincide with what you’re about to see.
I am not one of those people who would look at art and then lavish you with technical jargon, history and explain in depth the psyche of the artist when he was doing this painting or that sculpture. Yet I do appreciate art in every form, however little I may understand it.
My first thought after about ten minutes was how someone can shoot a series of random things, put them together and win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But by the end of the film, I realised that I can’t take a straightforward approach with this uncompromising film.
There is nothing random at all what director Terrence Malick did. What may seem random to us, the viewer, is probably driven by a very strong artistic influence and his personal stake in a story like that. Which is to say, if anyone tries to simply imitate what he does, it would be like replicating the physical appearance of something, without actually understanding that it is the inner workings that has contributed to how it eventually looks.
The story does have a cycle. The family deals with the news of a dead child, the mother questions God and why bad things happen to good people, then you get some sort of an answer midway into the film, catch a glimpse into the life of this family over the years, and by the end of the film, you understand that all that arrangement was to allow you to grasp the essence and fundamental concept of the tree of life. I think that quite completes the journey.
For an actor, it would be a rather daunting task, yet the most rewarding, to hold a script that has so few words. I wouldn’t say it’s empowering, because at the end of the day, it is the director’s overall vision and his call on what he would like his actors to project, that would tie in beautifully with his other visuals.
In local television, we are so used to telling stories with words that leaves us with hardly any quiet moments to just not say or do anything. Then I watch a film, that tells a story with cinematically stunning visuals of nature (not sure if they were shot live or digitally re-created) and MTV-like shots of the actors that might not seem to make any sense when put together. Somewhere along the way, I found myself trying to seek reconciliation.
When they aren’t using words, these actors in The Tree of Life have so much emotions and inner dialogue in each of these beautifully composed shots that they are essentially “doing something” even though it seemed like nothing at all. This to me is the highest form of acting, where the idea of “acting” completely eludes the audience.
This begets the next question: What did the director tell them before each shot?
The way it is shot with the actors seems to come off almost voyeuristic. Especially with the young actors, it almost felt like the camera was trained of them the whole time, allowing them to be uninhibitedly natural. I’m guessing, they might have been told what the emotional requirements of the scene were, or perhaps, told to imagine a time or maybe even told a story, whatever it was, the director must have been very clear what emotions he wanted from them for the scene, and he captured it in the most raw and uncomplicated manner while still maintaining an aesthetic quality to it.
Having said that, The Tree of Life has indeed given me a lot to think about, not just in terms of the underlying themes of life and death but also in understanding myself and my craft.