By Fernando Ganzo
It has been too many years since I saw James Gray’s first film, Little Odessa. I can barely remember the plot, my memory rather retains ambients, slight sketches of the characters and their feelings. I would say that, in fact, there where only slight sketches in it. Most of all, I keep back a line, although I don’t think it was a film in which much was spoken. A line that I know I’m not the only one who keeps back, and I quote, roughly, by heart: «When you are six you think that your father can do it all. When you are 16 you think he can’t do nothing. When you are 26, you admit that he could do some things. And when you are 36 you wonder: how would have my father done it?». With The Thin Red Line (which for me is the film that marks that kind of break that usually is stressed in Malick’s work, which many want to see already in Days of Heaven), a film full of interior monologues, exhortations and clashes, of questions and searches, it happens to me just the opposite: I keep back a moment in which the protagonist (Jim Caviezel) in a distant zone of the front passes by another soldier, who is wounded, sitting under a tree. They barely speak, but that unknown soldier decides to stay there and not to go with Caviezel, waiting perhaps for his death.
The Tree of Life is precisely about that, about images from the memory, and what it is to remember the father. Anyway, they say that the tree diagram is the one that resembles human reasoning the most, and Malick’s film diagram goes through the perception of a character, Sean Penn, who revisits his childhood and his relationship with his parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain). All the images set then, seem to be filtered by the construction of the story in the form of family memories. That’s why the ones set in the “present”, in a world of skycrapers, have something peculiar. It is like they are images that don’t touch the bottom of the pool which is the movie, and they have to find a way to float. They don’t resemble anything, and that’s why Malick shoots them like they were shot for the first time, always inventing amazing solutions.
But the firs thing that introduces the film is it’s formalism (the image that opens and closes the film is a kind of spiral, something in between a nebula and a soul). When the characters appear, they do it through their affections (the first thing that we see from the couple played by Pitt and Chastain is their reaction to one of their children’s death). We know, thus, that form and affection are going to go together. One of the kids, in bed, asks his mother, who is telling them stories, to tell them something «from when we can’t remember». That’s the unsolved problem of the film, because when it wants to get, thru that combination, to see a world even before our memories, to evoke that lost hability, (the beginning of the film has a long succession of images that imagine the origin of life in a series of associations of geometrical shapes that come out into nature, including dinosaurs, and always appealing our affections: amazing computer generated images, a little obvious musical selection), when it begins that search, we need to take a little distance from the form, invite ourselves to dive in it, rather than jumping with it on our backs. Stan Brakhage knew that the camera was a tool that could be used in another way, that thanks to it we could see other things, things that precede our reason, without the need of computer generated images or metaphores.
Malick’s form in this film constantly demands the viewer to go into ecstasies to be able to accept it, and that demand overwhelms the relationship between the film and what the viewer can take. To cut a long story short, when we distance ourselves from Peckinpah (the birth of cruelty, selfdestruction, the loss of something that then we search for thru our entire lives) and we delve into a film by Terrence Tarkovsky, or Stanley Malick, it is hard not to fall into an excess of 'new age'.
But the film works because cinema is so very closely linked to memories, and everytime you work in that direction you will get some reward. And in this case the reward is watching how Malick develops the character of the mother, a beautiful evolution of his feminine characters, in his ‘red-headed’ line (Sissy Spacek, Miranda Otto) and not the ‘brunette’ line (Brooke Adams and Q’orianka Kilcher).
Talking to Pierre Léon about his adaptation of The Idiot, by Dostoievski, I told him that, strangely enough, even though in the film there were no kids, there was something very childish in it. He was surprised because, he really had noticed that when watching again the conversations in the film he remembered a feeling from his childhood, when in his home in Moscow, all the guests spoke of serious things, while he, maybe observing from the stairs, couldn’t understand a thing. That childish thing that can nourish the image is something that usually a film with kids doesn’t convey, and Malick, however, manages to do.
The film ends, after a sequence in which Penn chases himself as a kid thru a desertic place, in a beach where the characters of the film and many others parade. Rather than in the sky, it is in the beach (that could have been taken from a book by Paulo Coelho, so to speak) where lies what our memory keeps back, coexisting, being connected, wandering. It has been hardly an hour till the film ended, and who knows how it will endure in our memories. It is like with some extremely ambitious paintings, in which the author doesn’t realize that his simpler brushstrokes are the most beautiful ones, and they feel closer to you when you contemplate the painting, and after watching it, you couldn’t describe the whole painting with precission but just those two simple brushstrokes.
Unlike Gray’s film, when form is as magnanimous as in the tree of life, it requires a submissive viewer. Refusing to be one, I suspect we will retain unexpected things.
Translated from Spanish by Juan M. Pastora.