Sunday, February 03, 2013

...Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, a movie of ellipses ...

This is dangerous ground that one is treading. Terence Malick is a legend in the circle of those who know films, especially my college friend Jugu Abaraham, and very often we have disagreed on films. Malick has done philosophy in Harvard University, and tenured as philosophy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), when he took up a film course, thus setting off on his film-making trail. The legend goes that he made just five films in 38 years, and The Tree of Life, which has won the Palm d'Or at Cannes in May 2011 is his latest venture. Watching the DVD of the film given me by a young colleague, Aakshi Magazine, who liked the film immensely, was a puzzling experience.
For two hours the DVD was struck on a particular scene -- Brad Pitt playing the piano and looking through a half ajar door, a girl twirling in sunlight and allowing a butterfly to alight on her wrist, a boy playing the guitar, Pitt allowing a new-born baby to clasp his finger, Pitt cupping the tiny feet of the baby, a row of pictures and then the motif of the piano player, girl in sunlight, boy playing guitar, the babe clasping the finger, the baby's tiny feet being cupped. The musical notes are simple and pleasing. The scene repeated itself for nearly two hours when I thought that this was a prelude to the film, and for a long time thought that this was the leitmotif of the film, and the scene is being repeated as musical notes are often repeated. Then I pressed the play button of the DVD player, and the familiar Indian censor board certificate and the movie got going. What we see then is sunlight, the earth, the waters, the dinosaurs, the fish. Then we come to the family set in a semi-rural American. Man, wife, three sons and what follows are the scenes from the family life, framed beautifully, even a lot of lyricism. There is no narrative. Then we are shown Sean Penn moving through a lift in a city. And then back to the family scenes, the strict father, the beautiful mother, the three boys timid and hesitant rebels, the emotional tug between the son and mother, between father and son, the thunderous sermon in the church, the scenes of prisoners being drawn in chains, and they being given water. There is no necessary connection between the evolution of life, the thunderous message of God conveyed by God and the father who insists on being called 'Father'and not 'Daddy', and the little boy who mumbles to his father that 'you want to kill me', and the family leaving the home on way to another place, the hint that something is being left behind. Then we see Penn walking around, and the gathering of the three boys, father and mother on the beach among many others on a beach on a sunny day. The story builds on the moments in the family life, in the boys'life, the couple's life, fragments of episodes which in totality give the sense of life spent in near-rural America of the 1950s. The fragments add up to give the picture of the life of the family. And Malick might be right in reconstructing the past based on motes of time as it were to build the beam of light and memory and life. Malick refuses to tell a story on the basis of a narrative of events chosen from many. He seems to believe that the only way to capture the past or recall the past is to gather the impressions, the memories which are in themselves not part of a consecutive series. So, the movie is an impression if not a Gestalt. Some kind of a Proustian narrative based on reliving memory of particular images? Is The Tree Of Life then a great metaphysical film, where a philosophical view of life is to be expressed through quotidian scenes from an ordinary family life, the scenes which possess a magical quality of their own in the memory of a man who relives them in his memory? It does work to some extent, something like the lyrical hallucinations of the narrator in The English Patient in the novel, though the film has been reduced to regular narrative. Malick's film seems to satisfy and thrill film critics who are hungry for a deeper philosophical statement in the visual form of the film without falling into the trap of a regular narrative, moving from one scene to another. This is ellipsis stretched to the maximum, a bold experiment which does not necessarily work. Malick has attempted the impossible task of connecting the humble human life and the grandeur of nature. It is almost like watching the tigers or lions or elephants or gorillas living their community lives in the vast green stretches of Africa with their hills and rivers and forests. There is a slight hitch in the movie. The human episode is not fully embedded in nature. But Malick is aware that human beings are not any more fully embedded in nature and that they live in a humanscape of their own -- the houses, the farms, the churches, the cars, the skyscrapers. Malick's philosophical film remains an odd construct, beautiful in some ways and fleetingly emotional in other ways. But it remains elusive in spite of its attempt to be intense as only human beings can be. The film does not work.

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