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THE TREE OF LIFE, a humble review!


THE TREE OF LIFE (2011), a humble review!

Ok, there have been a lot of write-ups about this Palme d’Or winner but having attended the premier and having witnessed firsthand the reaction of audiences, I felt I should write a little piece of my own.

The theater was certainly filled up with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars- Jude Law, Uma Thurman and Robert DeNiro (all members of this year’s jury), Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Angelina Jolie, Jessica Chastain, and even Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale.

So, while the theater was electric with enthusiasm at the start of the show, it was almost silent by the end of the screening. Many say they heard dissatisfied ‘boos’ after the film, but I heard none. There was a hesitation in the applause but the audience did rise, clap and even delivered a standing (though restrained) ovation. The reserved reception was perhaps due to audiences not yet knowing how to feel about this recent avant-garde opus of Malick’s. Lets be fair to viewers. While being hailed as a triumph in art and breaking new ground for filmmaking, there is always a hesitation and gasp from those who experience for the first time something they have never seen before. And that was exactly what it was like inside that theater. While moving, jarring and even downright frustrating at times, the film forces its viewer to think and put in as much into the film as it gives, which is indeed what cinema (and the staunch requirements of Cannes cinema) should do, a praise-worthy quality we see less and less in the tides of media and film market flooding.

Indeed I have to say that for myself, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the film by the end. I didn’t love it; however, I didn’t not like it either. I felt there was something deep and substantial lying beneath its surface that I had to evaluate and could not do in my first viewing. Granted, after a full day of working the Cannes market, rushing to dress formally and racing for the red carpet to usher into our seats, and all on an empty stomach, this could have had something to do with the anxiety I felt for the long film to end. For the last 45 minutes of the film I was squirming in my seat with exhaustion praying for the film to end so we could finally unwind from a long hard Cannes day. Did others share this sentiment? I don’t know. But there was certainly mixed feelings about the film and there still seems to exist a chasm between those who love the film and those who hate it. As for me, I have to say that I must see it again. I am sure that it is not a film that I love, but I can say that I love Malick’s work and the film is indeed a revolution in filmmaking and that is why it deems a second and possibly multiple viewings. In fact, I was so befogged by the end of the film that I turned to my colleague and said, ‘I don’t get it’. He told me he didn’t like it and I said, ‘well, this is Cannes so it’ll probably win the Palme d’Or then, since we are both lost’. lol!

Right after Cannes I traveled to Rome for business and spoke with friend and greatly esteemed Italian director. We spoke at length about the film. He had watched the film in a theater in Rome (dubbed in Italian unfortunately) to an almost empty theater and praised it as one of the greatest works of cinema he had ever been privileged to experience. I told him that I felt I needed to see it again as it had been too long for an early evening premier at Cannes and my exhaustion and hunger perhaps led to an unfair cloudy-headed judgment so we agreed that indeed this film should be watched with much patience, an open mind, and not on an empty stomach. Needless to say, do not enter the theater expecting a traditional narrative film; rather, enter with no expectations, only the will to take a journey unlike one you have ever experienced in film nor are likely to take any time again soon.

While there is much criticism over ‘the dinosaur scenes’ of the film, my Italian director friend spoke of his admiration of all the creation of life scenes as having to have been filmed independently of the movie. None of that filming is coming from archive. It has all had to be made for the film specifically and one has to admire the quality of such filming and the courage to use it in a narrative movie. Malick continues to break all the rules of filmmaking and force nuances into cinema that are completely opposite to what any film school would teach. But, as the argument goes, one must know the rules in order to break them and Malick clearly knows the rules better than most because smash them to bits he does. If THE TREE OF LIFE is now a new branch on the ever growing tree stems of cinema-making history, then Terrence Malick’s cinematic vision is an almost Humean wrecking ball, wholly uprooting all previous film theory and film philosophy.

Hail Malick’s bravery and soaring success with THE TREE OF LIFE (2011).

Written by Vanessa McMahon June 01, 2011


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