The Tree of Life: A Magnificent Meditation

By Victoria Looseleaf

Like Shostakovich’s 1932 satiric opera, Orango, which received its world premiere only last week at Walt Disney Concert Hall (click here to read our review of that), we’re coming to The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick, somewhat late in the season. (And no, we’re not comparing ourselves to the brilliant Russian composer, but are usually more timely…)

Admittedly, we had a chance to see Tree when it first came out last June, after snagging the coveted Palme d’Or in Cannes. But we were in Montpellier, France (click here for some of our coverage of that sojourn), and opted, instead, to see Hangover II, dubbed Bad Trip 2 by those fabulous French. (And sure enough, it was a bad trip, though we still love Zach Galifiankis click here for our recent thoughts on Mr. G. and Olympia Dukakis in Bored To Death, including our KUSC chat with Dukakis – and are now in jeopardy of getting off topic, which is what we do when we’ve got a killer headache and are attempting to fill the blank page).

But we digress: We’d been seeing so much serious dance back then (click here for our L.A. Times Dispatch from Montpellier), we figured we needed a divertissement instead of indulging in anything too deep, fois gras and clafoutis notwithstanding; click here for our clafoutis coverage – or lack thereof – in Roman Polanski‘s latest, Carnage). That said, we jumped at the chance to see TOL in Beverly Hills, particularly as it was a slow night for us, performing arts-wise. Well worth the wait (Malick also takes his time, this being his fifth film in some 38 years), the movie is simply stunning, provocative and decidedly Oscar-worthy. Indeed, we just learned that the famously press-shy Malick won the L.A. Film Critics award for best director, while the movie was voted one of the top 10 AFI films of the year. Yes!

The movie is rife with musings on the origins of the universe and the development of life on earth (hello, empathic dinosaurs), with an end of time/life finale that devastates. In short, the conclusion leaves one breathless: It has the dead, having risen from wherever it is they keep themselves, congregating on a truly, well, heavenly beach. No Club Med here, just sand, surf and souls. (Unfortunately, readers, we know a thing or two about death, having lost a brother who left this universe too soon, making Malick’s scenario that much more meaningful for us.)

Bravura performances also rule: Brad Pitt (face it: the dude can act), is a music-loving, quasi-dastardly father to three boys, the oldest of whom is played with chilly brilliance by newcomer, Hunter McCracken. That he grows up to be a complex Sean Penn (is that redundant?), is no less a revelation. But it is the coming-of-age theme, probed with the laser-like precision of a proctologist, that fascinates. And none of this would be possible without the stunning Jessica Chastain. An emotional volcano, this actor has had a huge year, having been in films including the overrated, underwhelming The Help, Ralph Fiennes’ brutal Coriolanus and Al Pacino’s Wilde Salome, a flick we haven’t yet seen but were privy to the 2006 staged production when the ravishing redhead was a virtual unknown. (Click here for our coverage of one of Pacino’s recent stinkers, The Son of No One.)

But back to TOL: Having received mixed reviews, the film may be too deep for the masses, and does demand a second viewing. It also needs to be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. Its deliberately Butoh-like pacing is abetted by Jack Fisk’s meticulous set design, Emmanuel Lubezki’s sumptuous cinematography, and Alexander Desplat’s textured score. The composer certainly took risks by slithering in his music between the likes of Górecki, Couperin, Brahms and Berlioz, part of whose towering Requiem adds an aurally visceral element to the aforementioned celestial climax.

We reveled in all of this, including the voice-overs heard throughout Malick’s masterpiece, some of which ponder the big questions of life and are asked of – who else – God. (Hey: Ask the iPhone 4s’s Siri ‘What is the meaning of life?’ and she comes up with a slew of wild responses, including the existential – “To think about questions like this” – as well as unexpectedly weird rejoinders that manage to incorporate chocolate.

Siri, however, can’t hold a candle to this film (and candles, btw, are cinematically prominent), though we’re sure the telephonic assistant will soon be getting starring roles in upcoming flicks, so pardon our Yiddish as we exclaim, ‘Oy!’ In Tree, allegories abound, spiritual and otherwise, with Waco, Texas the earthly tableau of the 1950’s, as high-waisted pants, crew-cuts and Eisenhower-era repression run rampant. There’s not much action in the non-linear Tree, but Malick does give us a visual diary of moving from birth through childhood to puberty and beyond with astonishing heart, elements of danger nevertheless lurking about.

Eccentric (ya think?), and utterly original, the film’s majesty lies in the unknown, forcing us to confront ourselves as we continue our inextricable march forward in time. We don’t know – or can’t know the future – but Terrence Malick seems to make it all a little less morbid (though sorrow is a given), a lot more glorious, and something far removed from any computer, cell phone or social network lifestyle that so permeates our existence today.

Brad Pitt, in James Dean mode (top), and channeling Peter Lorre (below), with a dash of Michael Richards thrown in. And why not? The actor is fearless, fun-loving and coolness squared; so good luck, Mr. Pitt, as maybe, just maybe, this is your year for thespian gold.

About Victoria Looseleaf

Victoria Looseleaf is an award winning arts journalist and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, KUSC-FM radio, Dance Magazine, Performances Magazine and other outlets. She roams the world covering dance, music, theater, film, food and architecture. Have pen - and iPad - will travel! Her latest book, "Isn't It Rich? A Novella In Verse" is now available on Amazon. Thank you for reading! Cheers...
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