In the current issue of Harper's Magazine, there's a dispatch from Burkina Faso, where every two years there is a magnificent film festival in the capital of Ouagadougou. For years the most prestigious cinematic event in Africa, one event that draws industry representatives from across the globe, it has lately been suffering from tensions between art and commerce. While the Burkina Faso event tends to exalt high art, the French language and directors such as Ousmane Sembène, a more fecund industry has emerged in English-speaking countries, especially Nigeria, in which films with no pretense to the high callings of art are churned out quickly and cheaply.
The essay suggested that the Ouagadougou event runs the risk of losing all touch with mass tastes—in effect, becoming a safe house for the practice of cinematic art. And so it goes, from landlocked Burkina Faso to the French Riviera, where the Cannes Film Festival fans the flames under such highbrow, but commercially marginal filmmakers as Lars von Trier and Terrence Malick. Von Trier stole the headlines by getting banished from the festival after making terribly shocking remarks about Nazism and the human condition; he'll be able to dine out on this outrage for at least five years, even as his films' commercial prospects remain moribund.
But it was Malick who claimed the prestigious Palme d'Or with The Tree of Life, and with this effort, Malick is tripping along at a rate of about one film per decade. Starting with Badlands in 1973 (which New Yorker critic Pauline Kael dismissed as "draggy art" in a famous review well worth seeking out in its entirety) and continuing with Days of Heaven (with Richard Gere and lots of wheat); The Thin Red Line (a blur of voice-overs in wartime); and The New World (the European conquest), Malick's sparse output nonetheless inspires fervent devotion among cinephiles and incense burning in Cannes, Venice, Berlin and Thessaloniki.
People who like Malick films will like The Tree of Life. I strive to keep my mind open, but I tend to think if you've seen one Malick film, you've seen them all. (I have also just noticed that his film titles read like a collection of U2 songs.) My favorite is probably The New World, because that film had something like a coherent and compelling idea: a collision between two incompatible cultures, without making one of them "good" and the other "bad."
But no such insight is readily apparent in The Tree of Life, which traverses billions of years, chronicling the big bang, the spewing of lava from volcanoes, the successive emergence of single-celled organisms, invertebrates and dinosaurs, followed by mass extinction and rebirth, all to settle on the haggard, self-regarding face of Sean Penn.
Buried under the millennia of earthly progress, which we seem to watch in real time, is a story of a Texas childhood in the 1950s. There are three boys in the O'Brien family—we've already learned that R.L. (Laramie Eppler), the sensitive, artistic one, will die as a young man, while Jack (Hunter McCracken), the eldest, will accumulate anger and resentment and grow up to be Sean Penn. The scenes we see of the young O'Brien family are much like our own earliest memories, fragmentary and sensory, with a loving, nurturing mother at the center. But as the boys age, the vignettes become harsher. These scenes are photographed so powerfully that it's hard not to think that there's an element of autobiography for Malick, who grew up in Texas. (It's also been reported that Malick had a brother who committed suicide as a young man).
Most interesting, however, is the portrait of the father, played by Brad Pitt. My father, who is Malick's age, has often maintained that the so-called Greatest Generation, American men who came of age in the Great Depression and fought in World War II, suffered from a crippling inability to open up emotionally. Instead, they were tightly wound and self-righteous, grimly determined to be impregnable fortresses of rectitude and solidity for their families. So it is with Brad Pitt's Mr. O'Brien, a onetime musician who becomes some sort of low-ranking engineer. He demands absolute obedience from his increasingly terrified, resentful sons, and he's never more frightening than when he's teaching them to fight. Pitt deserves credit. He knows this character, and he's utterly convincing. It's one of the few occasions I've been able to forget that he's a movie star.
Considerably less delineated, however, is Mrs. O'Brien, played by Jessica Chastain, who glows with saintliness, even on the one occasion when she offers resistance to her husband's bullying of their sons. It might have helped humanize her if Malick had photographed her once, just once, in harsh, unflattering light. But no, this microcosmic history of humankind seems to occur only in the soft, magical glow of morning and dusk. Still, one of the film's most enigmatic fragments concerns Mrs. O'Brien, when we see her offer water to parched, just-apprehended fugitives she encounters while in town with her children. But who are these wretched men? What did they do? You're at the wrong movie, my friend, if you expect something so trivial as explanations.
But these scene fragments, as vivid as they often are, never coalesce into a narrative; The Tree of Life is aiming for something more elevated and contemplative. The Texas local color is only part of the film—much of the rest is a visual trip through the history of the universe, with repeated shots of an aurora borealis-like spectral image. Malick's pictures are always pretty, but The Tree of Life is finally an overblown, overlong wallow in eye candy, vaporous spirituality and whispered voice-overs that promise pleasure and a climax that never arrives. It feels shallow to say this, but I'm less impressed by the film's cosmic pretensions than frustrated that I couldn't pull in more than a few fleeting details of the O'Brien family's life and struggle.
What's finally troubling about Malick's vision, and he's the sort of director who is "visionary," is that it's devoid of contemporary context. His enactment of the entire history of the planet works toward a reassuring idea of eternal order: birth, decay and death as part of the great chain of being. That's fine, but it seems sentimental and temperamentally conservative. These days, there seems to be little doubt that in 200 short years of industrial exploitation, humans have profoundly, negatively, disrupted the natural ebb and flow of this island Earth. At this year's Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, a film artist named Graa Castanheira managed, on an infinitesimal budget, to contemplate a different kind of natural history, one that is full of beauty, heartbreak and despair. Her film, called Angst, leaves us conflicted about the undeniable human achievements in the magnificent, bountiful paradise that we seem to have damaged, probably beyond repair. An alternate title for Castanheira's film could be The Oil Well of Death.
With The Tree of Life, Malick joins the ranks of filmmakers trying to make a big movie about everything, a quest as old as Griffith's Intolerance. It's a quest like Ahab chasing the white whale, and the result is what Manny Farber called, not necessarily unkindly, a white elephant movie. Even if I'm not so impressed with the purported profundity of The Tree of Life (and I certainly don't want to sit through it again), I'm glad it exists. So rush out and see it, but make an event of it. Plan a nice dinner beforehand, then have drinks afterward, the better to talk about what it all means.