The Tree of LifeThe Tree of Life
Festival Daily
20 lis 11
Day 6 - A State of Grace – The Cinema of Terrence Malick

Few films screening in the main competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival were as talked about as The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick's ambitious fifth feature is the culmination of over three decades of thought and inquiry into the nature of existence, the power of faith and our place in a world. It divided audiences, with some dismissing it as quasi-Christian nonsense or cinematic grandstanding, while its supporters see it as the work of a director unafraid to take on ambitious subjects. Whatever one feels about it, or any other films by him, there is no doubting the uniqueness of Malick's oeuvre – a body of work that stands apart from all others in American cinema.

After graduating from the AFI Conservatory in 1969 (his graduation film Lantern Mills has since become one of the cinematic Holy Grails, due to the director's reticence in allowing it to be screened), Malick worked on a number of scripts, including Stuart Rosenberg's Pocket Money, and early drafts of Dirty Harry and Great Balls of Fire. When his script for Deadhead Miles was deemed unreleasable by its studio, Malick decided to take on the role of director. The result, Badlands (1973), is still regarded as the greatest debut by an American director. Based on the Charlie Starkweather killings of the 1950s, the film began Malick's exploration of our humanity's relationship with nature. As narrated by Sissy Spacek's naïf, who takes up with Martin Sheen's charming serial killer, the couple try to create an idyl in the wilderness of Montana, only to be stymied by Kit's uncontrollable violent urges. The film is also an astute critique of the growing role of celebrity in American society, predating other films that would offer an equally jaded view of the subject, such as Martin Scorsese's King of Comedy and Jonathan Demme's Melvin and Howard. Critics also acknowledged Malick's mastery of visual storytelling and the use of voiceover, which was employed more as a contrast to what is seen on the screen or spoken by Kit, than as a lazy device to paper over plot holes.

A voiceover was even more integral to Malick's next film, the sublimely beautiful Days of Heaven (1978). A love triangle that unfolds on the Texas Panhandle in the early days of the 20th century, the film is a paean to rural life and presents an almost Biblical take on cardinal sin. An Academy Award winner for its cinematography, it is regarded as one of the most beautiful films ever made. Its languorous narrative style, emphasised by Linda Mantz's voiceover, along with the look of the film, ensures its place as a genuinely original piece of cinema, which has only improved with time.

Why Malick disappeared for 20 years after the making of Days of Heaven is still not known, although the two years of post-production on his second film may have been a contributing factor the director choosing not to make another film for so long. When he returned, his approach to cinema had only gained in strength and complexity. The Thin Red Line (1998) is a remarkable achievement. Arguably Malick's masterpiece to date, it stands in stark contrast to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, which was released the same year. If that film dealt with the horrors of war, Malick showed more interest in the nature of it; of the violence that exists in the world and whether nature is a cruel or benevolent force (a variation on The Tree of Life's exploration of whether we live in a state of nature or grace). His most expansive film, with a multitude of characters leading the many narrative strands, orbiting around Private Witt's Christ-like character, Malick's use of voiceover is remarkable. No longer attributed to one character, the voiceovers are a chorus – the verbalisation of the shared experience of the men in combat. Along with Hans Zimmer's score and John Toll's cinematography, Malick created a war film like no other, whose richness demands repeated viewing.

Malick returned to the screen in 2004 with The New World, the story of Pocahontas and her encounter with the British. In particular, her relationship with John Smith. Again, multiple voiceovers are employed to emphasise the shared experience of the explorers. And man's relationship with nature is to the fore. Less urgent than The Thin Red Line, with a tempo similar to Days of Heaven, The New World suffered the same criticism as Malick's second film, but has since been acknowledged as one of the best films of the last decade.

After Malick completed Days of Heaven, he began writing Q, a script that intended to explore the origins of life on Earth. It took over three decades for the idea to be realised and when it was unveiled at Cannes earlier this year, it was greeted with hostility, confusion and the kind of admiration normally reserved for religious works of art. It has been compared by some to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, particularly in the creation of the universe sequence; not surprising, as both films employed the skills of Douglas Trumbull. But Kubrick's vision of the universe is far removed from Malick's (as was his approach to filmmaking. Kubrick would regard each sequence he shot as a military operation, with script, angles and movement decided before having his actors perform each shot numerous times in order to achieve his perfect take. For Malick, the film comes together in the editing. More free-form in style – he shot over one million feet of film for The New World – he allows actors to explore their characters, then creates his film after seeing all the footage).

The Tree of Life is, on one level, a Judao-pantheistic take on life in the universe. But the director's enquiry into the nature of existence is open to interpretation. Structuring the film the way he has, Malick also draws a fascinating parallel between the immensity of the universe and the importance of each life within it. With pitch-perfect performances by Brad Pitt – casting aside any doubts as to his skills as an actor – Jessica Chastain and Hunter McKracken, the film is a beautifully realised family drama, whose snapshots of everyday life in 1950s Texas – the period and location of the director's own childhood – are imbued with greater significance because of the film's omniscient view. It may not be for all tastes and some may balk at the much-derided final sequence, but there is no denying the originality and the vision of this remarkable filmmaker.



Ian Haydn Smith

Editor, International Film Guide & Curzon Magazine
e-mail ihsmith@yahoo.co.uk


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