The tree of life


I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t particularly like it either, and this is coming from a person who loves every other Terrence Malick film!

It was a beautifully shot film. Malick seems to have totally abandoned narrative, dialogue and actors performance, in favour of his distinct visual style: Images of pastoral, bucolic, nature, and people running around, like it’s the Garden of Eden. But, because there is no story, this style started to grate. It felt clichéd to me. In fact, old Malick films do it better, because their variation between static dialogue scenes and these moments, give the films more visual and stylistic texture.

Here, there is a constant use of tight steady-cam shots following characters around, spinning around them. The edits jump cut fragments together: moments of silence and looks, hands on backs, ignoring any hint of a conventional dialogue scene. Choral music is plastered over everything and voices whisper little bits of voice over.

There is a half hour digression that takes in the creation of earth and includes some terrible CGI dinosaurs. It is pretty clichéd, a mix of 2001, Fantasia and Walking with Dinosaurs, and look the dinosaurs have morality! At this point my mind began to wander and I asked myself: if these dinosaurs are part of this story, why aren’t they all jump cuts and steady-cam’d up?

I thought the story, or to be more precise the conceit, was self-indulgent and made no sense whatsoever. I simply didn’t understand the logic of it. I know it was all about Life and Spirituality but that doesn’t mean you can’t throw in a few narrative hooks to pin it on and make it more logical. For example:

If it was about Sean Penn remembering his fifties childhood, because his brother died. Then his brother’s death in the now should spark that story. Or the break up of his marriage or his mum or dad dying or something. That kind of thing make more narrative sense and gives some reason for the present day story.

If it’s just about a Sean Penn remembering his life, then why does he remember the beginning of time and a load of dinosaurs? Then a summer when he was ten. It’s a pretty strange selection of life memories: a load of stuff that never happened to you, and one summer. If he was thinking about all this because of the death of his brother, ten years later, wouldn’t he remember that time too and his reaction to the death, not just his parents reaction?

Basically the film isn’t about that Sean Penn character at all. It’s the director’s vision of his childhood played out by actors. A Hopper-Wyeth, Fifties, Pastoral, America and I don’t mind that, just please give me a little bit of story to hook it to . Otherwise I might as well just be watching Malick’s home movies.

Conquest of the Useless by Werner Herzog


Werner Herzog’s poetic, fever-dream account of the making of ‘Fitzcaraldo’ his most famous film, in which a mad opera lover ( and also, of course, the filmmakers) pulled a boat over a mountain in the Amazon jungle.

The book is based on his diary entries during the long and arduous process of making this strange vision a reality.

It vividly describes, in a different way to the film, life in the jungle — a kind of dreary fecund existence. You can almost smell the rotten fruit and feel the mud, damp and humidity. It’s all very Heart of Darkness and the language and concerns are distinctively Herzog-ian. Ecstatic truths, headless chickens, the raving of Klaus Kinski, the mundane evils of nature…

‘When you shoot an elephant, it stays on its feet for ten days before it falls over.’

‘In the light of the moon, which is not even half full, your own body casts a clear shadow, which obediently shrinks when you tell it to heel.’

The book also gives a flavour (from the most extreme end of the spectrum) of the organised anarchy that is film making. The kind of insane-ness you have to posses in order to convince sceptics to partake in a vision only you can see. Everything becomes a means to an end — the ecstatic and pointless vision of a ship traversing a mountain and nothing and no one can stand in the way of that vision.

There are a lot of insane egos and crazy accidents that radiate around Herzog and he paints himself as calm and rational through it all, even at times of immense stress and lack of sleep, sometimes I found this version of himself hard to believe. Surely no one can be that calm in the face of such chaos?

His strange obsession seems to me a metaphor for the creative insanity of humans and of life itself too – there is a definite connection between the rows of fire ants endlessly carrying things along without quite knowing why – and the crew pulling these (two!) ships and equipment around in the same way.

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