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The Tree of Life

Submitted by MBergeron on June 6, 2011 – 3:21 amOne Comment
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The Tree of Life is unbelievably mystifying. You know what’s going on even though the plot unfolds over a period of 14 billion years. There’s no one religious theme but rather many allusions to spirituality that snake out from the narrative like, no pun intended, the branches of a tree.

Take this description from the film’s press kit that describes the kind of research and development that director Terence Malick and special effects technician Douglas Trumball were involved with at Malick’s mad scientist laboratory in Austin (called Skunkworks).

“We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be,” Trumball says.  “It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business.  Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like.  We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”

Trumball of course was involved with the look of 2001: A Space Odyssey and there are shots in TTOL that remind one of the stargate sequence from that Kubrick film. Trumball, whose special effects credits include Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner, also stopped working in Hollywood after the death of Natalie Wood on his film Brainstorm, which was subsequently shelved for a couple of years before it’s release. It’s no surprise that Malick could get Trumball to work on a movie once again since they’re both film gods. But it also begs the question as to how much we mere mortals are privy to the language being used.

Malick surrounds himself with experts like Trumball, and Dan Case (effects for Matrix Reloaded, V For Vendetta), production designer Jack Fisk, a team of top-notch editors and designers, as well as cinematographer Emmanuel Lubizki. In fact, I’d like to read about the making of this film, but not so much in Film Comment as American Cinematographer. The Tree of Life looks as unique and different in its texture from other movies as its film syntax differs from the master shot, close-up type of construction used in 99-percent of filmmaking.

Taken from a Kodak website interview with Lubizki he answers how the film was shot: “We used KODAK VISION2 500T Color Negative Film 5218 and KODAK VISION2 200T Color Negative Film 5217. We used ARRI LT and 235 cameras for the 35 mm scenes. The 65 mm camera was a Panavision. We used mostly ARRI Master Prime lenses. I operated most of the handheld scenes. Handheld camera plays an important part in Terry’s movies. The post was handled at LaserPacific and at EFilm in Los Angeles. We have a 2K version going to Cannes, but we are in the process of doing a 4K DI as well.” This spells volumes technically but says little of how beautiful the entire film looks. Each frame seems to defy whether it was shot digitally or on film because everything seems to be in focus, even details 100-yards away. Everything has such sharp detail it’s like the entire film was re-imagined in Photoshop with the super sharpness function activated. We can almost smell the pores of an actor’s skin. Entire passages have pastel hues occasional broken by stronger colors.

Malick doesn’t make movies per se; Malick makes masterpieces. There are no master shots in Malick’s The Tree of Life and yet every shot is a master shot.

I’m reminded of Malick’s previous The New World. After an initial screening I learned that Malick had trimmed around 20-minutes of the film and I had the opportunity to see the new version before its release. All I could think about was whether Malick kept the scene where Colin Farrell, who at one point is under a sort of house arrest, is made to sleep upside down with his foot bound over his head. When I saw New World a second time, yes that scene was in there but in typical Malick fashion it was a shot that was about two seconds long. The point being that each individual moment in a Malick film creates its own identity.

The Tree of Life centers on the O’Brien family (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) and their three boys. This part was shot in Smithville and set in the 1950s. Another segment takes place in present day Houston where the eldest O’Brien son (Sean Penn) works in a downtown skyscraper presumably in the energy industry. This ties in with another tableau from another era that depicts a couple of raptor dinosaurs that, shall we say, work out issues of dominance. Similar issues are played out at the O’Brien dinner table. All these portions of the story are interwoven, with a separate birth of the universe chapter unfolding after the first half hour.

Malick evidently shot sequences at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston with Penn in an upstairs gallery and in the James Turrell neon tunnel. These shots didn’t make the film’s final cut. Many of the downtown establishing shots are instantly recognizable such as the phallic dome of the Esperson Building seen low in the frame while Penn works in the foreground of his high rise office. If you know Space City well enough it’s kind of funny because one second Penn is walking on a downtown sidewalk and the next second he’s walking in front of the water wall at the Transco Tower some several miles away. Another quaint juxtaposition has Penn walking in downtown Houston and then he’s in front of Reunion Tower, located in Dallas (and spitting distance from Dealey Plaza).

Sexual imagery isn’t out of bounds in this PG-13 movie and we also spy on some prehistory fish that look like a swimming penis and a swimming vagina. Less obvious is the constant stream of feelings evoked throughout The Tree of Life that conjure the range of human emotions. And perhaps heaven is a place, just like at the end of the film (that looks curiously like Utah caves and rocks) where everybody that you ever knew is walking around hugging one another. There are no ignore-me high-fives in this afterlife, this is The Tree of Life.

- Michael Bergeron

One Comment »

  • Mit Hayes says:

    Great review, bloody film had me paranoid for no reason, im still trying to grapple with if I liked it or not.

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