As I think I’ve alluded to several times on this blog, I am a huge fan of Texan film maker Terrence Malick. I say Texan, but biographers can’t even agree on his place of birth, a sign of a man sticking to his privacy… It is safe to say that he has not been overly productive in a career spanning more than 35 years. So far he has directed only four films, with a fifth and perhaps sixth nearing completion . Each of these four films is a masterpiece.
While vastly different in subject matter, all of Malick’s films share some narrative and thematic concerns to an extent that it is impossible to mistake his films for belonging to any other director. Badlands from 1973 was seemingly about the serial killer (or spree killer, if you want to be technical) Charles Starkweather, Days of Heaven (1978) about seasonal harvest workers in the American Midwest during the depression. Both these films feature frequent use of voiceover, and in both cases that of a young girl commenting in turns precociously, naively and philosophically upon the meaning of the action. Combined with the wonderful photography and a very particular focus upon nature as an internal as well as external force, the films take on a timeless quality not often found in films from the 70s. Let me rephrase: Where do we find morality and goodness when nature just exists without a care for us, where do we find meaning?
After taking a 20 year break from film making, Malick returned in 1998 with The Thin Red Line. The all male war film prohibits the female voice from the earlier films, instead Malick sticks with his voice overs, giving them to several characters as a way of getting into their heads, but also to create a polyphonic – if I can be excused a wankerish term – voice of a shared humanity. While containing plenty of action, it is perhaps the quiet, the sudden absence of human sound, that creates the strongest reactions, in this viewer at least. The Thin Red Line is so good that it hurts, and a film I’ll never grow tired of. This, by the way, is also the case with his – so far – last film, The New World (2005).
The New World must have been a commercial catastrophe, and I feel lucky that someone actually allowed Malick to make the film at all. It has everything that commercial films these days should avoid. It doesn’t spell out its theme, it is quiet and meditative for long stretches, and the few battle scenes are musically accompanied by Mozart rather than some generic nu-metal. It is seemingly a love story, but most of all it is a film about history and about humanity’s place in the passing of time. What is culture, what is society, what is good and evil, what is faith? At the end, there is an image of a tree allowed to grow as tall as it pleases, and that image to me is as exciting as any I’ve seen on film.
Anyhow, this leads me to the reason for this post. Malick’s latest project, The Tree of Life, was meant to premiere a year ago, but he didn’t feel the film was quite finished. A copy was delivered to Cannes in order to participate in this year’s contest, but again Malick decided he needed a bit more time to tinker. This is not unusual when it comes to Malick, (in)famously using much more time in the editing room than shooting his films. After Cannes, one was going for a November premiere, in time to participate in the Oscars, but the distribution company for the film was dissolved. The Tree of Life was finally optioned by Fox Searchlight, who has decided on a Cannes premiere in May 2011.
Much is still unknown about The Tree of Life. A tentative description would be that it’s about growing up in the fifties, where a boy is torn between nature and culture/society in the form of his mother and father. One teaches the eternal, the other the cruel ways of the world and how to get along in it. While this may seem trite to some, I have every reason to trust a director that has not let me down yet. That trust is not lessened by the trailer currently making its rounds on the net. I think I would have preferred this without the participation of big names such as Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, but then again it is doubtful that without them the film would have been made at all, so we’ll have to be content.
Find the trailer here or here.
Simultaneously while making this coming of age tale, Malick also turned to special effects legend Douglas Trumbull in order to film scenes assumed to contain the beginning of the world itself, dinosaurs and so forth. Little is known about this, and while it has been rumoured that some of these scenes will find their way into the main tale, some reports also talk about a separate film meant for IMAX showings. I actually suspect a combination of these, and that The Tree of Life will indeed present the battle for the boy’s morality in a perspective going back to the beginning of time, showing how the particular story relates to an eternal struggle, so to speak. This is, however, pure speculation.
Enjoy the trailer! I’ve seen it quite some times now.