Sunday, June 19, 2011

Felling the Tree of Life

For today, I am throwing to the wind my no-spoiler rule regarding reviews. Today I am going to waste time I will never get back detailing for you as much of The Tree of Life as I can recall. It is going to be an exercise in excruciating masochism, for the best course of action I could take-- barring figuring out how to turn back time so that I could choose not to attend the film-- is to scrub away any recollection of the flick as best as possible and move on in my life. Alas, this film is such a long, heaping, steaming, mass of shit that it is with tremendous horror and sadness that I realize it is bound to leave skid marks on my memory for decades to come. Thus I might as well share these nasty brown stains with you.

Before I begin with the details, let me say that two tangential thoughts came to mind as I ineffectively shook my head violently, back and forth, like an overzealous child attempting to shake clean a damaged Etch-a-Sketch. I remember seeing Wild Orchid with Big Red more than twenty years ago, and how we walked out on this Mickey Rourke disaster within moments. And I remember when Gigli came out, and how Ben Affleck, hoping to exercise some damage control, bravely went on Dave Letterman and read aloud some reviews of that "movie." Whether the reviews were real or fake I don't know, but I recall two of them-- one suggesting that the reviewer got eye cancer watching Gigli, and the other claiming to have cleansed his mental palate after viewing Gigli by taking in Mariah Carey's film, Glitter.

That said, given a choice between being forced to watch The Tree of Life Again, or being tied to a plugged in electric chair and beaten continuously while watching a triple header of Wild Orchid, Gigli, and Glitter, I would-- sans hesitation-- choose the latter and even offer to sit through an hourlong preview comprised solely of Barney the Dinousaur episodes.

And now, about The Tree of Life. Oh sweet Jesus, where to begin? The flick is such an over-the-top fucking mess. Let's see-- it opens with a little red-haired girl clutching a goat and then swinging on a swing. No wait, I think it starts with a blurry image that maybe is supposed to be a fetus or maybe it's-- I still have no idea what the fuck it is. There is some whispering-- a most annoying technique that will continue throughout the movie. At some point, a disembodied narrator's voice-- I think maybe red-haired goat girl's?-- tells us we have a couple of choices for how we live our life. These choices are either grace or nature. This is, of course, a false premise. Those of us who have truly lived know that there are many other options for how to live-- by the bottle, by the ocean, by avoiding cinematic dreck that somehow manages to win big awards, etc. Alas, for those of us foolish enough to have not walked out the minute this notion was put forth, we were stuck with trying to suspend our disbelief and buy into grace vs. nature. Ugh.

So let's see, after the girl/goat scene, now we see another redhead. I think maybe this older redhead was supposed to be the goat girl all growed up. There's a knock at the door. A cheerful man hands the grown up goat girl a letter (I found out post movie it was a telegram). She reads it. She cries. And then cut to...

Here I can't remember if we cut to the Sean Penn scene or the National-Geographic-Meets-Land-of-the-Lost footage. I think we cut to the Sean Penn scene, the first of a handful that pop up at random intervals throughout this wreck of movie, reminding us over and over again that Penn should've quit while he was ahead with his portrayal of Jeff Spicoli. Somehow we ascertain (maybe from a movie trailer we've seen or an article we've read, but definitely not from our context) that Sean Penn is somehow connected to the redheaded lady and the contents of the letter that made her cry. Let me cut to the chase here and give it away. See, the idea is, that once upon a time, there was a pretty redheaded lady, and she married Brad Pitt, and he was all handsome and shit and he liked classical music, but he was also a big fat asshole and so when he and the pretty lady had three sons it was Brad Pitt's job to be a scary mean ass and it was the job of one son to grow up and die young, and it was the job of another son to grow up and not die but to be angry at Brad Pitt in order to facilitate some scenes about dinosaurs. (There is no clear explanation for the presence of the third son in the movie.)

At some point while all this confusion is being presented and the viewer is initially thinking, "Oh, I know what's going on here, this is the part where they confuse me at the beginning and use shaky handheld camera techniques and play ominous opera music so that I will feel very in the dark but then I will feel enlightened because after ten minutes of this I know they will use tried and true storytelling traditions to give what I just saw a logical framework that will lead me to say aha! and then tell my friends to see the movie!!!"

Actually, this never happens. The confusion just continues. For example, let's talk about the TWENTY FUCKING MINUTES (or was it a GODDAMNED HOUR? IT FELT LIKE FOUR HOURS) when, with no reason I could ever determine, or will I ever be able to determine, the movie cuts from confusing back-and-forth redheaded-lady-Sean-Penn footage and launches into the aforementioned National Geographic footage. My brilliant friend Ross, who also hated the movie, did a much better job of describing the source of this footage-- would that I could remember his precise words, but he was talking about stock footage from NASA satellites and b-roll from 127 Hours to name but a couple of theories. Really-- for TWENTY FUCKING MINUTES and with NO EXPLANATION beyond the pounding opera music in the background we watch pictures of waves, and mountains and clouds and sunsets and the earth and jellyfish and lava and then there's some of that annoying whispering and at long last I think-- "Oh I know! We're supposed to try to guess what killed the guy whose death announcement came in that letter at the beginning." 

So now I start trying to guess. Did he die falling into a pit of lava? Did he die on a spacecraft? Did he die of sunburn? Did he die out hiking? The montage continues. Suddenly, I think I see dinosaurs and I have to turn and ask Warren if I am seeing the screen right. I think maybe somebody slipped a roofie into my frozen lemonade and when I passed out they carried me into another theater where Return of Land of the Lost is playing. I wait for Sleestaks to appear. Maybe the Sleestaks killed the guy!

But wait, no, now we're at long last cutting back to scenes of the redhead lady-- my god, she is so young. She stays so young through the movie! Her husband is so mean, her kids get older. But she just stays 18 and keeps putting on a different dress in every scene and never appears to weigh more than 80 pounds and has distractedly plump lips and is like this cross between RiverDance and an Ivory Snow commercial. Why is Brad Pitt so mean to the redheaded lady? Bad Brad Pitt. You stop that! And wait-- how does the redhead lady keep her house so spotless with three boys?

Then the redhead lady is hanging out laundry. She is supposed to be in the fifties but I am wildly distracted by the fact she is using clothespins with metal springs in them. Did they even have this type of clothespin in the '50s"? I think they only had the penis-looking clothespins then. For a long time I am distracted making a mental note to google "clothespins" when I get home. But now I am watching the screen again because, oh no! Now a kid is drowning in Barton Springs. The crowd gasps-- not at the sight of a drowning kid, but at the collective note of recognition: Hey, I've jumped off the diving board there! It really chaps me that the kid drowning scene is shot at Barton Springs because now, every time I go to BS, I'm going to remember that sad scene and I'm going to think, "I cannot believe I wasted ten fucking dollars on that movie!"

More stuff happens. None of it makes any sense. The kid actors are pretty good but they can't save this pile of shit from stinking. I can't keep from wondering if Jennifer Aniston is going to see it and laugh her skinny little ass off and praise the lord for creating the circumstances that caused her divorce from Mr. Benjamin Button.

I haven't even gotten to the symbolism yet! You don't need a degree in English to catch the metaphors in The Tree of Life-- like algae choking to death all life within the pond (<-- note, that is a simile, not a metaphor) this movie clobbers you over the head with poetic messages that make Hallmark cards and Lifetime movies seem subtle and nuanced by comparison, and ultimately lead to the horrified conclusion that you have just sat through a three hour evangelical christian indoctrination. By the time the screen filled up with sunflowers, I literally and spontaneously burst out laughing even though I knew I was "supposed" to be somber and reverent with the rest of the audience (or maybe they were all asleep by then). Sunflowers? Really? As if that field of bright yellow wasn't enough of an exclamation point on a cumulative metaphoric insult that runs throughout the movie, then we get this whole kooky on-the-beach scene at the end where the living and the dead come together even though I'm still trying to figure out which kid actor was supposed to be the younger version of Sean Penn and which kid actor is supposed to be the dead one. Then the redhead lady does her RiverDance Ivory Snow thing and spins in her pretty dress and puffs out her preternaturally puffy lips and flares her extraordinarily large nostrils and reaches out her hands like Jesus on the Cross as she Commands Her Son Unto the Lord.

And I'm thinking REALLY? REALLY? Did I just sit through that piece of shit for three hours and now they are trying to fucking BAPTIZE ME at the end?

Look, I'm a pretty major Francophile. In fact, right after The Tree of Schmaltz, Warren and I went to see Midnight in Paris, which was so good you won't even get distracted wondering if Woody Allen really did do anything wrong sleeping with Mia's daughter (aside: I never did get over that and you know, if Warren started dating Henry, that would upset me, too, even though they technically aren't related.) That movie is truly funny, and in particular I loved the scene where Gil is talking to Bunuel about an idea he has for a movie. I am at least as smitten with Paris as Gil's character is. Sure, I felt put off by the recent rape allegations by that hotshot French dude. But still, my faith in the entire country wasn't shaken. Not until, that is, I saw The Tree of Life, which won the Palm Door Award at Can this past Spring. Really? Top honors at this legendary French Film Festival? Mon dieu, my fine froggie friends! Palme de Merde is more like it!

I will try so hard to forgive zee French this one, but it's going to take awhile. Do yourself a huge favor-- don't see The Tree of Life. Take your $10 and spend it on Gigli, Wild Orchid, and Glitter. You'll merci me for the advice.


EggMasterDuke said...

I knew I would hate that movie from the minute i saw the trailer.

BlackSwanSongs said... must really not enjoy Impressionism in film...or at least in this film.

Based on Malick's oeuvre, I'm excited to see well as support a fellow Austinite's artistry; he's made some hauntingly beautiful films in the past. Hollywood usually turns out such cliched, dumbed-down drivel that I'm happy to spend a few bucks supporting a challenging piece of art like TREE OF LIFE.

You know it has to be an inspiring, polemical work to motivate another artist - like yourself - to pen such a venomous, spiteful review.

Tracie said...

Thanks for the laugh....and the heads up!

Spike Gillespie said...

Wow BlackSwan, you haven't seen the movie yet and you take issue with the review? I don't give a crap who directed it or what Malick's track record was prior to the movie. Sometimes the emperor is butt naked and this is definitely a case of that. Challenging? Well, okay, I can't dispute that. It was a challenge to sit through the whole thing for sure. I challenge you to see the movie and then tell me if you're confusing my honesty for spite.

zencohen said...

All the reviews I've read seem to imply that it's easy to have the sort of response you had. Clearly others like the film a lot an a visual and emotional portrait, despite it's lack of conventional narrative.

If you're looking for a film you'll probably hate even more :) you might try Godard's new film: .

Anonymous said...

You've got to check out this Consumerist article in reference to "The Tree of Life"


Paul Rutner said...

Spike, I was ready to argue with you when, before it started, I was told that you HATED this movie. I have loved Days of Heaven and Badlands for a long time.
Then... I sat through it. You nailed the experience for me. Could not agree with you more. Also... why did the red-headed goat lady start floating around in that one scene?
Just asking?

Spike Gillespie said...

My Dear Paul,
Wow, that would've been our first argument. My only sadness in not having it is now we don't get to, you know, make up... (wink wink nudge nudge.) Yes, what was up with that exorcist-like floating scene? Maybe it worked in my favor to go to the movie with no prior knowledge of Malick. Thus I was free to hate the movie without feeling some guilt or fear that there was something wrong with me for not getting it. A.O. Scott, writing for NYT, basically gave it a huge written blowjob. I gotta wonder if some of that was based on pre-existing Malick worship. Anyway, so glad that, once again, we agree.

Ponty Lox said...

I'm from Smithville. I had a blast picking out all the locations; watching them walk from Smithville to La Grange in one step; but this movie makes me glad I told Brad Pitt to get out of my yard, he is so bad, he can ruin any movie.