This is a brief whooping up for Terence Malick's movie The Tree of Life. Some audience members at the Cannes Film Festival this past April booed it. The jury gave it their top prize. It left me smitten. Dazed. Wondrous.
American cinema places storytelling as its top priority. Or rather, making money is the top priority. It's believed (probably rightly) that telling stories is the surest way to achieve this. I have nothing against telling stories. I make my living telling stories. But why should storytelling dominate so consistently?
In the documentary Visions of Light: the Art of Cinematography, Vilmos Zsigmond (director of photography for The Deer Hunter, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and other great movies) described how cinema is an essentially visual medium. In his opinion dialogue should have the same prominence as music: an adornment to the moving images.
That same documentary got me into Malick's work. He made Days of Heaven (1978), a film largely shot during the "magic hour" - which cinematographer Nestor Almendros explains is really more like twenty minutes. It's after the sun has set, but there's still light in the sky. It would take all day to set up a shot, and then they'd have the briefest window available to shoot, but the end result really is worth it. The story comes across through images, inference and brief snatches of conversation. The film is mesmerizing.
The Tree of Life (by the way - if what you've read so far has intrigued you enough to want to see it, stop reading. My enjoyment was increased by knowing virtually nothing about it going in) recreates the childhood memories of its main character from his own vantage point as an infant, as a toddler, and then as a kid. The earlier stages are filled with short images. Little is said. It's not clear who's who, or what they're doing. I don't know that I've ever seen this kind of point of view captured so perfectly. As he gets a bit older, people start speaking in sentences. Impressions get stronger. Relationships become clearer. The world comes into better focus.
The story, again, painted with gentle and subtle strokes, chronicles this kid's life and his relationship with his father (played by Brad Pitt), somewhere in the midwest, circa the 1950s. There's a quote from the book of Job as the film's opening title screen, and this plays out without ever conking you over the head. You also see the origins of the universe, and the evolution of life on Earth.
It's a meditation. It's a poem. It's a myth.
I can't do justice to this film with a literal description. I can only urge you to see it. It's playing in the theatres now. See it on the big screen. Drink it in. I hope it makes money and wins Oscars. I hope it opens the door for a more varied array of cinematic expression. I hope it challenges more artists to say something profound and eternal.