Double your pleasure, double your fun – with Terrence Malick :
There may be two major groups of people when it comes to Terrence Malick: Those who like Badlands, and maybe even Days of Heaven - OR - Those who believe his later films to be profoundly poetic experiences. Sure, there are individuals who fit into both groups, but 1998′s The Thin Red Line definitely created a rift for many. I’ve seen all of Malick’s filmography except for The New World, the experience of which has entrenched me militantly in the first group.
Watching The Tree of Life, I kept thinking “This resembles a home movie edited together with clips taken from the Discovery Channel.” The opening quote is from the Book of Job:
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?… When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
This led me to assume that all the tedious scenes of planets, dinosaurs and waterfalls were intended to instill a sense of grandness to our existence, or something of that nature. I was already aware of my teeny place in the big scheme of things from watching the Discovery Channel. Did seeing Brad Pitt disciplining his children, or them running around for the better part of two hours, serve to enlighten me further? No. I can’t say it did. I’m not discounting the possibility that all the pretty imagery could amount to a moving experience on an abstract level for some viewers. Just not for me. (NOTE: There’s a video explaining The Tree of Life over at The Cinema Snob that may shed some light on what it’s all about. Please do not hold me responsible if their interpretations are faulty.)
Perhaps my biggest problem with Malick’s films is the grating use of voice-over. I hate narration in movies 98% of the time. Badlands is the only one of his that doesn’t test my patience in that regard. In Days of Heaven, there’s the girl with the gruff Chicago accent. The Thin Red Line is even more taxing, with three hours of various cast members rambling on and on. But The Tree of Life is by far the worst offender. The whispering drove me batty. I would’ve hated The Tree of Life less if I at least could’ve felt bored without being assailed by hushed voices. (This Flickchart article shares my sentiments.)
Badlands aside, each of Malick’s films has been nominated for an Academy Award for Cinematography (Days of Heaven won). If it were not for the annoying narration, I would almost be able to enjoy Days of Heaven for the visuals alone. (I’m not a Richard Gere fan, so that kind of cramped my enthusiasm as well.) Every shot is beautiful to look at. No other movie has made me truly appreciate just how pretty fields of wheat can be. That counts for something. I can tolerate the rest of Days of Heaven enough to not to dislike it overall. (I do wish there was an official version released sans the voice-over, like what they did with Blade Runner.)
What I prefer about Badlands and, to a lesser extent, Days of Heaven is that neither is blatantly attempting anything lofty. I’ve heard one criticism of Malick’s style calling it “forced lyricism”. I think The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life are guilty of that. Badlands is probably his most natural and graceful film. His later work doesn’t have those qualities. Every second of The Tree of Life screamed “forced lyricism” to me, and whatever meaning it was going for just seemed strained.
I wrote a brief comparison of Super vs. Ran a while back.
Be sure to check out our Criterion Commentaries article for more information on this one.