Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tree of Life (2011) - Ponderings

I did not really keep up with the "good films" of 2011. To be honest, it was a mixed year for me. Regardless, I had to check out one film which kept my interest not only because of the name recognition coming from the name Terrance Malick, but also because it won the Palme d'Or (which just goes to show that it is true that the Academy Awards will never let a film that wins a Palme d'Or the Best Picture Academy Award). I always trust the Cannes Film Festival over anything when it comes to award ceremonies. This write up on the film is not going to be so much about the film, as much as the different things I noticed about the film, particularly from the perspective of a amateur filmmaker.

The first thing I noticed (this goes for Malick's DAYS IN HEAVEN also), is that the film is shot beautifully. There is a good bit of CG use here and there, but the frames which were created with images from real life are just beautiful. Now, what does this mean? Quite simply, it had to make you wonder about a filmmaker and how he or she goes at getting shots. The film clashes when it comes to use of computer-rendered imagery and imagery which could happen in real life. It reminded me that before the rise of George Lucas and the digital revolution he helped start, filmmakers were people who made films. The extremely good ones married images with their narratives, and the advant garde (if you can so call them that) had shots and sequences which were like paintings. However, since filmmakers of a pre-1977 world had to deal with the real world, they had to more or less not so much create imagery as much as they found and documented imagery (those fields in DAYS IN HEAVEN were always there to be photographed, they just had to wait for Malick).

The filmmakers might have had the occasional use of sound stages to create synthetic versions of their world on and a lot of in-camera cinematography which helped change the picture a bit, and even a bit of cell animation, but there couldn't ever be as big of a change in what is shot as there is now. CGI and digital, non-linear editing systems have helped it so that filmmakers do not necessarily have to go out and capture those painting-like shots anymore, they can create them digitally. They can create images from the mind instead of capturing images of the real world.

The second thought to cross my mind is to think of what kind of film making TREE OF LIFE is. The way I currently view things, you have only two main types of film making - subjective and objective. Subjective is saved for narrative films which objective is reserved for documentaries, though there are outliers (like the first Godzilla film and AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH).

Before going on, let me flesh out another point: our current story telling ways works a lot like how our brain works when we might get information - our minds work through metaphors. It is through this that the story of TREE OF LIFE comes to life. However now, those who have seen TREE OF LIFE will know it is a very ambiguous film.

Like all good art, it is open for interpretation. Every shot has purpose, but yet can mold itself to however a logical member of the audience can bend it to their paradigms. Let me repeat, every shot has a purpose. Malick is a filmmaker who is not only one who is a master of the craft, going to some of the top film schools in the country (AFI, alma matter of David Lynch and others), but is also a student of philosophy. There is something definitely solid behind the film which the director intends, but at the same time can change. This is abstract film making.

This sounds a lot like objective film making, not unlike Stanley Kubrick, who made his films very objectively (and many have compared TREE OF LIFE to 2001, and such comparisons are warranted, even to the point that first viewing might be seen as spiritual successor to 2001). But TREE OF LIFE isn't objective, rather, it is abstract.

Where's the difference? The difference between abstract film making and objective film making is this:

Objective film making is straight forward. It is open to interpretation by the audience, and the audience only. The film and the filmmaker express that they have no opinion to side to really express in the story. They are there to document the events and you, the viewer, will either be effected by what you see or not.

Objective has it that the filmmaker and the film have an opinion, and they are expressing it, but it reached only half way. There are specific aspects of its tale that it is telling, that it wants you to pay attention to, but it doesn't let you in on the whole reasoning of it all. It reaches half way. It needs your full opinion and interpretation in order to have its own. Abstract says, "I have an opinion, and it is built on yours'."

The third and last thing which I seem to recognize just now is where TREE OF LIFE sources it's feeling of grandiose. It has to do with the drama and the philosophical structuring of the film. While a bunch of films gets its grandiose from going as deep as human emotions and intellectual breaking down of such can go and the implications of such can, TREE OF LIFE steps outside of humanity. Rather, it goes over some of the more universal philosophies which have been around since the times of the dinosaurs and the beginning of time and lets us see the evolution of such. How it is expressed in nature and the bigger picture, including humans, and not just humans (we're not the center of the universe, you know).

That's the kind of thoughts that TREE OF LIFE has bestowed upon me. It is what my graphic communications teacher would deem a "thoughtful film" (a comment he gave both 2001 and AMADEUS). Malick is the closest thing to Kubrick we have (although a lot of people want to say things like David Fincher is more in that role, nah. Fincher is the rich man's version of a modern David Lynch (Darren Aronofsky is the poor man's modern David Lynch)).