Though I haven't revisited The Tree of Life, as I still hope to, it's been stewing in my head for several days now.
Brad Pitt is probably as good as he's ever been. The hands-on-lovehandles machismo he played to comedic effect in Inglourious Basterds here re-emerges as the performance of midcentury masculinity. A rough Don Draper (with a dash of Single Man's Colin Firth, or maybe that's just midcentury modern home design talking), he embodies the marriage of a certain tough minded, indelicate approach to the world (similar to the materialist Sean Penn character in The Thin Red Line) and the Mortimer Adler / modernist self-improvement endemic to a certain class in the period. Pitt's pouting lip and jawline, his gruff voice - these things glimpsed so many years ago in Legends of the Fall come out and are used to tremendous effect here. There's no essential distinction between Pitt's performance and the father's "performance." Or as the doc says in WR - Mysteries of the Organism, you don't have a body, you are your body.
I'm still thinking about the way The Tree of Life situates its women characters. Jessica Chastain's silent, strong, long-suffering wife: is this a theme of the film, or one of its symptomatic conventions? I think it may be some of both. We see here one of cinema's great arguments against patriarchy - that it's neither beneficial nor eternal. That much is clear. The question remains, for me, as to Tree of Life's self-awareness with regard to how it uses its male/father/female/mother figures. I suppose that what we have, in a certain sense, Malick's own examination of a loosely autobiographically informed childhood. It's tricky to try to tease out what might be meant as historically specific and what might be meant as trans-historical. Because I can certainly see how one could watch The Tree of Life and roll the eyes at parts, since the gazing-through-trees aspects might suggest the nuclear white 1950s family as the transcendental milieu, the natural context ... rather than a more strictly, more contingently historical one. On one viewing I'm not sure if the film has really delineated, one way or the other, how it might mean to finesse its viewers' reception of this family microcosm: universal or particular?
The esteemed Peter Tonguette takes the film to task for its departures from classical storytelling craft. But I don't know how fair this is. Can one think of a film released by a Hollywood studio that more explicitly marks out the fact that its aims - whatever those might be - are not at all those of crafting a clear story with minimal spatial ruptures? Peter suggests that The Tree of Life often feels like a trailer for itself. I think I understand precisely what he means but I'm not sure it appropriately applies to this film, where the editing indeed departs from many fiction cinema norms but is nonetheless an extraordinary achievement. More than any other Hollywood-released film I've ever seen, The Tree of Life reminds me of the likes of not only Nathaniel Dorsky but also Gregory Markopoulos. The editing rhythms gun for the proprioceptive, the kinaesthetic, rather than the cognitive fundaments of a narrative. I also think that, in the middle, most "story" heavy section especially, the editing is highly evocative of memory. Instead of being efficient, images and actions overlap, we feel them more than understand them; they create a surplus without actually telling everything. Granted, this is not how an economical, 1940s-style Hollywood film typically operates. But given Malick's track record and the themes of the film, it's a more than reasonable way to produce meaning and sensation through cutting. All this may, indeed, prove frustrating to some viewers - because the film suggests that there is a clear and compelling story "lost" in the editing.
Now, one doesn't have to love Terrence Malick's work. And just because one likes the '70s films need have no bearing on reception of the more recent titles. Even so, as Richard Neer's brilliant recent piece on The New World indicates, the editing patterns and sound-image relations that characterize later Malick are by no means just pretty or picturesque but in fact rather dense, sophisticated, and intricate. This does not mean they are somehow above all critique. Yet this is why I'm puzzled by Peter's objections - of all the potential skeptical approaches, is the best (or even the tenth best) to chide the film for "failing" to edit in such a way as to clearly and economically convey narrative information, as if this is the only criterion by which a film can or should ever be edited? (Is Stan Brakhage a bad editor as well? Do Bunuel and Dali's cuts fall short too?)
These are still just mostly initial thoughts ...