Monday, July 11, 2011
Terrence Malick's Big Bang Theory
And so our thirst has been quenched, if ever so momentarily before another potential drought, by the arrival of a new Terrence Malick film. And so the never-ending debate has been resparked of the notoriously reclusive director's status as a master filmmaker or a pretentious hack. The utter disregard for linear storytelling, the scope of his story and his questions, the whispy voice-overs in favor of dialogue, the years--literally, years--of editing in which Malick has a chance to leave no permutation of sequence uncharted. As a fan (albeit apprehensive) of Malick's films, I never find it easy to wrestle with the tireless existential questions his films ask about human beings and our place in time, nor have I even found it easy to be completely engaged as was the case with The Thin Red Line and The New World. But I'd rather watch a film that tries to be great and asks more questions than it answers over a film which strives for nothing and succeeds.
"There are two ways through life in this world--the way of nature, and the way of grace" intones Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain, who is the stunning image of a young Liv Ullmann in more than just looks). Malick, I believe, given his trademark of the relationships between humans and their environments, is more in line with the way of nature. In a stunning, utterly surprising turn, Malick includes a 20-minute sequence in the second reel of The Tree of Life depicting the beginnings of the universe, from the big bang to dinosaurs. In the hands of any other director this could have been preposterous, but Malick uses this sequence to demonstrate that every life, every family, goes through their own life and death, and shows how miniscule our place as humans has been in the grand scale of time. Every triumph and failure can be seen as gargantuon or miniscule depending on how you look at it. Much of the film takes place in the 1950s as the O'Briens (Chastain is the mother and "way of grace," while Brad Pitt turns in a surprisingly restrained turn as the more complex father who takes a Darwinistic approach towards parenthood) and their three sons as they experience a loss of innocence, a tiny spot in the place of the world but a universal story of a family's loss of innocence.
Malick uses many, many different layers and allusions, from fairy tales to The Book of Job, and a Fellini-esque ending which may or may not be the afterlife--I really don't want to get into all of that, because I know that whatever answers I may come up with may not will not begin to scratch the surface of the film's many mysteries. Maybe I just don't know what the hell Malick was trying to say or prove. But I do know that although I don't think Malick will ever reclaim the focus of his 70s work, I was hooked on every minute of the film's 2 1/2 hour running time in a way that I haven't been since Malick's Badlands. Many people may tack the word "pretentious" onto Malick because he asks more questions than he answers. If only they knew it was far, far more pretentious for a filmmaker to ask questions than to claim to have all the answers.