Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Tree of Life

Cyril Connolly's masterpiece, The Unquiet Grave, opens with bracing audacity:
The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.
I don't know if Terrence Malick has read The Unquiet Grave, but I say with confidence that Malick thinks the same of filmmaking: if you're not out to make a masterpiece, why bother?

And he's made at least two masterpieces: Badlands, which is as good as just about anything, and The Thin Red Line, which finished in a dead heat with Pulp Fiction and KieĊ›lowski's Three Colors Trilogy ("Blue," "White," "Red") as my favorite films of the '90s.

Now comes The Tree of Life. It shames any film I've seen in the theater since The Bad Lieutenant. Malick beautifully evokes the beauty and terror of childhood as we experience it in memory. In the process, he takes on life's most excruciating question: How does one come to grips with the death of a child?

The film is an homage to brotherly love, to the beauty of boys, to the imprecisions of parenting, to the failures—mostly private—of adult life; and to the formal possibilities of cinema, our era's preeminent art-form.

I'm happy to report that Malick is either tired of plot or—perhaps more admirably—distrustful of it. Instead, he trusts images—which is another way of saying he trusts his audience.

And I trust him. That's not something I can say of many contemporary artists. He has the courage to risk feeling. Odd, isn't it, how rare that's become?

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