Thursday, July 21, 2011

Tree of Life

Always late to the picture show, I just finally saw Tree of Life last night. As soon as I heard about it, and the polarizing reactions it was causing, I knew I wanted to see it. Plus, the whole parent/child push/pull business. Anything that makes you ask, "where is the line that crosses over into child abuse?"... that's a story for me! 

Even the projects I work on which aren't overtly about children (Nic & Alix, Tercio de Muerte, Muse of Skye) have huge huge portions of them all about children. And then there's the stuff that I'm known for-- the stuff that is 100% revolving around childhood. 

So it comes as no surprise to me that I found the most success parts of Tree of Life to be the simplest parts-- the parts that just told a story with three brilliant child actors (Laramie Eppler, the kid who played the middle brother especially was a heavenly precious angel!) and their parents. Jessica Chastain is appropriately luminous and Brad Pitt proves once again that, as far as physicality goes, there's pretty much no actor who can touch him. Everything honest in his performances is rooted in physicality. This time, with a sturdy gait and locking of the jaw that bordered on an underbite. Everything was clenched. He held everything a little too tight, including his sons.

In those scenes (the bulk of the middle of the film) I didn't mind how impressionistic it was because I understood the function as reflecting the nature of memory and because the impressionism didn't come at the expense of telling a story about characters that we were given a reason to care about. 

It asked a lot of us to get through to that section of the film, however. Because before we get to really see the family who we're told/shown has experienced a tragic loss (in a brief [yet slow!] intro, before we've been with them long enough to invest in their struggles, we sit through almost twenty minutes of the creation of the universe with breathy, yearning Biblical quotes voiced over.

To be fair, they were some of the most majestic images I've ever seen. But after about 10 minutes, I kept having the urge to move my mouse and wake the screen up from the most beautiful Mac screen saver ever. Here's why that asked a lot-- not just of patience, but of story telling:

It felt like a short cut. There was a spike-- hey, look, a family who is grieving. That's it. Just know someone died. You know what that's like, right? Now just supply your own experiences and think about those while we remind you of that colossal quality of life and death and destruction and creation. It asked the audience to do the heavy lifting, but we didn't yet care about the family. And you need to care about them (and you will-- later). 

We end up talking a lot in creative writing about whether you've "Earned" certain things or not. Tree of Life had not "earned" that most epic flashback to the creation of earth. And it didn't even need it. As I said, the film was most successful zoomed in, focused on the characters, and a piece about memory. As a writer, I'm sort of dying to know what that screenplay reads like...

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