03 May 2013

To the Wonderbread

By my cheeky headline, I am surely not suggesting that this latest œuvre of Terrence Malick lacks substance. Not that, Just plot. It lacks plot.

You will howl that I am just some kind of unsophisticated rube (is that redundant?) with no appreciation for the art of this especially talented director, whose work stretches back to the 1970s with large, but rapidly decreasing breaks between them. It almost seems like he's putting out one every few months now, a far cry from the twenty-year break between Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line.

When I went to see The Tree of Life, I didn't necessarily find more coherent plot lines, but I got chills from the familiarity of the feeling of a neighbourhood – even a suburban neighbourhood – teeming with the life of kids playing elaborate and distinctly non-electronic games together. I found a dearth of those warm and fuzzy familiar feelings in this film. Maybe the little glimpses of the Paris Métro, but those were really not the focus of the film. I suppose for someone more familiar with the feel of today's small urban decay and sterile suburbia those warm and fuzzy feelings might arise, but I really think that one is an anathema to the other.

We see the woman moving from her familiar Mont-St-Michel and Paris with all their history, richness and life to a suburb so sterile that even the sod has not had a chance to take hold and become green lawns. The interiors are lovely, but barren. The exteriors oddly hunkered down under big roofs and high fences look like an outpost expecting an attack at any moment. Needless to say, there are no sidewalks, let alone sidewalk cafés. She parachutes into this strange land where nobody speaks her language and all is unfamiliar. There's a little bit of the shy joy of discovering each other, but how can it be that your sterile new suburban home still looks as sterile and new after you have lived in it together?

It's enough to drive you to outside distractions, and it does for both of our main characters. An old girlfriend, an unsurprisingly available handyman – those will throw a wrench into your relationship, especially when you already can't communicate very well. I'm not even sure the language difference was the biggest barrier to communication.

So I might not be loving the substance of the content I saw in the film, and that might well have been a part of Malick's point, but there is no disputing the beauty of the cinematography, and the reactions I had to certain scenes. Sweeping vistas of the prairie surrounding the suburban outpost, thundering horses and bison, rushing waters: all very beautiful. Horrible and badly disguised poverty and small urban decay, brutal prisons, sterile suburbs: also very beautifully presented, if disturbing. I was a bit annoyed by the blatant symbolism of the cross in the form of intersecting jet trails that appeared following a bunch of voiceover religious symbolism, but my annoyance at that was a short-lived as the image itself. And the most delightful image of all? Two women walking through the small town, speaking French and Spanish, the Spanish-speaking one shouting at the top her lungs, and neither getting any reactions or fitting in for that matter.

How about some fun notes about the cinema experience itself? An odd one, to be sure. We were the first to arrive of the ten people who were there for this screening. Considering it has only been out for a week, this doesn't bode well for box office receipts, but perhaps that is a consideration too pedestrian for the artist.

The two older women who arrived after us chose some nice seats…right behind us! You have the whole cinema to choose from and you must install yourself in the seats behind the only other two people there when you arrived? That's just odd. Not quite as odd, however, as the two people sitting down in front, about three rows back from the screen. They commented back and forth during the whole film and the one guy's voice really carried more than I think he knew. I almost thought it was a part of the soundtrack and a distracting part at that.

And then there was the guy in my row who kept making little sounds like he was waking from short naps and hoping to cover up any sounds of possible snoring. Oh. That was me. Now I guess we all have an alternate theory about the decipherability of the plot.

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