The Tree of Life (2011)

Tree of Life

Aesthetic nonsense” is what a friend of mine described it to be, the Tree of Life (2011). I laughed at that as I considered the film to be one of my favorites of the last few years, but I understood that the film was destined, maybe even designed, to be divisive. It’s a meandering exploration of death, love, faith and of course; life. It barely contains a plot, and sees room for dinosaurs and epic galaxy shots in between the story of a small american family in the fifties.

So it’s kinda weird, ambitious and undoubtedly melodramatic (using a grand classical score to sometimes overkill the drama of the visuals). But it’s also acted terrifically by Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt and especially the young boy, Hunter McCracken. And visually, no film in the last few years can match the beautiful images created by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. As I said, even my friend, who really disliked the movie, had to admit that aesthetically it was astounding.

Thirdly, I really appreciated the philosophical currents that flowed through the movie. Indeed, the Tree of Life can reasonably be described as one long philosophical exploration of its subjects without using any real narrative structures. Which, by the way, would also be a great description of director Terrence Malick’s previous film The Thin Red Line (1998), which also was gorgeously filmed. In some movies these sort of cinematic approaches can grind, overreach or simply bore, but with the Tree of Life, I flowed along in its currents and became enraptured by the experience.

Malick & Lubezki

Divisive as the film may have been, nobody argued the beauty of the images. Terrence Malick is well known for making movies that, if nothing else, astonish in their visual power. The war movie The Thin Red Line was one of those visually amazing movies, filled with intricate shots contrasting the beauty of nature with the horrors of war. That movie was filmed with cinematographer John Toll, who’s quite a legend. But since then Terrence Malick has almost exclusively worked with Emmanuel Lubezki.

Lubezki is a Mexican cinematographer who is known for lensing the indie classic Y tu mamá También (2001), Michael Mann’s Ali (2001), Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) and maybe most famously Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), which contained one of those amazing long-shots I talked about in a previous post.

In 2005 he collaborated with Terrence Malick for the first time on The New World (2005), which was followed by The Tree of Life and just recently To the Wonder (2012). So perhaps a strong bond of collaboration is growing between the two of them, like with Steven Spielberg & Janusz Kamniski, or Martin Scorcese and Michael Ballhaus.

Graceful cinematography

What Malick and Lubezki did in The Tree of Life is create a free-flowing handheld steadicam-style using a minimal amount of artificial lighting that was focused on spontaneity, both in camerawork and in acting. In its look it reminds me of Lost in Translation (2003), in that you also have this real & grounded atmosphere, with lots of pastel colors, while at the same time its incredibly poetic and dreamlike. But in comparison to Lost in Translation, The Tree of Life is more lyrical and fluid. There is more emphasis on camera movement, and the camera always moves with incredible grace and flow. It’s as if moving around in zero gravity.

Secondly, Lubezki primarily used wide angle lenses for his compositions. Combined with his tendency to really move in on its subjects and you get a very immediate feeling to the images, with slightly distorted perspectives. The use of wider angles often also helps with letting the shots flow more smoothly as camera jitters are less apparent on a wider lens.

The One Shot

So which of those countless shots was my favorite? It’s one which has little narrative value (as can be argued for a lot of shots in the movie), doesn’t even show characters, not directly anyway, and definitely is short. It’s also inventive, beautiful and a very iconic image in style and design, maybe next to the shot of Brad Pitt holding the little baby foot (which is used in the movie poster) its the most famous shot of the film. Here it is:

Taken out of context its basically a shot of three kids playing around on the street, with the camera focussing not on their bodies, but their shadows. As the images is flipped vertically the shadows gain a sense of realness, with the heads up and the feet down, making the shadows almost seem more like ghosts. The camera moves along with the kids in great fluid motion which pushes the shot even further into the realm of magic, almost ethereal.

So out of context, the shot is magical and beautiful, but its power is only increased once you place it in the context of the movie. The Tree of Life starts with the introduction of the family who will be the main cast of the film. Just as we are getting our narrative feet on the ground the movie shifts its focus to a moment in their lives when one of the three sons has died.

We follow the mourning of the parents as they barely contain themselves in the wake of the tragedy, and then as the mother (Jessica Chastain) stands still in the middle of the street, with some friends quietly standing by, we see the shadow-shot appear.

And then it becomes clear what this one shot represents. Memories, but shattered memories. Like when you lose a loved one and you have trouble picturing his or her face. We remember a part of them, but the mourning blurs the details. Thus we don’t see the children, we see their shadows. It’s as if their innocent playful and pure happiness is now but a ghost.

To me, this is the magic of pure poetic cinematography. It’s of a different quality than, say, the effective narrative work in Touch of Evil or The Insider, not better or worse but different. Here, the story is subdued and not center-stage, but the emotion is all the more apparent. I felt shivers when I saw this shot for the first time, and it’s still my favorite single shot of The Tree of Life.

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