Twigs off ‘The Tree of Life’

Posted by · 7:58 am · July 13th, 2011

After two internet-free weeks in the Italian countryside, I’m gradually sifting through recent film news and coming to the conclusion that I chose as good a fortnight as any to drop out of the world. (File “Cars 2” and “Transformers Trois” under Things That Can Wait; ditto the Oscar-motivated fang-sharpening of rival Glenn Close and Meryl Streep camps.)

The fact that I returned home days after “The Tree of Life” finally hit UK theaters, prompting a fresh gust of ooh-ing, aah-ing and arguing, only enhanced my sense that Terrence Malick’s arthouse blockbuster is the only true movie event of the summer thus far, so forgive me for making it the subject of yet another post, but I thought it was worth drawing attention to two unrelated snippets on the film.

Particularly welcome is this LA Times piece that delves into the film’s spectacular soundtrack — where Alexandre Desplat’s typically intelligent original contributions nonetheless take a back seat to the dense collage of interpolations of existing classical music that is customary for a Malick film.

“The Tree of Life” serves up his broadest such musical menu to date, pinching from the work of over 30 different composers — including such standards as Bach and Mahler, but also several more esoteric and contemporary names. Among the five selections singled out by the Times’s David Ng is the one that most sharply stopped me in my tracks when it appeared in the film — not just because it’s by my favorite modern composer, but because the piece in question is so strongly tied to the memory of another master filmmaker:

“Lacrimosa” from “Requiem for My Friend” by Zbigniew Preisner.

The Polish composer is best known for his film music, and “Requiem” was written as a farewell to his frequent collaborator, the late movie director Krzysztof Kieślowski. The “Lacrimosa” is featured prominently in the “The Tree of Life’s” most talked-about sequence — the birth of the universe. Malick’s depiction is a visually impressive series of galactic explosions and roiling nebulae. That the director chose a requiem to score the sequence shows just how closely he associates birth and death. It should also be noted that Malick sees no apparent contradiction in using overtly religious music for a sequence involving the big bang and the beginnings of cellular life.

I’d love to know how intentional that hat-tip to Kieślowski is on Malick’s part — more than a little, I suspect — but either way, the Preisner composition’s built-in connotations of human and artistic loss add a subtle layer of subtext to Malick’s own concerns with mortality in that scene. It’s exciting to see existing music being recontextualized and repurposed in more and more films these days (especially with agile composers like Desplat creatively working around them), which is yet another reason the Academy’s definition of scoring is starting to look a little fusty. (Last year, in particular, films like “I Am Love,” “True Grit” and “Black Swan” made a strong case for the reintroduction of the Best Adapted Score category.) Anyway, read the rest here.

On another note, for poster geeks like me, The Guardian not-so-recently kicked off a most welcome series of poster analysis features with a thoughtful breakdown of the film’s widely admired mosaic-style one-sheet — the one, indeed, that we gave away a few weeks ago. I’ve never been as high on the poster as most others are (I’m keener on the large baby-foot design myself), but Paul Owen’s analysis, focusing principally on the modified UK quad design, has prompted me to look closer at the thematic and compositional implications of the selected stills:

The instantly recognisable and bankably attractive features of one of the world’s most famous actors are concealed behind a baby’s foot and Pitt’s own hand. That’s a brave move commercially, but in foregrounding the baby it does seem to reflect the way the film is more focused on Pitt’s effect on his children’s lives than in theirs on his.

Hands are a recurring theme, resulting in some unusual images: a butterfly landing on Jessica Chastain’s palm in the top-left corner, a soaped-up boy raising his fists in the bath bottom-left, a much older hand (it is Sean Penn’s) reaching calmly for a stream of water on the right-hand side.

More here. And more from me (on some fresher films, I promise) soon.

[Photo: Fox Searchlight]

→ 11 Comments Tags: , , , , | Filed in: Daily

11 responses so far

  • 1 7-13-2011 at 8:23 am

    Mike_M said...

    Welcome back Guy, hope the vacation was a good one… please keep the Tree of Life posts coming!

  • 2 7-13-2011 at 8:29 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Thanks! It was a very good one indeed. I’m actually planning a belated second viewing of the film in the next week or so, so I may well have more to say about it.

  • 3 7-13-2011 at 8:31 am

    James D. said...

    I had heard a rumor that after the wide release was cancelled, it was likely that prints from the arthouses would circulate throughout the U.S., and now it seems to be true, at least for me. The Tree of Life is coming to my town for the first time on Friday.

  • 4 7-13-2011 at 9:01 am

    /3rtfu11 said...

    I missed you.

  • 5 7-13-2011 at 9:57 am

    Michael said...

    I LOVE that Preisner track! I downloaded it (amongst many other great songs from the film), once I got home after seeing the movie. That song was so perfectly implemented into that scene of the Universe expanding, and now knowing its further connotations only makes me that much more impressed with its usage.

    Oh and also, Kris did a gret job manning the fort while you were away, but it is definitely great to see you back! Glad you had fun on your vacation in Italy (so jealous!) and can’t wait to read more film coverage from you in the near future.

    p.s. – I’m still waiting on that thorough Cannes update on all the sidebar films that you really liked. I recall you tweeting good things about Elena, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Skoonheid, and Take Shelter, amongst others. But I would love to read more detailed impressions, if you’ve got the time. No rush. :^)

  • 6 7-13-2011 at 10:55 am

    Dana said...


    A little off topic- but do you know when The Tree of Life will be expanding to more screens in the US? Is it still in limited release?

  • 7 7-13-2011 at 2:00 pm

    Will said...

    Welcome back!

    God, there really is so much to write about this movie. So many different angles.

  • 8 7-13-2011 at 4:30 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Michael: I’m sorry, I’ve been a terrible promise-breaker when it comes to Cannes coverage, though I did review Martha May Marcy Marlene here. The rest I really hope to get to sooner rather than later.

    Dana: Sorry, not my area of knowledge at all, as I’m in the UK. Other readers?

  • 9 7-13-2011 at 5:04 pm

    James D. said...

    Dana, they canceled the wide release. It appears that, to save money, Fox Searchlight will be sending prints from the arthouses to regions that have not had it. That is how it is coming to my town this Friday.

  • 10 7-13-2011 at 6:50 pm

    Keith said...

    I saw Tree of Life this past weekend. I need to see it again. It is an unquestionably bold film in how unafraid it is to tackle the BIG issues in such grand strokes. I found some sequences, particularly those of the father and sons, moving and painfully beautiful. I admired so much about the film. I wish I could say the film as a whole worked for me. While I admired its reach and guts, the heavy handed tone left me weary. And I’m not sure this film showed me anything new. For me, it was best when it stayed small, focused on the family and nuances of parenting, family, growing, change, etc. And, again, so many of these scenes had a poetry in their editing and storytelling that left me awed. My mixed feelings notwithstanding, I was greatly disappointed to note that half a dozen or so people walked out of the showing I attended. But, frankly, I think that’s a compliment to Malick and his big, unwieldy, piece of poetry.

  • 11 7-20-2011 at 4:03 am

    J.L.P said...

    Awesome movie!! One of the best I’ve seen in the last years. Here’s a great analysis with 5 very good reasons to go see The Tree of Life: