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The Tree of Life (2011)

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Reading tea leaves on 'The Tree of Life'

[Co-star Jessica Chastain] said the movie was essentially about the conflict between "nature and grace" -- which she defined as the conflict between a spiritual life and one of more primitive survival. Her character represents the former, while Pitt's stands for the latter. "And the children have to decide which path they want to take," she said.

She also said that Malick was taking a casual approach to the script. If there were seven pages of dialogue, and she didn't recall all of them, Malick would tell her to "just say what you remember."

Fidelity to Malick's script, or the absence thereof, was a theme on the set of the 2008 shoot. As Malick was casting the children in the movie, Chastain pointed out that a particular actor wouldn't work because the script called for a 5-year-old and the kid in question was too old. Malick's casual response: "Oh, Jessica, no one reads the script."

Los Angeles Times, September 21

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Ryan H. wrote:

: Well, given how much I hated the script, I suppose it's good that they didn't stick to it.

Just wondering, did the script include any voice-overs? I've heard that the voice-overs in his films are generally created after he's edited them (or, perhaps more accurately, WHILE he's editing them), and in at least two cases -- Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line -- I have heard it specifically alleged that the voice-overs were created to patch things over after he drastically re-shaped the films in the editing room.

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Will it premiere at the Berlin festival in February? (Malick's last two films played the Berlinale too, though they did not premiere there, because they were released in the U.S. in December or thereabouts to qualify for the Oscars.)

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First footage of Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' exceeds expectations [images]

It's never easy to summarize a trailer that the reader can't watch (for a little guidance, here are two new images, the Pitt one above and Penn below), but here goes.

The piece begins with several mystical shots of smoke and fire before diving into the birth of young Jack O'Brien. "He'll be grown before that tree is tall," his mother, Jessica Chastain's Mrs. O'Brien, says. And indeed, we soon track a boy playing with bubbles, roughhousing with his brothers and engaging in other boyhood activities in a Mayberry-esque town circa the 1950s.

Mrs. O'Brien has a binary view of the world. "There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace," she tells her boy. "You'll have to choose which one you'll follow." But Jack's father (a convincingly severe-looking Brad Pitt) is a domineering sort who, over the objections of his wife, is constantly telling his son things like "Always be strong, always be your own man." (In an interior monologue Jack can be heard volleying back and forth, "Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me.")

A little more than halfway into the trailer we see the first cut of a troubled grown-up Jack (Sean Penn), which is pretty much when the trailer takes a turn into an epic, unnamed crisis. Jack is going through something tough, and while we don't know what it is, we see him dealing with it, seemingly alone, against stark and painterly backdrops (reminiscent in several instances of what Julian Schnabel did with "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly").

Interpolated into the trailer are all kinds of this sort of visual poetry -- shots of vast landscapes and religious half-light and spinning planets, along with one very weird shot of what could be a lunar (but is more likely a prehistoric) dark landscape. (No dinosaurs, though, at least not here.) Earth's basic elements are also a motif: cascading water, leaping flames, etc. And then there's the trailer's best shot: a square-on look at the bottom of a baby's foot that signals Jack's arrival into the world.

Much of it plays above the swelling strains of the Smetana's "The Moldau" (or "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem derived from it), which lends even the ordinary coming-of-age moments a sense of import, if also a bit of schmaltz. . . .

Los Angeles Times, December 2

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(In an interior monologue Jack can be heard volleying back and forth, "Father, Mother, always you wrestle inside me.")

Ugh.

Still, I'm excited for the trailer. Can't wait to see what this actually looks like.

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Desplat works hard for the money

Desplat -- tall, slender and raven-haired at 49 -- is doing what he's dreamed of ever since age 6 when he saw "Spartacus," with its classic score by Alex North, on the bigscreen. His calling card is his diversity and his ability to bring a fresh approach to the most time-worn genres.

"If you dream of one day working with Polanski or Terrence Malick or Stephen Frears, what do you do? 'Oh no, I'm a bit tired?' You just do it."

The Malick project, "The Tree of Life," is one of the most anticipated films of 2011, and Desplat began work on it as far back as 2007. As usual in Malick films, the score shares space with classical cues, in this case Ligeti and Berlioz, among others. Desplat also had to work largely without the benefit of images. He describes his contribution as orchestral, meditative and trance-like.

"(Malick) always told me that the music should be like a river flowing through the film," says Desplat, "and that's what I tried to achieve -- something that flows and never stops, very alive and fluid. He just wants you to create something that maybe he hasn't thought about."

Variety, December 11

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Malick's films don't make good movie trailers. Pretty pictures & perfume-commercial poetry. I'll probably love the film. I kind of hate the trailer.

Edited by Overstreet

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Pretty pictures & perfume-commercial poetry. I'll probably love the film. I kind of hate the trailer.

I'm not a big Malick fan to begin with, so I wondered whether it was just me being a grouch. I'm heartened to see that a Malick fan such as yourself had a similar reaction.

Edited by Ryan H.

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Malick's films seem to me to be part of one larger unified work. The interior monologues are meaningful and vital to the films. The experience of overlapping, interweaving interior monologues in the Extended Cut of The New World is a revelation. In sound-bites like these, they just sound pretentious, sentimental, and aggravating.

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Malick's films seem to me to be part of one larger unified work. The interior monologues are meaningful and vital to the films. The experience of overlapping, interweaving interior monologues in the Extended Cut of The New World is a revelation. In sound-bites like these, they just sound pretentious, sentimental, and aggravating.

I made a case somewhere that the female figure (and her ongoing monologue) in Malick's cinema matures and develops a greater self-awarness over the course of his filmography. This is why I always find the end of The New World so stunning. That observant female presence in Badlands and Days of Heaven finally stands on its own two legs and explains itself, or comes to grips with itself. Mother, daughter, wife, lover. All these roles finally click into focus, and Malick lets that bubble over into exaltation.

So yeah, I also picture one giant Malick work that has unfolded, and hopefully will continue to unfold.

Edited by M. Leary

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Malick's films don't make good movie trailers. Pretty pictures & perfume-commercial poetry. I'll probably love the film. I kind of hate the trailer.

Pretty pictures & perfume-commercial poetry. I'll probably love the film. I kind of hate the trailer.

I'm not a big Malick fan to begin with, so I wondered whether it was just me being a grouch. I'm heartened to see that a Malick fan such as yourself had a similar reaction.

You're both crazy. I'm attempted to put the trailer alone on my top 10 films of 2010 list.

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You're both crazy. I'm attempted to put the trailer alone on my top 10 films of 2010 list.

It's got some nice razzle dazzle, but it's all brought together in a way that makes it seem twee and portentous (the music doesn't help). Reminds me of those "inspirational" posters people put up in office buildings and things like that. That trailer represents the film that I fear THE TREE OF LIFE will be.

The dangerous thing about this film is that it could oh-so-easily be very, very sentimental. If this story was in the hands of, say, Spielberg, I guarantee you that this film would be a disaster. But since I've never found any of the Malick films I've seen to be as syrupy as this trailer, it's entirely possible that my fears are unfounded.

Edited by Ryan H.

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M. Leary wrote:

: I made a case somewhere that the female figure (and her ongoing monologue) in Malick's cinema matures and develops a greater self-awarness over the course of his filmography.

What about the male figure(s)?

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I'll admit I didn't see The New World when it first came out because the trailer absolutely bored me. But that was before I had even paid attention to who Terence Malick was.

Now that I know what it's actually a preview of, this one gives me chills - at least just a little bit. Now that I'm appreciative of Malick's films, I understand what the short clips on here portend. Looks like it's going to be fantastic, but we already knew that.

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What about the male figure(s)?

That is tougher. Part of the issue there is that Malick himself, as an author and/or philosopher, is always a very dominant male presence in his films. Maybe this film will provide good fodder for an essay on that topic.

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FWIW, my query was sparked by the conspicuous absence of The Thin Red Line from your list of Malick reference points -- and of course, that was a profoundly masculine film, being a war movie and all. It's been so long since I've seen it, though, that I can't recall if there might have been any female voice-overs in that one. (One of the soldiers gets a letter from a wife or girlfriend who dumps him, if I recall correctly; perhaps we hear her voice then?)

FWIW, I also can't recall if there are any male voice-overs in Malick's first two films, though I definitely remember the ones in The New World.

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If my recent viewing of the extended cut of The New World did anything, it catapulted Malick onto my list of filmmakers who I have absolute confidence in. I can't wait for this.

The voice-overs are part and parcel with Malick. I don't find them annoying. If anything, I'm encouraged. I was shocked by how effective the voice-overs in The New World were, not just in creating a prayerful atmosphere but by how they never felt intrusive. I'm expecting similar results here.

@Peter: I think Gere may have done some voice-over in Days of Heaven, but can't be certain.

Edited by N.W. Douglas

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I do think that, in some capacity, TREE OF LIFE is going to prove a controversial film around these parts, even among folk who have liked Malick's work to date. This film is built around empty, "spiritual but not religious" notions about suffering, life, and death; at times, it seems like the kind of story an Oprah-endorsed "spiritual guru" might have put together. In the telling, THE TREE OF LIFE might transcend the triteness of its core ideas and become something profound, but it won't escape them entirely.

Edited by Ryan H.

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