Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Two (More) Tree of Life Things

Believe it or not, this blog was never meant to be All Tree of Life, All the Time, but bear along with me for a little while. I'm actually working on a new, longer piece on the film, expanding and building on some of the observations in my original review. In the meantime, here are two things that may be of interest:


The latest issue of Cinema Editor, the official quarterly magazine of American Cinema Editors (ACE), features a longish article written by yours truly about the editing of The Tree of Life. I wasn’t able to talk to all five editors on the project, but I did speak to a couple, including Mark Yoshikawa, who was on the film the longest, and the great Billy Weber, who was the first editor on the film and has been one of Malick’s key collaborators since Badlands. I also had a chance to speak to associate editor Christopher Roldan, who wound up being key to a project that had so many editors. The piece was written well before I’d seen the film, so we weren’t able to discuss specific scenes, but it was still fun to write, and hopefully will be to read.

Cinema Editor doesn’t put its articles online, so you’ll have to actually go out and buy the issue if you want to read the article; Barnes and Noble usually carries it. (This issue also features my breakdown of the editing in a key scene from The Conformist, in case that’s of interest.)

Here’s a small excerpt:

Each editor worked on the film for about three months – except for Yoshikawa, who found himself working from the Spring of 2009 through September 2010, when the editing wrapped. (“I was in Austin for so long that Terry started buying me Texas Longhorns merchandise,” he laughs.) As might be imagined, each editor also had different creative and technical needs, and it was up to Roldan to make sure that they “could get up to speed on the project and into their creative zone as quickly as possible.” Roldan did this by giving them what he terms a “map” to the film. “I am probably the only person in the edit room who saw all of the footage,” he recalls. “To make it very flexible for the editors, I had about three different ways of organizing the footage, but ultimately I became the go-to person for what was shot where and on what format.” … [He also] had the idea of organizing the footage more along the lines of a documentary, allowing the team to browse the footage by subject. “We had folders for Earth, Sky, Water, Animals, Miscellaneous, and then within those, bins that were more specific,” he says. Roldan also organized characters into bins for when they were alone and when they were together with other characters in specific combinations. “We were constantly refining this system according to the needs of the editors.”
There’s also a fascinating part where Weber discusses the evolution of Malick’s shooting style: “’We call it “walking down the garden path”’ he says, ‘where nothing is locked down, where you don’t know where you’re going, or where the film is taking you. The New World was where he really experimented with that, and by the time he got to Tree of Life, he and Chivo had perfected their system.'”


By far the best exegesis I’ve read of The Tree of Life is this amazingly in-depth, lovingly written, and occasionally hilarious essay courtesy of Niles Schwartz at The Niles Files. There are many money quotes in there, but perhaps this one will give you a taste:

To me there is little that is confusing about The Tree of Life, which is dually impenetrable as a personal reflection, confession, and requiem for a dead brother, just as it is, while burrowing into its roots, universal. Malick's images are very specific pictures of his own biographical childhood outside of Waco, Texas in the 1950s….The Tree of Life is too sincere to be pretentious, and though many of us may scoff at one man's presumption to link his own biography to the origins of life, Malick is in fact calling out to us to do the same, and so to wonder about our Being, rather than just being-in-the-world, working day to day, reading internet articles, watching The Hangover Part II and Sex and the City, and drinking PBRs. The Tree of Life is Malick's "Song of Myself," recalling Whitman:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


  1. matthewdavidwilderJune 23, 2011 at 5:48 PM

    PBR and HANGOVER 2 aren't the same as jumping around in a pile of DDT fumes? If someone could make the former list "lyrical," I'd be impressed.

  2. You know I've never loved Malick and I know this is bothering you. I'm sure you'll be relieved to know I LOVED "The Tree of Life". Here are my thoughts/feelings on it having just walked out of the theater. Pardon the cosmic babble... I'm sure you understand.

    I get it! I finally get it! He's a sensualist! His characters are sensualists. It explains why they must run their hands through the tall grass, get mesmerized by the light bouncing off silverware, and that psychedelic way they marvel at the sensations of water flowing over their own hands or the sun hitting their feet. He's after that transcendental experience that comes from quietly beholding creation. He's after the illuminating essence of existence. He's in church and he's more interested in the stained glass than the sermon. His camera always seeks the light. I have seen no other camera penetrate so deeply and clearly into the loveliness of being.
    I've always admired Malick's camera but hated his voice overs. His visual power is so strong, his images so infinite with meaning I saw no need for words. I feel "The Tree of Life" is evidence he never really needed all those words. This is why, in his prior films I felt insulted when he used so much voice over. It feels sacrilegious to even say anything at all about existence, it's best to marvel at it and open yourself up the self-conflating power of beholding creation. To speak is to limit the power of the image and destroy the power of silence.
    His characters all speak like they are in church, in reverent or scared whispers - too afraid of breaking the spell. Too often in his previous films the spell was broken by the narrator's sermonizing. Even in "The Tree of Life" where there is mercifully very little narration the few instances hit me like a slap to the face, "Father, will you forever wrestle within me?". It took me a full 30 seconds to recover from that interruption and relax my buttocks. But now I know Malick understands this, it's what makes Brad Pitt's character an insufferable, insensitive ass - he won't shut up. Pitt's character learns humility and quiets down, something Malick has finally done as well. Now I can actually behold the beauty of his creation in reverence and in (mostly) silence.