Arthouse Audit: Tree of Life & Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I waited to review Cave of Forgotten Dreams until I could pair it with The Tree of Life. I finally got to Tree of Life over the weekend, so now I  can hammer out these two reviews together. First, let’s talk about Terrence Malick’s (The Thin Red Line) long-awaited Tree of Life. After a much-ballyhooed two-year delay in post-production—Malick is a notorious tinkerer who would probably still be editing his first feature film, Badlands (1973) today if left to his own devices. In a forty-year career, Malick has completed five feature films. His sixth just shot last year in Oklahoma and is estimated for a 2012 release, and there are plans for a seventh film to immediately follow. This burst of three films in three years—assuming Malick sticks to the schedule—is the most prolific he’s ever been.

So what’s the deal with Malick? Why does it take him so long to make a movie? Well why did it take so long for Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel? Not that I’m saying a single Malick film is equal to the Sistine Chapel—I struggle with Walter Benjamin’s notion that the “mechanical” arts (photography and film) are somehow lesser than non-mechanical arts just by their very mechanical nature—but I do think that there is merit in positing that Malick’s films are closer to the Sistine Chapel than they are to other films. What Malick does that virtually no one else does, and in American cinema he stands alone in doing, is a unique art-experience in cinema. I’m a Malick apologist. A lot of people hate him, but I think what he does is SO IMPORTANT in American cinema that it doesn’t matter if you like him or not, or even if his movies are entertaining. That they exist is entertainment enough.

Sidebar: Right as the film was queuing up Saturday night my friend T leaned over and said, “The only arthouse movie I’ve ever really hated was The Thin Red Line.” I whispered back, “You know this is the same director, right?”

I’m not going to sit here and demand everyone go see Tree of Life. It isn’t for everyone and movies are expensive and I want you to enjoy your movie-going experience so if you don’t want to see Tree of Life, don’t feel like you have to. If you love cinema, though, you should probably make the effort. I can’t promise you’ll like it but I can say that you’ll experience something you won’t get anywhere else. The Tree of Life follows Jack (newcomer Hunter McCracken), a young boy growing up in 1950’s Texas with his two younger brothers. Jack’s parents (Brad Pitt and suddenly-everywhere Jessica Chastain) represent the differing ways of “nature” (Father) and “grace” (Mother). Jack struggles to reconcile these two ways, as shown in his relationships with his parents—combative/Oedipal with his father and dependent/nurturing with his mother. The plot of The Tree of Life isn’t the point, so I won’t waste any more time on it.

As a film, The Tree of Life is stellar on every level. Each technical facet is delivered in its highest-possible form. Malick’s trademark use of natural light and disconnected dialogue anchor analogous scenes of nature and children at play. The acting is very fine—everyone is making a big deal out of Pitt but it was McCracken who really impressed me (Sean Penn has about five minutes of screen time as adult Jack so he doesn’t count). Chastain acquits herself well as the film’s primary (and virtually only) feminine presence, especially in an early scene in which she learns one of her sons has died. Her grief is palpable and choking. Pitt’s, in contrast, is internal and repressed, which feeds the central division of the film. T thought Pitt’s father character was emotionally abusive, and I thought he was pretty much par for the course for men raising their sons in small-town west Texas in the 1950’s. If you see the movie, let me know where you fall on this issue.

My favorite part of the movie was an out-of-sequence trip through evolution. One, there were dinosaurs. Two, Malick set the “expansion of the universe” to Preisner’s Lacrimosa. It was incredibly moving, and only made better by all the volcanoes and stuff. The Tree of Life is an extraordinary film, though I know it won’t be for everyone. It’s difficult and deep and I’m still not 100% on what exactly happened, story-wise, but it’s an experience you won’t get from any other filmmaker. For me it’s Malick’s finest film to date—I liked it more than The Thin Red Line, which I liked a whole lot. You could project this movie on the wall of MOMA and it wouldn’t be out of place.

Another movie you could show at a museum is Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Herzog made one of my all-time favorite documentaries, Grizzly Man (unintentionally hysterical), so I was all over his new documentary, Caves. The caveat that comes with Caves is that it’s in 3D. I hate 3D. Yet I think Caves illustrates why I hate 3D so much—Cave of Forgotten Dreams is literally the ONLY MOVIE EVER that has used 3D in a way that wholly integral to the film. 3D isn’t a gimmick or a cheap SFX boost here. It’s a key to understanding the subject matter of the film. Herzog gained exclusive access to the Chauvet Cave in Southern France, a cave that was sealed off from external exposure for millennia, until shifts in the rock during the previous millennia finally created a crevasse that gives access into the cave. It was discovered in 1994 by French spelunkers and I can’t even imagine what being the first person in over TWENTY THOUSAND YEARS to see these drawings was like. Makes unearthing Laocoon look like fishing a penny out of a wishing well.

The oldest drawings in the cave date back to 32,000-30,000 BCE, and the “later” drawings are grouped from 27,000-25,000 BCE. These drawing are ancient, the earliest known representations of art produced by humans. There is something so sacred in that, if you think about it. The cave is tightly controlled for fear of too much outside exposure destroying the drawings so Herzog’s film is the best look most of us are getting at these drawings. Enter 3D. Herzog filmed in 3D, so this isn’t some shit post-conversion, and I am glad he did it. The drawings are on rough, uneven cave walls and often the artists used the natural outcroppings and crevices of rock to enhance their pictures. There are scenes depicting mammoths fighting (!!!), and horses, and giant lions, and hunting. Drawings are often layered together, so the 3D helps you to sort out each pictogram and “see” it as part of the rock formation.

The best parts of the film were just shots of the drawings with no narration. I’d highly recommend Cave of Forgotten Dreams—it’s interesting, informative, and it demonstrates perfectly just what a waste of time and money 3D is for every lame summer action movie that comes out. It also explores just how deeply rooted the impulse to create and record is in human beings. It’s not at all preachy or didactic—Herzog is too weird for that. There’s this whole thing with alligators at the end that makes no sense and has nothing to do with anything yet is so perfectly Herzog… If you haven’t experienced a Herzog documentary before, the alligators are kind of par for the course.

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2 thoughts on “Arthouse Audit: Tree of Life & Cave of Forgotten Dreams

  1. patricia

    Sarah, I LOVED The Tree of Life!! The way he was able to film all of those childhood experiences through the eyes of the child were amazing. I agree about it being more a piece of visual art. Loved, loved, loved

    1. Debs

      Ohmymy I loved Tree of Life which I happened unto about a 1/2 hour into film. I was another 1/2 hour into it and was about to change the channel when the artistic trait I once knew Brad to have in his blood began to surface. I loved the story, the visuals and overall scenery that lead to deeper levels of a boys quest to understand. I will buy this movie someday soon… Debs

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