For years there has been intermittent mention of Terence Malick foregrounding various projects with a ‘big bang’, universal-beginnings prologue. There have been suggestions that such an introduction might’ve formed the prelude to Days Of Heaven; then it seemed likely that such a sequence might be the drum roll that led us into The Thin Red Line.
And, of course, directors, as with all other artists (regardless of register), make the same piece over and again. So slotting it in here seems inevitable, though not particularly forced, as Malick is after the same thing every time, a wonderfully futile aim – namely, an answer to that old maddening query – ‘What’s it all about?’ And you wouldn’t get these elegant, wrenching, majestically stubborn evocations were he any less set on catching nebulae in his net.
Malick, rather than slotting his visual impression of the beginnings of time at the start, elects to bring that in after an opening reel in which we see the initial moments, and aftermath, of the terrible event that the whole enterprise pivots around: the death of the middle of three brothers. Brad Pitt, who easily negotiates the demands of the emotional terrain and looks poisoned and relentlessly abject throughout, quietly devastating the household he rancourously dominates, is the father, rigid of jaw, chin jutting redolent of Brando, and he responds relatively phlegmatically to the tragedy and gives little away. He is an autodidact when it comes to disappointment, which acts as a vindication. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is completely distraught, naturally – though it’s Pitt who here openly represents ‘nature’ as opposed to the ‘grace’ embodied by the sylph-like, inviolably idealised mother, who will not be consoled by Pitt’s learned gesture of manly commiseration. We see, instead, an Irish neighbour observing the sanctitudes demanded by the speculative cohesions of a close-knit 1950s US neighbourhood – ‘god sends flies to wounds he should heal’ – that Pitt has long since relinquished in the name of self-preservation.
Cut to Sean Penn, the eldest brother, now adrift in the abyss of a particularly bleak take on modern-day New York. He’s a haunted, bloodless refugee, morosely mooching about Manhattan, which here feels like some Atlantis dredged from hellish waters and plonked onto a sound stage, skyscrapers as tombstones denoting a mass, insatiable grief. Malick hasn’t filmed a modern cityscape before and you’d be forgiven for supposing that he was exceedingly reluctant on this occasion: he seems allergic, his camera a sickened, errantly swooping bird looking for a quick, nauseated escape from each take. There’s an impressively realised fluid discontent, a seasick sweep, where the air is heavy, every movement an effort of attenuated negotiation; everything has gone wrong. It’s a post-apocalyptic emptiness, a silent pollutive disquiet, and the syllogism is simple: the dead brother as an embodiment of a lost paradise.
This is the numb of a depressive malaise expertly filmed: a bus-stop drifts by from underneath the camera like the withered, forlorn sail of a ship lost in a submerged, long abandoned city we’re traversing for some nexus of meaning or the locus of an unnegotiable grief. Shortly thereafter Malick erases all modern clutter and we’re in the desolate rocky plains of sun-choked desert as a brief coming-up-for-air interlude before we’re again back within the stark, oppressive metropolis, which feels like one giant purgatorial tribute to manifest chaos, the voice of Penn’s dead brother interjecting, inviting suicide, the imploring voice querying a God as to his indifference.
What soon follows is a gloriously mounted sequence of nebulae and universal birth reconstructive impressions dominate in a procession that’s both madly daring and abstract. Atomic, elemental violence ensues; volcanic eruptions offer a primordially blunt sense of that which humans need to understand and forget if they’re to attain the exultant grace the mother figure embodies. We even have a dinosaur – and my interpretation here was that Malick was actually having a bit of fun with both his own reputation for Taoist gestures and with Hollywood convention – that appears poised to instinctively snuff out another injured dinosaur. A seemingly aggressive move emerges as no such thing, a glistening claw caressesing the felled creature before moving on. Pretty unequivocal. Rewriting or speculation? Either way, it’s a wonderfully odd, ballsy, playful moment. From family-centric drama to the beginnings of time and altruistic dinosaurs might’ve been a reckless conceit in the name of easy grandeur, but the magnitude and care Malick imbues every moment of the film with, every frame, allows Tree Of Life to carry such potentially fatal ballast.
‘Where were you?……Why should I be good, if you aren’t?’
We then have the beatific, nostalgia-gilded passage of childhood time: a billowing curtain in a summer-sunlit family room; shadowy interiors and a pram silhouette against the opulence of a pristine summer afternoon; a butterfly alighting on mother’s outstretched hand; a montage of defiant trial-and-error lessons inEden. Offsetting this are Pitt’s paternal limitations that want to hasten and invite doom – ‘The world runs on trickery. You want to succeed you can’t be too good.’ – his thwarted, coulda-been-a-contender father taking solace in attenuated certainties with insistently flippant proscriptions as to the ‘naivety’ of the mother. He fast-tracks their masculine dimension as though preparing them for war – or perhaps, preparing them for the hurtling and almost apocryphal rites of passage that Malick will run them through thereafter: the first brush with the dispossessed, the first crush, the first funeral, milestones that pass in a pervasion of dread and deathly languor. ‘Where were you?……Why should I be good, if you aren’t?’ enters the consciousness of the film, Malick’s trademark disembodied wistful demands drifting into the narrative, though any sense of omniscience gives way to a unified mass of desperate invocations, arriving through a multitude of guises, all as one bereft entity.
Malick wants to collapse time and yet glorify and preserve specific metonymic moments, as though that act of compression – the fleeting, incomplete snapshots of vast swathes or chronologically diffuse segments of time – is his preferred method of dislocated, panged evocation. He sifts and vanquishes the moments that would never snag on the reticulates of memory and gives you the essence and the pivotal, though idealised, moments that are the iconically expedient means of portrayal, even if that means a shot of mother gliding through the air, defying gravity in a sweep of sudden levitational bliss, is the best shorthand means of addressing you unequivocally as to her abstract meaning. And he does not differentiate between abstract and earthly – they are one and the same. The earth is a place infused with the same wonder that the first spark of the solar system was borne of. We are simply lost, throwing questions into the void. And to him, memory is not just an editor and an embellisher, it’s a reconstitution of raw elements as a process of forming a truth. The emptiness of the universe is not, to Malick, mere grandiloquent context – it’s a yearning, not for past or arrested time, but for an explanation as to why glimpses of heaven can be allowed amidst the maddening rest of existence, in particular the disappointing realities of adulthood.
The Tree Of Life is an exhaustively sumptuous essay on monumental grief, much less problematic when it’s parting the clouds and alluding to mischievous but tantalising memory, which cuts the cords of intellect and throws you into an extraordinarily powerful alternate universe that’s at once uniquely frightening and life-affirming, and we should be extremely glad of it.
At the time of his death, Ayrton Senna had accumulated an unfortunate (and not entirely undeserved) reputation as a bit of a crank: a loose-cannon in a sport which could scarcely accommodate one, at a time when Formula One still expected the odd track death now and then as nothing more than an unfortunate by-product, an unavoidable consequence to be accepted with weary equanimity. Senna very much became a maverick to avoid. He was the sport’s main agent of danger who spoke disconcertingly and vaguely about God and destiny and righteousness and entitlement and glory, a distant aspect about him, as though he were not really flying around the circuits at up to 200mph, and was instead halfway between his glossy McClaren chassis and somewhere deep within himself, entirely beholden to a questionable self-certainty.
And yet, the main achievement of this skilfully-spliced documentary is to put you at odds with querulous reasonings. You become deeply imbued with a vicarious, mystical yearning, a rather simplistic hero worshipping and, ultimately, a lot of the things you tend to excuse yourself of in straight fictional cinema: a belief in something that may well be openly ridiculous. Or: a belief in a belief, which is still rather knotty and undefined. Perhaps therein lies its allure.
Sticking with certainties for a moment: Senna was easily the most talented driver of his generation, the Maradona of motor racing, erratic but brilliant, prone to a level of focus that verged on hostility to other drivers, although there is no doubt as to his withering hostility towards Alain Prost, the unfortunate whipping boy of both this documentary and the reams of copy still written in the aftermath of Senna’s death on the wranglings, subterfuge and outright favouritism indulged on Prost by the odious, haughtily intolerant and openly dismissive Frenchman Jean-Marie Balestre (who was the chief lawmaker of the sport back in the day and serves here as a Blatterish presence, a bumbling, shameless autocrat; Balestre and the prosaically adept Prost would openly embrace in and around the paddock and Prost played such a connection as much as he needed to).
Prost’s default mode: aloof, furtive detachment, proffering press conference blandishments and a sheen of airless professionalism. Senna offering a perfectly opposed counterpoint of charismatic reliance on sheer unvarnished skill and nascent, fatal reliance on ‘destiny’. The other drivers feared not only Senna’s unequalled brilliance behind the wheel but his increasingly reckless sense of entitlement, as the film emphasises.
The actual race footage is a little disconcerting; the cars were somewhat more susceptible to being thrown around at such speeds, and yet, such footage serves only to accompany the off-track footage, which is where our attention is most piqued. In other words, the interest here lies in talking head extrapolation and opinion rather than archive F1 selections, which feel slightly flat. This is a back-handed complement: the stuff that might be far less engaging is riveting enough to render the races themselves mere illustrative lip-service, on the whole. We are (well, I was) more eager to hear what people like Richard Williams had to say about this curious enigma, who I was always sure was playing mind games and offering a well-judged fathomless, inscrutable exterior rather than truly buying into a lot of the pseudo-mythical stuff. Not so, it seems.
In any case, the man clearly still haunts a lot of the participants here: ex-boss Ron Dennis seems indignantly, protectively perplexed at having had such a character on his hands, and for a man who often seems diligently largely unmoved by matters auspicious or no, he here seems bereft and unsure as to what on earth it was he was part of, but loyally so. He brushes off questions as to Senna’s implacability with a ‘Who are we to question?’ response which feels a little parental and quixotic.
Alain Prost is a haunted figure, protesting far too much as to his indifference and even pushing for slim-odds sympathy. He got the better of Senna often enough during their jousts but was never given his due, as he sees it, and is an embittered party-pooper that flings mud that could never stick. At times you wonder if he’s merely there to wax the Senna myth further agleam.
So what in the end can we draw from this? That Senna was a rare character indeed, following boundless talent into a seemingly inevitable oblivion who continues to exert a strange hold over his sport and all those still attempting to re-create something long gone. He endures for very simple reasons: he had immense talent and did not compromise. This was enough to evade, if not death, then at the very least lame, unblemished hagiography. That Asif Kapadia’s documentary captures him correctly, as uncatchable and largely immeasurable, but more fascinating for being so elusive, is a great achievement.