Po­lar­iz­ing ‘ Tree of Life’ de­serves its nom­i­na­tions

The Dallas Morning News - - ARTS & LIFE - CHRIS VOGNAR cvog­nar@dal­las­news.com

Acurious thing hap­pened when The Tree of Life opened at the Dal­las An­ge­lika in June. In screen­ing af­ter screen­ing, as a por­tion of the au­di­ence sat rapt at Ter­rence Mal­ick’s med­i­ta­tion on man’s re­la­tion­ship with God and na­ture, small pock­ets of the the­ater snick­ered and guf­fawed.

Walk­outs were com­mon. I re­ceived let­ters ques­tion­ing my san­ity for giv­ing the film an A-mi­nus; one cor­re­spon­dent claimed The Tree of Life was the worst movie he had ever seen in a the­ater.

The gig­glers and naysay­ers were doubt­less among those taken aback when the Academy of Mo­tion Pic- tures Arts and Sci­ences tabbed Tree as one of nine nom­i­nees for best picture. They weren’t alone.

Most of the Academy’s odd choices fall more along the lines of an­other best picture nom­i­nee, Ex­tremely Loud & In­cred­i­bly Close: sen­ti­men­tal, trea­cly, shame­lessly pro­mot-

ed into award sea­son. Re­mem­ber Cho­co­lat, a best picture nom­i­nee in 2000? Or, more fa­mously, For­rest Gump, the big win­ner from 1994?

The Tree of Life, by con­trast, is as close to an art film as many view­ers are likely to get. Any movie that stops for a gor­geous, 15minute cre­ation-of-the-uni­verse se­quence is clearly play­ing by its own rules. As mad as they made me at the time, I can’t find too much fault with those tit­ter­ing au­di­ence mem­bers. Laugh­ter is one of the first re­sponses to any­thing that de­fies your ex­pec­ta­tions and ref­er­ence points.

So how did Tree, also nom­i­nated for Mal­ick’s di­rec­tion and Em­manuel Lubezki’s lush cin­e­matog­ra­phy, crash Hol­ly­wood’s big shindig? Let’s start with the sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion: It’s a great film, deeply spir­i­tual with mo­ments of pure vis­ual ec­stasy. It’s not a movie that re­wards any­one look­ing for a quick “What’s it about?” sum­mary. (Short an­swer: a fam­ily in the 1950s Waco of Mal­ick’s boy­hood. Longer an­swer: Grace, a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions with God, the loss of in­no­cence, a boy’s re­la­tion­ship with his par­ents, the Big Bang and di­nosaurs.)

There’s also the Brad Pitt fac­tor. By now Pitt, nom­i­nated for his per­for­mance in Money­ball, is a fa­vorite son of Hol­ly­wood. He’s pos­si­bly even bet­ter in Tree, which he also helped pro­duce, than in Money­ball. He gives shape and tex­ture to a char­ac­ter that comes off as an ab­strac­tion on the page. He makes you feel the dis­ap­point­ment of a fa­ther and hus­band who never ac­com­plished what he wanted, and the mix of love and sever­ity that drives his old­est son against him is heart­break­ing.

Pitt will ob­vi­ously show up at the Os­cars. Mal­ick most cer­tainly will not. He’s like a myth­i­cal crea­ture that comes down from the moun­tains of his mind ev­ery sev­eral years to make a movie (though he ap­pears to have two more on the way in the near fu­ture, an un­prece­dented burst of vis­i­bil­ity for him). He has no use for awards shows. His reclu­sive­ness and ob­ses­sive artistry, as well as the sanc­tity of im­agery in his films, bring to mind the late Stan­ley Kubrick, who was so re­pelled by the Hol­ly­wood hive that he chose to spend most of his ca­reer in Eng­land.

It’s fruit­less to speak of the Academy as some mono­lithic body with uni­form taste. Hol­ly­wood is a creative com­mu­nity of many mem­bers. The fact that Tree and Ex­tremely Loud are vy­ing for the same award bears this out. But when its film­mak­ers look in the mir­ror, I have a feel­ing they want to imag­ine a lit­tle bit of Mal­ick star­ing back, the un­com­pro­mis­ing and un­com­pro­mised artist who does it his way, the suits be damned. He brings grav­i­tas to the party, even while he stays home as the awards are dished out.

Good on the Academy for not hold­ing that against him. By rec­og­niz­ing Mal­ick and his work, the Os­cars show that, ev­ery once in a while, they’re ca­pa­ble of mak­ing a bold decision.

Fol­low Chris Vognar on Twit­ter: @chrisvog­nar COM­ING UP: More on the Os­cars the next two Sun­days, in­clud­ing Chris Vognar’s picks and pre­dic­tions on Feb. 26.

Fox Search­light

Brad Pitt is bet­ter in Tree of Life than Money­ball, for which he’s a best ac­tor nom­i­nee.

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