We giggled and squirmed in our stadium seating as the scene opened. Rather than merely watching a movie in a theatre, we found ourselves ankle-deep in garden rows that stretched behind the Chauvet caves. We were not still, but moving forward. But what were we moving towards? Where were we coming from? And what would we discover on this journey? What would we learn? What would we feel?
It doesn’t take long to settle into Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, though one can never get too comfortable here. We adjust to the movement, the timing, the sensations—but at no point are we satisfied. We walk inside, shaky footing, our hand reaches out to grab the wall that floats beside our head.
Herzog is our guide here, taking us deep inside Chauvet to admire its magnificent paintings, frozen in time by the wonders of cave magic (also thought to be science). More than that, he takes us into the experience of 3-D technology itself, so that we truly join him for every stage of this journey. We are the crew, the camera, the eyes inside. We are here, together.
What happens next is entirely up to us. We have been shown a bright light, shining from the darkest recess of our ancient history. But now we must emerge from the cave, and how will the world have changed? Is it we who begin to see differently, or has the course of human history been changed so that we hardly recognize it? Who have we become, having seen who we might have been?
(Well?? Rate your 3-D experience here!)
How fitting, then, or how cruel, that our next feature presentation of the Cape Breton Island Film Series is Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which promises to be as mysterious and obtuse as—well, as a Terrence Malick film. If this is your first, please take note: check your ego and expectations at the door. They will be returned to you once the film has ended. Maybe.
The story, once we locate it, follows the life journey of Jack, from his childhood in 1950’s Waco, Texas, to his disillusioned adult years in Houston. This modern-day lost soul (played as an adult by Sean Penn) takes us into his own memories of his family’s history, especially focusing on his strained and difficult relationship with his father (Brad Pitt).
If this sounds anything to you like the typical Midwestern mid-life soul-searching rigamarole, perhaps you’d like to think about that while you join Malick on a 30-minute meander through the history of creation. Perhaps roaming wild with the dinosaurs will put things into perspective for you, if only for a moment, just before an asteroid lines up to destroy all that you have come to consider loving.
Speaking of loving and by the time you have lost a week’s worth of sleep to the monsters that still creep beneath your bed, and just when you are about to give up on God or Terrence Malick or maybe you’re just getting up to use the restroom… but now, we are brought back to Waco, the 1950’s, a family, and maybe—if we’re lucky—a story.
Here, in the middle, we get all the comforts that the middle has to offer. Cushioned on either side by what are sure to be revelatory catastrophes, there is a certain restful play that takes effect when we finally settle in. We join Jack in his memories. There is our stern father, offering us lessons in life’s cruelties, while our dear mother provides unconditional and unwavering love. We are full of grace in the innocence of our youth. But what happens to love as we grow older?
The Tree of Life is a reflection, rather than a lesson. It is questions without answers and ideas without names. It is a story, perhaps, but it will not end. At least, not the way you want it to. Something like life itself, the film promises to end in epic disappointment.
Terrence Malick, the director who brought us Badlands and The Thin Red Line, has a reputation for beauty and destruction, splendour and chaos. Through his eyes, the world could be a better place—if it wasn’t for us being in it, perhaps, or if only we would try harder. With this, his fifth feature film in almost 40 years, Malick might be offering us a chance at redemption. Or maybe just a prayer, on which to lay our lofty hopes. Or, he might just be fucking with us.
The uncertainty will certainly torture us.
That, of course, is life.
The Tree of Life plays at 7pm, tonight at Studio 10 Empire Theatres.