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Overheard at "The Tree of Life"

This weekend I was collecting tweets about things people have overheard at their screenings of Terrence Malick's mysterious artful epic The Tree of Life.

I kicked things off with two stories from my screening. The first was two very old ladies teetering out of the theater arm-in-arm.

Some of that was very moving... but most of it was very boring.

Next came a bored middle aged husband and his angry loud wife...

Wife: I couldn't wait for that to be over.
Husband: It was...long.
Wife: It was a DAY long. I couldn't take one more symbol, metaphor or paradox.

Mikhael joined my "overheard" enthusiasm, submitting the following from his screening:

Woody Allen look-a-like to his wife: So tell me what that was all about?

Will Holston heard this:


Jake Cole saw a hipster in a fedora with a Che t-shirt who was above it all.

It's not as smart as it thinks it is.

And finally Erin had a very boisterous crowd so I think she wins. She heard the following random snippets, all of them utterly hilarious if you've seen the movie.

There's no acting!

Are we in the right film?

Are those sunflowers?

[during last ten minutes] Is that SEAN PENN?!

None of these comments surprise me and all of them delight me because The Tree of Life is so meditative and personal and open to interpretation that anyone can probably feel anything while they're watching it. I imagine that people who don't like their mind to wander, to fill in, to have associative adventures both scary and peaceful and god-knows-what-else during a screening probably become utterly unhinged. I like that feeling in a movie theater but I was unnerved a couple of times by the barrage of things I was feeling and the distinct impression that the film wasn't trying to make me feel them exactly and maybe the film wasn't even responsible for me feeling them... which was both exciting and annoying.

I haven't talked about the movie at all here because i missed the first wave or critical discussion (I have yet to read even one review) and was totally shy thereafter. I mostly enjoyed it but for its repetitive preciousness about prayers to God and the Sean Penn sequences. But I think in some key ways it's the most inaccessible thing I've seen in theaters since Matthew Barney's 10 hour Cremaster cycle (which I was gaga for) so I'm perversely enjoying that some unsuspecting moviegoers are tricked into seeing it by Malick's reputation and the twin towers of stardom that are PITT and PENN.

To be frank I adamantly believe that Sean Penn was a financial compromise the movie shouldn't have made. This part, which should only be a vessel to provide the visual passing of time, needed a complete unknown. His star presence kept taking me out of the movie --  'Why is this big star Brad Pitt's angry son all grown up?' -- because Penn didn't have enough of a character to play to justify an "actor" playing it.  Every other cast member seemed to have been utterly absorbed into the film like they were just appendages or organs powered by its brain, blood and nervous system. Brad Pitt in particular was fantastically convincing and period specific as the frustrated father. Unlike Penn I never felt like I was seeing "Brad Pitt". I'll assume you've read a hundred times by now that the child performances were sensational examples of the kind of "naturalism" that most movies don't ever attempt. One scene in particular with the two eldest boys in tall grass, one of them crying, totally unnerved and upset me and it's my strongest memory of the movie. Well, aside from the bravura creation sequence. Those briefly glimpsed dinosaurs had more soul than any screen dinosaurs ever, yes?

YOUR TURN. Sorry it took me so long to say anything. How unruly was your audience and how conflicted was your own response to the year's most challenging movie to see regular release thus far?

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Reader Comments (38)

Will Holston is me, BTW.

I'm not going to claim that I've understood everything about the film, but I've seen it twice and read many great pieces about it, and I don't think it's THAT impenetrable, really. It's certainly possible to have a basic grasp of what you're seeing, in my opinion. I think you just have to be OK with the idea that you won't be able to fully interpret every second of the movie and just have to let the experience wash over you.

The middle 90 minutes of the story of the family and the young Jack character are probably the most powerful thing I've seen in theaters since some of the sequences in Children of Men. I agree that the ending maybe gets a little silly (always a danger with possible (?) depictions of after life type things), but I am incredibly all about this movie. Love it.

With the Sean Penn thing, I assume you already know that his character actually did have a pretty good storyline in earlier cuts but, as Malick is wont to do, it was trimmed down severely in the editing so ... I don't think I agree that he was cast solely as a name to draw in an audience.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRJ

The more I let this film stew, the more I love it. I actually think this will be a huge financial success. The Midwest will eat it up, because even if it's not their style, it hits them where they live. (The 1950s.)

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

"Those briefly glimpsed dinosaurs had more soul than any screen dinosaurs ever, yes?"

Surprise, surprise! Another snarky jab at Spielberg...

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGustavo

I haven't seen it, but I LOVE LOVE LOVE when über-famous actors are in very audience-unfriendly movies. I can remember when people went to see Magnolia because of Tom Cruise and were like "OMG, this is not Jerry Maguire". Later this year: Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia. Call your friends that are Spider Man fans!

I like this shock, but I confess I prefer to see the movie with a domesticated, without those awful comments like Cameron Diaz is so ugly in this movie, and so is John Cusack.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

It finally opens here in North Carolina Friday. I'm still debating whether to see it at the multiplex or the hipster theater; I'm sure there will be hilarious reactions at both.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason H.

Three people walked out and one person quite angrily yelled about wanting their money back at the end of the screening I went to in Northern New methinks that's definitely some sort of indication of the reviews and reception I've read regarding the film, but I still loved it. Yes, I agree with some of the criticisms and sort of lost track towards the end of the film and what it was trying to get at, but I'm glad to see a movie that was able to make me "think" again, and wasn't just the Cashcow Sequel Part II: Bland Epic-Sounding Undescript Subtitle Inserted Here sort of thing that we only seem to be getting for the most part, this year.

I just remember turning to my two friends that I went with after the movie was over, and telling them I was afraid to say I loved the movie since so many people visually and audibly seemed to hate it =P

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRyan M

The group that went with me to the movies was absolutely blown away - in a negative way. 'It was WAAAAAY too long, way too boring, way too philosophical' and other stuff.

Half the audience stood up and left to buy popcorn and snacks during the large, cosmic/pre-historic sequence, half of them demanded their money back in the end and boo'ed and threw popcorn at the screen.

But the best reaction I got at the movies was on 'Another Year' when two women behind me left the movie crying halfway through yelling 'Wasn't it supposed to be a comedy? It made me hate my life so much.' Oy.

I actually loved it - and being a spiritual person and all, I feel it resonated a lot with my thoughts on after-life and the importance of our life. It was certainly an interesting experience and I agree with you - it's amazing how it makes us feel and think so much (without actually intending to).

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

saw it in a new york indie theater, thank god. the audience didnt make a peep the whole way through.

brought my friend, who's never seen a malick movie or isn't even a particularly big movie buff, but i warned her about it beforehand, told her not to think during the movie, but just experience the sensations more instinctively, and she was surprisingly receptive to it - said that she thought it was a gorgeous new experience and had a good time. yay.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

The most personal scene for me was the breakfast/lunch scene. I cried in the theatre. I feel uncomfortable just thinking about it again right now. Despite that, it's a miracle that I can actually appreciate the humour within and about the film. There's so much to observe in this film, both the sad and the happy parts. It's Godlike, in a way, watching these people under our microscope.

This cute I was talking to said that the film was boring - even the O'Brien parts - and preachy, comments that were a bit off for me.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Jason H, it actually opened in North Carolina LAST Friday! It's playing at The Manor Twin in Charlotte if you're close and don't want to wait until the weekend. :)

I was actually surprised at how respectful the audience was when I saw it this past weekend. I was expecting something ridiculous like many here have experienced but no one, that I could tell, walked out. And afterwards seemed to be actually discussing it instead of being lazy and proclaiming it "boring" and "pointless". I personally don't think there is a single shot in the film that doesn't have meaning.

I had a discussion with my friend over lunch afterwards and we both feel as if it's a film that we will take something completely different from if we were to revisit it in, say, 20 years (we're both in our early twenties). Just by LIVING more. I could obviously relate to the childhood scenes...and I really had an emotional reaction to it. It felt like a mirror at times.

I need to see it again pronto though to and just immerse myself. The first time I was just trying to process what was happening in front of me, LOL.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoJo

I haven't seen the film yet but am so looking forward to the experience. Just adore Malick films.

Not to derail....but, I went to see Of Gods and Men several months back. A totally fantastic film. I was left speechless, That is, until this buffoon yelled out at the end of the movie 'that was the most boring movie I've ever seen in my life.' Totally not cool in the art house theater in Cambridge, MA. I responded to this jerk, out loud (I'm typically reserved) 'Oh, shut up. Who cares what you think.' I was so angry he ruined the end of a totally profound film for everyone in the theater.

I will see Tree of Life this weekend.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I saw this at a hipster theater in Seattle and had an interesting mix there. There were some old ladies next to me some film buff in front of them was trying to talk up, and some boisterous guys behind me (but they were quiet in the movie), and some college students in front of me--the girl in the group definitely looked impatient at the end.

It's definitely a heady film, and I will forever grateful that it introduced me to "Funeral Canticle" by John Tavener. When that song started playing, I knew I would love the rest of the film.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterkelsy

I haven't seen it yet. Comes out in Australian next week on the 30th. I'm planning to see it as soon as I can, though. Haven't been this excited for a film for some time.

I find it really strange that people are seeing this film without any clue what it's going to be like. Maybe I underestimate the pulling power of someone like Brad Pitt. And I overestimate how much effort people put into what they are going to see. Surely anyone with a passing knowledge of Terrence Malick, and a passing knowledge of what previous Palme D'Or's have often been would have some idea of what they're getting themselves into.

I'm kind of nervous now about seeing it because I don't want to have my experience ruined by rowdy patrons.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSamuel

Saw the movie, by myself, yesterday, and, my God, it was a slog. Not that I didn't enjoy it, mind you—nor was it long (it really wasn't *that* long)—but I needed to pee the ENTIRE time, and kept thinking, "I can't go now; what if I miss something?!" In retrospect, would I have even noticed? Bravura performances though from Pitt, Chastain and McCracken. Just divine...

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermareko

I thought it was an absolute masterpiece, and I came in worried that the religious aspects would grate me, but it's power was simply overwhelming. I can't think of a single frame that I thought should be cut. Sean Penn isn't in it much yes, but I was never taken out of the film. I thought it was an aching, beautiful miniature performance and wouldn't have possibly worked without his sequences. That final shot of him was amazing.

No bad audience reactions, I saw a group of people discussing it outside but I was with my friend and was still mesmerized that I didn't pay attention. And I think Brad Pitt's best performance, ever no?

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSeeking Amy

Hmm, I loved him in 12 MONKEYS too but yes he's awesome in THE TREE OF LIFE.

June 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJorge Rodrigues

samuel -- well my audience was totally respectful. UNTIL the credits were rolling and that's when the comments started. other than a lot of walking in and out. i only saw one person walk out and not return (i was seated right next to the door so i couldn't help but notice all exits and entrances)

June 20, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I too saw this at a theatre full of disgruntled movie-goers. I honestly got a kick out of the impatient hands that kept flying up in the row in front of mine. It's as though the audience missed the film's trailer and knew nothing of Terrence Malick. I could better understand their frustration if it had been more heavily pushed as a "Brad Pitt movie" or something, but no one seemed to understand what they were in for until it was - as I'm sure they'd say - too late.

Why were none of the people without the preconceptions of a cinephile simply blown away by the imagery? Why didn't I hear a single "That's not what I was expecting, but it was (synonym for 'good')"?

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDevin D

Saw it at TIFF Lightbox Theatre in Toronto. The audience, as far as I noticed, was quiet throughout the movie. As soon as the end credit came on screen a large amount of us couldn't hold it in any longer and chuckled, as one lady blatantly laughed.

The movie wasn't boring, or long, it was just 100% irrelevant, unoriginal, and poorly made.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNoam

LOL Noam, you sound like one of the aformentioned hipsters!

I don't really understand how you can watch something like The Tree of Life and, with a straight face, say that you've seen something like it before. Maybe it didn't work for you, fine...but seriously? Unoriginal?

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoJo

I still don't know what to think about this one. I watched it about 2 weeks ago and I'm still not able to collect my thoughts on "Tree of life". So ambivalent... I was equally moved and indifferent... I was equally flabbergasted and bored... I was equally amazed and disappointed... The father-son realtions were absolutely brilliant and I wanted the movie to stay in that realm (with many understatements, with a wide field of interpretations, with giving you opportunity to interpret it through your own frames)... I felt really bad every time Malick stepped into the "obvious" territory... the ending seemed to me extremaly pretentious... pretty but pretentious

so, as for now I remember spectacular images, unusual tension between Brad Pitt and Hunter McCracken, transitory Jessica Chasstain, the incredible "Lacrimosa sequence"... but I still don't know what to think about the movie... it seems so personal, and left me so indifferent at the same time... time will tell

infering from the audience's reaction the reception was rather bad... I've never seen so many people leaving the theatre during the movie (honestly!)... maybe it's the conflict between marketing (they want to sell the movie, right!) and the movie itself (which absoultely niche!)
People expected Brad Pitt they know the screen, they expected Sean Penn they know from the screen, they expected action, they expected lots of dinosaurs... not poetry! (and I can easily blame some of them for runing my experience)...

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterblaise

Funny quotes indeed, especially the "SEAN PENN?!" one. Wish I could ofer some, but I saw it at a press screening -- everyone was silent and polite.

I'm confused by own reaction to this movie. I LOVED it when it adamantly defied any sort of traditional narrative structure, and only began to squirm when it narrowed its focus and became more traditional. And yet, my favorite Malick is probably "The New World," which is perfectly linear. I'm selfish! What sort of Malick movie do I want??

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKurtis O

Saw it the day it was released and the reaction from the audience was fairly subdued. They sat quietly, left quietly and I didn't stick around the theater to listen to any reactions. As for my personal view of the film; the first twenty minutes didn't interest me at all, the stuff with the family was pretty effective and the last twenty minutes left me cold and a little confused.

Overall, I gave the film a B- simply because it looked beautiful and the family stuff was compelling. I may like it more on repeat viewings but I'm not sure if I'll be up for watching it again.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDaniel Armour

don't care what others say.
i understand why such painful comments came from certain people.
i myself think some scenes were frivolous and lengthy.
the pacing had intent. the "plot" carried so much below the surface.

its definitely an experiential film. and i agree, the movie takes time, saturation, and "interaction."

...which makes me want to compare it to fragrance and perfumery.

the experience of smell is different for each individual.

does the audience want to smell and direct, linear composition that fairly universal and tame?

or do they want a fragrance that blooms and develops as the notes fade away revealing more complex accords; evolving?

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRichmond

"The more I let this film stew, the more I love it. I actually think this will be a huge financial success. The Midwest will eat it up, because even if it's not their style, it hits them where they live. (The 1950s.)"

what? no.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoel

In my theater (during the "History of the Universe" part) I had a middle-aged man stand up, turn around, and yell "EXPLAIN PLEASE!!!!" he left after about another10 minutes

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermitchell

First things first: I've seen this movie twice, and I love it immensely. Is it perfect? Of course not. But, it's pretty darn fantastic (it's certainly one of the more beautiful films I have ever seen). Despite the fact that I think it's amazing, I do agree with you on your view of Sean Penn in it. Personally, I felt that his "star power", if you will, took away from his sections of the movie (which, in the case of the beginning, were in my opinion the weakest of the movie. The ending on the beach was stunning, though).

In terms of things I overheard... The first time I saw it, I heard nothing, but the second time, there was this couple sitting a few rows behind me who I caught a few not-so-quiet whispers from. The one main comment that I recall from them was during the creation sequence, when one whispered to the other "that's the first thing I've been able to recognize over the past 20 minutes... it's a jellyfish".

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Every single time a tree was shown in this movie the old guy behind me would say, "That's the Tree of Life... right?"

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTanner

Before I went in (indie theater in NYC) I heard a young film-student type saying to his friend, "I wonder... what did they show to investors to get the millions of dollars for this thing? Like, it had to have been a script or something at one point, right?"

A few hours later, I reflected on this comment being a fairly good observation.

Love the movie, though. It's been a week or so since I saw it... it's about time I wrote about it.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJesse M

JoJo - Charlotte gets all the luck. I'm in Chapel Hill, and we usually have to wait a little longer. And of course, The Tree of Life will probably be here for a week or two, while Fast Five still has multiple screens. C'est la vie.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason H.

I wonder what kind of script is there for this film. Would it be like Mike Leigh where they shoot the film first and translate it into words. Because I read an interview where the crew said, “ Malick would be like, “Oh the wind is blowing there! Let’s shoot it there!”"

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMikhael

Noam and sorry if this might be OT: I saw it at the Varsity in Toronto, where the audience, despite having its Golden Age demographic it shares with the Cumberland, is a good mix. Me and 20 of my friends' friends had a good conversation about the film, although a few girls didn't like the 'Discovery Channel' half hour. That I respect.

The Lightbox has a younger crowd than its previous incarnation, the Cinematheque, although I can still see a few people from the older crowd. Post-college suit-and-tie, middle class post-hipsters.

June 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaolo

Not sure how I feel about it yet (I like it so far) but my audience was really small (weekday and late) and thankfully there were no comments. I hate comments. I always want to answer. Or hit them ;)

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames T

I personally loved it; my girlfriend at first said she hated it and then, upon reflection, said she liked it but found it pretentious. I'm going to go see it again tonight.

My favorite audience reaction was from the couple next to us, drinking wine throughout the picture. At the end, when the last "flame" image flickered on screen (right when we thought the movie was over), the man screamed, "Ohhhh shittt..." because he thought the movie was going to start over again, haha.

June 24, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCraze

I heard the usual comments...thank God it's over and what the hell was it? A lot of seniors at my matinee showing. One walk out.

Personally, I loved almost the entire film.....but I was so disappointed by the ending. It's how I felt after watching every single episode of LOST.... they pretty much had me right up until then.

June 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMIchelle

Someone said "Sean Penn?" at the end of my screening as well. Like they didn't notice it was Sean Penn in the beginning? Lots of walkouts and people laughing during the dinosaurs. The two dudes in the bathroom said, "I didn't get it. Was I supposed to get it?" To which his friend replied: "That was the biggest piece of shit I have ever seen."

June 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMickey

Craze -- i love it. i did think that a few times with the flame.
Michelle -- i never watched Lost (i know i know) but i know enough to guess at waht you're getting at.

June 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Finally got around to seeing it Friday. As with any Malick film, it will take about a month for me to decide whether I thought it was good (yes to "The Thin Red Line", no to "The New World"). But it delivered indisputable value on one expected level - this was eye candy of the first order. Lubezki can schedule his tux cleaning now to have it ready for Oscar night.

July 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCarl
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