I’m still bathing in a whirlpool of sensations from seeing The Tree of Life yesterday. Sure, there are a dozen reasons to disparage the film, but several dozen more to love it. And the film – good and weak parts alike – pulse and persist in my mind as few films in recent memory. It’s enthralling that someone working on such a large scale has such faith in the protean sensory power of movies: “sensory” not in a mind-numbing summer blockbuster way, but in a way that stimulates thought, reflection, and a healthy degree of discomfort at having to make sense of what you are seeing, both narratively and emotionally.
Despite the barrage of reviews and initial musings generated by its Cannes premiere and pre-release press screenigns, The Tree of Life will take years for critics to unpack. Still, not much has been said about the film’s possible ties and indebtedness to other films. For one, there’s the film grammar of silent cinema from the glory days of Griffith, Dovzkenko and Murnau, back when editing gave meaning to films more than dialogue, something that certainly can be said of The Tree of Life. It’s a tradition of pure cinema whose torch has been kept from being extinguished over the years by avant garde artists like Stan Brakhage, whose masterpiece Scenes from Under Childhood has a title that could easily substitute for Malick’s. (So far I’ve only seen one Brakhage citation in any reviews of The Tree of Life, found in Genevieve Yue’s arboreal appreciation in Reverse Shot.)
So as pleased as I am with the windfall of critical praise for Malick in bringing a jolt of the avant-garde into a multiplex production reportedly to the tune of $150 million, I can only hope that some of this attention could be funneled to his equally daring but less celebrated predecessors. In addition to Brakhage, there’s no better place to start than the works of Bruce Baillie, whose dreamy, deeply sensual and freely associational montages delve deep into the terrain of cinematic subconscious that Malick has staked for himself. One of Baillie’s most personal works, Quick Billy, is a free-flowing meditation on life patterned after The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Made over a four year period after Baillie fell deeply ill to yellow fever, the film is described by Bruce Eder as Baillie’s delirious attempt “to confront his mortality.” Reading Eder’s description bears an uncanny resemblance to a thumbnail synopsis of The Tree of Life:
This confrontation brings him to revise his understanding of himself, his family, his personal history, and his goals… experiencing memories of his former self, of his transformation, and of his rebirth as authentic individual.
The resemblances don’t end there. Just compare the image at the top, taken from Quick Billy, with this image from The Tree of Life. Both filmmakers clearly have a penchant for the cosmic (though achieved by very different ends: one man using paint and glass, the other using an army of CGI technicians).
This is not meant to suggest that Malick borrowed from Baillie, which I have no way of verifying. But another recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner, and one who openly credits Baillie as one of his formative influences, is Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady; Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives). In fact, Apichatpong will engage in a rare public conversation with Baillie not once but twice this week in New York City. Thursday’s dialogue will take place at the New Museum, where Apichatpong is currently spending an eight-week artist residency. A screening of Quick Billy will accompany their discussion. Friday they will move their conversation to Anthology Film Archives and screen several more Baillie shorts, including the dreamy Tung (which you can also watch on Fandor).
We’ll have an archive of their talk available soon; in the meantime you can watch Quick Billy here on Fandor. And you can also have a look at these select stills from Quick Billy that strike an intriguing resonance with stills from Apichatpong’s films:
Tropical Malady (2004, dir. Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010, Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
“Primitive” (2011, Apichatpong Weerasethakul) [New Museum]
WATCH QUICK BILLY ON FANDOR: