Classics of the New Millennium: "The Tree of Life" (2011) with guest filmmaker Alex Winter

The "Zappa" documentarian (and erstwhile Bill S. Preston Esq.) joins me to sing the praises of Terrence Malick's masterpiece.

Classics of the New Millennium: "The Tree of Life" (2011) with guest filmmaker Alex Winter
20 Watchcast Tree of Life

A confession: When I first saw Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” in 2011, I didn’t really get it. I liked it — was wowed by the imagery, moved by the music, and appreciative of the film’s long-range lens on human existence. I got into a squabble outside the movie theater with a quartet of retirees who thought “Tree” was the dumbest thing they’d ever seen — and certainly not the escapist Brad Pitt movie they’d paid their money for — because I felt they didn’t respect the art and enormity of what Malick was attempting. But I guess on some level the movie still seemed an attempt, rather than an achievement.

I don’t think so now. Great works meet you where you live and only when you’re ready. I was in a different place in 2011 than I am twelve years later, both emotionally and along the long string of a life. My kids were teenagers back then, were in peak rebellion, and maybe I came down on the crabbed Pitt/Nature side of the film’s equation, as opposed to the forgiving Chastain/Grace side. Or maybe my spiritual self was simply undernourished at the time; faithful readers know (and perhaps share) the exhalation and exploration that can happen once children are out of the house and there’s time to remember who you once were.

Or maybe it’s even simpler than that: That global and national events of the past decade have all of us thinking in more epic and/or apocalyptic terms than we’re used to. In any event, “The Tree of Life” now seems to me one of a handful of movies that could be called holy in the largest and most non-denominational sense, in that it forcefully, artfully, gracefully reminds us of the big picture and our essential/infinitesimal place in it; of the value of mercy (in dinosaurs as well as humans) and of the radical nature of love. And to those who have said, then and now, that the movie is “pretentious” — well, that word means either that an artist is trying too hard or that you’re just not looking hard enough.

My guest for this episode is Alex Winter, an actor and filmmaker who is best known in the popular culture as Bill of the “Bill and Ted” movies but who also has an acclaimed resume as a documentary filmmaker, with his well-received and -awarded Frank Zappa bio-doc “Zappa” (2020) and a series of docs on the perils of Internet technology, of which “The YouTube Effect” (available for streaming) is the latest. Alex is a NYU film school grad who can drop a Mizoguchi reference with the best of them; he brings a cineaste’s appreciation and a director’s insights to the discussion of this uniquely transcendent movie. “The Tree of Life” can be rented on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube and elsewhere — do yourself a favor and watch it on the biggest, most hi-def screen you can manage. This podcast is also streaming on YouTube with additional film clips.

Thanks for listening! Have any thoughts? Want to suggest a movie for this series? Don’t hesitate to weigh in.

If you liked this edition of Ty Burr’s Watchcast, please feel free to pass it along to friends.

If you’re not a paying subscriber and would like to sign up for additional postings and to join the discussions, here’s how.

It’s the holiday season, and if you have cinephiles on your list, you might want to…

Or refer friends to the Watch List and get credit for new subscribers. When you use the referral link below, or the “Share” button on any post, you'll:

  • Get a 1 month comp for 3 referrals
  • Get a 3 month comp for 5 referrals
  • Get a 6 month comp for 25 referrals. Simply send the link in a text, email, or share it on social media with friends.