Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Wonder, Hope, and Love: Further thoughts on The Tree of Life

[Read my initial thoughts here] 

The Tree of Life is a film that elevates the soul. It reminds me of Whitman, Thoreau’s “Walden,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Rick Bass’ short stories, and Fellini’s 8 ½ (especially with the obvious hattip Malick gives the great Italian filmmaker at the end); all of these are works of art that are, in some way, about nostalgia, how we remember things, and how we can try to make sense of God and the world we live in through our connection to nature. I greatly admire these works of art for more than just their literary importance, brilliance, and amazing display of aesthetic; they all affect in me in the same way: I feel I see the world I live in differently after spending time with them.

It’s hard to conventionally write about a film that laughs in the face of convention. Malick strikes me as a modern day Walt Whitman, an artist who isn’t afraid to contradict himself (Like Whitman says in his opening to “Song of Myself:” ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.’) and make a film that not only contains multitudes, but it invites multiple readings and understandings. The Tree of Life contains multitudes (again, like Whitman); it’s a film that not only tackles spiritualism and the creation of the universe, but it seeks to make sense of those giant cosmic quandaries by climbing inside the fragmented memories of our protagonist Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn). The film, for the most part, takes place in a suburb of Waco, Texas sometime during the 1950s. By juxtaposing the cosmic with the domestic, one of the main things I gleaned from The Tree of Life was that in order to understand the big stuff (and the characters, like all of Malick’s characters, whisper the big questions – “where did you go?”…How do I get back to you?” – via narration) you have to raise your recognition of the little things (think about when Thoreau studies the ants in “Walden”) that help make sense of everything. It’s incredibly optimistic, but it’s something I believe in; it’s something that I think about in order to make sense of the world I encounter on a daily basis, and it’s underlined by Malick here when Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) says, essentially, that he lost sight of what was around him…that he didn’t pay close enough attention.

So I don’t get too derivative, I’ll simply cut to the chase and quote one of my favorite passages about the film from Dana Stevens’ review: 

“When Malick sees a tree, he really sees it—and by some alchemy of camerawork, language, and music I'm still trying to figure out, he offers you that experience in such a way that it feels like your own. Here's a testament to this reclusive, stubborn, visionary director's stunning achievement: His films can change the way you look at the world by showing you how another person sees it.” 

That’s a beautiful way of articulating it, and I think this review will work better if we simply unpack Stevens’ comment.

“When Malick sees a tree, he really sees it…”

The ending of The New World (an up-shot of a tree) seemed a natural segue into The Tree of Life where there are a ton of up-shots of trees. And Stevens is right, Malick really does see. I love the emphasis she puts on “sees” because it is this reason that I didn’t find any of those repetitive shots of nature, of tress, and of the other things Malick seems to be saying are trying to reach God (hands, voices, architecture, mountains) derivative. I found them constantly profound (even the insane amount of shots of curtains blowing in the wind…but more on that later). And it’s not just because he’s trying to be deep or psedu philosophical, it is, like Whitman and Thoreau, because he sees it. What that emphasis that Stevens places on the word “sees” says to me is that this is genuine stuff for Malick. That genuine approach to the themes of the film is made achingly palpable. This is important to Malick, so it should be important to us. In addition to the shots of tress, there’s a good amount of spiral imagery (the up-shots of the caverns; that great shot in the church, the tree branches, and hell, even the sprinkler in the O’Neil’s yard sprays in spiral fashion) indicating that what we’re witnessing, like all of Malick’s work, isn’t going to be easy to follow or understand. Projects and inquiries this large and this ambitious rarely are linear. And so too do our memories never remember things in a linear fashion, so it makes sense that the film’s narrative is fragmented.

“…and by some alchemy of camerawork, language, and music I'm still trying to figure out, he offers you that experience in such a way that it feels like your own.”

The fragmented narrative fits nicely with Malick’s love of synec doche. There are constantly cut-up images – parts of the whole – where we see nothing but hands (a big one), the top or bottom half of a face, an arm, a leg, a foot, a baby’s foot inside an adult hand, etc. All of it, every single frame (and that’s impressive because there are a lot of shots used in this movie), representing the need for human contact. And again, it seems to be on a small scale: the interlocking of a hand, the hand on the back of a neck (sometimes in a not-so-loving way), the touch of a hand through a pane of glass. Whatever it may be it seems it is about contact, connection, community, communion with others – to be able to feel something.

This loss of feeling, this destabilization, is beautifully captured in the aesthetic, specifically Jack Fisk’s art direction. The opening scenes where the O’Brien’s react to their son’s death, and the way interior of their home is shot, reminded me a lot of Bergman. I love the measured way that Emmanuel Lubezki compartmentalizes the various O’Brien households. The seemingly simple shot of a bedroom or a guitar or the way the actors are blocked in the scene tells us everything we need to know without spelling it out for us. It’s like a great Ernest Hemingway short story. The interiors of the house that the older O’Brien parents (Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) live in and the house the older Jack live in (both, interestingly enough, furnished with the popular 50s MOD style that is all over the World Market’s and Crate and Barrel’s of this world) are cold places. Especially when we Jack’s house: a stark interior that mirrors the path his life took. It makes more sense when we see him at work, and his narration tells us that he feels “boxed in.”

All of this is constantly being backed by some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard in any film. Malick’s use of classical music along with Alexandre Desplat (who, along with Carter Burwell, is one of the best film composers working today) underlines every scene with the appropriate amount of whatever the scene (or montage) calls for whether it be poignancy, fear, or awe. I was especially moved by the subtle piano score that accompanied the Waco montage scenes. Naturally (I mean it is a Malick movie, after all) the cinematography is beautiful, but I was most struck by was not all of the nature shots or the way they shot the creation stuff (even though that was freaking awesome, in the truest sense of the word) but the domestic scenes in Waco. After the first two montages and the creation scenes, the film settles down a bit to try and tell its story the best it can. Seeing as how we’re seeing all of this from Adult Jack’s memory, even these calmer scenes are told in no particular order and seem arbitrary at times (what the hell was that scene with the clown at the carnival?). One of the reasons the domestic scenes work so well with Jack and his brothers is because the kids are so damn good. Every bit of acting from the kids (especially Hunter McCracken, as young Jack, whose eyes say more than any voice over or dialogue could hope to) in this movie seems organic. It’s as if we are watching Malick’s home movies. Nothing seems forced or contrite, an amazing fete from these young actors; they make everything so intensely real and palpable that even though these are representations of Malick’s childhood, they’re also universally applicable should anyone choose to tap into that nostalgia.

The Father/Jack relationship reminded me of the poems “My Papas Waltz” by Theodore Roethke and “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. In both poems, the speaker recounts memories about their father that are ambiguous. In Roethke’s poems, especially, it seems that two readings could be correct: it could be a poem about an abusive father, or it could be a poem about a father who is lovingly wrestling with his kid. Hayden’s poem is more of a recollection by the speaker about how he didn’t really like his stern father at the time, but when he thinks about it he recalls that his father was a consistent presence every Sunday morning making sure that the house was warm before they got out of bed. A small gesture that went unrecognized when he was a kid, but as the speaker thinks back on it he realizes the weight, the love, of that gesture.  My point is this: there are a lot of scenes that suggest Jack’s father was not a nice guy to be around (especially the one dinner scene where he tells one of his kids to do him a favor and not talk unless he has anything important to say); however, this is Jack’s memory of it, and there are plenty of scenes that suggest his father – as stern as he was – was also a very loving father (I love that scene where he draws facial hair on them).

The final shot – the lasting image Malick wants you to have of his film – is of a bridge. This could suggest humanities constant need to have a connection to something, but as mentioned here and here, the bridge also could be Malick coming to grips with such man-made constructions; that they actually aren’t in conflict with nature – they aren’t just examples of man’s attempt to rule/control nature – but that they can also be in harmony with nature. They feel more like deterrents and hindrances for Jack coming to grips with his past rather than being those things for nature. I like both readings (and you should definitely read those linked passages). This seems to me to be just another plurality that Malick is offering the audience. Again, this is a film that contains multitudes. 

I hate it when people use the word literally, but I was literally moved to tears numerous time because these scenes (and the film in general) filled me with…gratitude. I was thankful that there was an artist out there who had the balls to put something this raw and genuine out for everyone to see, and that he did it during an era where American films to be content playing it safe with recycled ideas (read: remakes and reboots).
I think this is what Stevens is saying when she talks about Malick being able to make this experience like our own; she’s right, what Malick does is downright amazing, the stuff of magicians. Tim Brayton of the wonderful Antagony & Ecstasy states it best with the conclusion to his second attempt at wrestling with the film when he said:

Here is how I know that The Tree of Life is a masterpiece: it does all of these things, and touches me so much that I can barely stand it, and there is basically not one single element in the film that speaks to me personally. I have no siblings, and cannot begin to speak to the veracity of the brotherly relationships that lend the film its most poignant and magical moments; I've didn't grow up in the kind of neighborhood where you could run around and stumble across wonderful things every which where; I have never had an acrimonious relationship with my father; I find the very idea of spotting Infinite Motherhood to be uncomfortably "othering" of women. And most crucially of all, I'm enough of a doctrinaire atheist that the questions, "Who is God? What is God thinking? How do we become closer to God?" are inherently as useful and compelling as wondering why we can't taste our own tongue. And despite all of these handicaps, the movie still feels like it's holding up a mirror: and it presents its intently specific story with such universal artistry and beauty and, yes, grace, that I cannot help but be swept up by it: twice I have seen the movie, and twice the moment that it ended felt like being violently shaken awake. I have now, twice, greeted the end of the movie with deep exhalation of feeling that reaches down into my toes, not sure if I should dance or cry from the unutterable glory of it.

Tim is right. This is how you know you’ve seen a special film: when it can get people thinking about things they normally would never care to think about. Whether it’s religion, our connection to nature, how we can marry those two ideas, how we wrestle with those ideas (“my father and mother, they wrestle in my mind always.”), or how we connect with others, the film’s aesthetic is so powerful in making those things seem so immediate to the viewer even if they have no interest in God, evolution, or how they connect with other people (but I would argue that if they didn’t have an interest or a questions about one of those things, then they’re probably not seeing that movie).

"Here's a testament to this reclusive, stubborn, visionary director's stunning achievement: His films can change the way you look at the world by showing you how another person sees it.”

Finally, I think this is the most important point: Malick is doing something transcendent with The Tree of Life…he’s opening up dialogue. This film is an invitation, not a sermon, and that’s what I love so much about it. I came away profoundly moved on a spiritual level, but I don’t expect everyone to have the same reaction – to read the motifs and other elements through the same spiritual lens – that I did or even care about the type of reading I applied to the film the same way that I care about something like that. But what I love about the film is Malick’s ability to make others, and myself, understand how someone could see it a particular way.

For example, I love the dinosaur scene because I see it as a defining moment for nature and for mankind (in the same way the apes using the tools in the opening of 2001, an obvious influence on this film, was a defining moment in the Dawn of Man section…this, in fact, could be titled The Dawn of Grace).  I also love the clear nature/grace dichotomy Malick is setting up with the parents: the father (who demands to be called “father,” not “dad,”) is clearly the God of the Hebrew Bible (the giver of life [notice how he’s always watering the lawn and caring for the garden], arbitrary, needy) while the mother is clearly the representation of grace, the New Testament God (the God that would be called dad, the nurturer of life). The father has arbitrary rules (like God) while the mother is there to instill the day-to-day niceties that make existence, for her, make sense. These readings are clearly based in spirituality (I am reluctant to use the term religion because spirituality predates religion as we know it today), and I understand that not everyone is going to be as affected by this reading as I was; that’s just one of the many beautiful things about this picture.

There’s a mystery to the film that matches the mysterious nature of the large themes it tackles. And that brings me to my final point (really): the themes I’ve discussed above (and that did indeed move me so) are so broad that it suggests The Tree of Life is about something that can be pegged. It can’t. It’s too mysterious, too big, and too ambitious to have a nice, neat bow put on top of it. It’s a film that needs to be wrestled with. In fact, it reminded me of two of my favorite visual motifs from the film: things being uprooted and immersion. There’s a lot of yard maintenance in this film (again, a focus on hands and specifically hands in dirt…our connection to nature, perhaps?), and even more noticeable was how rigid his father was about it until he realizes he’s been too rough, breaks down, and uproots his family to start anew. This is maybe the most beautiful moment of the movie (that shot as they move away from their home is a powerful one). In order to see things through a new lens – to understand things in a new way – we must uproot everything we know to be true.

The other visual motif I keep coming back to is water, specifically immersion. There are a lot of shots of people swimming under water and coming up to the surface, the camera looking up at the sky while underwater, and of the O’Brien boys being immersed in water (bath, waterfall, sprinkler, pool). It made me think of the way audiences should receive this film if they want to have a better understanding of it: immerse yourself in it. Let it wash over you. I know that I’m looking forward to another dip. So, what I’m getting at is this: uproot every expectation you may have about how a film is supposed “work” and immerse yourself in the mystery of Malick’s film.

This review has been stream-of-conscious, vague, and probably a bit repetitive, but that’s because I’m still wrestling with the mystery of the film. I left The Tree of Life being reminded of the feeling I get when I watch 8 ½ or read Rick Bass’ brilliant short story “The Hermit’s Story.” These are mysterious narratives that seek to understand our purpose in this life beyond the utilitarian; it’s about embracing the mystery, and in that embrace you’ll find something new and unusual and unanswerable. There’s more here to discuss, more to elaborate on (especially with some of my references), and more to wrestle with…and I look forward to it because it is in the wrestling, the questioning, where we learn something about ourselves and our connection to others and the universe.


  1. Beautiful job, man. Yes, gratitude. That's right on!

    Indeed, this is a film of multitudes, and as I've been reflecting on it more -- after three viewings and time -- I've come to wonder if the conclusion (which you know I have problems with) might have a lot in common with the creation of the universe sequence: that is, perhaps it's just a scene Malick always had in him and needed to express, needed to get on film, and so it doesn't quite fit because it can't; it's a product of Malick's multitudes, more so than an extension of the middle core of the picture itself. Just an idea I'm kicking around in my head.

    Bless Malick for releasing this mid-year. It's a movie that needs to be, and deserves to be, chewed on, over long summer days.

  2. Kevin, this is a towering review in every sense, scholarly, probing, exceptionally referenced! I like the connection to Walt Whitman though I have further contended that the shape of THE TREE OF LIFE is more attuned to a symphony in music than it is to a story arc in literature. This is partly as a result of Malick wanting to express himself in “movements” where each evokes moods and textures, but are unquestionably tied to the larger whole of the work, where he intends everything to come full circle. Again recalling Kubrick, the director places music as the vital component to replace dialogue in enhancing his visuals with the proper aural accompaniment to bring his entrancing ideas to full fruition. Among other notable composers, Malick, echoing 2001: A Space Odyssey makes superlative use of Brahams, Gorecki, Berlioz, Bach, Holst and Mahler, which he apparently instructed Alexandre Desplat to incorporate into his own score. The sublime choral passages underline the film’s extraordinary second act, when Malick envisions the dawn of the universe include Zbigniew Preisner’s sublime “Lacrimosa” and give the film a spiritual undercurrent that oddly meshes with the astronomical truths that have always negated theological doctrine. You have done an astounding job in attempting to unravel the mysteries of the film, and in placing it is a broader context.

    I am thrilled at your 'masterpiece' label too. For me it contends for the bets film of 2011 so far with Carey Fukanaga's British JANE EYRE.

  3. Kevin - I enjoyed this as much as your initial reaction. I'm more familiar with Walt Whitman's bridge (and driving over it) than I am with his poetry, so I'm not as sure of that connection as I am of you Thoreau connection. I'm with Sam on the "music theory" and I believe Malick is more a composer of film than a director.

    At any rate, many probing ruminations displayed here and I love how you picked up on much of the symbolism - another testament to the film's power. I'm wondering - have you seen it only once so far?

  4. Thanks, everyone, for the comments. I just got back into town, so I'll get to these comments later tonight. I just wanted drop-in quickly and let you all know that I've read your comments and appreciate them!

  5. Jason:

    Thanks you for singling out that line about gratitude. It was at the forefront of mine throughout all of my ruminations, and I think it's the best way I can describe my reaction to the film. I'm just thankful that this was made and that it's out there for people to wrestle with.

    I agree with your idea that the ending and the creation sequences seems like something that Malick HAD to get off of his chest, so if those scenes are messy, it's because they're messy in his brain, and so maybe the execution of those very massive, very elusive ideas is the best we can possibly hope for.

    Again, I commend Malick in trying to make the intangible visible. With time, I'm looking forward to another viewing.

    Thanks for the comment, Jason.

  6. Sam:

    As always, I really appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comment. I love the music connection you make to the film. The one thing I can remember saying to myself when the movie was over was, "damn, that was some beautiful music."

    I appreciate the comment and you taking the time to read this piece. It was a lot of fun to think about and to write. I hope to be a little more productive now that the summer is in full swing.

    Thanks again, Sam!

  7. David:

    Thanks for stopping by and thanks for the comment! I have seen the film twice now. I still don't think I've fully conveyed everything I want to about this film, but my two posts so far are good enough until I'm ready for a third immersion into this massive film.

    Your comment about Malick being a composer of film more than a director seems right-on-the-money to me. I like that.

    Oh, and read some Whitman! Hehe.

    Thanks, as always, David!