The Tree of Life

July 3rd, 2011

I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life yesterday, and when I left the theatre, around midnight, and crossed the parking lot, the trees and lights and cars looked more sharply focused, with clearer, more saturated colors, brighter highlights, more richly detailed shadows, than they had before, and everywhere I turned my eyes was full of life and motion, even though there was no wind.  It’s a powerful film.

There is no narrative as such, although there are narrative elements, and much of the central third seems roughly chronological.  There’s a man, Jack, who is now a successful businessman in some major city.  He may be an architect.  He’s having some sort of crisis of identity in his profession.  Much of the film focuses on his life as a boy in Waco, Texas, in the nineteen fifties.  The focal point of view in these sections is Jack’s, mostly, but it is unclear whether we are seeing things as they happened or as he now remembers them.  His mother is idealized.  He was a troubled early adolescent.  (Who isn’t?)  His relationship with his father was and remains troubled.  His father’s relationship with himself and with the mother was troubled.  Jack is the eldest of three brothers.  The middle one, the sensitive, musically creative one, died at the age of nineteen, devastating the mother.   The movie doesn’t tell us how or why he died.   The youngest brother was just sort of there, a mere vague presence, so far as Jack was concerned.  At the end of the movie, Jack experiences some sort of reconciliation with his brother’s death and his father’s emotionally brutal masculinity and other issues residual from his childhood.  He looks up at the cold, glassy skyscrapers he inhabits and smiles, a warm, embracing smile.

Like the Bible, particularly the Book of Job, from which the movie draws its epigraph and much of its inspiration, The Tree of Life achieves profundity by substituting breadth for depth. We’re present at Jack’s parents’ courtship, his birth, his infancy.  We’re present at the birth of the world.  Glowing gases, stars and planets forming, vulcanism depicted with such violence it hits you in the gut while at the same instant your eyes are saying, “how beautiful.”  This duality of reaction occurs often in the movie.  There are dynosaurs – haunting images of a wounded amphibious dynosaur on a beach, a small herbivore feigning death or illness on a rocky stream bank to escape a stupidly graceful predator.  Throughout the rest of the movie, I  had a constant background awareness of these lovely creation sequences.  The effect was to heighten the particularity of what I was seeing, the microcosm and the macrocosm placing each other in context.

The movie pretty accurately depicts what an American boyhood was like in the fifties, as I can attest.  Although unlike Jack’s family, my family was not Christian, and I grew up in Buffalo, New York, not Waco Texas, and my Jewish dad did not teach me to fight, what Malick shows is pretty much what I remember.  Although Malick draws wonderful acting from most of his cast, including the many child actors, he doesn’t ask all that much of them.  We don’t see far inside any of the characters.  The closest we come to a psychological exploration is with Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the father.  Pitt has grown from a mere pretty boy to a real actor.  His features here are thick-lipped and coarse and, with its close cropped wiry hair, his head looks like something you’d swing on a chain to knock down brick walls with.  He shows us the father’s poorly restrained inner turbulence.  But we don’t get far beneath that roiling surface.  Oh, there are any number of dream sequences, especially towards the end of the movie, where we spend a lot of time watching imagery drawn out of Jack’s head.  But instead of revealing the characters’ inner lives, the dreams just show us what is going on.  It’s like the difference between a window and a painting of a window.

Malick is less interested in matters of psychological motivation and emotional nuance than in his characters’ spiritual existence.   One of the things that saves his film from the kind of mushy, goopy, intellectually lazy overstatement that characterizes most cinematic spirituality is that his characters do express themselves and behave like recognizable human beings.  There is a startling realism to his portrayal of the children in particular.  The movie’s spirituality is grounded in this realism, this close observation of the specific ways people behave and experience their world.  Although there are moments when Malick’s cinematic rhetoric seems a bit overblown, this excess derives from his aesthetic choices as a craftsman, and not from any softness or flaw in his fundamental vision.  This vision links a man’s place in his own life to Man’s place in the universe.  The linkage plays out in the story, so far as there is a story, and turns out to be the central trope in what happens to and changes for the characters, without any of the usual Hollywood didacticism or pedantry or moralizing.  The movie’s revelations are not bought cheaply.  Of course Malick’s reach exceeds his grasp, but he gets tantalizingly close to what he’s after.

I was not really bored at any point of the movie’s non-discursive, anti-narrative, highly digressive 139 minutes.  On the other hand, there were a few times when longueur threatened.  Malick achieves much by risking much, and the movie’s stately grandeur of pace – a visual equivalent of the language of the King James Bible – is partly achieved by repetitive imagery.  Long after we’ve gotten the point that mom is emotionally trashed by the middle son’s demise, we’re seeing closeups of her (implausibly beautiful) teary, suffering face.  We spend a lot of time gazing up into the branches of a live oak, which, spectacular tree that it is, seems somewhat overdone, even a bit ham-handed, given emphasis already given the arboreal metaphor by the film’s title.  In the long middle sequence, the closest to a traditional narrative we’re given, I got very very tired of seeing Jack standing around looking sullen (although, I have to admit, this fairly exactly reproduced the feelings I remember from having been the parent of a preadolescent).  We hear voices whispering disconnected words and phrases, like “brother,”  “father,” “why,” and so on, quite a few times too often.  The whole thing could have been edited much more tightly.  It could be about half as long as it is.  If Hemingway had translated the Bible it, too, would be much shorter.  But it would lose most of its marvelous sonority.

My daughter, recent graduate of the CCNY film program, praised The Tree of Life to me by saying that Malick is showing us what movies can do that no other art form can do so well.  Having seen the movie, I think she’s right, and that it is pretty much akin to poetry.  Not in the modern, debased sense of “poetry” as an intellectual aesthete’s playground for ego and verbal dexterity, full of vague, hermetic imagery and “beauty” of the sort one can find in postcards and crossword puzzles.  More in the sense of “poetry” as a vehicle for meanings which elude direct articulation but are none the less definite, concrete, and useful.

No wonder prosy Americans are having some trouble with it.  A lot of people walk out after the first half hour, when no story has developed yet and all of a sudden we are whisked from suburban Waco to the protogalactic cosmos.  Not a lot of people are showing up for it, either.  In the screening I saw, during The Tree of Life‘s quieter moments, the sparse audience had to tune out through-the-wall rumblings from the much better attended superhero movie next door.  Americans want the clarity of a traditional novel or comic book.  One could argue that The Tree of Life possesses the structure of a classic three act play – introduction of characters and conflict; development; climax and denouement – and that its innovations are mainly a matter of style, but for those folks who couldn’t perceive it, who walked out, it would be a hard sell.  Well, to each his own.  For me, The Tree of Life was beautiful, profoundly engaging, musical, resonant, and numinous.  The world did look different after seeing it than it did before.  What more can we ask from art?

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