Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Tree of Life

















THE TREE OF LIFE                     A                    
USA  (138 mi)  2011  d:  Terrence Malick

That's where God lives!

—Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), pointing upwards towards the sky

Larry, the youngest, went to Spain to study with the guitar virtuoso Segovia. Terry discovered in the summer of 1968 that Larry had broken his own hands, seemingly despondent over his lack of progress. Emil [Malick’s father], concerned, went to Spain and returned with Larry’s body; it appeared the young man had committed suicide. Like most relatives of those who take their own lives, Terry must have borne a heavy burden of irrational guilt. According to Michèle, the subject of Larry was never mentioned.

—from Page 2 of Peter Biskind’s August, 1999 article for Vanity Fair, “The Runaway Genius,” seen here:  The Runaway Genius | Classic | Vanity Fair 

Unlike Malick’s other films, this one is much more autobiographical in nature, showing a portrait of the artist himself and a deeply personal understanding of the world around him and even his own place in the universe.  Grasping at the eternal, this feels like a dialogue the director may be having with God, where answers are few, but the probing intensity to unfathom the meaning and puzzling nature of our existence seems to be at the heart of this film.  Why are we here?  Where did we come from?  What does it all mean, and what, in the end, really matters?  Much like the imagined inner thoughts of the soldiers in THE THIN RED LINE (1998), who collectively form the consciousness of mankind through an endless stream of voices paying tribute to both the living and the dead, the director strives to find some meaning in witnessing wave after wave of human slaughter at Guadalcanal in 1942, and also asking how God can allow it?  Much like Jewish Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel asking where was the presence of God at Auschwitz, Malick is in the same turmoil when he inexplicably loses his younger brother at the age of 19.  In the larger scheme of things, what purpose can this possibly serve?  His immediate inclination is to join him, to offer his brotherly love, to be wherever he is so that he’s not alone.  These are the internal struggles that constitute man’s existence, reflected in an unending stream of philosophical voiceovers, offset by astonishing images not only of a pristine natural world, an Edenlike perfection that is portrayed in all his films, but of life evolving from the universe, where Malick, in a mammoth extended sequence, literally shows us the birth of the world, accompanied by soaring, majestic music that is nothing short of sublime.   

Due to the Biblical references throughout the film, many will confuse this as a devout religious work, where something of an afterlife or a vision of collected memories seem to materialize where the living and the dead, at different stages in their lives, may actually co-exist, at least temporarily, where they commune and share feelings.  But rather than a declaration of devotion to God, there is no evidence from the point of view of a religious believer, instead the view is continually that of one questioning man’s fate on earth.  And from this perspective, after the world is created, knowing we are all fated to die, the question is how does one live in this world?  Despite his best efforts, extreme forms of discipline, never missing a day of work, and attending church every week, Malick’s father, portrayed by Brad Pitt, has no answers.  Life is still hard and at times unendurable, where faith does not seem to be a determining factor in one’s wealth or happiness.  People are still weak, human and vulnerable, subject to making mistakes, where they may suffer painful consequences from their own actions, and more importantly, inadvertently transfer them onto their own children, which has a punishing effect upon the innocent.  Pitt has high standards that the world, and his family, rarely meet, admonishing them, blaming them for resisting his will, undermining his authority, eventually turning on them with a detestable abuse that poisons his relationship with each and every one.  At one point, the oldest of three boys, young Jack (Hugh McCracken in the likely role of the director), actually expresses his wishes that God would kill his father, to literally get rid of him.  In contrast to the sublime, humans have thoughts of vengeance. 

Without ever resorting to a narrative, per se, the film instead is a fragment of reflections, beautifully shown in a montage of Jack from birth to a young moody teenager, where his mother, Jessica Chastain, couldn’t be a more devoted mother, always taking the children’s side from the ferocious mood swings of her husband, a man who had high hopes for himself but believes he ultimately let his family down by failing to live up to any of his dreams, becoming more and more disgusted with himself, which is mirrored in Jack’s view of the world around him, detesting his father, growing more troubled, even becoming something of a loose cannon with his own brothers, where he abuses their brotherly trust, eventually shooting one of them with a BB gun.  In one of the more miraculous scenes in the film, quite a contrast from the ominous creation of the world, Jack apologizes to his younger brother R.L. (Laramie Eppler), who immediately forgives him.  This simple act of brotherly love is an ecstatic moment in the film, perhaps the turning point, and perhaps the reason for making the film because it has such emotional resonance, especially knowing, as the audience does from the beginning, that he’ll later lose a brother.  His father, on the other hand, feels tortured by all the terrible things he never got to amend, having to live with his own human fallibility.  Learning how to be a part rather than apart seems to be the secret.  Much like the exquisite feel of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962), one of the best films ever made in portraying the mindset of gracious but mischievous children, the time spent outdoors seems endless, where at that age, every day seems to last forever. 

What’s truly remarkable about this film is that the immensity of the big bang, the ponderous inquiry into how it all began, is replaced by tiny moments in people’s lives, by their collective memories which bond them together as families, as this is something they uniquely share with one another.  What Malick does is fill the screen with ordinary moments, each one a gesture of love, such as a mother lovingly teaching her children how to speak or read, or share playful moments together, perhaps playing outside, getting wet in the sprinkler, shooting off fireworks, or playing catch.  Even the mistakes they make, which they may regret later in life, are something they can somehow atone for and become a better person.  This entire film seems to be directed towards the human being’s capacity for love, which is shown so effortlessly and generously by their mother, luminously portrayed by Chastain, but also in the way the children, even in their innocence, have a “feel” for one another, where at times the audience zeroes in on exactly what they’re feeling, such as moments of unadulterated exaltation and joy, complemented by exquisite choices of music that suggest how they can transcend the moment, literally getting outside their troubled existence.  One of the best sequences in the film is observing Pitt playing Bach at home on the piano, where R.L. outside on the porch is following along on his guitar, where at least for one mesmerizing moment, they play a flawless duet that is simply magical, one of those rare moments shared together.  So despite all the ambition and all the attention paid to the big moments in the film, it’s really about the smaller almost forgotten moments in our lives, suggesting pure love can literally transcend the seeming futility of man’s existence, elevating the stakes, placing the needs of others ahead of your own, where perhaps the highest realization is that man is not the center of the universe—not sure anyone has ever seen it expressed quite like this before, but by all artistic measurements, simply breathtaking.  

Post Addendum:
Despite the fact I saw this with a group of about 8 people & I was the only one who found it truly amazing, and I had to listen to gripes and groans from disappointed viewers afterwards, this remains my #1 film of the year.  Malick simply brings something to the table that no one else does, and what people forget is what a gripping film this really is, despite the meandering philosophical questioning, which, by the way, is something we ALL do in our lifetimes, continually question what the fuck we're doing - - though for many, they soon grew tired of listening to the near whispered, pondering questions that have frequented Malick's films of late, especially prevalent in Thin Red Line.  Since this film opens with the death of a child, who we haven't even gotten to know yet, the rest of the film frames his life and puts his life in perspective, offering meaning in its own unique way, and is a kind of personal recollection from Malick, which is unique to all his films.  For me, the entire film was focused and centered upon that death, where this portrait of his life becomes so excruciatingly personal, especially the way it never singles out which kid died, so we see them as a family growing up when you could barely differentiate between them, as they're all just kids, though with telling differences that would seem to matter more to the storyteller than the audience, as the older kid (who obviously did NOT die, as he went on to later make this film) plays the lead.  What few mention is just how tearful this film is, as so much of this experience is filled with the most extreme forms of personal anguish, truly accentuated by the choices of music, where Malick outdoes himself here.  

Filmmaking as personal heartache is something new, as his (Malick's) heart aches not just for his brother, but for all mankind, as this is just one of millions and millions of deaths that take place over time, each of which has a similar framing story, where this is where we came from, this is what we're a part of, these are the fragmented pieces in our minds that hold us together, these isolated memories that have little meaning to anyone else which can bring me to my knees when I think of them, tormented forever, like an affliction, which is the pain of death and loss.  Nothing is so powerfully overwhelming than having to accept the finality of death.  

It's still early for me to think this rises above Days of Heaven or Badlands, which are like miniature works in comparison, but little tiny pieces of perfection, like a perfect moment.  Tree of Life contains not only perfect moments, but private indiscretions (stealing the negligee), horribly flawed humans on display (the father's temper), one of the most gracious and tender depictions of unconditional love ever seen (the mother), to a perfect depiction of original sin (shooting the brother), such an understated and subtle act that amounts to human transcendence (a brother's forgiveness), for this is the brother that eventually dies in the end.  His forgiveness carries all the internal personal anguish of Christ on the cross, as this is the dramatic power that gives our life meaning, being loved, accepted, and ultimately forgiven by those that love us, the ones that put up with all our shit during our lifetimes, all the power trips of being the older or the younger, witnesses to the experiments gone wrong, being on the receiving end of physical punishment and verbal harassments, the ones that put up with how horribly ugly and flawed we can get  in our own lifetimes.  Yet they still forgive us for all that crap?  And in the film, it's so subtle, it happens in the flicker of an eye, like it took this kid less than a nanosecond to make this decision, the ramifications of which resound throughout the universe of memory and recollections afterwards when he's dead and gone and can no longer speak for himself.  This is all we have.  This is what's left in our own lives, which replays and replays in so many different variations, but having been forgiven makes the world of difference.  Imagine replaying this same scenario and being filled with hate or rage or personal disgust, like being the victim of pedophilia or something.  Imagine what a difference that makes, living in a world with no forgiveness.  That would be von Trier's Melancholia, an empty shell by comparison, a world without love where humans ramble like blithering idiots, having no relevance, one to the other, as nothing matters.  

What a difference philosophical perspective makes - - all the difference in the world.

Another Post Addendum:
Just a point in general, but for a Malick movie, or von Trier's Melancholia, what you're watching on TV is simply not the same experience as sitting in a theater and getting the big picture, so to speak.  I know people have heard this discussion ad nauseum, but it's worth repeating for very specific films, ones that tend to be mentally and visually expansive.  They were created for a theater experience. 

I don't know if anyone ever went to a Pink Floyd concert, but it would not translate well if shown on TV.  I'm not saying it wouldn't be enjoyable, but it's not the same experience.  Opera doesn't translate well into TV or even the movie theaters.  It's designed to be heard live onstage.  

My point is if you are limiting the potential breadth of the experience by watching a movie on Netflix, then you can't expect to get the same out of it as those who had a completely different experience in a theater.   

Yeah, yeah, I know.  Theaters are obsolete, everyone watches at home nowadays.  But understand that all of those rave reviews coming out of Cannes or Venice or Berlin are written by viewers who witnessed the film in a theater.  How can you expect to have the same experience translated to a television set?   

The people who don't get Malick's films, or understand why there is such lavish praise, are the ones who expect the film to deliver in ways where they don't have to do all the work, expecting the director to do that for them, as this is what they're more accustomed to at the movies, where their reaction is like:  OK, show me the magic, where they're expecting the film to *do* something to them, where the audience basically sits there passively and waits for the movie to blow their mind.  And if their minds are not significantly blown away, the movie is a dud, like going on a ride at Disneyland, where movie watching is a form of thrill seeking to make up for the emptiness in people's lives.  

Putting it another way, I'd say Malick makes the kind of films that offer something for the viewer to figure out for themselves, where everyone walks out with a different impression, which is the beauty of it, literally hundreds of different reactions.  It's a different kind of movie experience than, say, Harry Potter, where everything is explained to you, and often over explained.  Malick makes puzzle films without ever revealing whodunnit.  All you get is a series of clues which you have to put together yourself.  I'd say Kubrick did much the same thing, and that single quality is what makes their films brilliant, not to mention timeless.

While Malick's films are visually extravagant, that's only a small part of how they can affect an audience, where different people bring different experiences into the movie theater with them.  War films, for instance, affect people who have experienced war differently than those who haven't.  Not saying the experience couldn't be profound in each case, but the perspective is different, as it becomes more personal.  Malick films are the same way.  Those that feel a personal connection are not looking for each and every shot or sequence to have meaning, they're looking at the overall experience, where part of the pleasure is viewing a subject through the eyes and experiences of someone else, putting yourself in someone else's shoes, where yes the author/director or the screenplay matter.  Yes, we have similarities, common memories, but how each of us perceives the significance of those memories is ultimately what matters and turns an otherwise common or ordinary experience into a great work of art.  Crime and Punishment is not remembered for the actual crime committed, the kind of thing we see on the TV news reports each and every day, but is significant due to the singularly personal and unique way that he experienced the haunting aftereffects of his act.  

Malick's film reverberates with the death of a child, where he attempts to give meaning to that life by having the memory echo endlessly through the vast universe, where in memory he never dies, but I imagine the film works best by those who are actually haunted by the personal effects of death, where those reverberations in their own lives have been given a different form and meaning by the very nature of the stream of conscious film expression. 
Why does a final image have to mean so much more than all the preceding images?  I don't think that's how Malick sees it, and I doubt our last breath in life will be any more profound or meaningful than all the preceding moments we had in our lives.  Malick is looking at it all - - not a single moment.  Reducing one's life to a final single moment and placing so much meaning to that moment is missing everything that came before.  It's all inclusive.  I think Malick's very ordinariness in his finale adds a touch of final realism to the film, as people don't go eloquently and gracefully with big finishes.  Most leave this earth with a whimper, dying from untreated medical maladies, long protracted illnesses or from senseless acts. Why should the final moment carry all the meaning?  It's everything that comes before that matters.

2 comments:

  1. What's your take on his prominent mention of grace and nature and how that fits into the film?

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  2. Well that *is* the film, where they are one and the same, as we are all part of the great mystery of life going back to the origins of mankind.

    Nature is what existed in the world before humans, during, and will exist afterwards, while grace is our spiritual quest to find meaning in the short period of time that is our lives.

    Malick has tied this all together with a somewhat autobiographical memory play about life, death, and the meaning of man’s existence.

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