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Eye of the Beholder: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

“The drop is a small ocean.”
-Emerson

“When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés.  That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them.  As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.”
-Terrence Malick

Describing, let alone reviewing, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is almost forbiddingly daunting.  Probably for this reason, critical reaction has been decidedly garrulous.  A vast majority of reviewers have invoked some kind of “higher” culture to signify the elusive mood or feeling it evokes.  Just skimming down the list, one picks up earnest references to Emily Dickinson, Tristram Shandy, Picasso, 2001: A Space Odyssey, W.B. Yeats, The Passion Of The Christ, the Sistine Chapel, and The Museum of Natural History.  It’s been referred to as “beautiful“, “baffling“, “magisterial”, “unbearably pretentious” and putting the viewer at risk of emerging from the theatre “with a pretzel for a brain.”  All of this is fair game, I think.  Oscar Wilde‘s droll dismissal of controversy wraps it all up nicely and points the way forward: “When the critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.”

In some postmodern milieux it’s common to judge a work of art sight unseen and only by the reactions of others (you’ve done it before, admit it).  The Tree of Life lends itself to this vulnerability, for sure.  It was alternately booed and cheered by the discriminating cineastes of Cannes, ultimately winning the historic Palme d’Or.  Robert De Niro, the head of the prize panel, explained in a very Robert DeNiro way that the film had “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.”  Roger Ebert wrote a lovely and moving piece about it, the first sentence of which calls it “a form of prayer.”  This would be pretty decent praise from anyone but considering Ebert himself has been struggling with his own mortality for several years now, and doing so with grace and dignity, the accolade is especially poignant.

I don’t usually mind getting spoilers before I see a movie for the first time, which probably has more to do with my tendency to be easily confused than a need for surprise. Not to worry – it’s almost impossible to give anything away.  Part of the wonder of this film is that the visual style and narrative undulation (the term “arc” just doesn’t do it justice) not only allow for but encourage emotional and intellectual responses which are ultimately the viewer’s own.  Certain moments in the film were vivid enough to sting me with recognition and tears came to my eyes.  It felt like moments of my childhood reappeared, unbidden, and not the most obvious ones. Apparently, I’m not alone in this.  Several people I know well admitted to a similar reaction.  There is comfort in that.  One of the things which is often asked of art, if not cinema itself, is that it move us, give us grandeur, something of the ineffable.  This can be done with either massive, panoramic vistas or with detailed, minute shifts of insight.  The Tree Of Life, to Malick’s abiding credit, offers us both.

The narrative centers around a small lower middle class family in east Texas.  There are three brothers, one of whom is revealed to have died in unexplained circumstances.  Brad Pitt sinks so deeply into his role as the stern, frustrated, ultimately helpless father that you can see what Freud termed “the family romance” flickering behind his thick glasses and masculine scowl.  Jessica Chastain’s mother is ethereal, loving, one of nature’s forgiving creatures.  This dialectical conflict is subtly set up early on: one side of the parental wall is earthly, ambitious, occasionally brutal in word or gesture, brittle and seething with balked ambition.  The other floats in midair in her children’s daydreams, enveloping all the struggle of life with a luminous, beneficent glow.   Blessings are all, she suggests, by her mere presence.  The boys are boys, pointy of ear and baby fat faces, reflecting the confusion and energy that comes with the humid rush of pre-adolescence.  Sean Penn isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the middle aged son mourning his long deceased brother amid the modern-day glaze of skyscrapers in New York but he makes something happen nevertheless.  The rest is, well, the rest is the world – a glimpse at the totality of creation itself.  The editing is timed to the rhythm of memory – moments simply occur, evolve, glimmer, fade, and disappear.  Trying to describe this film’s visual range is like describing a waterfall or a rainbow or the sparkling light cast for a moment on the wall: it can be done, but why not see it for yourself, and on the big screen while you’re at it?

Terrence Malick has often been considered a spiritual director.  This is not say he has a particular creed, or even necessarily a belief system, at least none that comes readily to mind.  He has a degree in Philosophy from Harvard, taught it at M.I.T, and translated the notoriously dense and mystical Heidegger before going into film.  The influence must have stuck with him.  There really is something Heideggerian going on in his work.  One could sum up the two major themes of his films with just the title of Heidegger’s magnum opus: Being and Time.  Malick’s characters inhabit a landscape more than a frame. Their presences register over the looming, incandescent indifference of the world they inhabit.  They build, they dwell, they think, in Heideggerian vocabulary.  Language is a scattered thing in his films, a groping towards meaning.  This aesthetic comes out memorably in Days of Heaven and Badlands, his still- astonishing debut.  Accounts of the making of these films reveal years of the director’s prosaic research as well as on-set instructions to spontaneously just drop everything and follow a stream of rippling birds suddenly taking flight.

There’s something mysterious about having been a filmmaker for over thirty years with only a handful of films to your name.  Actors beg to be involved and sign up by the dozen for ever-expanding bit parts.  Producers are sometimes driven crazy by his relentless perfectionism and visionary drive.  His movies can be an experience unto themselves.  You walk out with that strange, sober buzz a good film gives you, and inhabit the world of the film’s perception for a little while.  Light is more like light, the earth below more compact, and the sky above the buildings is vaster than you ever quite noticed.  Every reader is bound to come to any work of art with her own set of tastes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions.  Naturally, she leaves with them as well.  Hopefully something has happened in between which causes (at least) a subtle, insistent, almost insubstantial change in the consciousness of the audience.  All movies are in some way about seeing, of course, but no one making them or attending them ever sees them in quite the same way.  It’s very rare that anything is seen in the way Terrence Malick sees it, which says more about Malick than it does about anyone else.

In the end, watching “The Tree of Life” is best done in a spirit of generosity, curiosity, care, and a healthy dose of plain reverence and awe.  Not a bad way to go through life.

Family ‘Tree’

I recently had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life while sitting two rows in front of Terrence Malick’s 99-year-old mother. The special screening took place in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a small town north of Tulsa. Malick spent part of his youth in Bartlesville and recently returned to film his still-untitled next project (though some have called it The Burial) starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. The film was screened in a fairly unassuming shopping mall located just off of state highway 75. Okay, so it wasn’t the most majestic setting possible, but it was good enough. Not scheduled to be officially released in Oklahoma and the surrounding region until later this month, I heard about this “secret” happening a couple of days before from an acquaintance that lives in the area. It was touch and go until the day of the screening as to whether or not I would be able to attend, but I was greeted with an early morning text that simply said, “You’re in.”

I’ve been a Terrence Malick fan since my late teens when my father, having loved Badlands since its original release in 1973, took me to the video store to rent a somewhat-scratchy VHS copy of that landmark road movie.  The films that followed, Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) all mean a great deal to me both artistically and personally. So it’s no surprise that I was just a little excited several years ago when word first began to circulate about The Tree of Life.  I followed the rumors, the casting changes, the false starts, and the rest with a great deal of attention. With each new morsel of information (dinosaurs, space, asteroids) my hunger grew. It’s hard to explain, but I wanted to both know everything and absolutely nothing about this film before I saw it.

I left work a little early the day of the screening, giving myself ample time for the 45-minute drive from Tulsa to Bartlesville. The road between is straight and flat, peppered with occasional cattle, goats and abandoned cars. I blasted classical music, recalled my previous experiences with his films, and pretended the late evening light was meant just for this moment.

I sat in the second row back from the screen. The theater was small and I wanted as much of my field of view as possible to be taken up by the film. Among the other attendees were relatives and friends of the Malick family, none more important than the director’s mother, Irene, sitting behind me in a wheelchair. According to Malick’s wife, Alexandra “Ecky” Malick, who spoke briefly before the film, this was Irene Malick’s first time seeing the film. Malick himself was characteristically absent, as was his father, Emil.

If you’ve seen or even read the copious amount of press this film has already received, you know what a personal statement it is. The central story is set in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s and follows a father, mother and three brothers through the eyes of the eldest boy, Jack. Terrence Malick was the oldest of three brothers. He lived as a boy in Waco. One of the brothers in the film dies at 19 under mysterious circumstances. Malick’s brother, Lawrence, is said to have taken his own life around the same age. Terrence Malick’s remaining brother, Chris, died in 2008 at age 60. A cause of death was not released. Though it’s been portrayed as obtuse in its telling and abstract in its ideas, this film is as starkly autobiographical as any by Fellini.

On the drive back to Tulsa, completely wrecked by what I’d just experienced, I couldn’t get Malick’s mother out of my head. What did she think? Was it obvious to her? Did she get it? In the film, the mother is portrayed as an ethereal, almost angelic archetypal figure of grace and beauty. Yet sitting behind me, in a stainless steel wheelchair, having lived on this earth for nearly a full century, was the woman herself in flesh and blood.  As images of an imagined afterlife flickered on the screen, I wondered if it would ever cross her mind that her son may have created for her, the only true afterlife that really exists.

Surprise Me!

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