The Tree of Life – Art 7/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 7/5
I’ve called Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life the best film ever made, a new height in cinematic potential, and various other superlatives. I still believe all that, but the problem is that it’s hard to convince people that any one film is the best because of its inherently subjective proposition, but it’s doubly difficult to convince people on such a highly divisive film. Such as one both booed and roundly applauded at the Cannes Film Festival. I don’t intend to convince you why this is the best, but I’ll at least try to convince you to accept Malick’s method of expression so you can appreciate it or soundly reject it after having given it an honest chance.
The easiest area to convince people is in its technical brilliance. This takes the vapid mindless CGI battle scenes of Lord of the Rings and throws their highly detailed technology across a painted universe and earth and womb and microbial orbs, in all their creative and destructive glory. The musical score by Alexandre Desplat is a perfect fit for Malick’s artistic temperament. The two leads, Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, both exceed themselves in a realistic sensual awkwardness you only ever find in Malick’s actors, leaving all of his films with his identifiable imprimatur. Like all of the best of the best filmmakers (Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Ruiz, and even Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a candidate for this pool), Malick captures water with almost trance-like poise. Out of any single part of the film, the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is maybe the most uncontroversial in its plaudits.
But I think matters of taste and preference supersede all matters of technical skill (which Tree of Life has in overwhelming abundance), as well as the illuminating point of the narrative (again, huge abundance), so I’m not the least bit disheartened that anybody should dislike this film. What I would be disheartened by is if people didn’t even try to watch it with an open mind, and dismissed Malick’s message out of hand as trivial nonsense. You’re only cheating yourself.
There are two main identifiable negative responses to The Tree of Life that fiercely chain down its transcendent appeal, and they’re from opposite directions. I shall call them the low and the high. The low response finds the film dreary for veering off the traditional Hollywood narrative track seemingly out of the blue, and never truly constricts to it or makes any attempt to do whatsoever. “Plotless” is the charge here, and it’s valid to say that The Tree of Life failed to deliver a coherent linear narrative. I won’t even try to deny that. What I will deny is that that matters.
This low response is not fluent in Malick’s cinematic language and shows a lost feeling when the film is communicating meaning in ways completely unfamiliar. The exposition of meaning through the poetic inner monologue of characters is something deeply alien to average cinema-goers, and the only other filmmaker who does this that I can think of is Andrei Tarkovsky. Their familiarity is with attention-grabbing hooks and elements meant to appeal to their senses of excitement, justice, or romance. Speaking in abstract and open-ended ways about being and time is not many people’s constructed idea of what a good film should be, and using beautiful nature shots to elucidate Malick’s meaning can seem to them indistinguishable from the Discovery Channel, which is not in any intentional sense communicating the same meaning as Malick (though I would say some nature shows do show some of the same universal points of graceful suffering and natural indifference. Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man comes to mind here).
Though the high response is generally quite contrary from the low response, and by and large understands the intention of Malick, those putting forward a high response completely reject his cinematic expression out of a similar unfamiliarity or unwillingness to accept that expression as in any way novel or interesting. In other words, they get what he’s throwing down, they’re just not picking it up. The reason for this is not so simple, and actually highly individualized and based on personal preference built from highly theorized interpretation or highly elaborated personal standards that are both just magnificently contrary to Malick’s own vision of cinema.
High response critiques don’t ignorantly propose that Malick alludes to concepts that aren’t there, but rather are critical of his supposed aloofness to concepts he doesn’t pay any attention to. A very important reason for this divide is the fact that, while speaking on being and time in a Heideggerian sense, Malick does not constrict whatsoever to Heidegger (and especially the French theorists Heidegger influenced) and actually explores what everyone else in the 20th century largely wanted to forget: the metaphysical. There is no arguing with entrenched ideology on subjective elements, but there is always a critique of every ideology and every theory. I haven’t yet seen one that proposes why Malick is out of his element or surpassed by someone speaking on more important, and “big” issues (would love to hear them!).
Opening with a line from the Book of Job, it should be clear right off the bat that this is not only an art film, but it’s an art film that speaks about religion with cosmic terms. The narrative in The Tree of Life may bounce from one end of space/time to another at the drop of a hat, and have nothing resembling a coherent and linear progression, but the meaning and the subtext as it reveals itself is a coherent, syntactically correct message. It begins as a proposition, stating its intention in the very beginning: this is a film about two different modes, or ways of being: grace and nature. This colors all that will follow.
First, we’re introduced to a family in a state of bliss, operating as they see it, as children of God trying to walk in the light of grace, and immediately Malick suffers them a loss in one of their children. Then we get the richly sneered-at big bang, microbes and dinosaurs, which have nothing whatsoever to do with what’s going on, right? No, wrong. These scenes are demonstrating the infinite and eternal nature of pain and suffering. It is the lowest common denominator from the start to the end of the universe, that everything that is constructed will be destructed. The suffering of the family is put in context as same shit, different year, over the course of many billions of years. The last shot of the dinosaurs set in the river, where one is about to kill and eat another dino who is at some sort of finality or injury, shows the germination of grace in the state of nature.
From there we return to Chez Pitt-Chastain to witness the experiential apex of grace in a 1950s Texas household. But slowly, and most surely, the natural impulses of the egotistical young boy Jack, and his controlling father Mr. O’Brien, begin a test of their commitment to grace. Through flash-forwards to the present day, where Sean Penn plays the son in adulthood, we’re given small amounts of an eventual synthesis, that this whole ordeal is only temporary and the outcome is somewhat given away. We, the audience who all have our own experiential knowledge, intuitively knew the ending anyway: live and learn for as long as you’ve got to live, “from dust to dust” as it were, we’re issued back into the void. So we have to make it right and make it count.
In the O’Brien household in the ’50s and ’60s, Jack’s natural and egotistical drive is met with natural brute force by his father, and contrasted with the enlightenment of his mother. After his father’s cold temporal rage gets the best of him, and he leaves for business, Jack and his brothers are left to let their unfettered egotistical freedom flow to its natural extent, and Jack becomes sickened with his own juvenile delinquent excess. When his father returns, their reconciliation is made quite easier after both are given space and freedom to purge their natural desires, at least enough to find a modus vivendi.
If that isn’t a universal story, I’ll be a god damned four eyed fish. Aside from the dual ways of being as the central theme, another important theme expressed toward the end is the necessity for freedom to save individuals from the nature of other individuals. Space to breathe. The religious message in this film has a tendency towards grace, but coolly recognizes nature as something that cannot be got rid of, and can only be maintained. The struggle of maintenance colors almost every story in human thought.
The father is a church-going, God-fearing man, but he symbolizes the natural authority of the various religious institutions the world over that suffocates freedom and people’s natural desires. He is the Rome that Martin Luther railed against. He is the Catholic Church the Jacobins blamed for society’s evils in the French Revolution. He is the religiously-inspired Prohibition Acts that didn’t trust people to handle alcohol by themselves. He is Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. While the mother follows the way of grace, she leaves its realization as an intuitive and encouraged goal for her sons. She is a sensical version of Mel Gibson’s cries for freedom. She is every civil disobedient since Henry David Thoreau. She is Libertas.
The greatness in The Tree of Life I think lies in this narrative of graceful freedom, regardless of whether you’re religious or not. I most certainly am not, and I substitute this concept of grace, expressed by Malick somewhat agnostically, with my own very secular and materialistic understanding of cosmic purpose, that is contrary only in so far as I view the religious understanding of grace as having long latched on to the iron age, where little actual insight comes from.