Quick Thoughts on The Tree of Life

Finally got to see this this afternoon, at the Grand Cinema in Tacoma.  My audience was fairly annoying, but not as bad as what I’ve been hearing.  Only a couple people walked out.  We were the youngest people in attendance (2:30 on a Sunday, that’s not that surprising).  There wasn’t any inappropriate noise for the most part, though I swear I heard someone listening to a radio while Jack was stealing the neglige.  Everyone got up immediately, chuckling and baffled, at the end of the film, breaking the spell of the soundtrack (nature noises, followed by piano and then some other bit of music).  I couldn’t move until the film shut off.

There are spoilers here, though I can’t imagine this is a film that can be spoiled.

As the film begins, a series of dualisms are set up (Grace/Nature, Mother/Father, natural world/modern architecture) but I think the film concludes by eliminating those oppositions and embracing a whole.  This plays out in Jack’s reconciliation with his father and in his seeing the cloudscape reflected in the skyscraper.  It’s the final image of the film: a bridge spanning water.

Water is a vitally important image in Malick’s last three films.  It is time and interconnectedness.  It is Pocahontas’s mother/god, its the eternity that life struggles to conquer in the ghostly final image of The Thin Red Line.  The eponymous tree here I thought was really beautiful, haunting the film like a cousin of the monoliths of 2001.  The imagery isn’t particularly obscure, but as always with Malick, it is utterly sincere.  

The editing is like nothing we see, or have seen, possibly going back to Soviet montage.  The film is rightfully praised for the beauty of its individual images, but the way Malick builds meaning and such profound emotion out of such brief images, as often as not of inhuman elements is remarkable.  It’s the editing that makes the film Transcendentalist more than anything else: trees and clouds and rivers are imbued with soul through montage.

I don’t know if Penn is dead or not at the end, I suspect not.  I see the “afterlife” as his vision of what the afterlife will be like, when he’ll be reuniting with his loved ones.  Fundamentally, the film isn’t all that different from Lost, is it?

For some reason I thought the brother that died had killed himself.  Did anyone else get that impression, or did it spring entirely out of my own mind?  

I can’t think of a better film to pair this with than Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

There’s a repeated shot up through a canyon that looks like the canyon in 127 Hours.  That, in turn, reminds one of the caves in Uncle Boonmee and Cave of Forgotten Dreams.  Something in the zeitgeist?  The weird thing is that the womb image here is not a cave, but a house floating in water, with the child passing through the door and swimming up to the air at birth (and rebirth).

There’s a long section, after we see the creation of the universe (all of which is prelude to the birth of Sean Penn) where we see Penn as an infant.  His earliest memories, flashes of images and sensations and emotions that has instantly become one of my all-time favorite movie sequences.  I’ve never seen a film that so captured memory, in all its incompleteness and fragmentation and sentiment and beauty.

Really all of the musical sequences with Pitt are fantastic: stopping in the midst of yelling at your kids to freak out about Brahms?  Jack watching as his Father loses himself in Bach, finally sitting next to him in one of their rare moments of closeness.  Most importantly, when his middle son is playing guitar and he begins to accompany him on piano.  He’s so proud of the one son, while the other is heartbroken that he’ll never share that connection with his father.

I think Pitt played him great, but his character is so well-conceived.  He’s certainly got his faults, but you feel the struggle of a whole generation of men who came of age in depression and war trying to not only survive the peacetime but raise children who’ve never known struggle and don’t understand why their thoroughly traumatized parents are so emotionally distant.  It’s sympathetic to him in a way we very rarely are.

One of my favorite single images, representative of the film in both its beauty and its at times almost comical on-the-noseness: a newly formed galaxy, framed by more distant galaxies, forming a God’s Eye.  Malick can get away with that kind of thing because of his sincerity.  There aren’t enough honest artists out there these days.

7 thoughts on “Quick Thoughts on The Tree of Life

  1. Love your review and your reflections bring a number of things together for me: the idea that Malick is uniting oppositions, water as a connective tissue (which reminds me of A River Runs Thriugh It, which I just re-read and fell in love with all over again), the trees/Tree as parallel to 2001's monolith (re-birth more than evolution though, no?). I was also in awe of the editing – it kept me both rapt and concentrated, as if Malick was leading me along a fine edge. And the evocation of memory, too, as you note – is there snything else like it? Some things don't work for me, but I think I can only embrace the absolute sincerity of
    the film – your word, “sincerity,” works so well here in understanding much of the power of the film.


  2. For memory, the closest I've seen might be Hiroshima, mon amour, another film that floats, especially in the beginning.

    It's interesting I think that while I think the film is utterly sincere, I don't think it's ever explicit about what it's about. For example, many reviewers latch onto the opening “Way of Nature/Way of Grace dichotomy, or the Mother's “That's where God lives” line as examples of the film's theme, when in fact I don't think that's Malick's point of view at all. I don't think the Mother is idealized by Malick, but rather by the character Jack.

    It's an example of that old critical trap of mistaking a character's thoughts for the authors. I think a complete reading of the film understands that the Mother is not ideal. In fact, the film can easily be understood as completely secular, which would negate everything the Mother seems to represent.

    The sincerity comes about not in the obviousness of it's themes but in the heartfelt and serious way the film struggles with very real issues that are rarely treated with respect in popular culture. Malick isn't trying to pander to us, to comfort us or to reaffirm what we already know.


  3. Ah, of course! How could I forget Hiroshima, mon amour?! It's a great parallel film – that one deals with both individual and collective memory, don't you think? I'm kind of thinking Tree of Life does that, too, tying one individual's memories to a more collective kind of memory or awareness or something.

    You make a great point about the sincerity of the film – the heartfelt questioning of it – and the distinction between Malick's and the character's point of view is essential, I think. I posed the problem of the idealization of the mother to my friends in discussion after we watched the film together, and we agreed that it's not a problem at all if we understand that idealization as coming from Jack. If he identifies with the father, if he sees himself (and his flaws) in his father, then it makes a lot of sense that the father would be more complex, not ideal.

    I've been struggling though, once I realized that the film is so much from the character's point of view, with trying to distinguish between Malick's perspective and the character's perspective. It's been said that this is a personal film for Malick – Waco is his childhood home, right?; and he had some tragedy with a brother, too (?); and, of course, themes here are also present in his other films, maybe most especially TRL and TNW. So what is from Jack and what is from Malick? Is the comfort of the beach scene all Jack? In discussion with my friends, again, we all disliked what felt like the patness of the answer of that scene – but if it's Jack and not Malick, maybe it's not pat, or not the kind of trite comfort I feared it was. Did you listen to Kermode's review? He believes the film is much more flawed than I think you and I do, and his conclusion was that the film is Malick's offering comfort, an “it's going to be all right.” If Kermode is right, I'm less happy with the film – but I'd like to think, based on what we've been saying about character perspective, that Kermode doesn't have it quite right.

    But I'm still struggling. Malick, surely, does believe in some kind of transcendence, as that transcendence is tied to new birth, the natural world, don't you think? Where and how do I separate Malick and Jack – is it even possible or helpful to try to do so?

    Maybe, to return to Hiroshima, mon amour, the individual is completely bound up in the collective and it's impossible to separate the two, impossible to separate here, at every single moment, Jack and Malick.


  4. I think that through Jack, Malick offers an answer, but not The Answer.

    As I understand it, much of the action in the film parallels is own life (his father is an inventor, the family moved from Waco to Oklahoma when he was about the characters age, he had a younger brother who played the guitar and killed himself in another country (so the family would have been notified by telegram) etc).

    But that's not to say that Jack is Malick. I find it difficult to imagine Malick living in the type of apartment Jack does, or working in the kind of place Jack does, for one thing. All that modernist white just doesn't seem right for a guy who's never made a film set in the present.

    I think Malick is fascinated by transcendence, and by Transcendentalism in particular, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that's what he believes in. The ideas and effects of his films continue to reflect that philosophy, however.

    Anyway, the plot of the film could be summarized thusly: a middle-aged man feels bad, depressed and alienated. He thinks back on his past and imagines a future wherein he is reunited with everyone he loves and that makes him feel better. The end. I don't think Malick intends for Jack's vision of happiness to be The Afterlife, but rather he wants to take us along Jack's path from depression to happiness, from past to future. In the same way you don't have to be Catholic to be moved by scared music (a Requiem say, or Bach's Mass in B Minor), you don't have to believe like Jack to be moved by Malick.


  5. Yes, that's helpful. I agree that Jack is not Malick (no, I can't picture him in that modern setting either!)though Malick is drawing on his own memories and longings even if we can't conflate character and director. And I guess it's fairer to say Malick is drawn to or fascinated by Transcendence more than to say he is is teaching it in any didactic kind of way. I think the film – and his other films, too – raise questions that simply aren't answered completely (eg. the problems of violence, evil, suffering) and I think it's pretty clear Malick understands that those are unanswered, and while we can be drawn into the comfort Jack finds, we can also understand that the comfort isn't, as you put it, The Answer, necessarily, for Malick himself.


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