Film Reviews

THE TREE OF LIFE

By • Jul 5th, 2011 •

Share This:

Back in 1978, I was the night manager of an art cinema on upper Third Avenue in Manhattan that was exhibiting DAYS OF HEAVEN, Terrence Malick’s now legendary second feature. One afternoon I showed up a little early to find myself surrounded by a crowd of enthusiastic seniors who had just seen the movie. “They call the picture DAYS OF HEAVEN, so what about the angels? ” a portly man shouted to the people around him. “Listen Bernie,” a smiling, white-haired woman said. “It was great photography, wonderful acting, so who needs angels?”

It’s too bad Mr. Malick didn’t follow that advice for THE TREE OF LIFE, which has been playing in New York for the past few weeks after winning the Golden Palm at Cannes. Not that any winged messengers appear in Mr. Malick’s film, but much of the proceedings seem to be bathed in an other-worldly glow (courtesy of Douglas Trumbull, who designed the effects in 2001 and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND) amid the whisperings of angelic voices, not to mention a sequence featuring the creation of the world, including cosmic flames, a cataclysmic tidal wave, and a fatherly dinosaur exhibiting tough love to his offspring, which climaxes in the rapid evolution of a tadpole into a human child who swims out of his mother’s womb into a small Texas town in the 1950’s.

Of course, F.W. Murnau (a director who is clearly an important influence on Mr. Malick’s imagery) had actual angels bringing Janet Gaynor and George O’Brien back together for the conclusion of SUNRISE (1927), a scene which reviewers at the time considered kitsch. In spite of its flaws, THE TREE OF LIFE has the potential to become an instant classic on the level of SUNRISE and CITIZEN KANE. So perhaps I’m being overly critical. Nonetheless, it’s as if Mr. Malick, whose 70’s films, BADLANDS and the aforementioned DAYS OF HEAVEN, both featuring a voice-over narration that was decidedly ironic and often clashed with what was going on visually, became possessed by the avenging ghost of Cecil B. DeMille, fashioning a framing device in the form of a sermon about America’s place’s in the divine order of things (borrowing in equal parts from the Book of Job and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species).

Not that I have anything against cinematic sermons. When THE TREE OF LIFE premiered at Cannes, Manohla Dargis of the NY Times ended her review by writing, “It’s a beautiful if hermetic vision that I admire for its ambition if finally not for its philosophy.” That statement made very little sense to me when I originally read it. Now that I’ve seen Mr. Malick’s film, I think the problem is not the philosophy per se, but the way a specific religious content is poured over the narrative of the film through the framing plot the way chocolate sauce used to be poured over a banana split at the local soda shop. If you take the ice cream and nuts out of the dish, you’ve got yourself a masterpiece. But that chocolate sauce is awfully sticky.

The story of THE TREE OF LIFE concerns a working class family in Waco (made up of a stern and distant father, a beatific mother and three sons) who are suddenly and unalterably marked by tragedy in the form of the middle son’s death. The film is bookended by Jack (performed by a grimacing Sean Penn), the oldest son and now middle-aged, looking back to his childhood to discover what went wrong. I love THE TREE OF LIFE, and feel it contains some of Mr. Malick’s best work, especially in the extended childhood sequences which exhibit a metaphysics of light previously only glimpsed in the director’s other films, not to mention an almost Proustian abandon in the film’s relationship to memory and meaning, bringing forth images of extraordinary delicacy.

However, the film’s basic function, in the way it presents itself from the outset, is to tell a story, specifically Jack’s attempt to come to terms with his past. While I have no argument with the way this story is told visually, and in fact feel that the experimental and elegiac manner of the film is one of its greatest strengths, the reasons for this family tragedy are presented so elliptically that the film’s conclusion, which should be very emotional, unfortunately didn’t work for me. It’s taken a week after seeing the film before I finally figured out exactly how Jack’s brother died and why this created an untenable situation between his parents. Nonetheless, I consider THE TREE OF LIFE to be one of the most extraordinary films I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been following Mr. Malick’s career for a very long time, and I’ve been waiting to see THE TREE OF LIFE, which was originally planned to go into production after DAYS OF HEAVEN, for more than 30 years. I’m aware that for Mr. Malick, filmmaking is often a process of discovery and transformation. For the past decade, Mr. Malick has been trying to express the inexpressible, divesting his films of expository elements, instead focusing on a Pantheistic exploration of nature, editing sweeping Steadicam shots together in a manner that simultaneously presents a situation in real time, while also attempting to portray the archetypal elements inherent in that situation. Because of this, the director has developed a dual editing rhythm that moves a narrative forward while suddenly lingering on images of nature seemingly unconnected to the story at hand, holding these shots for what seem like an inordinate length of time, a state of being, for want of a better word, that I would call meditative. It’s the contradiction between these meditative images, and a narrative that is often told through a rapid, contrapuntal editing rhythm that I think defines the place, esthetically, that Mr. Malick has now reached. This has caused, for some, a feeling of extreme disappointment, amid generally enthusiastic praise, upon the release of his new film.

During the week of June 13th, there was a very interesting discussion about THE TREE OF LIFE on Dave Kehr’s website, centering on a neo-Bazinian critique of Mr. Malick’s mosaic-like montage style. (Andre Bazin was one of the founders of Cahiers du Cinema, who argued for a deep-focus long take style as represented by directors Jean Renoir and William Wyler, whom Bazin considered more “democratic” because their films allowed a viewer’s eye to roam freely through the frames, and not be distracted by the more “manipulative” style of montage.) Many contributors on Mr. Kehr’s website expressed an nostalgic desire for classic American films that were “edited in the camera” as practiced by Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock, and the “objective” long take typified by Otto Preminger, in addition to complaining about the number of shots per minute in Mr. Malick’s film (as if a paucity of edits were somehow linked to artistic quality). This perspective was most explicitly defined by Mr. Kehr, who criticized “the frantic, dissociated editing that needlessly fractures the narrative and prevents the emotions (already rather generic) from taking root.”

On my desk is a photo of my father burying me on the beach in wet sand that my mother took when I was a year old. It documents one of my earliest memories, and I can still imagine my father’s face quite clearly. His hair, which was reddish blonde, fell down across his green eyes in a smudge of sublime color. In my young life, I don’t think I had ever seen anything quite so beautiful. Behind him, the sun was a hazy yellow, reflecting off the water so that this intense azure glow flowed across his features. It’s this light, which is inscribed in my memory, and yet is mostly missing from the photograph, that I want to discuss in relation to the use of light, camera movement and montage, as well as the aesthetics of memory and point of view, in Mr. Malick’s film.

I agree with Mr. Kehr that there is something in THE TREE OF LIFE that gets in the way of emotion, but I would argue that the rapid editing is not the problem. For me, the major flaw is the lack of information in the opening scenes, which the associative editing partially alleviates. Rather than feeling left out, I was swept up in the flow of images, on a specific narrative level. It was only at the film’s conclusion that I realized I didn’t know enough about the characters’ relations with each other to have an emotional reaction to what I was seeing.

Everybody knows about childhood. In this respect, all of us are an audience of experts. Therefore, portraying the day to day life of a seven year old boy from deep inside his perception forms a very strong narrative in itself. This is accentuated by Mr. Malick’s editing, containing as it does an intense forward rhythm with a sudden lingering look backwards into the past. I feel that Mr. Malick’s attempt to do away with unnecessary exposition does not deter one having a deep emotional involvement in the childhood section of the film (roughly 103 minutes out of a 139 minute running time). Mr. Malick’s luminous mosaic of a densely detailed 1950’s Texas of the imagination became a Rorschach blot for my unconscious, enlisting me, along with the cinematographer, production designer and actors, as a collaborator. (Need I mention that Mr. Malick’s longtime collaborators, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Jack Fisk, produce work in THE TREE OF LIFE that comes close to genius –sorry, but I can’t think of a better word– and exists as an aesthetic achievement in its own right.)

Mr. Malick’s fragmentation of time and the continuity of narrative in THE TREE OF LIFE mirrors, I think, how we actually perceive events, and recapitulates the process of remembering the past and working through the roil of emotions in a manner that parallels the stream of consciousness techniques used by novelists such as William Faulkner and Cormack McCarthy. Giorgio Morandi, the Italian still life painter, was fond of saying, “Nothing is more abstract than reality.” On the other hand, in defense of Mr. Malick’s rapid, associative editing, one might also say, “Nothing is more real than abstraction.”

I’ve never before watched a film (except perhaps for sequences in THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER) that has caused me to remember concretely what it was like to be a seven year old, especially the sense of unease and sudden anger in my relations with others (especially parents and teachers, in other words, those with power over me). In THE TREE OF LIFE, the children are not idealized nor seen as younger versions of adults, as happens in so many films. Instead, the child actors are allowed to express themselves as autonomous beings, giving us access to that forgotten county where all of us once lived. There’s a cruel and yet extremely tender interplay between the young Jack (brilliantly played by Hunter McCracken) and his younger brother which seemed very real to me. For instance, Jack encourages his younger brother to place his finger in an open lamp socket which Jack then plugs into the wall. Rather then recoiling in pain, the younger brother looks at Jack lovingly as the sudden jolt shocks him. There’s also a jarring scene during a hazily nostalgic Forth of July celebration in which the two boys steal a handful of fireworks and run into the woods, exploding the eggs in a bird’s nest. That cruelty and innocence (not to mention longing and direct, unmediated love) existing in children side by side is something that has been written about extensively, but to see it performed here in such an unselfconscious manner is very moving.

There’s an almost gothic sensibility at work revealing the possibility of a secret, secondary existence, far outside the programmatic notion of Grace versus Nature, in the close-ups of Hunter McCracken’s face. At certain points in the film, Mr. McCracken seems to contain two separate personalities, signaling a break in the very fabric of the film. (Call it duality, if you like, but for me these close-ups seeped outside of the film’s narrative flow.) This ambiguity is most fully realized narratively in the scene, shot in a single, breathtaking take, of young Jack stealing a slip from the unoccupied house of a young girl who sits across from him in elementary school. In the course of trying to hide the slip under a board by the river’s edge, Jack accidentally loses the silky fabric to the raging current, watching as the frilly undergarment suddenly seems to come alive as it drifts down the river out of sight. In that moment, ghosts seem to enter the film and take possession of both our own sensibilities as well as that of the young Jack’s.

Mr. Malick posits the flow of events from young Jack’s point of view, so that certain kinds of information about the adults surrounding him are left unspecified. In one of the most memorable scenes in the film (which is also a reference to Jean-Luc Godard’s LES CARABINIERS), Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) returns after a long absence dressed in white linen, embarking from a glimmering Chevy Impala station wagon to show Jack postcards and travel folders from around the world that he has accumulated. The light in this scene is so mysterious, every time I think about it tears come to my eyes. The light suffuses around Brad Pitt’s face in a near embrace and yet lingers outside, in the same way we sense the father wants to embrace the son and yet doesn’t.

One assumes Jack’s father is some kind of salesman, but other than this scene, there’s very little information. Anthony Lane of the New Yorker has found these ellipses extremely frustrating. For me, the lack of information is very consistent with the fact the story is told from the perspective of a child. Although my father showed me the cannibalized insides of television sets, I don’t think I really understood what he did for a living until I was 9 or 10 years old. Because Jack’s father is a frustrated classical musician ( a great deal is made of this in the film, both in terms of his precision in playing the organ and piano as well as swatches of music from his favorite composers, especially Berlioz) it’s also probable that he wouldn’t really take much pride in how he made his living and therefore wouldn’t spend much time discussing it with his son.

The other point of view that exists simultaneously with Jack’s childhood perspective is the middle-aged Jack’s process of remembering. As all of us middle-aged types know, the past does not exist as a whole, but rather comes back to us in fits and starts, with fleeting images of family gatherings and childhood dinners, inhabited by vague phantoms amid frustratingly arcane details – a floral patterned frock worn by a faceless, unknown relative fifty years before, for instance. I think this habit of memory to vanish, leaving only bits and pieces behind, is the reason Mr. Malick structured the majority of the film with montages of childhood events seen as if in a dream, images that some commentators have referred to as “generic.” (For instance, Jack’s mother freeing a monarch butterfly from her tangled hair, which then dances among her outstretched fingers, or the wrinkled face of a blue-eyed man who says, “See you in five years.”)

Rather, I think we are seeing visually the process of Jack’s remembering, beginning as vague, disconnected shots, fixing on specific times of day or the quality of light (hence, the focus on sweeping images of people in front of trees and occluded skies) then gaining in power as the film evolves, until Jack begins to put together the emotional core of his family’s life from the past and synthesizes these half remembered images with his persona in the present.

Still, the conflation of cosmic consciousness, fundamentalist Christianity, and Americana into a series of extremely over-ripe images at THE TREE OF LIFE’s conclusion almost seems like a conscious self-parody. For instance, the middle-aged Jack walks through a desiccated doorframe in a desolate desert landscape. Suddenly, all the adults from Jack’s childhood appear, bathed in a translucent light, including his mother. Jack’s girlfriend embraces him (where she came from I have no idea) and the spirit of Jack’s mother says, “I give him to you,” followed by a shot of a gigantic zygote being impregnated by a sperm to the music of a heavenly choir. Yes, it’s elegantly shot and edited, but also pure camp, to the point that I thought Jim Abrahams and the Zuker brothers (AIRPLANE!) had hijacked the film.

It’s possible Mr. Malick intended the plaintive voice-overs in THE TREE OF LIFE whispering about “God’s Grace” as well as the religious framing plot to be taken ironically. At least that would explain the perfunctory nature of the beginning and end of the film. It’s not really clear what the middle-aged Jack does for a living other than the fact he is seen walking through large glass and steel offices with a portfolio. Earlier, Jack is seen in a spare glass and concrete duplex drinking coffee with a woman in a dressing gown. As there is no dialogue, their relationship remains undefined, and she only appears for a few minutes in the entire film. Still, the conclusion places a great deal of importance in the fact that she and Jack are together and tries (unsuccessfully, I think) to link her with Jack’s mother and the idea of “Grace.” Also, other than the fact the middle-aged Jack appears as if he’s experiencing intestinal distress and shouts “Why God? Oh, why?” which is intercut with shots of his younger brother’s funeral, we never actually know what Jack’s feelings towards his younger brother are. For that matter, we don’t even know if his parents are still alive. (I’m assuming Jack’s mother is dead, since at the film’s end she is bathed in a heavenly glow.)

There’s a rumor on the Internet that Mr. Malick is considering releasing a six hour edit of THE TREE OF LIFE. It would be fascinating to see those scenes that are missing from the theatrical version of the film, except the version we now have is almost perfect, in my opinion. All that’s needed is about five or ten minutes additional information in the beginning to increase one’s understanding of what is at stake, emotionally, in the film.

In THE TREE OF LIFE, Mr. Malick takes one on a voyage to a strange and forbidding country, that of childhood, which I found as delightful and exhilarating as a day in the country. For me, it was a life-transforming experience, not to mention a very great film. I encourage everyone not to miss it, even though I found the trip to be a bumpy ride.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Tagged as:
Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

3 Responses »

  1. Excellent review Mark. I would like to share with you a different interpretation and significance of the creation of the universe montage and the scenes which close the film. Perhaps the entire film is actually a near death experience in which the trree of life flashes before Jack’s unconscious mind. Thus, the narrative is not one of everyday memory but one in which one’s life is experienced in it’s closing moments. The phenomenon usually concludes with the “angelic appearances of close friends and relatives leading the dieing person to his ultimate destination. Ashes to ashes, stardust to stardust.

    With regards to the discussion of deep focus and in-camera edits versus montage, montage is metaphor and allows for a more poetic psychological penetration of the characters. If done well it allows the director to auteur the film. If however the screenwriter is the auteur of the film then the less cutting the better the pace is set by the dialogue. This film definitely displays the visual auteur-ship of the director. It is a visual poem not a linguistic one.

  2. I have seen this film twice on big screen, and now twice on blu-ray, and have very little to say in addition to what I’ve just read here. Fiona Shaw who played the grandmother, and whose three months work on this film shows up as a minute in the final cut—loves this movie and calls it a masterpiece. Sean Penn was very bothered by it.
    All I do is watch the movie, and I am ravishingly swept along with it. I have no fault of any kind with it.
    I like reading what you have said about it. but–no room for disagreement of any kind—I just want to sensation.

  3. what i just wrote should have been edited. sorry

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)