Wednesday, May 18, 2011

At the Violet Hour: A First Stab at The Tree of Life

“Sometimes I feel very old. Like my whole life’s over. Like I’m not around no more.” – Days of Heaven

The other morning my wife, my two-year-old son, and I were goofing around in our dining room, when I saw my son reach for an electrical outlet. Being the nervous, constantly worried parent that I am, I immediately yelled, “No!” at him rather firmly. This had the intended effect of preventing my son from electrocuting himself, and also the unintended one of startling and upsetting the boy. Lower lip quivering, he desperately embraced his mother as she tried to comfort him and gently told him that Daddy didn’t mean it. I, as usual, moped away, wondering if I’d done something wrong. Of course I hadn’t, but a parent constantly reflects on this kind of bizarre, ever-shifting calculus. It’s not just one thing, it’s one thing that leads to many.  The things that must be done and the things that must not. The things one wants and needs and the things one has. The things one gives and the things one takes, and the things that just are. And the things that wait, unknown and unseen until they too become a part of your life. All of it, ever-expanding -- spiraling out until the whole world seems to consist entirely of these things. The kid’s only two, and I can already see it unfolding before my eyes.

I toyed with ending this review right there, just adding, “And this concludes my review of The Tree of Life, which is the greatest film I’ve ever seen. The End.” Which would have maybe been hilarious, but also misleading -- because The Tree of Life isn’t really about these above things. But these above things are part of the reason why it hit me so hard. Let’s face it, there are times in life – be they seismic struggles with grief and love that take your breath away, or mundane matters of parenting that merely prompt subdued reflection -- when you begin to feel yourself a part of something greater and ever-turning.  To borrow a quote from Disney’s Peter Pan: “All this has happened before. And it will all happen again.” And then, from Eyes Wide Shut: “Until it doesn’t.”

If it sounds like I’m having difficulty trying to describe my feelings for The Tree of Life, it’s because I am. And I kind of want to continue to have this difficulty. (I had a similar problem last year with Enter the Void, a film that occasionally achieves similar levels of transcendence even if it’s a wildly more uneven work.) I once wrote a whole piece about how language in Terrence Malick’s work is a reductive force. My friend Matt Seitz has the right idea – he’s been using the medium of the video essay to address Malick’s films. But surely the lumpenliterati will have their day, too, and it’ll be interesting to see how they handle something that is simultaneously a galactic force and a shrinking violet. (Early answer: Not well.)

If you try to follow The Tree of Life in linear fashion, you’ll find booby traps everywhere. Malick works not in scenes or plot points, but in interconnected emotional movements. Sometimes the movements are writ large – as with the clearly defined sections of the film that even have their own chapter breaks. But there are smaller movements as well, especially in the film’s central section, watching the O’Brien family as it grows, and grows up, which is really a kind of multi-movement sonata within a larger, symphonic form. Within this section, the film can pass from one movement to another while what’s happening onscreen may not look all that different from what came before. You won’t really find story here, or a narrative throughline, but rather, an emotional progression.

Still, watching a scene of children grow up, then another scene of the same children growing up, then another…it could get tiresome pretty quickly, until we realize that tonally and rhythmically these movements are in fact quite different. Somebody better versed in music theory than I will have to figure out how well it all corresponds, but we have the allegro (the direct, free-flowing cadences of their initial happiness) which gives way to the longer, more deliberate exposition of the adagio (the mysterious, tense hesitation that despair and uncertainty bring into their world -- listen to that sound mix when the boys are at the dinner table with their father (Brad Pitt), where every sound is like a gunshot), then a brief minuet when the father goes away on business and we suddenly sense bliss again. All of it finally gives way to a kind of acceptance and forgiveness that still acknowledges something has been lost, with Pitt’s final, somber reflections on the glory that he has missed working as a recapitulation passage (a ritornello, perhaps?).

All that probably sounds a bit too intellectualized a way to approach what is ostensibly still a narrative work. Maybe, maybe not. I'd actually argue that it's the opposite: Perhaps Malick chooses this approach because he wants us to remember what it’s like to lose something. Ordinary narratives treat the loss of innocence as something tangible, locatable, quantifiable – cue the lead character’s first visit to a brothel, or his first fight, or the first time he heard about the Atom bomb, or whatever. But in Malick’s world (and, let's face it, in ours, too), innocence doesn’t just vanish. We look up one day and realize it’s been gone for a while, and we wonder where it went. Take that aforementioned late passage minuet where the boys, knowing Dad is away, play with their mother, taunting her with a lizard they’ve caught: the sequence already feels like a flashback to a happier time within their lives. For this brief period, they (and, more importantly, we) suddenly remember what it was like. The whole film is cut like a memory, but this scene doubly so – perhaps because it’s really a memory within a memory. As John Smith said to Pocahontas in The New World, “There's something I know when I'm with you that I forget when I'm away.”

Of course, there’s an implicit challenge to doing these kinds of delicate emotional movements that are themselves part of something greater and more celestial. Would these scenes have felt less or more repetitive to viewers who hadn’t already been treated to the origins of the universe? Maybe the leap from the galactic to the particular that Malick is taking here is too big for some: If you think about it, even 2001: A Space Odyssey rarely got this personal, keeping things within its grand orbit around human progress.

And yet, the leap doesn’t feel that great to me. For all the awe-inspiring majesty of The Tree of Life’s cosmic visions, it’s still all in a minor key, understated, mournful. The Texas scenes don’t bend to the tonal will of the natural history sequences – no, it’s the other way around. From cells clustering and cooperating to form life, to a dinosaur showing what might be history’s first act of mercy, Malick’s eye is focused not on how we fit into the cosmos, but on how the cosmos fits into our lives.

I’m not sure The Tree of Life is even all that complex, nor do I think it seeks complexity. Many of the more overt connections it makes – between the grief of a parent, the alienation of a modern adult, and the forces that create and constitute the Universe – may be high-minded, but they’re not foreign, certainly not to anybody that’s ever bothered to look up. There is, of course, complexity in the design; you could probably go mad trying to follow the echoing visual patterns in the film, or deciphering specific musical cues. (Is it of any significance that the film’s most blissful scene, the opening images of what appear to be a flashback to the mother’s youth, is set to John Tavener’s sorrowful “Funeral Canticle”? Or the fact that the beginnings of the universe are set to Zbigniew Preisner’s stentorian Requiem mass for Krzysztof Kieslowski, the last great director to marry the infinite with the personal?)

And there are Malick’s signature glimpses into concrete visions of the metaphysical; one brief image shows the soul as a child holding a candle in a cave, being whispered to by a woman before he steps out into the world. (Remember the angel at the beginning of The Thin Red Line?) Such sights feed into the transcendental counter-current running through all these above associations – that within destruction there is creation, that within all the heartbreak there is good in the world, that transcendence is all around us and in belonging lies our salvation.

I can go on and on, and I probably will once I’ve had a chance to see the film again. But for now all I can really say is that it’s magnificent. And I know that when we say something is this grand and this magnificent, we’re also supposed to say that it’s flawed. But I can’t see anything I would change with this film. Maybe I’m just too hypnotized by it. When I was doing interviews for a piece on the editing of The Tree of Life for the upcoming issue of Cinema Editor magazine, Billy Weber, the editor of Days of Heaven who was also one of the five (!) editors on The Tree of Life, recalled a period in 1978, right before the release of that film, when they were screening it every Monday night at the Cary Grant Theater at MGM Studios in Culver City.  “There’s a spot in the theater where you can stand and watch the entire audience watch the movie,” he said. “You can see their faces because the light from the movie illuminates them and they have no idea anyone’s standing there. I could see when they were completely locked into certain points in Days of Heaven; it was almost like bio-feedback. And it wasn’t a narrative thing, they were responding to its rhythms and its style.” He went on to tell me that it was something he’d sensed with Tree of Life as well. I think I can go him one further: It not only locked me in, but it hasn’t let me go yet.



  1. My advise after being a mother and grandma all these years is don't worry about mistakes you make right now with your little one.
    The last time Greg was home I told him I had made a LOT of mistakes bringing him up but they were never intentional, they were out of just "not knowing" and as it would be with any parent that loves their child as much as you do. Greg's reply after having three of his own was: "I know that MOM" He realizes that now, so "not to worry" about scholding Errol. It was in Errol's interest and out of a heart of love on your part. "Join the club" we are not perfect and ALL of us do and say things we regret over and over. I am 75 years old and still make mistakes and "grope" with "did I do the right thing for Glen today" or did I answer that person in the right way or did it seem harsh or unloving. It goes on and on, our intentions are pure but we don't always follow our heart motives or actions with heart intentions.
    You are OK!
    Love Aunt Jackie

  2. This is an AMAZING piece of writing. Bravo. I am dying to see TOL. Can't open in NYC for the regular folk soon enough...

  3. Thanks! Actionman, I'm loving your avatar.

  4. Bilge,

    I loved the piece, in part because its opening does what the film does, it moves from the very personal to something larger. All of us who have loved Malick all these years feel a sense of ownership, for lack of a better word. I think you get Malick as well if not better than anyone else I've read. Thanks for this fine advance notice on a film we've all been waiting on like no other. The musical analogy is of course fitting. I think Malick's films aren't narratives so much as they are extended poems, moving from image to image.