Friday, March 09, 2012

Some comments on The Tree of Life

Hello, reader(s). All is well here; just busy and lacking in things worthy of troubling you to consider reading.

By some fluke, over the course of the fall and winter the Mrs. and I ended up seeing four of the Oscar nominees for Best Picture. While I'm glad that one of them, The Artist, won, the post below is about the most interesting and challenging and demanding of the lot.

A still from The Tree of Life. Click on the image to enlarge. Image (and a remarkably thorough (and laudatory) assessment of the film) found here.

The Tree of Life (2011; dir. Terence Malick). The Wikipedia article is a good place to get oriented.

I can say one articulate thing about this film, so I'll get that out of the way now so you can move on if you wish: It's the most beautifully-photographed film I've seen in a long time. Camera movement, static shots, the quality of light (much of it is shot in natural light at around sunset). . . don't worry if you don't understand this film's story (such as it is); just watch, and marvel at cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's work. A writer for Total Film (quoted in the Wikipedia article) writes, "You could press ‘pause’ at any second and hang the frame on your wall," and actually, that's not too much of an exaggeration. Besides: This film does most of its work at the level of the visual: we're not so much told the story of the O'Brien family as we're shown it.

I'll also let you know that, after my one viewing, I don't pretend to have the firmest of grasps on everything going on here. Like most people, one of the first things I'd heard about it was that it has dinosaurs in it, and that led me to expect something very unconventional. It is that, but not as unusual as I'd expected; still, compared to its fellow nominees for Best Picture for last year, it might as well be Koyaanisqatsi (a film, by the way, that The Tree of Life does bear some resemblance to).

The film's plot, such as it is, is pretty simple: We are presented the life of the O'Brien family, who live somewhere in Texas (most of the film was shot in Smithville, a town about 50 miles southeast of Austin). The film moves forward and backward in time as Jack (Sean Penn), one of the brothers, reminisces about his childhood--his domineering, artistically-frustrated father (Brad Pitt), his nurturing mother (Jessica Chastain), and his younger brother, R. L. (Laramie Eppler), whose offstage death from unknown causes (perhaps a casualty of war) at age 19 is the film's first big moment--and his (Jack's) gradual estrangement from and, in his heart at least, reconciliation with his family.

In a film full of beautiful and/or enigmatic images, the one at the beginning of this post is one of the latter. It's thanks to this still, in fact, that I now know just what it was that I was seeing in the film: It's the distended shadows of two kids playing on a concrete slab; the viewer's perspective is upside-down relative to the kids. In order to make sense of what we're seeing, that perspective requires us to abandon the typical position most films place us in, that of detached observer watching close by but at a remove. We're forcefully compelled to ask why "we" are hanging upside-down from the whatever-it-is we're hanging from. We're still observing, but there's no 4th wall here. We are in the space of the film.

This film has any number of moments like this, in which the scene is so immersive in its quality that, even when we recognize everything we're shown in the scene, we still have to determine where we are in the film's time and space (which sprawls over millions of years and throughout the cosmos and, perhaps, a supernatural realm as well). As several other reviewers I've run across have noted, in its scope this film reminds me of no other so much as it does Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I am embarrassed to mention this next bit, but: when I saw the scene that the still is from, the first thing I thought as I watched was, "Are those aliens?" Dumb, I know: Texas is strange-looking enough in this film without having space creatures come and visit, too. But in thinking about things more, I thought, Well, in a more figurative sense, this film does seem to be suggesting that we are aliens relative to the cosmos. Our visits here in this place are, really, so brief. If we're lucky, we'll dimly and gradually come to understand our own families, the individuals in them and the dynamics among them; all the while, the titular tree that we ourselves planted in the yard grows before our eyes, known but not really seen and then suddenly There, big enough to climb in (and hang upside-down from?); and then, as the long creation sequence (that's the bit with the dinosaurs) and Fellini-esque closing sequence seem to suggest, there are the still-longer, still not-quite-known/understood histories of the cosmos and the supernatural.

I don't think the film argues that it's our responsibility to have a full knowledge of all this. Rather, it seems to posit that we should accept the knowledge that we cannot know, much less understand, all that surrounds us. (This is good advice for the first-time viewer of The Tree of Life, too.) This lack of acceptance of knowing that we do not know seems to be at the root of the father's general frustration with his life and his confrontational style of parenting; meanwhile, the mother's resonant line, "The only way to be happy is to love," suggests an approach to living that arises from that acceptance. Incidentally, that line reminded me of a line from Where the Wild Things Are, which I posted on last year: "Happiness is not always the best way to be happy." Both films, both in part about the emotional fragility of childhood, are also in part about the inevitable failure of what Wild Things's Max calls sadness shields and how the idea of Happy helps us to cope with that failure. But neither film is anything like glib about all this Happy stuff; in each, this knowledge feels earned and thus genuine, worth hanging on to.

So, yes: try to see this, and just let it do its thing. Watch it as you would read a challenging poem: don't try to understand everything, but try to see it whole and entire. Be patient with it; let it present its story in its way, rather than insist that it try to satisfy your assumptions about what a film "should" do. I think you'll be richly rewarded.


R. Sherman said...

It's on the list. The EMBLOS and I have a resolution to see all the nominees, which, alas, remains to be filled. At least it's a better resolution than losing weight or quitting smoking.

Thanks for the review.


John B. said...

Hey, Randall. Thanks for stopping by. Happy viewing. In case you're curious, the ones we happened to see were this one, The Artist, Hugo, and The Help. They were all at least okay, but--aside from a scene from The Artist that I still think of as being really unusual--I was just never able to find anything to say about them that commanded my attention for very long.

OT: Congratulations to your Mizzou Tigers--they looked very sharp last night, and I find myself looking forward to seeing their game with Baylor (who also looked very good against a very flat-looking Kansas team). Interesting times in college basketball these days . . .

Camille Offenbach said...

The man and I saw Tree of Life in the theater last fall. Your comparison to 2001 is quite apt. After leaving the theater I felt like I had just come from a very meaningful church service-- my appreciation and awareness of other people's perspectives and a long view of life and history. Time well spent.

John B. said...


Good to see you 'round these parts, first of all.

Second, yes to ToL's spiritual feel. It's hard (for me) to get at, though, except in the sense that it explores, as do all religions at their common starting point, the vastness of time and space and, by comparison, our fragmentary apprehension of even that tiny bit of time and space that we happen to be part of, let alone all that vastness. What's hard about getting at that is that I don't want to sound too New Age-y as I say that; ToL isn't that way at all, and it occurs to me that one of its achievements is that it avoids becoming that. It feels genuine, as I said in my post.

Anyway, I'm glad you and The Man saw it and liked it. I don't yet know many people who have seen it, so it's good to hear from those who have.

Camille Offenbach said...

The Man is a huge Malick fan to begin with, he's even got a copy of Malick's translation of Wittgenstein (oh shoot, I have no idea if I got the right philosopher on that)-- our expectations were pretty high going in. You are right he was able to get religious without getting New Agey or preachy-- which is incredible. He also made the mundane things seem epic and meaningful.