The Tree of Life

Tree of Life

In the Book of Job, there’s a moment when God gets truly hacked off with Job’s constant complaining, and responds tersely, ‘Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the Earth?’.  Meaning: infinitesimal humans are mere specks that dissolve into the vastness of time and space.

Terrence Malick deploys this epigraph at the outset of his hugely ambitious, but flawed new film, The Tree of Life, seen yesterday on a decidedly mundane wet afternoon in Liverpool.  Job’s words are followed by a shimmering pattern of light that represents … what?  The Holy Spirit? The smallest pulsing particle of life? Then black – and whispered words: ‘Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to your door.’

Whose voice is this?  Slowly we realise that this is the voice of Jack, the eldest of three boys, who grew up in small town Texas in the 1950s.  We see him in the present, amidst the soulless glass and steel towers of Houston, where he is a successful architect maybe.  He is played by Sean Penn who has never had an easier ride: he has no dialogue,  merely has to walk moodily through the urban canyons or ride the glass lifts down the towers, his thoughts whispered on the soundtrack. Through glimpses, we discover that his brother has died, in circumstances that are not made clear.  Their mother is inconsolable and doubts her faith: ‘Where were You? [silence] Did You know?  A priest intones: ‘He is in God’s hands, now’.  She retorts: ‘He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?

Jack sees a tree being planted in the plaza outside his corporate tower – and then the film shifts gear for 25 astonishing minutes. Malik attempts to connect the lives of his 1950s family to the growth of the universe from the moment of the ‘Big Bang’, taking in the microscopic chemistry and biology of life, the evolution of life on earth and even, at around 22 minutes, CGI dinosaurs.  It was at this point that I began to feel faint – nearly half an hour and we’re only at the dinosaurs? And another 230 million years to go?  Fortunately, at this point the asteroid arrives to blast the dinosaurs to extinction and us back to Sean Penn and the rest of his family.

This section of the film reminded me a little of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Apart from the fact that Kubrick’s film grappled with similar ideas, the reason may be that Douglas Trumbull was responsible for the special effects in both cases. Mesmerising as this passage is – attempting to encompass all of existence and express what it is to live as a human being, a tiny infinitesimal speck in the cosmic vastness of space and time – its stunning images and transcendent  music  fails to integrate satisfactorily with the rest of the film. For me, this was the most spell-binding moment, with ‘Lacrimosa’ from Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem For My Friend on the soundtrack:

But, who knows how many millions of dollars were sunk into achieving this vision?  A poet can achieve the same in only a few lines:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
– Mary Oliver, ‘Wild Geese’

In essence, this is a semi-autobiographical, impressionistic account of a childhood in 1950s Texas.  Malik grew up in Waco, Texas, and his brother committed suicide.  Malik seems to draw from the well of these experiences in the central section of his film which also provide its best moments.  These scenes – indeed the entire film – have barely any dialogue and little narrative thread:  it’s like sifting through snapshots of a family life in that time and place.  Brad Pitt (above) is excellent as the authoritarian father (‘Don’t call ever me Dad’; ‘when you speak to me, you say sir’) who dominates the household of three boys and dreamy wife. Malick and his chief photographer Emmanuel Lubezki capture the unfolding of summer days in glimpses: the overheard words of people almost talking to themselves, the tensions within the family, and the boys’ growing awareness of  themselves and their place in the world.

That's where God is

Throughout the film, Jack and his parents are heard in voice-over, expressing their thoughts to God. Jack questions the injustice of existence (‘Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good ? When You aren’t’), while his mother sees a distinction between nature and grace:

You have to choose which one you’ll follow.  Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

Nature is represented by Pitt as the volatile father, determined to be something in the world and insistent that his sons should exhibit the same strengths and virtues:

Jessica Chastain’s ethereal mother is the embodiment of grace as she steadfastly guides her sons through trial and tribulation, alerts them to the presence of God, pointing to the sky and saying, ‘That’s where God lives’ (above).  At one point in the garden, she levitates – shades of Tarkovsky, perhaps.

There’s a marvellous scene where dad goes on a trip, and mum and the kids are free to be themselves:

The final twenty minutes of the film are very strange, and indeed provoked the audience at the Cannes Film Festival to boos.  I wouldn’t go that far – it’s good to see an American director not afraid to try to break out of the Hollywood conventions.  But, this sequence in which we see Sean Penn as the elder brother encounter his younger self in the desert and then his entire family and a great many other people walking back and forth through the waves on a beautiful beach in the afterlife, is just a bit, well, potty.

The reviews have been divided.  This is Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com:

We are here, living and dying on this little blue rock in the middle of space, mesmerized by the mysterious relationships between parents and children that defines our lives, connected at every point – a tree we plant, an animal we feed, the earth we dig in, the thoughts we think – to something much larger we can’t really understand. Trying to get at some of that in a 2011 movie-star vehicle that cost many millions of dollars to make, and is partly an autobiographical family story and partly an indecipherable spiritual allegory – well, that’s nuts. Right now I suspect that “The Tree of Life” is pretty much nuts overall, a manic hybrid folly with flashes of brilliance. But even if that’s true it’s a noble crazy, a miraculous William Butler Yeats kind of crazy, alive with passion for art and the world, for all that is lost and not lost and still to come.

Jason Solomons in The Observer wrote:

Malick’s camera drifts like an angel, or a ghost, rarely staying still, its images sweeping us along in an ebb and flow, washing us in the ways of nature and the ways of grace. Yet within its ambition to convey the meaning of life, The Tree of Life is also boring, cliched and banal. Dad loses a job and the family move house and things will never quite be the same. The film flashes back to adult Jack, now wandering a salt flat, or some kind of beach, surrounded by lost souls.

What are we to make of this coda? I find it shockingly cheesy and can’t quite reconcile it with other sublime passages in the same film. The hippie, Taoist, animist Malick of old is still there but, suddenly, I felt preached at. The dinosaurs, I can take; the souls on the beach, the hugging and the rapprochement with God, that’s too much. Maybe I just climb a different tree.

In a long and thoughtful review on the World Socialist Web Site, David Walsh wrote:

The Tree of Life… is a largely muddleheaded and implicitly misanthropic work that also includes a number of exquisite images. The latter, unhappily, do not compensate for the overall mass of confusion and the resulting strain it places on the central human drama.

While from The Guardian, this is the beginning of Peter Bradshaw’s 5-star review :

At the premiere of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I reviewed at the Cannes film festival in May, the movie’s final moments were almost drowned out by the booing, jeering and giggling in the auditorium, a response widely developed into a note of balanced and wearily tolerant dismissal in print. People would repeatedly reproach me for my own laudatory notice; this film, they said, was pretentious, boring and – most culpably of all – Christian. Didn’t I realise, they asked, that Malick was a Christian?

Well, that last accusation may be true, and the time I have spent since brooding on this film and revisiting others by Malick, have led me to think that The Tree of Life may well come to be seen as this decade’s great Christian artwork. But I still prefer to think of it as something other than that. Just as Dietrich Bonhöffer called for a religionless Christianity, so the movie for me created a Christianity-less metaphysics. It is a magnificent, toweringly ambitious and visionary work – brilliantly shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, passionately felt, and deeply serious in its address to the audience. The Tree of Life is about the inner crisis of a tormented man in his middle years and the terrible unchangeability of the past. As this man briefly forces himself to consider his own negligible place in the universe, the film gestures at the unimaginable reaches of geological and stellar time, depicting nothing less than the origins of the cosmos and man himself in a colossal Kubrickian symphony of images.

Carl Sagan once said:

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

Alfred Tennyson once wrote:

What is it all but a trouble of ants in the gleam of a million million of suns?

Jack says:

Brother. Keep us. Guide us. To the end of time.

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