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By Mark Peranson, Michael Sicinski, Alan Franey, José Teodoro, Tom Charity, C.W. Winter, Olivier Père, Robert Koehler, Olaf Möller, Adam Nayman, Gabe Klinger, Jason Anderson, and Andrew Tracy
A tantalizing rumour, never confirmed, spread around Cannes that Thierry Frémaux instructed his jury that if they did not award Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life the Palme d’Or, “history will judge you.” De Niro, one surmises from his film career, knows a thing or two about threats. Less than a month after that Palme d’Or, history has already raced to judge Terrence Malick: the critical outpouring on the film has been one that, typical of the Internet age, takes upon itself the consciousness of being an historic event. Indeed, we have all been primed to consider The Tree of Life as more than just another film. And for most critics, it’s a win or lose proposition: Is The Tree of Life, to quote one eager blogger, one of the 30 best films ever made, or is it an egocentric disaster, showing all the signs of an artist unchecked? Complicated by the fact that Malick, as is his wont, refuses to speak to the press—in this case about a film generally assumed to be autobiographical—it is left to the critical community to discuss the seeming pros and cons, bereft of authorial guidance.
But is there anything left to say? Faced with this atypical situation, this unconventional film, and my own conflict regarding its ultimate success, the most appropriate thing I can do is open up the issue for personal testimonies. Allowing for disparate voices on The Tree of Life only seems fitting for a choral opus that operates on multiple levels, with multiple voice(over)s. (It feels like a film edited by multiple editors, which indeed it was.) There exists a deeply human need to bear witness to what flashes before our eyes in the dark from time to time, and The Tree of Life, which literally calls out for a response—in the spiritual meaning of the term—seems to serve this purpose.
What plays over and over in my mind when thinking of The Tree of Life isn’t any particular scene—perhaps because all the beauty seems to meld together in a shimmering, igneous lump—but an anglicized, peppy version of a Jewish religious hymn that I remember singing as a child: “It’s a tree of life to them that hold fast to it / And all of its supporters are happy.” Maybe it’s because the film’s religious baggage is the pesky aspect I can’t quite shake off. Is the film the product of a true believer, an agnostic, an atheist, a pantheist? I have my opinion, but only the all-seeing Steadicam knows. What I can say for sure is that it’s the first of Malick’s films that wasn’t made by a perfectionist. –M.P., in lieu of an editor’s note.
“There is the way of grace,” whispers Malick’s maternal voiceover, “and there is the way of nature.” Really? Is that it? The Tree of Life is a work that is built upon oppositions, far deeper ones than those it blatantly announces. At times I found Malick’s film, and his vision, overreaching and even bombastic. In particular, the articulation of the first and second movements, the cosmos with the American family, struck me as frustrating and unsatisfactory. Malick begins the O’Brien family segment with some of the most balletic, preternatural editing and camera movement I have ever seen in a narrative film. The prologue—with its birth segments, infant discoveries of the senses, the synesthetic communing with the natural world and with pure light, and even a startling iteration of the Mirror Stage—contain elements that struck me as vernacular expressions of Malick’s deep engagement with the avant-garde vocabulary, particularly Brakhage, Dorksy, and Beavers. After this, Tree becomes “rooted” in storytelling values, and although it served as a fine example of them, I had trouble understanding this shift.
What I found, eventually, is that this inability to compose a convincing articulation between the cosmic and the individual is one of the structural dichotomies that organizes The Tree of Life. If the O’Briens’ lives were intended to be adequate to the task of depicting the infinite, they would have had to be archetypal, which to some extent, in the mind of young Jack (Hunter McCracken), they are. Father (Brad Pitt) is harsh and distant. Mother (Jessica Chastain) virtually defines the limitless fount of natural love, unconditional and illogical. But the film is largely about breaking through these archetypes. All children organize their worlds through simple categories. Adults learn to complicate those young interpretations, and see human life as a series of hopes, choices, accidents, and mistakes. We all come into this world as its centre, and spend the rest of our lives, hopefully, becoming successfully decentred, learning that we are not the reason that everything before us has come to pass. We are small.
In fact, The Tree of Life even goes so far as to radically decentre the human race’s presumed favour in the eyes of God. Much has been made of Malick’s prehistoric sequence, when, in a truly most surprising moment, a large dinosaur steps on the head of a small one, looks it in the eye, then lets it go. We have every right to expect, following our understanding of Darwin and the predatory structure of the natural world, that the strong lizard will crush the weak. But Malick uses cinema, and the human imagination, to pose a challenge. Christians believe God’s grace is the sole province of humankind (who exercise dominion accordingly). Instead, what if Grace is an all-or-nothing proposition? Again, we are trained (as is Jack, as was young Malick) to think in Manichean terms, but The Tree of Life, among other feats, attempts to return nature itself to a state of grace.
The Tree of Life is a film that asks big questions seriously—of cinema and of the meaning of life. For that it deserves considerable praise, quite apart from its considerable achievements as beautiful spectacle. Like Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse, of which this is something of a complementary opposite, The Tree of Life has grandiose philosophical ambitions that force the viewer to assert or at least fall back upon one’s own construction of meaning, if not religious bearing. Splendid and important as The Tree of Life is as a big screen event, few films could possibly be as hard to swallow whole.
There’s an awful lot that irks me about the claustrophobic human values I hear in this film, in much of the music and in almost every preciously whispered word. Malick used to seem so right, so good at taking the measure of man in the greater context of the phenomenal world. Here he seems to handle that supra-humanist, supra-pantheistic large-mindedness in reverse. It was with ironic delight then that I could enjoy the experience of The Tree of Life so readily by deciding early into it that Malick is now exactly wrong. It’s his central thesis that needs turning on its head, so that one can breathe; and it is nature that offers some real oxygen.
Malick begins his magnificently unhinged movie by positing a clear-cut opposition between nature and grace. Nature is strife, self-interest, fallen; grace is what can save man from nature and from himself. There is little doubt that this is what the film intends to display, yet don’t the images convey precisely the opposite? What I saw in this film’s glorious swirl of materiality is an extreme version of what I see around me everyday. Nature is beyond conceptual limitation and fully includes violence and grace. People, on the other hand, often “rather get you down in the hole that he’s in,” as Dylan said. Even sweet Moms who don’t mean to. Malick’s Manichean thesis can’t be explained away by the rather pat parallel personifications of the “father’” and the “mother.”
How did Malick go from his involvement with Heidegger’s Essence of Reasons to the choices underpinning the cloying New Age neediness of those last scenes on the beach? Maybe it’s fear. Maybe he’s had to embrace Christianity. But fuller, more balanced readings are called for, including of Darwin. Despite occasional danger and the territorial imperative, for most species there’s often time for peaceful coexistence and the pleasure of being alive.
That brings us back to childhood, and the film’s strong evocation of the keen youthful feeling of “just don’t force your human universe on me.” So effectively does The Tree of Life convey the flux and abrupt contingencies of experience—and matter—that one of its greatest virtues is as an aide-mémoire for childhood itself. Back to the wildness of parental blows, open wounds, thrown stones, and dead animals. Back to the blooming, blossoming confusion. Yet we grow up, reconciled or not.
A cursory glance at what constitutes The Tree of Life divides much of the picture into two disparate realms of experience, distinguished primarily by scale. Here we have Waco, Texas in the ‘50s, where memory has the wind always billowing the curtains just so; tense family dinners with a disciplinarian patriarch and blissful afternoons with the idealized, Tarkovskian mother; kick-the-can, Halloween, and DDT trucks; children rolling in tall grass, climbing trees, and busting windows; entering a stranger’s house when no one’s there to luxuriate in its foreign stillness; first brushes with death, difference, and disapproval: a lyrical arrangement of childhood recollections lovingly invested with punctums of minutiae and identifiable Oedipal overtones. There we have prehistory; cosmic thunderheads, plumes of planet-forming gases, and curving, dancing, inexplicable light; a great thread suspended in a void yet pulled tight by unknown forces, extinct creatures, and an asteroid crashing into some dark, wet planet; a primordial beach where the living and the dead reunite and hold no grudges: a river of grandiose, precisely rendered landscapes both galactic and earthly that should arouse jealousy in Werner Herzog, and maybe even James Cameron.
This division between the personal and divine seems emphasized in The Tree of Life’s multi-character voiceover, which asserts that there are but two paths in life: the way of nature and the way of grace. This Old Testamenty ultimatum stuck with me as it rang false with my experience of Malick’s films, each of them so closely related not only by aesthetic but by Malick’s particular philosophical sentiment, which elevates everything under its gaze to the transcendental and seems disinclined to impose moral judgments. That voice in The Tree of Life poses a dichotomy that would contradict, for example, The Thin Red Line (1998), a war film set in a seductively uncivilized place, whose most eloquent moments imply that grace can only be reached when we aspire toward harmony with nature.
Yet The Tree of Life, Malick’s most overtly autobiographical and long-gestating work, the film from which one can make a game of imagining the greatest number of alternate versions, is itself a reminder not to place excess weight on the director’s special trope of enveloping voiceovers. There’s an integral dissonance between everything spoken in a Malick film, however mystical or didactic-sounding, and what these films convey through the myriad alternate means of cinematic expression, which under Malick are as complex as any, drawing upon a masterful approach to craft and collaboration and a stubborn insistence on obeying the slippery dictates of instinct and inspiration. Nature, that voice in The Tree of Life tells us, strives to please only itself, yet Malick attains the vertiginous heights of cinematic grace he does precisely through pleasing himself, staking everything on the hope that we derive pleasure and insight from the artist’s individual perspective, rather than his attempt to please the crowd.
First, how ironic that America’s most reclusive filmmaker should make such a transparently autobiographical film. From what little we know about Malick, it’s clear that this is his childhood, his father, and his (dead) brother. More importantly, though, this is his religion: the last Hollywood filmmaker to nail his colours to the cross like this was Mel Gibson.
Malick’s audacity is to tie the intimate with the elemental, the end with the beginning, the father and son with the Holy Ghost. To cut from the splintered disorientation of the film’s first, and brilliant, section—its spiritual crisis point—to the Big Bang has a Kubrickian hubris. The ecstatic imagery owes as much to Darwin as to Genesis, except that it comes in answer to the hushed supplication of a grieving mother’s prayers, and that Malick explicitly distances himself from pantheism in the film’s insistence on Grace.
There is beauty in these cosmic abstractions, in the film’s symphonic structure, its luminous evocation of parental love, Brad Pitt’s not unsympathetic portrait of a stern patriarch—and his moving mea culpa—and most of all in Hunter McCracken’s flirtation with mischief (evil seems too strong a word, though Malick certainly points down that path), as well as his thickening sorrow. The sequence where the boy steals off with his neighbour’s slip is exquisite, with its delicate confusions of love and guilt.
And yet, I confess, I balk at the film’s reverence and rapture, that solemn refusal to speak above a whisper. Those sotto voce ruminations start to grate, and that inimitable visual romanticism comes to seem mannered and repetitive. And then there is the auteur’s totem Sean Penn, wandering the desert in Armani, a portrait of the filmmaker as a troubled soul on the road to redemption—and he’s lost me. Like Jack I want to throw rocks through a window, preferably of the stained glass variety. What is it Jan Sterling says in Ace in the Hole (1951)? “I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”
With The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick has made his prog concept film—a Romantic Americana nostalgia trip that reads like a swirl of vintage, if more evangelizing, domestic Malick and Tales from Topographic Oceans. It’s a film premised on the idea that in 2011, virtuosity inherently has meaning. And it’s a film that hopes to convince us that thinking about the big is necessarily big thinking. In the end, it’s a pair of conceits that the film can neither execute nor make a compelling case for.
By surface description, it’s a film that may seem to fall in line with a Herzogian notion of ecstatic truth: something “mysterious and elusive that can only be reached with fabrication and imagination and stylization.” And one of Malick’s strengths has been his willingness to operate in a range from myth to the mimetic in a way that flies in the face of the dominant arthouse culture of high irony.
So then why is it that his psychedelic forays, his aspirations towards the sublime, fail to engage where similar efforts by others have succeeded? Is it that they lack the heaviness of something like the Popol Vuh ski jump scene in The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner (1974)? Or the modesty of something like the simple, Sisyphean dung beetle scene in Microcosmos (1966)? Or the lived-in actuality of any of Albert Falzon’s Morning of the Earth (1971) surf footage? Or something of the approachable social graces of the “Porpoise Song” sequence in Head (1968)? Maybe it’s a little of each. Or maybe it’s that things like floating harlequin masks are just a little bit corny. Or maybe it’s that his second unit photography looks too much like a collection of Microsoft screensavers. Or maybe it’s that his vision of the afterlife feels too much like a New Age bank commercial. (In a film whose voiced-over multi-denominational philosophies all too often sound like advertising taglines.)
Now of course, in such a brief and partial assessment, I’m glossing over some of the film’s successes: its occasionally interesting devaluation of language, some agile plays of memory, and its sometimes touching moments of youthful idyll. And while the film may evoke some kind of likability, I can’t get around the feeling that it’s a dissatisfying muddle. Yes, it’s often beautiful. But beauty to what end? And I’m left thinking of the aphoristic urgings of another filmmaker interested, with far greater clarity, in the broad forces of grace and nature, Robert Bresson: “not beautiful photography, not beautiful images, but necessary images and photography.” In The Tree of Life, gratuitousness overwhelms necessity.
The Tree of Life is both the wonkiest and the most admirable of Malick’s five films. Wonky because everyone seems to agree that the contemporary sections and the radiant conclusion are the film’s least convincing parts, veering perilously towards the glossy imagery of commercials. Disappointing, but hardly surprising from the archaic Malick, who is here filming the present day for the first time, having anchored all his previous films in the more or less distant past. However, the two other dimensions of the film verge on the sublime. They raise the possibility, perhaps never seen before, of a infinitesimal cinema, i.e., rather than choosing between the grandiose and the intimate, the cosmic and the familial, philosophy and poetry, he combines them in the same film, not in layers, but in successive chunks that create a dialogue, talking and responding to one other. The stunning images charting the birth of the universe offer an astonishing spectacle that invites wonder, and perhaps emotion, rather than the blasé viewer’s cynicism.
The same goes for the very short yet unforgettable scene with the dinosaurs. Malick is clearly referencing a moment in Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick filmed the prologue, set in prehistoric times, almost as if he was reporting on mankind’s first criminal act to involve a weapon, when an ape-man discovers that a bone can serve as a club, and uses it to kill an adversary from a rival tribe. Taking this famous scene in the opposite direction and going even further back in time, Malick shows a dinosaur laying his claws on the jaws of another huge reptile lying on the ground in its death throes, then drawing back and casually moving away. We will never know whether this gesture was an aborted murderous impulse, a caress, or simply curiosity. Malick records the first inexplicable gesture (tenderness or cruelty?) or the first instance of a renunciation that might pass for kindness or benevolence. It is undoubtedly the most extraordinary scene in the film, and indeed in contemporary cinema, because it is so very brief, mysterious in its simplicity, and because it uses digital special effects for emotional impact, and in the service of an idea, whilst in no way succumbing to the exhibitionism of sophisticated and expensive techniques so over-indulged in by Hollywood.
Those caresses, those hands, those gestures of tenderness or violence interrupted are echoed in the film’s central section, clearly the most personal and autobiographical part of the film, a depiction of a family in ‘50s rural America. Three boys, a loving mother, an unbending, awkward, and frustrated father (Brad Pitt, giving a remarkable performance of great subtlety), whose lives will soon be affected by the grief of mourning. Malick has done better in the retro genre, with Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978). But what he achieves in this depiction of childhood and memory once again borders on the sublime. The choice of lenses, the floating camera movements, the fleeting and fragmentary shots of bodies and faces all offer a magnificent match for the mental images and sensorial memories that suddenly appear when we recall distant events, real or imagined, from our childhood. A world distorted by the gaze of a child who cannot see and understand everything around him but captures it with great intensity—this is what the film manages to re-transcribe and evoke in images, thanks to a mise en scène that is unlike anything seen before, one that seeks to compose something unique, somewhere between poetry, music, and philosophy.
Like a scientist’s experiment that has been fussed over until it has lost its original hypothesis, Malick’s new film—utterly devoid of humour, irony, or inference—is the work of a man who has so overthought his material that it has become a welter of contradictory ideas, a toxic brew of literalism and spiritualism, an acid trip without the necessary acid. He has turned a chamber piece about a Texas family in the post-war era into a bloated behemoth. He has fatally forgotten the wisdom that in the specific lies the universal, and instead imposes an entirely unearned universal construct on top of a small story.
The Tree of Life is replete with boys playing in the grassy Texas fields, a certain autobiographical flashback. It’s also replete with philosophy, a more unstable flashback to Malick’s previous life as an MIT philosophy lecturer specializing in Heidegger. Now, the philosophy amounts to amorphous, cosmic, furry-headed variations on the seriously aging New Age movement, all of it stated, as with every verbal utterance on the soundtrack, firmly on the nose. While Malick’s early films, including Badlands and Days of Heaven, combined an awareness of class conflict and the inevitable clashes of human desire with a fascination with nature that bordered on pantheism, The Tree of Life dives headlong into a world view that can be summed up in the Beatles lyric, “All you need is love.”
This is first seen most flagrantly in the film’s intrusive “second film” (which pops up like a jack-in-the-box some 20 minutes in), where one dinosaur consoles a smaller, wounded one with a stroke of a Jurassic-era pity, a slice of gooey, anthropomorphic nonsense that not even Spielberg would likely tolerate. Later, the mother, Mrs. O’Brien, in one of her few whispered voiceovers as her family moves out of their old Waco house, states that, without love, life goes by in a flash. At the same time, Malick is uninterested, unwilling, or unable to convey emotions on screen, except through the crutch of an avalanche of mostly inaudible whispered voiceovers theoretically allowing us to eavesdrop on characters’ inner thoughts. The annoying mannerism of the whispering aside, the emotional undercurrents that he introduces are then crowded off screen for the picturesque, and the ultimate kitschy gaze of a field of sunflowers. Malick wants to convey love’s force, and, as he deems it, “grace,” but he can’t find cinematic correlatives for it. The critical problem with Malick’s visual ideas—which have been thoughtlessly lauded, even by many who dislike The Tree of Life—is that his images are discrete unto themselves, picturesque rather than cinematic, producing the sensation of flipping through pages in a coffee-table photography book or the album of a family we don’t know, and never will.
The Tree of Life could just as well have been called Versuch über Sein und Zeit—for that’s what the film is, essentially: an essay on Being and Time, the concepts, notions, principles, as Martin Heidegger defined, described, and conceptualized them in his eponymous work. A dear acquaintance of mine (who as of yet hasn’t seen the film but was close to the production) suggested another mighty-to-the-point alternative title: Confessions—think also of St. Augustine, whose writings were an influence on young Heidegger.
Befitting such inspiration, The Tree of Life is devoid of all drama and psychology, or points of view: emotions-experiences proven/deemed—ontologically—fundamental to the human experience per se are shown as elements of life’s movement as such. And there’s no sense to all of this, as even desire, imagination, striving, development, and change are here but swirls in that grandest flow. What remains is beauty, as well as an idea of man’s limit: that he can see everything only in his way—the dinosaur is his ancestor, God his future.
Now, while I’m deeply, genuinely, almost existentially moved by The Tree of Life, its raging spirituality cum sheer cinematic glory, I feel the need to keep some distance—there’s a certain Fukuyaman End-of-History-ness to it that makes me nervous. Besides, one should look with some suspicion at every endeavour in universalism, as too many of those have ended in disaster…But maybe I’m just afraid of the vastness suggested by The Tree of Life; time will tell.
Finally, there’s that element of autobiography Malick hinted at: and I wonder what he tries to tell himself, what wound he’s contemplating while hoping to find an answer in a sunrise of his own making, a mirror he’s polished.
I’ll leave the metaphysical heavy lifting to others. The moment I want to talk about in The Tree of Life—a film that doesn’t lack for moments—is one where a character becomes light as air. Certainly, Jessica Chastain’s Texas housewife Mrs. O’Brien isn’t the first of the director’s earth-goddesses to traipse blithely through tall grass framed by the sun and gesture towards heaven: in this, she’s merely following in the bare-footsteps of Q’orianka Kilcher in The New World (2006). But where Kilcher and fellow Malick muses Sissy Spacek, Linda Manz, and Miranda Otto always remained earthbound, Mrs. O’Brien’s love actually lifts her up where she belongs—she levitates off the ground.
It’s a seamless and yet totally jarring special-effects shot that defies gravity as a means of dropping a gauntlet. This fairy-tale flourish places us firmly inside an enchanted subjectivity. Which is to say that we’re inside a Malick movie, a place that strikes some filmgoers as an aged hippie’s personal no man’s land. Of all the recycled observations about this publicly self-effacing and professionally ostentatious filmmaker, the one that sticks—in The Tree of Life perhaps more than any of his other films—is that you’re either on the director’s wavelength or you’re looking askance at those who are: like Stanley Kubrick (an inescapable reference point for The Tree of Life, however superficial its actual relationship to 2001), Malick is the sort of director whose detractors often feel obliged to disparage his supporters along with his filmmaking.
Being a personal filmmaker, Malick doesn’t give any indication—either in his work or the whack of interviews he hasn’t and will continue not to give—that he’s sweating the criticisms any more than he’s trying to preach to the converted. Whatever one thinks of his films, they’re stubbornly, even obstinately, confident: none of the ‘70s movie brats have managed to evade making compromises for so long. I’m honestly not sure whether Malick is supremely optimistic or utterly indifferent to how the audience for his $100 million Event Movie will receive Chastain’s Mary Martin act, or those sequences depicting the birth of the universe, or the mini-morality play involving CGI dinosaurs, or the beachfront astral plane conjured during the film’s conclusion. (For the record, I found these elements exquisite and possibly extraneous.)
But then this is a film about faith shaken and stirred—an agnostic cocktail, framed by a quotation from the Book of Job. As such, it’s filled with tests for its characters and viewers alike, and while it may seem gauche for a critic (and an atheistic one at that) to draw parallels between the Supreme Being that hovers over the O’Briens and Terrence, the Creator, appreciating The Tree of Life requires the acceptance that both work in mysterious ways.
“Are you there, God? It’s me, Terrence.” As unsubtle and cringe-inducing as the voiceover narration can be in The Tree of Life, at least the director stops shy of including that line. Whereas the film’s ever-so-persistent flow of often astonishing images mostly keeps us clear of outright mawkishness or stumbling sincerity, the ghostly, stagey murmurs in our ears tend to land us there anyway. Of course, that’s nothing new for any Malick movie after Badlands, which still stands as his sharpest piece of writing. And as anyone who loves those movies knows, the task of ignoring those murmurs gets easier with each viewing.
At the same time, there’s something compelling about the absolutely unabashed and unvarnished sincerity of the words floating over the film’s cosmic vistas. And whereas the voices in The Thin Red Line and The New World often seemed to represent some sort of collective expression for the characters on display or even the landscapes that they drift through, here it’s not so easy to decide to whom the words might belong. The temptation is to believe it’s Mankind Itself, judging by the question that caused me the sharpest pang (different from a cringe): “Who are we to you?”
Of all the big questions that Malick has on his mind in the film that’s obviously occupied much of his imagination for 30 years, that might be the most compelling and the most pertinent to this otherwise vital movie’s emphasis on death. C.S. Lewis called it “the problem of pain,” this Christian paradox that allows a supposedly all-knowing and all-loving deity to let our own loved ones suffer and die. Indeed, it’s easy to miss how much grief serves as The Tree of Life’s driving emotion, with all of the glories, joys, and wonders in Jack’s boyhood years being coloured by the early flash-forward scene in which his now middle-aged parents are informed of the death of his brother.
“He’s in God’s hands now,” says one woman to the shattered mother.
“He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” she replies.
The Tree of Life may best be understood as Malick’s efforts to unpack all of the meanings in that exchange. While some of the results are vague, banal, or regrettably heavy-handed (none more so than the all-too-symbolic finale, which even Angelopoulos must deem a little overdone), others are as potent and profound as the movie’s most incandescent moments.
And thus does the clumsy, awkward children’s-letters-to-God quality of so much of that narration gain its own sort of beauty. How else should we sound when we try to form words around pain so raw that it cancels out all other thought and sensation? At times like the scene where the mother opens that Western Union telegram, is there any use for our usual elegance and erudition?
“Where were You?”
“Why should I be good if You aren’t?”
“How did I love You?”
I’m grateful that Malick doesn’t have God answer back (and given the lack of restraint that often stymies The Tree of Life, I’m sure he was tempted). But for all we know, some of the questions are His.
Several moments in The Thin Red Line—my second favorite Malick film after The Tree of Life—are capable of reducing me to a slobbering, pathetic heap of emotion, and I can pinpoint them exactly (thanks to the timecode on my Criterion DVD): nine minutes and 30 seconds (the Malenesian tribe singing and clapping in a religious ceremony), 50 minutes and 5 seconds (Elias Koteas’ Captain Bugger’s increasing fear and confusion before Nick Nolte’s Lt. Col. Gordon Tall’s browbeating, intercut with the image of a wounded bird), two hours, 33 minutes, and 46 seconds (James Caviezel’s Private Witt’s realization that he’s about to meet his maker)…these go on. With The Tree of Life, I would have a hard time designating moments, as I slobbered and cried through the virtually every minute of the film.
Do I understand Robert Koehler, Jonathan Rosenbaum, J. Hoberman, and others’ reservations? Yes. At the same time, I can’t deny that this film surprised me in ways few films have, that it continues to do so on third and fourth viewings, and continues to grow in my mind. I liken Malick’s films to music and poetry, two mediums where the overpowering emotive sensation produced—listening to a Zbigniew Preisner requiem or reading a T.S. Eliot verse, for instance—is often beyond the grasp of my understanding. I do appreciate attempts to demystify these sensations—Alex Ross’s writings on classical music are an example—and yet a part of me feels these efforts are wholly inadequate. Perhaps it’s a religious impulse not to ask “why?” but instead to simply believe, to follow. The combination of Preisner’s “Lacrimosa – Days of Tears” and images of celestial vapours at the beginning of the world in The Tree of Life left me speechless in the same way as when I first discovered the space age montage in 2001: A Space Odyssey set to Strauss’s “The Blue Danube.”
But where Kubrick was all about employing classical music to grandiose effect, Malick manages to use his selections (Tavener, Couperin) more discreetly in many scenes, giving the film a distinctive weight and balance. An example of this is the sequence when Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien is away on business and a sense of liberation surges through the lives of the other family members, aided in part by careful samplings from Couperin’s “Les baricades mistérieuses” (as interpreted on piano by Angela Hewitt). This selection is especially meaningful as it is in many ways tied sentimentally to Mr. O’Brien, seen in an earlier scene as a church organist, and his affinity for Baroque compositions (of which Couperin was a pioneer). I interpreted the placement of this music as part of Malick’s strategy to generate an ambivalent sense of alternating love and hatred toward the father on the part of Mrs. O’Brien and the kids. This is a minor detail out of hundreds that I feel I’m only beginning to understand in this marvelous gift of a film.
As part of a parallel roundtable on The Tree of Life organized by the online magazine Reverse Shot, Chris Wisniewski addressed the following comment to the film’s detractors and wafflers:
I am surprised by how quick many have been (particularly those who fall somewhere in the middle) to complain that the film is “flawed” or “imperfect.” Let’s set aside the question of what constitutes a “perfect film”—as if some such a Platonic ideal existed. An assertion of The Tree of Life’s “flaws” insinuates that Malick’s project isn’t worthwhile (fine, if you wish) or that The Tree of Life somehow falls short at what it sets out to do.
The relative truth of this statement almost, but not quite, belies its strategic playing with terminology. If “flawed” and “imperfect” are escape hatches for lazy critics—who can use them to start imperceptibly shifting from baffled, unenthusiastic half-praise to smugly ignorant scorn—they are also not necessarily predicated on any impossible standard of perfection. Nevertheless, when I started weighing The Tree of Life’s more or less bookending sequences of cosmic creation and otherworldly reunion, I found myself shying away from those very words, cagily anticipating the sort of rejoinder levelled by Wisniewski.
Fear of being grouped with the small-minded, however, should not make one go mute on honest reservations. If one feels that these marvellously photographed sequences are extraneous; that the “film proper” (another imaginary entity) offers enough eye-filling wonder in its mysterious suburbia and Planet Mongo-esque glass-and-steel forests to make such a literalizing framework unnecessary; that despite the possibility that these sequences are, like the rest of the Texan Bildungsroman, seen in the subjective mind’s-eye of Sean Penn’s troubled architect, the wholly objective and sustained rendering of these fantastical sequences (unlike the brief glimpses of levitation and fairy-tale slumber) makes them operate at a level of spectacle detached from the rest of the film; then “flawed” or “imperfect” need not be invoked to indicate something wanting in the film’s design, even as these sequences precisely provide too much.
And yet…a coincidental re-viewing of Powell and Pressburger’s The Small Back Room (1949) the night before seeing The Tree of Life provided a curious point of comparison. When the Expressionist nightmare of the giant bottle enveloping the consciousness of the alcoholic hero ruptures the film’s wonderfully, meticulously detailed realist tone, it certainly “adds nothing” that narrative and performance have not already conveyed; yet it is this very sequence that has furnished Room’s signature image, just as The Tree of Life’s Trumbullian cosmos and windswept hereafter will doubtless become that film’s icons in turn. If not perfection, but wholeness of conception is still a valid measure of the best artworks (I vote yea), it’s perhaps in rebuke that these moments of excess—ruptures, overflows, “flaws,” “imperfections”—can somehow come to contain within themselves the wholes from which they so conspicuously stand apart.