Starring: Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn
Music: Alexandre Desplat (plus Smetana, Preisner, etc)
Director: Terrence Malick
Screenplay: Terrence Malick
Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Given the cosmic scope of this film, some people may be surprised at how much of its power comes from its evocation of childhood and a sense of place. But this is not to reduce it to a simple ‘coming-of-age’ story; like the best of the American avant-garde – Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence, Stan Brakhage’s ‘Dog Star Man’ – the connection is made between locality and a wider historical and geographical scope, shading into myth the diurnal activites which many take for granted, risking overbearing over-statement, sometimes macho romanticism, but ultimately winning, through risk, through running the gauntlet between absurdity and genuine insight, a genuine respect, testing the margins of one’s art. This is not, though at times it comes close, a nostalgic romanticisation of 1950s suburban American childhood – for childhood is shown with all its little dramas and crises, its pulls and tugs in different directions, its simultaneous aimlessness and boredom and sense of unlimited wonder and unbounded excitement – a treatment of childhood that doesn’t reduce children to mini-adults, but entwines their experiences with those of the adults who raise them, which takes their experiences seriously, which recognises the universal resonances in their barely-articulated or conceived notions, musings, wonderings. There is a sense of awe at life here, a sense of palpable joy, but childhood is not an Eden, and this is not a regressive vision. Well, let’s revise that, Malick’s worst tendencies are simplistic, regressive, naïve in the worst way – it’s these that allow him his grandest moments, which could not possibly come off if they possessed even a hint of irony or lack of belief – and it’s also these that allow such mis-steps as the rather trite finale, in which Sean Penn’s architect has a vision of the after-life, wandering a beach with his family, still in their 1950s guise, thus effecting a reconciliation with the sense of loss that now plagues him in his adult life, at the peak of material success (shiny house, shiny office, the money his father always strived for but never quite made). Now he (and his mother, who had earlier mourned the death of her son and asked that age-old question of God, or the life-force, whatever you call him/her/it) can come to terms with the death of his brother and his sense of childhood as a magical time of harmony with, and exploration within, nature, which he now betrays and grows distant from in an artificial environment of glass and steel. The problem here is really the banality of the images – for a film-maker whose logic is so often visual (dialogue being reduced to whispered voice-over and half-caught mumblings, the tail-ends of conversations – one might say that dialogue takes place through glances, through the raising and lowering and moving away of eyes, the shifting dynamics of facial expressions and bodily gesture – a kind of dance, a choreography created from the way we relate to each other through movement every single day), to revert to wispy female-angel fingers and hands up-raised to the sky, to a Georgio Armani’d Penn looking constipated while circling a 1950s memory of his family, in a kind of cross between Jack Vettriano paintings and the kitschiest of Christian art, is a huge let-down. One can see exactly what he is trying to do, and it makes perfect sense in the logic of the film as a whole – the reconciliation demanded by the film’s wide questioning at the start, that questioning that led to the ultimate out-wards pan, from the grief of a specific suburban family to the creation of the universe, and back down, the intermeshing of everyday detail and wider religious/scientific considerations. We’d been prepared for this vision from the start of the film – shots of Penn wandering a desolate landscape and then preparing to make a leap (of faith) over the edge of a cliff, down a wooden pathway/bridge, set us up for it – and after the audacity of the out-Kubricking Kubrick Big Bang sequence, presenting us with a depiction of the after-life doesn’t seem too unreasonable – and yet, and yet, it just doesn’t come off. I suppose everyone has their breaking point, that point where they can say to Malick, ‘this much and no further’ – for some, in the showing I attended, this happened as early as the dinosaur sequence (able to tolerate 15-minutes of what was, essentially, avant-garde film-making, audience patience was tested by the sudden appearance of ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’-style CGI creatures). For me, then, I suppose it was the vision of the afterlife. Nonetheless, I was still able to leave the film with a sense of satisfaction, of, I suppose, wonder – the transition from grand orchestral swellings to credits unfolding over the ambient rainforest sounds, a technique also used in ‘The New World’ is one to which, if one has gone this far, one cannot help but respond to viscerally emotionally, even as, at the back of one’s mind, it seems absurd, manipulative, clunky, whichever adjective you choose to append.
I mentioned a sense of place, and, truth be told, this isn’t precise or specific in the way that Olson’s ‘Maximus’ was (or attempted to be): I don’t believe the town itself is mentioned by name, the film’s cast being pretty much limited to a single family (one of whom, the youngest son, is only sketchily defined at best); we only catch neighbours and relatives in glimpses, as figures who flit in and out, half-registered, and then disappear again (perhaps a result of Malick’s famous editing process, in which originally substantial roles are reduced to nearly-nothing). The same is true of a sense of time (hardly surprising, given the millennia covered in an early sequence): we are not presented with the familiar trope of news reports blaring out on the radio or television to give a sense of period (that sense of pleasurable semi-nostalgia present in shows like ‘Mad Men’ or the BBC’s ‘The Hour’ (which engages much more specifically with the making of the news, the way that our understanding of history is shaped by those who report it)). That said, costumes and period detail all seem to very precise, as is, apparently, the norm for Malick. Indeed, this very combination of vagueness and exactness may be what irritates a lot of the director’s harshest critics, and which certainly irked me about his previous work; ‘The New World’ betrayed any notions of historical fidelity in the way that it settled for a romanticised, colonialised Pocahontos narrative (in contrast to ‘Argall’, William T. Vollman’s revisionist re-telling), while ‘The Thin Red Line’ registered war as a kind of vague blight on nature in a way that felt like an evasion, given the way that the particular war it addressed still exists as part of our cultural consciousness and our political history. (Curiously enough, ‘TTRL’ has more ‘contextual’ detail than John Boorman’s similarly sparse ‘Hell In The Pacific’; but is precisely this opening up beyond Boorman’s claustrophobic, two-hander confines that accounts for its failure: generic back-stories and vague, meandering musings remove from the film any primal, stripped-back power, whilst remaining too vague, and too purely Americanised, in terms of historical engagement (compare Clint Eastwood’s ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’, in which Japanese soldiers are for once humanised and treated as more than faceless or silent opponents). ‘The Tree Of Life’, then, gives us a sense of place as felt and lived in, rather than apprehended from outside – and, because its central premise is to do with a more general theme (the loss of a child) than the historical settings of ‘The New World’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’, it can inhabit this space with a sensuous exactness, unworried about historical niceties or political concerns. The unpredictability of Bergsonian durée; ‘subjective’ time (though time spread across several subjects, and occasionally to non-human levels); the temporal fluidity allowed, but rarely exploited, by cinema – the way that particular objects recur again and again, with differing levels of significance, not as artistic ‘symbols’ or allegorical details but as shifting images onto which differing projections and perceptions are placed (for instance, the shots of the same trees down the road, made metaphorical or symbolic or merely atmospheric at different times; the recurrence of the yellow dump trucks in the yard, at first objects of close attention in the children’s out-door play, then left, forgotten, as they grow up: objects of memory and loss and the passing of time (their association with building – and particularly, with the architectural and housing hopes of the ‘50s, presumably no accident)).
Subtleties such as these emerge because of the way the film was shot – as Brad Pitt (acting as Malick’s mouth-piece for the publicity circuit) notes, this involved improvisation, shooting on the fly, getting actors to inhabit a space (in terms of actually renting an entire block, rather than shooting in a studio), to inhabit their costumes, wearing them all day, to be inside a certain mindset – so that the film can be stitched together from tail-ends, from glimpses, from the moments, beyond the big show-downs and speeches on which dramatists and film-makers normally focus, that actually constitute a large part of the way we interact and relate and judge others’ character.
Thus, without having to be restricted to narrative and the self-consciously dramatic, we actually get a much better insight into the way life develops as we live it, which mitigates against the heavily archetypal qualities which sometimes threaten to turn the characters into ciphers (particularly the idealised mother, who stays just the right side of the irritatingly angelic and opaque (Pocahontos fell the other side of the line in ‘The New World’)). Archetypal qualities are grounded in observable and universal detail – the mother dressing a child's wound, the father helping with first steps – to sometimes breath-taking effect: early on, we witness a scene in which a baby's face is placed right up against the screen, before focussing on a leaf blowing away across the pavement – more effective in experience than in description, perhaps, it imparts a sense of almost trance-like wonder, a pre-linguistic coming-to-consciousness, those first encounters with the world. This is what Malick is after in almost all his work (those paradisal scenes of swimming in the sea in ‘TTRL’ and lying in the grass in ‘TNW’), but here one feels that he has really succeeded in capturing it, in seeing with what Brakhage called ‘the innocent eye.’ Because all this is placed in the context of growing up, of the very early ways in which one places oneself, and is placed, in the world, it has a specificity to it that the forest or ocean idylls of those earlier films lack: and the visual puns/ correspondences within this wealth of observed detail connect to wider thematic concerns without over-burdening their freshness or reducing them to clunking metaphors. Thus, pointing to the sky is at once looking for/at God (and is explicitly described as such – “that’s where God lives”), but it is also the simple mechanics of throwing and catching a ball or climbing a tree (things that most boys do); throwing a stone through a window at once illuminates an element in the brothers’ relationship (the elder boy, taking after his more aggressive and macho father, throws the stone almost as a dare to his milder, younger sibling), part of a sequence conjuring up a sense of darkness and the possibility for violence (playing with guns, toying with war), and simply an observation of child-hood games – something that many kids will have done, at some stage. One thing can be, or suggest, many others: objects passing through consciousness, creatively perceived (in the sense that, for Merleau-Ponty, perception is creation), one thing triggering the thought of another, shifts and links and loops; the self as a part of the world, as something created from the world, rather than a self-contained observing entity, detached from it. For the most part this is done without resource to the magical realist tropes one might expect (which I’ve always found tend to rather domesticate the subversive potential of magic, irrationally arranging rather than rationally deranging the senses) – except for one particular incident, all the more powerful for being the only such occurrence: that sudden moment where, as a bed-time story the mother describes going up in a plane, we see illustrative footage of the ride, and then we see her (in her mind’s eye? in the children’s? in both?) levitating, floating, arms spread wide, next to the tree on the suburban lawn. If perception bases itself upon which is actually there – trees, lawns, roads, people – imagination allows for elaborations, variations, added to this: thus, the long loft, an attic room with a light-filled window, is seen through a child's perspective as extra-elongated, and the adult standing there with the child becomes extra tall, stretched, a giant in a vertically-confined space. Of course, that move towards ‘the light at end of tunnel’ has several connotative layers (the light one sees when one first bursts into the world as a new-born, or on opening one’s eyes in the morning – or, in this film, the occasionally-glimpsed cosmic light that might be equated with the life-force of the universe) – but it doesn't become a concrete symbol, staying instead as part of a network, a patchwork of shifting images, criss-crossing over and resonating with each other in a kind of non-linear, non-schematic dialogue. This allows the narrative structure to remain somewhat loose: we could view the entire main portion of the film as enclosed between Penn's going up and down the elevator, initially grieving for the death of his brother and the loss of his child-hood, and finally reconciling all this with a vision of his loved ones, united again in a heaven-like space. This would make the 1950s sequence the specific remembrance of a particular character, though, which is not how the film works, overall: and to try and trace particular ‘arcs’ or particular memories to particular characters will often prove a fruitless task, one that goes against Malick’s whole method in the film. As a reaction against the subjectivity of narrative or authorship, we come across this technique in ‘The Thin Red Line’, where various voices mesh and weave around each other (and in the suggestion that we are all part of a single human soul); and here, that extends to camera-work – the camera is not the (male or otherwise) gaze but the eye of a baby, a boy, an adult, a god. Though the film is very much the product of one man’s consciously grand vision – ‘this is how I see the world’, by Terrence Malick – the working methods used (improvisation, spontaneity, non-scripted interaction between actors) ensure that it remains collaborative, and the movements across consciousnesses and subjectivities and viewpoints almost bring to mind Stewart Home’s criticism of ‘bourgeois subjectivity.’ (I’ve just been reading Home, which is why he’s been slotted in here – of course, he would detest the religio-mystical quality of Malick's vision.)
This use of the camera to open up inter-subjective spaces and to move across vast spans of real and felt time is an at times dizzying affirmation of cinema’s potential – beyond genre and beyond (straight-forward, linear) narrative – and is coupled to an equally strong use of sound, the use of classical music at times suggesting something operatic, balletic. Cutting down on the now-expected Malickian voiceover (though it's still there, whispering away – “Brother. Mother. It was they that lead me to your door,” etc, etc) means that a lot of the film, though full of sound, is not dialogue-dominated. I don’t know how one would describe this: (once again) wordless opera, ballet? In fact, it’s a consciously cinematic use of sound, a real exploration of the medium’s sonic possibilities, of the conjunction of music and image – thus, scenes sweep by on bursts of musical rhythm, not as mere accompaniment or montage-style, but through a looser emotional sweep. And yet they often seem chosen for quite precise reasons: the various bits of piano music by Bach and Couperin that pop up now and again come from the father’s frustrated ambitions as a concert pianist rather than simply performing a decorative function – they exist half-way between the narrative and the ambient. Probably the most memorable musical ‘set-pieces’ involve the use of Smetana’s ‘Moldau’ from ‘Ma Vlast’ (the original piece a tone-painting of a river, and thus entirely appropriate to the film’s frequent recourse to images of water), playing alongside the exhilaration of young children running and jumping round their neighbourhood in what feels like one continuous sweep; and the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Preisner’s ‘Requiem For My Friend,’ soaring out during the Big Bang scenes. The latter, once more, fits for more than just its swelling emotions– remember that this whole sequence is framed by the mother’s cry of anguish at the death of her son, and the use of a setting of the Requiem Mass seems entirely appropriate. For some, this may seem presumptuous – the origin of the universe ‘framed’ by a single human death – and I’ve even seen it compared to the joke in Charlie Kaufmann’s ‘Adaptation’, where Kaufmann can’t decide how to open his story about orchid-hunting, and in a maniacal brain-storming session decides to go right back to the beginning of time. Yet it is that kind of framing that is crucial to Malick’s vision: in an original draft of the screenplay, the final afterlife scenes expand out to show the death and re-birth of the entire universe, only to come resting back to the apparently un-important grieving of one character.
‘The Tree of Life’ is, in part, a very loose adaptation of the Book of Job, in loose thematic content if not in overarching narrative: hence the film’s opening epigraph, God’s response to Job: "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation...while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" I’ve tended to see that argument as a dodging of the question – ‘how could you do this to me, a good man – how could you allow the death of my family, the destruction of my possessions, the disease of my body?’ countered with, ‘well I don’t have to explain myself to you, I can create worlds and galaxies’ (though if one was in that position perhaps one might feel the same way – power corrupts, and all that…). As a statement, it possesses (doesn't it?) a rather hectoring, bullying, braggart quality. In part the problem may be that faced by Milton in ‘Paradise Lost’ – when theological arguments such as these are placed in the mouth of a personalized God, a God who functions as a quasi-human character in a story, they come to seem unfair, petty, vindictive. Malick solves this problem by refraining from presenting a personal God (he probably doesn’t believe in that kind of religion anyway), instead offering up some sense of a diffuse life force (which is why the ministering female angels in heaven, like spa attendants, is a bit of a misstep) that animates creation, a wider context which doesn't strip life of its value, but which allows us to accept things in the over-arching scheme of things, without becoming completely passive or fatalistic because of this (the obvious comparison here, for me, would be Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Starmaker’). The dinosaur scene, though it caused titters and a walk-out in the screening I attended, does succinctly illustrated Malick’s theme of ‘the state of nature’ vs. ‘the state of grace’ - here, the dinosaur chooses not to kill his prey but to love and leave to live (as, towards the end of the film, Pitt's sacking allows him to reconcile with his son and to realign his priorities). Perhaps it’s too crushingly obvious, too sentimental – Malick seems happy to attribute destructive impulses to humans, but rarely extends these out to the natural world, which remains paradisal and idyllic. And yet, as Jason Bellamy suggests, the implication that the dinosaur’s first impulse is to violence, and that the act of kindness, or curiosity, whatever motivates it, is something beautiful and unexpected – the birth of morality as a sudden, un-explained transcendence of the kill-and-be-killed struggle for survival – is more than just romantic naivety: "What I find interesting is that a filmmaker known for romanticizing nature would equate it with violence. It seems to me that Malick is implying that violence is our default setting, and that those who can rise above nature, rather than succumb to it, are extraordinary."
This choice between ‘nature’ and ‘grace’ may be laid out too baldly for some, but its weave into the film’s main, 1950s Texas segment, is generally fairly subtle – yes, the mother (grace) may be a little (more than a little) idealised, but she isn’t perfect (for instance, the suggestion that she doesn’t really stand up to the father’s disciplinarian awkwardness, working instead by stealth to educate her children along a kinder path), while the father, for all his anger and his antagonism, is capable of feeling great love for his family, and of feeling great sorrow and loss and guilt at not being able always to express this love. In part, it’s the social expectations of the time that cause him to follow ‘the way of nature’ – given the way that a combination of social Darwinism, consumer lifestyle pressures, the American dream, and imperial/ Cold War ambition would push a moderately-successful 1950s businessman into macho poses and roles (though always wedded to good ol’ family values; hence the conflict, between the love one is supposed to feel for one’s family and the suggestion that one can do and be anything one wants, superior to the inanities of this domestic sphere). Violence (as in the scene where Pitt tries to get his children to hit him, teaching them to fight and be ‘real men’), a go-getter mentality, shading over into envy (Pitt’s complaints about never having quite enough money, whilst eyeing a neighbour’s larger house and grander lawn), pushing your way to the top at other’s expense, even hate; these compete with kindness, a sense of wonder and satisfaction (rather than “find[ing] reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around[…], and love is smiling through all things”), obligation to others, love. Music might be considered as on the side of love, culture, developed emotion and sensibility, etc; thus, Pitt’s abandonment of a possible musical career is a betrayal of his better impulses (though music still allows him to commune with his son, as they play a piano and guitar duet). And yet, some element in the music – the pursuit of technical perfection, of being ‘the greatest’ – shades into the ambition of Pitt’s other career; hence, telling his eldest son a story about Toscanini’s perfectionism, recording sixty-five takes of a piece and still not being satisfied – always, “it could have been better.” Music becomes the pursuit of an elusive technical goal, rather than a communal sharing or an expression of social life – ‘culture’ that can be tucked away into the side-boards of a pristine suburban home as if it were bone china or candle-holders – the stentorian sounds of Brahms blaring out overbearingly during a family dinner. It can be possessed, locked up, compartmentalized (the son’s invention of DJ-scratching, making a record of pristine piano music turn woozy, skip and swoon out of its temporal lock-step, is at once an expression of freedom and a frustrated realisation that this world of ‘culture’ and creativity is lost to him, as it is not lost to his musical brother); similarly, that scene early on, when a young son strays over the property boundary into the neighbour’s yard – never mind that they are both part of one long, un-broken stretch of grass, that the line the father frantically points out – ‘look, see that line, see that line’ –isn’t actually there, that there are no such lines in the natural world. Property, owning things, locking them up, is something that runs completely contrary to the children’s fluid world of play, running through the neighbourhood, through the woods, over the road and into the garden, the camera swooping and diving with them (or that scene where Pitt leaves on a business trip and the children and their mother run riot through the house, chasing each other round in a kind of joyous parody of his disciplinarian bouts of fury). ‘Perfect’ suburban houses become prisons, little tins of family argument, husband vs. wife: we witness one such dispute in the family home; and then, a few moments later, a similar tiff through the windows of the next-door house; but even the wide-open spaces that one might expect to provide a liberating contrast, filled as they are with modernist light, cathedrals of technology and ‘progress’, lack something – either they are packed with stultifying industry and noise (Pitt can hardly hear the news that his son’s died over the roar of aircraft engines), or they are empty, gleaming, vacant (as in the vertiginous sky-scrapers in which Penn works). This may be overly simplistic – there is, at times, a real sense of excitement at the possibilities of technology (Pitt’s an inventor, with a long list of patents, his job allowing him to travel to China by air, and to boast of this to his children); and it’s hard not to feel awed by the shots of sky-scrapers, their glass-and-metal interfaces between open sky and light-filled interior, those exhilarating tracking shots along enclosed walk-ways, those moments when the camera assumes the position of a human, craning their neck upward at these nearly-unbelievable structures. Even having Sean Penn mope and mumble in the foreground does little to diminish the power of such spectacle, and whether this is Malick becoming enticed by what he sees at the expense of intended thematic treatment, or whether another example of his contradictory attitude towards progress, nostalgia, nature and technology, one is struck by the fact that he could just as easily turn his eye to city-scapes (à la Francis Thompson’s ‘New York, New York’), as to leaves and trees and grass and curtains blown by the wind.
Moving on – the film’s treatment of violence, appearing as it does in a context much less explicitly concerned with historical conflict (in comparison to ‘The New World’ or ‘The Thin Red Line’), comes across as that much more convincing for being ‘domesticated’; I’m thinking of the scenes in which the gang of boys go around pretending to shoot guns and launching firecracker-strapped frogs into the air ('do you think he flew to the moon?'), as a kind of innocent and naïve, though perverse, experimentation ('it was an experiment', one of the boys actually says – the way killing a fly is a mixture of sadism, curiosity and play); an implicit mirroring of a more knowing adult impulse to destruction (the cold war, the space race, the development of biological and nuclear weapons, Dr Strangelove territory). It’s crucial to the film that this is rejected (whereas, in ‘TNW’ and ‘TTRL’, natural paradises were destroyed by fire and bullets and battle) – thus, after the elder brother betrays his younger sibling by making him put his finger over the end of a BB gun, then firing it, he offers him the chance of revenge – hit me with this piece of wood – which is eventually rejected, sulking and sorrow turning to smiles (just as he refuses to hit his father earlier in the film) – anger turns to softness, distrust and confusion to reconciliation and acceptance. This worms itself into the film’s very structure: the staging of small crises and reconciliations within a larger scale – layers within layers (the ‘framing devices’ of (1) the mother coping with her son’s death, (2) the grown son coping with the death of his brother, (3) the ‘nature’/ ‘grace’ conflict, and the way all these envelop and bracket the smaller incidents of a 1950s childhood). We have levels and parallels both within the smaller narrative and the cosmic one.
This sense of the small in the large, and the large in the small (‘everything is connected’ – hence the closing shot of a bridge) is present even in the way the big bang/birth of life sequence is put together – ‘large-scale’ footage of galaxies exploding, forming, expanding, and microscopic details of single-cell organisms reproducing, both possessing a similar awe-inspiring effect – the wonder of the very large and the very small – that Blakean notion (“a world in a grain of sand”). Significantly, Doug Trumbull, who worked with Malick on the visual effects for this sequence, was consciously working with the home-made legacy of avant-garde film (even going so far as to ‘sample’ an excerpt from Scott Nyerges’ short ‘Autumnal’) – the DIY feel, the physical quality of things, like the way Stan Brakhage constructed his great meditation ‘The Text of Light’ entirely from filming through ash-trays. Trumbull:
"We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be. It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.”
Trumbull’s sequence is, perhaps a film-within-a-film, an avant-garde light-show which Malick has somehow managed to smuggle into an ostensibly Hollywood picture – though I would argue that it is still central to the whole picture’s philosophy and thematics. Certainly, its level of abstraction (though we do know vaguely that its images are supposed to ‘represent’ something – galaxies, nebulae, great explosions of gas and energy) is far greater than that of the 1950s sequences, which are sometimes quite rigorously put-together. Many of the details in the main part of the film cluster around particular elements – earth, air, fire and water, in fact. Thus, we have scenes of planting and burying in the soil; of gazing up to the sky, watching the wind billow out curtains and leaves; of lighting candles for the dead (as well as for a general sense of loss, of not having used life to its full potential); and, most frequently, scenes of water – spraying the lawn with a garden hose; baptism; bathing; children wading next to a local river; dinosaurs encountering one another millions of years before, perhaps on the same river; more generic shots of crashing waves; the origin of life in the oceans. If trees provide the film’s central metaphor, or image-cluster, then water is what enables trees to grow, enables life to begin and to expand and to flourish; this perhaps explains the decision to set the afterlife vision on a beach (half-way between land and sea, evocative in some sense of la creation du monde – and after all, remember: “Then he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb.”) Thus, the birth scene, where we witness a boy swim out of a water-filled bedroom (home/womb) – out into the world – might seem rather clunkily metaphorical and unnecessary if subjected to subsequent scrutiny, but in the flow of things it's audacious and resonant, given the film's preoccupation with home and with environment and with dwelling; given too the way it draws out of the child-hood home a sense of first engagement with profound issues, vaguely or incompletely articulated because this is how that first engagement tends to unfold – an intuition, an inkling, an uncertain thought, subsequently elaborated, fantasized upon, speculated about.
One could say that Malick has been building towards this film, if not for the entirety of his career, at least in his most recent pair of Hollywood films – ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘The New World’ both share the obsession with trees and water and light – and ‘The Tree of Life’ surpasses, and synthesizes, these films, giving their obsessions an evolutionary and scientific *and* religious basis, water as there at the origin of creation, as having a deep connection with the human physical organism that is not merely pretty or fanciful or vague or simplistic. The film’s approach to science is perhaps more imaginative than rigorously scientific, but that’s to fall for the too-easily re-inforced notion of ‘the two cultures’ that still hangs over much discourse today, to the detriment of both art and science. (Similarly, the way that ‘The New Atheists’ condemn religion out of hand, blanket-brushed out of ‘rational’ discourse, the extreme end of the Enlightenment project (which, as Adorno and Horkheimer noted, concealed within itself the very barbarism it sought to overcome) – and the alliance of this approach with the right-wing politics that increasingly dominate western discourse (for instance, the way that ‘Islam’ is considered a monolithic entity in a way that Christianity never would be, and thus reduced to a simple ‘other’ or enemy (or the way that this is done with religion in general, in some circles – hence, Richard Dawkins’ proposal to exploit religious civil war in Africa as a means of promoting secularism). ‘Observable facts’, figures, statistics, impartiality, objectivity – as if these could exist absolutely, outside the realm of human interpretation and the framework of particular social and political systems and processes – as masculine certainty, as the American Cold War mentality once again, trumpeted against ‘effeminate’ questioning or uncertainty or problematisation.) Consider the work of artists like Brakhage, Jim Davis, or Jordan Belson – the way that their films could be at once ‘fanciful’, mere plays of pretty light and shadow and son-et-lumiere effects, and at the same time could get the heart of cinema itself, to image-making, shadow-play, our relation to light, notions of space and time and the nature of consciousness and perception – at once handmade and possessing much in common with the most advanced scientific hypotheses – should prove an inspiration to both artists and scientists, and a chastisement to those too-simple binary positions which seem to be many people’s default settings in the ‘educated western world.’ While Malick works in more of a ‘mainstream’, narrative mould – his films (or ‘The Tree of Life’, at least) existing, perhaps, in a happy medium between the non-linear, the abstract, the purely visual, and plot, characterisation, etc – the spirit that infuses this latest project does recall that of Brakhage, Davis, and Belson – if not while watching the film, certainly in thinking about it after – and the fact that he has managed to, not so much smuggle, but trumpet this into Hollywood (this film doesn’t pretend to be something other than it is, something easily marketable or bankable) – should thus be some cause for celebration.
The titters and the walk-out that occurred during the screening I attended – and the fact that so many critics see fit to mention the dinosaur scene as if it made the whole film fail or seem ridiculous (though that absurd/ brilliant balancing act is perhaps what makes this such a great film) indicates something important: you have to be with Malick on this one – to go with him the whole hog, to walk with him where he choose to go. Afterwards you can analyse and criticise and decide whether you do or do not want his vision (and wanting it doesn't mean that you have to agree with it or buy into it or be converted or whatever it is people are afraid of – he's not a polemicist, not an evangelist, not a preacher, but an explorer, exploring some ideas and sensations that he no doubt holds very personally, his belief system, well not system, his core beliefs, up there for you to see) – but you need to go with him for the duration of the film, for two-and-bit hours, try to do that. It's not as if I'm a total devotee; I find ‘The Thin Red Line’ and ‘The New World’ rather lacking if I'm honest – perhaps it was seeing this in the cinema that made it into such a grand and provocative thing; something about the communal experience and the sense of someone really wanting to explore important issues, and not in an overly schematic or hectoring way – yes, saying ‘these are big things’ – life, death, the rest of it – but grounding them in the mundane or the brief observed detail, in observations of life as it is lived. After the walk-outs, fairly early in the film, everyone else sat through to the end, through the credits, until the projection had completely finished, not because of any particular point of interest or polite sense of obligation, but because it felt like part of the experience, it *was* part of the experience, like those long silences at the end of a piece of improvised music, the held collective hush that film could be, the mass communion rather than the bashing into submission with noise and gizmos and sex and violence mashed and then the nervous laugh or the loud guffaw and the trooping out quick-fixed, superficially elated. Last word goes to Roger Ebert:
"Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life's experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer "to" anyone or anything, but prayer "about" everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine."