Thursday, April 2, 2015

Thoughts on The Tree of Life

"Nature vs. Nurture"
"Where God Lives"

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:"
The Merchant of Venice Act IV, Scene I

Federico Fellini telegramed Stanley Kubrick (they were a mutual admiration society) after viewing 2001: A Space Odyssey: "You made me dream eyes open."  Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life is like a dream, composed of memory and emotion, originated in the very building blocks of life, and aspires to transcendence and Hope. And like a dream, there's a very good chance you'll come out of it wondering what the heck that was all about. 

The film is polarizing, nontraditional in its aims and techniques of story-telling (but not outside the realm of human consciousness—it is not in any way random) with unquestionably beautiful images, but arranged in a way that might confuse those who expect a movie to be the standard filmed melodrama (oh, there is drama here, painful, raw drama) and nothing more. But, The Tree of Life makes you dig deeper into the images and the way they collide and coalesce with each other to find meaning. It's what any film demands, of course. But, by relying on the experience of the film, rather than standard direct narration and dialog, it might leave some on the shore.

There's been a lot of ink spilled (or pixels pulsed) about linking the Kubrick and Malick films as far as reach and style, but it's a wrong analogy.* If anything, The Tree of Life resembles the time-lapse documentary Koyaanisquaatsi, but with a dramatic thread—a personal dramatic thread. Sure, it's mostly done with images, with precious little dialog, substituting (as Malick tends to do) an inner monologue, frequently whispered, of the participants, devoid of the drama on-screen, but expressing the emotions, the doubts and the delirium of the process of living. Kubrick's film had a dramatic structure in four acts, where The Tree of Life is like the scatter-shot approach of thinking—a "Blink" movie, if you will—that jumps from present day to 1950's Waco, Texas family life (where the majority of it settles), and (because it's all part of the process of "getting there") from the Origins of Life to The End of Time.** Where it does compare to Kubrick's epic is the desire to find a satisfying middle ground on a basic, polarizing but far-reaching—even unanswerable—philosophical argument; just as Kubrick answered "Is Man risen from the Earth or dropped from heaven" with "a little bit of both," so Malick tackles the old "nature vs. nurture" question, and comes up with the same answer.
"The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of 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."

So says Mrs. O'Brian (Jessica Chastain) early on in The Tree of Life and it sets up the warring dynamic—the dichotomy of each of us, who are composed of the same matter (the same way of breathing, the same way of carrying the oxygen we need to our hearts to be sent to our brains) can think so differently and individualistically, with our own precious memories, our own way of doing things, our own sense of right and wrong, our personalities, made up of the combination of male and female genes, unique to us and us only. When we stop the process of being, we die, and are changed back into the basic chemicals from which we started. The spark of life—the Soul—well, we all have our ideas about that.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings."

It's tough to say where The Tree of Life starts, but I suspect it starts as a dream, as Jack (Sean Penn), eldest son of the O'Brian clan, contemplates the death of his brother. He is an architect, builder of great chrome and glass wonders, but as he contemplates the situation he operates in ("The world has gone to the dogs.  People are greedy. Things are getting worse.") and ponders himself and his family ("How did I lose you? Forgot you?"), his images move out of the cold constructions of the world, and into the more organic thoughts of his mind, represented by a beach-desert at ocean's edge, and we are made witness to his memories, contemplations, brief startling fantasies—his mother floating in front of a front-yard tree, himself escaping the door of a flooded house, Sleeping Beauty in a glass casket in the woods, and sequences contemplating the beginning and end of Life. The adult Jack expresses his frustration with the process by avoiding his wife (Joanna Going)—a trait he picked up from his father. His father, a frustrated musician and inventor, is ambitious and tough...sometimes abusive.  He's definitely Nature. His mother is sweetness and light, caring, giving, but weak. She's Grace. And both parents, both aspects, "always...wrestle inside me.  Always you will." And as he remembers in sharply, interruptively edited sequences his childhood, he wrestles with the Instinct and the Reason, as each dominate and recede in a confusion of needs and emotions.  Malick was given something of a miracle in young Hunter McCracken, who has a face the camera can read without him having to do more than think, as he goes through jealousy, shame, the temptations of power, the realization for humility and responsibility, the need for his parents' attention, and the bitter realization of their flaws, as he grows older, a child fettered by rules and regulations that he rebels against.
And the LORD God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground--trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Genesis 2:9

The Tree of Life begins with a quotation from Job (38: 4,7 "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth ... when the morning stars sang together?") of God's rebuke of Job's questioning his suffering. This provides a context for the film, but no answers. I don't know that there IS a definitive answer to what The Tree of Life is all about (I don't know what Life is about, either!). In that way, we are all reviewers of Malick's film, and I don't think anybody's reading of it...or feeling of better than anybody else's.***  Or could be, short of Malick coming out and explaining it and that won't happen. ****  It's an immersive work, and our viewing of it informs it. Just as our views of religion inform our visions of God and of life. This film couldn't be more personal in its impact and interpretation, but it is also challenging. For me, the film flew...or maybe the better word is "flashed", and it spoke to me, very personally and very specifically, about the process of "becoming," in both senses of the term—of the journey to the goal of fruition and the reflection (in a positive way) of something beyond us. At the same time, I can also see a casual movie-goer throwing up their hands in frustration about "what it's all about." It depends on whether you want answers or questions. And one suspects the film, and film-maker, are asking the exact same question.

We're all on the same page, all a part of the audience, all seeking something of it...even if we are only moved by the images that we see.  That response is equally as valid as trying to write a term paper.

What's it all about? My response was overwhelmingly positive to it's journey from grief ("Brother. Mother. It is they that led me to your door"—the film's first lines) to acceptance ("I give him, my son"—it's last), from Nature to Grace, and that journey and my response to it couldn't be any more personal or unique than yours. 

But, it did inspire a thought that came rushing to my head—something entirely new and appreciative: Maybe we humans pursued religion as a modern-day cosmologist pursues a Unified Theory—just because we needed Some One to thank.
It would be nice—really, really nice—if, come Oscar-time, this film, that dares to come to grips with such universal themes would be awarded Best Picture. But, in the Grand Scheme of Things, it doesn't really matter. Life goes on.
...and exactly who is watching Whom?

One of John Boswell's "Symphony of Science" videos that addresses the same themes, 
and even uses similar imagery as The Tree of Life.

* I've also seen The Tree of Life categorized as "Science Fiction," which couldn't be further from the truth.  If we wanted to stretch the envelope to something beyond "Drama," it would be "Religious Film."

** It's aspirations may be a little too far-reaching, like a James Michener novel.   Michener, who was given the nickname "Windy Blowhard" in this household, couldn't write a cook-book without starting it at The Big Bang.  (or maybe that was Carl Sagan, who famously said "To cook an omelette, you must first create the Universe").  Still, when was the last time you saw a film attempt something like this?

*** And I haven't felt that way about a film for a very, very long time.

**** And that might be a good thing.  Part of the charm of The Tree of Life is the mystery of it, as the line goes in A Serious Man, one must "embrace the mystery."   A Cliff's Notes explanation of it would diminish it, somehow.  And I haven't said THAT about a film in as long a time.

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