I’ve spent a few days chewing over Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and reading most of the reviews I could find. Normally, I don’t write about movies because I don’t have much to say, and if I do, there’s usually someone who has said it first or said it better. And while I can’t objectively attest to the latter qualification, I’m comfortable with the former.
For starters, it was a stunning, beautiful, sweetly plaintive movie that contains, I think, Brad Pitt’s best performance to date. It is long, indulgent in the best way, and worth seeing for the cosmological cinemascape alone. Its narrative can be difficult to follow, and there’s one cinematographic miscue in the much discussed “dinosaur scenes,” but beyond that, the high-flying images are stunning without being stupefying. The movie’s 1950’s Waco Texas is evocative of that imaginative time and place when America, with its dignified trousers and buttoned-down wisdom, swaggered through the world with nuclear crew cuts and horn-rimmed know-how, a decade before it pulled the full-monty in all those burning South Asian villages, in front of all those burning South Asian villagers. It was, for middle-class white men, a domestic Eden, and Malick imagines it vividly.
And that, my friends, is where my “movie” review ends, because this is only a movie by conventions of ken, rather than substance. This is a visual essay that has more in common with Martin Heidegger than it does Stanley Kubrick–though there are a couple of shots that beg comparison with the late cinematic genius.
Malick has a deep association with 20th century continental and analytic philosophy, as evidenced by his studying for a Ph.D in Philosophy at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in the 1960’s. He didn’t complete his degree because of a disagreement with the famous philosopher, Gilbert Ryle, and made his transition to film only after translating one of Heidegger’s post- Being and Time essays–“The Essence of Reasons”–and spending a brief time writing articles on spec. As a side note, anyone who can manage a serviceable translation of Heidegger has some bonafide intellectual chops–I tip my hat to you, sir.
While it would be a mistake to flatten out Malick’s achievement by claiming that he is a “philosopher with a camera,” it wouldn’t be a mistake to say that Malick is engaged in that most difficult of tasks–what Heidegger calls, rather seriously, thinking. The kind of thinking that is the birthmark of genius, and to which no genre lays special claim. Some writers think–though not many. A few poets. A handful of filmmakers. A couple of academics. Occasionally a musician. The random monk. The barely above water bohemian. Maybe an artist here or there, but in general, we satisfy ourselves with warmed-over ideas. Other people’s thoughts, the trappings of familiar phrases and accepted opinions form the backbone of most arguments and disputations. To be fair, this sort of intellectual shorthand is indispensable for living in a community. If we all walked around spewing virgin logic, or one-shot bon mots, it would be tough to lay down strip malls, pass along recipes, or plan carrier routes. I offer no lamentation for thinking’s rarity; I only remark upon it.
Malick, however, is trying to think. “The Tree of Life,” an obvious reference to the edenic tree in the Garden, is so obvious, in fact, that no reviewer I found made mention of it. There are many such trees in world literature: the Bodhi tree, Yggdrasil, the Mayan ceiba tree and the Ashvatta tree of Hinduism. The film is filled with trees and tree-like structures. Canyon walls box the sky; glass and steel masterworks finger the same; a repeatedly shown attic, ever shrinking, ends in a single paneless window that frames again the sky. The sky. The sky. The sky! It’s the cinematic version of Stein’s attempt to rescue the rose from cliché–“a rose is a rose is a rose.” The sky as a framed reference, and also aspiration, is all over the film: the father is involved in designing or maintaining airplanes, hard to say which, and at one point the mother points to the sky and says, “that’s where God lives.”
But the sky requires context. Without the earth, the heavens are just an abyss. The movie attends to this as well. The father gardens and teaches his son the finer points of lawn maintenance, and then, of course, there are the long contemplations of the earth’s formation and ultimate dissolution. But the movie attempts to do more than set up the simple dichotomies of nature versus grace; although, a voiceover contemplates that very dichotomy at the movie’s beginning. In order for sense to be made of the world, an intermediary is needed, a third term in the otherwise annihilating collision of opposites–a bridge tethering one to the other.
The sky is only revealed by the tree–the tree as consummation of earth and sky. Importantly, the tree is a metaphor, not a symbol. Symbols are dead and static; metaphors bridge gaps–they “carry over” meanings. They are alive and humming, breathing, thinking. Metaphors build cities and write epics. In a sense, we are metaphor. We are not the simple accumulation of dumb matter, nor are we the accretion of subtle spirits, nor are we both. We are the gap that “carries over,” one to the other. We are the leap. The exchange. The nothing between. The pregnant zero. In attempting to think, Malick’s associations leapfrog didacticism, as all thinking must, and is necessarily opaque because of it–some things just can’t be clearly stated.
The movie, as a kind of tree, contemplates the up-lifted gaze–our bipedal inclination to consider the firmament, to wonder about the outthere. The tree is the joining of earth and sky–roots in the earth, majesty in the heights. There are metaphors for crossing into eternity because there are trees that cross from earth to sky, because there is urging from one to the other. Heidegger likes to talk about “bridges” in this way, but it amounts to a similar understanding. Interestingly, one of the last shots in the film is of a color-drained Golden Gate Bridge–an homage to Heidegger, perhaps?
Yes, the film makes a mighty effort to turn the cogitative wheels, a bold and noble effort. But it fails. I hesitate to say it, since I’ve only seen the movie once, but the near biblical sermon that serves as the movie’s coda is a real let down, and causes me to question a more nuanced reading of the Pitt and Chastain characters. The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, so clearly embodies the idea of grace that at one point in the film we see her floating in the air; she is also so obtuse about the Freudian dynamics at work between her children and their father that it borders on malicious. This, however, is tempered by the fact that the father is harsh, but not unapproachable–the father loves his sons fiercely, and let’s them see it. The interplay between the two characters led me to believe that the film really was thinking through the difficult tug of war between compassion and judgement that defines the formation of a healthy human being. The end, however, calls that into question.
I became suspicious in the depiction of the birth of the mother’s first child–Sean Penn’s character. The mother is clothed in white and the room bathed in light. It is a pristine but soft environment. And even the actress’s contractions are more like rapturous curvatures of the spine than bite-down-on-a-stick grimaces of shut-the-fuck-up-and-give-me-morphine pain.Undoubtedly, 50’s medical personnel dressed in white, and liked there delivery rooms well-lit and sanitized, but nowhere was there the blood and shit common at every birth. This cannot have been an oversight on Malick’s part.
And when Malick envisions the end of the earth–not the end of time, by the way, as many reviewers have suggested, at least not the cosmological end of time–we are left with a Revelations-style afterglow, in which the dead are lifted up from their graves to reunite on a shiny beach in some southern latitude. Sean Penn’s character goes so far as to follow his 12-year-old self into the great family reunion in the sky, reinforcing the film’s faith in the arrow-like verity of youth: born straight and true, it is the world that makes us crooked and worn. It is this Romantic idea of innocence as truth that, unfortunately, grinds the film’s thinking down to a conversant cliché.
Perhpas Malick was not able to follow the thinking any further, passed the transcendental formulations that burden most American art–at least the art that aspires to more than simple incarnations of social exclusion and pain. We’ve had artists who have accomplished more than these simple formulations; indeed, what Malick accomplishes is a caricature of their great achievements. Whitman’s impossible polyamorous democracy. Emerson’s obstinate opacity, and rejection of simple formulations of the Self. Wallace Stevens’ snow men. Melville’s savage revelation that faith in progress is a material monotheism, and his mad rejection of the One in favor of the many. Ellison’s existential home run.
“The Tree of Life” deserves to stand in line with the works of these great men, but towards the back, where the kids not quite tall enough to ride the cannon have to wait forever. Maybe Malick will birth another work that cuts near the front. I’m hopeful. “The Thin Red Line” is a few inches taller for sure. But, although this one had a promising youth, it lost its way, and got stuck hanging out with the wrong crowd.