It’s not just cool and pretty like a lot of the shots in ToL are, but it also has a weird ominous flavor because of the crimson palette and the odd juxtaposition of a lightless geometric object against organic clouds and soft sun.
Can you make a case for how that as much going on aesthetically as the other still? It’s pretty, but there isn’t as much to it.
In 2001, we have a symbolic, yet highly fictional, representation of a monolith, which in the novel, is explained as an alien artifact that has attained “pure energy.” The film doesn’t even attempt an explanation of what the monolith represents, so what substance is inherent in that image?
In TOL, we have the origin of the Earth in a less symbolic way. So we have, in 2001, the spark of humanity originated from aliens and in TOL, the world originated…in a more scientifically-sound way. Which one is “better?” That boils down to preference; they’re depicting the beginning of a new age in different ways.
As for the underlying meaning, the TOL screenshot above is showing the “dawn of time” … and again, in the 2001 shot, we’re staring at the backside of a giant alien monolith…in an admittedly (by Kubick), though not purposely, ambiguous film.
Also, let’s remember that Trumbull was involved in the special effects of both films…
All that being said, I don’t see why one film has to be better than the other. They’re both good. 2001 has the advantage of coming out 40 years ago or so and is an established classic, so it’s reputation is already solidified in history. TOL doesn’t yet have that luxury.
“In ToL we get an impressionistic tizzy at the beginning of a family in Texas followed by an extremely drawn out celestial interlude with no real transition between them.”
OK. . . but, cinema has been using elliptical editing for probably as long as there have been films, so I’m not sure a lack of transition in and of itself is a valid criticism. Even within the more conventional narrative part of this film, there’s a lot of action and information that is elided. The connection may not be immediately apparent, but I don’t think it’s formally incoherent, though:
Job ("Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation . . . ") + creation and evolving life scenes (i.e. the “foundation” being laid) + “He died when he was 19” & “Where were You?” (paralleling Job’s questions to God) + the ending:
@Matt and Deckard —
I think there are key differences in how I approach film.
You two seem to be more focused on thematic content, and your response to film is less intuitive than mine.I believe that most of what makes great art happens on an intuitive level. That intuition can be broken down into analysis later, but whether someone agrees with the analysis mostly has to do with their subjective reactions. I think it’s very unlikely that someone who hated ToL will read some dude’s discourse on the movie’s themes and it will change their mind about the film. It won’t change the fact that they cringed at the floating woman or the group hug on the beach, or that the celestial interlude pulled them out of the film, or that the dinosaurs look silly and artificial, or that the voice over seemed trite, or that the mother’s character felt simplistic.
The thematic stuff is interesting to talk about but it doesn’t have much to do with a film’s quality because quality is mostly based on execution, and whether you consider the execution good is subjective.
For me film reviews or analyses aren’t about arriving at objective truth on a film’s greatness but instead drawing out likeminded people who perceive the world in similar ways, who are hopefully likeminded enough to reach each other through words. If somebody experiences the world in a similar way I am more likely to agree with their observations on a film because our subjective reactions and aesthetic values will be in synch.
I can tell from reading your comments that we probably perceive the world in very different ways, as we seem to respond to very different things in films. That’s fine. But it doesn’t make your opinions any more sound. They’re still based on subjective reactions.
These are the questions I’m most concerned with when evaluating a movie:
1) Are the characters believable within the world that the filmmaker has constructed? Are they given the proper amount of nuance? If they’re more stylized does that fit with the rest of the film?
2) Is the world of the film internally consistent and coherent?
3) Is the film well structured, paced and edited? Does it build suspense, sooth or disorient the viewer in the right places?
4) Is the film engaging? Unlike a lot of Mubians, I believe that a good film is always engaging.
The “thematic stuff” is what gives a film meaning for me, so as forewarning (though I’m sure it’s no secret by now), that’s what I tend to talk about when art is concerned.
I don’t think it comes down to how “intuitive” a person is though (“intuitive” implies that one knows something without any outside influence, and knowing has nothing to do with a subjective opinion), what Matt and I (among others) are doing is explaining the thematic content to back up our subjective opinion. Yes, everyone has a subjective opinion, but merely stating one’s opinion without supporting it with what’s happening on-screen and the meaning behind what’s happening on-screen is merely an uninformed opinion (not to imply you do not support your views, I’m not the one to judge, you can determine yourself if you’ve adequately supported your opinion). But ignoring or finding thematic content to be unimportant is not interpreting a film intuitively, but superficially, because the meaning behind the images is being dismissed. And I’m not criticising a superficial appraisal of film, it’s just something I don’t understand and cannot relate to.
4) Is the film engaging? Unlike a lot of Mubians, I believe that a good film is always engaging.
I don’t know anyone who enjoys a film that doesn’t engage them (sounds kind of ridiculous to me), but I’m sure such people exist, yet another interesting aspect of humanity.
We all find different aspects of the film-going experience “engaging,” but in different ways. I was engaged in this particular film because there were a lot of references (thematic content, more or less) that I recognized (and later realized in hindsight). If I didn’t recognize those references (or if those references did not exist) I probably would’ve found the film to be less interesting, but these are not references such as Tarantino uses, referring to pop culture and cinematic trivialities, but to humanity and human history (and I’m not just referring to ‘history’ in the sense of the birth of the world, but the ‘history’ of the human experience).
The film reaches beyond merely itself (not many films do and conventional films very rarely do) and extends into a much more complex world … but its reach is still focused on the human condition which only the best art concerns itself with. I’m engaged by the human condition; not by suspense or disorientation or sentimentality or contrived scenarios – these are conventional concepts that one can find whilst watching any Academy Award-winning film and do not interest me in the slightest. That’s my view anyway.
So, anyway, I’m glad you explained what interests you about film and I apologize if I came across as snide in my earlier posts. I think I’ve said all I can say about this film, but will continue to check back on this thread to read others’ contributions.
Ugh, guess I have to read this whole thread now. Just back from seeing it. I thought it was neither good or bad, but the music was very trite and overwrought. The “creation” scenes (specifically the ones with the jelly-like crimson blob in the center of a black background) looked almost EXACTLY like Ken Jacobs’ Nervous Magic Lantern performance that I saw a few months ago in NYC….. exactly like the images from that.
Just to add a couple of things to what Deckard’s already written:
“You two seem to be more focused on thematic content”
Not sure what you mean here . . . that we’re interested in what the film is about?
“That intuition can be broken down into analysis later, but whether someone agrees with the analysis mostly has to do with their subjective reactions.”
Well, yeah, everybody starts from a more or less intuitive grasp of a work and the analysis stuff comes later, so I don’t think we’re so different there. Yes, there aren’t fully objective standards, but I don’t think that assessing a work or an analysis of a work is limited to pure subjective values (if this were true, any interpretation of a film would be as good as any other), though. Within any field, there’s a certain amount of intersubjective agreement regarding values, and this provides a bridge between the personal and the shared.
I will no longer be posting to this thread.
I saw this film in a theater in Los Angeles.
I enjoyed it. I view it primarily as a visual narrative put to a beautiful score. I understand that the lack of dialogue will alienate many audiences who are used to a more traditional narrative.
Even so I found the narrative pretty mainstream. This is no where as esoteric as Enter the Void. I respect the film because it tackles big questions and is probably more concerned with evoking a feeling then an actual parable. The pacing of the film itself is somewhere between hypnotic and extremely boring. The comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001 are not exaggerated.
I think only time will tell for the film community responds to The Tree of Life. If anything I hope it will be remembered as a great reminder that a film can be a great visual narrative. This film is more a keen to an experience than a traditional “movie”.
Two Thumbs Up
I see the whole Penn sequence as a continuation of this questioning as Penn reflects back on the different aspects of his mother and father, and his own relationship with his brothers. His story relates directly to the voice-overs, as he is questioning his past, trying to make sense of it.
I’m partly with you, although, for me, I don’t know if he was questioning his past so much as struggling with the fact that he was more like his father than his mother; and that this may have somehow contributed to his brother’s death—or at least lead to some cruel treatment of his brother. Then again, I don’t think I have a real good grasp on the character and the way it relates to the film as a whole.
Malick is trying to say that the meaning is all around us, trying to show the mystery of creation/the universe transcends all human aspirations or expectations.
In some ways I think this is part of God’s response to Job—as a way to address why evil and pain occur, especially to good and/or innocent people. But I’m not sure how this relates to Jack (Penn’s character).
Well, not the kind of explanation that Job wants and apparently thinks he is entitled to. At the risk of oversimplifying things, it’s a humbling. The implication of what God says to Job is that Job is only able to see things from his extremely limited point of view. He wasn’t present at the moment of creation, he’s not privy to the grand scheme of things, so he can’t possibly understand.
Yeah, I agree with this—although Job is not only not privy, but he is incapable of understanding all of these things. Moreover, he is utterly feeble and insignificant compared to God. (Of course, what applies to Job applies to every human being.)
Right, I think, and also specifically to establish a dialectic between the “God’s eye” view of things vs. the “Jack’s eye” view of things. What is acheived at the end of the film, I think, it something along the lines of what Panikkar terms “tempiternity”
I think this is interesting, and I want to hear more about this. First, when you say “dialectic” between God’s view and Jack’s, do you mean that film seeks to contrast the two and the get to the point where seeing the two together allows us to gain a different type of perspective? Or…?
The future of the today is not tomorrow; it is in trespassing the inauthenticity of the day in order to reach the to-day in which paradise abides. The meaning of life is not tomorrow but today.” Tempiternity is a feature of “transhistorical consciousness (which) attempts to integrate the past and future into the present; past and
future as seen as mere abstractions”.
OK, this isn’t very helpful. What does “trespassing the inauthenticity of the day” mean? Does he mean that we don’t really exist in the present—that we’re distracted by the past and future instead of being truly mindful of the present (Zen)? And by integrating the past and future into the present, does he mean living mindfully in the present, but also understanding the present, partly in relation to the past and future?
And if that’s a correct reading(!), how does that relate to the film?
Once asked the secret of life, he responded ‘make the puzzle bigger.’ Malick makes the puzzle bigger, and so expands our sense of the intricacy and beauty of the world . . . .”
That’s too deep for me.
And Matt’s quite right, Job cannot comprehend god’s explanation of why he must suffer …
Not to quibble, but Job does comprehend God’s response. He is contrite, humble and knows that God knows more than he does and is far greater. When I said that God doesn’t give Job an explanation, I meant an explanation that gives specific reasons for Job’s suffering (he loses all his wealth, family and ends up with a terrible skin disease, despite being extremely faithful and obedient to God). At the end of the book, Job and the reader still have no idea why God allowed all of this to happen, but that doesn’t mean that Job doesn’t understand God’s response.
…indeed, TOL also does not offer a comprehensible explanation of why grace is overshadowed by nature, but it’s a truth nevertheless.
Interesting. I’m interested in hearing the reasons you think the film is saying this. My sense is just the opposite. It depends on what you’re referring to when you say “grace” and “nature.” (Do you mean feminine versus masculine?)
So, I’m always hesitant to go into an over-explanation of a film just so someone else doesn’t have to think as deeply (or whatever the reason is, it amounts to the same thing) … it’s actually much more beneficial for one to watch the film (not just this one, but any film) and arrive at these conclusions/connections on their own – much more satisfactory and challenging.
I completely agree with this. However, there’s a point where a viewer just needs help. There are many films I don’t really get that I’ve tried to understand. At some point, the people who do really understand the film should make a case for it to help the people who don’t—imo, anyway.
Why did the creation section need to be that long given that the same point could have probably been conveyed in a shorter span?
That would be like saying God should have responded in a few verses instead of taking four chapters (a little over a hundred verses) to respond. The questions God asks Job (and really it’s just a series of questions involving the creation of the world, natural forces and the living things) are very similar; He could have stopped at one chapter and you would have gotten the point, but it is much more powerful as is, imo.
I’m assuming you don’t agree with my interpretation of the function of the creation sequence in the film. Is that correct?
What unique insights into a boy’s coming of age does the film give?
I don’t think this is a key point of the film, although I’m not real confident that I understand the film completely just yet.
You two seem to be more focused on thematic content,…
FWIW, I believe this is a very conceptual/theme driven film. Imo, the film tries to deal with issues via a poetic approach. So, focusing on the thematic content is essential.
For me film reviews or analyses aren’t about arriving at objective truth on a film’s greatness but instead drawing out likeminded people who perceive the world in similar ways, who are hopefully likeminded enough to reach each other through words.
I think good film criticism judges a film on its own terms. That means that it determines how good a film is largely on what it’s about and what its trying to do. So good film criticism will give the reader an interpretation of the what the film is about and what’s it’s trying to do. Then it will show whether the film has succeeded and how well it succeeded in relation to what it’s about.
I don’t think #1 is really relevant to this film because I think the characters are intentionally uninteresting. I’m not sure how to describe this, but I think they’re more important for their visual qualities, as representations of ideas. Think of a photographer who tried to convey abstract ideas and used people in some of his/her photographs. The look of the people, the body position, the spatial relationships to other things in the photograph, etc.—these things would be more important than the actual people and who they are. I think Malick uses a similar approach in this film (and in The New World).
As for #2 and #3, I think you have to know what the film is about and what it’s trying to do before you can answer these questions. Right now, I think I disagree with you about what the film is about.
Here is my attempt to explain why I dislike certain parts of ToL. I have the impression that my approach is somewhat similar to KATE2.0’s, more intuitive, perhaps.
I really like those shots along the line of the family drama which seem to be shot from the baby’s eyes (or the kids’ or the mother’s eyes…) with its limited field, low sight line, skewed angle… As the film’s narrative loosely are the memory and stream of thoughts in the mind of a character, this approach in which the camera is the viewer’s eyes certainly visualizes in the most direct and sensual way what he sees in front of his eyes and in this case also what’s in his mind. I call that successful execution.
However, this is not the case with the universe and evolution sequences. The reason those sequences don’t work for someone like me can just be as personal and intuitive (?) as “I have never seen / experienced the universe and the dinosaur the way Malick filmed them and I don’t feel connected”. I think visual representation of realistic setting (either vast landscape or tight domestic realm) on screen, although certainly limited, still resembles largely what we are able to see and feel in it. The presence of a human figure or a human-related object in an image (much like in architectural model) immediately gives a sense of scale and relationship between the human subject and the surrounding, at the same time, establishes a connection between the viewer and the space he sees. As several here mentioned “greatness”, I think the ability to perceive scale is extremely important. Also much of the film is childhood memory, the ability to relate and self-project is equally important and this varies from person to person. Reading Bob’s post, I can see how a background in astronomy, physic does bring more interest in other sequences to him. I’m also an atheist and religous reference usually annoys me. All this results in me being struck most by the childhood theme more than anything else in the film.
Now more on the universe sequence, I have never been on an Apollo mission, I have never REALLY seen the universe and the earth from the view point of the astronaut. What I have seen of the universe are some Discovery Channel footage on TV which are essentially small, framed images that can’t sufficiently express the grandeur and infinity of the universe. The universe sequences in ToL, despite its beauty, are exactly that. Given the scale, it’s also impossible to plant a person / human reference in there which means there exists a certain sense of detachment. What about the dinosaur? Needless to say, I have never seen one in real life, not even a skeleton. It doesn’t help that I have little interest in dinosaurs in general and don’t identify myself with them at all. The result: I can’t connect.
I actually feel the same with 2001. I also dislike the outer space scenes, the evolution scene to a lesser degree, but truly like the sequence in which the astronaut walks through the bedroom, we see through his helmet and hear his breathing. Similarly, I like the shot from 2001 from KATE2.0 more than the one from ToL. In terms of composition, it is more interesting to me and seems to be shot from a more personal viewpoint.
In the end, it may be the limit of the viewers who can’t stretch imagination to that extent but it may also because perception of certain things (e.g. grandeur, greatness…) does require a corporal experience that the format of this film does not allow.
As for the juxtaposition of the family drama along with the universe and evolution sequence to express the bigger theme, is it necessary? Actually I don’t mind if it’s not necessary and believe it’s up to the artist to decide. However, I do mind that it mostly bores me. The reason for that I’m still not sure but I tend to turn (again!) toward the absence of concrete human reference in the latter, giving me a hard time to really connect the two apart from apparent word association.
I wanted to say something about the voice-overs. On one hand, I can understand Kate’s criticism of them. The one about “mother and father wrestling within” did seem like over-explanation. Also, the wording seemed wasn’t very elegant or poetic (although it did remind me of myths from indigenous peoples.) On the other hand, I’m not sure I would have known that Jack wrestled with this issue without this voice-over. When I think about the overall film, my sense is that the voice-overs function as hints or sign-posts to the visuals. The film wants to convey ideas and address issues via moving images and sound—which aren’t necessarily straightforward—that is, they require interpretation, just as a painting or photograph would, and the voice-overs function as guides, in a similar way that titles of paintings and photographs also guide the viewer’s interpretation and understanding of the work. So while the writing of the voice-overs may be clumsy at times, I’m not sure if they’re too obvious. If they were, I don’t think were I don’t think there would be as much disagreement about what the film is about. (For example, the reference to Job at the beginning really makes clear, imo, the whole purpose for the creation scene. The quote is not a voice-over, but it functions in the same way I have been describing.)
I also want to go back to something that Matt said about the voice-overs and how they differ from earlier films by Malick. I agree with him that the VOs in the earlier films seem to assist with the telling of the story—or at least they function within more narrative based films (the first two films). The VOs also come from “third person” narrators. By this I mean that narration doesn’t come from Kit (Sheen) and Bill (Gere)—the troubled, characters. In later films, the VOs shift to these central characters and—as Matt mentioned—the VO comment on their thoughts, and I would add that their VOs function to comment on the images that we see more than help a narrative.
What is interesting to me is Malick’s shifting approach over time. For example, he seems to be moving away from narrative devices to more visual-poetic ones to express his ideas and concerns. Moreover, my sense is that over time, Malick has moved from an exterior, arm’s length approach to a more interior approach to the issue, and it’s an interesting development.
The ideas and issues that seem important to Malick and the way each film attempts to deal with them is also fascinating. For example, one of the ideas that seems crucial to Malick is the individual (humanity in general, perhaps) that harbors violence and aggression—the Cain-like figure that is cursed, lost and a kind of outcast—maybe partly due to this violence and aggression (or maybe being cursed and lost leads to this violence?). This character seems important to Malick, and I get the feeling he identifies himself with this type. What’s interesting is that in the earlier films, he takes a more arm’s length approach. The film’s deal with the character from an external perspective. The films also just seem to be show the characters in a narrative framework. The later films move into the character’s interior—although I’m not sure TTRL does this. The character may not exist in that film and film may attempt to deal with violence and aggression in a broader more abstract way. Moreover, in TNW, the character, in the form of John Smith (Farrell) is secondary to Pocohontas, so it really doesn’t address the issues. In ToL, Malick seems to put this character type front and center. My feeling is that ToL is a culmination of the films that preceded it, especially _Badlands, Days of Heaven and The New World. It is as if he’s using the poetic style of TNW to address the issues in Badlands and DoH. In a way, it reminds me of a similar progression of David Lynch’s film—namely, the way Mulholland Drive was the combination of Blue Velvet and Eraserhead—a synthesis and distillation of Lynch’s interests in noir, nightmares, the weird and avant-garde. Actually, I think Lost Highway was the first attempt at this synthesis, which wasn’t quite successful; until MD.
A part of me feels that Malick isn’t entirely successful in this attempt at synthesis, either—partly because there seems to be two strands that don’t seem to fit together perfectly (but I could be wrong about that). I get the feeling that he’s one or two films away from putting it all together.
@Jazz and Deck —
I’m having a hard time verbalizing it, but I feel like we’re talking past each other. Maybe the difference is that I’m more concerned with the formal aspects of ToL and how it relates to the viewer’s experience. For that reason I’m better able to relate to some of the points HA.NG makes above.
This is why I bring up issues like pacing, framing, the transitions between different sections. I think these are just as if not more relevant than the movie’s themes because they directly affect how well the themes are communicated and the viewer’s emotional experience of them. A movie can bring up interesting ideas and still be a failure.
Here’s a point I made earlier that no one has really responded to. I’ll elaborate on it more below.
The driving scene in Solaris meshed with the evenly slow pace throughout the film. With its depiction of Tokyo’s futuristic highways it effectively bridged the gap between the natural scenes on Earth at the beginning of the film and the space section later. I’m sure Tarkovksy realized that it would be jarring to cut from lush, green Earth to the inside of a sterile spaceship. In ToL we get an impressionistic tizzy at the beginning of Texas family followed by an extremely drawn out celestial interlude with no real transition between them.
But you’d agree with me that there’s a point past which if that narrative is drawn out for too long it diminishes its emotional impact? Imagine if the celestial scene were twice as long as it is now. So where do you draw the line? This is what I mean when I saw so much of whether you like a film comes down to subjective reactions to how it’s executed. For me and many others this section was simply too long and the transition between the family story and celestial imagery was really jarring.
HA.NG touched on some great points that just clarified for me part of why that section pulled me out of the film. It’s about the way the shots in the celestial sequence are framed in contrast to the framing in the rest of the movie. The framing of the shots in the beginning of ToL is quite subjective and personal. The child-like low angles, frenzied camera movements and extreme closeups give us the sense that we are watching somebody’s memories directly projected onto the screen.
Then there’s an abrupt shift in framing to the extremely objective/detached nature photography straight off the Discovery Channel with smooth, mechanical camera movements and even pacing. There are no objects to scale these images and no sense that they are being filtered through human eyes or even imagination. That might be fine in another film, but it’s an extreme and SUDDEN shift from where the movie began. I think this is where a lot of people, myself included, get pulled out of the film. After enough of this, we start to feel like we’re watching another film, maybe a nature documentary. We feel completely disconnected from the film’s beginnings and the family drama. I believe that it’s important to keep some connection going, and Malick loses it. I recognized intellectually the connection between the creation/Job story and the family drama, but I didn’t FEEL it because of the way the sections were framed and paced.
In 2001, Kubrick’s framing is very impersonal throughout, even in the POV shots through the astronaut’s eyes. So the transition to space imagery doesn’t rupture our connection to the film. It feels appropriate. Also, he and Tarkovsky in Solaris have the advantage of narrative context for their space imagery. The stories are set in space after all.
In other words, I think ToL really suffered from not having a visual or narrative bridge between the subjective family drama and the much more objective space/nature section.
I hope this clarifies.
Malick has moved from an exterior, arm’s length approach to a more interior approach to the issue, and it’s an interesting development.
But in another sense I think his films have become more detached, ironically as he’s tried to broach more universal ideas. Less human. The emotion in Badlands is more indirect and subsurface, yet I connect with it more deeply.
I made this point in another thread, but I often feel like emotion is better conveyed in film when approached from an oblique angle rather than head on. It may be because as people we have a natural tendency to read others and interpret their emotions between the lines rather than taking what they say and do at face value.
That does clarify your position and I appreciate you taking the time to explain your position.
I think we must go back to our overall interpretation of the film—because everything stems from this. If we don’t agree about this, then our discussion about the specifics—the scenes, the details of filmmaking, etc.—won’t really be relevant, imo. So, I think we have to talk about our interpretation. I believe you mentioned that the film’s message is “life goes on; God gives and he takes away.” I don’t agree with that and I don’t think that’s what the film is about. Or do you think the film is about something else?
Anyway, to respond to the different points in your posts, I have to go back to my interpretation of the film—namely, that at least one big part of it involves dealing with the problem of pain and suffering and God’s response to this; in other words, the subject matter of the book of Job. Again I would recommend reading Job 38-42; Good News Translation or if you prefer, the King James version. Imo, reading and understanding this book—especially this section—will help clarify the questions and criticisms of the scenes.
Let’s take the length of the celestial sequence. I really think the film attempts a cinematic translation of the Job chapters 38-41. These chapters are supposed to demonstrate the Gods awesome knowledge and power (contrasted with humanity’s ignorance and weakness)—and it attempts to show this through the knowledge and creation of all things. Sure the sequence could have been a little shorter, but I don’t think five or less minutes would be appropriate at all. Again, the reasons relate back to my understanding and interpretation of the scene.
My interpretation of the scenes also affect my perception of the transition between the family scenes and the celestial ones. Yes, they are jarring, but that is part of the point—i.e. to contrast the difference between God, who is all powerful, all knowing, etc. and people, who are the opposite. God is so much greater that we can’t begin to understand questions like why evil exists and why bad things happen to people. To question God, as if He is somehow incompetent or unjust is arrogant and foolish—when you realize how great God is and how limited we are. That is part of the point of Job, and the sequence in the film.
I also thought that the voice-over helped make the transition, too (again, functioning as a guide to interpreting the visuals). I believe the mother asks a question about why God took away her son. And then we get the celestial sequence which is God’s response. For me, the voice-over was enough to make the transition. It’s abrupt, but no less abrupt than the transition sequence from the bone to the spacecraft in 2001. Indeed, that might be even more jarring. It’s a huge leap, but it’s exciting and it works. Imo, the same sort of thing happens in ToL. Why did you take away my son? Then you have this awesome display of creation—btw, a narrator reading chapters 38-41 over the celestial sequence might work well, but that, for sure, would be too obvious and heavy-handed.
But in another sense I think his films have become more detached, ironically as he’s tried to broach more universal ideas. Less human.
But I don’t think this is meant to be an emotional film—not through dramatic storytelling or acting anyway. Any emotions evoked by the film occur via the images and music and in this way it functions more like a painting or instrumental music would (i.e., not via dramatic acting and storytelling). But, overall, I think this is largely a film about ideas and concepts convey cinematically—so there is a detached quality, but what’s wrong with that? Suppose a film wants to be more about ideas than emotions, does that mean it failed in some way? that it’s not a good film? Personally, I don’t think so.
If I may be so bold, I think what’s throwing you off is the presence of actors and some dramatic scenes (which also occurs in TTRL and TNW). But I don’t think the films use these characters in conventional ways. Think of the way Bresson uses actors and dramatic situations in his films and the way he refers to actors as models. I think if you view the the actors in these last three films as models (not necessarily in the exact same conception as Bresson), then it might help
“I think this is interesting, and I want to hear more about this. First, when you say “dialectic” between God’s view and Jack’s, do you mean that film seeks to contrast the two and the get to the point where seeing the two together allows us to gain a different type of perspective? Or…?”
Well, considering the way the film is structured, the ending of the film suggests that Jack’s perspective has somehow been reconciled with the sort of cosmic, ahistorical perspective we get with the creation and prehistorical sequence, and also, I think, the ending of the film. The exact nature of this, though, is not immediately clear. Basically, yeah, I think one way of thinking about it is as a sort of Hegelian dialectic, so that the real “plot” of the film is not simply the Waco story, but a dialectical progression, the result of which seems to be a sort of transhistorical consciousness.
Something sorta like this: Raimon Panikkar’s The Cosmotheandric Experience:
“For Panikkar, the human adventure on Earth cannot be separated from the adventure of the whole of reality. For centuries we have seen ourselves as superior to the rest of reality, but now we find ourselves in a universe that, as described by modern science, seems to ignore us completely. Today, though, we are starting to realize that “our relation with the Earth is part of our self-understanding”. “Heaven and Earth share the same destiny”.
Modern culture has been through an “experience of excruciating isolation and solitariness”, but now it is starting to rediscover the interdependence of all that is. “All the forces of the universe… are intertwined”, to the extent that “individualistic souls do not exist: we are all interconnected, and I can reach salvation only by somehow incorporating the entire universe in the enterprise”. We must concentrate on “bringing to completion the microcosm that is Man, both individually and collectively: mirroring and transforming the microcosm altogether”, with “full participation in the realization of the universe”. We are called to overcome the dualisms of our habitual, desacralized experience of reality: “the chasm between the material and the spiritual and, with this, between the secular and the sacred, the inner and the outer, the temporal and the eternal”. Every person is “a knot in the net of relationships… reaching out to the very antipodes of the real. An isolated individual is incomprehensible… Man is only Man with the sky above, the Earth below, and his fellow beings all around”.
The first part of The Cosmotheandric Experience, “Colligite Fragmenta: For an Integration of Reality”, describes “three kairological moments of consciousness” and formulates the intuition that kosmos, theos and anthropos cannot be conceived separately. “The cosmotheandric vision does not gravitate around a single point, neither God nor Man nor World, and in this sense it has no center. The three coexist, they interrelate and may be hierarchically constituted or coordinated… but they cannot be isolated, for this would annihilate them”.
The second part, “The End of History” analyzes the threefold structure of human time-consciousness by distinguishing a nonhistorical consciousness, a historical consciousness, and a transhistorical consciousness that is quietly arising in our time. The book concludes with the epilogue “Anima Mundi, Vita Hominis, Spiritus Dei”, stating at the outset that “the Earth is alive” and inviting us to overcome the dichotomy between so-called “nature-mysticism” and “theistic mysticism”, for “the entire reality is committed to the same unique adventure”.
Here’s a point of discussion I had with the people I saw the film with: when do you suppose the final scene of the film is suppose to happen? And why return to that flickering light thing from Thomas Wilfred’s “Opus 161” after that?
I think I get the basic idea, although I’m still fuzzy on some of the concepts. But how do you think this concept applies to Jack? Do you agree that his struggle represents one of the key themes/ideas in the film? We should also openly discuss what we think that struggle is. As far as I can tell, Jack is struggling with these two forces—specifically one of them—the aggressive, maybe natural part of him, seems to dominate the more loving, gracious part of him. He also seems conflicted about the death of his brother—partly because he envied his brother for having musical gift and therefore a stronger connection with their father and maybe even because his brother didn’t experience the same conflict that Jack did. Is your interpretation of Jack and his struggle along the same lines?
If so, I’m not sure if the Jack’s (humanity’s) main problem is Western, dualistic thinking versus a more Eastern thinking (i.e., reality is found in relationships; that people and things cannot be understood in isolation; mind-body split is an illusion, etc.). Or do you think that the dualism presented in the film, represented by the father and mother, is a false idea that Jack comes to realize? If so how does the desert/beach scene demonstrate this?
Btw, my take on the desert/beach scene is that it basically was a way of representing the enlightened and healing that occurred within Jack. (Btw, I don’t know about anyone else but the scenes immediately made me think of the desert sequences in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.) I don’t know what exactly happens during those scenes. Jack sees his family and his younger self. (Is this the making the past relevant to the present?) We hear his mother give over her son to God….I’m not really clear on what this all represents, though. Oh, there’s also those “beings” that sort of dance around the mother. My sense was that they were spirits, angels or representations of grace that were helping the mother.
In any event, I thought those scenes occurred in Jack’s present life—during the scenes of an older Jack as his office, riding in the elevator.
As for the flickering light, off the top of my head, I would say that represents God or maybe it’s allusion back to a cosmic perspective.
Here’s an interesting roundtable on the film printed in Cinema Scope.
Which writers do you agree with or disagree with the most?
these parts nailed it for me, especially the bolded phrase in the last bit:
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.)
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.
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 (exactly!), 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.
I, for one, am glad I felt something from all that “coffee-table photography book” imagery.
“As far as I can tell, Jack is struggling with these two forces—specifically one of them—the aggressive, maybe natural part of him, seems to dominate the more loving, gracious part of him.”
Well, I think there’s also the matter of Job’s question to Yahweh, but basically, yes that seems to be a big part of it . . . although there are some details I haven’t yet worked out to my satisfaction. For young Jack, there seems to be some kind of ontological struggle between what is embodied by Jack’s mother and what is embodied by Jack’s father: “Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”
I wonder though, how exactly we’re supposed to take Mrs. O’Brien’s “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.” The films seems to end up suggesting that the nuns may have been wrong about having to pick one over the other . . . maybe there’s a way to live out both.
I would have to qualify that though, by pointing out that I’m not sure that this is exactly the same issue facing older Jack. Here the conflict seems to be centered on two things: 1. the unexplained death of his brother, and 2. visually speaking, a sense of isolation within modern architectural (very unnatural) spaces:
which contrast with the sunnier, earth-tonier, lens-flareier world of his childhood:
just saw it last night and i haven’t gotten to read this thread yet (so i may be echoing the cinematic assessment of others) but my impressions are thusly: hells yes.
Some comments about the lines from the article you quote above:
1. I want to reiterate the importance of focusing on what this film is about. There’s a line in the second quote—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?—that indicates to me that the person really hasn’t come to a conclusion about what this film is about yet or if it’s really about anything. I actually sympathize with his/her reaction, but how about backing up the feeling with some evidence and well-made argument? Explain why the film is a “muddle” and why the beauty has no purpose; otherwise, my impression is that you don’t really understand the film yet—and that weakens the criticisms raised.
2. Imo, the film is a poem—and like many poems it is rich and complex and requires quite a bit of time and effort—even repeated viewings—to fully digest and understand. I think getting a good handle on the film is going to more time and effort than many other films. Maybe the people in this thread or in the article have put in time and effort, but based on some of the comment so far, I don’t get that sense. In other words, I feel like judgments are being made a little too quickly. For example, the passage you quote don’t mention what the film is about (or reasons the film really isn’t about anything)—they suggest to me that the writers a) don’t really know what the film is about yet; b) they don’t really think it’s important to know. For example:
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 (exactly!), 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.
Whether this point is valid or not depends on whether or not images have some larger meaning or purpose. For me, the writer has to be present well-thought out reasons and analysis that there really isn’t any meaning behind these images or even a larger purpose for putting them together the way Malick did. This relates back to what the film is about, imo. To me, the montage sequences can seem like “flipping through coffee-table photography”, but poetry can create the same sensation (reading through nice sounding words and images). My point is that it’s going to take some time and effort to decipher the meaning (or determine if any meaning is there)—especially in those montage sequences.
3. 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.
I’d like to hear reasons Malick has to be interested in conveying emotions. Must all films convey emotions?
I wonder though, how exactly we’re supposed to take Mrs. O’Brien’s “the nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace.
Before we address this question, I think we have to identify what Malick means by “nature.” (I think grace is more obvious.) I’m not clear at all what he means by nature. On one hand, Malick seems to associate nature with that which is violent and harsh—i.e., something seen in more negative terms. On the other hand, he seems to contrast nature with what is man-made or what we think of as human civilization. So sometimes I get the sense that Malick associates nature as something a part from humans—either as a contrast to that which is man made or as something that stands in for God or something spiritual; at other times, I get the sense that nature (and images of nature) represent the more fallen aspects of man (violence or a Darwinian qualities). (Btw, I’m drawing on all of Malick’s films, not just ToL.)
The films seems to end up suggesting that the nuns may have been wrong about having to pick one over the other . . . maybe there’s a way to live out both.
Well, how about suggesting an argument (based on the film) for this view—assuming that nature signifies the opposite of grace.
I’m glad you brought up modern architecture. It does seem significant (the house of the older father and mother are also very modern), and my initial sense is that it serves as a contrast between man-made and natural world. The tension between these two worlds and the reconciliation between the two seemed to be a crucial idea in The New World and Malick might be addressing it again in this film.
Or maybe, as you suggest, modern architecture represents modern man’s isolation (as a product of science and technology, which is a product of a Cartesian worldview) as opposed to nature, which is about interrelationships (harkening back to your points about the Panikkar’s ideas). So maybe the question is how can modern man find connection and realize that relationships are crucial, that things cannot be understood in isolation. Just some rambling thoughts off the top of my head.
“Before we address this question, I think we have to identify what Malick means by “nature.””
Yeah, I agree. Sometimes “nature” seems to be the natural world:
while other times it seems to be associated with the “of the world” values of the father (something more along the lines of “human nature”?):
“my initial sense is that it serves as a contrast between man-made and natural world. The tension between these two worlds and the reconciliation between the two seemed to be a crucial idea in The New World and Malick might be addressing it again in this film.”
Yeah, there’s definitely something like that going on, but I think it’s complicated somewhat by the fact that the childhood home seems, for lack of a better phrase, in harmony with nature, at least in comparison to the urban scenes with Jack as an adult. Also, some of the more severe natural settings that we see adult Jack in before he finds his way to the beach:
(can’t find a still, but wasn’t he also shown walking on a lava flow or something?)
suggest a kind of duality in nature as well . . . these landscapes seem to in many ways more closely resemble the modern architectural spaces than they do some of the other natural images in the film.
I agree that nature might mean the natural world or it might be associated with worldliness—mainly a sense of aggression and assertiveness—a dog-eat-dog ethos. But which is it? or can it be both?
I think it’s complicated somewhat by the fact that the childhood home seems, for lack of a better phrase, in harmony with nature, at least in comparison to the urban scenes with Jack as an adult.
Yeah, I think there is something to this. I sense Jack’s childhood home/community feels more connected—not just with nature, but in general (the neighbors and neighborhood kids. There’s a scene where Jack’s father talks about respecting the property line between the neighbor’s yard). So the modern architecture of Jack’s parents when they’re older as well as Jack’s office and the city seems intentional and it might represent isolation and disconnection. Still, how does this all add up with the rest of the film?
Also, some of the more severe natural settings that we see adult Jack in before he finds his way to the beach:..suggest a kind of duality in nature as well . . . these landscapes seem to in many ways more closely resemble the modern architectural spaces than they do some of the other natural images in the film.
Interesting. I never considered the duality in nature, but you might be on to something there. My sense is that the spare setting of the desert/beach wasn’t really a commentary on or expression of nature; rather, it was just a setting for the abstract/dream sequence. At this point, my feeling of that whole sequence was more like a modern dance piece or abstract art—something to represent the reconciliation or harmony that Jack (or people in general) are able to find. (I recall the “lava flow” sequence you mentioned, but, to me, I thought of the Badlands in South Dakota (or is it N. Dakota?). It didn’t look like any old lava field that I’ve seen.)
I saw this film today. It was brilliant. When it got to the end of the credits, I got distracted for a second and missed the final bits of writing. I was looking for the humane society bit that says that no animals were harmed in the production. The “animal harm” looked quite fake, so I wasn’t really worried, but I always feel better after seeing that line. I came home and looked it up online and couldn’t find anything. I now feel paranoid. Can someone affirm that that line is there and, if not, is it just because the humane society didn’t monitor the film?
Thanks. I know that mubi isn’t about such questions, but I wanted to ask on imdb, but it was full of idiots discussing how much the film sucked.
A little sidenote: While we whitness the birth of the universe, Malick plays Zbigniew Preisners Lacrimosa. In the mid ’90 Preisner an Kieślowski planed an opera together wich should, with Preisners words “trace the story of a life”. But as we all know Kieślowski died in 1996 and that very Opera became a Requiem. Preisners very personal and sad goodbye to his dear freind Kieślowski.
So yeah “the duality in nature” is really somthing to consider with this film since in my view it’ says quite a lot that Malick plays such a tragic piece while we see the beginning of all life right in front of our eyes.