“That’s an odd observation, because it a lot of ways it’s Malick’s least composed, least visually fussy film (at least since Badlands)—natural light, handhelds, and all.”
But to me it has an air of self importance and grandstanding that his 70’s films didn’t have, and part of that has to do with the way the visuals ‘announce’ themselves.
“I felt this to be the platonic movie about everything, about The One, the creator, and therefore about absolutely nothing, about negativity, about a strong, anonymous light with no particular characteristics. Pure abstraction, not enough strong or strange images to make this a reliable film about the inner world of a real human being”
“But he forgets that the sublime, which is achieved in his earlier films, is a mixture of ecstacy and pain, an aesthetic of imperfection and ugliness.”
“I like things that are a little stark and rough around the edges, or at least on the ‘gloomy’ side of the spectrum if it must be ‘perfect’.”
Gee you know it’s almost like Brad Pitt’s character wasn’t in the movie and it wasn’t about the characters feeling guilty about hurting each other like they were doing through most of its two hour plus play length.
Wow, I guess this is the place and point in time I can admit to watching ToL.
I think the hype and stuff I read before watching must have killed the experience for me. When it was over there was dial tone, hum, maybe a slight buzzing. This film did nothing for me.
And I get the part about dinosaurs evolving into Sean Penn – that does make sense.
I fast forwarded to the dinosaurs, then after they had been and gone, i fast forwarded to end credits
I only watched the experimental films he sampled, then read the script he gave Sean Penn.
“But to me it has an air of self importance and grandstanding that his 70’s films didn’t have”
I get this in terms of the grandiosity of the subject matter and narrative arc, but not with the visual style of the film.
I finally got around to seeing this tonight. I was completely enthralled until about the last 15 minutes or so. As soon as all of the lead characters gathered on the beach the film nearly lost me. It just felt oddly disconnected and goofy when compared to the rest of the film, which was very captivating. I loved the bits in the beginning traveling through space and time. So moving. The imagery was just breathtaking.
But the final scenes just felt contrived and sappy. I can’t describe it in any other way. Perhaps another viewing when I’ve let it settle a bit.
The middle portion of this movie was pretty excellent, discounting the idiocy of the whispered bits of narration. But much of the rest of the film just made me want to go and punch Terrance Malik in the face. The worst of these moments was when Sean Penn walked through the door on the beach in heaven. To be fair, this film had some huge goals, and if it had been able to achieve the connections with the birth of the universe and our own lives etc. I would have loved it, but many of the moments had me thinking about the people that made the movie and how long I could stand to be in a room with them. There’s a lot of talent behind this however, and the middle portion of the film when it featured a clear narrative was great. But just too many eye-rolling moments for me to praise it.
I don’t think the beach scene was meant to be anything but a fantasy of Penn’s character—his hope for being with these people in some sort of afterlife. That he is suddenly back on the sidewalk makes this fairly obvious, IMO.
His character is, I think, on a search for meaning, hoping to find a way to make it all make sense. Of course, he can’t do that, so he moves into a fantasy.
I don’t think the beach scene was meant to be anything but a fantasy of Penn’s character—his hope for being with these people in some sort of afterlife. That he is suddenly back on the sidewalk makes this fairly obvious, IMO.
It could very well be a fantasy, but going back to the sidewalk doesn’t necessary seal the deal, imo. Consider that the film makes huges leaps through time—from the beginning of the universe, to the end and everything in between. (Before the dream sequence, I believe we see the dying of the earth or universe.) So the fact that Penn’s character returns to the sidewalk doesn’t mean the beach scene is pure fantasy.
Also, the scene may not be a fantasy (i.e., a wistful vision) so much as a representation or symbol of the way Penn’s character finds peace and reconciliation with all the issues that vexed him in the past (i.e., his hostility towards his brother; his brother dying, etc.)
I skimmed the article. The Cain and Abel motif isn’t so surprising. In some ways, I think one could argue the idea goes back to Badlands and Days of Heaven. Malick does seem to be wrestling or wondering if some people are cursed or favored for no good reason. This also ties into the struggle with violent, destructive impulses that his films often deal with.
Yeah, the themes fit in immediately, and clearly.
Though, I can just imagine how this additional component would have made the film just that more difficult to swallow for people that already had issues with taking even just damn dinosaurs seriously.
Jazz: “Also, the scene may not be a fantasy (i.e., a wistful vision) so much as a representation or symbol of the way Penn’s character finds peace and reconciliation with all the issues that vexed him in the past (i.e., his hostility towards his brother; his brother dying, etc.)”
I could readily accept that, and don’t really see it as that different: fantasy vs. symbol.
That this whole film may be in Penn’s character’s head has occured to me: a combination of memories, imagining stories he’s been told (both from scientists and family members), and thoughts of the after-life.
I don’t think i would ever watch this movie again. The first half was a little ridiculous to me. The second half was pretty heavy and stuck with me for awhile. The children’s acting was incredible. i also thought Brad Pitt did a good job. The narrating was pretty cheesy for me and kept me from thinking this was a great film. It seemed really choppy and indulgent at times. Overall i feel pretty torn and don’t know if I liked it or not.
I just came upon this analysis of THE TREE OF LIFE on Screenwriter guru John Truby’s site. I tend to trust his breakdowns more than some of the others. His site (and regular emails) are often spot-on, although he IS trying to sell you books and software. MUBI folks might want to sign up for his emails.
Here’s his take on THE TREE OF LIFE:
The Tree of Life – Masterpiece
Want to solve the mystery of Tree of Life? This is one of the most original films to come along in some time, but most people don’t know what to make of it. They suspect something important is going on, but they don’t have the experience to know what it is. The secret is in the genre and the story structure.
One of the best techniques for standing above the crowd in professional screenwriting is combining two genres that don’t normally go together. Writer-director Terrence Malick has done just that, connecting the Masterpiece form with the Memoir-True Story.
To really see how and why Malick creates this bizarre hybrid, you really need to go back to his 1978 masterpiece, Days of Heaven. The story is so primal it seems Biblical: a man pushes his girlfriend to marry a dying farmer to get a piece of his fortune. This moral tale takes place in a magnificent but incredibly harsh natural world, in the turn-of-the-century American West, complete with betrayals, revenge, fire and locusts. Sections of the film are connected by fast-motion photography of plants growing and the earth moving through its daily cycle, like a nature documentary. And the whole story is told through the memory of a 13-year-old narrator.
Notice that Malick’s basic technique in Days of Heaven is to set up a very top down Biblical story while also setting up a very bottom up view of man deeply embedded in the natural world. This combination of Biblical with naturalistic is unique in modern film, but it was a hallmark of late 19th century authors like Thomas Hardy. The combination seems like it shouldn’t work because the Biblical and the natural feel like opposites. But in fact Malick shows that they are both grand systems that try to explain how human life works.
This background from Days of Heaven points up the key story technique Malick uses to combine Masterpiece with Memoir-True-Story in Tree of Life: he sets up an extreme contrast between vast story frames and incredibly short scenes.
A mainstream Hollywood movie usually focuses on a few characters in some generic present, and tells its story through 50-70 scenes that average 2 minutes apiece. Tree of Life places the characters within massive frames of nature and history, but tells its story in 200-300 scenes that are often without dialogue and no more than a few seconds long.
These frames include the creation of the universe, the evolution of life on earth, including dinosaurs, the Oedipal battle between fathers and sons, 1950s suburban America and ultra-modern, present-day city America.
Malick’s use of huge story frames isn’t without precedent. Most famously, in James Joyce’s story of a boy growing up in Catholic Ireland, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, hero Stephen Dedalus writes in his geography book: “Stephen Dedalus, Class of Elements, Clongowes Wood College, Sallins, County Kildare, Ireland, Europe, The World, The Universe.”
As in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, these story frames are not just categories by which Malick defines his characters. They are also systems, and they quietly but inexorably lock the hero of Tree of Life, along with his family, within a powerful slavery.
Of all the many frames in this story, the main one is the “storyteller,” oldest brother Jack as an adult, played by Sean Penn, who remembers his childhood upon hearing of his younger brother’s death. If we recall the discussion of genres and story shapes in the Anatomy of Story Masterclass, we can see why this storyteller technique is the second key to combining the Masterpiece genre with the Memoir-True Story in Tree of Life.
The desire line, the spine, in a Masterpiece story is always some version of “finding a deeper reality, contrasting time, perspective and system.” For Memoir-True Story, it’s “to find the meaning in one’s own life.” Using his brother’s death as a trigger, Jack recalls his boyhood and in the process tries to make some sense of the meaning of his own life. Because this is a memory story, Malick is free to play with the past in any order he chooses, and show time frames that vary from the evolution of the universe to a memory only a second long.
After setting up all these massive frames of time, space and character in the early part of the film, Malick then goes in the opposite direction, the sensual, to tell the main story. One effect of the 200-300 short scenes is that the viewer gains a sense of flow, process, and becoming at every level of life. Just as Van Gogh’s paintings of objects are simply packages of lines of force, the objects here, from bursting stars to desert rocks, have energy literally flowing through them.
The combination of sensual images with short scenes becomes a different kind of story language, a visual poem, and much of the film plays like a silent movie. This is Malick’s cinematic version of stream of consciousness, far more believable and emotionally real than most voice-over narrations that play over standard-length scenes of dialogue.
No matter how short most of these moments are, each is an event, an action which, when strung together in sequence, gives us the story of a boy growing up in America. The father is a harsh, sometimes physical disciplinarian while the mother is a gentle ethereal woman with infinite love for her three boys. Our hero is the oldest of the three, and he does some things to the middle brother, now dead, that show a jealousy, a nastiness, and make him feel guilt now that he remembers those actions as an adult.
Over the course of the story, the outside world, the killer systems, invade the boy’s life. The father loses his job in the factory, along with his belief in the American ethic of working hard to rise to the top. And the boy has to leave the house that he grew up in.
Unlike his father, Jack has grown up to be a successful man in business. But the modern skyscraper environment he lives in seems a major loss compared to that house of his childhood. That’s why he remembers. And that’s why he mourns, not just for his dead brother but for a community, a fleeting moment in the span of a human life when he was free and loved and full of potential.
As this naturalistic story plays out, the second strain, the Biblical, the spiritual, comes through in the scenes as well. First by the fact that these aren’t just brothers in their actions. Our hero is Cain to his brother’s Abel, even if he didn’t finally kill him. Then there are the voices of the heavenly choir that play throughout. There’s the use of voice-over where we hear the beliefs of Mother and Father. And of course there’s the communal ending.
In Jack’s mind, they are all together again at the seashore, walking through the water as requiem music plays and the ethereal choir sings. Father carries the dead son. And Mother says, to death, to the universe, to God, to something, “I give him to you. I give you my son.”
I wish I could say I loved this incredibly ambitious film. But I didn’t. My response to it was similar to what I’ve discovered about Citizen Kane: everyone respects it as one of the great films of all time, but I don’t know a single soul who loves it.
If you want to take a shot at writing a masterpiece of your own, it’s instructive to see why this occurs. Story frames, whether of time, point of view, or system, are fundamental to advanced storytelling. They are what allow the audience to see deeper and to see bigger than they can with their own eyes.
But there is a great danger. The more frames you place on a story, the more you literally back the audience away and drain emotion from the experience. It’s like placing a window frame around a window frame around a window frame around a character. You can see intellectually what the person is doing, but finally you just can’t feel it.
I’m not sure how the genre(s) or story structure reveals the secret about the film. And does the author thing the film is a masterpiece, original work of art? At first that seems to be the case, but then he seems to suggest otherwise at the end. I don’t know. The piece was rather confusing and unclear, imo.
Thanks Frank. I really enjoyed that piece and think it perfectly articulates why I loved The Tree of Life.
@ Jazz -
I understand your confusion on the author’s position of the film. I think what he’s saying essentially is what makes this film so good is also what makes it so bad. Well, maybe not “bad” but difficult to embrace. And I can certainly see why some people respect the film but have a hard time getting into it. I myself disagree with his assertion that the “film drains emotion from the experience.” I think it was a very emotional film for me and one that moved me in much the same way that a Cassavetes film does.
Jazz: I don’t want to defend John Truby’s structural analysis of the film but I think the answer to your specific question above is pretty clear: Yes, he considers it an IMPORTANT film in terms of its style and artistry BUT he also suggests that because of that innovative style THE TREE OF LIFE is not that affecting on an emotional level, which he considers to be a crucial aspect of storytelling.
I happen to disagree that emotional involvement HAS to be part of effective filmmaking and, contrary to Truby’s statement, I actually like CITIZEN KANE, in part because I enjoy cinematic techniques. I also like Antonioni, Kubrick, and Bresson’s supposedly “cold” and unemotional films for the same reason.
I also think that Truby’s mention of solving the movie’s “mystery” is somewhat metaphoric. I think he means that one can solve the ARTISTIC mystery of the film by looking at its divided genre status and “narrative” (such as it is) structure. I don’t think he’s referring to ALL the secret meanings and subtexts that might be provoked in the mind of the viewer. Since MANY people apparently didn’t understand the basic premise of the movie, I think that looking at the divided, genre-breaking style and unusual story structure is good gateway into better appreciation for those spectators who “just didn’t GET it” at all.
My own problem with TREE OF LIFE is that the cosmic elements (my favorite aspect of the movie) didn’t quite jibe with the dysfunctional Texas family scenes or with Sean Penn’s contemporary sequences; it therefore seemed like two or three separate films that had been stitched together. I would have liked to have seen those 2-3 separate films separately.
Anyone know anything about this? Sounds epic
You can see intellectually what the person is doing, but finally you just can’t feel it.
You didn’t. I did. Deeply. The family is not dysfunctional. All families I think have these tensions. It’s part of being an individual and still intimately embedded in a blood bond. If you haven’t experienced it…you won’t recognize it, you won’t feel it. . .
Yes, he considers it an IMPORTANT film in terms of its style and artistry BUT he also suggests that because of that innovative style THE TREE OF LIFE is not that affecting on an emotional level, which he considers to be a crucial aspect of storytelling.
Ah. OK, thanks for clearing that up for me.
Agreed. I think the importance of emotional involvement or impact depends on the nature of the film and what its going for. (FWIW, I don’t think CK is really a “cold” film like films from the other filmmakers you mentioned. I also think it’s terrific, and exciting film.)
I also think that Truby’s mention of solving the movie’s “mystery” is somewhat metaphoric.
Right. I think people not only don’t understand all the hubbub about the film, but they don’t really understand the film, period. Truby’s response is unsatisfying on both levels, imo. OK, so the film employs two types of films/filmmaking. How do they relate and connect with one another? Does Malick combine the two effectively? And more importantly—what is the film about? What’s going on, in terms of meaning? (Or what does the structure reveal about the film’s meaning?) I wish Truby would have answered those questions—which might be the source of mystery for people who don’t get the film.
My own problem with TREE OF LIFE is that the cosmic elements (my favorite aspect of the movie) didn’t quite jibe with the dysfunctional Texas family scenes or with Sean Penn’s contemporary sequences;…
Do you mean in terms integrating the scenes together, weaving the themes/content or both? Personally, I think the ideas mesh fairly well, but structure involving the scenes (I’m not sure how to articulate this) may be a tad clunky.
“what is the film about? What’s going on, in terms of meaning?”
For me personally, it’s about the conflict between the way of nature and the way of grace. I know there’s a lot more going on but that’s what I latched onto, this is what I connected with. In simple terms: Pitt versus Chastain.
this is what I connected with. In simple terms:
Sean Penn (played by Hunter McCracken in flashbacks) is empty and searching for meaning in his life. On the anniversary of his younger brother’s death, he calls his Dad (Brad Pitt in flashbacks) and this sends his mind reeling: remembering his youth, trying to reconcile his life and the death of his brother with religion/God/The Great Unknown/The Meaning Of It All, and imagining a place/time/(after-)life where they can all be reunited, if such a place/time/(after-)life exists.
I actually thought the larger narrative, such as it exists, was pretty easy to understand, if you put a tiny bit of work in. Although I admit that there is much, much more going on that I haven’t a clue about and that I honestly don’t really care to puzzle out, given how much the aesthetic values of the film moved me.
Best thing about this flick was honesty that lacks in most films. The moment when the kid is angry because of his father and wants god to kill him. This is very true feeling, specially among kids. Most are just afraid to admit it.
Masterpiece it was not but definitely better than that garbage New World (but when I’d have to rate it it still would get 5 or 6 out of of 10 because of great visuals even though all that Rousseau-ish crap disgusted me, the same reason why I don’t give the most ridiculous mediocre garbage 1 or 2 when it’s shot decently).
Dan Bayer’s interpretation sounds fine to me, and it fits about 80% of the film, imo. But how do the dinosaurs fit into that interpretation? What about all the cosmic stuff? Is that supposed to represent God? If so, I was lost. I thought God was an old white guy with a long white beard. (There’s even a picture of him on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel). The planets are something else, again, no? And who was playing all that music if humans hadn’t been created yet?
I also agree with Endy that Malick’s New World was not his best film and may have been his worst.
I interpreted the dinosaurs to represent the way of nature, the behavior that Pitt’s character symbolized. But I’m not very smart so I could be wrong (I actually didn’t think much of the dino sequence – CGI stuff didn’t look very good).
But how do the dinosaurs fit into that interpretation? What about all the cosmic stuff? Is that supposed to represent God?
I’m pretty sure the scenes involving creation is an adaptation to God’s response to Job. I believe the film opens with a quote from the book of Job. Right before the creation scenes occur (if I’m not mistaken), the mother asks God why her son had to die or something to that effect. Then we get the whole long sequence of creation up to the dinosaurs. In most of the book of Job, Job is complaining (justifiably, imo) about all the suffering he’s experienced; he really doesn’t understand how God could allow the bad things that happened to him—especially since he was faithful and honored God. God eventually responds by talking about the universe and things created. In the book, God asks a series of questions—where you there at the beginning of the universe? can you make the sun rise?…and questions of that sort, which I’m not doing justice to. It seems fairly obvious to me that the film is doing patterns itself after what happens in Job. Like the book of Job, a big part of the film deals with the question of why God allows pain and suffering.
Jazz: While watching TREE OF LIFE and reading about it afterwards, I got most of what you say about the Biblical implications in the film, esp. the Book of Job.
What I was asking specifically was, what does all that have to do with the other questions that the film rasies? As I see it, you explain the Job references are used as a patterning device or narrative-thematic armature for the issue of suffering throughout the movie. That makes a lot of sense. It also somewaht explains the dinosaur sequence, since they experience pain too. If that’s the case, it’s a little bit like how James Joyce used Homer’s ODYSSEY to structure ULYSSES (1922).
I’m still not sure that everything fits together perfectly in TREE OF LIFE but thanks for helping me clarify my views a bit more. I see a bit more coherence than I did before.