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“The Tree of Life”: A Malickiad

The Tree of Life

In The Tree of Life, we know that Brad Pitt’s unnamed, self-styled paterfamilias is a light smoker not because it’s ever said or observed, but because he is specifically never shown smokingyet at one point asks for his lighter, which his son sullenly sets down on a coffee table next to a pack of cigarettes. It's a half-full soft paper pack, the kind that would quickly become crinkled if kept in a coat pocket, but is perfectly intact, as if kept in a drawer.

There are two key ingredients at work here. The first is Terrence Malick’s peculiar way with minor objects and details. The second is the absence of major details, and the subconscious detective-work that occurs on the part of the viewer. In order to just keep up with the flow of action, with the pace of a scene, the audience has to piece together characters and events based on stray clues. The Tree of Life appears to be staging a family chamber drama (the most insular of genres, where even the characters form a self-contained unit) on a cosmic scale, a sort of "Job vs. Oedipus Rex" writ extra-large, with plesiosaurs, molecular clouds, New Agey desktop background kitsch and Biblical verses all called upon to fill out the story of a frustrated father, who regards himself as a hard worker (“Never missed a day of work, tithed every Sunday,” he whispers) yet fails over and over, gradually becoming the worst enemy of his son; the son, in the meantime, entertains thoughts of killing the father and naively fantasizes about the mother. In one scene, the boy imagines her as Sleeping Beauty in a glass coffin; in another, a shot of the mother washing her feet with a garden hose replicates an earlier shot of a comely neighbor—whose negligee the boy ends up stealing—doing the same. Yet for all of this apparent overstatement, The Tree of Life is in fact chiefly defined by its colossal ellipses, redactions and red herrings.

For instance: what's the shape of the O’Brien house (their name comes from the credits and is never uttered in the film) in Waco, Texas (a setting only stated once, as lettering on the side of a truck spraying DDT), where most of the film is set? Impossible to tell; the happily roving camera, with its wide angle lenses, maps the space in so many different ways that it might as well be octopus-shaped, with rooms spiraling outwards from the kitchen. Does The Tree of Life take place in the memory and imagination of Sean Penn’s brooding architect (again, one assumes a man who spends so much time looking at blueprints must be an architect), where science intermingles with recollected flashes of childhood? Probably not; the film opens, as a matter of fact, in the memory of his mother, played by Jessica Chastain, in a recollection of her childhood on a farm, and returns there later, for a brief episode that depicts, first-person, her experience of flying in a bi-plane as a teenager. One brother dies at the age of nineteen, but which brother? Probably the middle one, R.L., but we can only assume this based on the fact that he’s featured much more prominently than the youngest boy, Steve, a specter who shows up only in the periphery of the frame and barely registers as a character (then again, that could make a case for Steve). How does he die? No idea, but certainly not in Vietnam—news of his death arrives via Western Union telegram, and not through a casualty notification officer.

Overlaying the film with Terrence Malick's biography provides a few answers. Malick's own younger brother committed suicide while abroad (which would explain the telegram); he was studying classical guitar, an instrument R.L. is shown playing several times. However, using the author's biography as a guide rarely leads very far, and in this case it still leaves a lot of issues unresolved. 

For instance, we can see that the bi-focaled father is a Toscanini-obsessed church organist and a gambler, prone to jealousy and gossip. He disguises his neuroses as wise pontifications. And yet the two characters whose points-of-view the film penetrates most willingly, the mother and the eldest son, are ciphers. For as much time as she spends on screen—and as deep as Malick travels into her interior, into her memories and dreams, while contending himself with only depicting the exterior of Pitt—the mother played by Jessica Chastain remains a total mystery compared to her husband, appearing to possesses no interests and a foggy past (though, paradoxically, her childhood is shown, whereas Pitt’s is not). We glean that Pitt served in the Navy, aspired to be a musician and that his parents are Irish immigrants; we know nothing about Chastain except that she might have spent her childhood on a farm and has only been on a plane once. And eldest son Jack (Hunter McCracken as a moody kid, Sean Penn as a moody grown-up) is more motif than protagonist.

Even the opening narration of the film, which sounds embarrassingly earnest at first, is completely obscure: “Brother, mother, it was they that lead me to your door.” That this sentence doesn’t mention the father who more or less dominates the film presents a problem: is he consciously being snubbed, or is he in fact the person being addressed? Or is it a He? Or are the brother and the mother the “you” being addressed—in which case, who are “they?” And again, which brother?

That many of the film’s various parts are never fully reconciled with one another doesn’t help straighten out matters much. Just getting the gist of what exactly happens in The Tree of Life—in terms of plot, chronology and point-of-view—requires a lot of guesswork, all of which is largely irrelevant.

The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life begins with a bit of cosmic goo followed by Chastain narrating (what we assume are) scenes from her childhood and uttering Malick’s pet phrase, “all things.” Then there's the telegram, then a scene where Pitt follows a distraught Chastain as she paces up and down a street, then a funeral, then a mute chorus of women lamenting, then Chastain speaking with a grandmother (Fiona Shaw) who could just as easily be an older neighbor or a family friend (again, only the credits confirm who she is, and even then, the realization that she is Pitt’s mother comes through a handful of details: her light Irish accent lines up with his surname, O’Brien, and she behaves more as a mother-in-law counsel than a parent towards Chastain). Then Penn is introduced in a dream, awakens in the present, lights a candle, goes to work and marvels at the geometric shapes of Houston’s skyline. Looking at just this first reel of the film, it becomes obvious that if The Tree of Life is set anywhere, it isn’t in Waco or in Penn’s memory, but in a constructed collective dream-state, in a sub-conscious with no conscious, where the disparate memories of individuals, animals and the landscape itself are repurposed like B-roll footage. Repurposed, it should be said, by Terrence Malick, the film’s invisible protagonist, a reclusive Old Testament God who molds characters in His own image so that they can suffer and then marvel at the beauty of His creation.

For all of its pretensions of fleeting-moment intuitiveness, Malick’s style is thoroughly artificial. The camera trains itself on stray rays of light passing over costumed actors while carefully-picked and rehearsed extras (The Tree of Life has got to have the most finely-choreographed background action of any film made in the last decade) and vintage cars go about their business. Malick has never directed a film that wasn’t a period piece, and even in The Tree of Life’s modern episodes, he seems to be constructing a facsimile of modern life—choked up with cellphones, elevators, glass and steel—more than filming the reality around him. He is a realist in the old Bazinian sense, in that he constructs an unbroken, heightened reality within the frame; as much as his style prizes chance and the uncontrollable forces of nature—clouds, water, sunlight—it relies even more heavily on careful production design and research.

The Tree of Life is arranged into movements, the significance of which is only occasionally obvious (as in the "birth of the universe" movement), but for the most part is so obscure that it borders on arbitrariness. And yet the one thing that is always clear is that these parts are definitely arranged according to some logic; the film resembles an ancient artifact whose purpose can never be fully understood. It’s possible to glean some clues from the surface, even without any knowledge of Malick’s biography; certain scenes—a child’s face been covered up by his mother’s hand so that he doesn’t see a neighbor having an epileptic seizure on the lawn, a group of children launching a frog on a rocket in a moment of innocent cruelty, a father instructing his sons to hit him over and over—are invested with an off-handed portentousness that suggests (but never confirms) that they are recreations of Malick's deeply-held private memories and worries.

All of this to say that this is a phenomenologist’s anti-phenomenological movie (meaning: not very anti-phenomenological at all). Every shot is firmly rooted in a different perspective, but they are all arranged together according to Malick’s somewhat enigmatic, godlike design. The film introduces a big red herring early on: a reductive dialectic ("nature" vs., uh, "grace") that it never expands on, preferring to use the possibility of such a dialectic as a leitmotif, no different from the various candles (the blue candle on Penn’s kitchen table; the red candle Pitt lights in the church) and bedrooms (the intimate shared bedroom of the boys; the lonely master bedroom where Penn and his wife sit at the beginning of the film, which may very well be in the house Pitt and Chastain are seen living in the preceding scene).

The Tree of Life

Malick's intersubjective epic—set in inner, not outer, space—is a creation myth in the guise of a crypto-autobiography. It toes pop Brakhage territory, explores Finnegans Wake, Jr. territory and—most importantly—travels further into Malick territory than any other film, and in the process becomes an odd objet d'art: inscrutable, composed of enigmatic variations, full of suggestive themes that probably only its director fully understands.

Instead of looking for the universal in the specific (which Malick's supporters tend to portray him as doing), it hoists its specifics up on supports of old-fashioned universality (which is what Malick—a romantic, a man of the 19th century—really does). Malick's neither a great philosopher nor a great poet, and he probably has a firm enough grasp of both subjects to know that, yet his images are marked by what seems to be an uncontrollable impulse to philosophize and write poetry. Rather than being the story of a family or Malick's particular family or the history of life on Earth, The Tree of Life ends up being the story of that impulse. 

For all of their cheeseball awe, what Malick's last three films (The Thin Red Line, The New World and this one) express most thoroughly is not some vague concept about the beauty of nature or the brotherhood of mankind, but Malick himself, and the way these ideas exist in his head. The disunity of Tree's individual parts—which oscillate between slick kitsch and disarming intimacy—is the film's point, not its problem. Underneath it all, it expresses nothing universal except the filmmaker's own need to see life—probably his own—on a universal scale.

And that impulse is in and of itself profound. It stands somewhere between selfishness and selflessness, caprice and confession. There's simply no other American filmmaker in recent decades who has had such ambition. It's one part ballsiness, one part self-criticism; if the negligee episode, for instance, is auto-biographical, it has to have been one helluva painful memory to bring up—and it, in turn, to borrow a phrase from Pitt's character, takes one helluva fierce will to foist it on an audience. With The Tree of Life, it becomes clear that when Malick has sought to express human smallness—placing his characters within landscapes and historical periods that operate independently of them—it's always been his own, an overpowering smallness that he imposes on to his characters and sets.

And what to make of the final scene, where Jessica Chastain, in all of her pale Pre-Raphaelite beauty, intones "I give you my son" to no one in particular? What to make of all the characters, living and dead together at last, wandering around a seashore?

It's an apocalypse. Malick has constructed a universe of his own from memory; he even goes as far as to show its creation, giving all of the animals the capacity to do violence and imbuing all of the humans with remorse. And since this universe exists only for the purposes of The Tree of Life, as the movie ends, it must too. 

Excellent article Ignatiy. I particularly like your use of detail in bringing up some broader ideas. Since I haven’t yet had a chance to see The Tree of Life, I can neither agree nor disagree with your thinking on it, but Your approach here is interesting enough that it will stay in mind when I do see it, and it also captures something about the way I feel about Malick’s films in general, so there is some resonance here beyond this particular film, even if I don’t come to the same conclusions overall.
I haven’t seen the film yet, but from what you wrote it seems to be about memory. People are trying to force a structure, an ultimate meaning on the film, but it’s really nothing more than the reflections of one man experiencing a spiritual crisis. In some ways it reminds me of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, although probably not as cryptic. Tarkovsky allowed the structure to reveal itself through the laboriously constructed montage. Whenever I see Tarkovsky’s film, I never think to myself, “what does it all mean?” That’s impossible to know, and Tarkovsky never intended for anyone to intellectualize his films. What you were left with was a series of incredibly strong, sensual impressions. The important thing is to allow those images to come alive inside of you. That said, there does seem to be, at times, some reason for calling those memories back in time, a desire to piece together an abstract, far-away reality and make sense of it all. But it’s severely fragmented, at best. It’s human consciousness that guides The Mirror and Tree of Life, and that, I believe, is what places them in the domain of the poetic. Malick is comparable to Tarkovsky in another sense: both are deeply spiritual, but their ideas about Christianity run contrary to the common way of thinking. The spiritual sense is evident in the deeply devotional quality of their films. Watching them puts you in the mindset of someone whose perception is tabula rasa — vision wiped clean and alive to certain details that many filmmakers fail to notice. As for the characters, I think what you wrote about the elliptical way in which they are developed goes back to Days of Heaven, at least. All of the important information about those characters we learn in the first ten minutes. This isn’t new stuff for him — the only thing that’s changed is the span of time in which the memories unfold. But this, too, reminds me of Tarkovsky. Watch Solaris and you see that Tarkovsky was searching for that neutral ground in which people and the unknowable, eternal essence of the universe would collide.
One last thing — I remember reading once that Malick said that he loves it when people express themselves in cliche, because it’s their own unique way of saying something important about themselves. We might dismiss what they’re saying if we’re impulsive about our judgment. Actually the delivery is the most important thing about what they’re saying; that is what makes it so precious. You’re right that the film is about Malick — more so than any other film of his. If he expresses himself in cliche, are we right to ridicule him?
Dearest Professor, The Mirror is probably the best point of comparison, and I originally intended to discuss that in this piece, but it didn’t really work with the rest of the structure. Maybe I should’ve left it in. I don’t think Tarkovsky’s Christianity runs that contrary; to many people raised in the Russian Orthodox church, myself included, he remains the quintessential Orthodox filmmaker. I don’t know about Malick, but his grandparents were Assyrian Christians, and may very well have been Orthodox or a related Eastern Christian denomination. That would give the two a certain shared cultural heritage.
Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Vishnevetsky. I’m no Professor — it’s an homage, and nothing more! You’re the Professor. It does seem to me that there are suggestions in both Tarkovsky and Malick that lie outside of the realms of orthodoxy. For instance, in The Sacrifice Alexander must sleep with a witch in order to save the world from destruction. In Rublev we see the open persecution of pagans, and I always felt that Tarkovsky’s sympathies lied with the persecuted. His attention to nature is practically pagan, at times. This reliance on natural rhythm, Time-Pressure, is visible in Malick. We know that Malick not only incorporates the natural phenomenon around him, the entire set is attuned to those moments (like his attention to light), and they ultimately determine the ebb and flow of time. They are both mystics, but for Malick that spiritual voice tends to be more romantic. Like Nietzsche, Malick is open to the collective voice and the idea that every life constituted an important part of the whole. There’s nothing of the ubermensch in Tarkovsky, but madmen like Zarathustra were often the real prophets.
I like the van Hofmannsthal quote. It reminds me of Woodrow Wilson saying “it’s like writing history with lightning.” Is cinema this “strange vibrating state” or the “flash of enlightenment”?
Great article! I haven’t yet seen the film (only a couple more weeks!), but I’ll definitely re-visit this once I’ve seen it.
IV — You should write a separate article on Tree of LIfe/The Mirror. I would love to read your observations.
Very well-written analysis, Ignatiy. I, too, thought of “The Mirror” when I came floating out of the cinema after seeing “The Tree of Life” — but only because it was so unique and personal. We differ on some interpretations, but you have a keen eye. I did not know about Malick’s brother; that certainly adds another layer. I’m guessing some may dismiss the film for its slow burn and kaleidoscopic structure, but I found it brave, complex, mysterious, haunting, gorgeous and moving. I had a different view on the final movement, the flip-side to yours: I agree there is an apocalyptic element (which I won’t spoil here), but that final environment, for me, went someplace beyond that, unifying all the characters as ‘star-stuff’ — to paraphrase Carl Sagan. I’ll have to see it again. I think the musical analogy is the best way to describe the film. It’s an intense experience, poetic and purely cinematic.
The finest lamentation & simultaneous heralding of Malick I’ve ever read. It should be seen as an honor that you were able to appropriately, accurately refer to his milieu as both “profound” & “cheeseball”. You pinpointed the movie by simply using the word “smallness”. Excellent essay. Well done.
“They are both mystics, but for Malick that spiritual voice tends to be more romantic.” I wouldn’t even go as far as to call Malick a mystic — he’s a pure romantic, as far as I’m concerned. As for The Mirror connection — I’ll re-visit that line of thinking in the future; I’d have to re-watch the Tarkovsky first, since it’s been quite a while.
The music never stopped. Didn’t that bother anyone else? (yes, it was beautiful, but why do such incredible images need constant music-marriage? For this reason, Tarkovsky is spinning in his grave with all the comparisons in these comments. ha ha!) also, one can assume that Malick formed this film predominately in the editing room (I guess that assumption comes from the way he supposedly formed his other films), so doesn’t that assumption, taking into account the disjointed nature of themes and ideas so brilliantly illustrated in your piece here, make it feel like, though it is “full of suggestive themes that probably only its director fully understands”it is more likely that, at a number of points in the film, he was hoping that maybe, with enough ambiguity plus a lot of beauty, he might reach some additional interpretive content?
I certainly don’t have the detective leanings you have, but I think that “Mother” and “Brother” brought him to God. The former through her teaching of grace and the latter through his death. And the film is really about ultimately finding out that “father” is not a counter piece to that (nature) but plays a part.
… the site http://www.twowaysthroughlife.com/ divides the film simply in „the father’s way” and „the mother’s way” ans sorts a lot of short clips between the two „ways” - which clearly follows the old logic of conditional (fatherly) and unconditional (motherly) love … great text, c
Jonah, Thanks for the insights and information of Malick’s background. The church in Tree of Life did seem more Episcopalian than anything, but, considering he change of ethnicity from Assyrian to Irish, it might have been a similar transposition. The relationship between the film’s seemingly biographical nature and Malick’s own reclusive reputation seems odd, but it makes sense: wouldn’t a fiercely private man make fiercely private art?
Waco more modest than Bartlesville? Umm, no. Unless I missed something major in the last decade.
I know, I was just kidding around. Just that it’s so rare that someone mentions Waco and Bartlesville in a blog post that I had to comment!
Re: Bartlesville house. Having seen the film again yesterday, I can confirm that the house the family lives in Bartlesville and the glass-walled one Penn lives in are not the same house. Totally different layouts, walls, styles, etc.
ignatiy…seeing it again, what your feelings?
Peter, More or less the same, though I don’t think I gave Malick’s design enough credit before. Movements were better-organized than I remembered, and R.L.’s death seemed more clearly indicated.
This is a wonderful article. Thanks!
A free advice: search in Tarkovsky, but less in The Mirror and more in Ivan’s Childhood. And I am not talking about aesthetics. A review about this: http://reviewingtreeoflife.blogspot.com/
Re: Bartlesville house. even if you make the distinction between a more modern glass house and the “main” family house, it is interesting to note that while filming, they would switch between 4 different houses in the neighbourhood (depending on where the sun was to fully make use of available light). so obviously having a precise consistency in the interior shots was not a priority, quite the opposite…
I don’t think I would have guessed from this review that you would have put Tree of Life in your year’s top 5. Did you revise your opinion of it in the last 6 months (perhaps in light of the rest of the year’s offerings), or just decide that the grandeur of Malick’s narcissism was magnificent in and of itself? Lots of fascinating observations here, by the way.
Great review Ignatiy! I seriously think that this movie was made more or less to entertain Malick’s own viewing pleasure rather than the one of a general audience.

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