Wednesday Editor’s Pick: The Tree of Life (2011)

by on November 18, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Nov 23 at 7:00 at the Museum of Modern Art [Program & Tix]

MoMA’s annual Oscar-bait roundup, “The Contenders 2011,” offers you a belated chance to catch Terrence Malick’s cosmic opus on the big screen – the only place it belongs.


The Avon Theater in Stamford suggests you read up on the film beforehand [via @joesview] :



Luckily, a lot has already been written about this 2011 Palme d’Or winner. Reverse Shot alone has published five pieces! Select highlights…


Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, in one of his most enriching piece for MUBI:

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 smoking—yet 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.



Niles Schwartz in his highly recommended piece for his blog The Niles Files:

To me there is little that is confusing about The Tree of Life, which is dually impenetrable as a personal reflection, confession, and requiem for a dead brother, just as it is, while burrowing into its roots, universal. Malick’s images are very specific pictures of his own biographical childhood outside of Waco, Texas in the 1950s. As time goes on throughout his autobiographical portrait and we experience the dissonance of his own neuroses rooted in the Mother (Jessica Chastain) and the Father (Brad Pitt), we fall into our own groundlessness, removed from the Creation of the World, an 18-minute marvel of how our terrain and cosmic canvas was sculpted, accelerating fast and faster through 14 billion years of cosmic expansion, volcanic light and lava screaming, geysers smoking, unicellular organisms coming together in the first acts of compassion, fish freely swimming, and then more complicated creatures – dinosaurs – feeding and suffering in the befuddling chain of existence. We are then born and called forth from the ocean of time, which slows down and wraps us up in its groundlessness with resentments, jealousies, and desires. The Tree of Life is too sincere to be pretentious, and though many of us may scoff at one man’s presumption to link his own biography to the origins of life, Malick is in fact calling out for us to do the same, and so to wonder about our Being, rather than just being-in-the-world, working day to day, reading internet articles, watching The Hangover Part II and Sex and the City, and drinking PBRs. The Tree of Life is Malick’s “Song of Myself,” recalling Whitman:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.


Doug Cummings, Michael Sicinski and Kevin B. Lee grapple with the film’s avant-garde influences.



Kent Jones for Film Comment (July/Aug 2011):

Bombastic? Grandiose? When the film is working at its peak level, which is about 90 percent of the time, it is both an ecstatic inventory of wonders and a symphony of unending transformation, in which the short-circuiting of control triggers surrender, curiosity blooms into destruction, and – movingly – cruelty gives way to grace. The movie does not come at us in isolated shots but in bursts of attentively covered emotion and energy, and one recalls instants that feel like they’ve been seized from one’s own memory: a playground scene that expands to a shapely and excitingly colored Brueghel-esque vision; ferocious boys hurtling their way through tall grasses on their bikes; a first trembling foray into flirtation, a play of glances and aversions; the house and the yard as the heart of the world, and the street as the boundary of beyond. For obvious reasons, Kubrick’s name has been invoked in more than a few reviews, but if there’s another artist shadowing The Tree of Life, it’s Mahler, the opening passage of whose 1st Symphony is heard during the creation movement and under the frenzied discovery of a drowned boy at a public pool (“You let a boy die,” whispers Jack in voiceover. “Why should I be good?”). Both artists work to create a final form that sits on the edge of chaos, so abundant and varied in scintillations and spiraling pathways that it feels vast in the memory. The occasional repetition of certain motifs seems less like a failing than necessary overspill.


Throughout The Tree of Life, Malick incorporates otherworldly visions, many of which (a house underwater, the mother hovering in midair under the tree in the yard, or encased in a glass coffin in the woods like Snow White) are moving poetic amplifications or crystallizations. He also returns regularly to the middle-aged Jack walking through a cracked desert landscape at the end of time. The fulfillment of his vision is a meeting with his younger self and his family as they were during his boyhood, surrounded by angels and other’ families reconciled with their own loved ones, culminating in the mother commending her lost son to eternity. Thematically speaking, it makes perfect sense, but in comparison to the super-specificity of what we’ve just experienced, the actions of the dazed individuals are disappointingly vague – we already know this imagery from Close Encounters or die now forgotten French film Les Revenants. It’s fitting but not altogether satisfactory: like the closing passage of In the Mood for Love, another memory film, it works, but that’s about all. I think that at some point, the pull of recreation led Malick a little bit astray from his original conception. The peaceful acceptance of a terrible loss is overshadowed by the realization that the ways of grace (the mother) and nature (the father), evoked in the film’s first voiceover, are not opposed but dialectically conjoined. Somewhere along the line, I think that this became a movie about a man seeing his father in full, and forgiving him without sentimentalizing him. That is its secret center. If the final passage is slightly disappointing, try to recall how many movies you’ve seen that are large enough to have a secret center.


The Tree of Life doesn’t move forward but pulses, like a massive organism, and its beginning and end point are the same: a ball of primal energy in the blackness, ready to generate more theophanies. Unlike Brakhage, Malick is not venturing into the universe hidden within the folds of perception. But like Vermeer, Turner, and Godard, both are revelators, reminding us, frame by frame, that all that is is light.


Michael Koresky on his second viewing and that controversial dinosaur, for Reverse Shot:

Upon a second viewing of the film, one may feel the need to proselytize to others how those images, which initially seem as though they’re placed before us as a shuffled deck of cards, do indeed fit into a clear, even concise whole—a spiritual journey with clear cause-and-effect strategies. The most radical thing about Malick’s seeming non-narrative masterwork is the profound coherence of its design. It is constructed of discrete movements—it is symphonic, sometimes held aloft on a trill, other times driven in allegro motion. We feel caught in a freeze frame—of the terror, longing, nostalgia, confusion, heartbreak, and devilry of childhood—but we’re constantly being pushed forward as though to some greater understanding about this family, or ourselves, and consequently the universe. Whether we get there is in the eye of the beholder, but regardless of whether one takes Malick’s earnest plunge into the Big Questions (you know, those insignificant matters like “Why are we here?”) as rewardingly impenetrable or as just, well, hokum, there’s no denying that the way this artist and his collaborators have evoked our world—through framing and lighting, editing, music, performance, art direction—is nothing short of miraculous: a work of almost constant rapture and simmering dread, in which every fleeting gesture seems burdened with the weight of existence.


In one of his most daring gambits, Malick implicitly equates, through his graceful montage, man considering the vastness of the cosmos with a dinosaur bleeding from a mortal wound staring up at the sky. There is no response for either (the Book of Job is the film’s inciting text, as it’s quoted at the preface). Some have called this a silly bit of anthropomorphism (must our movies’ prehistoric beasts only stomp around and eat humans?). The contemplativeness of this brief moment is remarkable, and many who have seen the film have different interpretations of what this dying dinosaur is thinking. For my part I saw a glimpse of Bresson’s donkey Balthazar, another animal whose inner life onscreen exists only insofar as we project onto it as sentient viewers. This gentle monster takes us back to childhood as well: as kids, our fascination with dinosaurs was based on a strange mixture of terror and empathy—the realization that these incomprehensible monsters dominated this planet, some ruthlessly looking out for their own survival, others simply existing. The tragedy would be to not empathize with this thinking creature, which we would stare at with awe in our picture books long ago. They’re the mythic masters of all our childhood fantasies.



Bilge Ebiri’s blog They Live by Night turned “All Tree of Life All The Time”. He shares some thoughts in a poignant, very personal first stab at the film:

The other morning my wife, my two-year-old son, and I were goofing around in our dining room, when I saw my son reach for an electrical outlet. Being the nervous, constantly worried parent that I am, I immediately yelled, “No!” at him rather firmly. This had the intended effect of preventing my son from electrocuting himself, and also the unintended one of startling and upsetting the boy. Lower lip quivering, he desperately embraced his mother as she tried to comfort him and gently told him that Daddy didn’t mean it. I, as usual, moped away, wondering if I’d done something wrong. Of course I hadn’t, but a parent constantly reflects on this kind of bizarre, ever-shifting calculus. It’s not just one thing, it’s one thing that leads to many. The things that must be done and the things that must not. The things one wants and needs and the things one has. The things one gives and the things one takes, and the things that just are. And the things that wait, unknown and unseen until they too become a part of your life. All of it, ever-expanding — spiraling out until the whole world seems to consist entirely of these things. The kid’s only two, and I can already see it unfolding before my eyes.


I toyed with ending this review right there, just adding, “And this concludes my review of The Tree of Life, which is the greatest film I’ve ever seen. The End.” Which would have maybe been hilarious, but also misleading — because The Tree of Life isn’t really about these above things. But these above things are part of the reason why it hit me so hard. Let’s face it, there are times in life – be they seismic struggles with grief and love that take your breath away, or mundane matters of parenting that merely prompt subdued reflection — when you begin to feel yourself a part of something greater and ever-turning. To borrow a quote from Disney’s Peter Pan: “All this has happened before. And it will all happen again.” And then, from Eyes Wide Shut: “Until it doesn’t.”



Ebiri also interviews some of the film’s five editors for Cinema Editor Magazine:

Bill Weber says that Malick’s approach to shooting is something the director has been developing over the years – an attempt to give an impression that everything has been shot on the fly. “We call it ‘walking down the garden path’” he says, “where nothing is locked down, where you don’t know where you’re going, or where the film is taking you. The New World was where he really experimented with that, and by the time he got to Tree of Life, he and Chivo had perfected their system. Every take was different.” Perhaps needless to say, that presented its own set of challenges for the editors. “There was no logic to the slating, even,” says Weber. “It’s not like Take 3 had anything to do with Take 2. It’d be a different scene.” Despite those challenges, however, Weber feels that Malick’s stylistic approach pays enormous dividends artistically. “I’m sure Terry would have trouble describing why he does it, but I think it’s because it feels more human, in a way – more spontaneous.”


Yoshikawa echoes that sentiment, adding that Malick wanted to avoid anything with “even had a hint of being presented or intentional. We tried to avoid the traditional shot-reverse shot approach to cutting scenes.” It also meant that because of the director’s improvisational, loose shooting style, sometimes there would be multiple scenes covering similar ground, meaning that the editors had to choose which scene best represented what the film was trying to do thematically. “We were always wanting to find unique moments of subtle and spontaneous action that also allow the camera to do the cutting,” Roldan says. “Sometimes those moments were as obvious as a butterfly spontaneously landing on Jessica Chastain’s hand, and sometimes they were as subtle as a shoulder shrug or eye movement.”



The incomparable Geoffrey O’Brien for The New York Review of Books:

The film’s portentous epigraph is the grandest question of all, God’s challenge to Job—”Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”—the ultimate instance of answering a question with a question. Malick has never shied from grandiosity, and in The Tree of Life more than ever before he risks the humorless and overblown. Into what might in other hands have been the small-scale, melancholy tale—too elliptical even to be called a tale—of the not unusually eventful childhood of a boy in Texas, his two brothers, and his father and mother, he has managed to incorporate the creation of the universe, the origins of life on earth, the age of dinosaurs, and the prospect of future dissolution, with musical accompaniment by the powerful tonalities of Berlioz’s Requiem Mass. But he has made an audacious and magnificent film.


The extreme variations of scale are no afterthought in Malick’s scheme. To show the world in a grain of sand he must first establish what the world is. So he will walk us through the stages and conditions and outer boundaries of human existence, provide a basic introduction to annihilating and fecundating cosmic forces, move freely back and forth in time for lingering glances at birth and death and family and memory as if they were only marginally familiar phenomena, as if no one had ever done any of this before, in a movie at least—and indeed who ever did in quite this head-on fashion? He manages to make childhood (and The Tree of Life is beyond anything else a movie descriptive of childhood) seem a somewhat neglected condition, deserving of reexamination. He is continually trying out different ways of representing acts of perception: the perspective of a child looking up at the adult world, or looking down from some hidden perch, the abrupt rhythm of a child looking quickly at some terrifying outburst of adult anger and then looking away, the sheared-off gaps in editing that can mark a moment as a fresh eternity disconnected from what preceded it.


For his ending Malick has contrived a curious allegory of time—a sort of masque, almost—in which all the characters, at all their different ages, coexist in a single moment. It is a stylized restatement of what has already been implicit in every aspect of The Tree of Life: the notion that every moment exists in the present, whether it is the moment when an asteroid collides with a planet or the moment when a boy breaks a window, and that the whole of imaginable time can be only one great now.This is the droning note that underlies the play of color and texture and metamorphosing forms, the surges of painful emotion that are understood as natural ripples of a kind with waves and clouds. Made with obsessive precision in all its parts, The Tree of Life is nonetheless not a neat movie. Malick is neither neat nor witty nor dry the way one might want so philosophically ambitious a filmmaker to be. But while I would not rush to read a verbal summation by Malick of his philosophical views, I would burn with irresistible curiosity to see the film of any text he might care to adapt, whether it were Spinoza’s Ethics or the phone book. He does his thinking by means of cinema in its full range of possibilities, and that is at any time a rare spectacle.


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