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Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life
(Read Huntley Dent’s review of The Tree of Life in the Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts.)
Mr. O’Brien, Brad Pitt
Mrs. O’Brien, Jessica Chastain
Young Jack O’Brien, Hunter McCracken
Adult Jack O’Brien, Sean Penn
R. L. (Middle Son), Laramie Eppler
Steve (Youngest Son), Tye Sheridan
Fiona Shaw, Grandmother
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell Me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements?
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
To what were its foundations fastened?
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together,
And all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Film as Being
The Tree of Life opens with these questionings from the Book of Job, and in the course of nearly two and a half hours, questions and enigmas pass by, compelling the viewer to frame a response to this very metaphysical film. For those who expect linear and coherent drama, piecing the film’s parts together will ultimately be a dissatisfying exercise. Nothing resolves absolutely, leaving a viewer as witness to the mysteries of death and eternity, with a nagging ambivalence. Perhaps as a rejoinder to Job, Yeats’s gravestone inscription should precede the film’s end credits:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
Yet, we live life embracing the rubrics of religion, community, tradition, ritual, and the firm belief that “grace” can be obtained by following the narrow path. Somewhere near the start of The Tree of Life we hear of a distinction between “the way of nature and the way of grace.” We can allow our primal mammalian selves to prevail, or seek the higher moral ground. Since most of us wind up conforming to some pattern of life in which we can flourish, our shared experiences – the joys, sorrows, successes, failures, losses and gains – give us a species kinship. Reflection on such a unity can give us warmth through the journey. Wallace Stevens’s “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” puts it beautifully:
This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:
Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.
Stevens’s essentially phenomenological bent is the subject of Simon Critchley’s lovely book, Things Merely Are (Routledge, 2005), which also turns to Terrence Malick and his film The Thin Red Line. Stevens and Malick are portrayed in parallel artistic streams. Critchley’s insightful commentary on Malick has deepened my own appreciation for this Waco, Texas born filmmaker. His latest film is his most beautiful and most philosophically-spirited work to date. Since Malick, in a previous life, was a Harvard trained philosopher specializing in Continental Existentialism, and in particular, Martin Heidegger’s flavor of that school, it is not surprising to find the central issues of “being” ruminated throughout. The Tree of Life is also the most “characteristic” Malick film in that it is totally imbued with a repertory of cinematic techniques that Malick has nurtured for decades. Indeed, some of the film comes uncomfortably close to self caricature, but then, what film maker of substance doesn’t have an ineluctable imprimatur?
Music! Music! Music!
Music is the sum total of scattered forces.
You make an abstract ballad of them!
– Claude Debussy, Monsieur Croche anti-dilettante
Malick’s work has been likened to that of Stanley Kubrick, and The Tree of Life is the closest yet to Kubrick’s overall style. The photography’s painterly composition, the dynamic use of light, and the obsession with cinematic technicality all point to Kubrick. Malick, here, captures the exquisite frames of Barry Lyndon with the fantastic pretensions of 2001: A Space Odyssey as he spins a mystical and life-explaining narrative.
Finally, the musical score provided by Alexandre Michel Desplat, is a wonderful combination of original and classical works that further insinuate Malick with the best of Stanley Kubrick’s work. Kubrick had a fine ear, and his aligning of musical phrase with cinematic gesture, in my estimation, is one of his most singular achievements. One only has to recall the Andante from Schubert’s E♭Piano Trio and the moonlit amorous pantomime with Berenson and O’Neal in Barry Lyndon to perceive a director’s mastery of sight, mood, and sound. Malick is no less adroit in combining these elements. In fact, he goes further than Kubrick: the use of specific musical textures has an objective correlative to the essence of what how he differentiates states of human “being” throughout the film.
No film of Kubrick matches Malick’s synoptic application of music to complement the images on screen. The quotidian putter of suburban life is ironically scored to François Couperin’s motor-like Les Barricades Mystérieuses. The exaltation of going forth and “being in the world,” and in the flow of existence, is suggested in Bedřich Smetana’s sweeping Die Moldau. In the final heart-rending moments of the film, Mrs. O’Brien’s mortal spirit, embraced by angels, is accompanied by the final “Amen” from Berlioz’s Requiem.
Music is a key element in the content of the film as well. Music was Mr. O’Brien’s natural talent. A frustrated artist, he plays the organ in church (Bach), the piano at home (Mozart and Couperin), and idolizes Toscanini’s recordings which he thrusts on the unsympathetic ears of his family. Music, thus, represents O’Brien’s perceived failure in life, as a plant manager, and he admits as much to his eldest son, Jack. This boy, perhaps an autobiographical portrait of Malick himself, is the smart, willful, independent part of O’Brien’s persona, but is not the musically talented one. Instead, R.L. – who looks a lot like a progeny of Brad Pitt – has the artistic ear, an ear that can mimic father’s playing of the Couperin while experimenting on his guitar. This middle son is also the favorite of the mother, and is thus the rival for Jack while in an oedipal crises. R.L. also becomes the projected object of contempt by Mr. O’Brien who perceives the nascent and unrequited talent that nags his ego.
Mr. O’Brien distressingly interrupts dinner, as he force feeds his family a recording of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony (appropriately, the chaconne movement – the most rationalist and structured movement). In doing so, he upends the simple day-to-day needs of sustenance, the ceremony of dinner, the necessary bonding of the atomic family, with his own passion for music – something shared by neither the mother nor the Alpha son. The interruption of his bond for this Brahms’s great work –in the “everydayness” of life – is yet another example of how the father is still not “authentically” living in this world. His intellectual prowess, inventiveness, and thwarted musical career always haunt his familial duties. Inevitably, taking full advantage of the paternalist dynamics common in the post WWII era, his discomfiture is projected on to his family, as they become objects of his obsessive control, anger and, at times, violence. The rigidity of his view of life is subtly conveyed by the glasses he wears: sharply cut and brutally delineated trifocals. Counterpoint, which is valued the most as a musical artifice that enriches the harmony, melody, and the intelligence of a piece, also conveys the father’s obeisance to formalism that, in a way, is at odds with family unity. When Mr. O’Brien plays J. S. Bach’s D Minor fugue (S.565), he is celebrating his own adherence to “canon,” to the rubric of life that, provides some path of certainty in the face of the seeming chaos of existence.
The accidental drowning of a child and the harrowing randomness of life’s cruelties become the subject of a Sunday sermon. “Misfortunes befall the good… we vanish as a cloud … There is no hiding from the tragedy of Job…” In the background, these words are accompanied by J. S. Bach’s D# Minor Fugue (S.853), a three-voice piece, that, with its great formal reliance on stretto in which the voices obediently overlap, seems a symbolic proscription to which the O’Brien children are given stern notice to follow the faith, to dig their heels in the tread laid by their forebears, lest they meander into the maw of meaningless mortality.
Malick, who grew up in Waco in the 1950s, chose the smaller Texas lookalike town of Smithville, although, apparently scenes were shot in Waco, Houston, Matagorda, Austin, and Bastrop. Elder Jack is cocooned in the glass and steel of Dallas, which seems almost surreal in contrast to the plain, well-mowed tattered suburbia of Smithville. Nothing could prepare the viewer for the scenes of the Parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, Italy where the O’Brien’s are seen playing in this park with its frightening and grotesque statuary. Father and sons frolic in the gaping mouth of the ogre which stands as the entrance to hell. We are never certain whether these shots represent the O’Briens on vacation, or, more likely, the Miltonesque perspective of the O’Briens’s primordial family dynamic.
The Skin of Our Teeth
In a way not dissimilar to Thornton Wilder, Malick is bold enough to allow us to experience the collapse of time and eternity in the everydayness of life. Of course, Wilder could do this with comedic effect as in the conflation of the Age of Dinosaurs, the Ice Age, Adam and Eve, and World War II. Malick, nonetheless, achieves this in ways both subtle and, at other times painfully overt. It’s not hard to see how Adam, Eve, Abel and Cain mirror the O’Briens and their two elder sons. While Jack doesn’t kill R.L., he does attempt some harm with a BB gun and an electric socket. We somehow imagine such pranks foreshadow R.L’s death, an event that is shrouded in mystery, and never explicitly depicted. With the Freudian dynamic of Jack and his mother, Jack’s casual contemplation of killing his father (a car jack perilously and mischievously handled by the boy while his father on the ground below) it’s not hard to imagine mythic implications. Dinosaurs? Yep, they’re in there. Malick likens human birth to the evolution of life. For about twenty minutes we are treated to Malick’s depiction of “ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny.” First there is algae, then some invertebrate sea creatures, a wrasse or two, fish (hammerhead sharks), amphibians, early prehistoric sea reptiles, then some stunning Spielberg-like dinosaurs prancing through a forested stream. Malick stops short of trumping Kubrick with some apes and the discovery of weaponry from 2001. Besides lacking subtlety, part of the weakness of these scenes, for me, was the lack of some accurate research in paleobotany. The trees and vegetation seem clearly contemporary, making one feel that some prehistoric bipeds were on a fly-fishing trip on a Montana river. Malick, I’m sure, felt that if Kubrick could get away with a prehistoric fantasy, he could as well.
The film’s majestic and evocative thaumaturgy leaves the viewer vexed much of the time. Malick points the camera up and about, and in all directions, leaving one disoriented. His attraction to natural beauty – birds, plants, prospects of grassy hills, the sky – like a young boy dazzling us with his first camera, further lends to the feeling of fragmentation. The sudden appearance of an old man’s hand, or a near subliminal swatch of a contextually switched scene, can frustrate or madden moviegoers who might demand a complete and articulated track. There is too much beauty in the serendipity and juxtapositions of plot, free associations and symbol for Malick to be lulled into a traditional narrative. Nor, like the many sequential mosaics popular during the last decade or two (Memento, 21 Grams, and Magnolia for example), does this film adhere to an algorithm of time rotation or reversal. Like a tree, and like nature itself, the film embraces a fluid, organic consistency. Malick knew that Heidegger believed that the language of poetic suggestion should supplant the rational description of things.
The plot, simple but furtively spun can be easily described: Elder Jack, an ostensibly successful city architect recalls his life in the wake of his mother’s death. She had raised three sons, and had borne the grief of losing her middle son. We learn that this boy died at age nineteen, but nothing in the film explicitly reveals the details. The film’s images seem to be the cascade of childhood memories of his upbringing and his relationship with his overbearing father, his mother, and a brother he envied. The mother’s death is not overtly mentioned, but appears as an inescapable conclusion to a conversion elder Jack has with his father on the phone. That’s really all, the rest is a wash of “Intimations of Immortality,” existential crises, great music, and wondrous cinema.
There is a recurring shot of a yellow and amber light with some bluish overlays, centered in a wash of darkness. Like Kubrick’s 2001 “monolith,” this shot becomes the big puzzler of the film. Each viewer should draw his or her own conclusion. For me, it seemed to be a womb-point-of-view of the outside world: the world we inhabit, or, in Heidegger’s language, “thrown.” Perhaps it’s just a lava lamp or a yellow-red herring. Continuing a bit with Stevens’s verse, I think we can imagine what Malick had in mind:
How high that highest candle lights the dark.
Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.
The Tree of Life is not just a director’s incandescent triumph. It’s hard to imagine a better performance from Brad Pitt, who finally creates a flesh and blood character after being typecasted (or miscasted) in so many mediocre action films. Jessica Chastain, who is a new face to me, convincingly conveys the frustrated “fifties woman” who shoulders the child rearing, housekeeping, and occasional acts of cruelty from her husband with utter grace and suburban stolidity. Sean Penn, whose character is jolted from his glass and concrete world with his mother’s death and the memories of childhood, is totally convincing in his alienation state of mind. The elder O’Brien boys, Hunter McKracken and Laramie Eppler are both excellent. Malick must have allowed much time for these kids to interact together since their brotherly synergism seemed so real. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s work was sensational, and, of course, Desplat’s choices of classical music were unerringly selected.
Seeing this film first at Rhinebeck’s Upstate Films was a bit of a chore. The air conditioning was inappropriately frigid and most of the audience, bracing their arms about their bodies, looked as if they could use Stevens’s shawl. A second viewing in Albany’s Spectrum 8 Theatres was far more engaging. Seeing this film two or even three times never exhausts – there are always new branches one can behold in The Tree of Life.