Friday, July 8, 2011

"And the sons of God shouted for joy": Terrence Malick's Tree of Life


Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother in Terrence Malick’s Palme d'Or winning Tree of Life, called the film, a “visual poem” recently on the Guardian’s podcast.   And that’s about right, for the film follows no classic narrative structure; it’s more stream of consciousness meditation than story.  And I guess it’s the poetic, non-linear quality of the film that has left many audience members baffled and even a little angry, and has prompted articles like this one in The New York Times:  “Walking in and Walking Right Back Out of ‘The Tree of Life’”.  In the screening I attended, the two young men sitting behind us, after 30 minutes of shuffling in their seats and only half-suppressing sigh and groans, stumped out of the theater with a “This is stupid.”  Not the film “starring Brad Pitt” I’m guessing they were probably expecting.


I suppose I was able to go into the film a little more prepared than those two young men, having watched Malick’s other films, Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, and fortunately knowing, then, something more about Malick’s sensibilities.  I’d also heard that the film “challenges” and “tests” its audiences, and it did help to be ready for that kind of experience.  And while I confess that the 17-minute section near the beginning of the film--in which Malick imagines the beginning of the universe--and we see not characters but explosions, amoeba, and dinosaurs--did test me a little and while the entire film challenged my ability to understand what Malick wanted to say at each moment, I never wanted to leave; on the contrary, Malick, I think by the sheer weight the beauty on the screen, held me pinned to my seat, often in a kind of rapture. 

In a few transcendent moments in my life, I have been moved unexpectedly to tears by a beautiful painting or sunset or by a strain of sweet music.  This film has that power.  Throughout, I was carried along by waves of sensation; I was frequently in the clutch of threatening tears without really knowing why.  In a classic film or story, you sense the climax coming; you know, usually, when to reach into your pocket or purse for a tissue to sniffle into.  Here, I could not predict that moment, those moments.  And I could not understand the why’s of the emotion that did overtake me.  Was it just the startling impact of the cascading images of beauty?  Was the film tapping into some deep longings or memories or questions buried in my subconscious?  Probably, yes, to all of that.  Still, pinpointing the reasons would be impossible and, I think, not, ultimately, what I want.  While the film asks deeply profound and existential questions and so ought to be examined on the intellectual level, it is also a film that exists, like music, like dancing, like a painting, equally, if not more so, at the emotional level. 

I read a piece a long while ago in The New Yorker featuring the genius pianist and then teenage prodigy, Evgeny Kissin, and the interviewer/writer reflected on the way that Kissin seemed to use words awkwardly, almost with embarrassment during the interview – he could not express himself well.  But when he sat down to play, he was utterly free, eloquent, powerful and graceful; his hands, the keyboard, were the components of his language.  Perhaps, since that article, Kissin has become more adept in giving interviews, but I rather like the idea that his primary language, his heart language, if you will, can voiced only through the piano.  Terrence Malick is a notoriously shy filmmaker; he will not give interviews, and he did not appear at Cannes to receive his award.  Perhaps he feels, and I do feel, that his films speak for themselves and they bear his unmistakable personal stamp, his voice.  The Tree of Life is no exception; it is fully eloquent, but experiencing it is like being immersed in another form of communication, one that reaches not just the intellect but the emotions. 

But all this discussion has been very subjective, hasn’t it?  What is the film about, anyway?  How about some concrete detail?  Yes, hmmm.  Because this film touches on such an emotional level, the concrete is difficult.  I could tell you about Michelangelo’s PietĂ  if you've not seen it; before I went to Rome, I myself saw pictures of it, and it was described to me by an art historian – I could grasp what she said about the color, form, and detail of work – but until I saw it myself in St. Peter’s Basilica, I had no comprehension at all of its beauty, heartbreak, and power.  This film is like that.  You need to experience it to know it.  And while all films communicate via imagery and so cannot ever be really translated to words, or to my particular words here, Malick’s films, and this one, too, demonstrate fully just how complex and untranslatable the language of film is. 

In spite of the inadequacy of words, however, I want to try to respond somehow, in the best way I can, in words, to some of the details of The Tree of Life.  Filmmaker Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and soon, Looper) on the /Filmcast recently said that it’s difficult to talk about the film “without sounding pretentious and awful,” and I fear I’ve already stepped into the pretentious and awful category, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I plow on.  It’s the sort of film that makes you want to say something back to it.  

I did worry, before I saw the film, that it itself would be too grand, too over-reaching, too ambitious to succeed.  What filmmaker can make a film about the beginning of the world, of life and not seem pretentious?  Stanley Kubrick attempted it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and most film critics seem to think he succeeded, but well, he’s Kubrick, and do we really need another film like that?  Malick has proved that we do, I think, and if The Tree of Life equals 2001 in its ambition, it surpasses it in beauty and warmth.  The Tree of Life is about life, the universe and everything, and it does have a very long sequence without human characters, but, unlike 2001, it is firmly grounded in one particular family, one particular person, and because we feel a strong connection throughout to this person, Jack, played by Sean Penn but also played, more particularly and powerfully, by the young first-time actor, Hunter McCracken, the vastness of the universal, indeed, the universe, takes on poignant significance.  I cared about the beginnings of the universe, as Malick has imagined it, because I cared about Jack; Malick beautifully connects to two, the abstract and the particular.

But on to some of the particulars.  The film jumps easily through time and space, but its “present,” if I might call it such, is with Sean Penn, the older Jack, a clearly financially successful man in his late 40’s who appears to be either haunted or emotionally dead or both, and he moves through the space of his cold glass-and-steel city world as if submerged, isolated from the world and the others around him.  Nothing is explicit, but the older Jack is in crisis.   It is clearly an existential crisis, related to the problem of suffering in the world, specifically the suffering of his own family, in the face of the death, some years previous, of his younger brother, a death which came in the brother’s very young adulthood.  This grief opens the film and colors and interprets in some sense all that we see after it.  We see the news of the death broken to Jack’s mother and then to his father.   We see the unbearable weight of grief on both of them and the hollow non-answers of the platitudes those around them offer, relative to the death.

Also framing the film, as a sort of pairing to the grief and death, are two themes: one, appearing on the screen, as a quotation from the book of Job, part of God’s answer to Job’s suffering at the end of that book—“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38:4, 7)--and the other, in a voiceover from Jack’s mother—“There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.”   The film, thus, at its heart, shows suffering and brokenness, and then asks why and explores how we might live in a suffering world, a world that is at once breath-taking in its beauty and horrifying in the ugliness both without and within.   For Malick does not just turn the lens outward and make Jack ask, "why has this thing been done to me?"  We also see Jack in falls from grace, boyish in character though they are, and he must also ask, "why do I inflict pain on others?"  How may we be healed from both?  Is healing possible?

It is through the lens of the older Jack’s memory, that we return with him to his life as a young boy, a boy looking and moving towards manhood, and to his life with his two younger brothers and with his father and his mother.  It is this section of the film, with Jack and his family, that the film is most particular and for me, most poignantly powerful.  The most linearity occurs in these sections though the film is always impressionistic in its storytelling.  This impressionistic character of the lives depicted beautifully captures what memory is like, especially memories of childhood, fleeting but vivid and intense fragments that shape so powerfully one’s sense of personal identity and worldview.  The specific memories as they are so seamlessly cut together pursue both the question of suffering and the question of how to live, following grace or following nature. 
We see Jack observing the way his mother—grace—moves through the world and the way his father—nature— moves through it, the mother (played by the sublime Jessica Chastain) embracing beauty, tenderness, kindness love, herself a part of the graceful natural beauty of the world; 
the father (played by Brad Pitt) doggedly following the path of material success, clearly loving—or longing to love—his boys, but giving them rules, laws, and discipline more than spontaneous affection.  He is a deeply flawed man, flaws that Jack sees and hates.

And so Jack has these two models before him, but he soon finds that living is not so simple as following the beautiful model his mother offers; his own self and desires intrude, and in a few deftly sketched scenes, we see Jack falling from that grace, willfully and almost gleefully inflicting pain on his brother or throwing rocks through a window, breaking the glass simply for destruction’s sake.  His guilt after these things weighs on him, and in a voiceover, an echo of Romans 7 where Paul outlines his internal struggle between righteousness and evil, Jack says, “What I want to do, I can't do. I do what I hate.”  Jack, then, participates in and creates pain,  in opposition to what he knows, fully, is right.  He is thus culpable in some way in regards to the suffering of the world, and in a key moment in the film, he recognizes aloud—an exemplary moment in which I think we understand that the older Jack is interpreting the life of his younger self—that he is more like his father, as troubled as that relationship with him is, than his mother. Trouble within.

The trouble without takes not just the form of his brother’s death, of his father’s harshness, but also the form of the world's scars: the neighbor boy whose head bears a patch of baldness, a burn from a vicious house fire; the man who limps with handicap across the street as the boys stare; the haggard prisoners, at a stop in the town; the man with epilepsy, in a fit on a lawn.  Malick, through the beauty and light of the film, still peppers the world with these figures of suffering or brokenness, and like the vividness of a childhood memory, they cannot be shaken.

What answer does Malick give to the questions of the film?  To Jack's crisis?  Does the grown-up Jack find redemption?  Malick, does give an answer, though not, I think, a definitive answer, and in spite of the biblical (and also Roman Catholic) references, I do not believe that the film is specifically tied to the redemption Christianity offers.  The clearest moment of redemption comes when, in a kind of pulling of the pieces of his memories of his family together at the end of the film, the older Jack imagines a reunion on a beach with his family--his father, mother, dead brother, younger brother--a demonstration, perhaps, of the belief that death does not end the possibility of healing, of forgiveness, of redemption, of new life.  And while this scene verges for me on the sentimental, it does not overshadow, ultimately, the beauty and impressionistic subtlety of the rest of the film.  I think Malick’s answer to suffering, guilt, and brokenness relates to new life, to creation, to grace covering over and transforming nature.  The long sequence in the film of the beginnings of the world says that new life underpins even this suffering present life, and that powerful beginning continues on through the births and even the deaths of Jack’s particular family.  Among the many breath-taking images or sequences from this film that will stay with me is one in particular – Jack’s birth.  His boyish form begins in the sea, under the water, and he swims or moves upward until we see his mother in the hospital, surrounded and bathed in white – a baby, Jack, is born.  The wonder and love and joy of that moment is transcendent.  In it, the beginning is contained, and “the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” 

I cannot tell to whom to recommend this film.  One’s response to it will be purely personal; you will love it, or it will not work for you, and I can’t predict which it will be.  It may glue you to your seat, or you may itch to leave.  Even if, however, you cannot embrace its themes and loose narrative, it, surely, is one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen; and I can recommend it fully to anyone on the strength of just that.  It’s a theater experience quite unlike any other.