"Why are we here? What's life all about?
Is God really real, or is there some doubt?
Well, tonight, we're going to sort it all out.
For, tonight, is the meaning of life."
- Monty Python and the Meaning of Life
For the past week and a half or so (that is since the Friday after last) I've been wrestling within me the fifth feature film from 68 year old hermit-philosopher-king-auteur Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, and I have a grasp of what it is. Arm's length, or maybe by a foot. I don't know still, as other things keep happening in life to tear me away from the images and feelings and awe evoked from what Malick is exploring. How to describe it? Well, Roger Ebert does it pretty succinctly, and also relates it to his own experiences growing up as it almost seems to be a quasi-autobiography for him (if not in all the details than emotionall). And Jim Emerson, Ebert's protege, also does a fantastic job of illustrating "how" to approach it. I recommend reading both, though at your discretion depending on whether you've seen the film or not.
It's not wrong of them to do this. This is deceptively dense AND simple filmmaking at the same time, much the same way Stanley Kubrick had done with his 2001: A Space Odyssey. Only this time there's even less of a clear narrative than in that film, which really when one thinks back had a strong through-line up until (arguably) the last ten minutes via science fiction writing. This time it's like opening up Malick's gigantic Notebook of Memories - akin perhaps to what I used to keep when I was in college, more like poetic/philosophical musings I never thought I'd share with anyone... maybe - and getting a look inside, as it goes through a human being's experience in life and something much bigger than anyone can really think about.
At first the film would appear to "be" about Jack (Sean Penn) working as an architect thinks back through time, first to his brother's death (is it a suicide or what is it? Perhaps inspired, I can speculate somewhat morbidly, by Malick's own brother committing suicide when he was relatively young), then through his own childhood growing up in Waco, Texas, in the 1950's, living with his father and mother and learning how to live.
This is a logline, but what else "happens" in the film? What's the story? It's not a story so much as the "Story of Life" I suppose. Usually there isn't a thru-line to life, though Malick does have certain things 'happen' like a character leaving to go off somewhere (like Jack's father, Mr. O'Brien, when he goes off "on business" that we don't know where), or when something happens like a physical accident like to Jack's brother out in the woods with a slingshot.
But as with Days of Heaven and other Malick Adventures, it's as much about memory as anything else, and how we piece together parts of life that matter, or that the parts that should be minor are the most significant (and you know, you reading this, that there is no such a thing as an insignificant memory, even the "boring" ones can have some meaning to them), and to a large extent how we fit into nature as a whole. But more than that, at least for a little while, Malick means to make the Memory of the Universe or how it could be perceived into the framework of the picture.
|::and cue Pink Floyd music in 3-2-1::|
Like Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" segment of Fantasia, Malick posits what the origin of the universe and Earth was like, only with better special effects and not-as-great music (though still very good) from Alexandre Desplait. In the conventional terms these are extraordinary images, done with the kind of visual FX splendor that made me more at peace than anything in the past year. And of course, as others have noted, there are dinosaurs. (For a moment only, don't get excited Raptor Hunters).
From here it transitions to showing... well, not the rest of the creation of the universe, that might make this a little too long (or perhaps Terence Malick's six-hour director's cut which will probably see the light of day on DVD if at all). It then goes on to show Jack's early life, first through his parent's courtship, then his birth with the now semi-iconic image of his feet being held and pondered by Mr. O'Brien (Brad Pitt), and then just being a baby, in his crib, being held and coddled by his Mother Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain, a quasi-reborn image of Liv Ullmann perhaps in American form), and even being told 'No' at doing a little thing as he plays that he shouldn't do.
... and so on and so on. What I've described should sound like there is a story here, and maybe there is. But it's one that is more felt than expressed. There is the narration from the boy played by Hunter McCraken, but it's done in whispering, as if he's telling us a secret of some kind (or maybe it's from the subconscious or a cinema-conscious or something-something, like in Godard's 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her). They're thoughts about the past, as if it's too sacred, even (or especially) the little things about a moment of time or just an observation, like when Young Jack passes by in town a criminal being put into the back of a car to be taken away.
It's a mind and state of narration that is not describing what we're seeing on the screen (though it is) so much as it's figuring things out in its own way. What is life but trying to figure out how to live, or how other people tell us to live, or what we do that could be wrong or right or just the way it is? Or what attitudes go with each parent, as they each love their own way.
Maybe I'm ruminating here a little, but that's the state of self I felt watching the better part of this movie. How it's shot is also crucial; Emmanuel Lubezki's camera glides along, sometimes noticeably hand-held and sometimes not, like a bird following along (or, dare I be pretentious enough, a God-like spirit of some kind, or just memory itself floating through pockets of time), and he as with the director are interested in these people being apart of the Earth (a friend of mine pointed out it's like a complimentary sense of geometric shapes of the people, which kind of goes above my head), and what really is faith.
|::baby's first thought:: "Neck!"|
I liked that the camera wasn't always sure where it would land on a scene or a moment; in a sense Malick is finding his way along with the characters, and there's a thrill for a little while in seeing this discovery of cinema taking place. That and the actors, given what they have who are characters not fully formed but perhaps with some backstory (i.e. Mr. O'Brien being a failed musician who now works at the local factory-plant and maybe has some bitterness), give convincing, real performances.
For a while I did love the movie... yet there was a point, and I could sort of feel it as it was happening, which is a scene where Young Jack, following his father leaving off on business (this coming off of the big family row that happens after a lunch-table confrontation, one of the few times we see Mr. O'Brien really get pissed), goes into a house. It seems abandoned, or that no one is just there at the present, and he roams around, and comes across a dress.
He brings the dress to bury it or get rid of it, so instead he puts it in a river. From here the film takes on a period of time that shouldn't feel too different from the loose-structure of the rest of the 1950's Waco scenes, as Young Jack wanders about his days ruminating and playing and wondering about his place in the world or with his family... and for the life of me, I started to tire of it. There is so much in the first two thirds of the film that works so well, the opening crisis-of-existence with the death of the brother and the adult life in a period of questioning, the 'Origins' section that is so masterful, and those passages of childhood that feel real and moving.
But after so long - and while it's two hours and sixteen minutes they feel longer as it's such a collection of scenes and moments less than a full story - I just started to think 'enough already', though not to the point where I was so done with it as to leave or whatever. There just seemed to be a certain point that Malick, perhaps unconsciously, was leading towards with his non-narrative, but then the non-narrative kept on going.
The childhood scenes do find a point of closure, with leaving the home due to something that's come up for Mr. O'Brien (wisely, we're not told really why, and like many other moments it's heard but not shown spoken), and then it flashes ahead back to Adult Jack scenes with the much adrift-looking Sean Penn. It's also at this point Malick decides to make his BIG ending, which has the air about it like the ending of the TV show LOST only double the WTF factor: everyone, main characters and those in the background of the Waco scenes, coming to meet on a beach.
It's still beautifully shot - maybe too much so, as if the cosmos is supposed to look like a commercial for pain medication - and there's a question mark that is enticing to the proceedings of a closing shot of a bridge (or that, as a possibility, it's all been in adult Jack's head the whole time). Yet I can't shake how so much of The Tree of Life affected me like going through the levels of happiness and pain that makes up a life, and what our position is in it?
There is the "Bigger" out there of space and how we're really just made of stars or whatever, and that dinosaurs did much the same as us. And then there's just how we live to day to day, what little moral challenges we come up against, how we cope in a family and love one another, and what grief really means. After the death of the brother a priest or reverend comes up to Mrs. O'Brien. "He's with God know." "He was always with God, wasn't he?" she responds. Maybe. Maybe not.
I'll love to come back to this film, even as I find it imperfect and, mostly in its last twenty minutes or so, messy and not able to find its way. Maybe that will endear me to it even more, or I'll just come to love the cinematography that much more and how vividly Malick and Lubezki and his composer Desplait capture 1950's Waco. Life is just full of maybe's, isn't it?
Postscript: any additional feelings or thoughts on a repeat viewing in theaters I'll either add to this blog as an addendum, or make up another blog altogether if it's such a strong thing to cope with. Also, this film has only some relation to another Big Tree in a film, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, though it's been a while since I've dipped into that mind-fuck pool.