Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thoughts on Tree of Life

In response to this opportunity to have a dialogue with other Shooting Wall member on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, I hope that I will be permitted to take a more photo-diary ranting route in which I try to map out my immediate thoughts and associations.
Paul Gauguin’s treaty on the human condition: his painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1898)

Here we have an image in 3 parts which propose a series of questions. Tree of Life seems to be thematically compiled in a similar sense.

Where do we come from? From scenes of a birth, CGI dinosaurs, and NASA-esque visual representations of the cosmos, one has the sense that Malick is attempting to draw a grandiose straight line from the creation to the universe(s) to prehistory to human existence. Perhaps this is where pretention takes hold, because that which makes Gauguin’s painting so successful, his lack of explanation and his preference for representation through the here and now, seem to be Malick’s weakness. Even in demonstrating the chaos of the universe and the spontaneity required for creation, Malick still turns at every step to explanation in nature.

What Are We? In the film this seems to correlate to the scenes of the young man now grown up played by Sean Penn. Scenes of isolated urban landscapes, cell phones, business conference rooms all attempt to answer the questions what are we right now. A culture of corporatism that permeates all aspects of our existence and shapes our interaction with the outside world and with nature.

Where Are We Going? This is to me where Malick loses a sense of his overarching vision. The scene on which all the people unite on a beach shore made me feel like one of two things happened: either Malick is stuck in his film school phase and can’t help but reference The Seventh Seal, or a producer came to him and said “oh, we gotta put a beach scene in here, it looks great in trailers- plus its summer and we are premiering at Cannes!” Either way, it falls short on every account to try and visualize what happens once we “leave” our bodies and only have our memories. It gave me the same feeling I had after the final episode of Lost: a combination of “are you kidding me?” and “why even bother.”

But I should cut him some slack. There are some beautiful moments in the film. Malick to me is a filmmaker of his generation. His visual ideas about science, life, human experience, and interaction could all seen to be shaped by his particular experience of it (in fact it would futile to deny this fact). But if we consider that he was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s we can know his points of reference. I have to think that he is familiar with the Ray and Charles Eames educational film made for IBM, Power of Ten, which was shown at some point in nearly every classroom in the USA.

Ray and Charles Eames

Some other possible references:

NASA (its creation and the space race in general) All Texans seem to have a sense of a great commitment to those things in the ground (Exxon and Texaco) and those things in the sky (Mission Control)

Home Videos and Super 8 film: Many of the shots in the film seem as though a very graceful toddler is filming. The exchange of glances, smiles, and twinkling eyes remind me of home videos. Like old super 8 films, those shots in Tree of Life are low to the ground, really form a child’s perspective, but also they have a smoothness and slightly out of focus feel that seems to mimic that of a child’s- both in regards to our eyes being particularly sensitive as children and in the fact that our memories blur those images which we are not completely able to process, perhaps on a visual or emotional level.

There is a famous Texas home video in particular:

Mary Cassatt: The Great Painter of Babies

There is little doubt, that if this film is somewhat autobiographical, which those in the know have said it is, then Malick adores his mother. His images of her walking down the block to the strip mall in her best dress, laying without a worry in the grass in the front yard, putting ice cubes on the feet of sleeping and unsuspecting children, all point to his conception of this women as a supreme being. But in all his adoration we find the typical clich├ęs of what it means to be a mother, a woman. He does, no doubt, subscribe to the idea that women are somehow inherently more childlike, closer to their children, and less inclined to seek out their own happiness. Perhaps this is an accurate picture of women at this particular time, but I find it just a bit overdone and somewhat annoying in a contemporary context. I hate to always be, or better yet, have to be, the standing feminist for Shooting Wall, but what are we to learn about the female condition from this film? Like Mary Cassatt, who painted what she knew: women in interiors, women with their babies, women standing at windows looking outside on the world that is going by without them- I find Malick’s vision of womanhood to be depressing.

Maybe I’m too eager to make a case for it, but I do think CGI dinosaurs are a political statement. It suggests that our director values science over other explanations of human existence. Couple this with minutes upon minutes of complete “scientific” imagery a la BBC Earth and Hubble, and we are left with this strange concoction of scientific method, eastern philosophy, and religious overtones. Feels like Film School 101 at times. But I for one find better questions and more astute answers from The Brothers Grimm, Has Christian Andersen, and Aesop.

Final Thoughts:

The only thing I feel the film really accomplishes is to push us toward the edges of liminality. We are constantly bombarded with images of people and things at liminal spaces: windows, doors, and shores. One of the last shots of the film is of a large bridge. The most pleasurable moments of the films are those in which we are allowed to linger at the border. When the film hovers in between the earth and transcendence that is really when Malick captures human experience, which really can be categorized as a threshold in which we constantly teeter toward death only to be reeled back into suffering.

-Carrie Love


  1. Susanna DuellmannJune 17, 2011 at 2:17 PM

    In this movie a filmmaker tried out to say something in pictures and it is nice that somebody - anybody!- tries this so hard and wins a prize. It is good that people talk about this movie and are animated by it to talk about movies in general. It is also good that stars participated in this film so people go to the cinema and see some...thing told in pictures that is not advertising something. Or is this movie advertising something? If somebody would tell me this film was sponsered by some conservative christian church it would be no surprise to me. Thank you Carrie for your thoughts on the mother in this film, I think she was meant as an ideal of a women and not as real as the documentary aesthetic wants to make us believe. I agree this movie is hard to watch for a women from nowadays that is allowed to define herself by something else then motherhood, but my guess would be the film tries to make a bold statement of "this is how it always was and this is how it should be". For me personally it was not a pleasure to watch this film because I saw Solaris and 2001 and also The Void and all of them I liked much better and found them more true and more profound. It is interesting that the presentation of women or the in these films is so different! In 2001 the universe is a mothers womb - that meets my understanding of these things so much more! One suggesstion I would like to make: The end of "The Void" could be intercut with the beginning of the Tree of Life cutting out the "funny" penis-parts of The Void which are always a laugh in the cinema although The Void tried to make a serious statement. Some of the dead-serious filmmaking of T.M. would help here.

  2. I'm glad to have some other ladies validate my feelings about the "female aspect" of the film. Not that I expect Malick to get it exactly right, but in his attempt to address the BIG QUESTIONS of life, but he seems to tend toward the indiv...idual and not necessarily the universal. I too immediately thought of Solaris after I saw the film; so many similarities and this recurrent idea of a woman who probably only ever existed as idealized memories. I saw Solaris about a month ago at International House here in Philly to a very crowded house, which suggests to me that people are seeking out these sort of slow and meditative films, but only when there is some kind of name recognition or a cult built around it (both of which seems to be the case with Tarkovsky and Malick). But even with its flaws, I found Solaris so much more rewarding at the end.
    I almost feel like I would have liked Tree of Life more if it were just the straight narrative story of the boy growing up and him looking back as an adult. Perhaps this might have been boring, but it probably wouldn’t have suffered from pretention. In the end I enjoyed parts of the film immensely, and as you say Susanna, it’s nice to see a film that is VISUAL and tells a story though images, but pretty pictures, like pretty people, can only entertain and enrich the world so much.

  3. Carrie- your thoughts on the film in general, and on female representation, are interesting. There's a real question about autobiographical content, but even a reading without any knowledge of Malick is fairly alarming to me. The mystical elevation of the maternal is paired with other types; I'm thinking of the icey career woman (Penn's wife), and the receivers of the adolescent protagonist's obsessive gaze, as much human forms as symbols (the stolen negligee.) Tree of Life may be critical of the form American masculinity takes, but it clearly demands the audience adapt the perspective of a boy/man. I hadn't thought about it before your comments, but the women in the film are curiously quiet. Men hit and yell, women sometimes cry and even sometimes float.

    I wonder what we can make of the child development scenes, and what they make necessary in the character of the mother. In my previous comments I thought Malick was working from Freudian ideas here. This might have necessitated a classical/conservative form of the relationship between son and mother to convey the substance with any force of universality. But now I've rethought to a degree. I think of our protagonist's own consciousness of his loss of innocence, a relation to his unconscious that is shocking in a coming-of-age tale. Not sure where this line of thought is going, but I think the mother is presented in a noxious mystical/passive/earthy way.

    I think your comments on contextualizing the visuals and characterizations within mid-century Texas culture are great. I hadn't considered the oil (dead dinosaurs) & NASA (cosmic shit) convergence in 60s Texas. This also pushes me to reconsider my previous thought that Tree of Life is an apolitical film. Malick urges us to explicitly contrast the geography and culture of post-War America with that of our postmodern present. Pleasant golden Waco and cold harsh downtown Dallas. This thickens the stew and adds a new theme to the film's dense timeline. How to account for the changes taken place, which as you allude include Kennedy's assassination- but I think there's also a shadow of Vietnam in the death of the brother and the work scenes of the older father. Food for thought, but unfortunately thoughts which amplify the film's failed conclusions.