Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Tree of Life

Over the next few weeks, Shooting Wall will have an open forum on the blog in which we discuss Terrence Malick's Tree of Life. This will be a chance for all of us to work through some of our ideas and interpretations of the film, as well as to discuss/disagree/debate with each other. This forum is open to anyone who has anything to say about the film whether you agree or disagree with our positions. You can always email us your responses at and we will be happy to post your responses here to add to the forum.

In previous posts, we have Mike McCraken's initial review of the film, followed by Josh Martin's review form June 11th. Below is Ben Webster's response to Josh's review, as well as some of his initial thoughts on Tree of Life.

Thoughts on Tree of Life by Ben Webster

Where is the line between pretention and sincerity? How does it map on the line dividing failure and accomplishment? Accusations of pretentiousness are a bane of the solitary cinephile adrift in a pop culture milieu, driving the harshest critics of auteurism at times to defend the uncompromising vision of a “difficult” film-maker. We are accustomed to defending minimalism, long duration, political clarity, formalism, humorlessness, experimentation. Tree of Life is a thornier case; a maximalist art film marketed to mainstream audiences, overstuffed with sounds and images, symbols and effects assembled with symphonic intensity and complexity. After a first viewing, I stake a position between Josh’s accusations of pretentiousness (of form and content), and the laudatory praise coming from certain critics. In this start of a conversation with Shooting Wall and friends, I’d like to pose the question of what Tree of Life is about- what Malick sets out to accomplish. From here I think we can offer better assessments of how well his work succeeds, and have a platform to discuss elements of the film in more detail.

What the hell is going on in Tree of Life? There are no fewer than 5 temporal settings (if we can count the creation of the world and the afterlife as discreet time periods) in non-chronological order, there are dinosaurs and planets, there are movie stars walking through deserts, there are sunflowers and frogs on rockets, there is Ma Vlast and Brahms’4th, there are unmoored voiceovers and jolting, elliptical cuts, all within a mode, however cosmic in scale, of psychological realism. Given this surplus of material, I defer to my personal sensation as a starting point. The first hour of Tree of Life is unrelenting and gripping; it affected me physically. While I do not claim this to be a universal experience, it is hard to deny the power of the film’s first several movements (up to the end of the Smetana piece on the soundtrack, or at the conclusion of the growing-up montage.) Malick establishes a problematic of the type found in horror or disaster films, but on a far more sophisticated register: life is terrifying. Not the life of this or that particular character (the film slows considerably once it crystallizes around the grown boy’s life), but of existence, universally, at every scale.

Tree of Life, a degenred horror film, draws upon three rich sources for its epic opening statement: science, religion, and psychoanalytic theory. The already infamous “creation of the universe” sequence, then, is a spectacularly rendered affirmation of what science tells us, that the universe is violent, huge, and indifferent. The sequence is a response of sorts to the first Texas sequence, set in the late 1960’s, in which a family grieves the loss of a son. Here the religious/metaphysical theme is posited- the human effort to find meaning in life and death, to reconcile psyche and society with indifferent nature by way of imagined higher purposes. Yet it is only with the beginning of the second Texas movement, which will dominate the film, that this problem acquires force. The incredible montage from birth to adolescence is a treatise on the development of the human psyche. Mirror stage, Oedipal triangulation, development of language and social consciousness- an aestheticized psychodrama for sure, but also one of primal force (I want to comment later on the amazing use of subjective camera here.) Malick will elaborate further with symbolic sexual initiation, revolt against the father, etc., but the essential point is posited here with chilling vigor. Romanticized childhood is actually a traumatic awakening to the horrors of human existence, as little Sean Penn will find and big Sean Penn will anguish over in his elevators and wastelands.

Behind the real beauty of these cinematic depictions, these three planes of horror are pinned together to constitute an admirable project. In ranging from a slice of dark Americana to prehistoric Earth to the Big Bang, Malick attempts to bridge a form of narrative cinema with a realm of the human known usually forbidden to the medium. Instead of relying solely on the interiority of characters, expressed through dialogue and action, to posit his concerns, Malick shows it, as if to say: it is no secret, this is the universe as we know it to be; these are dinosaurs who ruled a world, and it was all snuffed out by an accident of gravity; even life itself, the very existence of my characters, was dependent on chance chemistry. I resist glibly calling this a search for the meaning of life. What interests me in Tree of Life, what its about, is the problem of human existence in a universe unsuited to the existence of the human psyche- a psyche that can not possibly comprehend the universe’s scale, indifference, and temporal existence- yet an existence that we must muddle through in suffering. This is what Tree of Life is about, at least for the period in which it burns across the screen with vibrant power.

So I don’t think Tree of Life is pretentious; I do not believe that Malick is trying to prove his greatness. Rather, I think the director is pursuing an ambitious thematic portfolio, and succeeds in part with incredible formal technique, among other attributes. But I understand why people would think it is a pretentious film. Indeed, the most pretentious-seeming parts of Tree of Life are the very parts that betray Malick’s ambitious problematic of cosmic destruction and human suffering, and I think, reduce it from great to good. Undoubtably the worst idea, and the worst sequence in this work is the tidal afterlife scene, in which the family in reunited amidst a flock of souls, lost and found. Or something like this. The second half of the film builds to this scene for a long time, with whispered voiceover intimations of love responding to Malick’s queries to the void of existence, voiced by Penn’s character. It’s a let down because the film heretofore had fronted like a darkly brilliant philosophy major, only to reveal itself as evangelical youth group leader opportunistically reeling in lonely undergrads. Tree of Life fearlessly poses the dark puzzle of existence, only to suggest as a solution… love? And not just any love, but one visually rendered as a new age-y family vision quest thing. It’s a disappointing, middle-brow mystical gloss.

There is substantial beauty and mystery in Tree of Life, but without the sustaining tension of the dark problematic of existence, it collapses into mush. For an apolitical work, which this film is, this problematic must be held in suspense (if playing out on a social scale, the solution is abolition of capitalist relations, natch!) There is frankly no answer to it, and if there were, it definitely not be love. Malick sabotages his film by stupidly trying to answer a question he poses brilliantly and forcefully. Give us dinosaurs in a moment of grace, give us a boy drowning a negligee in the river, give us butterflies and Peter Rabbit, but please don’t give us bullshit.

I feel I’m just scratching the surface here and am looking forward to SW and friends’ comments on what I believe to be an important film, and my first crack at making sense of it. It would be great to get into the Texas narrative, the cinematography, the score and sound editing, symphonic montage, specifics of the ethical and metaphysical thrusts of the film, reception and marketing. Fire away.
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  1. I do not believe it is necessary to defend maximalism in film, as I think this is more or less the norm in both mainstream and art house films. Minimalism, in general, needs defense mostly because most audiences are unwilling to put up with the demands of minimalist art. On the other hand, I do not think people have a problem with maximalism, in fact, this is the general preference for most audience I think.

    I more or less agree with you here; I do not believe the film is a total failure or totally pretentious either. In fact, formally I find many of the elements quite successful (the elliptic narrative, jump cutting, and shifts in space and time), but what you call bullshit (namely the final sequence) I call pretentious. I do not feel the need to defend every art film from calls of being pretentious just like I would not call everything "pop" crass or not without merit. Perhaps it is a matter of semantics, but I find the scope of the film, its use of music, and thematic ambitions to be a bit too much to sustain, self-important and grandiose in an annoying way.

  2. wow, you didn't mention God I think once in your review...and you dismiss everything about God in the film as Malick trying to say that God is not real, yet the entire film is a Theodicy (a defense of God) to say that whatever the reasons are that God allows evil to happen, in the end there is a reason for all of it, and everyone in their different ages of existence will have the inner healing and unite with all the losses they had in this world, every wrong will be made right. Perhaps Malick' doesn't show a God actively involved in Creation, but what he does show is that somehow this is all beyond us in a way that only visual images can properly convey, as Kubrick said about 2001 = the medium is the message. You are correct on one thing I can agree, the film is not pretentious...

  3. The fact that god has anything to do with this film makes it that much more obnoxious. I believe that Malick does reference god or a creator in this, but I do not believe his overall point is that god, necessarily, allows evil to happen or that every wrong will be made right. In fact, I think what Malick is trying to get at is humanity's insignificance in the face of the world/nature, which is so large, staggering, and so many billions of years old that ultimately everything that happen is so small in comparison. I suppose you could call this god, if you that helps you sleep at night (and I do think Malick believes in god), but I don't think when he is showing creation or the cosmos or dinosaurs he is thinking about god. I think the final sequence (by far the worst in the movie) is where he really bring god into it. And just because something could be a reference to god or a god or whatever does not mean it is not pretentious; the idea of god is possibly one of the most pretentious things humans every created for themselves...