Archive for July, 2011

Movie Review: The Tree of Life

Posted in Misc, Review on July 8, 2011 by S.A.

“A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.” – Gustav Mahler

It is fitting that snippets of Mahler’s First Symphony can be heard in Terrence Malick’s amazing new film The Tree of Life. It is an endeavor with such grand aspirations that the Austrian composer would certainly have approved of it. How many movies include a prologue that starts with the Big Bang itself and goes from there? And just as with Mahler’s longest work, his Third, we are taken on a voyage through all of time, where the void gives way to inanimate matter, giving way to primitive life, leading to mankind, our troubling questions and spiritual ruminations, and eventually ending as a hymn to Love.

I had rather high expectations for this film, considering the near-worship which reviewers have been showing towards it. When multiple critics compared it to my favorite film of all time, Kubrick’s 2001:A Space Odyssey, I began to obsess about seeing it. Having done so a few days ago, I can say that it is indeed a great film, and I’m no less obsessed with it now, as I fumble about trying to find words to express how moving it was. And while some of my hopes were not met, others were exceeded: there were times I was bored and disappointed, there were moments when I openly wept at the beauty of what was unfolding, visually and sonically.

It would be difficult to write anything that would qualify as a spoiler for this film. It isn’t plot-driven, and there really isn’t anything to give away. It is (largely) the story of one Jack O’Brien (played by Sean Penn as an adult, though most of the film is a flashback to his childhood), grasping for meaning and healing in a puzzling life that is the same life we all lead. We start under the influence of two Giants, exerting opposing and powerful forces on us; the nurturing mother that brings grace, love, forgiveness, and the stern father that simply wants to harden us against an antagonistic world far more unforgiving than he.

As an aside, I only know the main character’s name because of what I have been able to read about the film. It occurred to me shortly after the film ended, that I could not recall any names being used in the dialogue at all. There was only The Son, The Two Brothers (whom I could not keep separate), The Father, The Mother. In a movie where the characters are archetypes, this is actually very fitting indeed. Why give them names at all? We already know who they are.

“It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” says the masculine. “Unless you love, your life will flash by,” says the feminine. Both statements clearly ring true, but how do we go about embracing them both in some integrated way? How many of us can claim to have done so? “Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me.  Always you will, ” says the child. And then come the lessons of pain and loss and we ask huge questions that never get answered; we become adults scarce half made up, without the knowledge we thought we’d have.

If you want tidy stories with no loose ends at the conclusion, this one is not for you.

What you take away from the film will largely be a function of your religious persuasion (or lack thereof):  while the biblical references are rather clear, starting with the scripture from Job that opens the story, one can as easily see the movie as and indictment of religion and its lack of an answer to the Problem of Evil: “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen,” Jack says to the christian God he was raised to worship, after witnessing an accidental death. “Why should I be good when You ain’t?”

What everyone who has an appreciation of the numinous will agree on, though, is that The Tree of Life is as spiritual a film as has ever been made. And while I hope that some day, a pantheist composer will write an oratorio celebrating quantum electrodynamics and galactic evolution, fractal geometry and the Incompleteness Theorem, biochemistry and ecology. Until then, the brief history of time, as laid out here in The Tree of Life, is a damn fine approximation to it.

And then there is the fantastic use of music throughout. The scenes that witness the evolution of the cosmos are narrated by the ethereal soprano singing the Lacrimosa from Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem For My Friend. Interestingly, this was a work written for the deceased director Krzysztof Kieślowski, another artist that conjured up art on a large scale indeed. (Music fans that lean more towards prog-rock than classical may recognize Preisner as the artist that provided orchestration for David Gilmour’s On An Island.) Also lovely was Malick choice of Smetana’s The Moldau, a divine piece of river music, to accompany the images of the young boys growing up. Just as the river was the primary symbol of the Mother in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

For now, I’ve lost my desire to watch other films, because they’ll seem so banal in comparison. I instead go back to the music of Mahler. It’s as close to the same feeling as I’ve been able to find.

If only more art would dare to aim this high.