Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Life, the Universe, and Everything: THE TREE OF LIFE


When I reminisce about my childhood, I don’t tend to remember specific scenes. No, what my mind conjures up are images, fragments, sounds, sensations, and emotions. Out of this noise arise scenes, moments, narratives informed by the stories and anecdotes that I remember and that I’ve been told that contextualize almost all. The genius of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is how it builds a story of a family out of such a collage of impressions, fragments of time, space, and sound. It leaves contextualizing to the audience, to gather clues from concrete details and allow them to slowly, inexorably, build up into a larger picture. The film carried me into its rhythms, its patterns, its moods, its swirling classical score and flowing montage, creating within me a deep sense of calm, a hushed reverence for the immensity and complexity of life. This is not merely cinema; this is a reverie, a trance, a meditation, a prayer.

Malick, a rare auteur indeed, has released just four films in the past four decades. He creates works that in other hands could be the stuff of cheap pulp, a killing spree (Badlands), a love triangle (Days of Heaven), a world war (The Thin Red Line), and a historical romance (The New World). His work exhibits a patience that builds upon philosophy, romantic visions of the natural world, and deep inquiries into the human experience, imbued with the rigor of intellectualism curled into pure emotion. These are films that feel engaged on a deeper than usual level with the characters within them. These are characters that don’t simply feel real; they feel imbued with a soul, a tangible spiritual nature that informs the core of their very being. In his latest film, Malick takes this one step further, giving us a tender, earnest look at the interior life of man across the vast reaches of time and space.

The Tree of Life opens on the face of a little girl who will become a mother and eventually lose a son, three decades in as little as three blinks of an eye. We are introduced to the slow, ragged early stages of mourning as the world moves along without this boy. The camera is subjective, but through whose eyes are we seeing? Attention is pulled towards shadows, towards neighbor kids. Are we searching futilely for this lost boy? His mother (Jessica Chastain) talks to an older relative (Fiona Shaw) who, in a cold close-up, tells her to be thankful she has two other sons. This is no consolation. His father (Brad Pitt) tells those offering condolences to move along, that they’ll be fine, but there’s a small hint of doubt in his eyes. The family has been wounded by this mysterious loss that laps at the edges of the frames, the circumstances of which never to be explored. This is a loss that can never be explained. A sudden death is never quantifiable, understandable, and yet it is carries with it nothing but meaning, an existential fracture that can never be fully repaired.

We see one of the surviving sons years later. He (Sean Penn) moves through a world of modern architecture, all cold angles, glass, metal, and white, dry walls. We gather that the anniversary of his brother’s death is approaching, that it may even be this very day. Has this man been imagining the pain his parents felt when they first heard the news? How could his brother have left them? What purpose could it have served? What has this trauma done to him, to his family? “Where were you?” is the whispered question that rattles in his head in his mother’s voice. Who is “you?” Is it his brother? The universe? God?

As if to answer such a question that echoes from deep within a place of unimaginable pain and loss, Malick’s film flashes back, back before the death, back before birth, back to the birth of the universe. Nebulas swirl. Planetary bodies collide. Volcanoes erupt. Soon, though, life begins. Single-celled organisms soon give way to wriggling sea creatures that are soon enough giant sea creatures then, before long, dinosaurs. Then, though, a mother gives birth. It’s Texas. It’s the 1950’s. It’s a boy.

Once again, we are privy to a subjective camera. Now we have a viewpoint to match that of a young child. The camera is low as we follow an infant’s gaze, which becomes a toddler’s tottering gait, which becomes a rambunctious schoolchild’s run. We see large adult faces looming down, a jack o’lantern’s toothy grin held low, bubbles, grass, a cake, a plate, a candle, a lantern, a chair that seems to move itself, what must be an unseen adult’s hand kept out of frame. Under Malick’s direction Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera is inquisitive and roaming, catching bits of light and dust in its search for tangible details from Jack Fisk’s production design, Jeanette Scott’s costumes, from nature itself, as it grows gradually taller, smoother, more often tightly focused. Our gaze grows older alongside this young boy. Its restless curiosity finds deeper motivations, deeper questions. The grass has weeds that must be plucked; smiles and braids, even a slip, belong specifically to a girl-next-door; the commonplace mass of humanity has within it the disabled, the criminal, the wounded.

As he gets older, he (now Hunter McCracken) is allowed to roam more freely. “I found a dinosaur bone!” he shouts, holding a large rock he has plucked from an overgrown field. There’s an intense imaginative connection to the world in this boy. At play, he’s free. At home, he becomes withdrawn, carefully sizing up his father’s expression at the dinner table, constantly checking to make sure that he’s within an acceptable range of behavior. His mother, a kind, sweet, gentle presence, encourages his gentility. His father, harsher, tougher, more burdensome with the weight of his expectations, encourages a kind of self-doubting perfectionism. “You can’t be too good,” he tells his three sons. He’s rough, maybe even hurtful at times, but he’s just trying to show his love the best that he can. He doesn’t want to see in his sons a reflection of his own perceived failings.

Throughout the childhood seen here, the boy is often in the company of one of his brothers (Laramie Eppler), a companion in his adventures. The specter of death hangs heavy over their relationship and, though we know it is inevitable, it may even be our reason for being cast back into this sea of memories, the fact of his death oftentimes fades away. There are good times. There are bad times. But always his brother is present. There’s great love between them, but also rivalry, great caring, but also great potential for pain. When one coaxes the other into a dangerous situation that causes a sudden hurt, there is immediate remorse. “You can hit me if you want,” he says, offering his brother a plank of wood. The brother considers it, but tosses it aside. There may be hurt but there is forgiveness as long as they’re together. Later, we will see the brothers beaming at each other from opposite sides of a window, tapping on the glass. It’s in moments like this, a moment of solid and clear separation, that the brother’s eventual fate is brought back to mind.

This is a film that nestles an intensely personal human drama, sharply cutting to the bone, brushing strongly against the nerves, within the context of the entirety of existence, from birth to death, from the beginning of time, to an imagined reconciliation with all that came before. This juxtaposition shows how infinitesimally small individual human stories are in comparison to the grand sweep of time, and yet how each aspect of history, the personal and the universal, are just as profoundly moving and impactful, are just as mysterious. The mysteries of nature, the mysteries of the universe, the mysteries of God and the meaning of life, the mysteries of mankind, and the mysteries of what makes a man that which he becomes, all are equally ephemeral, unknowable, and endlessly ponderable. Can the sadness of the modern man brooding in a skyscraper be tied back directly to events of his childhood? Can the trauma of modern lives trace roots back to the dawn of the dinosaurs? Here is a film of questions that provoke deep, lingering lines of inquiry and yet never once moment-to-moment feels overly calculated.

Malick’s masterful technique here allows the moments, the shots, the scenes, the emotions, to flow intuitively. If I had to step back and explain away every transition, every fragmentary inclusion, I might be hard pressed to do so. After three viewings, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of the conclusion which offers a reunion and reconciliation but exists on a heightened imagined plane that seems either too literal or too vague. (It also feels somehow inevitable and perfect to me). But who cares about explaining away the magic of the film’s trancelike power, its hushed prayer for understanding and earnest exploration of the emotional landscapes of modernity? Each cut, each movement, feels so right. The film unspools like a memory, like a revelation, poetic, simple yet deep, densely enigmatic and utterly personal.

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