Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"The Tree of Life" Revisited















Although there are many movies that I argue with about people, there is always that ability to convey my point of why or why not I liked a certain movie. Kubrick is the father to most of my love/hate relationships with film, so I often talk about his flicks...but I always can back myself up and most of the time I can always allow the person I'm arguing with to see my point of view. This is not so for almost any of Terrence Malick films because of how unapproachable the director is. Even harder is it to convince someone to like "The Tree of Life" or show them why you liked it.

Malick is hard to watch because he's a poet and everything he does is emotional. This means that if he thinks his film would operate better without a narrative, then we get no narrative and this is just the case with "The Tree of Life". The film tries to encompass all of time, while still being true to a certain family, that at the beginning of the movie have their lives ripped apart by the death of their son. Malick is never quite obvious enough to tell us all of the circumstances, but there are some heavy metaphors that pop up all throughout the movie.

Yet without a narrative, where does that leave us? For most viewers, it leaves them in the cold, frustrated, and somewhat angry with wasting that large amount of time on a movie that just exists for the sake of existing. But I challenge you to not get bored with "The Tree of Life", to let yourself feel as Malick feels and to watch it with eager anticipation of what will happen next. You may notice some things that I think contribute to making the movie great.

GOD
Certainly, this is the biggest one that pops up. The movie starts with a quote from the Bible, from the book of Job: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth...When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" Barreling right into the grief section of the movie (for the movie is told with chapter-like sections, never brash enough to finalize one before starting the other) we are introduced once again to one of Malick's favorite techniques: the voice over. When these characters talk, they are almost always praying, asking God why. Why did it have to be their son? Why? It makes perfect sense because the wrestlings with God about why bad things happen to good people is one of the biggest struggles in the Christian faith. The philosophies all line up: everything happens for a reason, it's part of a bigger plan, God is in control, etc. etc. But when it's your son or your daughter, that's a new story. Malick is not blind to all these complexities and quickly showcases each and every one of them in their own way. Ultimately, though God is an unseen force of the movie, perhaps the biggest one, faith is one of the greatest senses of comfort one can have.

METAPHOR AND THE DAZZLING VISUAL
Obviously the visuals of the film are what draws people in. The affinity that Malick has for the natural world is very clear here, though he doesn't always give nature its fullest due as he does in "The Thin Red Line". The metaphors that pop up here range from death to birth. The most incredible of these sections are the aging of the children from infants to young adults, the father's obsessiveness, and the birth of the first child.

NATURE VERSUS GRACE
Another huge part of the movie is the idea of nature versus grace. Grace is the mother character, the one who always does something for others, the one who is lovely, the one all the sons want to be like. Nature only wants to please itself and can be seen symbolized by the father. These two raging forces are in constant opposition. Yet, they couldn't exist without the other one and they raise children without falling apart. Perhaps Malick is saying that man has a duality (something that he hasn't been shy from stating in film before) and that we are always raging war against the two conflicting sides of our mind.

CHILDHOOD
The movie plays out as a series of moments. As a quick blink into the past. We see ourselves in the three boys. We remember the simple things, the unexplained, and the little snippets of life that we don't know why they stick into our minds. They can be as simple as a curtain blowing in the wind or a shameful memory that plays all the way out. "The Tree of Life" does this better than any movie. We remember, the movie lets us do that.

TIME
Because it is so grandiose and perhaps even pretentious by nature (see what I did there?), "The Tree of Life's" time frame is hard to understand. We see characters disappear, we heard the voices pray, we understand the emotion; but we don't always understand where or when. This is completely purposeful, since Malick always has a hand in the editing process. The time of "The Tree of Life" isn't actually what's important. It's the characters and the emotion.

LIFE
The biggest one, the most intimate one. "The Tree of Life" stretches for the space of all humanity and somehow makes it work. It goes beyond itself to try to show us creation and then the afterlife. What good does this do? Perhaps none, but the movie's evocative tone surely moves me every time I see it. From the beginning of time to the end, "The Tree of Life" simply sings.

I have seen Malick's film probably five or six times now and each time it has had a profound impact on me that I can't explain. It is an emotion, a color, and a glorious, wonderful film. I may not be able to argue and convince someone to like it; but I like it, and that's good enough for me.