Jul 11

Film 2Oh!!: Raiders Of The Last Archetype

Do You See + FT3 comments • 407 views

37: The Tree Of Life (cinema)

Terrance Malick’s divisive The Tree Of Life is probably my favourite Malick since Badlands. Which isn’t saying an awful lot, me and Malick have rarely clicked, but I was much more engaged with it than I was with even The New World (which I saw in an excellent double bill with Pocohontas so I knew what was going on)*. And I cannot say I particularly liked Malick’s everything but the kitchen sink history of creation / forensic family drama. But it was very interesting, a fascinating watch stylistically but, and this is where I usually part company with Malick, also narratively. Particularly if you top and tail the film, lopping of the National Geographic and the Ten People You Meet In Heaven segments, you are left with a ninety minute impressionistic view of a disfunctional fifties family.

Or at least cinema, and cinematic technique, wants us to feel it is disfunctional. The air of dread around the dinner table and Brad Pitt’s hard, driven father figure all suggest that there is more to this scenario than meets the eye. The undercurrent of tension plays well, the kids are our viewpoint characters and as there is barely a narrative, tension fills the gaps. But even when Pitt’s father explodes, the film suffers from a difficult dichotomy. Film has taught us that aggressive dads are bad, that dramatically there is no smoke without fire and dread has to come from somewhere. But at the same time Jessica Chastain’s mother is so gossamer thin, an angel made flesh in her sons eyes that any comparison with the father will make him feel wanting. The most burning question I wanted to ask others on the way out is if Brad Pitt’s father is a bad dad? Or at least is he abusive, bullying or just the way Dad’s were in the fifties? Because it strikes me that I knew the dread around the dinner table, there was real sanction in “wait til your father gets home“, and the role of the father as disciplinarian was often out of necessity and not seen as a bad one. It was the way that, up until recently, Western families were.

This is when the lightbulb tinged, possibly annoying everyone else in the cinema. The Tree Of Life starts with big whispered questions, around loss, around grief. Asking God why could he take a child. We then get the already infamous creation/evolution sequences – and a dinosaur standing on another dinosaurs head. This is all shared history, and definitely shapes some sort of secular spiritualism for the film(being set to religious choral music). And then, after half an hour or so, we finally settle into the Wonder Years or Stand By Me, just in the fifties in Waco, Texas. Impressionistic shots of a summer with three boys playing, with a kind of detail which suggests that this is autobiographical. It may be, but that doesn’t matter. The small details feel right, which means you don’t miss what is actually missing. And what is missing is context, no TV, no radio, no newspapers, no history, no future. Its a bubble of archetypes, a bubble of the standard American, if not Western, nuclear family in the boomer years. And if the film connects, as it did with me, its all about getting the nostalgia right. I did not grow up in fifties Texas, but I did grow up with a similar family set-up: Dad out at work, Mum as a housewife, playing in the streets, being naughty, pushing at my parents. Something I did not expect from a Malick film, an emotional narrative connection, was created.

Then the cynic in my took over. This could be an intensely personal project. This could be autobiographical. But does it harm the films accessibility, its surprisingly wide release for example or its awards potential with a Cannes Jury or Academy who will have similar childhoods? Because I think the nostalgia seeping through those sequences is so strong that for all the guff surrounding the central sequences, its difficult to not connect, and not be moved. Unless it feels universal because its very much a boys view of his mother and father and I was a boy once. I am not sure I have seen many female reviews of this film, which may be interesting since this film deifies** the mother, and the boys relationships with their father is partially based around their masculinity.

In the end Malick has spliced a natural history film with a Hallmark family movie, shot it in a way that invites study and throws Sean Penn in the mix to suggest that it all means something. I don’t think it adds up to that much, nostalgia is at best a self-indulgent wallow, and the cod spiritualism almost completely derails it. But it is an interesting way of spending a couple of hours, and crucially shorter than Transformers 3.

*Neither are a patch on Adams Family Values take on the same story.

**There is an interesting reading of the film in which the mother is so angelic because she actually is an angel. She barely interacts with anyone outside of her own family, and only really exists for them. It would fit a few of the trickier bits of the messy end sequence too. And explains why she is flying in the bit where she flys.

Film 2Oh!! is an attempt to write about every film I have seen this year which I am not helping with by seeing lots of films all the time. This year I have seen 143ilms, written about 37.


  1. 1
    Ewan on 15 Jul 2011 #

    I’ve read a few commentary pieces on this, and I think for Malick the key is the Book of Job which is quoted at the beginning (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”), and specifically the sense of creation in the quote as well as his favoured motifs of light and music. And if the children in the film are all sons, then you could see the parents as different aspects of the Creator (chastisement, nurture, etc). Now, from what I understand having talked to my wife about this, the question Job poses is why must people suffer, and God’s response is to impress upon Job that God is above that kind of questioning, that human suffering is insignificant in the face of all that God has achieved and has responsibility for. In terms of the film, I think Malick’s religion is more syncretic (if that is the right word), a form of religious feeling which eschews God as a being, but rather finds something divine in the natural world, in light, in life, in motion, and I think (over most of his films, but especially the recent three) what Malick wants to capture is something religious that answers the pointed questions of his characters’ voiceovers (always questioning the point and value of individual suffering), something somehow higher and removed from the quotidian. His camera is always cutting away to light dappled through blades of grass, hands reaching out to touch things, or just rising spontaneously from whatever’s happening to look at the sky, just stuff like this, textural things. For me, it engenders a feeling of warmth and comfort, into which the nostalgic aspects of the setting are sort of commingled. Though I can quite understand that others might baulk at Malick’s methods, but perhaps more so at his evident sincerity, which can be a bit overwhelming (especially since it doesn’t seem to admit of much humour or self-awareness).

  2. 2
    Pete Baran on 15 Jul 2011 #

    I think you are probably right: just before the “creation of the universe” sequence we get another of the whisperovers – Why must we suffer, or some such banality. It then cuts to lava, explosions, AWESOME NATURE. Its the film equivalent of Lady Gaga singing “Sorry i can’t answer your metaphysical question, I’m kinda busy”.

  3. 3
    swanstep on 16 Jul 2011 #

    There appears to be a phrase (or more) omitted near the end of the review/article: ‘Unless – and I am not sure I have seen many female reviewers’ etc. makes no sense. Unless what? Suggestion: ‘Unless connecting with the film is a guys-only thing’.

    I haven’t seen TOL yet but I’m glad to hear that it’s relatively short. Thin Red Line was as long as Badlands and Days of Heaven put together, and The New World was somewhat similarly baggy. All of Malick’s films have good stuff in them, but recently they’ve grown way too long (it’s hard to keep control of an intense poetic visual language for more than about two hours – people forget that things like 2001 and The Shining are under 2.5 hours – they just feel longer than that esp. first time though because they’re so visually intense. About 2.5 hours is most people’s upper limit for sustained receptivity and intense concentration at an art gallery/museum too).

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