Let’s start with a big concession: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is a massively pretentious movie. It addresses itself, in a short chunk of its long screen time, to metaphysical questions of broad range and the highest seriousness. It recklessly abandons most standards of editing and storytelling continuity. It speaks- in multiply-assigned voiceovers- of the most profound spiritual and psychological questions facing (Christian) man, and it does so without respecting for a moment the tendencies toward self-deprecation, humour, postmodern irony or idiomatic particularization that have characterized so much English-language movie speech since the end of the Classical Hollywood era- including, notably, that of Malick’s own Badlands (1973). It takes on weighty- and, at this late date in our secularized Western culture, dated- issues without a hint of embarrassment. It’s this lack of embarrassment- not humility, as I hope to show- that seems to annoy so many of its detractors and give its defenders- including myself!- pause. This very divisive movie puts me in qualified disagreement with many critics I highly respect. Amy Taubin and Robert Koehler use the word “kitsch” in their reviews. J. Hoberman calls the filmmaking often “shockingly banal.” The Nation‘s Stuart Klawans, in an ambivalent review (hidden behind a subscriber wall), accuses the film of universalizing the story of one postwar middle class family. Koehler writes that Malick has “has made one film, interrupted by another; or, seen from another angle, two films, each refusing to meld with the other,” and “imposes an entirely unearned universal construct on top of a small story that should have a running time of no more than 80 minutes, rather than its entirely unjustifiable 137-minute length–a marker of uncontrolled hubris.” Hubris? Definitely. Uncontrolled? I’m not so sure. And, in the only negative piece on the film that I have zero sympathy for, Peter Tonguette damns it for its excessive cutting and for violating the rules of classical continuity and composition. I understand where most of these guys are coming from, but I want to offer some sort of defense of the movie; to do so, however, requires another quick gesture of (ahem) humility. Here goes:
Malick’s film is a radically anti-classical, formally idiosyncratic, almost nonlinear, arch-modernist work, with as shaky a relationship to standard logic and causality as has ever existed in American narrative filmmaking. It’s an outlier not just in relation to “zero-degree” filmmaking, but more marginal narrative film practice as well. The subordination of expression to narrative logic that characterizes non-commercial films like Les Bonne Femmes (Claude Chabrol, 1960), Shame (Ingmar Bergman, 1968), No End (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1985) or even more contemporary, formally radical works like Platform (Jia Zhangke, 2000) or Vive L’Amour (Tsai Ming-liang, 1994) has been all but eschewed by Malick. That makes exegesis harder- more speculative, more contingent and- necessarily- less complete. It’s dubious enough to try and marshal every, or even most, events in a movie into a coherent, definitive reading; with a movie like this one- or, say, Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2004), Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) or Face (Tsai, 2009) , all of which Malick’s film differs from in its heavy emotionalism- it would be outright folly. I’m not going to attempt a large-scale reading of TTOL. That would take more time than I have and more space than my editor would provide me. What coherence I see in the movie after three viewings is partial and heavily qualified; the same applies to the above movies- movies of a type that I wouldn’t begin to classify except broadly and negatively.
What do I love about Malick’s film? I love the semi-continuous atomization of the narrative. I love the alternation of that interiority with a discourse that goes beyond the power of its character’s knowledge, possible comprehension and even historical existence- the self-reflexive hint that the closest you can get to total union is at the movies. I love the mysterious and fusion of the subjective and the cosmological omniscience, which bridges tense and complicates its usual lines of separation in narrative art. I love the restrained but overwhelmingly expressive performances, in which naked actorly presence is as important as specific action. I love the mixture of phenomenological power and confusion on every other philosophical level, which rings exceptionally true to life as I’ve experienced it. I love the powerful mixture of morbidity and compassion. Lastly and most importantly, I love the sense of both contradiction and felicitous, often retrospective connection that comes from the film’s rapid fracturing and fusing of sound and image. It’s this sense of half-random, half-cohesive storytelling that makes the film resonate with me, and that I feel most complicates the putative faults that many critics have found with the film.
Let’s start with “kitsch,” and one final admission. On a static, decontextualized level, much of the material is, um, overly familiar. The Norman Rockwell production design, the familiar religious pondering, the redemptive meet-your-folks-in–afterlife climax and, especially, the illustrations of the Earth’s creation are, viewed in isolation, more than a bit stale. But the over-familiarity of surface elements is common in movies- good and bad, mainstream and marginal. The films of Minnelli, Ray, Sirk, Hawks and Ford (which have been elevated by the Sarris-Cahiers Consensus to one of the highest peaks of film art) are full of clichés. When was the last time you read a good critic use the word “kitsch” in relation to any of those movies without an immediate, defensive qualification? And on the arthouse tip (to concede, for the sake of argument, a dichotomy that many cinephiles deny): the misunderstood, sympathetic juvenile miscreant of The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959); the predatory cock-tease and hypocritically lascivious silver daddy of That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977); the tormented, victimized, sympathetic murderer of Le Boucher (Chabrol, 1970)- these are clichés too. One of the fundamental generative principles of the Sarris-Cahier Consensus is that the success of a film rests on its complicating treatment of surface elements: genre tropes, iconography, well-worn archetypes. In TTOL‘s case, the redemption of familiar surface elements comes by means of their densely layered interaction.
The synchronicities and poetic contrasts of Malick’s film come by means of a style that, to a degree, obfuscates them: the articulation of the Grace/Nature dichotomy, the mysterious relationships to an ultimately hypothetical God, the bridge between the real and the imagined- these float along in the movie, surfacing and then sinking in a flow of event that seems random at first glance. The digital-editing profusion, brief shot-lengths, and meandering narrative create a sense of chaos- a sense that’s ultimately false, as it is with most movies. This pretense of loose impressionism and non-sequitur linkage makes the symbolism and “on the nose” (Koehler’s derogatory phrase) pondering gain a credibility they wouldn’t have in a movie with a design that evoked strict purposefulness. And, obviously, it serves to mirror human consciousness, with its unceasing digressions within a loose framework, its associational instability, and its wonderful delayed synchronicities. What Malick does that goes beyond this fictional recreation of solipsism is push it to the end of its limits and beyond, being as true to it as he can while tucking it firmly in its place within as vast a context as may be possible. The main character of the film, the eldest son, seeks to move as far as he can beyond subjectivity; the movie is a record of his attempt. It’s a film of partial conciliation and conscious contradiction.
Let’s have some evidence. The film opens with a quote from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth,” and so on. We then cut from this title script to a shape-shifting white cloud of light centered in a frame of pitch-darkness, a succinctly contradictory image of vitality engulfed in the unseeable. Biblical epigraphs are a much-misused device in movies and, especially, novels, and I was skeptical about this opening until it was provocatively answered a few minutes later by the voice of the family’s mother (Jessica Chastain). “Lord, where were you?” Malick gives us God and humanity on either side of a wall. It’s this disjunction, and the two-sided desire for union that it obstructs, that Malick represents with his alternation between Creation and glassy skyscrapers, intimate shot-scale and people-free panoramas, voice-over clarity and imprecise diegetic dialogue. TTOL is “about” the pain of incomplete unity, incomplete concordance: that’s what “earns” the grandiose, human-free parts of the film. The Creation section is a defiant, denying response to the mother and her son’s questions and entreaties, their search for comprehension. Malick’s withdrawal to distant omniscience widens the gap as much as it bridges it. For all its undeniable pretension and grandiosity, this movie is about limitations as much as anything else. Obviously, montage is a fifty-fifty device: it links and separates, often one more than another. A lot of the time Malick sticks close to the fifty-yard line; at others he leans towards contrast. But there’s always a bit of both, and this is truer on a symbolic level than it is on a spatial one. You see this in the cuts between the mother receiving news of her middle son’s (Laramie Eppler) death in her empty home, and the father (Brad Pitt) receiving it on a noisy airplane tarmac. There’s more contrast in the cuts between images of barren desert settings and the skyscrapers of contemporary city, although these images are bridged by the eldest son (played as an adult by a refreshingly restrained Sean Penn), who lives in the city and whose voice-over musings express a yearning for this desert land- a land that may only exist in his mind. That’s the second key form of montage in the movie: that between interior voice-over (usually the mother’s or the eldest son’s) and nominally disconnected image. Malick combines the two forms to spectacular effect, layering dynamic on dynamic for an ecstatic effect.
Detractors might see only vague connection, or not even that, in the cuts between sunflowers, livestock and the mother as a young child; the mother as an adult hearing “He’s in God’s hands now” and a low-angle shot with the camera gazing up at a church ceiling decorated with a spiral of stained glass tableaux; the adult son lighting a blue candle and a return to the film’s opening light-cloud shot; or indeed, the repeated cuts from the film’s action to that same cloud. Let’s interrogate these juxtapositions:
The montage of livestock, flowers and a young mother are laid under the first half of her voice-over outlining of the dichotomy of “Grace” and “Nature.” These concepts are clearly identified with the mother and the family’s father, respectively. The complicating factors here are the montages that underlie each side of this binary. Nature is visually identified with the father’s strictness, machismo and occasionally brutal parenting, and worldly failures. Grace is more passive, closer to the concept of Creation, and less directly culpable in the failings of humans, but it also seems less powerful in the human realm, as well as less answerable and responsive.
It`s an eccentrically moralistic dichotomy, but it`s certainly not without a strong implication of interdependence. Grace is identified, by montage, with the natural world (making Malick`s choice of terms pretty strange), and Nature is identified with humanity. The sense of a spectrum between these concepts is, somewhat predictably, borne out in the character of the eldest son (Hunter McCracken as an adolescent) as he finds himself struggling between the two poles, eventually ending up as a successful professional who yearns for a transcendence involving the natural world, one utterly foreign to his own. In visual terms, Grace is abstracted and made distant through the associational montage, while Nature- in marked contrast- is humanized by being outlined on the soundtrack over repeated images of the father. Abstraction versus human identification is the articulating dynamic to Malick`s initially crude-seeming binary. And a sense of one-way complicity is hinted at: Grace, identified with the mother and with transcendence of individual humanity, is linked to Creation and therefore a physical prerequisite to tragically imperfect humanity. It`s clear- but not too clear!- from the montage associations and the grouping of the mother, Grace and (implicitly) Creation that they represent the prelapsarian aspect of Malick’s philosophy. He seems to view the pre-human world as unspoiled, and its wordlessness seems key to this attitude. The mother is a nearly silent figure in terms of dialogue, the father just the opposite; and the film is a record of his failings on this and other terms. Malick’s view of Man’s fall can’t be said to fit with the standard Christian elevation of human submission, since it’s clear both as a matter of cause-and-effect and in the social terms of the mother’s passivity that such submission is part of the problem. Malick’s prelapsarian world is free not just of knowledge, but of humans and their words altogether: that’s its pre-moral purity. TTOL is fundamentally concerned with the imprisoning limitations of human language; you see it in the unanswered entreaties and questions to God, and in the voice-over expressions of desire for transcendence. And the Father- Nature- is the one who does most of the talking. Hey, these aren’t the freshest ideas in the world, and they’re not exactly progressive, what with Woman identified as more or less passive and connected with an unresponsive state of existence. But they’re not trite, either; they’re complicated by a sense of spectrum; and- most importantly from a formalist standpoint- they’re subtly and creatively conveyed through film language. Formalized, ambiguous treatment of Woman as unreachable: Godard gets a pass for this stuff. Why can’t we extend the same generosity to an American director?
The moment when the mother hears “he’s in God’s hands now” over the shot of the stained glass ceiling is, viewed by itself, broad, bombastic and presumptuous. But wait for the next sentences, spoken by the mother herself: “He was in God’s hands the whole time. Wasn’t he?” The reassurance of God’s presence, ballasted by iconic imagery, is promptly complicated. Did God choose for the middle son to die at the age of 19? What can a representation of an ancient book do to answer this? This movie is full of rough graphic similarities, separated across screen time like recurrent bursts of thought. Images of light centered in the frame recur throughout the film, and this spiral of lighted colour should be seen in relation to its rough counterparts. The most obvious one is a scene from the largely chronological postwar-set section, which deals with the eldest son’s growth and the corresponding decline in his father’s fortunes. The scene shows the son, very young at this point, looking up at the high window in his house’s attic; the light shines amid darkness, as with the recurrent light-cloud. This brief situation will be repeated in the film when the son is older and, with its match with the adult son’s distant yearning, clearly represents a curious reckoning with something either beyond the world or distant within it. So far this is simple enough, but check out the scene of the patent-hungry, would-be inventor father losing an important case in court. As with the mother and the son, there’s a look up towards the light, but we see it from an objective perspective: he gazes up at the light from the courthouse ceiling, and we don’t see what he sees- we see him seeing. The subjectivity of the Mother’s gaze is implied, the son’s is literal, and the father’s is fully denied. This is a wonderfully subtle corollary to the spectrum of Mother and Father, with the son lying in between the poles. Human rules- the creation of words- are linked with the Father’s privacy, his individuality as an object of our gaze, and his failure in the world. The Creation cloud, the mother’s grief, and the son’s curiosity lack the specific social grounding of law and business, and Malick adjusts his rhetoric accordingly. It’s a brilliant, microscopically subtle example of cinematic economy; a director can adjust a surface motif ever so briefly within two-plus hours of screen time and create wordless insinuation. The universal and distant can be made indirectly subjective, the personal and historical must remain private, and there’s the son, halfway between.
The opening shot of the Creation cloud is the movie’s key refrain, an amorphous image of light that changes in shape and colour throughout the film. This refrain-shot is repeated suggestively throughout; its third appearance is under the voice-over of the mother asking “Was I false to you?” Now the cloud turns into a mixture of bright colours; this marks the shift from what I’d call the prelude of the film to its first section: the Creation narrative. As we shift into this human-free zone, we cut back to the cloud intermittently as it changes shape, forming a rimmed circle of light, like a sun. The mother’s questions and entreaties (she shares this vocal activity with her son throughout the film, but being halfway between her and his father, he’s arguably more successful in finally redeeming it) continue intermittently over footage of the land as we now know it taking shape. To the dynamic of human need and spiritual imperviousness is now added the indifference of the land. As the Creation section ends and we enter the largest, middle section of the film, the modern era is announced with a shot of the sun shining through a gray, worn picket fence. This is another of Malick’s great match/contrasts: from a shifting, vaporous cloud in the absence of humanity to its obscured and diminished power in the era of Man. And of course there’s the essential paradox: one has caused the other, created its own diminishment. Malick is using light as a refrain of decline; this motif grows in power with the progression of the film, and the climax of diminishment is the blue candle- a man-made source of light that figures in the eldest son’s final, desperate entreaty.
The blue candle is, to my now-weary eyes, anything but vague or arbitrary in its use. Its lighting by the Penn’s adult son is one of the first actions we see him perform, in the film’s prelude; the action comes after the first return to the Creation cloud shot, which works here as a transition to present day America. After the candle is lit, we cut back to an image previously shown: the first view we had of Penn’s character as a child. In voiceover, we hear the adult Jack say “I see the child I was: I see my brother.” This clinches the association of the candle with mourning. It’s pretty clear to me that the candle is an earthly refrain of light to be counter-posed against the cosmic one. What follows are repeated shots of the middle child alternating with close ups of the blue candle. “He died when he was 19,” Penn’s character says in voice-over. We don’t see the blue candle again until it marks the end of the middle, postwar section. Its appearance then moves us to the final part of the movie, and the one that struck me- on first viewing- as pretty corny. We see Penn’s adult son wandering in a rocky desert. There have been brief snatches of this footage before- TTOL is a film without much of a temporal anchor, with intrusions of the past on the future, the future on the past, and relatively little sense of a stable present. It’s a mirroring of both omniscience and subjective memory, all the better to contrast them in terms of personal aspiration. As we see the adult son walking in the desert, we hear him in voice-over saying “Brother.” Soon after, we get another metaphoric contribution: close shots of the middle son as a child in the dark, holding his fingers over a flashlight beam for a ghostly flicker effect. This heightens the sense of spectrum: from the distant power of the pre-human light cloud at one end, to the candle of impotent mourning of the other, with the tragically mortal brother as an active intermediary. His human manipulation of light is connected to mortality. We soon cut back to the blue candle, now not on a smooth faux-marble counter top as we first saw it, but resting on the beach where the Tarkovsky-nod reunion of the family is taking place. Soon after the mother embraces the dead son and lets him go, we see our last shot of the candle, and then the Mother by herself on the rocky plain. Man-made light is associated with a gap between people, between the spiritual and the human, with the dead son as a temporary mediator and Penn’s adult son as the desperate aspirant. It’s pretty clear (to me!) that the candle evokes separation from the middle son as much as it does unity with him, complicating any corny, reassuring sense of triumphant reunion.
I’ve barely scratched the surface here. I’ve walked a thin line between logical exposition and personal interpretation, which I hope isn’t too willful. I haven’t talked about the tree imagery, its use in graphically inverse shots of the Mother and the Father, the heavy graphic use of water (Tarkovsky again), the use of music…Again, I haven’t tried to give any sort of complete or definitive reading of the movie, and I don’t know that I’d ever want to. What I do want is to stress the often careful and, yes, rigourous nature of the film- its instances of long-range design and structural irony. The moments I’ve outlined are fleeting in a manner that on some level belies detailed retrospective description. Writing this piece feels like chasing butterflies (there’s a cheesy Malickianism for you!): TTOL is a film of constant, fleet transience, impossible to pin down. The speed and tangential nature of it counters any sense of stable apprehension, even when you look at it closely. Apparently the moments of (often retrospective) coherence and structural symmetry are, for many viewers, obfuscated by the bombastic surface iconography and the promiscuous speed of the movie’s cutting. Maybe Malick is too subtle, and I honestly say that not to sound superior but as a tentative criticism. But, for me and at least a few others, the symbolism and the constant, lulling fluidity of the film weren’t obstructions: the speed and seeming randomness gave the symbolism a leavening, incidental feel without obscuring it. That’s rare in movies, and this dual nature- incidental portent- seems true to the nature of subjective thought. And its alternation with objectivity doesn’t, in the final analysis, seem that contradictory: the film seems like a demonstration of a yearning beyond the limits of the mind and, as I’ve stated, it’s concerned with the limitations of this yearning as much as any success it can have. Is the beach reunion real? Does the eldest son see his brother playing with a flashlight? Where does symbolism and reality meet? Malick doesn’t definitively answer these questions, and I don’t see why he has to.
Malick employs an ambiguous but, at first glance, arrogant confusion of tenses- third person omniscient with multiple first person subjective. But is it only arrogant in the context of this medium? Think of this strategy deployed in a novel and its radicalism diminishes quite a bit. TTOL, with its massive scope, its literary voice-overs pushing past cinematic exteriority, and its delayed revelation of motif is in some sense a very novelistic work. But Malick’s flirtation with this ethic, pulling in and out of different registers of knowledge, is a wonderful hybridization- and it has a point. The personal subjectivity (mostly but not exclusively one man’s) and large-scale comprehension create a self-reflexive sense of distance and unknowability in relation to not just God, but artistic communication. That’s why Klawans’ claim that it universalizes one family’s story seems sketchy to me. The discourse ultimately seems more localized and problematized to me. This seems to be a film without a centre, and I don’t see a problem with that- quite the contrary.
And this relates to the most important facet of the film- of any film: the visual style. The rapid cutting, shifting temporality and slow pacing of the film give time and tense a strangely static aspect. For all the movement, there’s a strong sense of inert rumination- thought and action unite in a beautifully paradoxical way. It’s a strange effect to be achieved by the contemporary, much-maligned aesthetic of fast cutting and lack of emphasis on spatial grounding. The style acclimatizes us to the harmony and the gaps between different physical locations, between past and present, spiritual and physical. The director (and his five editors!) achieve such a sense of proliferation that they equalize the images in terms of impact while never betraying their radical contrast. Malick gets to have it both ways: longer takes and clearer spatial orientation would give just as strong a sense of setting but would heighten the sense of contrast and take away the sense of dreamlike continuity. That’s what Kubrick did with 2001- a radically dissimilar film in most respects, for all the comparisons to TTOL it’s been getting. Malick’s film is radically, sweepingly oneiric; its velocity and brevity of moment, its indifference to continuity and its wonderfully promiscuous but never erratic sense of focus put thought and emotion on a more equal plane than ninety-nine percent of the films I’ve ever seen. Peter Tonguette, when he rejects the film on stylistic terms, seems to be holding up clear, economical definition of space as a necessary standard. For many of us, there are no necessary standards, only a richly contextual and ambiguous web of possibilities, of precisely the type that this film invokes. This movie, with its boundless fragmentation and psychedelic mysteriousness, is a glorious defiance of such stricture. For Tonguette, the movie fails because it isn’t grounded. To which I can only say, Man, don’t you ever want to leave the ground?