Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

05 August 2011

My Original Post on The Tree of Life

I wrote this in May, after seeing The Tree of Life for the first time, but then never posted it. So here is it now. Pardon the redundancy, but i can't seem to stop talking/writing about this film:

To begin, it was the perfect movie-going experience: the very first Chicago showing of The Tree of Life, a 1:00 matinee at the Century Center. I thought I was perhaps being a bit too enthusiastic in getting there a half hour early (I’m never early for anything) but it turns out my timing was perfect, arrived just in time to be offered a free ticket by a guy who somehow ended up with one too many tickets. So, I walked into the theater a good twenty minutes early, and the theater was already half full. I ended up sitting next to the “perfect date,” a New York film fanatic, somewhere in my age range, with similar taste in movies and good movie theaters. While waiting for the film to begin, we talked about Herzog (both loved Fitzcarraldo), the new Woody Allen (I saw it the day before, he hadn’t yet), the lack of good places to see films. A kindred soul! After the movie we discussed our impressions of it: what did it all mean? Which brother died and how? I am always tentative in these things, never one to assert my interpretation, but this time I knew, the blond brother was killed in Vietnam. Told through the simplest of nuances, the time frame, the telegram. We compared notes on the period-perfect details of mid-fifties Americana: those awful, brightly colored, aluminum drinking glasses that we were all forced to drink iced tea from in the '50s and early '60s; the little striped polo shirts on the boys in the film, just like the ones my brother and three oldest nephews used to wear (the kind they are wearing in a poem I once wrote about my father); the bizarre love we had of running behind the bug truck in the summer (I remember the DDT smelling sweet. Did it really or is my memory embellishing the scene?).

The theater was sold out, and not with your usual matinee crowd (god save me from the loud-whispering seniors who people most of the matinees in Evanston): we were the cult of Malick! There was something odd going on with the projector and during the previews only the bottom half of the frame was projected on the screen. I wanted to yell at someone, then realized that I didn’t have to: two guys immediately ran out to the lobby to report the problem. The reaction in that room was so wonderful—one guy let out an anguished “This is my worst nightmare!” – I felt like I had found my tribe! The opening quote from the book of Job was lost to the projection problem, but immediately thereafter the situation was resolved.

It is difficult, probably impossible, for me to write coherently about Tree of Life.  It is not story-driven, nor really even character-driven. Dialogue and voiceover float by in isolated words, phrases, and unanswered remarks. With the exception of the young Jack (Hunter McCracken) the characters are more archetypes than well-rounded characters. Yet somehow we find ourselves caught with them, feeling their sorrows, their angers, their love. What is it then? A quiet epic, a dialectic of “nature” and “grace” as the mother’s voice explains in the opening moments of the film: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow.” But even that is too simple, for “nature” as she uses it here, is the self-focused aspect of human nature, while “grace” is the ability to embrace life, to feel the joy of it. The parents embody these two conflicting approaches to life: the father, aggrieved, dissatisfied, stern, embodies “nature,” while the mother, who literally floats above the ground at one point in the film, is the epitome of the life of grace. Paradoxically, Nature (the natural world) is the domain of grace: even the butterflies recognize it in Mrs. O’Brien. So, yes, it is an ancient story, the story of the boy caught between these two forces, the story of Oedipus. But Jack ultimately acknowledges that he is more like his authoritarian and despised father than like the mother he adores.

The visual elements of the film inscribe a dialectic of hard/soft, linear/sinuous, skyscraper/tree, the obdurate line of the father’s jaw / the curving arch of the mother’s foot. As is typical of Malick's works, the musical soundtrack is a powerful component of the film, but here it serves a diegetic function as well: the father is a talented pianist, and the gentle second son shares his talent; but even in this, the father's pleasure is blunted by the thought that he has given up his dream of becoming a great musician. As talented and appreciative of great music as he is, he cannot prevent himself from perceiving it through the warped lens of his own frustrated ambitions.

At the end of the film I sat weeping while the credits ran, because Terrence Malick had touched my heart. If there is nostalgia in the film, it is nostalgia tempered by grief: grief for the lost mother, the unknowable father, the brother who died too young.
The majesty of the natural world—a familiar motif to anyone who has watched Malick’s other films—is here given an operatic and sublime level of grandeur. There are volcanoes erupting in rivers of lava, comets striking the earth and setting off concentric waves, sweet jesus there are even dinosaurs! I haven’t decided yet what I think of those dinosaurs, and will have to revisit them when I see the film again. It is all so filled with beauty, power, and precariousness.

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