A couple of months back, I wrote the following note to my friend Ron, at whose urging Scott and I had watched The Tree of Life. “I could write a thousand words about the film,” I’d warned him the day after we saw it, and a day or two later I did go on for nearly that long—an unpolished meditation on the movie, which I’m pasting below.
Tree of Life…my thousand words aren’t going to happen in any kind of articulate order, not with all the other writing sitting on top of me. But I’m still thinking about it, in that close-your-eyes-and-replay-a-moment way that doesn’t happen often. I owe you thanks—if not for you I might not have hung in long enough, I’d have been like ‘this is lovely but…’—I’m aware, and mostly unapologetic, that my film tastes have degraded a bit toward a preference for easy entertainment that doesn’t make me work. (With TV I’m more discerning, because it’s shorter. I enjoy smart, difficult TV—but a show is usually under an hour. The fact is that at the end of the day, I’m completely done in and films are long. Hard, under those circumstances. I’d feel guilty about it except that I know I’m still pushing myself to read challenging things and to think and assimilate. By 9pm, when we have a chance to sit down alone in front of the television, I’m just…done.)
But I wanted to see what moved you so deeply about it, so I hung in there, like physically sat up so I wouldn’t drift off…and oh! Both of us were sort of breathless about it. I felt my brain make a shift in the middle. At first I felt somewhat resentful or impatient with the long silences, even as I acknowledged that they were visually quite wonderful, not just the lovely images but the range of thoughts & emotions passing over an actor’s face while the camera lingered long, long, long in a particular shot—resentful because so little was being said overtly, and I knew I was being asked to think, to write much of the internal dialogue myself, to read the symbols. It irked me a little; I don’t come to films to do more writing. But gradually, I gave myself over to what the film was asking of me, and it was one of those rare transformative experiences where you know you’re walking to bed a slightly different person than you woke up.
Am intrigued by the conflict presented in the opening, nature vs. grace, and the way the images belied the words. She’s talking about ‘the way of nature’ (human nature) and ‘the way of grace’ (presented as opposing or contradictory paths) but on the word ‘grace’ we get that glorious shot of sunflowers (flowers that turn their faces toward the light)…and all through the rest of the film, it’s like that; grace is always shown via a sublime natural image. Looking up at the sky through trees means reaching for God. Touching the grass is the moment the grown son begins to heal & reconnect with the spiritual. Water seemed to mean the current of life carrying us forward (toward the churning waterfall, death), always with overtones of death, a hint of something inescapable to come. Bathing the baby, the baptism, the incident at the pool. Water, too, was almost always in the best, happiest family moments—the spraying of the hose, usually the mother, once the father—though he carried the hose with a kink in it to stop the water flowing out, exerting control (fruitless in the end)—such a strong image there, of his attempting to control his life, his family, and being ultimately powerless to.
In many ways the father seemed to represent a kind of Old Testament God —stern, demanding, controlling, punitive, never satisfied, requiring obeisance and craving love, almost demanding love. Through the mother and the imagery surrounding her, we see nature and harmony and beauty, a constant yearning upward towards the sublime, a bit of a mother earth/mother goddess thing going on there, except powerless, easily overpowered or dominated by man, so more like simply earth.
The white linens blowing in the windows, nearly always associated with the mother, gentleness, peace, happiness—sometimes the mother and children play in the curtains, draping them over their faces. (Suggesting a shroud? Peaceful death?) Very often, the curtains are moved by wind—the breath of God, inspiration, the ‘moving of the spirit.’
I spent a long time wondering what Terrence Malick’s views are, and what he was trying to suggest….a belief in an active Spirit or Force? Certainly his characters expressed a yearning upward, a longing for there to be some meaning or purpose behind the seemingly random chain of creation (and oh how I loved those parts of the film, the millennia of life surging forward)—and the delicate and lovely beach reunions at the end would suggest a belief in soul, redemption, reconciliation. But always I felt a tension between what was being said and what was being shown. The moments of purest joy were always connected to nature. The ‘way of grace’ was to walk in the natural world, to delight like children in sensual experience. In the boys’ happiest moments they are tumbling around like puppies, like wolf cubs, or running, exulting in the sheer grace of the human body. (Especially in that one powerful scene when the father was away on business and the boys tore through the house, celebrating his absence, bursting outside into the yard, letting the door bang behind them—pure joy in their freedom.) The mother, too, running with them, being playful with them.
There’s lots more to say, I’m not doing more than pouring out notes here, but then again it’s barely six a.m. and it’s a wonder I’m thinking at all.