Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick

About five years ago, I first experienced Andrey Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972). Many consider this film the Russian response to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but this would be to interpret Tarkovsky's art and the film in a completely literal fashion. Tarkovsky's Solaris, and other films (most importantly The Mirror), are images of those moments we create to memory. The sight of water as it runs clear over a slimy patch of bright green grass, or the way fog climbs up the steep hill across a country acreage, etc. Tarkovsky is about light and image and memory and living. Also, Tarkovsky is about religion.

Why all this talk about Tarkovsky? Because I think it would be unfair to leave him out of the conversation when talking about Malick's newest film, The Tree of Life. Both men are influence by the power of memory on single images grapsed from the past and pasted permenatly against the back of our eyes.

The Tree of Life is a history of innocence and violence. The story of the innocence and violence in beginnings. The beginning of each death, each life, and existance as a whole. Malick is known for philosophical meanderings. The hushed voice overs of The Thin Red Line as they contemplate man vs nature, and the poetic musings voiced on man vs man in The New World. In Tree of Life, the whispers of nature vs grace. Each thought a quiet reaching towards answers. Malick uses a god as the one to ask. The film takes place in 1950's Waco, TX. These are religious folk who yearn for doing right by god. For the most part, we've all been there. I'll go so far as to say those of us lucky enough have been there. As children in our beds, scared. As families around tables, hoping. As an Atheist I struggled with the control of the spiritual in this film, but overtime let go. This is the way of the past, present, and future. The way of millions. To reach out to a higher power for hope and security. I had to allow this need and want to become part of a larger statement the film was making of experience.

I have wished my father dead. On many occasions in my youth I hoped he'd not return home. A strict, angry man with a temper not under his own control. I could relate to the father-son relationship. I have wandered through the home of neighbors who have left for the afternoon. I could relate to the young boy's curiosity, sexual and personal. I have removed fruit from the gardens of others, played baseball with the tomatoes, and felt guilt in the moment of destruction. I could relate to young Jack's struggle to impress friends or impress his mother. As an adult, we have all been haunted by those images as glimpses. Sitting in meetings, talking to friends, or watching a film. Our minds have removed us from the present and returned us to a past. I could relate to adult Jack's lost-in-thought glimpses out work room windows.

As the film ended, it saddened me to think there are those who can't find themselves in this film. Who are unable to let go of the anger they have towards their childhood, their parents, themselves. How rare for a film to make me think so far inside myself, while at the same time trying to go so far into strangers and their past.

Malick pairs this childhood story with the creation of the world. The audience is treated to about 20 minutes of pure visuals. Intense colors, shapes, and sounds. A creation story like we've never witnessed. There is something very abstract, and almost lost in this segment. I felt pulled a little too far away. But, I understand its message. Each beginning is something so complex, but ends up feeling so small. At the same time, each beginning is so small and becomes complex. This family of five in 1950s Texas is no different than your family, my family, the family down the street, or the creation of the world. We are all something so much larger and smaller than we'll ever fully be able to understand.

Malick's film is existential even though it falls so much to religion. None of the questions thrown out, the whispers repeated, or the cries for help are ever answered. There is a silence to every living moment. The characters choose to use this silence for a godly presence. Others just recognize a void. It is a film about choice. So much of who we become is created out of every single choice. The young Jack wishes he could return to innocence. Envies his younger brothers for their ability to still hold on to grace.

Many will not see this film. The length, the abstraction, the non-linear telling, the flights of fantasy, the whispered voice overs... all of this will only be experienced by a select few. And while I'm sure many who see it will walk away angry and bored, there is no doubt they will find themselves somehow touched by the truth of the film's beauty.


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