Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick, USA: 2011

for Isabelle Saint-Loup

„You would rather throw stones at a mirror?
I am your mirror and here are the stones.“

I try to tell about moments (this film is full of) which are burnt into my memories. The film which consists mostly of childhood memories, fictive and probably Malicks own ones)recalls at the same time my own memories which are independent from the film circulating in my head. The memories in this films are from Jack, an architect in his childhood and especially in his younger brother who passed away at the age of 19. Niles Schwartz suggests this film in his mesmerizing essay „Malick´s Song about Himself V.  - The Tree of Life. Los Demiurgos“ as Malicks childhood memories and as a „requiem for the late brother“. (One of Malicks brother committed suicide at the age of 19.)
The more often I see this film the more difficult it becomes to capture the film in its wholeness or to describe all the impressions and the powerful emotions it has evoked in me.
The film is about so much things. Some of them one can describe, others don´t. What is hunting me  - and sometimes very suddenly - are the hands in this film. I recall mostly hands:
Hands which are touching someone.
As a gesture of tenderness or consolation.
Sometimes the hands take possession of someone or something.
The hands of the mother pet the wings of a butterfly.
Hands are touching animals or plants.
Hands are playing on an organ, a piano or a guitar.
Sometimes you see hands only dancing in the light of the sun or in plays of light and shadow at night.
During the obsequies for the youngest brother the mighty hands of a big black woman from the congregation are touching the airy hands of the mother (Jessica Chastain). This gesture of compassion and consolation (probably a key moment for Malic´s attitude in this film) seems to be like an effort to support this frail woman physical in her grief.
These are some seconds from this film which touch me very deep - the very concrete physical feeling of a comforting hand included.

In the first image we see a shining nebula and which appears several like a „Leitmotiv“ in this and finally as the last shot. While seeing this I had to think always in my first visits to a film theatre. As a child I was fascinated by the fog of colorful rays which came from the projection cabin and finally ended on the screen.  I could n´t get them together, these abstract rays of light and the experience evoked by the images on the screen. In these first seconds of The Tree of Life I recalled the miracle cinema was once for me, a miracle, this film will remind me again and again.

A cinematic overture of fragments from the life of a family: we see the mother as a red-haired child on a farm among animals and listen the over voice comment from the adult mother: „The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you´ll follow.“
Than moments from a family´s every day life. The first embrace of the mother by her husband Mr. O´ Brian and than almost like in private home movies shots of moments with kids playing on the lawn or rocking.
A leap in time many years later. The parents are living now alone in a new house. The children had already left the parents home. A messenger delivers a telegram. The reaction of the mother reveals that this telegram informs about a tragic event. We learn later that one of the sons has died at the age of 19. As all late films by Terrence Malick work with over voice-monologues we are getting now an idea how alone each of the persons has to deal with their grieve, how they are mourning and how they are desperately questioning this tragic incidence. Sometimes this dialogues are whispered and they  get a life of its own. They remind me also in my soundless inner questions and reflections while seeing this film. The mother´s sobbing after reading the telegram begins  after a  sudden moment of silence where her voice disappears for a moment. The father (Brad Pitt) learns about this incidence on an airfield, the earphone pressed against his ear for understanding the phone call. While the grief of the mother is immediately visible in her face, here it goes at first through the father´s body. He bends himself forward, makes strange contorted movements to oppress the forthcoming emotions. The pain becomes stuck in the body of Brad Pitt.

After the moments of mourning there is another leap of time. We see the adult Jack, the eldest son in an urban  desert of glass, steel and cement. The furrowed face of Jack how he moved without joy among this alienated architecture or how he sits on his office chair reveals a deeply withdrawn and joyless man. He even talks hardly a word to his wife. The film appears mostly as a mosaic of memories, dreams and visions.
The priest after the son´s funeral: : „He is in God´s hands now.“
The mother: „He was in God´s hands the whole time, was n´t he?“

We are placed back in the time of the mourning parents, a time between the childhood of Jack and the present. The monologues of the parents become more desperate and even though they sound like prayers – even become more doubtfully. The father who goes through the landscape and Brad Pitts hardly     audible „poor boy, poor boy,“ or the desperate questioning of the mother („where were you?“) . It seems intention that the film begins with a quotation from the bible, God´s answer to the doubter Job: „Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth, when the morning stars sang and all the sons of God shouted in joy?“ (Job, 38:4,7)
And than the complaints of the mother passes over into a wondrous sequence on the beginning of time, another leap of time in this film which goes back to the creation of the world.
There are the complaints of the the mortal men about the loss of a beloved person which passes into images of the young universe. We hear Zbigniew Preisners „Requiem for a Friend (One of 37 music pieces used in this film) dedicated to late polish director Krzysztof Kieslowsky. A requiem is the musical artistic expression of grief. That causes a stirring – yes even heartbreaking contrast to the overwhelming bubbling of the matter of the universe: gigantic accumulations of cosmic dust, the remains of an exploded Super Nova in which our sun, the planets including our Earth are born. The Earth still a barren a planet of rocks appears furrowed through Meteors and volcanos. In these 20 minutes The Tree of Life reveals (seemingly separated from the rest of the film) how life develops, the first primitive protozoons, than jellyfishes, plants, hammerhead sharks and finally dinosaurs.
A big dinosaur lays bad wounded on a beach. Later an exemplar of a small saurian species is caught by a big one a carnivorous dinosaur. With the claw it fixes the head of the smaller animal. But than he leaves unexpected the smaller saurian and disappears.
The Earth seen from space. A gigantic asteroid moves toward earth. We don´t see the impact and the destruction it will cause. But we know that it means the death of all saurian species.
And gradually while the landscapes of the Earth become more familiar to us the film returns from the universe back to a small town in Texas during the 1950s, back into the micro cosmos of the family O´Brian

It is not enough for me to be astonished about this film or to be impressed by it. There is so much more what is evoked in me by this work. Malick uses a lot of artifices. But the amazement and the emotion evoked by these artifices seems to me something that Malick is sharing with us. There is no moment in this film which I can imagine as something different as something real felt or experienced. Not till then – I imagine- Malick confides these experience, these perceptions or probably some of his own memories and  experiences to the apparatus of film making. While seeing this film and despite my awareness of these instruments which record, conserve and visualize -  these recorded moments seem to dissolve away themselves from them. This feeling for the authenticity of every single moment in The Tree of Life or his previous films The Thin Red Line and The New World are shining much brighter than all the complex and imposing instruments used in this film I would like to call „The Malick-Paradox.
This is a film which you don´t just watch but which should be breathed and lived.
Birth, childhood and growing up in a small town. The father is a company employee in a factory which is not further elucidated. He is a would-be musician and a sullen and strict father. The mother seems at first the personification of „grace“ while the father seems to be the one of „nature“. The further course of the film will demonstrate that it will never stuck in these icons but it will move analog to the development of the emotional perception of the children. Brad Pitt´s father character (we recall the begin of the film) accepts hardly an own emotion. Embittered, strict and always propagating the litany of „establishing oneself in life“ seems to be the opposite of his wife. He is something like a representative of a rational order which will be occurred by his own family, the almost non-intermittent fluidly moving  handheld camera by Lubezki and finally even by his own love for music.

If I recall the remarkable duet between Emmanuel Lubezkis camera (Malick´s cinematic point of view) and the adolescent Q`Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas in The New World I have quite a clear image for the unique tension between the technical and artistic instruments of film making and the natural unbiased movements of the girl.
The apparatus with which is filmed is either loosing importance or the gaze reproduced by it becomes Pocahontas. In The Tree of Life, Malick is n´t just filming playing children. His cinematic gaze which is free of any voyeurism becomes itself a playing child.
„This one big soul where everybody is part of...“ (The Thin Red Line, which became one of my favorite sentences on  cinema at all) has in The Tree of Life a clear visual pendant. Malick isn´t performing anything, he is sharing with us. Closer as seeing this film we can´t come to Malick as a public person – not in an interview or even a press conference.

First of all the film has to do with corpses especially with those of living beings these most fleeting appearances of the material perceivable aspect of the world. That is visible in the faces of children or Newborns or in their movements which is filmed from a permanent moved camera from all perspectives and where this camera allies with these movements. We sense the physical dominance of Brad Pitt among the lanky children bodies. The same with the bigger boy Jack among his smaller brothers. We perceive the dog on the child´s lap during a Sunday getaway in the car or the cat which reposes on Jessica Chastain´s womb.
Even the segment of the begin of the world shows first and foremost physical and chemical processes. The countless images of trees, grasses, animals, oceans and ocean waves  are impossible to enumerate. Especially the human bodies despite their ability for violence seem at the same time very frail.
At the beginning of the film we see O´Brian touching with tenderness the swollen belly of his pregnant wife. In another scene much later in the film he attacks in a bad temper his rebelling sons during dinner.  Mrs. O´Brian tries to protect the children. That escalates into a clash between the parents. She tried to slap him in the face. He grips her hand and gets hold of her body which can not move. That is a moment which reminds me in the big saurian which held the smaller one. We see the same Mr. O´ Brian in other moments holding a baby in his arms with tenderness.
We see the same behavior in Jack who dominates his smaller brothers because of his physical advantage. In other moments, he can be very affectionate towards them. Paradoxically Jacks increasing hate against his father and his tendency to rebel against him has to do with the father´s  exhibited physical predominance, a feature he acquires more and more by himself.
In his adolescence and with an increasing awareness about the complexity of the world Jack realizes for example that these two „godheads“ (father and mother) are mortal and not at all infallibly persons. At first he realizes that the mother is the servant of the family, especially for the father and at the same time as well a buffer zone between husband and rebelling sons. In small hints we learn about Jack´s puberty. There is a dark haired girl from his class he is interested in and the hint of a masturbation while breaking in the house of a female neighbor and stealing her lingerie. He becomes as well alienated by the image he had from his mother. Jacks way into life and among others also towards his sexual identity reminds me in a masterpiece of Vietnamese Dang Nhat Minh, Thuong nho dong que (Nostalgia for the Countryside, 1996) which is in its affectionate attention towards living bodies a close relative to this film. Unforgettable the moment in which Jack cries and tells his mother that he won´t talk with her. On his face there is an expression which could be rebellion and questioning at the same time. The mental conflicts Malicks characters are going through are always visible on their bodies where these inner conflicts find their expressions.
Malick´s preciseness has nothing to do with esoterism. Even the over voice monologues often engrossed from the images can be allocated to the body where these concrete physical aspect of human voices comes from. These monologues can sometimes have the form of a prayer but it is not always clear if they call God or the dead brother/son.
This is one of the rare films in which the matter of which the world is consisting and the so-called spiritual one are not standing against each other. I recall a short conversation I had in Bombay with an Indian Muslim film critic who compared  Malicks films with Sufi- poetry, a poetry where the worldly love and the love to god is an entity.

„I wanted to be loved, I wanted to be a big man. But I am a nothing.“ (Mr. O´ Brian)

Near the end of the film the father looses his job. The factory will close down and they offer him a job „no one else will take“. For a film which is so often attacked for its „esotericism“ t, it offers as a side note quite a comment on the failed „American dream“. „Be your own man“, the father says often to his sons. Later he must accept that he himself was never „his own man“. How Mr. O´ Brian apologizes clumsy to his sons for his strictness and rudeness belongs to the most touching moments in the acting career of Brad Pitt. In a monologue he regrets to have ignored „all the glory and beauty around him“ „You are all I wanted, you are the work of my life.“ says he to his children. His often sullen face is now without any mask. His pride of a petty bourgeois and his strictness are disappearing for a moment from his face. The face seems naked and in credible sad like the one of Nick Nolte in his last appearance in The Thin Red Line. Jack and his father are embracing each other. „My sweet boy“, the father is mumbling. Says the boy: „I am as bad as you.“ In this moment there is only this desperate person. This is as enormous like in the desperate nakedness in the faces of Ritwik Ghataks characters and at the same time as intimate like in the wonderful documentaries of Yang Yonghi on her own family story.

As everything in this film seems to me so deeply felt I can´t say it deals with or tells about something.
The film is not about memories, dreams and associations but it is all these things itself. Either The Tree of Life goes through body and soul or it does n´t exist as a film at all.

Life was born out of dead matter from the dust of an exploded giant star.
Cinema itself has its roots in physical and chemical processes and at the same time it appears as something organic, brought to life by men.
The film does not deal with transience, mortality and grief – it is transience, mortality and grief itself.

The film is full of  of injuries. Some we can see others don´t
The exploding Super nova, the injury of the young earth through volcanoes and meteorites, the one of the dying saurian at the beach or the one of the frog who is tied by children on a firework rocket.
There are emotional injuries which can´t be seen but we can get a hint in an expression on a human face. Jack hurts his brother with an air gun and betrays as well his brother´s confidence in him. A child from the neighborhood has drowned in a swimming bath. Another child suffers from burnt injuries after his house was burnt.
There is even the last possible vision of an injury: the one of the Earth in the far distant future, burnt from our sun which will be a Red Giant. The remains will be a naked lifeless rocky planet in the cold light of the sun that will be shrunk to  a White Dwarf. This charred planet will be then without any trace of life and all what men has moved (this wonderful film included) will be gone forever.

Before the family moves to another place The boy who will die at the age of 19 buries some things into the earth of a now shabby and deserted garden. Two boys are walking the last time through landscapes of their childhood which they have to leave soon. They cry and comfort each other. Hands of two boys trying to touch each other separated through a window. One period of their childhood is closes or in other words -  „One being of time“ where in the sense of Marcel Proust a human identity is built of  - will be replaced through another one.
At the end we see these „beings of time“ gathering on a strange beach. Before we see Sean Penn in an elevator of a modern skyscraper. Later we follow him through different places and natural landscapes which finally lead him to this beach. On this beach the time is finally suspended. In this vision Jack encounters himself as a child,  his brothers as children and his parents. We see several persons who appeared in this film in short moments. This most controversial discussed scene of the film, often aggressively attacked as „esoteric kitsch“ is Malick´s boldest and most daring turning away from a conventional narration. It seems like the incredible scene about the birth of the world set against the childhood memories, the narrative carcase of the film. But actually, it is the necessary finale which connects the different parts of the film to its entity. The actors move like in a choreography of light and movement. Sometimes, the light is so glittering that the shapes of them tend to disappear. These figures are not only dissolved away from time but as well nearly totally dissolved away from the main plot. In this scene Malick seems to celebrate once again the bodies of the mortal people and light and movement as basic elements of cinema. Even thematically this scene is the coherent final of the film. The mourning, the adherence of grief and finally the release of it. Here I have to think again in a film by Dang Nhat Minh, Bao Gio Cho Thang Muoi (When the Tenth Month comes, 1984, I mean the scene “market day of the Dead”). And not least – it is also a solemnly farewell from a film which is near its end. These finale dissolves the characters away from the already unconventional narrative structure of the film like we also have to dissolve ourselves away - like at the end of every film – from the pseudo identity of a fiction.

The last moment  is very laconic opposite to the intensity of the film. We see again Sean Penn who reached with his elevator the ground level. He steps out on the street, gazes into the sky and we  see a light smile. While having seen this film several times, I adopted this gesture whenever I left the film theatre – as something like a last greeting to this film. The softness in which this film is dismissing us back in the world is only comparable with the films by Hou Hsiao Hsien. A big  rope bridge over a river appears. This bridge is probably a metaphor for the whole film which connects us with Terrence Malick.
This is a film which „has no bad bone“ in it. The films isn´t just beautiful and impressing. It is also demanding, fractious, touching and sometimes heartbreaking. Always when I can´t control my euphoria and when I want to celebrate this film as a „masterpiece“, the film is warning me. The Tree of Life, „Malicks Song about Himself“ (Niles Schwartz is not at least a life confession and a work of mourning. The film seems to me like a lump in Malicks throat he tried to get rid of for 30 years. I know it is as easy to admire this film like to damn or even to ridicule it. Strangely I feel very little motivation to „defend “ this film  which is so rich in wonders as a masterpiece (Having won the Golden Palm in Cannes and the Fipresci-Award as the „Film of the Year“ it already has won two of the highest award a film can ever get). I have to deal with a total different feeling. In this „Song about himself“ Malick sings out his heart. Often it has moved me to tears and I can´t get rid of the absurd feeling that I have to „protect“ a film of a friend.
There is one image which brings my feeling for The Tree of Life to the point: It is the moment when Jessica Chastain pets the wings of a butterfly.

Rüdiger Tomczak

a text on The New World 


Here are some texts on Malick´s masterpiece I would like to recommand:

I am occupied for three months by Malicks last and probably most important film till now The Tree of Life, including my long text for the next print issue of shomingeki. During the months I have read about 40 reviews and essays on the film including some very dull pamphletes like Hobermans review for example.
One text I can´t get out of my head: Niles Schwartz "Malick´s Song about Himself V."
That is the most beautiful text I read on this film. And it interprets the film radically autobiographical like no other text.

In another very inspiring text Mike Archibald is defending in the canadian online magazine Cinemezzo Malicks film against its most famous critics.

A very nice text (probably the nicest in german language) is written by Daniel Bund in German in the online magazine Negativ.
Adrian Martin on THE TREE OF LIFE
Another great essay on Malick´s film published on the FIPRESCI webside after the film won the poll among all Fipresci-members as the "film of the year 2011"