Sometimes, You Have to Come BackThe Tree of Life (d. Malick, 2011)

There have been many times in my movie-watching life that I have been displeased or unsatisfied with a movie only to make a complete 180 degree turn, sometimes in less than 24 hours.  I have long since trained myself to never venture an opinion of a movie immediately after having watched it.  Of course, that hasn't stopped me from doing just that, many times over.  It's one of the reasons I hate the question, "So what did you think?" immediately upon finishing a movie.  I hate it because I foolishly answer the question when I know I shouldn't.

Over the summer, as I was leaving lunch with Bill Ryan, he asked me if I had seen Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick.  I hadn't, at the time.  I also said, plainly, that I wasn't one of Malick's biggest fans.  Certainly, I don't think he's bad, I just don't connect with his style of film making as much as others do.  Bill said something to the effect of, "Maybe you shouldn't see it, then, because it's about as 'Malicky' as you can get."

Well, I did see it, not long after that.  I didn't tell Bill, or anyone online for that matter.  I discussed it with my wife, however (who did not see it).  My discussion started minutes after I saw it, on the phone with her.  My views were, to say the least, not positive.  By the time we were both home and I could talk to her face to face about it, my feelings had changed a bit.  The movie was lingering in my mind.  I got a copy of it, streaming, from Amazon and watched it again.  I watched key scenes with her.  I showed her how this was done and that was done and how Malick told everything in short, clipped moments rather than full, formal scenes and how, when I thought back on the movie, that made it seem like I was looking back on the actual lives of people I'd known, not movie characters.  I remarked how we remember our lives in snippets, not fully realized afternoon's worth of conversation.  By the time I had finished talking to her about it, going over separate moments in the film with her and watching it again, I was of the mind that Tree of Life was one of the most extraordinary pieces of cinema I have ever seen.

I'm still of that mind.

This is a movie that is easy to resist.  It's easy to push against it and call it out as a piece of self-important "art."  It's easy because it doesn't present its story in any recognizable way and so the viewer can take that as an affront to their sensibilities and roll their eyes (even Altman's snippets felt more like whole scenes most of the time).  People claim it's not linear but, really, for the most part, it is.  Just because it moves around a bit in time, that is to say, it doesn't start right at the beginning but a little after and then goes back to start at the beginning, doesn't mean it's not linear.  For the most part, the story of the boys and their mom and dad is told from their birth through their old age and/or death in a fairly straight line. There may be detours, where we find out "where we came from" but that doesn't alter the linear momentum of the main story at all.  If anything, the movie simply stops telling that story, for a short while, here and there, before returning to it.

Nevertheless, for a lot of viewers, this one included the first time around, that can be tedious and, as a result, resistance becomes the defense mechanism of choice.  So, yes, I understand when I read some reactions that call it "pretentious" and "arty" and "self-important." But sometimes, you have to come back to a movie, just as Sean Penn's character comes back to his family in his thoughts.  What can be easily dismissed or resisted sometimes simply depends on how we have decided to view it.  I decided to view it a certain way but, in my memory, the movie forced me to view it another.  And it was that memory, reinforced by further viewing, that won the day.

For a more precise way to explain the film's storytelling technique, I quote Roderick Heath of Ferdy on Films:  "[Malick is] less interested in dramatic explorations of character, though there are intimations of character, than in articulating the archetypal through the specific, an example of T.S. Eliot’s formulation of the poetic sensibility as one that senses how everything is connected."  Tree of Life works only by watching the entire movie.  That sounds obvious (what else are you going to do with a movie?) but what I mean is, there's no getting bored and thinking, "Oh, he's not telling me anything important here!  I get it, the oldest son doesn't get along with dad!" and, then, as a result, kind of blanking out most of the movie.  It must be watched with full attention and taken in because only then can the sense of it, the connection to it and the feeling of the characters become viable to the viewer.

It's been a long time since I saw a movie that doesn't necessarily require you to take an active part as much as it, more than anything else, wants you to!  And that's an important distinction.  Malick wants you, the viewer, to engage with him, with the characters, with their lives.  He doesn't want you to just watch.  You can, if you want, but you'll miss a hell of a lot.  Once I started taking part in the movie, it won me over solid and, even now, weeks since I last took a look at it (but I will again soon, it looms so large in my mind) I think of it daily.

And for a person like me, the film itself is truly spiritual.  I cannot get my head around the idea of people wanting to take all the grandeur of the universe, all of its beauty and mystery and mind-boggling, stunning complexity and reduce it all to "a supernatural being made it."  That robs the universe and life itself of beauty and meaning, as far as I'm concerned.  But for others, it doesn't.  For others, that supernatural being is a way of personifying the mystery and while that may not work for me, I can understand it working for others.  The beauty of Tree of Life is that there is no dogma, no argument for or against anything which is why, I think, so many people have described it in so many different ways.  I've heard Christians claim it as a movie for them while I've heard agnostics and atheists say it's a movie that appreciates the beauty and mystery of nature.  It works either way because it's not about a specific inroad to any one definition of spirituality but about the existence of humanity and nature and the universe itself and how it all flows in one direction, each step tied to the last.

It begins with a quote from the Book of Job in the Bible that reads, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?"  What a beautiful way to start the movie because, essentially, as we watch the oldest son (Sean Penn) wander through the present as his memories lead us through the past, we realize just as he does that his adolescent judgments were, perhaps, misplaced.  He was not there, as an adult, to understand what his parents were going through.  To understand what work his father was doing, what humiliations he was enduring to keep them going.  How difficult it must have been for his mother, buoyed by her faith and love of her children, to continue in a marriage that must have felt, at times, like living with a distant acquaintance.  This movie is his way of going back and being there this time around.  This time he can be there when the foundations are laid and understand the work that goes into it.

Understanding your parents through memory is something I can relate to deeply.  So many things my parents did when I was young were judged harshly by me until I grew up and had children of my own.  Suddenly, through memory, I could understand why things were done a certain way and how hard it must have been.  That's what God is saying to Job in that opening quote.  He's not saying, "Who do you think you are judging me?! You weren't there!"  He's saying, "Think about it, reflect on it, so that you may understand it."  The great physicist Richard Feynman, when talking about the light waves that weave throughout the universe and all that there is, remarked that these waves are right here, in the room, "but you've got to stop and think about it, about the complexity, to really get the pleasure."  It's not enough to be present, it requires thought, contemplation, reflection.  That's what God wants, that's what the father (Brad Pitt) wants too.  He wants his sons to understand the hardship and learn from it, appreciate it and make it better.

The film's basic story is of one couple, the O'Briens, in the fifties, raising their three sons.  Later, one of them dies and the film does not tell us how (Suicide, like Malick's brother in real life?  Casualty of war in Vietnam?  It doesn't say.)  In the present, the oldest son, Jack (Penn), sees a tree being planted by the office building where he works and begins a long reunion, in his heart and mind, with his family that will take us through the movie.  Along the way, Mallick briefly leaves the main story to answer the question of a character, "Where did we come from?" by showing us the evolution of life on earth in a truly extraordinary sequence that has already become one of my favorite sequences in any movie, anywhere.  We return to the main story but continue to get mere snippets of dialogue, mere glimpses of life as the family moves forward and the boys rebel against their father and bond with their mother and then, over time, bond with their father through reflective understanding and tolerance.

All this is not to say the movie does not rely on cliches that were, at first, what made me so disappointed (although I very quickly got past them).  It was the constant dramatic whispers of narration and the angelic music during the creation of life on Earth that seemed so obvious.  There's no way around it, triumphant choirs of voices while showing the grandeur of space is as cliched as it gets and Malick adopts it full force.  But my reticence, in the face of these cliches, was quickly overcome by the simple beauty of a story told through shared memory.

Tree of Life is, simply put, a grand achievement in film and that's not something I say often when writing about new movies.  Initially, it put me off and I did everything I could to distance myself from it.  But the memory of the O'Brien family, of the beginnings of life and of a universe forever indifferent to our petty designs, and yet filled with our own meaning, turned me around.  As I felt it pull, I found I wanted to take part and I'm glad I did.  Sometimes, as Jack learns, you have to come back.