Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Tree of Life" Second Viewing

(Please play this music while reading. YouTube courtesy of Geode121)

Last night I experienced Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" for the second time. (My previous review here)

Since my first viewing I have read with interest the excellent reviews of fellow bloggers, including Andrew at Encore's World of Film and TV... and Ben at Runs Like a Gay 

This difficult but brilliant film is now showing on only one cinema screen in all of metropolitan Chicago: the Glen Art Cinema, in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Illinois.  It was worth the half-hour drive, the $7 admission fee, and a slightly scratched print.

"The Tree of Life" offered up new insights on second viewing.  Since I knew what I was about to witness, there was none of the mystery, none of the anticipation I had brought in with me the the first time.  I did not have to work as hard to decipher the patterns or to understand the direction in which it moved.  I could relax, and concentrate on the images and sounds.  I was better able to observe the visual and aural connections between shots, as well as the thematic connections. 

I continued to "converse" with the film in my head, to struggle with questions I had the first time, and to let the ideas and feelings, images and music, settle into my consciousness to become part of my way of seeing. 

For example, I still resisted the Mother's idea that man can follow only one of two paths (either the way of Nature or the way of Grace).  However, I was more impressed this time by how the characters played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain embodied these two ideas, while remaining fully human, often idealized, sometimes demonized, with flaws and all.

(I even wondered if Mother had a change of heart near the end...coming to terms with Nature...willing to let go...and simplifying her philosophy to one word, "love".)

I also discovered that the film's point of view shifts fluidly between characters, often cued by their whispered voice-over narrations.  Some of these voice-overs were still difficult to hear, but now I think I better understand their necessity as clues to the film's shifting points of view.  How a character is seen during the film often depends on whose memory, or viewpoint, is working a the time.

To whom are the voice-over questions appealing? God? The deceased son/brother?  I think it could be either, at various points...

I enjoyed the almost constant slow movement of the camera.  This was not haphazard, shaky "documentary"-style cliche, but a patterned, dreamy, fluid movement that kept drawing the viewer in, and was consistent from sequence to sequence.  Water is such an important motif in "The Tree of Life", that I understood the film to be "flowing", like a body of water. We are unable to linger on any one point for too long, but must move along with its carefully-purposed flow.

The Creation-of-the-Universe sequence, and the New-Age after-life finale, I  understood, almost by instinct, were framing devices, meant to represent the unknowable and cataclysmic "consciousness" of what occurred before we were born, and what might happen after we die.  

The film's centerpiece, which is the family story, I think is just a fleeting "moment" in the enormity of time.  The fact that the bulk of the film's running time is devoted to this ethereal narrative gives importance to that "moment", to all of our "moments".

This family narrative is almost rapturous in its observation of everyday detail. It means to answer the question "What are we to you?" by showing that the birth of one child may be as significant as the creation of the universe, and that life is as at once mundane and profound.  

The film suggests that we need not feel desolate in the uncertainty of our importance in this vast, unknowable universe; and that nature and grace wrestle inside all of us,  in our seeming everyday insignificance.
The story of this family still plays like a dream, a memory.... Almost completely drained of expository dialogue, we hear just enough to maintain some narrative movement.  What remains are the impressions, the emotions, that are the bittersweet residue of all memory, which is just enough, and yet never enough...

Because it is a film that insists on appealing to the far reaches of our thinking, it is often confusing, because we WANT to be moved emotionally. The images are sometimes so achingly beautiful (along with the music) that we almost NEED the release of tears.....Instead, viewers are left hushed, and thoughtful (at least, those in the audience who are not bored, confused or outraged). 

If it is not an overtly religious experience (and I sensed no dogma in Malick's piece,  just a matter-of-fact statement of one artist's philosophy), "The Tree of Life" is a rare "mainstream" film that tries to touch a purely spiritual element; or, at least, it tries to appeal to us from the waist up, and  to send us out with a new "lens" on the world, if we choose to accept it as such.

The final image, of a bridge, is beautiful and true.  A connection between Nature and Grace?  I could think about the possibilities this image offers for a long time.

And the music...  Rarely has the marriage of music and image been so mysteriously RIGHT in a mainstream full-length motion picture.  I am inspired to become familiar with all of the music in this film, to identify those pieces that I still don't know, so that future viewings will carry even more resonance.

(The piece in the video at the top is "Funeral Canticle" by John Tavener (1996) and is used at least twice: in an early sequence during Jessica Chastain's quiet soliloquy; and later, it soothes us like a balm after an intense argument between Mother and Father. )

I will be looking at "The Tree of Life" many more times in my life...until I know it well, and will speak of it with as much fluency as I do of my favorites from the '70's.  The Blu-Ray/DVD is scheduled for release on October 11.

I look forward to the impressions of other repeat viewers.


  1. I watched it twice, and really enjoyed it. I loved "The Thin Red Line " by Terrance Malick, and "The Tree of Life" is really amazing with beautiful pictures, along with great pieces of music. It's special and contemplative, and I like the questions and thinking it rises dealing with Love, Nature, Existence, Religion... Very nice review. Greetings from France.

    Geoff (Geodel21)

  2. I need to see it a second time (the sound in my theater did not go on until Fiona Shaw's line, "You still have the others," as she comforts her daughter after the son's death. What I took away from it, though, seems to be reinforced by your second viewing: the religousless spirituality, the bridge, the exquisite marriage of image and music (Drive also excels at this).

    This observation is particularly brilliant: "It means to answer the question "What are we to you?" by showing that the birth of one child may be as significant as the creation of the universe, and that life is as at once mundane and profound." My God, yes! I think I remember wincing at that, thinking it was just the next step in the life of the universe, but this...this makes sense. It's not a step, but an equal, a comparison. Tom, you inspire me and cause me to reevaluate.