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The Tree of Life (2011)

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Hey Michael.

I have been mulling this over ever since I first read it. I agree that we can't rely on a reconstruction of a director's personal interests and academic/professional background as a lens through which we interpret everything they do. At least, we shouldn't assume that such an approach gives us a total picture of what is going on in a given film.

In short, I think I was probably a little too cautious/wary of the folks who (rightly to a degree) are bothered by one's latching on to a particular biographical detail that suits an interpretation he/she wishes to bring to the text haphazardly.

But... on the other hand, at some point we have to begin to interface with a director as a human being with stated interests, cultural characteristics, and a career with recognizable patterns or themes. It is shrewd to think of every Herzog film as part of an evolving canon, or of Tarkovsky's cinema in light of his own book on the subject.

I very much agree, and it's the type of criticism/essay I enjoy most. Ultimately, Anders is right that I was looking for more solid ground in the film itself so as to gain more credibility with the folks who might most take issue with my approach. Though, I readily admit that my concern over it was probably more characteristic of my own fault-worthy anxiety to precede every possible objection.

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In short, I think I was probably a little too cautious/wary of the folks who (rightly to a degree) are bothered by one's latching on to a particular biographical detail that suits an interpretation he/she wishes to bring to the text haphazardly.

I do the same thing, in that I often feel as if I need to hedge my bets when linking an artist and their work. While I am wary of "latching on to a particular biographical detail that suits an interpretation he/she wishes to bring to the text," your essay is a good example of picking up on something important to the director and diving into that rabbit hole.

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Noah Millman considers this film, A Serious Man and the Book of Job:

“The Tree of Life,” meanwhile, is all about that voice. The movie is plainly a meditation on Job. It opens with a quote from Job, contains an extended sequence in a church in which the pastor preaches on the Book of Job, and both the mother and the older brother of the boy who dies explicitly echo Job’s questions as they try to understand, where is God when unjust things happen?

But the film is suffused, almost smothered, by Terrence Malick’s version of the answer from the whirlwind, his depiction of the wonder of creation. From repeated shots of the towering trees of 1960s Waco to abstract compositions of light and water to extended sequences depicting the creation of the world and the evolution of life, Malick’s film wants to show us what the whirlwind told Job: creation is unfathomably grand, terrifying, and wonderful. There’s even a shot of a sea monster! This material infuriated many reviewers, who wanted a narrower focus on the lost paradise of Waco, but what infuriated them is the heart of the movie. If this material feels irrelevant to the story, well, isn’t the voice from the whirlwind on the surface pretty irrelevant to Job’s questions? Job is suffering, and God says: look at the parking lot! This is an answer? No, it isn’t an answer – it’s an attempt to change Job’s perspective. So, too, Malick with our expectations of how a story of a man’s life gets resolved.

(Apropos of trees, I note that the Coen brothers
from their 1960s Minneapolis suburb – because back in the 1960s the trees that now tower over the post-war houses were only saplings. I wonder whether Waco was actually leafier, or whether Malick wished to remember it that way.) . . .

[ snip ]

One of the best things about the vision of creation in “The Tree of Life” is the embrace of the fact of destruction, not only in that final sequence but in the early dinosaur sequence, which ends with an asteroid hitting the earth, wiping out much of creation. More than the brief appearance of the aquatic dinosaur “Leviathan,” this, it seems to me, is Malick’s version of the voice from the whirlwind’s assertion of the primacy of destructive monsters in God’s creation. It is not merely that the gift of life must be returned, and at a time of God’s choosing. God is willing to visit destruction upon His creation on a scale that, from a narrative perspective, cannot be meaningfully comprehended. The walk on the beach can, it seems to me, be interpreted as a dodge that makes this comprehensible – a dodge that The Book of Job declines to take. (There is no reference, in Job, either to a resurrection or an afterlife.) I prefer to believe that Malick didn’t intend an overtly theological interpretation, that this beach exists in man’s mind, not God’s, that the significance is Jack’s mother’s ability, in this imagined space, to fully reconcile herself to her son’s being taken, and therefore for Jack to reconcile himself to his survival, his continued participation in branching, forking life, rather than what I have to call the fantasy that, in the end, Job doesn’t just get a new family, he gets his old family back. Because he doesn’t. We don’t. . . .

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Incidentally, Steve Sailer noted the other day: "In the movie, Pitt's character describes himself as holder of 27 patents. Online, I can only find ten patents held by Emil A. Malick, but double digits is pretty good, anyway."

Oh wow. I just Googled "emil malick" to double-check that that is, in fact, Malick's father's name. And one of the top results was a WhitePages.com page that listed the elder Malick's address, phone number, and age (94; the younger Malick is 67). Freaky.

Emil Malick's obituary, courtesy of the Tulsa World:

Emil A. Malick, age 96, resident of Bartlesville, died on February 9, 2013 at Jane Phillips Hospital. A Requiem Mass will be said at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, February 16, at 2 PM. The family has requested no flowers. Survivors include his son Terrence and wife Alexandra of Austin, Texas, and his daughter-in-law Ann and grandsons David and Michael of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Friends who wish may sign the online guest book and leave condolences at www.stumpff.org This obituary was published in the Tulsa World on 2/13/2013.

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Saw this film last night for the first time (4th of July, it rained for 24 hours here). An unexpected treat. I didn't read any plot details prior to viewing and glad I didn't. I'm not well enough versed in film knowledge to add to this thread except give it one more vote and say it's high quality offbeat. Agreeing with others that it's akin to film makers like Kubrick and Tarkovsky, and forgive me but I'd even add Walter Disney's mind to the list. This is the only Malick film I've seen. I see his father recently died. Wondering if his father's advanced age was inspiration to make the movie. Lots of good reading in this thread.

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a couple of recent posts (really just meditations) I wrote in thinking about this amazing film:

 

http://pilgrimakimbo.wordpress.com/2014/03/24/the-tree-of-life-the-agnus-dei/

 

http://pilgrimakimbo.wordpress.com/2014/04/03/the-way-of-nature-the-way-of-grace/

 

these posts essentially came as my reactions/explorations of having just attended this event: http://augustinemalick.weebly.com/

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Wow. That is very inspiring work. Makes me want to go back and watch the hands in Au hasard Balthazar again.

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Wow, that is exciting news.  Especially given Sean Penn's statement that this film was a lot better as originally scripted than it ended up being after the edit for theater release.

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Brian D wrote:
: Wow, that is exciting news.  Especially given Sean Penn's statement that this film was a lot better as originally scripted than it ended up being after the edit for theater release.

I would caution against the assumption that "more screen time" equals "closer to the script". Malick is kind of notorious for telling actors to just ignore the script *on set*, let alone whatever he decides to do with it in the editing room.

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6 hours ago, Peter T Chattaway said:

Brian D wrote:
: Wow, that is exciting news.  Especially given Sean Penn's statement that this film was a lot better as originally scripted than it ended up being after the edit for theater release.

I would caution against the assumption that "more screen time" equals "closer to the script". Malick is kind of notorious for telling actors to just ignore the script *on set*, let alone whatever he decides to do with it in the editing room.

Noted...although I was assuming Penn's limited time on screen in the theatrical cut dovetailed with some script portions that included his character but were cut from the theatrical version.

Seems to me that someone around here (Ryan H?) had said they had read the original script.  Ryan?

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