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The Tree of Life (2011)

Terrence Malick

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#521 Anders

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Posted 04 July 2011 - 09:42 PM

I wish we'd seen a moment where she was less than perfect with the kids, though. Just one moment where she snapped at one of the boys in exhaustion, or brushed them aside when they came to her. In general, I adore the 1950s childhood section of the film, but her semi-perfection--including the ludicrous "levitating" moment--is somewhat irritating.

Yep. The fact that we see the film from Jack's POV doesn't negate the fact that his memory should be a little more complicated. There should be something he remembers that would at least let us read between the lines a little more.


Regardless of whether there "should" or "is" something he remembers, that's not how memories work, either in my understanding of how memory is understood theoretically or in my observations of my parents memories of their own parents as they age. The modal imperative that Jack's memories "should" be more complicated seems to be more than a work of art, or a person's own reflections can bear.

I hope to revisit the film again soon, though when I will be able to is in question (I went to Toronto on Friday in part because I'd be missing it's brief theatrical run in Waterloo in July, and it isn't playing in Saskatoon where I'll be spending the next three weeks). My impression is that, contrary to what other's have written, that I'm not sure we ever get anything outside of Jack's personally subjective memory; the creation of the world scenes, or his parents "thoughts" (I'm not satisfied with most of the commentary on the narration in this film, especially in light of the narration in his previous films) included seemed to me to be a part of his reflections on life. But I could be wrong.

#522 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 04 July 2011 - 10:42 PM

Anders wrote:
: The modal imperative that Jack's memories "should" be more complicated seems to be more than a work of art, or a person's own reflections can bear.

Well, this is the tension inherent in a film that photographically captures objective reality while putting it together in a subjective manner. Are we supposed to believe that everything the camera SEES is purely subjective? I don't think so. I mean, it's not like all the voice-overs are Jack's; some of them belong to other figures, too. There is more than one perspective here, so it SHOULD be fairly safe to assume that the visuals overlap with these MULTIPLE perspectives in some INTER-subjective (if not quasi-objective) way. If, however, the visuals are NEVER anything more than the products of a single person's thoughtstream, then what are we to make of the voice-overs? Is there anything on offer here other than pure solipsism?

: My impression is that, contrary to what other's have written, that I'm not sure we ever get anything outside of Jack's personally subjective memory; the creation of the world scenes, or his parents "thoughts" (I'm not satisfied with most of the commentary on the narration in this film, especially in light of the narration in his previous films) included seemed to me to be a part of his reflections on life. But I could be wrong.

Wow. I wrote my comment above before reading this paragraph. Well, like I say, if your hunch is correct, then the film is an exercise in pure solipsism and isn't worth all that much to me, really. The film -- like all relationships -- only has worth to the extent that it is about something more than what's going on in a single person's head. Films, ideally, should draw us out of ourselves and into some sort of Other, and ideally they should do this by example, by letting themselves be drawn into some sort of Other or by showing how their characters are drawn into each other's Otherness, or something like that. If, however, there is nothing onscreen here -- nothing -- other than figments of Jack's memory, projected onto the people in his life not unlike how the robot in A.I. Artificial Intelligence projects his own neuroses onto the mother of his fantasies, then this is anything but a transcendent film. It would be, in fact, a very sad and tragic film, no matter how faith-affirming some people make it out to be.

To come at this from another angle: I do not know how reconciled Jack can be to God (as some have interpreted the final scenes) if Jack is not in some way reconciled to the actual people in his life, and not just his conceptions of them. (The two greatest commandments, after all, point both ways: one of them points vertically to God, and the other points horizontally to our fellow human beings.) And I do not know how we, as an audience, can participate in this reconciliation unless the film shows us more than Jack's IDEA of these people.

#523 Jana Segal

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Posted 05 July 2011 - 08:25 AM

“Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” A beam of light unfurls.

THE TREE OF LIFE is a reflection on the meaning of life. What is the filmmaker trying to say? That is highly subjective. Aside from an opening narration that cues us in on the theme, the director leaves it to the audience to form our own conscious or subconscious impressions on the images he presents. Each audience member brings their own experiences which informs the meaning for them. This is a challenging film because of the nonlinear structure that shifts between time and space, three different character's points of view, and nature photography. I don't pretend to understand it all. My interpretation is drawn from my own memories and recounting similar images from science programs.

The filmmaker uses the opening narration to give us a handle on how to understand the nature images and memories to follow. The mother meditates, “There are two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. We have to choose the way we will follow.” Basically, nature is competitive and only cares for itself while grace relies on a sense of oneness with all of existence.

Soon after the opening images and narration, we witness the family getting the news that one of their three sons has died. The Father, Mother and their oldest son try to make sense of the loss. This brings on a lot of soul searching about how the children were raised and inspires prayers requesting understanding of the meaning of life, suffering, and death.

Check out my interpretation at: www.reelinspiration.blogspot.com I would love to hear your interpretation too. Please, leave a comment.

#524 Anders

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Posted 05 July 2011 - 09:07 AM

Anders wrote:
: The modal imperative that Jack's memories "should" be more complicated seems to be more than a work of art, or a person's own reflections can bear.

Well, this is the tension inherent in a film that photographically captures objective reality while putting it together in a subjective manner. Are we supposed to believe that everything the camera SEES is purely subjective? I don't think so. I mean, it's not like all the voice-overs are Jack's; some of them belong to other figures, too. There is more than one perspective here, so it SHOULD be fairly safe to assume that the visuals overlap with these MULTIPLE perspectives in some INTER-subjective (if not quasi-objective) way. If, however, the visuals are NEVER anything more than the products of a single person's thoughtstream, then what are we to make of the voice-overs? Is there anything on offer here other than pure solipsism?


I'll have to think about this some more, but I'm not much of a Bazinian, and either way I think this film challenges the notion of a photographic record of objective reality in the way it "recreates" (digitally or otherwise) the origin of the world. What are we to think also of clearly "subjective memories" or images of the mother in her Snow White coffin or "levitating"?

: My impression is that, contrary to what other's have written, that I'm not sure we ever get anything outside of Jack's personally subjective memory; the creation of the world scenes, or his parents "thoughts" (I'm not satisfied with most of the commentary on the narration in this film, especially in light of the narration in his previous films) included seemed to me to be a part of his reflections on life. But I could be wrong.

Wow. I wrote my comment above before reading this paragraph. Well, like I say, if your hunch is correct, then the film is an exercise in pure solipsism and isn't worth all that much to me, really. The film -- like all relationships -- only has worth to the extent that it is about something more than what's going on in a single person's head. Films, ideally, should draw us out of ourselves and into some sort of Other, and ideally they should do this by example, by letting themselves be drawn into some sort of Other or by showing how their characters are drawn into each other's Otherness, or something like that. If, however, there is nothing onscreen here -- nothing -- other than figments of Jack's memory, projected onto the people in his life not unlike how the robot in A.I. Artificial Intelligence projects his own neuroses onto the mother of his fantasies, then this is anything but a transcendent film. It would be, in fact, a very sad and tragic film, no matter how faith-affirming some people make it out to be.

To come at this from another angle: I do not know how reconciled Jack can be to God (as some have interpreted the final scenes) if Jack is not in some way reconciled to the actual people in his life, and not just his conceptions of them. (The two greatest commandments, after all, point both ways: one of them points vertically to God, and the other points horizontally to our fellow human beings.) And I do not know how we, as an audience, can participate in this reconciliation unless the film shows us more than Jack's IDEA of these people.


I like this, and you're forcing me to modify my position because the reality is that I don't really think the film is solipsistic. I like your ethical point about film. I would say that we are always gesturing to the Other whenever we try to communicate, even to ourselves, even if the only tools we have are subjective. I guess the film is about how reconciliation is possible given our memories of people.

Side note: I agree with you that the ending of A.I. is terribly sad and tragic, but I don't quite think that TREE OF LIFE is equivalent, though it would be possible to make a similar film that is equally as sad. I'm drawn back to Tarkovsky's THE MIRROR and how he deals with both collective and personal memories (he inserts documentary footage rather than CGI creation scenes as a gesture to the the communal experience of memory). I'm also troubled by the notion that it's an either/or: either they are figments, solipsistic memories of his mother, or they are objective facts. We're never given enough of either mother or father to create a full portrait of them apart from Jack's POV, but funnily enough I think the father comes across better in some respects, or at least his "Otherness" is allowed to "interact" more with Jack in his memories. My suggestion is that part of it is that Jack needs to reconcile with his father (and God) more than he feels the need to do so with his mother, who as I've mentioned before he feels at peace with in so far as she was the only outlet of grace in his life.

Another way I'd want to approach thinking about this dilemma (since I'm the one who raised it :)) is, instead of a subjective/objective dichotomy, we should think about rather "who is controlling the narrative?", not in a literal way (obviously Malick and his editors and crew are), but in the sense of a implied narrator. Not, "what's real and what's not?" but "who's consciousness is allowing us to glimpse these images and voiceovers, and what is the motivation for the choices?"

#525 Persona

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Posted 08 July 2011 - 10:59 AM

Holy crap. Scoll down Here.

#526 Overstreet

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Posted 11 July 2011 - 11:36 AM

S. Brent Plate:

By now critics have heaped thousands upon thousands of words on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a film that, nevertheless, doesn’t have very many of them. As is typical for Malick, a sensuous soundscape meets a lush landscape, and spoken dialogue is at a minimum. Through it all, critics are “surprised,” though not quite dumbfounded, at Malick’s use of special effects in reimagining the origins of the cosmos, finding it “freaky” or “jaw-dropping.”

The film delights in visual connections between the macrocosmos and microcosmos: far off gassy clouds of nebula look like the gassy clouds of DDT sprayed for mosquito control in Waco, Texas; an asteroid strikes the earth, beginning the mass extinction of dinosaurs, while the young Jack O’Brien throws a rock through a window, beginning the extinction of his childhood innocence; one boy emerges from an underwater house as a cosmic metaphor for birth, and later another dies by drowning in a pool.

If we look more closely at these cosmic images, unique as they seem in Tree of Life, we find them situated within a long visual and religious history of such associations. As such, The Tree of Life is simply the latest in a millennia-old project, shared by cultures across the world, of reconciling the microcosmos with the macrocosmos, our local lives with the grand scheme of things.

With that in mind, what follows are a series of visual encounters, attempts to place the imagery of The Tree of Life within a larger religious and cultural history, juxtaposing the new and the traditional through three historical plateaus. ...



#527 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 11 July 2011 - 12:30 PM

The Los Angeles Times has soundbites from a screening of the film where Robert K. Johnston, Rabbi David Wolpe, Sister Rose Pacatte and Scott Young offered their interpretations of the "afterlife" scene. And yeah, none of them really challenges the idea that this scene is in some sense a depiction of the "afterlife".

Most interesting to me, though, is the comment that someone posted UNDER that article: "It's a flash forward to death/heaven/end of time. . . . Important to note is the door image in the desert that appears multiple times - tying into the door we saw during the birth sequence."

Do any of the it's-NOT-the-afterlife interpreters have a response to this? What do YOU guys make of the door imagery?

#528 Jacques

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Posted 12 July 2011 - 11:19 PM

Tree of Strife Terrence Malick’s new film—a cinematic meditation on God, grace, and the wretchedness of man—is an important and masterful work of art. It’s also the least Jewish film ever made.

Liel Liebowitz explores the film, grace and Augustine overthere at Tablet

#529 M. Leary

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Posted 13 July 2011 - 09:02 AM

That is a great essay, thanks for the link.

"This is what Heschel was talking about—this rising above the horizon of the mind that is at the heart of the Jewish religious experience."

I struggle with this as one who is fathered by Abraham via Jesus. The Christian experience of God is so steeped in particularity that I often lose track of the fact that I ultimately worship a God who is strikingly, singularly unknowable. (Even if the New Testament teaches that God is made clear in the person of Christ, he remains "a consuming fire.") The writer of the essay pushes across the sacramental angles of Tree of Life to demonstrate that Malick allows the film to contain a wide breadth of religious experience. It is ultimately Abrahamic in scope rather than simply Christian.

Reading this article makes me realize that this is the exact reverse of the argument I was trying to make for A Serious Man, which ends with a Heschel-like appreciation for the unknowability of G-d, but at the same time forces us to grapple with the presence of God in the world as something material and biographical. There is a sacramental undercurrent in A Serious Man the reaches an apex in the parable of the goy's teeth. It is absolutely Jewish, yet opens a door for a very Christian appreciation.

I feel a comparative reading coming on.

#530 Overstreet

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Posted 13 July 2011 - 10:59 AM

S. Brent Plate (another article from him):

Most critics have noted the film’s early-on pronouncement of an either/or choice down life’s path: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.” The father (the masculine force, disciplinarian, the god of justice) is pit in distinction to the mother (the feminine force, compassionate, the god of mercy). Marketers have exploited this dualism, and a promotional website for the film carries the title: twowaysthroughlife.com. Comments on the film (by critics and in the comment sections of major media outlets) typically ape this dualistic proclamation.

But as I watch my daughters play, in amiability and animosity alike, I realize The Tree of Life is not merely about parental spouses acting out nature and grace in divergence from their childrens’ lives. The film, and the reality of growing up, is also deeply about sibling relationships with each other, à la Cain and Abel, Mary and Martha, Flint and Little-Sprout, Helen and Clytemnestra, Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, which is where so many critics and observers have got the film wrong. The Father-Mother choice is there, but Malick provides a way out of the bifurcation: the way of the brother. This does not exclude the nature-grace distinction, but wraps it up in another form. And in distinction to all those old myths in which the siblings rival, fight, and kill each other, Malick’s sibling is redeemed through the other.

Where was everyone in that crucial third (or fourth, its hard to tell) part of the film? Did they all drift off into naps, hypnotized by the lulling music? There was a third category, a synthesis, a Hegelian aufhebung, a middle way that was articulated in the narrative voiceover as that of the “brother.” The film is told primarily from Jack’s point of view, but it is his younger brother R.L. who becomes the glue to the weavings of stories.

Indeed, the first word of the film is “brother,” and that is set up before the “nature vs. grace” distinction. Further, the final words of the film are addressed to the brother as well: “Guide us, to the end of time.” (Note: he is not talking to God here.)



#531 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 14 July 2011 - 08:19 PM

Half rambling somewhat disconnected thoughts, half compilation of some of your guys' best writing & recommendations on the subject.

Not sure if it really qualifies as a film review, but I have other friends who I'm trying to encourage to see the film AND to read more of the reviews written by you guys. So the purpose of putting this together was more for persuasion for some people I know than for anything else.

... The idea that poetry can express and convey meaning incapable of other forms of speech and literature is not a new one. For example, poet and soldier Sir Philip Sidney wrote The Defense of Poesy, where he argued exactly that:

"The lawyer saith what men have determined; the historian what men have done. The grammarian speaketh only of the rules of speech; and the rhetorician and logician, considering what in nature will soonest persuade, thereon give artificial rules ... Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature, as the Heroes, Demigods, Cyclops, Chimeras, Furies, and such like: so as he goeth hand in hand with nature, not enclosed within the narrow warrant of her gifts, but freely ranging only within the zodiac of his own wit. Nature never set forth the earth in so rich tapestry as divers poets have done ..."

Robert Frost said that "a poem begins with a lump in the throat" , hinting that poetry is an expression of deeper feelings not necessarily articulable in prose. Sidney laments anyone who has not developed an ear for "the planet-like music of poetry" because when a poet "comes to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for, the well-enchanting skill of music" , you are going to feel and understand things in a way that you otherwise would never be able to comprehend. English playwright Christopher Fry insisted that "Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement."

Now the idea of poetry as film is not completely new. This idea was discussed in the 1950s by Frederick Aicken who wrote that:

"... film should be capable of creating for the eye a sort of visual poetry, which would be a selection of the sight of ordinary men just as Wordsworth’s poetry was a selection of the speech of ordinary men ... As James Broughton has said, to ask for poetry in cinema does not mean that one is asking for verse plays embalmed in celluloid. The search is for the moment of truth, the sudden illumination of experience, the thrill of discovery of beauty in squalor, of the exciting in the ordinary. One looks for ‘a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented in an unusual aspect.’ One looks, too, for that flash upon the inward eye which completes the process of transference of emotion from the mind of the artist to the mind of the spectator. One looks, in fact, not for poetry in the film, but for poetry of the film." ...



#532 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 15 July 2011 - 09:20 AM

Stephen Holden @ New York Times:

From that single viewing, the most powerful theme I grasped was the film’s punishing view of humankind’s patriarchal inheritance. “The Tree of Life’s” psychological core is its portrait of the O’Briens, an archetypal American family living in Waco, Tex., in the 1950s. Its strict father (Brad Pitt), a civil engineer and aspiring inventor with a wife and three boys, rules the roost with an authoritarian hand. His love for them is inseparable from a moralistic rage that erupts at his children’s breaches of discipline and at their mother’s coddling. Scenes in church connect Mr. Pitt’s character to a fearsome, unpredictable Old Testament God — the God of Job — dispensing arbitrary judgment.

The anguish endured by the O’Briens is focused on the seemingly meaningless death of one son and the rebellion of another (played by Hunter McCracken), whose unhappy grown-up self (Sean Penn) is too briefly glimpsed. The film’s biggest lapse is its unconvincing imagining of a resolution to all human conflict in an afterlife on a beach. But its central vision of an inviolable patriarchal hierarchy, descending from a stern male God to Mr. O’Brien, who endeavors to carry out his idea of God’s will on his tormented children, is the movie’s emotional heart.



#533 Christian

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Posted 15 July 2011 - 09:48 AM

Stephen Holden @ New York Times:

"Maybe a second immersion in this great but humorless and hugely flawed film will reveal the answer; then again, maybe not. Maybe there is no answer. Maybe that’s the point."

Uh. I want to champion this article, but the ending feels more like a punt than a true wrestling with the film. Holden doesn't like the "answer" Malick provides -- lots of critics don't -- so he resorts to an uncomfortable "maybe there is no answer" conclusion. That's not satisfactory.

Edited by Christian, 15 July 2011 - 09:48 AM.


#534 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 15 July 2011 - 10:05 AM

Christian wrote:
: Holden doesn't like the "answer" Malick provides -- lots of critics don't -- so he resorts to an uncomfortable "maybe there is no answer" conclusion. That's not satisfactory.

It does kind of fit with the whole Book-of-Job thing, though.

#535 Christian

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Posted 15 July 2011 - 10:08 AM

But even in Job, there's an answer. It might not address all of Job's questions point by point, but it suffices. I think Holden is demanding answers that the movie isn't supposed to give -- beyond the answer(s) it does give.

#536 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 15 July 2011 - 10:11 AM

Christian wrote:
: But even in Job, there's an answer.

There's a response. I'm not sure it's an answer.

#537 Ryan H.

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Posted 15 July 2011 - 02:29 PM

Christian wrote:
: But even in Job, there's an answer.

There's a response. I'm not sure it's an answer.

An important distinction.

#538 opus

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Posted 16 July 2011 - 03:33 PM

I finally managed to catch The Tree of Life, and on the last day that it was in Lincoln no less. I've posted some (non-linear) impressions and reflections on Opus.

Edited by opus, 16 July 2011 - 03:33 PM.


#539 Overstreet

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Posted 16 July 2011 - 04:57 PM

Thanks, Jason! I linked to it on FB.

Looks like M. Sicinski has posted a somewhat longer version of his review on his blog.

#540 Overstreet

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Posted 18 July 2011 - 02:54 PM

Ben Bishop at The Other Journal:

No filmmaker, no matter how great his talent, is above the responsibility of sustaining his audience’s interest if that filmmaker chooses to make a movie that feels on a visceral level as if it should be going somewhere. For all its lambent glory, all the evocative power of its characters’ longing, The Tree of Life fails to achieve what it might have had its undeniable power been given a full head of steam and allowed to run upon the clarifying rails of a more discernible plot.







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