Why Audiences Can’t Sit For or Stand The Tree of Life
What is most surprising about the premiere of The Tree of Life and its subsequent box-office failure due to a powerfully negative word of mouth is that if any film was the right film for the right moment (that moment being our living in a time of spiritual, economic, and environmental disasters), it is this wonder of images. The film presents the world as harmonious and cracked (humans are those fractured, nature is another story), yet spatial—intimate in childhood, while thunderingly antiseptic in the present day matrix of skyscrapers and homes equipped with plasma screens. As consumer culture tightens its grip on our souls, here is a piece of craftsmanship so sure of its place apart from imitation art (also known as Oscar bait—Dances with Wolves, et al.), that it happily eschews many drab protocols and the rub-a-dub sentimental stew of traditionally arching storylines and instead, gives us images that aren’t simple, that have to be read, that have to be reflected upon and interpreted, that ask us to share in their beauty rather than be repelled and manipulated by a gratuitous splatter of plot points and snappy, smarmy dialogue where one asshole rips another to bring the audience into the product’s fold, as so many of these products are the brainchild of some starstruck, cash-hoarding producer, or a Hollywood star struck by scandal, needing money to quell attorneys and so gleefully takes a gun or three and blows holes in the bad guys for a few hours more.
Thankfully The Tree of Life is nothing like this. Terrence Malick, its writer and director, is a man who has studied the history of art and ideas, as well as translating Heidegger. His films are full feasts as one sees in Kurosawa, Bergman, and Tarkovsky’s films, demonstrated by their intelligence and allusive sense. This particular Malick film contains the high art not only of architecture and music, but some of the most beautiful places in the world (Death Valley, the canyonlands of Utah, and the gardens of a small town in Italy, not to mention unidentified oceans and waterfalls), and the most beautiful things, including trees, sunflowers, and the faces of human beings. His creation throbs with energy—a family grows, destructs, and hangs on—but it has no patience with establishing character or “setting the table” for the audience—the table is already set; Malick’s invitation has taken the pain of gifting his guests.
What is the crux of Malick’s film? Everyone knows life is unfair, but does everyone know life is unfair and beautiful, often at the same time? Malick examines human behavior—how we are made, how we are raised—and dramatizes the loss of the natural world from our lives. The Tree of Life shows how hate grows in the heart, but Malick leaves out much of the clichéd reasons why men have the their anger (she doesn’t love me, she loves him, they gave him my job) and intelligently has the frustrated father develop his own complicated persona—a factory man, but a failed man, a man able to love music and gardening, yet short-sighted enough to continually squelch his wife and sons. Though Malick does use many tricks (or standard expressionistic camera play), such as jumps cuts, fades to black, craning shots, steadicam (who doesn’t these days?), close-up upon close-up, upside down shots, the fisheye lens, they are part of a visual style defining the film—not the mixing and matching of so-called MTV-style where fast edits and kamikaze camera work are the norm, giving the impression that much is going on, when often all the banging of drums signifies little because form and content are so divorced from one another. The visual style of The Tree of Life more emphatically fits the content of the film more than the majority of films ever made. The ways the camera moves, the images the camera captures, and the way these images are edited are much more the film than the actors, the story, the dialogue or voiceover, even more than the impressive array of classical music. The Tree of Life is the camera, it was made by a motion picture camera and the results are images. Perhaps audiences can’t compute Malick’s visual catalogue because it is prodigious, with many indexes, but in seeing the film twice I did feel the film fulfilling itself each time. There was no other conceivable alternative way the film could be made—each frame held and withheld exactly what it needed to be a piece of great art. If anything, one could argue that sometimes Malick goes too fast, as he cuts out of many incredibly beautiful shots within a few seconds of their appearance (as he did to great effect in Days of Heaven), most explicitly this one:
One can see it is a moving shot across the ground of a seeming salt flat, and lasts roughly four seconds of moving up to the mother. Yet the quick cut is on cue—too much more and Malick might be too enamored and some in the audience too disaffected by the look-at-me-ness.
All the bellyaching about the creation sequence mystifies, as the creation sequence itself does, gladly. How many times has a filmmaker dared to show the creation of the universe? While Kubrick focused on the apes, Malick shows the science of the universe and the earth coming into being, the fire firing, the steam steaming, and the mountains rising, with a bevy of creatures portrayed, from jellyfish to dinosaurs. His exemplary use of visual effects is not meant to titillate but to inspire awe about the plant we live on and how it demarcated itself as a celestial body of some intelligence. Of course, no one can complain that they don’t know what is going on in the sequence, it is that what is going on is too naked to take, too intimately presented with no chance to look away. This is another and certainly the key reason why Malick’s film hasn’t reached an audience. It is too intimate, too joyful—and specifically spiritually joyful. In our sedentary, device-aholic age of ego, exemplified by the Facebook fou-fou of gloat—our joy is often too tied to other’s envy. We are mostly a nation of stand-up comics in our anal insistences or quaggy celebrations—where one must trump the other to get more space, where every second thing is “awesome” but with little or no explication of its awesomeness, so as to continue on to the next most awesome thing on the assembly line. The dirty secret of The Tree of Life is it’s about the joy of being alive, the sensorial pleasure of it—lapping water or swimming in it, experiencing touch and art, accepting others, loving people unconditionally, which the boys approach in the final minutes of the story from the 1950’s. In our digital pleasure domes life is more fleeting than a shadow of a shadow and when life ceases to be physical, we must seriously ask if we cease to be human.
What I’ve seen least commented on in reviews of the film is the fact that the oldest brother is having his own mid-life crisis in the present day sections as he summons memories of his parents receiving the news of his brother dying some thirty-forty years before and then delves back into the 1950’s, into the story of his family. It has been debated whether God’s mind is a presence in the film, but clearly this is the eldest son’s journey out of the mire, as he reunites with his parents and brothers (and his younger self) at the end, in Death Valley and on the beach. This isn’t extremely intricate in terms of plot (the framing story has little story, only sensation of the past), but it is something to consider, as often encapsulations of what is actually occurring in the film have been superseded by the calling out of its longueurs and digressions (especially the creation sequence), for which I call on the supremely talented novelist Stanley Elkin to answer those dissenters as he did similar snickerers during his life when he said, “Less is less and more is more.” The Tree of Life is much much more and at least the critical establishment has seen fit to enshrine it with multiple, lengthy reviews and mentions in the New York Times and New Yorker, as well as a large article in The New York Review of Books.
The Tree of Life is the most important American film in years, but seemingly very few realize it. Malick demonstrates a way films can go, combining the mood and pallor of Cezanne and Rothko, with the grandeur of Brahms and Mahler, the ideas of Heraclitus and Plato, and the poetics of Dickinson and Yeats. But as I speak the moment passes and more gory, ill-assuming celluloid is spun and processed (or digital doled out, in kind), and more script doctors spin quarter-baked plots that will feed our spirits just as well as quarter pounders with cheese. To paraphrase the immortal Smokey the Bear, “Only you can prevent frosted films.” Support those who strive, support Malick, buy the DVD’s of Abbas Kiarostami rather than Christopher Nolan. Embrace the painterly images as they are, rather than knee-jerking a “boring” so as to join the chorus of chic but chi-chi boo birds. Depth awaits. And depth is awesome.
Greg Gerke’s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Denver Quarterly, Quarterly West, Mississippi Review, Rain Taxi, Brooklyn Rail, The Review of Contemporary Fiction and others. There’s Something Wrong with Sven, a book of short fiction has been published by Blaze Vox Books.