Finally saw Tree of Life

I don’t know what I can say about this. I sure enjoyed watching it, letting it unfold, and the crowd around me was rapt considering how much Malick asks of his audience. Wonder how I would have felt if I’d read nothing about it (as is my preference), if the long excursion into the cosmos that occurs roughly 1/3 in would have seemed even more shocking.

I was at a party last week and a woman was talking about the movie and she said, laughing, “My brother saw it and he said that he thought he was watching a movie about a family in the sixties and then suddenly there were dinosaurs running around! He was, like, what the hell?” Which is an entirely valid response, in my opinion. I have to say that, after one viewing, I completely dug the family story at the center of the movie and felt that the digressions were an indulgent distraction from what was a deeply moving story brought to life with astounding performances, especially Hunter McCracken as the oldest boy, Jack. That said, the reunion on the beach that ended the film brought tears to my eyes (isn’t this reunion the one that all of us who have lost someone dream of?), even as some rational part of my mind was arguing that it was another indulgence.

My friend Mat told me that I had to re-read the Book of Job in order to prepare, but I didn’t get the chance. Can anyone comment on the connection to Job? Of course, it is the mother’s question of “Where were you?” to God after her son’s death that sets off the long creation sequence (mirroring the quote from Job that opens the film: “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?”). I saw a much more direct tie to the Book of Job in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, though Serious Man was much more bleak and less enjoyable than Tree of Life. Loved Brad Pitt’s portrayal of the father; he’s a complex guy and a good father by all external measures, and yet there is something in his nature (perhaps in the nature of all men) that makes him estranged from those he loves most, from those for whom he spends every waking moment providing. Plus he’s a hell of a gardener. This is one I’m going to have to let sit for a while, and see again when I get the chance. Your thoughts?

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12 Responses to Finally saw Tree of Life

  1. crisi-tunity says:

    I’m always astonished at how the theme of male regret pops up in the work of extraordinary (male) filmmakers – often as a big glaring neon sign, sometimes as a current beneath the nominal themes. This one was a great example. Now that I’ve noticed it I see it everywhere. Men have issues around regret that are quite distinct from those of women.

    Sean Penn does nothing for me, and this movie was no exception. Just…nothing.

    I LOVED the “creation” sequence. Loved it. Swam and drowned in it. And I read the dinosaur business a little differently than other critics I’ve read – I thought the intent of the predator dinosaur was to show his dominance and then move on, having spared the prey’s life not because it was distracted but to keep the prey in line. Did you read it that way or differently?

    I also thought it was one of the truest films I’ve ever seen as regards the experience of actual living: snippets of vivid memory, a drifting camera weaving through some mild narrative, mostly just experience, some of it dull and mundane and some of it transcendent.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Mat replies:
    The ‘where where you’ that starts the movie is God’s response to the ‘where were you’ of Job (here the mom character) – not the equivalent question.

    For me, the movie was the most profound- dare I say revelatory – take on the Job story that I have ever seen – (far more than A serious man – which I loved, but saw more as a take on Judaism and its relation to God using Job than Job’s story of our direct relationship with God mirrored in the movies central Question (for me) addressed to God, “Who are we to you?”
    I wont go further until you’ve read Job. It will take less time than seeing the movie 😉

  3. pt dismal says:

    i agree w/crisi-tunity on the one dino sequence–actually, i think it is a pair w/the first one in which the big dino (brontosauris?) has been gored by the hammerheads. if we look at the movie thru the mom’s “way of nature / way of grace” dualism, i think the two scenes suggest that even in nature there is a way of grace, if that makes sense. that is, the big dino dying on the shore is the way of nature, the fierce will (that the dad subscribes to) to survive, and the predator dino and the one in the creek is the way of grace–it just doesn’t kill the little one, a moment of grace in the struggle for survival. i dont know if that works out, but that was my first impression of it.

    of course, many people think the creation scenes and evolution history are grandiose and indulgent, but that’s what blew me away about this movie. in order to tell the story of this family, he had to go back to the beginning. all the way back. and it is right to put this in a cosmic context. all the shit that we think is so important (and it is) needs to be seen in this context. it is not a perspective we can maintain every day, but it is the one that makes life meaningful, whether you go for grace or nature (and i go for both).

    maybe more later.


  4. kamper says:

    “I also thought it was one of the truest films I’ve ever seen as regards the experience of actual living: snippets of vivid memory, a drifting camera weaving through some mild narrative, mostly just experience, some of it dull and mundane and some of it transcendent.”

    This was my experience also. Immediately after the film I thought, “That is exactly what it is like to recall a life.” Especially how the memories had only the context that a child can provide. For instance, there was the odd and disquieting scene with the convicts and the sheriffs in the town, and the mother gives the man water. Who were these men? What were their crimes? We never know, and we share in the boy’s quizzical look at his mother as some hidden part of herself is momentarily revealed.

    I agree that the movie is about regret, and specifically male regret, as sons, as fathers, as husbands. And Malick does that so well, so effortlessly, I wanted the story to stay on that and not get quite as esoteric as it did. But then that is Malick. And as I said I think I need to see it again.

    I was just reading the Wiki on Malick’s Thin Red Line, mostly because I watched HBO’s The Pacific and there’s an episode that covers the battle of Guadalcanal, and there was a discussion of his efforts to trim his initial 5 hour cut of the film down to a manageable size, and someone said that he focused on removing scenes with dialogue. I love that about his approach to storytelling.

    Whatever else I can say about the movie, I’m glad Malick is still making movies.

  5. kamper says:

    And before I get the rep as the “guy who didn’t like the creation sequence,” I liked it quite a bit, and I did/do understand the point pt made about going back to the origins, but I just felt that it made the film feel a bit out of proportion, as though all of these stories can’t really co-exist in the same film. Because once you introduce the Cosmos, then all domestic stories fade into meaninglessness. I realize that that’s the whole point, but there it is.

    • crisi-tunity says:

      I am with Anonymous and I thought the opposite was true, as well. For instance, I thought the shot of the whole gorgeous universe with the “Lacrimosa” opera singing away spectacularly was about how grief for the loss of a child fills the entire universe, no matter what child or how comparatively infinitesimal those parents’ struggle was. I think the point is that it’s all part of one whole – that solar events on a scale of bigness we can’t even comprehend strongly resemble cells dividing, and that the struggle of the dinosaurs mirrors our own.

      But then, I haven’t read Job at all. I also thought Malick was trying to make a point about how extraordinarily beautiful life on earth is (perhaps his single enduring point, in fact), and he may have been aiming at something entirely different.

      I wasn’t trying to give you that rep. Promise. Just saying that I wasn’t bored or weirded out during that sequence, that I loved it. More than I loved some sequences of the domestic story, actually.

  6. Anonymous says:

    “Because once you introduce the Cosmos, then all domestic stories fade into meaninglessness. I realize that that’s the whole point, but there it is.”

    Interestingly, I found the point – and the big epiphany of the film for me – to be, in fact, almost precisely the opposite. But again – I’m not explaining why until you read Job, fella.

  7. I thought that Sean Penn was mulling around too much.
    I thought that there was too much emphasis on the cathedral-like interior spires of office buildings.
    I would like to read the Book of Job and that is perhaps one of the more interesting things that comes out of this whole discussion.
    I loved most of the middle of the movie, but the parentheses did not add much to the story for me, albeit the opening was fascinating to watch and beautiful to boot. I did not like the end sequence especially. I wish I had shed a tear, but not really.
    I didn’t quite buy the piano-playing part of the father. I found it distracting. Not many folks can play the piano, let alone Bach on a giant church organ, that well. In the whole world. I could not suspend my disbelief–the whole subplot of it and the shots of him playing.
    I loved the boys and their acting. I loved the “show don’t tell” center of the film and the beautiful cinematography.
    I love that the middle section was shown completely from the son’s perspective and how completely different it is to be a mother and how that was completely deleted from his life/memories at that time. His only view of conflict in her life is when her husband is conflicting with him (and her). So it’s Oedipus, which is very well laid out. Yes, she is completely idealized and needs to be for this story, but it got a bit tiresome. Is this what it is to be a boy/man? I will never know.
    The overarching male perspective throughout the entire movie bothers me. It’s hubris. How can the mother be so left out when at some level she is introduced as a central voice? It doesn’t take away what is accomplished in the telling of the central, human story, but it does take away something for me, especially in the final sequence. The Virgin Mary, the pious woman, the virtuous mother. Bullshit.
    I think that I don’t look for the answers that the movie asked; therefore, it cannot work completely for me. It asks some things that I’ve already resolved within myself, at least for now. I want the story without the preface. I understand that perhaps they are one-and-the-same to the readership represented on this comment thread.
    I don’t think grace and nature are necessarily so distinct.
    “Days of Heaven” still tops this one for me.
    crisi-tunity–I love the first paragraph of your second comment–beautifully said.

  8. Unless the father’s playing is presented ideally because it is a part of the father that the son idealizes. Confusing.

  9. pt dismal says:

    i vaguely recall a reviewer (probably geoffrey o’brien in the springfield review of books) observing that the organ-playing was an idealized memory, but i didn’t find it so unbelievable that the dad was an amateur muscian, and certainly a church in midcentury texas could have had a congregrant play its organ for them. though the organ he was playing when the boy was turning the pages didn’t look like the same organ in the church.

    other fun trivialities–me and mrs dismal had just been in austin and swam at barton springs, where the drowning scene was filmed. it looks exactly like that. you pay 3 bucks and you can swim in the spring-fed pools all day. i heart austin.


  10. pt dismal says:

    yipes! hadn’t thought of that….

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