Thoughts on Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life"

"The Tree of Life" is an odd film that seems, like its arboreal title, to branch in different directions.

On the one hand, it seems to make a distinctly Bergsonian argument. The first hour or so of the film is relentless motion — the camera moves as it films movement. All is flux. All is change.

And human being, including its emotional complexity, is just another inflection of the great flux that is life. Just as fire and lava and water and amoebas and jellyfish and air and wind are the ever changing, ever moving stuff of life, so are human beings. We are not fundamentally different than any of these things — than air, fire, water, animal. It's all just stuff; it's all movement; it's all flux; it's all life.

In this sense, the film is thoroughly worldly. The camera loves this life, all of this life — even its brutality, its indifference. It's all so freakin' beautiful, relishing everything, even the banality of suburban life.

On another hand — there may be more than two hands here, there seems to be a transcendence that lurks and hovers. The camera pans up over and over again, as if there were a god in the sky overseeing it all. The mother says it at one point, in a near whisper: "God lives there," pointing to the sky. And all the worldiness, the lushness of the images? That's the power of God — a God who is different than those waterfalls, different than the Big Bang, transcending it all.

Indeed, the ending seems to give us heaven, resurrection, angels.

And yet we can read that ending differently — rather than transcendence, it gives us the power of memory, the fold of time on the banks of the great oceanic teem of time.

I love this ambivalence of the film — at once thoroughly of this world and transcendent.


drwatson said...

I'm really looking forward to this film - Malick's films are always beautiful and rare creatures. I remember getting into several debates when Thin Red Line came out about how it was infinitely more interesting than Saving Private Ryan. If I'm not mistaken Malick, obviously many years ago, was writing a dissertation on Heidegger at Oxford, but I don't think he ever finished it. I imagine that would be quite an interesting read.

drwatson said...

Reading this made me think about David Foster Wallace's essay on David Lynch when he was on the set for the filming of Lost Highway. The version that was published in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again is longer, but I can't find it on the internet. Anyhow, this is the version that was in Premiere. Though you and others might enjoy it.


Jim H. said...

[This may be a duplicate post; not sure if my original got eaten by Blogger.]

How do read that last haunting image of the bridge in the final frame of the film? It's important. Is it what Jack was designing w/ the blueprints in his office? I blogged that the central trope of the film was Jack's coming to have a conscience—frog on fireworks, window, break-in, bb gun. As Paul said: doing what he doesn't want to do & not doing what he knows to be right. And that, for Jack (if not the filmmaker), conscience is our bridge to the god (let's call it) of creation.

Yet, having a real moral conscience is a burden in the modern world. It's confusing, troubling, etc. All the things that Jack is.

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Dr: Recently bought the DFW — will read it soon. Thanks for the tip.

@ Jim: That bridge...I thought it was heavy handed...a bridge is such a banal metaphor. That said, I did wonder: a bridge for what? And I thought between visible and invisible worlds, perhaps — which may be what you're suggesting, too.

Not sure about the conscience — although I do think that's a good, fair read. But I don't want to read the film in that way. I want to read it is about making sense of grief amidst the great, beautiful indifference of the cosmos.