Saturday, August 6, 2011

If It's Not One Thing, It's Another!

The other night I went to see Terence Malick's new film The Tree of Life, which was being shown at the new campus cinema. I ought to see it again before I write about it, but I'm not sure I want to see it again very soon, and anyway its run is over now. So here goes. If you haven't yet seen the movie and want to approach it with a minimum of foreknowledge, you should stop reading now. The Tree of Life doesn't have a plot, so there aren't really any surprises -- it's not The Crying Game -- but even so, it can be good to understand what you're seeing for yourself, rather than go by someone else's interpretation of the flow of images.

The Tree of Life begins with a title slide quoting the Book of Job: "Where were you when I lay the foundations of the earth? ... When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" Then a handsome red-haired woman is handed a telegram at the front door of her home. She cries out in shock and horror and grief, so it's easy to guess the kind of bad news she's received: someone has died, and from her cries it appears that the deceased is her son. The woman appears almost ageless, so it's hard to tell whether her son was a child when he died, or an adolescent, or a grown man. Next a crew-cut man of indeterminate age, in some sort of industrial plant, is given the same bad news: he crumples up wordlessly. I had trouble figuring out the time frame for this sequence. The Fifties? The Sixties?

The film jumps to the present, a twenty-first century cityscape of skyscrapers and Sean Penn in a suit, evidently an architect, looking distinguished (gray at the temples) but unhappy. (Since I've now identified one of the stars, I should add that the father is played by Brad Pitt and the mother by Jessica Chastain.) In voiceover he tells us that his brother died at the age of nineteen, so evidently it happened some time ago; we are not told how his brother died. His work environment is all-white, sterile, like the surface of the moon or a polar icecap. He talks briefly on the phone to someone who, from the strained tone of the conversation, is his father. He is married (notice the wedding ring) but he and his wife seem to keep a distance from each other, and they never speak. It almost seems in their scene together that they are getting ready to go to a funeral. It can't be his brother's, though, because that would have been decades in the past.

Then there's the brother's funeral, and it's surprisingly bleak. The mother refuses comfort. When her priest tells her gently, "He's in God's hands now," she snaps back that he was in God's hands all along. Good for you, I thought. An older woman with an Irish accent, evidently her mother, explains with a weak smile that the Lord gives and the Lord takes away -- it's what he does. Evidently she doesn't think much of God either. Good for you too, I thought.

Next comes the part that infuriated many viewers when The Tree of Life premiered at Cannes (though it still won the Palme D'Or): a long special-effects sequence depicting the origin of the universe and the earth, with volcanic eruptions, CGI dinosaurs, and other cool stuff. There are occasional words, mostly whispered by the cast, and a lot of churchy choral and orchestral music. It was fun to watch, and I thought it was there to echo both the opening quotation from Job and the grandmother's dry dismissal of God's justice. But this sort of thing is always double-edged. On one hand, it means that there's no reason why human beings shouldn't suffer and die, since living things (like the stranded diplodocus in one scene) have suffered and died just on the earth for hundreds of millions of years. If there are other worlds, it's a safe bet that the same thing has happened there. I took this scene as providing context for the human suffering: though we build skyscrapers, wear suits and dresses, build churches, write masses and make movies and shake our fists at the sky, we are not different from other organisms in the end, and they are not different from us. The opening chapter of Ecclesiastes is a more relevant text for that sermon.

On the other hand, by the nature of narrative (even a fragmented one like Malick's here), such a story gives the illusion of linearity if not directed movement, up the Great Chain of Being from the primitive one-celled creatures to Man, and especially to modern Christian man. I suspect that one reason some people have found The Tree of Life confusing is that they tried to impose this progressive story on the material, though I don't think it was what Malick had in mind.

In any case, the film then moves back to the family we met in the opening scenes. Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt's three sons are born in sequence, and we watch them grow until the oldest, Jack, is about ten years old. There the film settles for most of the rest of its length. Mother O'Brien whispers in voiceover that there are two ways: one is the way of Nature, which thinks only of itself, and the other is the way of Grace, which is the way of Love. Father O'Brien lectures his boys constantly on the necessity of working hard, competing, climbing to success over the bodies of your competitors; he loves them and is probably more affectionate with them than most fathers of his generation and class, but he believes he has to be hard with them, since it's a hard world and you have to learn to fight if you're going to survive. He doesn't hit them for misbehavior that I noticed, just sends them out of the room when he's angry -- which puts him a step or two above many parents of his generation and class. I imagine he's supposed to embody the way of Nature, though he probably wouldn't see it that way: he's the way of Law and Intellect, if not the way of Grace. Nature would mean sitting in your own dirt and letting the smart guys leave you behind.

Mother, of course, is Grace and Love; she stands between the boys and their father when he blows his stack, and she's firm and stern when she catches them in certain misconduct. In one shot she dances in the air near a tree (held up by wirework a la The Matrix); in another a butterfly lands on her hand as she frolics with her sons. She does good works, like giving water to manacled prisoners being led to jail by the police. And Nature wins out in the end when her son dies: she wants her own way then and won't forgive God. Good for her, though it doesn't make any difference.

Primarily, though, we see the parents through the eyes of their sons, especially Jack. Jack is willful, just like his father, so there's friction between them, and some blowups. Malick does a very good job of depicting the small-town life of kids in the 1950s; The Tree of Life stirred up a lot of old memories in me, though I grew up in Indiana rather than Waco Texas, and my family wasn't as well-to-do as the O'Briens. Jack drifts into the orbit of some wilder boys, breaks a few windows and (a much noticed scene) ties a frog to a toy rocket, sneaks into a neighbor's empty house (bigger and a bit richer than the O'Briens') and steals a woman's slip from a dresser drawer. He indulges in some gratuitous cruelty: teases his younger brother, the Good One, into putting his finger over the barrel of Jack's airgun -- no permanent damage, happily. He's stunned into doubt about God by the drowning of a boy his own age in a canal that serves as the community swimming pool. Then he draws back and becomes more loving, befriends a neighbor boy whose head is burn-scarred.

At about this point, Father O'Brien loses his job when his plant is shut down. Humbled by discovering his own powerlessness, he becomes gentler with his wife and children, and apologizes for his pride and wrath. They have to move away from their nice little house and neighborhood, though we don't learn where they go.

Next we're back with middle-aged Jack in his sterile life. There were a few shots earlier in the film of him walking through a rocky desert, and we return to that. He emerges on a beach where he meets the living and the dead: his parents, his brothers, and his younger self. Everyone rejoices, quietly, embracing and wiping away tears. Two women caress and comfort Mother O'Brien, echoing a key scene of Ingmar Bergman's Persona, then finally present her with the boyhood incarnation of her dead son. Reunion. Happiness. Salvation? I'm not sure how to take this section of the film. Does it vindicate the ways of God? If he gives and takes and then gives back, does that somehow make everything all right? At best, it's meaningless, and there's no guarantee that more suffering wouldn't come later; but that is where The Tree of Life comes to an end.

One of the keys to The Tree of Life is presumably the Book of Job, as shown not only by the opening title but by the main character's name. (Jack O'Brien, J. O'B., get it?) But Jack himself is no Job, and indeed no one in the film is. The biblical Job, you'll recall, was a fabulously righteous man who enjoyed happiness and prosperity until Satan and Yahweh made a bet to see what Job would do if his social safety net was removed. The merry pranksters then killed off his children and livestock, burned down his house and destroyed all his property, and finally inflicted him with boils. Job then cursed the day of his birth and denounced Yahweh for his injustice. Job's friends, who'd come to commiserate, told him that he must have done something wrong or God wouldn't have done this to him. Job denied the accusation steadfastly, and then Yahweh spoke to them all out of a whirlwind, pointing out that the world makes no sense, that there is no justice, and that he is the baddest god on the block so don't get in his face, okay? Job cowered, acknowledging Yahweh's power, whereupon Yahweh informed the friends that he was angry with them but would accept Job's prayers on their behalf. He then restored Job's wealth and gave him a whole litter of new children, and Job lived happily ever after.

Job would have been happy to get off as lightly as the O'Brien family did. For all that, I'm not sure what to make of the adult Jack's malaise. Despite his change of heart before the family moved, he seems to have drifted into an empty life, though a well-compensated and comfortable one. Of course well-off professionals have problems too, but we never find out what Jack's problems are -- let alone how a vision (?) of joyous reunion would make them all better. I've seen numerous references to Malick's philosophical studies at Oxford, but they haven't borne much fruit in The Tree of Life. I realize I've quoted Wittgenstein on this before, but as I watched Malick's finale I couldn't help wondering again: "Is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life?"

None of which means that I regret having seen The Tree of Life. It's gorgeous to look at, the performances are wonderful, it rewards the concentration it demands in watching it. It's a remarkable piece of work for big-budget commercial studio cinema. I wish I'd been able to see what I could learn from a second viewing. But for deep, philosophical filmmaking, I prefer the work of Hirokazu Koreeda, who grapples with some of the same issues in Maborosi, After Life, Distance, Still Walking, and Hana. Unfortunately they're not easy to find in the US. Andrew O'Hehir, whose review of The Tree of Life at Cannes made me aware it was a film I wanted to see, has written about another Japanese director, Naomi Kawase, whose latest film he compares to The Tree of Life, and I'm going to look for her work too. But even the Coen Brothers' Raising Arizona is about as deep as The Tree of Life, while wearing its meanings more lightly.