On Sunday, I went to the Kendall Cinema and saw Tree of Life. Going in, I knew nothing about the film except the names of the two lead actors, and its status at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival (winner of the Palme d'Or). My first recommendation is to people who, like me, suffer from nausea and vertigo in the movie theater. Take your anti-seasick pill before attending, and don't sit too close to the screen, or you'll need to look away periodically, to get your horizon line back. My second recommendation is to people who enjoy majestic, complex, slow-moving, piercingly emotional film-making: go to this film, but expect to have your patience tested.
Here is the Wikipedia summary of the film. Here is the Roger Ebert review of the film. They already summarized and reviewed the film, so I want to do something else, like I did with my post on The Fountain. I don't feel that a summary of the film would be productive; you have the critics for formal analysis. All I have to offer is an explanation of how I felt leaving the film, and what it made me think about. Story structure. One big question of existence. Most of the critics seem love this film, and I love it too, but only in parts. If I had a pair of scissors, I might be able to create a film I could love, or by slicing it up I could eviscerate and ruin it.
Structurally, my problem with the film has to do with the long natural history part of the film. I enjoyed watching the creation of the universe, and even enjoyed the rather protracted creation-of-life sequence, with lots of electron microscope shots of wriggling little things becoming complex life forms. Then the dinosaurs showed up and I was transported to a film better left to an IMAX showing at the Museum of Science. Editing a film is as important as editing a book, and it matters what you leave out. In Tree of Life they left out ten years of human life, and put in a million years of dinosaurs. Peter Bradshaw from The Guardian puts it way better than I can: "Prehistoric and cosmic visions aside, Terrence Malick's film is an unashamedly epic reflection on love and loss." Aside. Yes, putting some things aside would have been better. All the more focus, then, on the epic reflection of love and loss.
A boy's voice whispers, "Father, mother; always you wrestle inside me." To me, this is the heart of the film (never mind the dinosaurs), how a human being is formed, not only from sperm and egg, but also from embraces, beatings, praise, and scorn. Going back and forth in time, the film shows the oldest O'Brien son coping with the grief of the loss of his brother, and the memories of his own loss of innocence, living in a family with an aggressive, demanding, intellectual father, and a passive, spiritual mother. The genius of this film is in the directing (in the dinosaur-free parts) and in the acting. A mother receives a telegram; her face, and some camera shots of a small bedroom with a guitar in it tells us her child is dead. A father receives the same news in a phone call. Later, a father caresses an infant's foot. He caresses the keys of a massive pipe organ at church. He clamps a violent hand on the back of his young son's neck. The boy kisses his father reluctantly on demand, but is shoved away when he offers a spontaneous embrace. The boy circles the handle of a car jack, looking at his father beneath the car, checking the road for witnesses. Would anyone see him kill his father? He kisses his brother's arm, twice, in apology. He stares daggers at the objects of his passion and jealousy and rage. A mother shields her youngest son from his father's rage with her body, dances over the furniture when her husband is away, walks and weeps in the misty woods, grieving for her son. "Father, mother; always you wrestle inside me."
I'm reading Mark Epstein's Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy From a Buddhist Perspective right now, and a passage jumped out at me after watching this film. "We are all haunted by the lost perfection of the ego that contained everything [when we were born], and we measure ourselves and our lovers against this standard. We search for a replica in external satisfactions, in food, comfort, sex, or success, but gradually learn, through the process of sublimation, that the best approximation of that lost feeling comes from creative acts that evoke states of being in which self-consciousness is temporarily relinquished. These are the states in which the artist, writer, scientist, or musician ... dissolves into the act of creation."
In the film, the mother and father's acts of creation were their children. The father had additional aspirations. Before marrying, he had desired to become a musician. After fatherhood, he authored over twenty-five patents, but was unable to bring any of his creations to development. The mother seems to exist wholly in the present, among her creations, her children. She wants for nothing except tenderness from her passionate, conflicted husband. The children start out perfect; a shot of that tender little foot, the camera angle showing a little face pressed against the loving shoulder, this is all they need, this undifferentiated bliss. Then there is the inevitable progress of life, the differentiation, the splitting away from mother and father, the resistance, the desperate clinging, the desperate pushing away, as they learn how to be separate creatures. We return throughout the film to the adult son, the one who so desperately identified with his father, so desperately needed the consolatory love of his mother, who so deeply loved his brother, who so much felt the cracking of the crystalline structure of his spirit as he was punted back and forth from mother to father, as his ego lost its perfection.
The adult son, an architect, walks through the film in landscapes drenched in light. All of his buildings have great multitudes of enormous windows. As he walks deep into the memories of his shattering losses, even the light-filled buildings are too oppressive, and he heads into the desert, at least in his thoughts. He sits in a dark boardroom, staring from a window, and he walks out into the bright, shining desert, walks through a doorway, and finds himself on a beach with his friends, and his family, and people from the town where he grew up, everyone young and whole again, including his brother, once again miraculously nine years old. Everyone is dancing in the sun, embracing, spinning, and it's a return to that lost perfection, that thing the architect has been reaching for with his art, his architecture, with all those huge windows trying to let in the light. He's been searching for god, for his own perfection, in his family, but god doesn't live there. He's been searching for god in his art, but couldn't see that even the art was only a reflection of the divine with him. He was almost there, having created all those beautiful structures that reached for the heavens. He was almost there, but grief obscured his view from thousands upon thousands of tall windows, and blocked the light.
In some of my blog posts, I can see my own clinging. I reach for food, comfort, romance, success, and once in a while, I think I reach that point of sublimation, where I forget myself in the words that come. That's the turning point, where the clinging and clawing for security and love and perfection is sublimated, where the clinging becomes striving, and my self-consciousness is temporarily relinquished. Where a description of a grilled cheese sandwich transports me into another state of being. It doesn't even have to be a good description of a grilled cheese sandwich. The quality of the product is unimportant; it's the moment of release that's part of the discovery of life's meaning. I'm not here on earth necessarily to write about cheese sandwiches, or lobsters, or movies, or buildings, but I'm here for something, even if I don't know what that is. I love existential films for this reason; because they inspire me to have faith, even when (or especially when) the characters in them have none. I love how these films invade me and get me wondering. I love how they draw me out, and detach my claws from notions of what should be, and get me seeing what actually is, in order that this actuality can be faced and processed.
So, I take it back. Leave the dinosaurs in. Clearly, they didn't prevent me from extracting what I wanted from Tree of Life. They were just a grilled cheese sandwich layered in with the ten course meal from Morimoto. They provided me with some contrast, with something I could judge and then witness myself judging, and in the end learn from that too.