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Tim Cawkwell's Cinema

Intelligible writing on intelligent film, plus some poetry

Malick's Tree of Life

1 Great thing: the genesis sequence that comes after the initial impulse to the narrative marked by the news of the death of the son. In effect, this is as audacious a flashback as the flashforward in Kubrick's 2001: a space odyssey of the bone thrown in the air turning into a spaceship. Tree of Life treats us to an extraordinary sequence of images showing deep space, nebulas, the formation of stars and planets, volcanic creation, steam clouds, amoebic forms, DNA strings, first life. I thought that this was the most psychedelic moment in cinema since 2001. And in this context let us honour the cosmic cinema of Jordan Belson [Allures, Re-entry, Phenomena, Samadhi, Momentum, made between 1961 and 1969], fore-running both Kubrick and Malick. I am sure that Malick must be familiar with this work.

2 Good thing: the film's ambition to explore the polarity between Grace and Nature in the context of a wondrous universe. Nature is the cruel human stuff: how we survive, how we fail to survive. Grace is how we go beyond survival by following the law of love.

3 Bad thing: the compassionate dinosaur in the genesis sequence – animals just don't have human feelings.

4 Puzzling thing: which of the two sons dies at the age of 19? Is it the eldest or the second eldest? The film is not clear on this point, at least on a first viewing – and it ought to be. The film magazine, ‘Sight and Sound’ is quite clear: it is the second son who dies young. But I’m puzzled as to where they got this information.

Second thought: When I watched it a second time, knowing it is the second son who dies, there were considerable gains in understanding the flow of the film, so that particular incidents disclosed a significance previously unnoticed, and the dynamics of the ending were better revealed.

5 Second puzzling thing: although the film particularly focuses on the relationship between the father and his eldest son, and on the relationship between the two older brothers, surely the film should have been focused equally on the father’s relationship with the second son. There is a sense of imbalance in the film.

6 Good thing: the film debunks the contemporary notion of 'You can be whatever you want to be.' The father passes this unwise nugget onto his eldest son, but in his failed career embodies the stern but more truthful adage: 'Know your own weaknesses as well as your strengths.'

7 Bad thing: in Sunday schools decades ago, you were made to sing 'Jesus wants me for a sunbeam.' Judging by one of the final images, Malick wants us to sing 'Jesus wants me for a sunflower.' This is very reductive and directly contradicts the quotation from Job at the beginning of the film (see point 13 below).

Oh yes – Jonathan Livingston Seagull (the human soul flying freely as a seagull) makes an unwanted guest appearance in the final sequence. Malick flirts with cliché through the film but largely avoids it; in the image of the seagull he succumbs.

Second thought: On a second viewing, the absorption experienced in watching the film up to the point where it climaxes in reconciliation, liberation even, carried me through the last quarter of an hour including the seagull and the sunflower. However, I wish it had been shorter, because a tighter ending would have made even more of an impact.

8 Strong thing and weak thing: it is good that Malick makes us strain to understand what is happening because that engages our senses and our thinking in compelling ways. But it is not good that he can seem to lapse into narrative imprecision. The film needs nailing down at certain points, for example as cited in points 4 and 5 above. The voice-over at the beginning refers to the father's regret at shaming his son into not following the music he is playing on the piano: why not make this into a visual vignette later in the film?

Second thought: A second viewing gives the lie to this criticism. The centre of the film, the 85 minutes narrating the life of the family in their suburban house in Waco up to the point where they have to leave it, is precisely articulated in the images. Telling incident follows telling incident with cumulative power.

9 Style thing: Malick is a master of the cinema of hyperbole (boo), but also of the cinema of improvisation (hurrah).

Second thought: The Director of Photography, Emmanuel Lubezki [interview in ‘Sight and Sound’ July 2011] says that maybe one million feet of film was shot to make a 2¼-hour film. I can't work out how much viewing time a million feet takes, but I reckon it is very substantial. Answers on an e-mail please to [email protected]

A further point is that the use of natural light sheds a glow over the film which I found captivating – the sheer pleasure of the visual.

10 Auteur-ish thing: in Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, Malick shows a preoccupation with American destiny. Tree of Life suggests the same: postwar suburban America was built in pursuit of a dream.

11 Unexpected thing: the beginning and end feel so flaccid, and all that emoting on screen begins to get up your nostrils. Then it surprises you with the genesis sequence. And then surprises you again with its central narrative of evil creeping into the garden of Eden.

Second thought: The film is in four parts, shifting through time and space:

  • the delivery of the telegram giving news of the second son's death (20 min)
  • the genesis sequence (15 min)
  • the O’Brien family’s first fifteen or so years (85 min)
  • reconciliation / redemption / liberation (15 min)

The third part, as argued in point 8 above, has cumulative power in the way it builds tension in the relation between father and eldest son.

Conventionally, this would climax in some terrible way, and our response to the film may derive in part from feeling cheated that this does not happen. Here catharsis is achieved not in some tragic outcome but in the final sequence, but a family drama that does not end in death, or in the uncovering of some terrible secret or existentialist hatred, feels alien to us.

12 Redemptive thing: redemption is a favoured Malick theme. For example, in Thin Red Line, Witt sacrifices himself that the rest of the platoon might live. Here, suddenly the father and eldest son achieve a rapprochement, for no reason except (I think) the grace of love. And the final sequence depicts a more cosmic redemption.

13 Religious thing: the clearest text in the whole film is the sermon on the meaning of the Book of Job (“success does not shield you from the cruelties of this world and it’s a mistake to think otherwise”), and we even get a glimpse of it being delivered from the pulpit. The film is crystal clear too in quoting the Book of Job in the form of a title at the beginning, although it helps to know that it is God who is speaking and that he is rebuking Job (and all mankind, really) for thinking that it understands creation. But in another voice-over (the voice of God?) the film also (I think) covertly quotes St Paul on love in Corinthians 1.13. There is no reference to St Paul as the source of the idea and the Greek word agapê is translated as 'grace', not 'charity' as in the KJV, nor 'love' as used in modern translations. "Grace is always patient and kind; it is never jealous; grace is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offence.”

Second thought: The actual words used in the film are (I think): "Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked."

14 Sociological footnote: our time sense is disorientated by there being no reference to dates. We are reduced to picking up visual clues. For example, the boys do not watch television, even though commercial network tv in the USA started in 1948. Does this put their boyhood in the late 1940s?

Further thought: In one brief but striking sequence – striking visually but striking also because it horrifies us – the boys in Waco run in and out of the clouds of DDT being sprayed in the streets to eradicate malaria. DDT’s insecticidal properties had been discovered in 1939 and after the war it was used to eliminate malaria in the USA. So, what year did it come to Waco?

These questions are too interesting not to be asked, but at base they are irrelevant and detracting from the main drama.

15 Refreshing thing: wonderful (to me) to have a film that so completely jettisons dialogue in favour of visual narrative. Whatever else is wrong with the film, Malick is to be honoured for doing that.

Further thought: Here’s a polemical thing. There is a disobliging review of the film in the ‘London Review of Books’ [vol. 33, number 15, 28 July 2011], and it occurred to me that if you watch a film without taking pleasure in images almost for their own sake, then fine, don’t watch it, walk out of the cinema – but don’t then write a review. For example, when Jack as a boy is embroiled in the frog and rocket incident, we see him as he listens sheepishly while his mother tells him never to do it again; Malick follows this with a shot looking out the front door of Jack dancing as it were down the front steps into the garden. This is psychologically acute, I believe, because Jack doing this trick displaces his having to face up to what he’s done, but also there is Malick’s pleasure in the sight of Jack dancing down the steps, of his shadow on the steps. This is a subtle use of narrative, and Malick deliberately refrains from using words to elucidate the drama – and if you have trouble with that, should you be reviewing this film?

16 Topical thing: The film was produced by Searchlight Pictures, a News Corp Company. So, if you disliked the picture it can reinforce your dislike of Rupert Murdoch. On the other hand, if you liked it, you might reflect that perhaps News Corp isn't all bad . . .

© Tim Cawkwell 2011