The Tree Of Life
For a film that sends most critics and reviewers in search of philosophical and religious meanings it's hard to escape the weight of evidence: The Tree of Life is a film full of particular details. If it has a metaphysical theme it is that the particular not the universal is the central concern of philosophy. If it has a religious theme it lies in the experience of the characters, in how they try to figure out suffering, resentment and malice with inadequate articles of faith. The film is the story of a boy and his family, not a philosophical or religious credo. No review of the film had prepared me for this, or for the virtuoso display of narrative in The Tree of Life.
There are four narrative sections. In chronological order: the paleobiology of Earth up to the catastrophic end of the Cretaceous; the childhood of Jack from conception to puberty and, at the same time, the life of his parents and two younger bother, the childhood house and yard and town in the 1950s in all its times, weather, moods — the great central story of the film;the grief of the parents when, a few years later, the middle brother dies at the age of 19; and the reflections of the middle-aged Jack on his childhood, including a 'dream of Elysium' in which he meets the people of his childhood. The plot runs a different order, more or less as follows: the grief of the parents; the history of Earth; Jack's childhood; the middle-aged reflections.
Some might take the reflections and memories as a framing story and see the childhood story as memories, although this is not consistent with the use of the voiced over thoughts of Jack and his mother and father as they live. Malick doesn't use a simple framing device or point of view. The mise-en-scene is free and indirect. Some seem to read the history of Earth story as a grand metaphysical statement or as one of the film's 'great tracts...astonishing in their bombast', when what it is is backstory, part of the exposition of a plot about human experience lived in its immense physical context, making it at once tiny, precious and strange.
I don't want to write about The Tree of Life by responding to what critics have said about it, especially not a writer like Helen Garner — the astonishing bombast line is Helen's — but I don't seem to be able not respond to what she said in her review in The Monthly (July 2011). Her criticism are signs pointing to the delights of the film.
Of the family members she says '..these are signs, not characters. When you are making windy generalisations about archetypes you don't need anything as plodding as dialogue or plot.' Nothing is further from Malick's method. 'Long after its tremendous meteors ... have become dated perhaps it will be remembered for certain accurate and tender passages about young boys at play.' These 'certain accurate and tender passages' of the boys at play — but also in there relations to their parents and to the townspeople — make up almost the whole of the film and the substance of its plot, not plodding plot but dazzling, restless, ceaselessly moving. Some might call it poetic, but it is not lyrical cinematography sugared with pop classical music. It's not Berlioz et al are 'doing the heavy lifting'. Its narrative poetics at its best — dense and intricate. People, habituated to simple and familiar narratives, seem to call films poetic precisely when the narrative becomes too much for them. Malick constructs the drama of Jack's building resentment of his father from a constellation of incidents. It is a moral drama, a drama of emotional and cognitive struggle.
The great tradition of linguistic fiction — of drama and novels — shows drama through dialogue and indirect description of inner life. The great actions of drama are spoken actions, to which the novel can add indirect descriptions of the internal actions we call thoughts. Yet film, unlike writing, is a relentlessly empirical rather than phenomenological medium. Malick has developed, especially since The Thin Red Line, a way of revealing the emotional, ethical drama from images of actions and incidents and snatches of dialogue and voiced-over thoughts. I picture the shots catching Jack, suspicious, resentful, looking over his shoulder. The drama of Tree of Life comes to an understated, gentle climax after Jack contemplates kicking out the jack and letting the family car fall on his father, and when the father, his ambitions thwarted, his job gone, faces the awkward recognition that he has been mistreating his family. The climax, grows at first from no more than the withholding of violent or cruel action, like in an earlier scene, where we see somewhere sometime in the Mesozoic era a dinosaur do no more than not bother to harm to a vulnerable beast.
Where the intense never resting narrative particularity evokes the universal is at its two extremes. First, in order to disambiguate the complex detail of a narrative we draw on a common stock of archetypes: the stern father, the compassionate mother, the restless son, or whatever. That is how any narrative works. We have to follow its plot by drawing on our shared understanding of life. If 'we grasp that darkness has entered the archetypal family by the usual routes and that the usual guilt and anguish will ensue,' that is the same as every family narrative, from Oedipus on. Malick is not telling a story about no more than archetypes, but we bring our understanding of these character types to sort out the particular story unfolding before us.
Nor does the namelessness of the characters have anything to do with their being archetypes. To say so ignores the intensity and individuality of physical existence that film with its living actors can scarcely avoid. It is hard to imagine more individualised characters. That they are not named has no bearing on the individuation of their existence. It suggests that they live under the influence of a common human fate but that as individuals they don't need the redundant individuation of naming
And second, as Adrian Martin said, 'every individual open to the film finds — often in a delighted shock — some miniscule detail directly from their own young lives'. This is the reply to the criticism that 'when the magisterial voyager tackles intimate human matters, he cannot resist images of shop-worn sentimentality.' For I too have run down a lane talking with with another boy as we went. I too have played in clouds of insecticide, stood awkwardly in the black part of town, held my finger over the barrel of an air rifle for a dare. Just like this film shows. The same goes for the sentimental images of Jack's baby feet, or of a butterfly landing on a wrist, or the middle brother and father playing together on guitar and piano while Jack lurks resentful and excluded. Such apprehension of likeness indicates what is universal lies precisely in the moments that are so particular. I can think of no other film so startling in this feature. Not Andrei Tarkovski's Mirror, Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon, all of which belong to a filmmaking tradition that strives to tell the drama of childhood and all of which have moments comparable to Tree of Life. Besides The Tree of Life the work that most has this effect on me are Proust's chapters on childhood in Combray.
There is another scene that strikes me in this way too: the scene in which the middle-aged Jack meets the people of his childhood. Here my own dream experience is capture by Malick. It's not so uncanny though, this Elysian image. We know it from Homer and Virgil, and in the preparation for the journey across the sea to the west. In images such as this, or in the story of Job, or in the received idea of grace, or in the immense history and the immense unconcern of nature — in all these we recognise obscurely the cast and setting our own peculiar brief precious experience.