"How paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one's memory...The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years."
Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time
"The cords of all link back, strandentwining cable of all flesh. That is why mystic monks. Will you be gods? Gaze in your omphalos. Hello! Kinch here. Put me on to Edenville. Aleph, alpha: nought, nought, one."
James Joyce, Ulysses
Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers
"Time is the transcendental horizon for the question of Being."
Martin Heidegger, Being and Time
With the rumblings and portents of world's end and apocalyptic speculation, The Tree of Life could not arrive at a more opportune moment. Granted, it does not dwell on the End as much as it does the Beginning, but it still shows glimpses of it, with a dead and barren Earth as the white dwarf sun overlooks. There is an intuition of Eternity set on desert shores, the waves rolling in the water being the same images we saw earlier in the picture, after the cataclysmic meteor fell to the planet and destroyed the previous Earth governors, the dinosaurs. In this end of the world, which repeats ad infinitum to beings innocent of its interruption to Hegelian Great Goals, there is marked staticity and acceptance: Calm. Jack O'Brien (Sean Penn) walks on the Ice Age terrain, just as he will walk through the desert towards Eternity's ocean shores. We should say it is removed by millions of years, but it is not. Time is illusory, a veil, an accident. In the Agnus Dei, where the Lamb of God has redeemed the world and pulled beings out of the cycle of sin and suffering (like a Buddha finding Nirvana), there is then no movement. Only this calm. After the dinosaurs, so there are us. And after us--? Malick begins and ends his film with the same mysterious shape, the form of formlessness that conceives and concludes the world, prompting our human eyes to read human shapes into it, like a face behind a thin veil of fabric.
To me there is little that is confusing about The Tree of Life, which is dually impenetrable as a personal reflection, confession, and requiem for a dead brother, just as it is, while burrowing into its roots, universal. Malick's images are very specific pictures of his own biographical childhood outside of Waco, Texas in the 1950s. As time goes on throughout his autobiographical portrait and we experience the dissonance of his own neuroses rooted in the Mother (Jessica Chastain) and the Father (Brad Pitt), we fall into our own groundlessness, removed from the Creation of the World, an 18-minute marvel of how our terrain and cosmic canvas was sculpted, accelerating fast and faster through 14 billion years of cosmic expansion, volcanic light and lava screaming, geysers smoking, unicellular organisms coming together in the first acts of compassion, fish freely swimming, and then more complicated creatures – dinosaurs – feeding and suffering in the befuddling chain of existence. We are then born and called forth from the ocean of time, which slows down and wraps us up in its groundlessness with resentments, jealousies, and desires. The Tree of Life is too sincere to be pretentious, and though many of us may scoff at one man's presumption to link his own biography to the origins of life, Malick is in fact calling out for us to do the same, and so to wonder about our Being, rather than just being-in-the-world, working day to day, reading internet articles, watching The Hangover Part II and Sex and the City, and drinking PBRs. The Tree of Life is Malick's "Song of Myself," recalling Whitman:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
In being subjective, we are recognizing portions of the self that are lost, very often, to impulses and immediate moments. We're finding ourselves in the same way Joseph is working his way back to his jealous brothers and loving, bereaved father, Jacob (whose ladder becomes a huge motif in The Tree of Life). Mann, Malick, and Whitman are all emulating a kind of transcendentalism seeking to change our ocular focus, and in subjectivity and our awareness of seeing and processing, so life is consecrated. This is why cinema is so important, because it calls attention to our seeing. As frustrated as many viewers may be with Malick and his new film in particular, he is deliberately calling our attention to the act of seeing and subsequent imaginative interpretations that follow, the rough brush-strokes of binaries meant to waver back and forth in our own dialectic during and after the experience. The film screen is a window and doorway through which we are invited to look at people that are strangers. They are fragments, like characters in a Biblical sermon, that become mirrors to which we explore our own lost time.
We may even be off-put and reject what we see: couples fighting, frogs and birds' nests being destroyed, implied masturbation after trespassing into a woman's house, and the temptation to kill a parent. Malick's child alter-ego, excellently played by Hunter McCracken, could be laughed off as a too-logical cause for the eccentric many people see Malick as being. He is not the warm and inviting youth of Spielberg childhood fantasy, who also must reconcile the move into adulthood with the childhood being left behind. Whereas Spielberg is always looking for the absent father, Malick's father is too present, an Eye of God, a Yahweh demanding devotion and jealous love. The child's cognitive dissonance for the father is a mixture of love with a hatred having something to do with the characteristics he also sees in himself. Jack narrates words to describe his father, strangely as Dad is being playful with the kids: "Tells lies. Makes up stories. Insults people. Doesn't care." The Mother is ethereal, almost too sweet and loving a portrait of the Eternal Feminine. With Jack's apparent erotic awakening, his shame is increased as the female objects of his desire are then too easily projected onto his biological mother. "I can't talk to you about it," he says about his shame and desires to her, the person whom he could probably tell everything to earlier. The appearance of the women attracting him evidences a kind of striving to get away from the mother, as they all have dark hair: the girl whom Jack likes at school; the neighbor woman whose bedroom he invades; his wife as an adult; the smartly dressed woman that he notices walking past him as he speaks on a cell phone. Significantly, we do not hear him utter a single word to any of these four women, just as he cannot talk to his own mother about his burgeoning – and illicit – adolescent desires.
Language is again an important issue here, and it is the manifestation of freedom or repression, whether it's imposed by parents or by oneself. Jack cannot speak about desire to his mother, something that comes from within himself, but his father controls language utterly, so as to fit a framework of which he approves. The father here recalls many other Malick characters: certainly Kit in Badlands (who tells Holly to replace the word "loneliness" with "solitude," because "it meant more what I intended to say."), and Col. Tall in The Thin Red Line, who does not have dialogue with his underlings, but believes that all he should do is command them. For Pitt's father, do not call him 'dad,' but 'Father.' He demands on being called 'sir.' He cannot be interrupted. He tells R.L. at one point at the dinner table, "Will you do me a favor? Do not speak unless you have something important to say," or to Jack, "Not one more word out of you." The way his children fight back, in his presence, is through disobeying his strictures of language. In the backyard while the father talks, Jack interrupts. "Don't interrupt!" Jack continues. "Don't interrupt!" "It's your house," Jack interrupts once more. "You can kick me out whenever you want," and then adds ominously, "You'd like to kill me." At the dinner table, briefly after the father instructed R.L. to limit his words to significant content, and while the father talks about an article regarding how important sitting posture is, R.L. interrupts: "Be quiet." "What did you say?!" He becomes physical (but we never see him brutally slap or physically abuse his children – it's control exerted through language and the definition of boundaries), grabbing R.L., then throwing an intruding Jack into a dark closet. Mother holds closely the frightened youngest child, Steve (who never seems to talk at all), pressing him to her chest. When the episode concludes and the mother stands over the sink with that familiar dissonant symphony of sounds from my own youth, of clanging dishes, running water, and overheated evening emotions, the father accuses her of turning his own children against him. Her rebuttal is physical instead of verbal, though it relates to how he uses language: she extends her hand to his mouth and says, "How do you like it?" before he swats it away and forces her into submission.
Everything about the Father has reference to rules, boundaries, limitations, and circumscriptions. The only thing that is limitless for him is how inadequate something can be. In the steel web of his work (which looks like an oil refinery), an environment of straight vertical and horizontal lines of grey and lifeless blue, he – wordlessly – taps his watch while passing by a hard-hatted worker, who nods. He is calling attention to the yard, drawing lines for his children to not cross. And of course he draws out a precise syntax for them to follow at dinner table discussion, of which he governs. That kind of verbal syntax finds parallel in both the linear directions for how one carves out a professional existence ("through fierce will" and adapting to "the world's trickery"), and exhibiting compassion (the way he instructs Jack and R.L. to give him a kiss and hug). Being a man who catalogues everything, the lines drawn up in binaries for the father are definite. For him, "the wrong people go hungry" and "the wrong people get loved," whereas I believe Terrence Malick, inspired by the mother, would believe that there are no "wrong people": no one should go hungry, and everyone should be loved.
Those steel-webbed walls of the father are juxtaposed to the freedom laid out by the mother, and indeed when dad is away on a business trip, all three children erupt in euphoria, another trait to which I can relate. With the mother, the three boys run freely through tall grass and listen to fantastical stories unrestricted by time ("Tell us a story from before we can remember") or probability (the anthropomorphic tales of Kipling). This contrast of circumscriptions colliding with freedom comes back to subjectivity, such an important theme for Malick, as it's in that activated subjectivity that Being is realized. Significantly, we overhear the father define "subjective" for them: "Subjective. It means in your own mind. It cannot be proven by other people." The expansiveness of Being and Self shuts down, obliterated by the label of fantasy and selfish imagination. The key conflict in The Thin Red Line was Witt's dialectic with Welsh, where one sees "another world," while the other only sees "this rock," where a man, by himself, is nothing. And yet for Witt, a man himself is the whole world, limitless. The Tree of Life takes subjectivity to a new level, as the mind of one man, in a reflective thought one present day afternoon, goes back to his youth and the source of regrets, disorder, and early sorrow. He digs into the well of the past, going back to, quite literally, the very beginning. His life is the whole cosmos, the center of the universe and the expanse of Time: the transcendent horizon for the question of Being.
The question of Being and subjectivity necessarily leads to a theory as to what the true structure of The Tree of Life is. I pointed out that the "tree" in question is the film itself, with its seeds, roots, trunk, branches, sticks (Jack himself is always wielding sticks, and so implying that this is his function in the tree), and leaves, all undergoing duress and change under the weight/wait of Time. That still does not satisfy questions of the narrative's trajectory: late 1960s Middle America in a house with many glass walls, where two parents mourn the loss of their son; contemporary Austin, where adult Jack, who lives in his own glass house where the occupants can go about without having to look at each other, is overwhelmed with meaningless language and groundlessness; a 14 billion year sequence – happening in 18 breathtaking minutes – where the universe ceaselessly evolves in a symphony of cycles showing destruction and birth; a child being born into the world and familiarizing himself with a home, in a sense that's almost magical; then slowing down into the fragmented, 90-minute 1950s impressionistic melodrama, as the weight of the world takes psychological tolls, and in the end seems to have a dialogue once more with the modern day; the impression of Eternity, where beings are at peace and reconciled, released from the cycle of death and suffering; and a coda, once more in the present day, the thought ending.
Much information in The Tree of Life is elliptical, left mysterious and demanding our own imaginations to take an active part (much like I believe that the whole narrative of Days of Heaven is Malick's own imagination running wild with photographs of human faces from a time far removed). This element in the film's architecture might madden some, and yet it is something that primarily enthralls me, compelling me to suffer and wonder with the enigmatic and mysterious Malick. The Tree of Life is most immediately a requiem for the dead brother, Larry Malick, a practicing guitarist who was compelled by his own sense of inadequacy to break his hands and kill himself after failing to become, as he must have seen it, a better guitar player. The feelings of inadequacy were implanted by the father's demands, which was misplaced love. "He used to hit himself in the face for no reason," the father mumbles during the mournful beginning. "Did I make him feel ashamed?" This man, after all, talks about Toscanini, who recorded a piece of music 65 times and said: "It could be better." Many critics have assumed that the death of the son, R.L. (Laramie Eppler), given the time, is related to the war in Vietnam, but I think we have to intuit through research that the actual death of Larry Malick is the place from where we start our contemplation on death, meaning, and the guilt of survivors (Malick's other brother, Chris, died in 2008 at the age of 60; both of his parents, Emil and Irene, are still alive). In the present day, it is implied that before the day began Jack said some hurtful words to his father about R.L., dead all these years. The shame of saying hurtful words – from "you're fat" to "your bad parenting resulted in my brother killing himself" and everything in-between – to people close to us is something harder to run away from than would be expedient, even if we are objectively correct, because so often our own harshness points a mirror to ourselves and our own insecurities, and so nurtures our own self-loathing. Jack is haunted by the realization that he is more like his father than he would like, something that in Peter Biskind's 1998 Vanity Fair article on Malick, implies that this may be something that irritates the director. Talking on a cell phone while in an elevator going up, Jack apologizes to his father "for saying what I said," adding, "Yeah, I think about him every day." The whole film is a meditation brought about by whatever he said to his father, an endless free-floating association of memory climaxing in his reconciliation with the father. "I'm just as bad as you," he tells his dad in the 1950s, though in actuality I think we should interpret this scene as the present talking to the past. "I'm more like you than like her."
We cannot leave alone the question of R.L.'s death, though. It's much more significant if it is a suicide instead of a random death in military combat, because rather than incidental death (such as we see throughout The Thin Red Line), it is purposeful death acting in rebellion to the sorrow and meaninglessness of existence. (* - I should still clarify that we don't know how R.L. dies; and the way the mournful prelude flows is deliberately reminiscent of Walt Whitman's poem, "Come Up from the Fields Father," which is about a mother reading news from the Civil War front). The question of suicide, Camus reminds us, is the most important one we face. And though we may distract ourselves enough from it with day-to-day distractions, hopes, and glimmers of beauty, perhaps falling prey to it is to succumb to despair's truths. Nietzsche pointed out how the prospect of suicide actually acted as a comfort, getting one through many a terrible night. It's always there, and no matter how bad life got, it remained a viable option of escape. I think Jack's memory of R.L., his playmate and companion in growing up, coupled with the reality of suicide, provokes his own existential quandaries, just as Larry Malick's suicide is a ghost haunting all of Malick's thoughts on meaning in his films. Suicide is a choice wrought with an ego's tortured despair that wants escape from the shackles of the flesh's imprisonment, where it is susceptible to feeling. Kit in Badlands is not necessarily suicidal as a depressive individual, and neither is Witt in The Thin Red Line. But their destinies, along with the Farmer in Days of Heaven and John Smith or Pocahontas in The New World, point to a lingering wonderment of the individual taking one's fate in their hands. In Badlands (where we see Holly look at two boys outside her window - and I can't help but think Malick is imagining himself and his brother), Kit wants to be caught and so be an important person who finally gets attention and his own sense of permanence. More compelling is the Farmer in Days of Heaven, a melancholy individual (note how the Farmer is more like R.L., whereas Bill is certainly the earthier Jack) who knows that he is dying, could be said to walk into his death by Bill's screwdriver: in his torment and jealousy, he wants death and chooses it as something that he in truth belongs to. In The Thin Red Line, Witt wonders about death and immortality, but also recognizes that he's a part of Charlie Company and is a soldier. He gives himself as a sacrifice to the platoon, leading the Japanese on the wrong path, but also raises his rifle and is shot down when he could have just as well dropped his gun and surrendered (and the Japanese soldier apparently is telling him that he does not want to shoot him). Pocahontas leads a gloomy life of resignation after Smith lies to her about his death. She functionally erases herself as Pocahontas and becomes Rebecca, a ghost of her former self.
The suicide is an individual we see contemplating his wounds, and then being overwhelmed by them. The death of R.L. drives the heart of The Tree of Life's opening moments, as the mother talks about her youth and we see warm images of a rural landscape, her father holding her tight and animals – lambs and cows – being fed by her. John Tavener's Funeral Canticle plays as she says, "When I was young the nuns taught us there are two ways through life. The way of Nature. And the way of Grace. You have to choose which path you'll take." And what is Grace? "It accepts all things. It does not mind being slighted, forgotten, disliked, insults, or injuries." Nature, on the other hand, "only wants to please itself," much like the world described by Tall in The Thin Red Line. It "finds reasons to be unhappy" and wants to lord over others, have its own way, and finds things to dislike when all else around them is shining with "the Glory," as Malick calls it here and earlier in The Thin Red Line. There is bliss in these opening moments, as we see the O'Brien family together: father (Nature) at the garden, mother (Grace) on the swing set, and the three children climbing a ladder and rope on a large tree. But things turn. Malick's camera lingers for a second on that swinging rope, and mother's voice says, "No one who follows the way of Grace ever comes to a bad end."
And yet it's implied that R.L., who is associated with the Mother as Jack is akin to the Father, will indeed come to a bad end – the ugliest, where life so ate him up that he ended it, cutting himself off from it completely. Malick cuts to another house a decade later, where the mother gets a Western Union telegram with the bad news. The Funeral Canticle music goes to silence and she crumbles on the floor with a loud cry that cuts to an airplane engine (one of the most ingenious cuts in this film, which is not only one of the best exhibitions of cinematography I've ever experienced, but also film and sound editing). The father is on the phone. We cannot hear what he says or hears as he's framed in close-up (like Michael Mann in recent films, Malick is using the close-up in marvelous – and almost dissonant – abundance, further accentuating that juxtaposition of the micro and macrocosmic). Francesco Lupica's Cosmic Beam thunders on the soundtrack, drowning out all other sound completely, as the father is left alone with the space within himself.
The mother's voice drifts in as a prayer of mourning to God, Mahler's Symphony No. 1 (which has a funeral march in its third movement for "Frere Jacques" – referring to the death of a brother), the camera floating over R.L.'s room: paints and the conspicuous guitar we will see him play throughout the film, his inadequacy in mastering it the cause of his death. "I will fear no evil," her voice says, but then there is an opposition: "What did You gain?" The prayer is not acceptance, but a plea for it: "My Hope. My God. My Son." It's a meditation upset by a grieving parent's great question. "Why did You take him?" The boys' grandmother (Fiona Shaw) knows that she cannot give satisfactory answers. "Time heals, nothing stays the same…The Lord gives and takes away. That's His nature." The Father's own shame results in a confused walk underneath trees, a stark contrast to the well kept suburban lawn. He stumbles forth, lost and confused, much like McCron and Bell in The Thin Red Line, the Farmer in Days of Heaven, and Pocahontas in The New World.
Years later, the blur of technological modernity glides as an abstraction on the screen, confused and blurry. Jack wakes up in his sterile but ornately constructed house. Nature surrounds it outside, but the walls are too neatly dressed and arranged inside. His dark-haired wife sits on the opposite side of the bed. They share no words, each preparing for the day by walking linear paths that seem to purposefully avoid each other. The only time she looks at him is when he lights a blue candle and stares into the light, an image that will be echoed later on when his father does the same at church (and will end the 90-minute family melodrama, zooming out from the candle just as it now zooms in). The Fire in Malick, in all of its manifestations – whether it is natural or electric and man-made – is the eternal fire of consciousness and Self, the activating element of Pure Being. We should recall Witt and his spark in The Thin Red Line, and how we are each individually like "coal drawn from the fire," or Bell, who relates "the flame in us" to Love. During Jack's own childhood erotic activation, as he gazes longingly at a dark-haired, dark-complexioned classmate, the two words given by the teacher for the spelling test are, very significantly, "Volcano" and "Socket," two images that are predominantly figured in this picture and both being references to Light and Creation.
In his modern day world, Jack finds a greedy world "gone to the dogs." Words are everywhere, but they are meaningless. An architect, he is also an activating Creator, and Malick makes us wonder about creation in all of its forms here in downtown Houston (or Dallas?) as both interiors (like elevators) and exteriors (looking up at the great skyscrapers) are photographed with wide angle lenses. It's streamlined to perfection, beautiful in its own way (again, like in Michael Mann, who is also a kind of cinematic American transcendentalist, albeit a more pessimistic one than Malick), but also denotes disconnection between beings, groundlessness, greed, and estrangement from anything Eternal: it is merely an omnipresent Now of isolated moments, just as it is filled with isolated words and isolated people. Beings are imprisoned by Time. The biblical connotation is to the Tower of Babel, where architectural genius elevated humankind to the height of God, but resulted in a confusion of language. Jack is struggling through this disconnect. On a cell phone, he tells someone, "When you're young you're only focused on your career," a beautiful, smartly dressed, dark-haired woman passing him by, reflexively making him do a double take (which finds echo in how he voyeuristically gazes women later on, just as he avoids their gazes, like with his wife, or turning his head away from his classmate who looks back, or in his shame telling his mother, "Don't look at me.") He adds that he feels like he's "running into walls," the camera arcing up to a huge transparent wall: a window. Indeed, everything is transparent in Malick's film world here, the mystery of framed cinematic gazing into private spaces eliminated. The private is reduced in favor of the well-dressed social behavior of businessmen. He is existing as a doubly bound individual: his interior voice floating, while in social conversation with his co-workers and bosses. Like in Babel, words go nowhere. A coworker (played by Malick's stepson, Will Wallace), tells him about a girlfriend who wants to get back together. "Chapter's done, books' closed," the coworker says. "What are you going to do?" Jack asks. "Experiment," the coworker answers. People are closed off while transparent. Selfishness is almost mandated and normal. Maybe Jack's father was entirely correct about how "the world lives by trickery," and a rich man is "like the fourth person in the Holy Trinity." Outside in the concrete sculptures of man's own ingenious creations of urban sprawl (which necessarily call to mind man and God's relationship and the Book of Job), there is room for only a few trees, planted and arranged neatly.
Woven throughout this segment are pictures from Jack's interior journey, his hand on a desert wall, his shadow: his awareness of Being, and struggle to identify with Ground Concepts. In this urban environment, all is being-in-the-world, which conceals Being, or "the Glory." We see short fragments of the Shores of Eternity, shadows photographed upside down, as if to visually communicate phenomenology leading to the Self's realization. "How did You come to me? In what shape? What disguise?" he's asking. "What are You thinking?" He has to ask these childlike questions of a forgotten self from before he can remember, as though God only made his appearance known through personae or masks (and we will see one such mask floating through Eternity's shores near the end of the film), which also ties into Train's question, "Who are You that live in all these many forms? Your death that captures all, You too are the source of all that's going to be born."
Jack's mind – that of an architect – is building its own necessary bridge between the Office and the Shores, between the immediate and the Timeless, between the Beginning and the End, between the Objective and the Subjective, Nature and Grace, the Father and the Mother. Everything is encapsulated in the demiurge, the God stuff of the big bang. The river's edge where he plays with his brothers is the same river's edge where dinosaurs enacted their own unconscious and wordless dramas. The shores of Eternity, where he is reunited with his brother and his mother's grief is relieved, is where a mortally wounded plesiosaur contemplates the gash on its side.
Interpreted, the plesiosaur has two major references regarding the great dialectic of The Tree of Life. It might primarily recall the way of Nature, in being seen as a reference to Leviathan, the sea monster from the Book of Job, chapter 41. Philosophically, Leviathan's presence carries a dimension associating it with Nature in how the name was adopted by the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes for his book on political systems, Leviathan (1651). Hobbes' view of Nature and civilization was a bleak one, where beings are each individual units in a machine, and they are driven primarily by their selfish impulses, "the appetites" and "aversion." The Father could be seen as Hobbes' Leviathan, the governing monarch whose strict boundaries are necessary for controlling things, which would otherwise run out of control and simply make war on itself and everything; the Hobbesian view also points to R.L., the individual beaten by life and thrown by the wayside on the natural chopping block.
But through the prism of Grace, the plesiosaur could be seen as a Christ reference – the lapis or Fish, an archetype of the deep unconscious (the ocean) with a gash on its side (like Christ crucified). In alchemy, the Fish is associated with Christ, and in Arthurian romance with the Fisher King, keeper of the Holy Grail. Finally, R.L., the suicide, is linked with Christ (who also, essentially, chose death) when at church he looks up at the stain-glass image of Jesus, his hands bounded, relating not only to Malick's recurring motifs of boundaries and cages that impede freedom, but also the hands his brother broke. At the end of the 1950s melodrama, as the family moves house because the father has to transfer for his work, we see quiet R.L. in the backyard underneath the tree with its ladder (Jacob's ladder, naturally, again often associated in mythological frameworks with the Tree of Life), his brother looking over him, burying personal objects. On top of everything is a dead pet fish that he covers with a neatly wrapped cloth. At the end of the film, Jack finds R.L., his younger self, his mother, her younger self, his father, his other brother Steve (Tye Sheridan), his friend with a badly burned head, and countless other strangers going through similar reunions, on that same beach where the plesiosaur/Christ was suffering. Cut into the sequence and accompanied by the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God – Christ – who takes away the sins of the world) music from Berlioz's Requiem are more bizarre and enigmatic images: a desert town (in Israel?) where two corpses are wrapped in cloth - like the fish - in a custom that I believe is according to Jewish tradition. Malick also cuts to crypts where beautiful Sleeping Beauties (something evoked earlier in the film) resurrect. The apocalypse has happened, as Earth is now dead and the sun going out, but this is not Judgment Day. It is resurrection and calm forgiveness. More images of Jacob's Ladder (to Heaven), along with a bridge that seems to lead into the sky (which we spot a couple times in the film), take Jack through his spiritual education. He has imagined his own Genesis, Exodus, Ecclesiastes, Job, New Testament, and final Revelation. Richard Brody, in his New Yorker blog on The Tree of Life, sews up the Israel references (these are mythological references, mind you, not geopolitical ones) - and so allusions to Jacob - while pointing out that when the mother twirls the young Jack around in circles and points at the sky, saying, "God lives there," the music that soon erupts is Smetana's "Ma Vlast" or "The Moldau" – from which Israel derives its own national anthem. The myths cross branches into our humble lives, the processes of death, birth, suffering, and joy all present at once. The epiphany - perhaps only grasped for a slight instant - is the very miracle of Being, and the paradox of one's insignificance with Glory.
Many viewers might then well be turned off by how Malick approaches God, but his film is not a testament as to whether or not a supernatural Supreme Being exists (like Whitman, "the ineffable remains.") God is that You within, after all. Unlike a lot of modernists, Malick harbors little resentment for his religious upbringing, and for him religion is a term that he takes for its literal meaning in the Latin root, relgio, which means "linking back." This myth that takes its form through Nature is the song of himself, of his brother, of his mother, and of his father, and likewise we too live out our own myths on a day-by-day, year-by-year, decade-by-decade basis, if we subjectively "link back," as does Mann's Joseph, for example, or Joyce's Bloom and Stephen, or the mysterious dream characters in Finnegans Wake. The Past is a reformulation and reflection set in the present, and this is interesting in noting the Christ references and linking them to Job, and so to the harsh Father and the release of forgiveness in Agnus Dei. Jung's Answer to Job – at least what I can make out from it – examines the Book of Job as something that forced God to confront His own reflection, which would consequently result in His change of heart and attitude of forgiveness and selflessness, manifested in Jesus, who Himself, to be theologically correct, crosses between pairs of opposites and binaries, not being Half-Man and Half-God, but is All-Man and All-God, a contradiction that accepts, like Whitman, that it contradicts itself in its multitudes: "I and this mystery, here we stand." For Jack, the mercy of his suicidal brother (who chooses not to take the option of revenge on Jack, even after Jack had betrayed R.L.'s trust and shot his finger – such an important tool for him – with a bee-bee gun) and grace of his mother, are the two things, so we learn in the film's opening whispers, that brought the subject (in this case, Jack) "to Your door." "Find me," Jack's younger self whispers to the older Jack, standing on the shores. We see his shadow, his 12-year-old gaze on his own feet walking. "Forgot You…How did I lose You?" Is he talking about God? The Eternal sense of Being? His brother? His younger Self? Most likely, he is referring to all of those things. Would Jack be wrestling with his sense of Being-ness had his brother not died? Is the glory born of a felix culpa, a Happy Fall? The grisly bondage of the crucifixion opens the way to the Resurrection, and once more there is symmetry between R.L. and Christ, joy and suffering.
The opening quote of the picture is Job 38: 4,7: "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?....When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" Malick's film may be accused of self-importance, but it is sincere in its questions and images, which will chime so harshly in a movie theater surrounded by trash, Cadillac commercials, and comic book franchises. Few films awe as much as this one, and the receptive viewer may even be moved to tears of awe while watching the creation of the world, scored to "Lacrimosa 2" from Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem for the great Polish director, Kryztoff Kieslowski. In a film layered with death music, is it ironic that in the beginning of all things we are given the part of the requiem – the lacrimosa – that classically has the function of making us cry and reaching catharsis? While at the end, following the obliteration of the planet as souls are imagined in peace and atonement on Eternity's shores, we are curiously unmoved? The Agnus Dei having taken us out of the realm of feeling, and instead of being overwhelmed with emotion we are curiously gazing, as Jack is, and the accidents and erosions of life are made pristine and new (the mother is seen kissing an elderly hand – perhaps her own present day self – which becomes young). Creation mourns and it is harshly laying its base on death. Volcanic lava collides with rocks, and it is impossible not to read into those rocks suffering human faces.
The world, in Jack's subjective imagination, the all-encompassing You, is then completely anthropomorphized: The God of Job is certainly an all-too-human divinity when compared to His Eastern counterparts. Malick's original screenplay for The Tree of Life, titled Q, began with a sleeping God in the ocean, a fish swimming in his nostril – and so almost marrying myths of Vishnu, Poseidon, and the fish of Christianity – as he dreams up the universe. This is no longer literalized in The Tree of Life, but visual references for all three mythologies remain and sing together through Darwin's magnificent libretto. The natural world is colored in religion, the human interpretation of nature's forces. Do dinosaurs contemplate their wounds? Do dinosaurs exhibit compassion? Indeed, we see a velociraptor stalk through that riverside where Jack and his brothers will play, millions of years later, and place its foot on a sleeping – or maybe dying – herbivorous species of duck-billed dinosaur. Spielberg and Lucas – beyond in conditioning us what to feel in family melodrama – have also conditioned us what to expect in CGI dinosaurs. And yet Malick changes things. The raptor releases its foot and goes elsewhere. I don't believe this is an active form of compassion. It's random. Maybe the raptor just was not hungry. But more likely is that this episode is, again, created by Jack in his imagination. It finds echoes later on, when he passes by his father who is fixing a car, and understands that all he has to do is pull a wrench, and the father would be crushed to death (this moment might strike people as being morbid and unnatural, but I think rather that such contemplations are natural for children), or when he offers a wooden block to R.L. "You can hit me if you want," he says, remorseful of how he shot his brother. R.L. makes like he is about to hit Jack, but smiles and pulls it back.
The boys have been brought up by their mother to read themselves in nature. There is a storybook about rabbits in human clothing, and again there is Kipling's Jungle Books, in this case the story of Ka, the rock python, and his skin – which is not a coincidence, being that the snake, much like the fish, is another alchemical Christ reference, shedding its skin, its mask, which is then dying and being born again, ceaselessly in a cycle of death and rebirth. Reptiles certainly have a special place for Malick, who began The Thin Red Line with the fearful – and sublime – salt water crocodile, the relic from the dinosaur age. Here, in addition to the actual dinosaurs, we have snakes, lizards (used to frighten the mother when dad is away), and cousins to the reptiles/dinosaurs, seen in Malick's expected abundance of birds and amphibians (frogs). As a toddler, Jack's mother has him play with some wooden blocks of crocodilians: "Two alligators." The blocks are later used as a weapon when a jealous toddler Jack throws one at the infant R.L. While exploring the grassy land, one of the boys takes a grasshopper and offers it as food to a dog (who declines), and then Jack finds a dinosaur bone. This alludes to both timelessness and historical echoes, in addition to the consuming, self-pleasing and impulse-driven character of Nature, which is certainly seen in children ("Mine!" toddler Jack says, taking a bit of cake from his grandmother). In any case, as that wordless world looks back – or does not look back at us – we make it more like us: dogs, cats, reptiles, grasshoppers, rabbits, trees, etc., just as the Mother asks under the weeping willows (which weep only in how we have projected a definition onto them), "Lord? Why? Where were You?" During the Darwinian sequence, we see a fetus' heart beating fast (presumably a dinosaur), and the mother's voice says, "My hope. My child."
The most tender and evocative sequence of the film is that which follows Jack's birth up through his adolescence, which plays like a dream in making us wonder about how our consciousness comes around to recognizing itself, like in a mirror. The sequence begins symbolically, but the abstractions are not forced. Their strength, in fact, is felt by me in how they seem to recall my own memories before I was aware of who I was: a child's room under water, lakeside environments with tender figures whispering things in my ear. The children are shooed forth, Malick's camera moving in on a cave with a monster's face. We should ask ourselves: what the hell is this? The same way Joyce puts allusive strands in his writing, so too does Malick in his film. This cave is the Door to Hell, located in Bomarzo, Italy's Park of the Monsters, a Renaissance sculpture garden created by Pier Francesco Orsini, a creative ground that was, much like The Tree of Life, designed to astonish more than to please. Paradise, Earth, and Hell are then all commingling in Malick's world. To enter Life is to enter Hell, and yet the moment is filmed and felt with such lushness and tranquility that we feel like we are being birthed into an earthly paradise. The Door to Hell is a Hell-Mouth, an archetype in Christian mythology which also, interestingly, corresponds to the Leviathan from Job (the Leviathan's jaws are often referred to as the jaws of Hell), then tying this image up all the more with the paradoxical image of the Plesiosaur and the dual nature of God. Jack's quest, like everyone's quest in the struggle for realizing Being, is to find this place before Time began, "before we can remember." There is magic in these early years, like a chair moving by itself, the mother floating on air, and then the mysterious stairs leading to a dark attic, where a coffin seems to lay in front of the window, another uncanny memory I have.
The hidden room of the attic haunts the conscious section of the film, where adolescent Jack exhibits small rebellions and feels natural states of dissonance with his father and mother. We're never sure that it is a coffin – I can only presume, being that this is a film about death and resurrection, and the attic seems to exist as a room in Jack's unconscious where his youth is hidden. Later in the film, he remembers his younger, maybe 6-year-old self, riding on a tricycle in circles in the attic, a tall man whispering something in his ear and pointing. Who is the tall man? Is it the pastor of Jack's church, who tells the story of Job, reminding his congregation how God gives and takes away, regardless of who deserves it or not? Or, as I first thought, is it the crippled man who passes by both Jack and R.L. after they have amused themselves by acting out the silly walks of the town folk around them? I'm not certain, but the cripple appears as a kind of portent for how life is unfair and cruel, and how nature is imperfect - but also moves beings to pity. As the boys look back, we can wonder if they are driven by morbid curiosity or a deep-seated element of pity, a trait their mother demonstrates by giving some shackled prisoners (bank robbers?) water., much like Pocahontas in The New World. In reference to the shackled men, one of the boys ask, "Can it happen to anybody?" The mother has tried hard to keep the ugliness of life away from her children, which we first see as she puts her hand over the toddler Jack's face as a man is having a seizure on the O'Briens' lawn. The criminals are not given words, but Malick films them in imposing and looming wide-angle close-ups, casting actors with faces to remember. Their grave expressions haunt Jack and R.L. They are living ghosts.
In these memories, we see the struggle in Jack's heart. Roger Ebert called The Tree of Life a prayer, a meditation, and he is right. Like a prayer, its words ("Love everything") are more like mantras than didactic commands, for which we can hopefully take to heart in grappling with our impulses that imprison us. Orson Welles commented on how the two things that are hardest to film are sex and prayer, but Malick certainly accomplishes the latter with a kind of honesty and sincerity that is unprecedented. Young Jack prays at his bedside, but the tormenting thing any believing child understands about prayer is how they are words, verbal signs of ideals, and so removed from action. It recalls Claudius' lament in Hamlet: "Words without thoughts never to heaven go." Jack wants to be good and says so. "Help me to be good. Help me to be brave. Help me not to get dogs in fights. Help me not to tell lies." These are choices, aren't they? So why do we pray? Why don't we just choose to act certain ways? It's the conflict of flesh and spirit. One of the more beguiling lines of dialogue in The Tree of Life occurs when Jack, trying to exert rebellion to his mother, says to her, "What I want to do I can't do. I do what I hate." Again, Malick has inserted an allusion here, in this case St. Paul. It is from Romans 7:15, which says, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." Paul is talking about the division between spiritual ideals of acting good, and yet how one nevertheless is still driven by carnal appetites, and as such, really imprisoned by flesh. This is Malick's Gnostic sensibility, dealing with the binary of Mind/Soul and Body, where the body is a cage (we know, however, that Malick is like Whitman in seeing the Body and Soul as one, but nevertheless the binary is there, and is necessarily wrestled with). In St. Paul, we see an inflection of Nature and Grace in conflict.
And under the duress of peer pressure, for example, Jack does terrible things. He vandalizes old houses ("I say let's break it," his friend with a toy revolver says), throws firecrackers in a bird's nest with unhatched eggs, and takes a frog and ties it to a firecracker that is launched in the air. These are things that I suppose a lot of young people do. I still remember the glee I felt as a Boy Scout, about Jack's age, in working with my friends to desecrate a pop machine at a campsite. One of the fathers joined us later on, long after we'd damaged the thing the most we could, and said, "It's terrible what people do." And I'll admit that as we nodded along with him, I felt ashamed. With the same friends, we would – again, with delight – throw live crayfish into a burning fire, or boil frogs and toads alive, or chuck them like baseballs into the woods and water (I once wrote a short story where some Boy Scouts take one such unfortunate amphibian, and tie it up on two sticks so as to form a cross; the Frog Christ is then burned alive in the fire, its "eye popping with a juicy snap.") And again, in retrospect as the ego catches up with where my delightful impulses went, there's a sense of shame and regret. It's totally at odds with that concentrating side of one's self, kneeling at a bed, and praying, "Help me be good."
The most disturbing sequence in The Tree of Life is probably the scene following Jack into an attractive neighbor woman's house. Her door is unlocked. He invades the space, finally on the other side of the frame (before, he was always peering through those windows and doorways). He sees the window curtains blowing above air vents: this is the house belonging to the family that Jack's father envies and resents, who can evidently afford air conditioning, in addition to a pristine lawn. Jack passes through a hallway (where we see a birdcage in a room) and then enters the woman's dressing room. He looks at a mirror and holds her earrings. We are seeing a young Terrence Malick's fascination with and absorption by strange ornaments and objects, which finds its ultimate release in the woman's slip. Jack takes it out of a drawer and lays it on the bed, staring at it, imagining. Malick does not show us what Jack does next, but I think it is possible that we should believe that he has masturbated over the slip. He is, after all, at that age, and the shame that he feels later in his mother's presence, I do not believe, could be from simply stealing the garment. The close-up on his face as he intensely gazes at the slip cuts to him running in a sweat by the riverside with the slip. At first he hides it beneath a piece of wood. But then he lets it flow down the river. He goes home and cannot look at his mother or talk to her. The feminine ideal and attachment has been transmuted to the flowing River of Life.
I can certainly not be sure, but this moment in young Jack's life, which is so dissonant for viewers to watch (indeed, it may steer us away from identifying with the film instead of becoming closer to Jack), is a confession for Malick, and something that he actually did, just as I believe the bee-bee gun incident is something drawn from his youth, or the more graceful moments, like the content of his prayers. Malick seems to sum up the unutterable sense of adolescent shame when it first rears its head and inflicts its boundaries on a child, fencing one down a path to so correct them and root them away from the ground. The Catholic Scorsese also deals with shame and guilt, but not with adolescents, when it first becomes an issue (though we see it implanted, perhaps, with young Howard Hughes and his maternally imposed "Q-U-A-R-A-N-T-I-N-E" in The Aviator). We should also remember that Jack believes he's always being watched by God. Before he commits his sins, he prays, "Are You there? What are You? I want to see what You see." It's as if his contemplation of the God's-Eye-View was Malick's primer for film school, just as it was his realization of innocence slipping away.
Indeed, the dissonant chords of the family melodrama in The Tree of Life threaten to uproot us entirely away from the Glory of the film's preternatural beginnings. Jack becomes increasingly absorbed in his own earthy, fleshy self, pushing away from his mother and hating his father. This changes when the father loses his job and walks home, his shoulders hunched down, his pants noticeably up too high on his ankles. He is a broken man for whom nothing has worked out. He believed in "fierce will," believed in the division between individuals, and worked to implant a sense of distrust and resentment in his children. Instead of sharing in the Great Idea, he patents his inventions, fostering "the ownership of ideas" just as he creates boundaries in language, space, and time (and yes, an internet search can reveal that Emil Malick has several patents online). He admits that he's missed "the Glory," which was always there, as it was for Witt and Pocahontas, though like John Smith, he's "sailed past" it in his devotion to social ideals. The garden and yard he's spent so much time on, and yet has never been able to have satisfactorily, is in worse shape than it was a decade before, and now he has to leave it, taking a job no one else wants. Losing track of that Glory, his life has slipped by as a series of disappointments. I should take a moment to praise Brad Pitt's performance here. This is no Great Santini, or an expected picture of the loving but all-too-harsh father. He's a little misguided, but Mr. O'Brien is still awfully tender and loving: he is not a bad father, but like a lot of fathers his preparation for his children results too often in their feelings of inadequacy. Mr. O'Brien's afraid. And maybe his aggression or need to impose his will elsewhere is an interior reaction to how he is naturally more compassionate than he is fierce. What Jack hates in his father and wants to kill are those things that he has still not recognized in himself. "I'm more like you than her," he tells his dad. "My sweet boy," the father replies. This may be the climax of the film, where the present, in dialogue with the past (I do not believe this exchange literally happened), is reconciled to its roots.
Malick brings us back to the present where Jack's elevator keeps on ascending, climaxing in the resurrection of beautiful corpses and the notorious Shores of Eternity, where the mother accepts R.L.'s death and gives her boy to God. This sequence is not a literal afterlife, but a subjective impression of it. It is the release from suffering and death that taunts beings in the disharmony of existence. We notice that the waves here are those same waves (of Poseidon?) resulting from the meteor crash that gave us the apocalyptic ice age (and where Jack similarly tread through tundra as he now walks through desert, looking for God). Back in the present moment, as Jack can afford a smile, I do not necessarily think that we are still close to him, or if we are even meant to. The Shores of Eternity function as an exercise of his sympathy for the two individuals who led him to God's Door, R.L. and the Mother, the two figures in his life who exhibited Grace.
The ending of The Tree of Life, if it's a resolution, may be fleeting, and like Thomas Buddenbrook reading Schopenhauer, Jack's reconciliation with life may be a short-lived moment. The television set at Jack's house seems to be evidence that we are in the present day of 2008 (when it was filmed), but it has been pointed out that Penn is too young to be Jack – 12 years old in the mid-1950s – in the present day. Bringing The Tree of Life back to its autobiographical dimension, regardless of continuity errors (which editor Billy Weber admits that Malick doesn't care about), I like to think of Jack's present day disposition to be the Malick of the mid-1990s, away and estranged from his Muse for nearly 20 years, in unhealthy relationships, and even possibly betraying the trust of his friends. Malick's muse was, like the image of his mother, a Sleeping Beauty lost in the wilderness, lying in a casket and waiting to be kissed back to life. No tree can reach heaven unless its roots descend to hell, and in exploring his dark corners – even if they are merely impressions or fragments – Malick's Muse returned to him so that he could once again finish the song of himself, and like the bridge that ends the film - a sign of human ingenuity in creation, just as Malick's film is - the spirit of the song blows through the cinema frame like the wind blows curtains on the windows, an image repeated again and again in The Tree of Life. And in those forms at which we peer, we see shapes of ourselves in the song, as Malick's pictures coast along our faces like the curtain fabric placed over Jack's face, a motif that recalls the enigmatic nebulae beginning and ending The Tree of Life's loop.
Cinema is too often an escape from reality, but in that escape we become concealed to our own selves in groundlessness. Some escapists will see The Tree of Life as antagonism to a mainstream audience, and so in return behave antagonistically to it. But the filmmaker has anticipated this. He wants a film of Grace, and so the mother's definition of Grace at the beginning is a nod to his critics: this film is my song, and you might insult it, dislike it, spit on it, and even forget it. And that's fine. Malick's Song of Himself is also a Song to our Selves, and the Great Self. We are imprisoned, shackled, encaged in modernity in its forms and banal tropes, in our lives and in our arts and entertainments. Isolated. But Malick wants to take us home, where our masks come off and wash away in the collective ocean. At the end of Malick's journey, we encounter ourselves, and in ourselves, we see everyone else. That bridge that ends the picture is a modern Jacob's ladder, designed to take us back to Being, beyond the accidents of being-in-the-world that make us what we appear to be in Time, and into an identification with the One - or Many - who dwells inside of us.
Biskind, Peter. "The Runaway Genius." Vanity Fair. August, 1998. Recovered at www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/classic/features/runaway-genius-199812.
Brody, Richard. "The Front Row: The Tree of Life: Roots and Shoots." The New Yorker. May 24, 2011. www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2011/05/the-tree-of-life-terrence-malick.html.
Ebert, Roger. "A Prayer Beneath The Tree of Life." Roger Ebert's Journal. May 17, 2011. blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2011/05/a_prayer_beneath_the_tree_of_l.html.
Lane, Anthony. "Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life Review." The New Yorker. May 30, 2011.
Leher, Jonah. Proust was a Neuroscientist. New York: Houghlin Mufflin, 2007.
Walker, Beverly. "Malick on Badlands." Sight and Sound. Spring 1975. Recovered at www.eskimo.com/~toates/malick/art6.html.
Terrence Malick Filmography
Badlands. Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek, Warren Oates. Director of photography: Tak Fujimoto, Stevan Larner, Brian Probyn. Editor: Robert Estrin. Warner Bros, 1973.
Days of Heaven. Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepherd, Linda Manz. Directors of photography: Nestor Almendros, Haskell Wexler. Editor: Billy Weber. Original Score: Ennio Morricone. Paramount Pictures, 1978.
The Thin Red Line. Sean Penn, Jim Caviezel, Nick Nolte, Elias Koteas, Ben Chaplin, Adrien Brody, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, John Savage, Dash Mihok, John Travolta, George Clooney, Miranda Otto, John Dee Smith. Director of photography: John Toll. Editors: Leslie Jones, Saar Klein, Billy Weber. Original Score: Hans Zimmer. Fox 2000, 1998.
The New World. Colin Farrell, Q'orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, August Schellenberg, Wes Studi, Yorick von Wageningem, David Thewlis. Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki. Editors: Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, Mark Yoshikawa. Original Score: James Horner. New Line Cinema, 2005.
The Tree of Life. Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Sean Penn, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, Tye Sheridan, Fiona Shaw. Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki. Editors: Hank Corwin, Jay Rabinowitz, Daniel Rezende, Billy Weber, Mark Yoshikawa. Original Score: Alexandre Desplat. Fox Searchlight, 2011.