Recent days have seen dewy praise sprinkled onto The Tree of Life, which releases today in Washington after its domestic debut last weekend in New York and Los Angeles. People compulsively refer to the film as the singular vision of one auteur: an opposite of prolific, and famously reclusive. It is a film by Terrence Malick™, and stories about the film are mostly about Terrence Malick, along with his Golden Palm trophy at Cannes after that crazy guy got banned from the festival.
But what is the actual film about?
Here are the bits and pieces. It is by nature symphonic, heaving instrumental music to accompany its spare narratives and idiomatic visual meditations. Simply, it is some sort of wordless “classical music video” scored with narrative interludes. So we get a persistent line-up of mostly contemporary composers, in the post-romantic and modernist styles (still tonal) to be found in François Couperin, Hector Berlioz, Johannes Brahms, Bedrich Smetana, Ottorino Respighi, the Gustavs Holst-and-Mahler, John Tavener, Giya Kancheli, Henryk Górecki, and some more obscure Eastern Europeans of today. These are mostly lions of the repertoire we call “classical music,” and weekly you can see a few hundred people—regular patrons—shuffling into the Kennedy Center who crave these delights. The headcount is so miniscule for a region five million large, that it becomes statistically insignificant to represent our cultural priorities. Classical music, as a passion on the level of intramural sports, bridge night, must-see-TV, scrapbooking, bar-hopping, or gardening, is nearly dead among us.
But thinking again of the music itself—the very leaves on this Tree of Life—there is something else going on, and it isn’t a party. Nearly every note of every chosen composition is sacred. The sound world is mostly choral, then some pipe organ. Also: these are not timbres to evince a universal spirit of world religions. These are basically the melodic incarnations of Christianity, through the (recent) ages. In other words, you will find very few four-part choral harmonies and organ pipes outside that faith tradition. (Notably, Werner Herzog similarly fills his recent Cave of Forgotten Dreams with choral and pipe organ music in the style of eastern orthodoxy, for his similar agenda to explore humanity's prehistoric yearning for the divine.)
So we have the gardener (who is the artist); the tree itself; and its leaves. Thinking then of the roots, there is one last thing, and it is obvious: Terrence Malick has written a prayer, to a specific God. These are the bits and pieces of The Tree of Life. Everything else is dressing. It is not a complicated film.
If you can find that conclusion in any other published or blogged review worldwide, please let me know.
All this exposition may seem tedious, even needlessly Socratic, but my facetiousness really is my curiosity at political correctness. From celebrity stud Brad Pitt’s in absentia logline about vague “spirituality,” to professional critics’ desperate avoidance of personalizing their views on organized religion, what might have been most refreshing is a response to match my sense of what really goes on in private conversations. I would have liked to hear from, and to read from, the Nietzscheans among us who honesty say what they mean: That God is dead, or anyway, that Terrence Malick makes pretty pictures but it’s time to grow out of the fairy tales. And: that a whole lot of good people—we’re all good!—get ruined by the pious moralism to be found alone in organized religion.
I should detour for a moment, and explain myself. In my bias, Terrence Malick belongs to a sort of Holy Trinity of film auteurs, alongside Martin Scorsese and Lars von Trier. Old Martin Luther, known for saying something similar to this, would easily observe that these are men who “work out their faith with fear and trembling.” Their behavior coincides with an axiom in creative expression—most everyone agrees on this, while usually from a distance—that people with obsessions produce great art. And, religion is the mother of them all. Even if sex is the stronger one, things get especially explosive whenever artists combine the two.
If Terrence Malick is haunted by childhood, and Martin Scorsese is scarred by mean streets, then Lars von Trier is simply an egocentric provocateur. Or so you would think, from his dumb behavior at Cannes. But even the Dane is spending most of his life looking upward. There is a vital shot in Antichrist that abruptly jerks our view away from the forest cabin, and into the Heavens above. I often think of that anomalous cinematography when I ponder his obsessions. At the climax of Dogville, a badly wronged woman's father shows up to demolish a sort of American Sodom and Gomorrah. And now, true to form, Melancholia is his apocalyptic vision of planets colliding, from above. Fear and trembling. God the Father.
Martin Scorsese seems to have planted a crucifixion in every movie he’s ever made. He is a Catholic who cannot escape its iconography, while anti-Catholic for being obsessed with elusive Protestant grace (partly owing to his Calvinist foil Paul Schrader). When Scorsese’s realization of Silence by Shusaku Endo goes into release next year, he will be back in form. All those preceding mobsters are rogue disciples in his world. God the Son.
Terrence Malick seems interested, more than anything else, in grace—not just its prettiness, but our desperation for it. God the Spirit.
And that is the key to watching The Tree of Life. When I saw the film in New York, no less in a lowertown theater of twentysomethings-at-large, the chatter I heard tended toward one idea: It must have been awful growing up in the 1950s. Whether because they saw divorce happen in their own homes, or because it’s just what they think, “that woman should have just left him.” It is, of course, the contemporary solution. You will understand their judgment when you see the film.
Malick does something bold at the end of the film. It doesn’t work. The great flaw of cognitive geniuses is that they often fail at navigating clichés, because they haven’t wasted a single breath paying attention to them. (Malick famously served as professor of philosophy at M.I.T., while his doctoral thesis was on the existentialist Martin Heidegger.) So, when he lets loose those clichés, even if by coincidence, they may ruin a whole scene, or even the impression of the whole film. The Tree of Life resolves its narrative on a mystical, scenic plain where all the characters from the film converge. It is presumably Heaven, and everyone is in sharp focus, naturally lit, nicely robed, and hugging each other. This is just the kind of material that Trey Parker and Matt Stone took to Broadway. It looks like a fundraising commercial for admittance privileges to a tabernacle.
Still, it is a philosophically concise scene, far from cheap “spirituality.” Whether this scene is fantasy, or real (relating to your own faith when you watch it), you do get an argument for grace. You see that between people, tolerance—which varies through life anywhere and anytime, from the cruel to the tolerable—may find a happy end. This is a peculiar instinct we have as animals, weirdly found the most in historically oppressed societies: That the worse the injustice, the greater the yearning for grace—not animal justice. This theme is easiest for an existentialist like Malick to propose, who might say that justice is a pyrrhic victory anyway because “life is but a dream” of our own. Indeed, the heart of the reform brought by the Messiah whom Christians call their own, was to defy the expectation that pure justice is even possible in this world of warring animals, where love alone can save us...at least while we live, as mystics say, "in this period of waiting."
From even his first film Badlands, Malick regularly cuts away to several species of animals, usually one killing another, and you might find this awkward around his otherwise conventional scenes of character dialogue. But it is clearly part of his thematic design, repeated in Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and now this.
To say that Malick has redefined the language of cinema is no exaggeration. Most of his narrative exposition is wordless. This is, simply, how we live. We do not reveal how we feel freely, and we define ourselves by what we do much more than by what we think (and say). Perhaps more importantly—and this is ironic, because Malick is ostracized for slow pacing—there is a liberating economy of words in Malick’s wordless visual narratives. Conventional screenwriters may fill a whole page with dialogue meant to convey simply one revealing thing about a character—yet, one wordless action, combined with nuances of body language and movement, can make a richer case in far less time. There is a heartbreaking scene in The Tree of Life: Between turning pages for his father playing Bach on a pipe organ, the son gazes on his father with a richness that implies—using no words at all—a combination of sympathy, fear, admiration, awe at the music, and a melancholy awareness of the real adult possibility that dreams can die a long, slow death.
The response to The Tree of Life has been unanimously positive, you would think. That’s not necessarily what I picked up on, in that lowertown twentysomething-at-large theater I mentioned, where the end credits rolled to a collective groan. Importantly, too, if Malick’s aesthetic universe held in such momentary high esteem should really remain the walled-in province of formal concert halls and churches, I need to remain skeptical of these “spiritual” plaudits—because I really go to those places, and I’m not seeing their faces. For the moment, though, I’ll see wisdom in the value to underestimate. As The Tree of Life opens theatrically, and reaches an expanding audience of receptive minds, something might take root.
Terrence Malick always selects one repertoire piece to serve as a central motif in each of his films, from Charles Ives' The Unanswered Question in The Thin Red Line, to the second movement of Mozart's 23rd Piano Concerto in The New World. Central to The Tree of Life is a piano adaptation from Les barricades mystérieuses by François Couperin.