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Best Things of 2011: Tree of Life

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A new segment, highlighting some of the best things of the year, in all categories.

One of the two best movies that I saw this year is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. For many reasons it is among the most beautiful films TRC has encountered in a long while. First, it is beautiful to look at, as Malick’s films always are. The 50s never looked so gorgeous as when remembered by a man at a loss for missing his mother and brother. Second, it is beautiful to comprehend. What can we do when confronted by our human smallness? When the age and terror and beauty and majesty of the universe exists, as it does, how do humans, insignificant in scale by any measure, make sense of our lives? Malick, in his two hours, attempts to comprehend this. Third, it is touching. Loss of a brother, and innocence, and childhood, and friends, and one’s childhood home, and one’s mother as remembered, are sad things. Fourth, it contains one of the best acting performance of the year, by Hunter McCracken. I always hesitate to praise child actors too heavily. But his performance is that good. These are the things that Tree of Life offers, on its face.

Then there are the better reasons to love Tree of Life. Personal reasons; this must be a tremendously personal film for Terrence Malick. It just feels like it. And if an audience member does not connect personally, I can only imagine the film being tedious beyond reprieve.

Here, then, is a long personal response to Tree of Life, one of the best things of 2011.

Our human experiences seem incredibly personal, isolating; how can others understand our complexity? But because we are humans, of course, we only have so many experiences at our disposal, and we make of them in our mind what we can. Tree of Life captures many human experiences that are core to many people. So this is all both very personal to TRC, but also quite common. This is one of the great things about being a person, and an understanding central to Tree of Life. We were all created by the same celestial movement, and of the same material. But that doesn’t answer our wondering why.

I connect with the struggle to make sense of belief in the spiritual world and the reality of life. ‘Where were you?’ Again, and over again, this is asked of God in Tree of Life. ‘You let a boy die. Where were you?’ ‘You let my son die. Where were you?’ Malick does not tell us where God is. Instead, Malick shows us the creation of the universe, as a whole. Everything. The creation of the earth. The creation of life. Cells merge. Dinosaurs. An asteroid. Lifeless ice covering the face of the earth. The whole cycle, from top to toe.

When I first watched Tree of Life, I presumed Malick portrayed the universe’s birth to hearken to his opening quote, from Job: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth,’ God asks the sour Job, who dares confront God’s motives. But seeing it again, I’m not so sure.  I thought that God was an integral part of the Malick Universe, answering the question of a young boy in pain, or a mother in pain, by showing them exactly: ‘You ask where I was? I was doing this.’ But now I am less certain that God exists in the Malick Universe of Tree of Life. Or that God by necessity must exist.

Malick lays a diametric opposition to open his movie: there is nature and there is grace. Grace is outward and of love, Nature cares only for itself. Grace is Jack’s Mother, beauty and tenderness incarnate, unconditional love of her children and nothing else. Nature, however,  is actually not Jack’s Father, as was my initial read of the parents. Nature is the coldness of the planet Earth after an asteroid strike. The coldness of the face of Saturn. But also the beauty of the grass blowing, the beauty of the stillness of our universe creating all things. Jack may recall his father as a hard man, and there seems little sense in arguing otherwise. But Jack’s Father is not the cold opposite of grace as he perceives it. Nature is Nature, which is neither cold towards Jack, nor warm. It simply is. If Jack’s mother’s performance represents Grace, the 20 minute interval of universal creation and destruction represents Nature. If Jack’s memory is where Tree of Life resides, the creation of a universe does not carry any more weight than one’s mother.

When asked if Nature or Grace has control, Malick seems to say: ‘Who can answer?’

If the past in Tree of Life is Jack’s remembrance of Grace as his mother, then what of the salt flats and desert and beach that is the reunion of Jack’s family as remembered, presumably in the future? This world is all grace, without a break for Nature. It is also not life, not memory, but longing. The purity of the beach scene that Jack experiences exists outside the struggle of Grace vs. Nature, and only as a pure form of grace. Which is why it is not real. This is not a bleak interpretation. Malick knows as well as any filmmaker that life is struggle between beauty and strife. Nature is both of these, in the volcanic explosions that form the rock surfaces of earth, as well as in the beauty of the grass blowing in the reeds. Any world that is not filled with beauty and strife is not real. All grace is not life. We have our mothers, but as we must acknowledge, as Jack initially rejects , our life cannot be wholly protected by our mothers.

TRC does not pretend this is deep. Nor is it revelatory. Malick is not telling a new story. It may in fact be the oldest story, ever. But in Tree of Life, Malick shows the whole story, in every corner of human experience, on film, in a new way. And what can be better than that?

Written by Christopher ZF

December 19, 2011 at 13:02