Nothing But Memory
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Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

This weekend I saw Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life. I knew the response to this movie had been quite polarized, with glowing reviews on the one hand, and people walking out of screenings and demanding refunds on the other. The only other Malick film I’ve seen is The Thin Red Line, which I liked but wasn’t blown away by, but I think that plus the reaction from others probably gave me a pretty good idea of what to expect this time: something not very linear, kind of long, and likely rather meditative. And that is indeed essentially what I got. I enjoyed it very much, but I also completely understand why so many people have hated it.

Surface impressions: The Tree of Life is a very beautiful film. The images on screen may at times seem random, but they are almost always visually stunning. The music, too, is gorgeous, both Alexandre Desplat’s score and the numerous classical pieces used throughout.

But now to go a little deeper and tackle the big question: what is it all about, anyway? I don’t know what Malick intended, but I can tell you what I took from it. The movie opens with an epigraph, a quotation from the Bible’s Book of Job. I’m no biblical scholar, but I know Job is about a good man who suffers greatly. The main event that drives the story (okay, “story” may not be the right word here) of The Tree of Life is the death of the main character’s brother at age 19; although it’s never explicitly stated, it seems reasonable to assume that the boy was killed in Vietnam, given the time period. The entire film, I believe, is the main character, Jack, played as an adult by Sean Penn (although it seemed to me Penn only appeared in the film for about 20 minutes, and all he did was walk around … I don’t think there’s an Oscar nomination in the cards this year), meditating on the Book of Job’s central question: why do bad things happen to good people? The film is Jack’s stream of consciousness on this subject. In considering that question, his thoughts take him all the way back to the creation of the universe — yes, there are dinosaurs. It is bizarre, to be sure, that a movie which is about a family living in Texas in the 1950s includes a sequence involving dinosaurs, but it also makes sense. We humans do occasionally think about these big ideas; the train of thought goes to some strange places sometimes, and I can well imagine that a man angry at God for taking his brother’s young life, wondering what it all means, might end up in contemplation of the cosmos. Jack also remembers incidents from his own childhood, including a longish sequence in which he remembers the sins he committed as he started coming of age, perhaps wondering if his bad behaviour somehow led to his brother’s death. The reference to Eden in the movie’s title also seems linked to this idea: Adam and Eve, of course, are banned from Eden and denied the bounty of the tree of life after they sin by eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet, even those who do not sin, like Job, may suffer.

Jack’s parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain, are presented as embodying the two different ways of life outlined at the beginning of the movie: the way of nature (the father) and the way of grace (the mother). Grace, according to the mother’s voiceover, “doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.” Nature, meanwhile, “only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.” Jay Michaelson has an interesting analysis of nature and grace in The Tree of Life at Religion Dispatches. (I’m sure there’s probably room for a more complete analysis of the Book of Job and The Tree of Life in this context, but I’m also sure I’m not the person to do it.) I’m not 100% on board with this nature vs. grace dichotomy, partly because I think the mother is closely associated with nature and wildness, while the father seems intent on civilizing it: for example, he’s strangely obsessed with having a perfectly neat front lawn. Then again, I suppose this could be his way of lording over nature itself, and we are shown in the film that there is sometimes grace in the natural world. I’m still not quite sure I buy the nature vs. grace argument as it’s presented, but this may be because I think of civilization as nature’s true opposite and I just can’t wrap my head around what Malick is trying to say.

Come to think of it, that last thing seems very likely. The Tree of Life: I have no idea what it really means, but it was beautiful and oddly powerful. To celebrate it, here is a piece by Bedrich Smetana called “My Country – Vltava (The Moldau)” — it’s a very grand piece of music that plays toward the middle of the film. Enjoy!