The True Tree Of Life
This article takes the form of a rant really, which is surprising considering I liked the film. I really liked the film. I almost loved the film. I didn’t love the film.
An aside: I was, and continue to be, amazed by The Tree of Life and its bold refusal to present a film so different and inevitably alienating to to a large portion of mainstream filmgoers, and Brad followers respectively. Its sheer confidence is matched by the elegance in which it is presented – the opening act strikes as Koyaanisquatsi with the awe-inspiring impact of the hyperspace sequence in 2001, with a little of the magnified beauty of nature as provided by Sir David of Attenborough. This naturalistic intensity effected my entire grasp of the film; questioning the levels of construction and contrivance. From viewing the formation of a flock of birds as they spiral like a sound-wave on a scale so vast that it isn’t broken by the skyscraper in front of it, to the observation of a baby playing in the grass. This baby was not acting, to my knowledge. But the other children, and Brad, and Jessica Chastain were, which contextualized their performances in a constructed reality. It is for this reason that the end of the film struck a nerve, compelling me to write/rant about (as well as a few hiccups along the way which the film was not entirely responsible). Spoilers ahoy.
The title of this article is taken from the penultimate chapter in Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Blind Watchmaker’: a book which reviews and revels in the process of evolution in all of its complexity and wonder. This particular chapter deals with the importance of taxonomy, regarding how species are labelled and categorized into observable branches and sub-branches of the tree of life. Beginning from bacteria and then the single cell amoeba, Dawkins, through a vast amount of analogies, shows how Darwinism explains how we are of the same origin. To me, this idea resonated with Malick’s representation of a family in the 50s, and the way that their actions and emotions were contextualized as part of human nature – or even the nature of life. One particularly distinct sequence came from presenting life that pre-dated observation – a Troodon (Wikipedia informs me) pins a Parasaurolophus (that one may have been me) to the ground, looking with the audience in its eye before trotting off. Bringing into question once again the construction of nature on film, this scene thematically links to the story of the family and their dynamic. It highlights the fragility of life. The central notion of the film, for me at-least, was the inherent bonds that we form as a human to our offspring – to the innate closeness of families on a raw, cellular level. And it was this notion being challenged and expressed through the death of (not even Wiki can tell me which child dies – it’s left pretty ambiguous) and the impact on his father and brother. It was about grief of the worst kind, but taken with the hindsight, and foresight, of humans as a species.
Brad, the hard-nosed and unsympathetic father, is shown as breaking down to this level – as unloving as he seemed before, he is unable fight a sense of responsibility and guilt. Showing vulnerability like any other, he is human and has to deal, like Jack, with the tortuous trials of grief.
UNTIL THEY’RE ALL REUNITED ON A FUCKING SANDY LOOKING HEAVEN FOR 20 FUCKING MINUTES
Sweeping angles show the resolve of the family in different combinations. A sense of forgiveness and apology and everything will be alright. This just negates the message of the film thus far, or at best, dampens it entirely: making this hardship temporary – a time to quarrel and regret until everything can be arranged in a posthumous Opera special. It reminded me of Tube Tales - the series of shorts set in and around the London Underground – in which the concluding film ended in Heaven as represented by a field. The gospel Hymn ‘Steal Away (To Jesus)’ plays as relatives and partners seek out those that they had lost. Whilst The Tree of Life lacked any theological signifier*, its similarity was uncanny. Perhaps this is why Dawkins had preemptively attached the two words ‘The True’ to his title, as not to be confused with the film that fulfills its happy-ending quota.
*In saying that – the film began with a quote from the Book of Job: ”Where were you when I laid the Earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”. This corresponding book-end does signify Christianity, and suggests the message of the film is that the hardship are trials from God. Now, my personal belief has not clouded my opinion of the film; the film that I state regularly as my favourite is Adam’s Aebler, which is also based on the trials of Job. And I liked A Serious Man as well. My problem remains the same – that the message is dampened in suggesting its impermanence.
Whilst the film bravely fronted philosophical themes in the face of adversity, it felt as though the risk had been taken so you best be aware of how deep it is. This was achieved through an insistent voice-over, provided by various characters, as they whisper contemplatively in bursts of vague, existential rhetoric. This was worsened by the speaker system at my local cineplex, which turned the soft whispers, and deep bass, into a very similar rattling buzz – an experience I recently had the pleasure of reliving when watching another film in a screen above The Tree of Life, as the orchestral racket drowned out the dialogue.
Now I don’t know who to blame for the last issue I faced. A moth had made its way into the room where it continued to fly at the screen – prompting laughs. It would then turn its attention to the source of light, its shadow growing ever larger as it got closer to the projector. The laughter soon dissipated, leaving just an annoyance. An ironic burst of aggression plays out in my mind as I kill the moth so I can get back to appreciating nature.