Defending “The Tree of Life”

Terrence Malick has never made a film I didn’t like, so it is unsurprising that his most recent work, The Tree of Life (2011), struck my fancy.  It has almost become a cliché to call Malick a “visual poet,” but this ignores the role of sound.  Lets call him a maker of “cinematic poetry.”  Many scenes in The Tree of Life and in other Malick films seem less like cogs in a narrative wheel than poetic interludes or ruminations in a cosmic pastiche.  The Tree of Life unfurls as an ambitious attempt to relate the individual lives of one family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s (the parents played by Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt), to nothing less than the cosmic forces of creation, evolution, and questions of ultimate meaning.  The film interweaves impressionistic scenes of this family’s life with images and sounds that are meant to express nothing less than the sublimity of the universe, thus relating creation on the minute scale of a single family to that of the cosmos itself.  The Chastain character states early on that everyone must choose between the “way of nature” and the “way of grace,” and this film explores the implications of cruel and unforgiving nature and the possibility of something good (or transcendent?) within and beyond it.

The relations, or comparisons, between the cosmic and the individual are often subtle, however, and many audiences seem to miss their significance.  Malick draws on a storehouse of Christian theology (and more broadly, the Judeo-Christian imagination), but frames the film not as a series of answers but as questions. This question-asking is also characteristic of his earlier films The Thin Red Line and The New World, both of which feature voice-over narration consisting in part of questions without clear answers.

I heard an interview with a theater manager who estimates that 5-10% of the audience walks out of each screening of the film.  Some walk out for the expected reasons.  If you demand the narrative tightness of the usual Hollywood film, you will be sorely disappointed. I suspect that others walk out because they don’t understand what Malick is doing.  If the audience misses the correlations between the representation of the family and Malick’s metaphysical interests, the film can seem an awful bore, perhaps even pretentious. Thus the reactions to the film, which won the Palm D’Or at Cannes, have ranged from the rapturous to the contemptuous.

I don’t see the film as pretentious but rather ambitious.  I admire it in the same way that I admired Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which I first saw when I was ten years old. In fact, The Tree of Life is full of humility, in that Malick doesn’t pretend to have the answers. I remember that the famed critic Pauline Kael, who disliked Kubrick immensely, responded to 2001 with scorn, seemingly for its very ambition.  Kael seemed to think that films ought to remain in the realm of the mundane and the physical, and that Kubrick’s attempt to make nothing less than a myth of humanity was lame and pretentious.  I say that if to ask the sorts of questions Kubrick and Malick do in the medium of film is pretentious, then lets have more pretension.

I’d be interested in hearing anyone else’s reaction to the film.

Carl Plantinga

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