Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Tree of Life

I rate the quality of most movies by how deeply I am mentally and emotionally moved. If the experience is deep enough, it will draw tears.

These are normally not tears of sorrow; but of joy, revelation, and beauty in life (e.g. Pixars's Up or Bollywood's 3 Idiots). I find this quite convenient because I am able to easily quantify my rating of movies. This is much more effective than trying to ascertain some ambiguous amount of stars after the fact.

The Tree of Life has set the bar mighty high for 2011.

This movie achieved tears on 6 separate occasions. To top it off, Elena and I had a long conversation after words which had us in tears again. And these were tears of the most powerful variety, tears of self-revelation.

Yes, The Tree of Life is beautiful, thoughtful, powerful, and moving.

But my one warning:

In the first half of the movie I guarantee you will experience a sense of being confused and lost. Be thoughtfully engaged, but be patient, letting the imagery wash over you. It's okay that nothing is "happening". The first half of the movie is a cleansing; washing away all of the baggage and distractions that you brought with you into the theater.

Trust that the first half of the movie is preparing the palate of your mind and soul; as would crackers and cheese prepare the palate of your mouth before tasting a fine wine.

When I go to see a Hollywood blockbuster I expect to be propelled from scene to scene at a breathtaking pace, constantly stimulated by the action, enraptured by the drama, distracted by the comedy, without an idle moment to be left with your own thoughts.

This is not a Hollywood blockbuster. 

Go in to the theater with an attitude more akin to how you would enjoy an art exhibit or a symphony, but with all the sensory fullness of cinema.

So, without spoilers, what's the movie about?

The movie is all about understanding our relationship with our Creator God as something very broken/jaded while yearning for redemption. But it uses the most mundane of settings as a canvas - a family in 1950's small town USA.

Tangibly, the story is about the eldest son of three boys and how he is moulded by the attitudes and actions of his mother and father. (The son is played by Hunter McCracken. This kid is going places!)

The trailer (a work of art in and of itself) clearly alludes to this tension between father and mother.
"Mother, Father, always you wrestle inside of me. Always you will."
...Metaphorically representing nature and grace.
"There are two ways through life. The way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you will follow."
But this tension between nature and grace can be interpreted in many ways. I was reminded of a quote from Francis Schaeffer after first watching the trailer. It's short and worth the read. Now having seen the movie, I believe that definition is indeed consistent with the message of the movie.

I also find myself thinking of the movie as snapshots of defining childhood moments. This is where the powerful self-revelation comes in for me.

These snapshots are moments that relate to spirituality, understanding and questioning God, the realized loss of innocence, the raging evil of nature around us and within us while yearning for goodness. Other themes are shame, forgiveness, hypocrisy, compassion, regret, grace.

Anyone up for some Terrence Malick movie nights in the near future?

Next up... my reflection on why is the title The Tree of Life?


Milan said...

Having seen most of the movie I feel qualified to comment on the first half.
I agree with much of what you say David. I've been following Malick since before The Thin Red Line came out. I remember going to the theater to watch Thin Red Line and everyone I was with got up to leave...I was enthralled.
There is a visual element to the film experience that we have either completely forgotten or most likely don't really care much about.
As I watched the first hour or more of Tree of Life. It came to me why Malick is brilliant. The incredible visuals strong along with subtle whispers of universal questions about life, God, and God's goodness. What it does is allow you yourself to fit into the film. What is lacking in dialogue each viewer can fill in with their own life. The struggles of shame, guilt, doubt, sin, etc....If you go at it correctly you enter into the cosmic struggle that Malick presents.
Ultimately, there is no movie experience better than the one that spurs you on to deeper thought about your own real life...not imaginary thoughts of an escapist...but real thoughts about a real life.

DK said...

Absolutely, good stuff. I have been totally ignorant of Malick until this. But I plan to go back and watch all of his movies now. Which are your favorite?

I really like how you explained the first half as being an opportunity to fit yourself into the film. That is more specific words for what I was trying to get at when I described it as a cleansing/preparing your palate.

Milan said...

You know all his films are different. It isn't as though he deals with the same subject matter. The one similarity is the beautifully awkward silence that allows you to try and relate to real life. Honestly I've only seen Thin Red Line and New World. I highly recommend the Thin Red Line

Stuart said...

Hi. I have just gone through about three or four reviews from top movie reviewers who all found major faults with The Tree of Life. It was getting tiresome so I decided to look up Nature Vs. Grace and it brought me to your blog. I actually copied down Schaeffer's description of the two choices from your site and then proceeded to read your review.

I have a very strange relationship with Malick's films. I had no idea who he was when I first saw The Thin Red Line but watched the movie five times in the weekend I rented it years ago. I had no idea where the attraction was coming from, but after reading the difference between Grace and Nature I'm starting to see the metaphysical pull that Malick has on me.

I have degrees in Political Science and History from McMaster University in Hamilton, ON. I lost God completely when I went to University where I learned exclusively about nature. I saw Grace as being unintelligent and naive, but as I get older my search for God and or a Higher Power has been hampered by the choice I made in University. Malick's use of Grace vs. Nature in his movie and then Schaeffer's lucid explanation of the two has really made me think and especially about University and University teaching which by it's nature has to focus on the natural world. I have a lot to think about and I thank you for providing me with your insightful review and a clear explanation of the two life choices espoused by Malick.

PS. I REALLY like the way you review movies. It's the most honest way of evaluating movies that I've come across.

DK said...

Stuart, that is one of the most flattering and encouraging comments I have ever received on my blog!

Your testament concerning Malicks films has sparked a lot of thoughts for me about art (issues of reflection, message, transformation, authenticity).

I'm honored that you stumbled across my blog and found value in what you read. Thanks for taking the time to share such a lucid and honest response from your life experience.

And I just posted another quote concerning the film that you might enjoy as well: