Monday, June 13, 2011

The Tree of Life

I am still thinking about it, having seen the movie two days ago.  The one thing I'm certain about is that it is not another "2001 - A Space Odyssey," even though I've read that Malick had that 1968 masterpiece in mind.  Stanley Kubrick's provocative movie has been at the top of my favorite movie list all these years and I've never deviated.  But 2001 allowed the mind to soar alongside the space ship and the gorgeous cosmic explosions. The viewer was invited to his own interpretation of the mind-bending end,  mine of course being a version of the concept of reincarnation.  I loved it.  I wrapped myself up in it.

This movie is different in that it was more difficult, for me at least, to jump inside.  It begins with the story of creation and continues through the gradual evolution from plant life to sea life to reptilians (we have a scene with a dinosaur playfully stomping on the head of a smaller creature at the edge of a riverbed) and eventually to mammals and humans. The loosely structured plot follows the story of an American family during the 1950s which opens with news of the death of one of three adult sons, presumably during the Korean conflict -- it never says.  There is emotion at the news, but not excessive; it is well controlled by both parents, but it shows for the first time how different the two are -- the stoic father who "stuffs" and goes on with the proverbial "stiff upper lip."  The mother's reaction emanates from the embodiment of grace which is what she personifies.  The plot is not linear.  Instead we learn of the relationships within the family by fragmented flashbacks, occurring during different stages of childhood juxtaposed with visions of the oldest son, Jack, now grown up and re-living, reviewing, re-counting the toll of his brotherly impishness towards his siblings and the filial conflict of his feelings for his father -- love and hate in their most basic expression.  Jack even prays that his father will die, another biblical allusion to join the quote from Job at the beginning of the movie. There are other allusions to religion or if not religion, a nod towards deism and nature.

Throughout the movie are more scenes of the roaring hot cosmic heavens and the roiling seas -- everything expressing the dynamism of life and death, a sort of refrain that reflects the insignificance of man. There are many visuals that are puzzling: stairs, water, hands, dancing and running, the scenes from the dinner table where, it seems, many families have difficulty being families. 

The ending is beyond me.  It could be heaven, it could represent the quantum theory of the time continuum, the end of the world. We find ourselves at the shore, with people wandering around bare-footed in a gently rippling incoming tide seemingly attempting to find and reunite with each other.  It reminded me of a reunion we attend with a lot of reservations and then hang around with a drink in our hand, waiting to meet old friends and hoping to be recognized.  There was a feeling of expectation and hope and then joy at connections that were made.

But it was sad and a little disappointing, too.

Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life should not be missed.  It is an important movie that demands discussion, interpretation and perhaps even a second viewing. I loved it. It is not another 2001, but it will gain its own place in movie history.