Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Tree of Life

Ever since Malick returned to cinema with The Thin Red Line, I have been baffled by his films.  I'm sure this isn't a unique reaction.  I get the same feeling when I read T.S. Eliot.  I get the feeling that the mysteries of the universe are hidden in there, but I'm only catching glimpses.  Maybe this is how my students feel when I show them 2001 for the first time.  I remember Bergman writing that cinema is closer to music than any of the other arts.  This is especially true with Malick and in particular with The Tree of Life.  What is the film trying to say?  No idea.  I doubt Malick even knows.  But it's a breathtaking symphonic work.

Here's a question for you, Alek:

What's Sean Penn's character doing here?  Alls I remember is him kind of brooding in his office building.  Is it just showing his dissatisfaction with life despite having a seemingly envious high-power job?


  1. Sean Penn is the boy whom we follow in the 50's all grown up. He has chosen the path of nature over grace...and it has led him to his high-powered job. But he can't help but feel lost in a world that moves so fast (the viewer's dissatisfaction for the same thing has probably led them to the film). In his progressive drive for power, he has found that he cannot be fulfilled, and the most transient experiences of his life were when he was a child in the arms of grace. Also, these thoughts are brought about because his brother had recently died (I didn't catch that until my second viewing). So his character is also there for the theme of "coming to terms" if you will.

    I hope that is coherent and sensible.

    I should write my own review here shortly...

  2. What do you mean by Nature and Grace? And how would one choose Grace over Nature? How would Sean Penn's adult life have been different? How would our lives be different?

  3. The film defines Nature as a 'survival of the fittest' lifestyle, and Grace as a nurturer and empathetic lifestyle. The Father is representative of Nature, and the Mother is representative of Grace. However, the film doesn't separate the ideas as good and evil, or right and wrong. It actually makes the point that Grace is allowed to continue because of the way of Nature...as Nature provides for what it loves. It also makes the point that Grace brings out empathy in Nature...as shown by the relationship of the Father and the Mother. This is also shown in the allegory with the dinosaurs, as the carnivore spares the sickly herbivore.

    Sean Penn's character chooses the way of nature, and thus engages in the survival of the fittest. His high-powered job is a result of all of his struggles against fellow men...whom he views as competitors. His reasons to continue doing this? Perhaps he has a family of his own, perhaps he doesn't and that is why he is unfulfilled. Either way...his path in life would surely have been different if he were to take his mother's path of life. His actions would be reflective of a personality that wanted to help others, rather than compete with them. Is this path naivety? I think it could be viewed as such...but I also believe that the film makes a point that it is necessary to exist. Nature and Grace, not good and evil, provide the balance of life...and both are needed to keep our world going...both add to the transcendent beauty around us.

  4. Here is a question for you.

    Why do you think Malick chose to have Sean Penn's character be an architect? Is there a larger message at play? Or is it just a random cipher of information amongst many others that have no greater plan?

  5. Since he's got 10 years to work on every film he makes, I don't think Malick makes many random decisions. But an interesting question I hadn't considered before, and one I'd really have to watch the film again to think about. An architect is someone that designs spaces in which we live and work. But I don't remember ever seeing him actually "working", more staring off into space. (I could be wrong here, my memory isn't the best). So it seems he's indecisive about what kind of world he ultimately wants to create, or even belong to. He doesn't seem satisfied with the traditional spaces he's in: skyscrapers, clinical empty houses, etc. Maybe yearning to create something more human, but doesn't know how.

  6. Maybe he's constructing his memories...trying to find a pattern amidst everything that has happened to him, so that he can better understand the world and why bad things happen. Maybe he is trying to find a reason to believe in more than imminent chaos...

    So maybe he is working, and the flashbacks of the film are the fruits of his labor (fruit...tree of life...ha ha).