Film Review: Tree of Life – A Response

Bryan Appleyard responds to Mahlerman’s review of Tree of Life

Much as I esteem Mahlerman, on the subject of Terrence Malick’s film Tree of Life he has made a familiar film reviewer’s mistake – criticising a film for not being another film. Malick, more than any other director, has earned the right to be judged on his own terms and these are not the terms appropriate to any other genre or artist.

Some time ago I had a long conversation with Nigel Biggar, a theologian at Christchurch, Oxford, during which he confessed he had watched Malick’s The Thin Red Line ten times before realising what it was about – the face of  Private Witt (James Caviezel). Tree of Life may be said to be about the face of Young Jack (Hunter McCracken).  But, whereas Witt was in a condition of ecstatic compassion, Young Jack is wounded, agonised and cruel, though occasionally compassionate towards his younger brother. The picture of boyhood in this film is comparable to that in Tarkovsky’s Mirror – and I have never said anything like that before.

Biggar sent me a fine essay about The Thin Red Line so I emailed him about Tree of Life. His response was notable for its concentration in audience reactions.

‘A Guardian reviewer,’ he writes, ‘who’d been at the Cannes opening, noted that some members of the audience jeered at TofL, later explaining that they found it ponderous and portentous and, worst of all, Christian! At the Phoenix cinema in Oxford, some people left before the end and some in the row behind us dismissed the film as “Christian propaganda” In the Leicester Square cinema on Wednesday, again, some left before the end and some behind us couldn’t take the ‘cosmic’ sequence seriously and giggled all the way through.’

I love the idea that ‘Christian propaganda’ is unacceptable – this would, of course, exclude Bach, Titian, Dante, all the great cathedrals and, well, most of the greatest works of art in the world from consideration by this sad philistine fool. But I think the giggles arise from the fact that this is a very direct film,  embarrassingly direct for the emotionally constipated. It says that all human actions are significant and that our predicament – caught between nature and grace – is embedded in the physical facts of universe. The ‘cosmic’ sequences, which show the beginning and end of creation- are structurally essential to the film and, far from being Attenboroughesque (though nothing wrong with that of course), they are rigorously edited in a quasi-musical manner. They are there above all to make you feel – primarily the possibility that we are not the blind, futile, atomic units of the secular imagination. You may disagree with this, but we are not on Question Time, we are discussing art.

The story of the film has been criticised elsewhere as being banal which it is. But, in fact, so are all family dramas and, just as Tarkovsky could point his camera at a wall and make cinema, so Malick can point his camera at Brad Pitt teaching his son (McCracken) how to care for his yard and make me cry – something I did repeatedly throughout the film. (Tarkovsky and Malick, incidentally, are both obsessed with the effects of windblown grass and reeds under water. They will – or should – change the way you notice such things.)

At the core of The Thin Red Line was the question ‘Who is doing this?’ asked by Witt in the midst of a scene of terrible slaughter. The equivalent question in Tree of Life is ‘Where were you?’. It is addressed to God who, for the boy, is absent at the time of his greatest suffering. But the film begins with the same question asked by God in the Book of Job – ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…. when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’ For Malick, as for Tarkovksy, the world is shot through with glory but only humans seem unable to see it because we are fallen – ‘wounded and hindered’ as Biggar so beautifully puts it.

I could go on. But the simple point is that this is a religious film as the Matthew Passion is religious music, The Assumption is a religious painting and Chartres is a religious building. You would not – I hope – try to understand those other works in an entirely non- or anti-religious way  – why bother? – so why would you, as so many critics have done, try to understand Tree of Life in any other terms or to reduce it into something more familiar and banal.

And, as for the camera movements that irritated Mahlerman, sorry they are wonderful and exquisitely contrasted with the moments – mainly shots of the house  – when the camera is still. This is cinematic ballet. But I agree with Mahlerman about one thing – see this film.

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12 thoughts on “Film Review: Tree of Life – A Response

    July 20, 2011 at 08:04

    Well I’ll have to see it now.

    The Thin Red Line is a wondrous film but I’d never worked out its meaning; I will return to it. One thing I do wonder about is why Malick employs such big stars, eg. Brad Pitt. The cameos from the A-listers were odd and even a bit of a distraction in Thin Red Line. Or does he need them to get the movies made?

    July 20, 2011 at 10:26

    Not sure that cinema can ever really succeed as an influential thought provoker, it is after all the envelope containing the message, not the actual message, the one that really bites when face to face, the envelope makers intervening with their baggage, the post box a warm womb-like theatre.
    Others have tried in the past and success has been claimed, their work has undoubtedly left an impression but more than that?

    July 20, 2011 at 10:43

    @Brit The question of why Malick, or any Hollywood director employs big name stars can be answered with “because he/she can,” and their presence there may be the deal-breaker for getting the upfront money. The other side of that very question is every bit as interesting, why do Big Name actors elect to participate in artsy-fartsy/no plot/ no nuthin’ movies… methinks largely in order to “unsolidify” their stagnating public image as take-your-pick physical/ ethereal/ quirky/ funny-ha-ha-racter, etc. That is why Sean Penn answered Malick’s call to act at random in a film whose meaning would be added wholly in post-production; and why Julia Robertses and Nicole Kidmans of this world answer e.g. Lars von Trier’s calls—to be seen as ALSO CAPABLE of carrying TruDrama™.

    Regarding your resolution of NOW having to see the movie – no, you don’t. Save yourself the bother, the 2.5h you’ll never get back, and the price of a ticket (wait for the remainder bin, won’t be long in coming). In the meantime, console yourself with these curated cumulative 150-tweetstrong meta-reviews of “The Tree of Life”: “Quanta of Pretense” and “Quanta of Pretense pt. II” – or a few capsule reviews of the same.

      July 20, 2011 at 20:49

      Or being a bit less cynical, the stars want to be in some good films. I wonder why Malick wants them though, since he’s making Art.

        July 21, 2011 at 13:52

        Cynicism has nothing to do with it, nor Malick’s alleged intention to (as you put it, and I paraphrase it) Make Art Not Movies. I’ve given up trying to decode what Malick may have wanted, with the present or earlier of his filmic endeavors. Obviously, he must’ve had something to say, some concept to convey, or else he’d never get the money. Which, for this particular movie, took him upwards of 20 years to assemble—a feat of Kubrickian proportions if there ever was any. Hollywood is a strange place, a one-industry town—which is not the cinematography—but making money. For everybody up an down the chain, including the bottom-feeders. Putting together movies to be made is also a very strange business, an endless juggling of thousands of factors, vectors, unions, disunions and, no less, the holy of holiest there, percentage points of as yet-to-be-made-movie’s gross before or after [another set of factors and preconditions]. Madness at work. But I digress, me speciality.

        If I can’t make you (you, the people) listen to Reason™ why you shouldn’t be watching this piece of kinodreck, perhaps “Tree of Life Quotes Quarry,” a fairly succinct storified regurgitation of a lengthy discourse on the cinematographic and other demerits of said movie by Chicago novelists Jeremy M. Davies and A. D. Jameson, will do the trick? (mere 18 tweets and change).

      ian russell
      July 21, 2011 at 13:15

      Two and a half hours?!

      Well, with that, and the hostile crowds, and it not sounding too good, I think it’s a DVD rental.

        July 22, 2011 at 06:19

        2h19m to be exact, but, man, does it feel like some endlessly wordless sermon. Viewing it on a DVD or a pause-able—sez me spelling checqr—Netflix stream will also afford you note plural opportunities to (1) visit the loo with some interesting book in hand; (2) ABORT! ABORT! ABORT!

    July 20, 2011 at 11:04

    I was planning to see TofL, but a glut of negative reviews changed my mind. So refreshing to see beyond the dross. I will definitely go now. Thank you!

    July 20, 2011 at 11:44

    hm..I’m still undecided…I very much liked Badlands, but having read the book of The Thin Red Line, to me the ensuing film seemed very clumsy and keen to ladle on the oscar-seeking version of ‘depth’, with the effect that it came across as very shallow and essentially an exercise in pretty but meaningless camera shots of waving grass, and the message that war is like bad and stuff. So far this film sounds not much different, but I may have to give it a go on your recommendation Bryan

    July 20, 2011 at 11:51

    If it is like Mirror, I will go. I would hurry, if it were like Stalker.

    July 21, 2011 at 15:03

    Is the religious tag a convenient way of saying lesser mortals (non believers) couldn’t appreciate it … Giggles are the appropriate response to people taking themselves too seriously or lecturing on how to live – I would prefer Montaigne to Malick on that score – “not the terms appropriate to any other genre or artist” … beatification must be imminent !

    July 22, 2011 at 09:12

    Malick isn’t a modern man, his sensibility is closer to Dante or Sophocles. People can sometimes just about stomach Dante, in the same way they might momentarily take an interest in some old building where something famous once happened, maybe – because it’s unthreateningly distant. Incomprehension and contempt are natural reactions to anything non-modern, if it doesn’t have the grace to make itself a museum piece.

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