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.