The Taser's Edge


The Tree of Life (2011; directed by Terrence Malick)

Disclaimer: What follows might be pretentious, but please don’t think the movie’s pretentious just because it actively resists being written about by me. Also, consider yourself warned.

First, watch this trailer in full-screen. Watch it twice if you wish.

Supposedly, Terrence Malick has been working on the ideas behind this film for decades, and the technology and time had finally come for it. The trailer is entirely accurate if you’ve seen the film, but it’s fairly misleading if you haven’t. For instance, you might think that  the plot is actually something substantial. In fact, nothing in this film is substantial in the sense that nothing can actually be grasped and held onto. If anything, it has the viewer.

Tree of Life is about a family of five and then four in Waco, Texas, and about one of those five growing up into a wounded adult. But it’s also a visual meditation about God and death, nature and grace, Creation, destruction, a time, Time, family, children, marriage, boys, good and evil. Yes, it’s also slow.

For this particular film, it seems better to talk about themes than plot, but the two themes I name aren’t exhaustive in any way. They’re just most interesting to me.

First, it is about art, everything, and life. (I wouldn’t always group those three together.) I’m certain that the film is meant to be, as much as film can be, an imitation of the experience of life. It resists every attempt to be described or cognitively understood, because that’s how life is. Empiricist and intellectual approaches to life always end up being reductionist, and there’s a sense in which, if you take those approaches alone, all that is wonderful will be missed.

Alongside those approaches must come the emotional. And beyond that, there is the experiential. Some things can only be experienced: they can’t be understood; they can’t be described; they can’t even be felt in the sense that we normally talk about our senses. If you want to “get” this film, see it once and struggle to make sense of it. See it a second time after you decide to give that up and just experience it.

Second, it is about the mundane and the extraordinary. Many contemporary films and much of contemporary literature seem to want us to believe that their characters and their characters’ experiences are totally individual. No one else could experience what they have experienced, therefore no one else can understand them, therefore no one else can empathize, therefore we’re all alone.

That, in fact, seems to be how the main character, Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a kid and Sean Penn as an adult), experiences life.  He doesn’t get along well with his father (played by Brad Pitt), who, while he inarguably crosses verbal and physical lines with his wife and kids, is far from a monster. Surely Jack’s problems with his dad have their own character, but they are also the problems of every son and his father.

Or are they? In order to tell the story of this family, Malick shows the story of the birth of the universe, from the Big Bang to the most recent Ice Age. The juxtaposition of father/son dynamics with the Big Bang and the dinosaurs makes this particular father/son relationship into a unique experience and simultaneously makes the Big Bang and the dinosaurs into something totally mundane (“daily”) and ordinary. That is, the Big Bang and friction in a father/son relationship are equally mundane and equally extraordinary. It’s an awe-inspiring thought.

Worth Mentioning:

  • The interactions between the child actors are unbelievably real. Boys doing fun things, gross things, dumb things, dangerous things together. Boys figuring out what to do when they’re bored. My assumption is that no child actor is good enough to do that (although these are great) and that Malick (who is famous for the ludicrous amount of film that initially heads into the editing room) didn’t tell them what to do, but told them to become friends and to play, and then filmed it for days on end.

Two Comparisons:

  • The obvious comparison of recent years to me is The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s own film about life and everything, but I don’t think that there was anything mundane in the drama of that movie. Still, The Fountain is terribly underappreciated, and you really ought to watch it while you’re waiting for Tree of Life to come to, for instance, Florence, SC. It’s on Netflix Streaming.
  • The substantial comparison, however, is to 2001: A Space Odyssey. My pet theory is that Malick used dinosaurs instead of apes to elude the comparison, but the movies are most similar in that refusing-to-be-described, demanding-to-be-experienced, may-lull-you-into-a-coma sort of way. (For the record, I don’t know why I watched 2001 three or four times without giving up on finding something there, but the attempt paid off, and I don’t regret the time spent. Others might have the same experience with The Tree of Life.)

On first viewing and one night’s digestion, very good with the possibility that it’s great or even…MEGA-GREAT!!!(tm).

 



The Fountain (2006, dir. Darren Aronofsky)

You might be an intense director if all your soundtracks feature the Kronos Quartet and/or Mogwai and if your least intense film to date is about a scientist desperately trying to find a cure for his wife’s illness as a way of grieving for her before her death.  Yes, in case you thought it might be a different Darren Aronofsky, this is the director of Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan. [Note: Once the next X-Men Wolverine movie comes out, The Fountain will likely no longer be Aronofsky’s least intense film.]

When The Fountain came out, I didn’t really seek it out.  Sci-fi is not Holly’s thing, so then I never rented it either.  Then, finally, it came to Netflix streaming.

As I recall, it had mixed reviews upon hitting theaters (51% says Metacritic), but I cannot understand why.  Life, death, immortality, medicine, science, ethics, spirituality, friendship, love, marriage, romance, drama, history, myth, adventure, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Darren Aronofsky, Hugh Jackman (who in his conquistador costume convinced me he could have been a good Aragorn).  Can you name one of these things which can’t make a great movie?  No, you can’t (although I know the conquistador costume tests you).

If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I sometimes like movies for their ambition alone, and this one excels in that category, but not in that category alone.  Hugh Jackman plays three incarnations of the same character, and Rachel Weisz plays two, before basically being played by a giant tree in a third role.  And the last half of that last sentence tells you why this movie lost so much money.  At least according to IMDB, it cost $35 million to make and only recouped $10 million at the box office.

So what is so great about this movie?  For me, having done a lot of reading, thinking, and dealing with questions of life, death, grieving, and loss through the lens of spirituality (as a chaplain resident, if you’re a new reader), The Fountain is a beautiful piece of art–well-written, well-scored, well-acted, well-directed, beautifully visualized–about very important topics (although topics is a terribly weak word for what I’m talking about).  It’s not only visually and emotionally compelling, but it also manages to be meditative.

It had me thinking about my church, which has been talking about doing something with theology and the arts for a long time, to perhaps think toward a film series around death and dying.  Or, as a couple of my own clinical pastoral supervisors modeled for me, I might just keep it in mind for teaching in the future.

Netflix has a five-star rating system, and it won’t let you do half-stars, so I always round up.  To me, The Fountain is a 4.5-5 star movie (because, yes, the ending could have been less muddled).

See. It.  And then buy me the graphic novel version.



Holy Rood (i.e., Cross) Day

Almighty God, whose Son our Savior Jesus Christ was lifted high upon the cross that he might draw the whole world to himself: Mercifully grant that we, who glory in the mystery of our redemption, may have grace to take up our cross and follow him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, on God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.

(1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 244)