Archive for July 13th, 2011

When I first saw the trailer for the Terrence Malick film The Tree of Life I was fascinated. I watched it over and over and posted here that if the trailer were any indication the film was going to join my small canon of favorites. Indeed, from what I saw in the preview, I thought this might well be the most wonderful movie ever.

Of course to have such high hopes is asking for it, and indeed, when I finally made it to Cleveland to see The Tree of Life  I was disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong; there is much beauty in the film. It is in many ways a great accomplishment. The cinematography is amazing, the music sublime, the acting more than competent.

But it did not come together as a whole;  it did not possess the cohesive vision that the trailer implied.

The film, as you may know, is about, well, everything: birth, death, the creation of the world, the evolution of life, forgiveness, Heaven and Earth. It weaves in and out from cosmos to the microcosm of a family in 1950s Texas. There are long elemental sequences regarding the creation; lots of  lingering views of rocks and fire and lava (Firesign Theater was right; in the beginning there were hot lumps). Much of this is abstract; weaving color and indistinct shapes, all to the swell of the haunting music. A little of this goes a long way, and there is a lot of it. I started thinking that if I had waited until this came out on DVD I would never make it through without falling asleep. I began to get impatient, ready to return to the human characters and what plot there is.

For the film is not linear; it is impressionistic and introspective and somewhat sketchy. This works because of the skill of the actors. Jessica Chastain, who plays the mother, is radiant. And however annoying the tabloid face of Brad Pitt may be in the checkout line, you must give him credit where it is due: the man can act. He gives a nuanced performance as a conflicted father, now bullying, now tender. The three boys who play his sons all do a fine job as well, not least Hunter McCracken, who plays Jack, the protaganist.

All of this is done with a lot of voiceovers, many of which are addressed to God, who is praised, questioned, cajoled.

If you have been reading the reviews you have read a lot of nonsense about the religious element of The Tree of Life. One Catholic reviewer called Mr Malick an agnostic, a pantheist, and a gnostic. All within a few paragraphs. Never mind that these three are mutually exclusive, it is also a ridiculous thing to say. I don’t know where anyone could find agnosticism here, unless it is the fact that God’s absence is questioned in the face of tragedy. If that is agnosticism, then almost anyone who experiences such loss qualifies. As for pantheism, while it is true that there are long shots dwelling on nature, this is nature shot through with the glory of God, whom as I said is addressed as a Person. And gnosticism? Please. Nature is revelatory here, not evil, not some illusion or a hindrance to knowing God.

And the family are all believers as well. They attend a sacramental church of uncertain pedigree; there are scenes of baptism and chrismation in a church that has a statue of Christ on the altar and votive candles. And the dad genuflects, but for some reason this does not look Catholic. Perhaps it is some sort of Texas hybrid Anglican parish; I don’t know.

The father, though he attends church weekly and even speaks of tithing, nevertheless, like so many Christians, does not allow the teachings of his putative Lord to affect his worldview. You have to be tough. It’s a mean old world. You can’t be too good or they will take advantage of you.

The mother, by contrast, is the embodiment of Grace, teaching her sons to love everyone (and everything), to forgive, to find the palpable presence of God all around them.

Much of what plot there is rises from the tension between the way of the father and the way of the mother.

This is all well and good, and as I said there is much beauty in the film. The only really unsatisfying part of the vision is the sequence on eternal life. While eye cannot see and all that, I think we could do better than people ambling around aimlessly on a beach, pausing to embrace when they recognize someone, and looking generally morose.

Maybe not as bad as sitting around on a cloud forever, but still…

That aside, the spiritual longing at the heart of The Tree of Life is undeniable. Many reviewers have said that this film is a prayer, and that it is: the last word we hear as the movie approaches its end is a sung “Amen”.

The filmmaker aims so much higher than anyone else I can think of, digs so much deeper, that I hate to criticize him at all. If his reach exceeded his grasp, at least he tried, and God bless him for it.

But in the end, the film does not deliver on the promise of the trailer.

The trailer is a polished gem, but the movie it announces  is  a rougher cut.

Here is the trailer that so bedazzled me (you have to click twice):

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A report on the Orientale Lumen Conference:


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