The Tree of Life

Warning: spoilers, I guess, though with a film like this it’s hard to give anything away so as to really detract from the experience. Maybe a few autobiographical spoilers of my own.

Having only seen it once so far, I am aware of having gotten at most glimpses of its full intent. I cannot easily describe Terrence Malick’s oeuvre except in superficial ways: mostly out-of-doors, with nature as a significant element; spectacular cinematography; more or less nonlinear storyline; voice-over narrations. I have not seen Badlands but have seen everything from Days of Heaven on.

The Tree of Life is, I suppose, most like The Thin Red Line, if only because it seems to me to be much more of a setting than an actual story, and because of the (to me) endearing depiction in TTRL of the Edenic existence of the Solomon Island natives, evangelized in the 19th century and thereby singing spirituals and carrying Bibles translated into their language even as Guadalcanal was occupied by the Japanese and slowly, painfully liberated by the Americans. The Tree of Life opens with an onscreen quote from Job 38 and is largely a long, difficult conversation with God.

Not to overlook the obvious, this sort of thing is not for everyone, and unsurprisingly the general viewership is rating it quite a bit lower than are the critics. I have said elsewhere that if you don’t want to spend a couple of hours listening to classical music and watching jaw-dropping visuals of everything from galaxies condensing out of the void to letter-perfect depictions of small-town Texas in the 1950s, you probably shouldn’t try to sit through this film. TToL clocks in around 2:20 and you’re going to feel every minute of it. Hit the restroom before you go in.

Synopsis: book of Job meets 2001: A Space Odyssey meets Waco in the ’50s. The narrator is the eldest of three baby-boomer boys. The middle child dies at 19 of an unspecified cause, though I’m sure most of the audience is thinking Vietnam. The narrator is seen at various ages, primarily in late childhood and secondarily in the present day, where he is played by Sean Penn. His mother is kind and optimistic, his father driven and cynical. They are devoutly Catholic and the father’s hobby is classical music, which makes for one unbelievably phenomenal soundtrack. I’d love to have all that material in my audio library.

Whether out of shallowness, or simple contentedness, or even some kind of grace, I don’t wrestle with Job-like questions much. I am aware of having a cultural and spiritual inheritance that, to put it politely, is not always especially profound. I do hope to avoid obvious stupidity (rejection of the historical sciences) and desperately hope to avoid being uncharitable, in several senses of the term. I have a kind of tribal loyalty that responds positively to almost any Biblical reference unless I feel that the quote is grossly out of context or being used for crassly political purposes, neither of which is remotely the case here. My pastor flattered me extravagantly by telling me he thought of me when he saw this film; I evidently have some kind of reputation …

… something to do with being an amateur astronomer and a 2001 fan since the first time (of 25+) I saw it, awed but largely uncomprehending, sitting with my father in the Ward Parkway Cinema – historical tidbit, the first mall cinema anywhere, opened 1964 – in sixth grade, meaning late ’70/early ’71. A ridiculously tiny theater, therefore not much like the intended Super Panavision 70 experience, but it, as we would say a few years later, knocked me on my ass. I read the Clarke novelization a year or so later in order to find out what was really going on, and ate it up, to the point of buying various additional books about the movie in high school, besides seeing it at every opportunity. As I did not know then, my father would pass away in the eponymous year.

Well, Douglas Trumbull, who did the FX for 2001, has reprised that performance for TToL. It delights me no end that what may be the most profoundly religious movie in a generation includes supercomputer-generated and other imagery from some of the best facilities in the United States. After a bit of initial abstraction, a wonderfully, beautifully recognizable galaxy swims into view. Then there are various depictions of protostellar and protoplanetary formation, including what I presume are live-action shots of Hawaiian seaside vulcanism, followed by early life, interspersed with more astronomical imagery, including a transit of Mercury across the Sun. As you may have heard, there are dinosaurs in this movie, and Jurassic Park it ain’t; a friend has joked that the dinosaurs have more screen presence than Sean Penn. We see what seems intended to be the K-T impact, but no disaster-movie mass die-off, only underwater shots of breaking waves.

Malick was born in ’43, which makes him, per Strauss & Howe, a member of the cultural (slightly preceding the demographic) Boomer generation. He would have been fourteen at Sputnik, eighteen at Gagarin and Shepard, nineteen at Glenn, in his early twenties during Gemini and the Mariner 4 flyby of Mars, and twenty-six for Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins. Four times more people went to see the Apollo 11 launch than went to Woodstock a month later. We were the moon shot generation.

I am nearly at the other end of that cultural cohort, born in ’59, but being a few months short of my tenth birthday on 7/20/1969 was no less conducive to a sense that the Universe was opening up around us, a sense that continued right through the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s with Viking, Pioneer, Magellan, Voyager, and Hubble. I became fascinated with astronomy and space exploration around age seven and, somewhat to my mother’s frustration, would check out nothing from the local public library but books on those subjects for the next several years. In the books I was reading in, say, ’67, even the nearer planets were elusive, and anything in the outer Solar System was simply awash in speculation. Moons were points of light, nothing more. A decade or two later, all were revealed as worlds, mapped to resolutions of kilometers or less. No other generation in all of human history has had this experience; and this is of course only the immediate foreground of discovery that extends, now, nearly to the event horizon beyond which insufficient time has elapsed since the Big Bang for any information to become available to our instruments. It has been said that the IRAS satellite alone, in 1983, nearly doubled the sum total of astronomical knowledge, and the Spitzer is far superior to it.

2001 was almost completely impersonal – its best-rounded character was HAL 9000 – and grew out of Clarke’s resolution to the Fermi Paradox as first presented in his short story The Sentinel. The aliens are exceedingly unobtrusive in character and leave “burglar alarms” in the (astronomically speaking) neighborhood of incipient intelligent species, who duly find and set them off. In both the short story and the book, our burglar alarm is an artifact on the Moon that can be activated only by gaining physical access to it. The short story ends with the protagonist deducing that extraterrestrials have somehow been notified, and apprehensive about what will happen next. In both the book and the movie, a human expedition ensues, though to different destinations. TToL is instead a personal struggle with scientific revelation as a backdrop. Given the geographical setting, I am tempted to suggest a connection to Glen Rose or JSC or even McDonald Observatory, but none of these appear in the film and its nominal Texan location is not especially significant.

I did not grow up in Texas, though I did spend my 7th grade year in Fort Worth. By then the D/FW metroplex was already the largest inland concentration of population in the US, that is, near neither an ocean nor one of the Great Lakes. My earlier, and later, pre-adult years were spent in somewhat-to-much-smaller communities in Missouri and Wisconsin, so my experience that most resembles that depicted in the movie was in Beloit, ’66-’68. Notwithstanding significant differences between what Joel Garreau later named “the Foundry” and “the Breadbasket” – or “Dixie,” depending on just where in central Texas this is – and nontrivial changes in American society as a whole in the mid-’60s, and of course the sheer physical disparities between the upper Midwest and central Texas, the images, activities, and technologies on display in the movie are entirely familiar. We all lived in a thoroughly industrialized but as-yet analog world, so the artifacts of our daily lives were strikingly similar, but also the entire atmosphere of playing outside in the streets and yards (in the warmer months), as shown in the movie, just felt, as stated above, letter-perfect. My parents were nothing like the parents in TToL, and I was the younger of two siblings, with a sister not quite five years older. It doesn’t matter. The interactions have a huge (though much less than total, to be sure) overlap with what I experienced in the last half of my childhood.

TToL culminates in a spiritual reunion complete with Sean Penn stepping through a door frame in a desert wilderness (shot in, I think, Utah) and encountering his family of origin and large numbers of townspeople at a seashore. His character has reconciled with events and with the Divine, though not via any explicit, describable process. The visual tropes here are pretty well-worn; I like galaxies and dinosaurs better, but I suppose it’s nice that the movie has a happy ending. The music remains gorgeous.

And speaking of production values in general: the casting is excellent (the kids look like the parents, and the young protagonist resembles Sean Penn), the décor, clothing, automobiles, tools, etc are dead-on accurate, and the cinematography is breathtaking. There is one scene in an industrial plant where I suspect some of the fixtures aren’t “period,” and since the great bulk of the on-location filming took place in Smithville, a 2½-hour drive south of Waco, there is Spanish moss on the trees, which does not occur nearly as far north as McLennan County (nice shot of the ALICO building in Waco, though). The middle-aged, present-day protagonist supposedly lives in NYC, but nearly every external shot that I recognized, except for one of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and one of (possibly) the Williams/Transco Tower in Houston, was of downtown Dallas. Subject-matter experts are invited to correct me on this.

8 thoughts on “The Tree of Life”

  1. I wish I could get into the story but “Sean Penn” hit my reject switch early on.


  2. Sean Penn, like every artist only matters because of his professional work. His political opinions are irrelevant. Why does anyone care what an actor or musician or any artist thinks about politics, anyway?

    I think I will go see this one. I wax born in 1963, and the world of my childhood is rapidly receding and increasingly weird and remote.

  3. We can not do without trees, the whole world to know this truth, but most of the people are for the current short-term interests to destruct the forests. It appears that this is a very contradictory thing, but it does happen every day around us.

  4. Corset,

    We can not do without trees, the whole world to know this truth, but most of the people are for the current short-term interests to destruct the forests

    You mean like all our ancestors obsessed with their short-term interest who cut down all the trees to clear fields for agriculture, build homes towns and cities, wagons, ships and, well, everything that allows to live such materially rich lives that we can spend time worrying about trees instead of worrying if our children will starve or die of a trivial infection?

    Grow up. The short-sided people aren’t those who don’t arrogantly believe they can predict the future. The short-sighted people are those who refuse to look backwards over the grand sweep of history and the history of humanity’s millions of years of interactions with our environment.

    In the end, supposed concern for the environment is just a dangerous mixture of self-rightous self-aggrandizement combined with the desire to create a pretext to dominate and control other human beings.

  5. My reaction to Sean Penn is admittedly non-rational. It is just a sort of antigen-antibody reaction.

  6. I like Sean Penn – his face, as I see his films dubbed in Italian and I couldn’t care less to an actor’s opinions – and thanks to my journalist fiancée I got a free ticket for a private preview of The tree of life.
    I have to confess: I’m short of cinematographic culture, although cultured je ne suis pas un intello, and I found it boring, boring, boring.

    Oh, sure, the photography is a work of art. Sean Penn – this time it was the original version, in English with subtitles – was quite great but the film is meaningless. Without any direction. An awfully long sequence of amoebas, then fishes, amphibians and God knows what else similar to those .ppt files that go in electronic chain letters.
    When the first primate came on screen I almost shouted: hurrah, bring on the monolith, let’s make History begin!

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