The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick, 2011
#1, 2011 Skandies

Let's see what Mike D'Angelo wrote about this one:

Structured more like a symphony than a conventional narrative,


Yes, having fallen nearly three years behind in my Skandie watching, I plunged into 2011, a year in which the winning film was another one of those textural numbers.  Still, I tried to be optimistic: the movie it was most frequently compared to was 2001, and I love 2001.  But 2001 is about a neurotic computer and it turns out that The Tree of Life is about 1950s Texans.  Obviously one of those two is a lot more relatable to me and it's not the Texans.

Okay, maybe I can relate to the Texans a little.  There are parts of life that have a strong narrative line, but many more are wodges of fairly repetitive experience.  The bulk of The Tree of Life is about a boy and his two younger brothers playing with other neighborhood boys in their suburban street and yards.  That pretty much captures a big chunk of the early '80s for me.  It was hard to watch the boys in this movie throwing themselves into a field of tall grass and rolling around in it without being reminded of the steep hill behind my house, on the other side of the wrought iron fence, which was landscaped with tough, sticky, clumpy grass about two feet long — California oatgrass, I think it's called — which we would slide down warbling, "Nooooooo! I'm dyyyyy-yinnnnng…!" and then either pull ourselves up hand over hand or dramatically "rescue" each other.  Or to watch their silly spur-of-the-moment games and not remember the ridiculous "obstacle course" my brothers and I made up one summer: hop over the railing of the stairs and jump down, run outside and pick your way through the dense patch of ferns, walk over to the bee bush and be brave enough to pet a bee, etc.  Or to watch them at their swimming pool without it calling to mind 1984, July 28, at the Ridge View pool, eating a grilled hot dog for the first time, looking warily at the black stripes but discovering that they imparted a flavor you didn't get with the boiled ones — and also discovering that hands wet with chlorinated water did a number on the texture of the bun — while squinting (because you can't wear glasses in the pool!) at the clunky "portable" TV someone had brought to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, just up the road in L.A., then gulping down a Lady Lee soda before jumping back into the pool.  I could only watch this section in fifteen-minute chunks before the lack of a narrative got my mind wandering, but I can see how this style can be argued to be truer to life than something with a storyline.

That isn't to say that The Tree of Life is just a wodge of iterative experience.  One of the threads running through it is a character study of the boys' father, who is sort of a martinet like Dwight in This Boy's Life, but with a bit more nuance to him: he clearly wants to have affectionate relationships with his sons, and doesn't understand why when he hugs them they just stand there enduring it.  Another thread involves the death of one of the boys at age 19, perhaps in Vietnam — his parents receiving the news is the first real event we see in the movie, long before we actually meet these boys in their childhoods.  We see his mother walking through the forest some time after the funeral.  "Why?", she asks.  Cut to… the origin of the solar system.

Yeah.  This is the best aspect of the movie: it takes a kid growing up in Texas in the 1950s and reminds us that his story is one infinitesimal link in a chain of cause and effect that stretches back for billions of years and will continue for billions more.  Why did your son live and die?  Because 4.6 billion years ago, gravity compressed a whorl of hydrogen gas tightly enough that it started to fuse.  Because it compressed tinier clumps of matter into balls of roiling magma that cooled on contact with what was then a four-kelvin void.  Because the laws of organic chemistry caused helical strands of ribonucleic acid to replicate themselves.  We see jellies, lungfish, dinosaurs.  The dinosaurs romp through the underbrush like the Texas kids 75 million years later.  We see a rock slowly tumbling through space.  As it tumbles away from us, we see a bright blue world behind it, and we know what's coming next: the impact in the future Yucatán that will bring on the K-T extinction.  Why does the eldest boy, as a gray-templed adult, find himself on the phone in the elevator of a skyscraper, apologizing to his father?  Why is their relationship so fraught?  A therapist might say that he should look back at his childhood for the answer; The Tree of Life replies, why start so late in the game?  Doesn't a full answer to any question about human relationships require us to look back at the development of human beings?  He would not be in that elevator talking on the phone, the film argues, nor would you be sitting in a theater or in front of a screen at home watching a movie, if you were not a particular type of complex mammal that would never have developed if not for that rock.  Last semester I audited a class on the origin of everything, so I've been immersed in all of this for months; I've seen several animations of the Chicxulub impact, and it never fails to make me get a little teary-eyed.  To watch a recreation of one of the two most important events in the last 100,000,000 years of world history, the catastrophe that gave rise to everything we know?  That's powerful stuff.  (The other event I would put in the same class was when lifeforms from our planet first traveled to another world.)

And the setting for all our stories, The Tree of Life shows us, will one day be a blasted husk drifting through the outer envelope of a red giant star.  Unless something very dramatic happens, that charred planetoid will be every bit as real as the world on which I stood as a child, tossing tennis balls onto the roof of the house and trying to catch them as they bounced back onto the driveway.  More than that — it's not just equally real, but substantially the same ball of rock and metal.  That's the thing about watching the Hadean Earth buffeted by meteors and crackling with lightning, or the Cretaceous one with troodontids splashing across the rivers — they're not just figments of the imagination.  They were every bit as solid and true as the one around you.  Seeing these past and future worlds portrayed as part of a causal chain that includes a contemporary human being's quotidian life — because they are — is an awesome thing, so it's easy to see why people might be blown away by this movie.

However, a symphony implies many instruments playing together, and there's more to The Tree of Life than just this.  Woven into all of the above is a bunch of whispered and/or muttered Judeo-Christian mumbo-jumbo.  One of my evaluative patterns, Pattern 17, used to note that I'd had my lifetime fill of stories rooted in Christ imagery; I am hereby broadening that to state that, to the extent that a story is about exploring one or more of the Abrahamic religions — as things to actually believe, that is, not as sociological phenomena — I want nothing to do with it.  Life is just too short to spend on literary exegeses of belief systems that I have long ago concluded were transparently wrong.  That said, I suspect that any words would have detracted from The Tree of Life's audacious sequences from the distant past and future.  For that matter, the musical accompaniment detracted from them as well, often pretty severely.  Those opera singers scraped at my eardrums like fingernails on a chalkboard.  This isn't hyperbole — I was cringing with physical discomfort until the opera went away.  As far as music to accompany cosmic sequences is concerned, I'll stick to the soundtrack from Cosmos.

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