Thursday, July 14, 2011

"The Tree Of Life": A Multi-Part Exploration: Part Two

A shot from Terrence Malick's
film "The Tree Of Life".  Fox Searchlight

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW
day, July 14, 2011

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen "The Tree Of Life" but plan to, it is probably not a good idea to read any further.

PART TWO                                                        CoverIntro | Part One | Three

THEOLOGY, more on R.L. and the lucky old sun that rolls around "The Tree Of Life"

Hunter McCracken (center) as young Jack and Jessica Chastain as Jack's mother Mrs. O'Brien in "The Tree Of Life".  Fox Searchlight

"The Tree Of Life" is a film that undoubtedly explores faith.  The film examines some of the Christian Biblical tenets but I don't think that it is necessarily a Christian film.  The themes of Christianity are a touchstone for the director's larger questions about life and existence.  The film could have explored these from the point of view of any theology or religion.  Mr. Malick was apparently brought up in a devoutly Christian household. 

Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) tells one of her children that "God lives up there."  She points to the sky.  In Mr. Malick's film God lives everywhere and in everything, including the sun, which appears to be a signature that recurs throughout.  If, as Sean Penn's older Jack character intones, "You spoke to me through her, through the trees, through the sky," then it certainly isn't beyond the realm of possibility that God in the film is also speaking through the sun, or IS the sun for the purposes of "The Tree Of Life". 

Throughout the film, the sun, with its spiky rays of light, appear to be cinematically "winking" at, shining on, or "touching" various characters.  See the photo above and the two immediately below.  In many scenes the sun is present, watching, witnessing.  Is this a manifestation of God?  Markers for characters to follow or walk towards the light?  Is this the procession towards the film's famous (or infamous) beach sequence?

A shot from Terrence Malick's drama "The Tree Of Life". Fox Searchlight

Hunter McCracken (left) as young Jack and Brad Pitt as Jack's father Mr. O'Brien in "The Tree Of Life".
Fox Searchlight

The film depicts a traditional faith, a conservative old-school approach to faith.  There are some references to stairways to heaven -- and no less than ten shots of staircases leading up to windows or trees or higher floors.  Is this the gateway the film prepares?  Is this the Jacob's Ladder?  The gap being bridged between Heaven and Earth?  The path that the director invites the characters (and by extension the audience, to take?)  I believe that the film, which amounts to a whispered prayer, is answering the prayer that Jack (in younger and older form) and Mrs. O'Brien are asking.  Do they get the answer?  The answer I believe, is being provided through the many manifestations of God, cinematically represented by the stairs or the steps or by the sun.

Steps are a large part of "The Tree Of Life".  The steps we see little toddler Jack take early on as he is guided by Mr. O'Brien; the steps we see Jack and others take as they walk on empty upside-down paint cans connected to string, using them as stilts.  The wobbly first steps we see Mr. Penn's older Jack character take out in the desert.  The steps of children shown in shadows on a road.  The steps Jack takes as he walks down some stairs two-thirds of the way through the film.  The steps over pews Jack takes in a local church.  Are any of these steps steps taken toward God?  Steps in preparation for the beach sequence at end of the film?

The film also has a "there but for the grace of God go I" moment: as Jack and R.L. accompany their mother to a local grocery store.  Both boys walk in a wobbly, exaggerated way, apparently mimicking crippled or physically disabled people in a playful, mocking way, until a physically disabled older man comes along, walking by them, greeting them with a slight tip of his hat.  Jack and R.L. stop but continue to mimic after the man leaves.  Another younger man walks by, also with a disability, using a cane as he ambles along.

The questions about faith and existence, about life and death are resolute.

"We cannot stay where we are.  We must journey forth," a pastor in the film says.

The film looks to the ends of the earth and throughout galaxies for answers, yet God replies via the sun, and it's always there, winking and warming the characters in "The Tree Of Life".

"The Tree Of Life" represents the visual journey of the phrase "from your lips to God's ears", and shows the travel time taken between those two sensual origins and destinations.

The film starts with an excerpt from the Book Of Job (38:4-8), in the Old Testament.  Paraphrasing (and adding in italics):
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?  Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb?"

No doubt, much of Mr. Malick's "The Tree Of Life" is a cinematic representation of the Book Of Job.  The film is more or less an entire conversation centered in and around that Old Testament book, and beyond the paraphrase used above. 

There is a sequence near the end of the film where the italicized quote of Job above is shown via Emmanuel Lubezki's marvelous cinematography.  And it (below) shows the expulsion of R.L. through a door underwater, symbolically representing a womb, a larger metaphor for a placenta bursting open in the birth process. 

Laramie Eppler as R.L. (top left) floating from a metaphorical womb as represented in the Book Of Job.  Fox Searchlight

This image above is followed by shots of Mrs. O'Brien, clad in white, giving birth.  Soon after -- or much later -- Mrs. O'Brien offers up her son R.L. to God -- a breathtaking transition from birth to death.  It's a celestial sequence, shot wonderfully by Mr. Lubezki and edited by Mark Yoshikawa.  (Five editors in total are listed in the film's end credits.)  The above shot also showcases Jack Fisk's wonderful production design.

Of R.L., Mrs. O'Brien says early on, "he's been in God's hands all the time." 

And he has.

We see R.L. as Jack remembers him, and not ever in his teenage years.  Mr. Malick doesn't explore the older R.L.  Was R.L. bad as a teenager?  Good?  How did R.L. live his teenage years?  Was he a musician?  Was he successful?  How did he die?  The lack of an answer actually fits well with the questions and mystery contained in the Book Of Job, as to why something happens to a young man who has lived his life so innocently and in a "pure" and "kind" way, as Jack uses those quoted words.  It is better that we don't know how R.L. died.  That he did is enough.  Our imaginations and curiosities have to fill in the rest.

"Find me," R.L. whispers at one point as we see him off in the distance.  Eventually, R.L. is found at the end on the beach in a reconciliation sequence that is likely imagined, and not recollected by the older Jack, who himself appears in it. 

A pastor mentions Job and his trials and tribulations as a good, righteous man during a church service, in which he discusses the issues of righteousness and mentions good things happening to bad people, and how sanctuary in the good and morally correct doesn't guarantee a passage through life without strife.  Why some good people suffer and some bad ones don't is one of the most fascinating questions that the Bible offers. 

Mr. O'Brien isn't a bad person.  He just hasn't been shown love in his life.  Mrs. O'Brien by contrast, has.  We see at the very early point in "The Tree Of Life" that Mrs. O'Brien as a young girl has been pushed on a swing and has the loving hand of a man who looks probably to be her father, planted on her shoulder.  We see that she has been embraced, or at the very least, lived a happy childhood.

One Biblical book not discussed in "The Tree Of Life" is the Book Of Matthew, specifically Matthew 5:5 -- "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."  The meek in Mr. Malick's film are put upon in the forms of all creatures great and small.  The crippled man, the burned boy, the frog, the young dinosaur, the drowned boy.  Does this mean that the earth is dominated by or full of blighted people or living things?  Or does it mean that the meek somehow "control" the earth?  I'm not sure that Mr. Malick intends Matthew, the first book in the New Testament, to apply to the spirit of his film, which again stays firmly rooted in the Old Testament's Book Of Job.  Yet it is unmistakable that the Book Of Matthew resonates within "The Tree Of Life" on a smaller scale. 

"Hast you perceived the breadth of the earth?  Declare if you know it all." --Job 38:18

The above quote from the Book Of Job is also visualized in "The Tree Of Life" showing earth and the cosmos in all its dimension, with 18 and 9-minute sequences of imagery, some natural, others conjured by Douglas Trumbull, the special effects genius behind "2001: A Space Odyssey", for which the sci-fi drama based on Arthur C. Clarke's book won an Oscar.  "The Tree Of Life" ambitiously tries to capture every piece of matter that has ever existed, and a number of eras in the process.  Spectra, radials, lights, fire, lava, even molecules looking something like the Neutrogena I see on the shelf in the local store as I walk by, are packed into this film, which travels by quickly.  You aren't exhausted after you see "The Tree Of Life", like you are other films like "Transformers 3", you -- or at least I was -- elated, thrilled, roused and fascinated.  You want to immediately go out and enjoy life, and take notice of life that much more, without ever wanting to take it for granted. 

Mr. Malick is trying to cinematically depict God speaking and moving, as manifested in many life forms throughout the universe.  Many will view the director's endeavors as pretentious and bloated, but I think the film represents a sincere and thoughtful exploration of searching, understanding and conceiving the breadth of existence, of both humans and other life forms, and God's place in that realm of existence, as well as how God guides and shapes lives for better or worse.

Jack's hand (Sean Penn) touching R.L.'s (Laramie Eppler) face?  A variation on "The Lovers", also glimpsed in "Broken Embraces"?  Fox Searchlight

Click here for part three

                                                                              CoverIntro | Part One | Three

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