Thursday, July 14, 2011

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

Omar P.L. Moore

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 THREE                                                       Cover | Intro | Part One | Two

The HEADSPACE of older Jack, Sean Penn's existence, and a bridge to the past

Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien in "The Tree Of Life".  "You'll be grown before that tree is tall." 
Fox Searchlight

It's fairly easy to see that the entire film takes place in the head of the older Jack (Sean Penn).  Jack is in his fifties now, an architect somewhere in Texas, and for an entire day at work he has been distracted.  Perhaps this day in particular has been distracting because it may be the anniversary of the death of his younger brother R.L.  A 25th or 30th anniversary, possibly. 

In any event, for the duration of "The Tree Of Life" Mr. Penn's older Jack is probably situated in 2011 (or more accurately, 2008, the year in which Mr. Malick's sci-fi drama was filmed) thinking throughout his work day about R.L., his untimely loss and the guilt Jack has carried because of it.  In one of the three pieces of dialogue that Mr. Penn has -- the only person-to-person dialogue older Jack has is, "what are you gonna do?", a line he says to a fellow work colleague while focused on work and other things -- he apologizes during a cell phone conversation with his dad while in an elevator.  The conversation is presumably centered around R.L., and Jack is apologizing to his father, whom he calls "dad".  Later in the film we see that Mr. O'Brien has forbidden the younger Jack from calling him "dad", only wanting himself to be addressed as "father".

"The Tree Of Life" isn't a flashback.  It's a thought-forward and a thought-backward.  A memory log, a collage, punctuated by the earth's reverberations, elements of nature perhaps even interacting with Jack's memories.  Water, fire, and trees are amplified in these shots during the film's phenomenal 18-minute and 9-minute image sequences, juxtaposed with micro editions of these same elements in the scenes involving the O'Briens.  These entities are always interacting with each other.

Jack, encased in the glass structure of his office in Texas, has been thinking about the glass house of his youth.  In his mind he has been walking around in it.  Around and around.  In each scene -- virtually every single scene -- there are trees, glass and water.  This cinematic representation of Jack's mind -- his memory, his thoughts, his recollections, are shot and edited together seamlessly.  There's a constant in mood, feel, pace and delivery to each of these memories.  The music that swells is classical, over the soundtrack for the moviegoer, as well as the music Mr. O'Brien plays in the film on vinyl records.  The louder music we hear might represent the vitality and strength of Jack's most vivid memories and recollections. 

At one point in the office building early on, Jack says on the phone, "I'm feel like I'm just bumping into walls here."  The walls of his own mind trapped in the memories of the past?  Of that glass house and those trees that Mr. Malick shoots so lovingly? 

Jack is now married.  He walks around an airy and distinctly-shaped glass house, all its windows, the stairs, so neatly designed by Jack Fisk.  The house offers a wealth of  light, space and a view of trees, yet feels a little claustrophobic.  Jack is still rooted in the 1950s, a past he has never forgiven himself for.  He walks around his present-day house in a trance.  Jack doesn't speak to his wife, a woman who looks a little younger than he.  Jack's wife bears a very distant resemblance to the young girl in the 1950s that Jack likes, as well as a fleeting resemblance to the woman he stole the night slip from all those years ago.  Jack and his wife don't have any children, at least as far as we can see or discern.  Is Jack afraid to?  Did they ever have children?  Did they lose a child?  How long have they been married?

In his films Mr. Malick shows off wedding bands wonderfully well.  They gleam with pride, pristine, even powerful.  I recall a similar shot in "The New World": a 3/4 close-up shot of a man's hand with a ring on it early on in that film, and in "The Tree Of Life" on at least three occasions we see the wedding band of a married O'Brien, one of the shots displayed at the moment Jack touches Mrs. O'Brien's pregnant belly.  There's a tradition, a security and a safety represented by the shot just described, and it's a beautiful juxtaposition, one of the film's many great compositions.

Memories are never far away from any of us, and Jack's memories are potent, and wonderfully constructed by Mr. Fisk and shot by Mr. Lubezki.  There isn't the haziness and soupy white that many thought-processed visions on film are usually depicted or steeped in, just artifacts of the past (trees, grass, leaves, glass) that appear and reappear throughout the film, fragments of Jack's earlier life.

I've no clue which book this is from, but is this an homage of sorts to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey"?  Fox Searchlight

Throughout "The Tree Of Life" the elements of the universe bump up against the human lives who exist within those elements, until finally the two merge in the beach sequence that finishes the film.  It's still, after multiple viewings the most troubling -- the only troubling sequence of the film, and its weakest sequence.  Yet it illustrates an imagined, if not real reconciliation between and amongst the fortunate, the despised, the lost, the reviled, the celebrated, the loved.  (Had all of the participants and the dinosaurs and the frogs and the rest of the creatures from "The Lion King" and Noah's Ark bowed and smiled into the camera like the cast of "Titanic" during this sequence I'd have lost all credibility in the ardor and sincerity of Mr. Malick's film.) 

There's a look that Mr. O'Brien gives older Jack that seems to communicate forgiveness, that he forgives Jack.  As acted by Mr. Pitt, who merits award consideration for his work, it's a moment that encapsulates a resolution between them, as imagined by Jack. 

The beach sequence, interspersed by the spiritual and metaphysical "delivery" of R.L. from Mrs. O'Brien's womb into God's hands ("He was in God's hands all the time") -- represents a resolution and assuaging of Jack's guilt and outsider status from the O'Brien family, and the resolution of older Jack's thoughts, if not the resolution of the film*.  There's an ephemeral smile on Jack's face as he stands outside the towering glass building as he looks off camera, a flicker of contentedness at having journeyed through the exploration of his own mind of his prayers to God and his reconnection to his family.  Moments earlier as Jack has stepped out into the present-day real world of 2008 it looks as if he is briefly jarred into reality.

*Has there really been a resolution in the film?  Since "The Tree Of Life" doesn't have a narrative the film isn't really "resolved" so much as it is stopped.  And that bridge, that big bridge, represents the metaphysical gulf of thought and memory that Jack has had to travel across and mine during the course of the film.  That bridge represents a connection and a reconnection to Jack's 1950s family -- Mr. O'Brien, Mrs. O'Brien, R.L. and his youngest brother -- a family whom older Jack has presumably been distant from emotionally and physically in the years since R.L.'s death. 

A shot from "The Tree Of Life", directed by Terrence Malick.  
Fox Searchlight

Earlier in the film we see three large, separated pipes towering into the sky, at the plant where Mr. O'Brien works.  Is the bridge we see at the end of the film a representation of a different kind of physical connection to the plant?  Jack's own answer or his imagined equivalent to that connection?  Is it a construction built perhaps by the company Mr. O'Brien worked at?  Jack is an architect, and by definition he's a builder.  Did Jack's employer company build it before Jack got there as an employee?  One thing's for sure, Jack's occupation as an architect is a perfectly appropriate profession for the scale and detail of "The Tree Of Life".  Older Jack has building and constructing his memories of his younger life throughout the film, just like an architect.

For me, the Sean Penn sequences work for the film.  They are vital, indispensible to it.  I believe they give the film the shape and dimension that solidifies it.  "The Tree Of Life" isn't merely a bundle of images but are images experienced, relived and re-thought by someone, namely Jack.  Having Mr. Penn as the older character processing, remembering and recollecting these thoughts and details lends depth to the film and shows us a man dedicated to searching, understanding and feeling.  Mr. Malick gives Mr. Penn to us as the film's touchstone, the man we as an audience take this journey with. 

Would the film have been better without Mr. Penn's older Jack character?  I'm not sure.  But I believe "The Tree Of Life" thrives and is more meaningful with his character in it. 

Similarly, "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) was propelled by the experiences of Keir Dullea's character Bowman -- albeit integral to that film since he was a defined protagonist in, whereas in "The Tree Of Life" Mr. Penn's Jack isn't a protagonist at all.  Bowman's experiences in the final stages of Stanley Kubrick's classic epic are more structured, while Jack's are fragmented yet just as alive and vivid.  Interestingly, much of "2001" isn't seen through the eyes of a character.  Mr. Kubrick's explorations are shown as explorations, while Mr. Malick's explorations are impressionistic and abstract.  Both films are marvelous.


                                                                                Cover | Intro | Part One | Two

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