I’ve never been as intimidated by a movie as I was by The Tree of Life. The very thought of it made me nervous.
I had seen reviews, which if lyrical, most of all looked like theology dissertations. I had read about audience reactions ranging from snoring to laughter or booing. And I had heard about people leaving the cinema during midshow, demanding ticket refunds. I wondered a bit anxiously: can I really expect to “get it”? Am I smart enough?
While I try to be as open-minded as I can about different forms of art, not frowning at it or tossing out unfounded, empty accusations of “pretence”, I must honestly admit that I sometimes find modern music, poetry and art a little hard to digest.
Maybe I lack the proper tools, maybe I’m just lazy and spoiled, but for whatever reason, it’s easier to embrace and enjoy a well told story than to decode an installation.
In Tree of Life I knew I would face an army of symbols, riddles and abstract representations, and that I’d have very little to hold on to. A film that begins with a quote from Job and goes on discussing the concept of “Grace” versus “Nature”, a movie filled with whispering prayers. It sounded as if it would be more than I could handle.
But then I heard a voice in my head, calling for attention:
“Hey there! What kind of sissy are you? If you’re only going to watch movies you know on beforehand that you’re going to love, isn’t this a bit as if you refused to eat anything else but your favourite brand of chocolate? Sure, it tastes nice for a while, but eventually it will lose its flavour and become boring and even nauseating. You don’t want that, do you? You want your film experiences to be more on the lines of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. Come on! Don’t be that lazy coward!”
I knew the voice was right. There was no point to argue about it, and off I went.
Like going to a concert
With the knowledge I had about the movie, I decided to try a somewhat different approach. I figured it was all about expectations and that I needed to have the right mindset to enjoy this.
I didn’t expect to find a compelling plot, people to identify with or anything that resembled to a journey from point A to point B. As far as I was concerned, I was going to listen to a concert, a concert accompanied by pictures. I would rely on my senses, open myself for whatever sounds and images I would encounter. I would lower my shields and let them reach me and possibly touch me. And I wouldn’t make any demands about understanding. I would just see, hear and let it come to me.
And this is what made the movie work for me. Actually it turned out that the parts I enjoyed most were those that have been subjects for discussions: the images of stars being born, of planets, strange sea creatures, of the inner life of cells, of trees and flowers and waterfalls. It was stunningly beautiful, mesmerizing, harmonizing perfectly with the magnificent classical music that accompanied it.
I even enjoyed the whispers. And the dinosaurs, oh, those poor criticized dinos! They say that they took up twenty minutes of the film, and that those animals were what made people give up on it entirely and leave? I could easily have seen even more of them! But then I’ve always enjoyed anything that reminds me of my own insignificance, anything that puts our lives and human troubles into a bigger context. Some people get terrified by the idea that they’re nothing but a tiny grain of sand in an endless desert. To me it’s a comfort.
The childhood part
Still, the stars and the dinos are just half of the movie. What about the “story”, at the extent you can talk about a story in this movie, what about Jack thinking back of his childhood in Texas, growing up with a strict father, representing “nature” and a playful and loving mother, representing “grace”, and the grief after a brother who died? Did this stick with me like the nature documentary parts did? I wish I could say “Yes!”, loud and without a shadow of a doubt, but that would be a lie. It’s more like a “Yeah….I think so. Sort of.”
There were definitely some very moving scenes. The one where we see the family relax and come to life as the father is away for a working trip is one that I’ll remember. However, later on the childhood scenes became slower and less involving, so much that I found it necessary to pinch and slap myself once in a while to make sure I wouldn’t doze off.
I don’t hold this against the movie; I can imagine those scenes were beautiful and meaningful if you could hold up your attention. Maybe it was just my sleep deficiency playing tricks on me, even if I had tried to prevent this, being extra generous with my coffee allowance during the day. But I have to be honest with you. There were times when I felt a bit lost and disengaged, and when the whispers in the universe finally returned and woke me up, it felt like a blessing.
This said, it was quite an experience and I’m glad I had the courage to give it an honest try. There were moments in it that made me shiver, moments of clarity, where Malick puts his finger on and expresses a state of mind, a condition which I thought was beyond description. He is trying to make a movie about Life, the Universe and Everything, and if nothing else you have to admire him for his courage.
One line lingers in my mind:
The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.
It’s easier said than done. But so true.
The Tree of Life (Malick,US, 2011), My rating: 4/5