The Tree of Life is Malick’s Memory Epic

We survive by what little Fourth of July wits we’ve stashed away. But there are times when we’re all autumn people.

-Ray Bradbury

The boy whose spirit is buried under a tree in the backyard of his childhood home confronts growing up by asking, “How do I get back where they are?” He knows implicitly that existence isn’t just a mindset; it's being in the same place in the universe as the ones you love. The Tree of Life is about this sense of being there, if it's "about" anything, of the secrets of the human spirit left in a specific time and place, hopefully waiting to be found again like the mementos secretly left in a house to prove who used to live there. The film defines this as essential to the human experience; it may also be the nearest definition to what it calls “faith.” Terrence Malick, a private man by Hollywood standards, makes a story that’s hard to tell in an industry built on spectacle. Those in the Cannes audience who booed (equal to the ones who cheered) probably thought that of all the things The Tree of Life should be to them, it was so personal to Malick that they struggled to feel included in the faith. But seeing him realize something so personal holds secret pleasures regardless of how close each viewer feels to the experiences. If Malick had to leave the house now, I think this is the movie he would leave under the tree.

The smallest gesture holds cosmic importance in Malick's impression of our 14-billion-year-old universe, as it does for a kid who's only lived five years of it. Time compresses around feeling. After grieving the loss of one of their three boys in scenes of silent torment, scenes as a child would see them (mom silently screaming from behind a letter, dad wordlessly breaking down in his eyes on a phone), Malick takes us back to the beginning of time, his first act of compression. The elements entangle, space and sky and fire coming together out of nothing in a universe made of light and stone, shown through sweeping gazes of the sea as cells kiss each other in the ocean, life crawling out onto the sand in the light of a new sun. He shows us gulfs of time in formations of dust and volcanoes and dinosaurs. Malick balls "us" up into a collective viewer. He may hope to dissuade a fundamentalist impression of history with his molten universe, the expanses of time and rock and flesh, as Arthur C. Clarke did when he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie most likely to be compared to The Tree of Life by virtue of its sheer scope.

In the parallel fashions with which the films craft the universe out of silent fires and galactic color, that comparison is warranted (Malick even hired Douglas Trumbull out of retirement to do the practical effects he did on 2001 in The Tree of Life; its nebulas are liquid on glass plates, spin dishes, dyes, flares and fluid dynamics). But in their essential universe-views, Kubrick and Malick made opposite films. Kubrick starts at “the dawn of man” because his entire universe revolves around the intellect: 2001 is about staring down the furthest reaches of existence in order to discover ourselves in it. Malick starts earlier, and later. He establishes a universe without mankind to justify focusing a story of cosmic importance on such a tiny piece of it. To him, the human experience is not a beginning or an end to the universe (it was both for Kubrick) but a waypoint. His beforelife wraps around the big bang and his afterlife accompanies the heat death of the universe, the earth swallowed by a dying sun. He uses an unknown amount of his own life to be the story between those ends, brief but no briefer than the entire existence of humanity compared to cosmic time. He might hope it means as much to us as it does to him or that the result might be a feeling of faith in a vast experience of time, a feeling that Kubrick's film openly defied in favor of its quest for accepting the grandeur of purposelessness.

This impression of the story of growing up in Texas in the 1950s (where Malick grew up) isn’t vengeful. The boy's memories don't focus on regret but on the questions of where we've been, or how we might get back to that place in our hearts. Malick wisely doesn’t jump between images of the cosmic and everyday, as Interstellar did, as though everything we do is cosmically significant. The Tree of Life doesn't think we're that powerful, but it secretly hopes we're important to someone or something in the vast cosmic scale of "things" that happen and are. So the experiences of the boy, Jack (played as a child by Hunter McCracken and in flash-forwards as a silent architect with sunken eyes by Sean Penn), are reduced across the span of Malick's memory to religious rites. He seems to think he was compelled to do and be everything he can remember (or maybe that just makes it easier). He hopes that it meant something. The cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki dollies into and out of blackouts; he frames Penn on a sunlit shore of what must be the afterlife as people react to each other there, seemingly in the same mental space as when they left their childhood home to face the world. Lubezki cuts them together like sand mandalas, made for the significance of being blown away. The stand-ins for Malick hide memories behind observations. Their eyes reconcile with a father whom he remembers being younger than he is now. He's the patron saint he never liked yet never stopped loving.

These images are a meditation. Malick's script only occasionally lets them slip into being sermons, as when Jessica Chastain's mother character over-iterates the intended lessons from the images ("The only way to be happy is to love"). This bit of wandering into the modern school of the cosmic conversational, where no script note is too small to omit it from the film's actual dialogue, doesn't linger in The Tree of Life outside of a few grating axioms. Ray Bradbury used to describe summer as a feeling that you could pour into a glass if you could remember it properly; Malick relies on the fragments of that feeling to get by, the tin glasses and neighborhood diners and model rockets and grass-stained knees. Dad at the piano. Mom on the lawn. His adaptation of the 1950s doesn't contain any topical adult-level problems. It's what a kid would remember of it, as some kind of paradise.

Brad Pitt as the father, Mr. O'Brien, is a reckoning for every Pitt character. Every everyman he's ever played seems to reduce down to this one, whose first name we never learn. There's another fragment of Bradbury's childhood in that. He talked about first names once, how the names of our father and mother remain foreign to us, as the names that only other people call them. In Malick's script, the "Mr." and "Mrs." that replace the parents' names emphasize how bound up they are in that protocol, in an era that went through thick and thin with lightning transitions (you think you're having a fun summertime day until you slam the door too hard in Father's presence). Malick remembers his parents with the names that other kids would have called them, rather than what he would have said when he needed them or what they would have called each other. He's struggling with the fact that he's not the kid who heard those names anymore, though he still thinks of them. Those salutations are a tiny form of the whole spiritual distance of growing up in that house, the blueprint of Malick's impression of living in that "there."

He understands his Father without hating him, a role that Pitt ascends into his thesis statement on men in the universe. He's mean to Jack, alternately torturing him with lessons and beaming with pride, because he was taught to be mean (and proud). He acts harshly because he believes the world is harsh, his love twisted up by feelings of powerlessness into anger. He dreamed of being a musician but works every day as a plant worker. Fathers not understanding their sons, forgetting they used to be them, sons dealing with being as old as their fathers were, doing the things they hated about them then: the cycle of male unhappiness. Mr. O'Brien tells his son repeatedly to "Hit me" to make him tougher. It's impossible to see that and not remember Tyler Durden saying the same thing for about the same reason. Men teach each other to be "men" and make their sons hate them because of love, which results in a distrust of love. Malick understands how men have been taught to teach each other to be "men," making their sons hate them out of love, which results in a distrust of love. He understands it enough to not blame them for it.

This is a reason why Mrs. O'Brien's statements of a version of philosophical truth don't work as theses for the film (there are too many types of love to assume they all lead to happiness). They can only be read as a boy's worship of the sureness of emotion of his Mother, even more unknowable to him than the anger of his Father and possibly more frightening. Chastain moves like a ghost in this film who wandered into the universe for the first time; Malick secretly places a young boy's confusing desires within viewing distance of points of perspective, as Chastain whirls on the lawn with sunlight in her hair, the wet grass in her feet. She knows who her husband is, that what he does to her is a result of what he expects of himself. Jack confuses this for weakness, but he's only trying to make sense of his everyday sacred artifacts: Father's commands and Mother's holy tolerance. Malick deals with those archetypes against the confusion of growing up through a visual performance of virtue. Pitt's eyes fight against the strain; Chastain's fight for it.

The Tree of Life places these holy rites of unhappiness against the geometry of nature, not to humanize the elements so much as naturalize our everyday feelings. Lubezki and Malick see humans in earth designs: from below, a canyon’s walls come together in an illusion of a seated figure; Da Vinci cloth studies appear in nebulas, women throwing their hair back in the stars. They made film impressionism. They didn't rely on reducing the time period to topics or questioning it with that out-of-place "fuck" from a kid's mouth that so many period pieces rely on as a shorthand for a commentary on a lesser-than time in a place of futuristic cultural advantage. Malick doesn't seem to question the "era" or ask us to. He wants us to remember his memory, letting nature do the talking for him.

When asked to justify the Cannes Jury’s choice to select The Tree of Life as Palme d’Or, jury head Robert De Niro said that it, “seemed to fit the prize.” He’s saying that it’s easy to see that Malick’s work is amazing but hard to know what exactly to do with the feeling. Those who are religious are most likely to be swept up by it – Alexandre Desplat’s music sounds constantly like a benediction (the ending track is a definitive recomposition of “Ave Maria”). Malick goes to great lengths to affirm a religious view of the universe, or one that could be extracted as one. In this movie, men and women are stone ideals, separate and unchanging. They tolerate each other through god, choosing grace over instinct. To assemble such a reflection, Malick dug deep into his memory of home, of the younger brother who killed himself over despair in his music career, and his struggle to pattern a commercial art on a complicated view of the world, something he's been doing since Days of Heaven. The Tree of Life finally lets him in on his own secret. He leaves it behind for the next people who will live here, in case they happen to wonder who he was (or where).

Remember that the dead brother was the one who buried the little memorials under the tree, not Jack. Jack remembers it because people leaving their spirits behind for other people to find them is how anyone remembers anyone. It becomes his spirit under that tree because he's really leaving his brother when he leaves that house for some idea of growing up, standing at the top of a skyscraper made from the glass that used to be the sand under it, looking around to see if he can still spot the tree. Does he know what's under it, exactly? Does Malick? Whatever it is, I think he hopes to save it till autumn.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, October 19, 2019

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©River Road Entertainment/Fox Searchlight Pictures

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