A Commentary on The Tree of Life

It had been a long time since I’d seen a film that I truly enjoyed. Most of my experiences in the theater have been negative. I’ve seen films I didn’t want to see, but my friends wanted to. Or I’ve been disappointed by the films that I was looking forward to. A few months ago, I heard about the film The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s newest film. The fact that Terrence Malick was the writer and director of the film got my attention. He was the director of the 1998 film The Thin Red Line, a film about World War II.

When The Thin Red Line came out, I remember my history teacher was exited about it. He told the whole class he was going to see it the day it came out. He did so, and came back and reported to the class that he thought it was weird and artsy. He didn’t like it. The film came out at a time when I was fascinated by war, and I was trying to watch as many war films as possible. I saw a trailer for the film, and that sealed the deal. I had to see The Thin Red Line. I knew there was something special about the film, but it would be several months until I saw it. I didn’t see it in theaters. I didn’t have a job or money, and none of my friends wanted to see it, anyway.

To me, The Thin Red Line was about more than war.

I finally saw it when it came out on VHS tape. I checked it out from the local library. I was mind-boggled by how good it was. The artsy style, that had bothered my history teacher, only succeeded in drawing me into the film. The Thin Red Line was by no means a traditional war film. Sure there were soldiers and they fought, but the scenes were less solid, the film felt fragmented. There were voice-overs in the film, but they had nothing to do with the events of the film. They were about the emotions of the characters. It was like no other war film I’d seen. It was poetic in some sense. The Thin Red Line is probably one of the least violent war movies, and yet one of the most tragic.

Some time after seeing The Thin Red Line my attitude towards war changed. I didn’t care to see any more war movies, but I always liked to revisit The Thin Red Line, because to me it was about so much more than war. I often found myself quoting lines from the film. Sometimes even writing them down, to see how they looked. One of my favorite lines is when “Mad” Sergeant Eddie Welsh says to Private Witt, “There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this world. Just this rock.” This was in response to a previous conversation where Private Witt had said, “I seen another world.” There are many more quotes from this film that I carry with me. They are about so much more than war.

I hadn’t heard anything about Terrence Malick since that film came out.

The Tree of Life

I first heard about The Tree of Life on NPR. It was Terrence Malick’s newest film. Of course, I recognized the name from The Thin Red Line. The commentators reported that it was looking very much like Mr. Malick’s other films, with a lot of voice-overs from a lot of different characters, and a dream-like story. They said the film was about a family in the 1950s, and it was also about the entire history of the Earth. I knew then, that what I had enjoyed so much about The Thin Red Line, was going to win me all over again with The Tree of Life.

I kept hearing more and more about the film on talk radio. In one interview a theater owner said that he had to put up a sign stating that there were, “No Refunds for The Tree of Life,” because people were walking out of the film. Apparently they were bored out of their minds. I knew, then, that I had to see it. I knew that, for me, someone who hated pretty much every movie that everyone else liked, I would like this film.

The problem was that the movie wasn’t playing anywhere near where I live. It wouldn’t be playing anywhere near where I live. We used to have an art cinema in town, but it was closed due to unpopularity. I was either going to have to wait for it to come out on DVD, or I was going to have to travel over one hundred miles to see it. I couldn’t wait for it to come out on DVD. I always wished I had seen The Thin Red Line in theaters, and I didn’t want to miss out on this one. Taking the trip would be worth it. I made the trip on August 13th.

I got a ticket for a matinee show. I was surprised by how many people were in the theater. I expected only a few. The theater was maybe twenty percent full. It was a Saturday afternoon, so I guess there were plenty of people with nothing better to do. I felt kind of weird sitting there by myself. I even looked around to see if anyone else was by themselves. One other person was. I wasn’t bothered that much, though. I wanted to see this film, and if I was going to have to see it by myself, I was going to do just that. As I watched my fellow patrons come in, I wondered if any of them would be walking out. I was excited to see if they would, because that would be the ultimate indication to me that I knew how to appreciate a good film.

Before I get into my thoughts on the film, let me say this: Indeed, at least two groups of people walked out. There was a group in the row behind me, they were being noisy during the film. One girl was saying, “This movie is horrible,” over and over. She was whispering this loudly, and I was about to get up and tell her that, “I didn’t travel a hundred bleeping miles to see this film, and have it interrupted by some bleeping bleeper,” except I wasn’t going to use the word “bleep”. Well, as I was about to do this, the group she was with took the liberty of leaving, thus saving the ears of my fellow patrons from the vulgarity I was about to use. Another couple left a little later on. They were sitting in the row in front of me, I could tell they were getting kind of bored, so I suspected they might leave, but at least they weren’t making a fuss.

Upon seeing this film, my impression is that it is one of the greatest films that I have ever seen in my life. It is instantly one of my top four films of all time, possibly even second only to Blade Runner, but I’ll have to see it a second time to determine that for sure.

So why are people walking out of one of the best films of all time? They will tell you it is because they are bored by it. I don’t know for sure. All I really do know for sure is that I knew how to appreciate it. I enjoyed it. Maybe ’cause I knew what to expect.

The film is about a family in the 1950s.

The film is about a family in the 1950s. The film is also about the entire history of the Earth. I just gave away the entire plot of the film. Honestly, I did. There is nothing more to it than that. It is about a completely ordinary family in the 1950s. It is about the history of the Earth. Yes, there are dinosaurs involved in the history of the Earth. Yes, nothing particularly noteworthy happens to the family. Well, I take that back, the family experiences a few life-changing events, but the plot isn’t one that an editor would look at and say, “This plot will be a best-seller.” It is simply about a family living their lives, and that is what makes it so good. This family could be anyone’s family, anyone could have the experience that they have, and yet here they are, the centerpiece of the entire history of the Earth. They are the most significant thing to happen on Earth. In a few short years they are more important than the dinosaurs that walked the Earth for millions of years. Their problems, are the problems of the entire world. Their passions are the passions of the entire world. Their failures are those of all mankind.

Of course, everything I’ve just said is me reading into the film. If you sat down and watched it for what it is. All it is, is a family living in the 1950s, with scenes of the history of the world interspersed.

The film is about the entire history of the Earth.

I mentioned that this family could be anyone’s family, and along with that idea, the film is shot as if it were a memory. At least that’s how I saw it. There are no solid scenes in the film. Characters don’t have conversations. You don’t see the whole narrative of everything they do. Most of the dialog is voice-overs. Most of the arguments that the characters have are partial, the volume is often low, and the scenes are cut short. In one of the very first scenes of the film, the mother of the family receives a telegram with some bad news, upon reading it she cries out, but the scene suddenly cuts away, right in the middle of her cry. You don’t see her agonizing, you know she does. The events in the movie are not chronological by any means. That is what I mean when I say the film is like a memory. It is partial, fragmented, and in no particular order. The way one might recall their own life.

This doesn’t mean the story is incomplete. It is complete. The plot concerning the family makes sense. The whole story is told, and that’s part of the beauty of the film. As fragmented as it seems, it isn’t going to leave you with unanswered questions. Though not presented in order, the history of the family is clear, but also, like a memory, not every event is imperative to the overall narrative. Many of the scenes are more about personality and emotion than they are about events.

This is how I perceived it, anyway. Clearly those that walked out on it, thought that it made no sense, and that it was boring. I’m not about to presume what Terrence Malick’s intents with the film were, but I don’t need to know his intent in order to appreciate the film. I just need to know that I could sit back and enjoy it. That was my attitude going in.

I can sympathize with those who walked out, though. 2001: A Space Odyssey has been touted by some as one of the greatest films of all time, and I walked out of it. I was bored out of my mind with that film. I didn’t find any meaning in it whatsoever. Admittedly that’s because I never gave it a chance. I’m not even sure what 2001 is about. I don’t hold anything against those that didn’t like The Tree of Life. I just feel sorry that they’ll never be able to appreciate it.

I was once told by a film professor that, with few exceptions, films are not art. A lot of people, including critics, disagree with this sentiment. Of course, in my experience, most people think pretty much everything is art. For example, you chop some wood and throw the axe on the lawn. The axe lying among the blades of grass is art. The very act of chopping wood is art. Sun Tzu seemed to think that war is art. It seems pretty much everything is art. According to collegiate programs, everything is either art or science, and, in fact, pretty much every Bachelor of Science degree can also be earned as a Bachelor of Art degree. (I know mine could.) I personally think that the word “art” is used too liberally. It has become a meaningless word, so I can’t use that word to describe The Tree of Life. What I can say, is that The Tree of Life is visually, audibly, and emotionally stimulating. It can be thought provoking, if you want it to be. One of my favorite lines from the film is when the oldest boy in the family says to his father, “It’s your house. You can kick me out whenever you want.” Then after a pause he says, “You’d like to kill me.” The father doesn’t even know how to respond. There isn’t some perfectly thought out dialog between father and son. It is simply awkward, realistic communication. When I view this film a few more times, there will be more lines that I will quote and think about, as I did with The Thin Red Line.

I think there will be plenty of people that will analyze this film. They’ll explain that the film is an allegory of God’s relationship to mankind. How the parents in this family represent the duality of God’s nature. That’s fine. That may have been Mr. Malick’s intent. I personally don’t plan on reading that much into the film. I plan on enjoying the film for how I perceive it. If any existential thoughts come into my mind based upon the film, so bit it, but I’m not going to go out of my way to deeply analyze the film.

During my 11th grade English class I was required to write an analysis of a poem. I did so. My teacher told me that my analysis was wrong. I didn’t care. I’ve always had the philosophy that whatever a director, writer, or artist intends, doesn’t matter. What matters to me is if I enjoy what they produce, and my own interpretation their creation. I have the same attitude towards this film. The Tree of Life is about a lot of things. The film is about a family in the 1950s. The film is about the entire history of the Earth. The one thing I’m sure of, is that I want to see it again and again. I would like to make the hundred mile trip to see it again, I probably won’t. I’ll have to wait for it to come out on Blu-ray.