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Tree of Life

[Rating: 4.5/5]

When I was in college, I had a few friends who were art majors.  Because of them, I learned how to appreciate and interact with art, often in gallery settings.  I learned that, when interacting with the majority of art, whether it be painting, sculpture, dance, or whatever, the right question isn’t “what am I seeing?” but “how does what I’m seeing make me feel?”  How do I respond and interact with this bit of light or movement or color in front of me?  The majority of art attempts to get beyond the rational and speak to a different part of our minds…or souls.  If that’s not what you’re about as an artist, I think you’re just painting pretty pictures.

I bring this up because relating to a Terrence Malick film– and this Terrence Malick film, “Tree of Life,” in particular–felt a lot more like a trip to the gallery than a night at the movies.  I find this to be very unusual, and startling.  Most movies – mainstream, indie, artsy or otherwise – are primarily concerned with telling a story, and I think that act alone sets them apart from the kind of art I described above.  Narrative structure, after all, is a rational construct, and a story is a way of making sense of the world.  Movies are a powerful form of expression, but they aren’t art in the same way a Rothko painting, or a Beethoven symphony, are.

Watching “Tree of Life” is a challenging experience.  “Just don’t leave,”  the theater usher pleaded with me as he tore my ticket.  “Lots of people do.”  But I was transfixed by the screen like I have rarely been.  Because it eschews narrative structure almost entirely, “Tree of Life” is an almost impossible film to describe.  I would say, humbly, that I think it’s about God.  Malick has built a rumination about the Supreme Being that incorporates everything that comes to mind when the subject is brought up.   Remember that terrible Dishwalla song “Counting Blue Cars,” the one with the chorus that starts “Tell me all your thoughts on God/’Cuz I’d really like to meet her”?  Malick took it seriously.  Here, in grand scope, are all his thoughts on God.   Prepare yourself.

“Tree of Life” incorporates everything a rumination on God ought to, from the origins of the universe, to the existence of suffering, the immensity of space, the insignificance of man within that space, the significance of man within his own mind.  It’s about grace and discipline; anger and love; mothers and fathers.  There are dinosaurs, and traumatic deaths, and lots of Malick’s signature shots of light pouring over fields, plants, and trees.

It gets closest to feeling like a “normal” movie in its middle sequence, about a young boy in the ’50s, and his relationship with his father, mother, and brothers.  Brad Pitt plays the father, and continues to firm up my belief that he is one of the finest, if not the finest, actor of his generation.  He plays him as a strict disciplinarian with a lot of anger and hidden security; he is determined to raise his boys to be something, because he believes that he is nothing.  The boys hate and fear him; they also love and respect him.  But this movie isn’t about fathers and sons; it’s about God and us, and this section seems to be saying “my father was like this, and now I see God this way…” or something along those lines.

It’s an almost impossible film to explain, describe, or say anything definitive about.  It’s impressionistic, it’s beautifully crafted, it’s a masterpiece.  I think part of what makes it so hard for me to write about is that it demands a personal response; I was deeply moved by it, in a number of ways.  I think if you go into it ready to meet the challenge it presents, there is no way you won’t be deeply moved by it.   It’s a masterpiece of filmmaking, a work of art in the highest sense, and a film that shouldn’t be missed.

One last note:  see it in a quiet theater if at all you can.  This film so demands – and rewards- your attention and total engagement that I can’t imagine it being a very satisfying experience to watch it on DVD while trying to pay your bills and keeping an eye on the laundry.  There are very, very few films these days (or ever) that really justify the cost and inconvenience of the theater, but “Tree of Life” definitely does.

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