September 8, 2011

Tree of Life Surfs Through Memory

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Terence Malick’s Tree of Life chronicles the pre-adolescent years of three brothers in a small 1950’s Texan family, the O’Briens. The boys confront questions as situational as their father’s violent outbursts and as universal as faith and death. Meanwhile, Malick intersperses arresting images of the birth of the universe alongside the minutiae of the O’Briens’ daily life, creating an unmatched cinematic experience.

In many ways, Tree of Life is about the oldest son, Jack O’Brien. When the movie starts, Jack is older, yet still haunted by memories of his father’s anger and his brother’s premature death at the age of nineteen. Since the movie alternates back and forth between Jack as an adult and Jack as a child, the scenes of 1950’s Texas might be seen as Jack’s flashbacks and, indeed, this is exactly how they feel.

The scenes are not developments on a linear plot, but rather separate moments in time, each important in their own way. We experience them much in the same way we experience our own memories: as feelings, sights and sounds, rather than fully accurate and realistic events.

At first, this can make Tree of Life difficult to watch. The non-linear narrative and the ten minute-long scenes of cosmic imagery might feel more like a documentary you would sit through for class than a movie you would watch for enjoyment. But, if we pay close enough attention, we find that the movie is teaching us how to watch it. With its minimal plot, Tree of Life eludes analysis and, in so doing, forces us to ignore altogether our impulses to analyze. We are left not with an idea or an interpretation, but with a feeling.

The movie opens with Mrs. O’Brien, Jack’s mother, whispering what becomes the epitaph to the film: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you follow.” It is not ambiguous which one the film favors: Nature is desire and impulse, and is most closely embodied in Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt), an inventor who, in his desire to be successful and have successful sons, abrasively imposes himself on his world and his family. As Mrs. O’Brien goes on: “Nature wants only to please itself… it finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is smiling around it.” But, grace is accepting and open; rather than imposing itself, it passively observes the beauty in everything. When Tree of Life forces us to be patient through what may seem like purposeless scenes, it teaches us the way of its own preference: grace.

In 2005, when David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement speech at Kenyon College, he began with a simple story: “There are two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?’”

Wallace’s point is that, just as fish fail to understand the substance of the very thing in which they swim, we, as humans, are also often ignorant about the substance of our existence. Life, stripped of to-do lists and groceries and ideas, is difficult to define. He suggests that, though it may be difficult, we should remind ourselves as often as possible that “This is water,” “This is water.” With this in mind, the stripped down plot and the juxtaposition of universe and individual suddenly take on the meaning that was unable to be reached by analysis. Because when you leave the theater after seeing Tree of Life, you feel, maybe for the first time, like you know what “water” is.

Original Author: Caiden Leavitt