Saturday, August 22, 2015

Alternative narrative

I have chosen Tree of Life (2001, dir Terrence Malick) to study as an 'alternative narrative'. It is not that there is no narrative but Malick has allowed this to become more of a sensory experience which takes the viewer on an emotional and spiritual journey.  Instead of the images supporting the story, they are designed to trigger memories and empathy to create experiential viewing.

Not everyone enjoys this approach. Even Sean Penn who plays the adult Jack O'Brien in the film was critical of Malick: "I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I've ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I'm still trying to figure out what I'm doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context. What's more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly." (Interview in Le Figaro, August 2011)

This movie is quite autobiographical. Malick grew up in Waco, Texas where the film is set (although it was filmed in Smithville) where his father worked for an oil company but played the organ.  The director's brother Lawrence R Malick committed suicide when he was 19, the same age as the death of the brother : R.L in Tree of life. Malick's other brother died after a car crash in 2008.


Act 1 - idyllic scenes of a family home; the mother (Jessica Chastain) receives a telegram to say her child has died; she tells her husband (Brad Pitt); there are scenes of grief and cold comfort from grandmother. Some flashbacks to show the boy played guitar. Adult Jack (Sean Penn) lights a votive candle and has a phonecall with his father; mumbles about his brother; scenes in a very modern glass building where Penn seems to be an unhappy architect; some dream sequences of desert and a murmuration.

Act 2 - creation sequence - a journey through time and space evolution. Nature and grace seem to be hand in hand here.

Act 3 - 1950s Texas where we see the family begin and grow up; the father is a disciplinarian, the mother is soft and forgiving; the boys do boy things and then get a bit wilder, get into trouble, go through growing pains; we see Jack as a troubled boy who doesn't get along too well with his Dad; things go wrong with Dad's job and he admits he had the wrong priorities and he was hard on the kids.  There is some resolution here.

Act 4 - Adult Jack is wandering around the desert; more impressionistic sequences; whole family on the beach; Jack kneels at his mother's feet. The final line is "I give you my son".


Malick called upon Douglas Trumbull, responsible for the special effects in 2001: Space Odyssey to create many of the visuals and he seems to have successfully captured Malick's ideas and vision.

Malick wanted the interior spaces to be unlighted, so three houses were used in the main story, depending on the time of day and the position of the sun. The sun is always visible shining through the windows.  Lots of use of light and dark 

There were lots of very high angles (eg when Mr O'Brien is walking along metal ladder corridors at his job to show scale) and low angles to show the POV of the kids revelling in nature.

Book of Job theme

The Book of Job is featured heavily as part of the theme of Tree of Life - to the detail of Jack O'Brien's initials as well as being the epigraph for the movie. 

"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?" Job 38:4,7

We hear the mother whisper - presumably to her God - "What are we to you?"  and the father later rages that  he didn't acknowledge the glory.  "I wanted to be loved because I was great; A big man. I'm nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn't notice the glory. I'm a foolish man."

Mrs O'Brien: "The nuns taught us there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow." ["Grace" and "Nature" are whispered at the start of the film.]

As voiceover: "Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?"


The mother epitomises forgiveness, softness, light. She urges her boys: "Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive." She's playful - in one scene, she wakes them up by pressing ice cubes to their skin.  Several scenes are filmed with the camera following her from behind, as if she is leading the boys through life.


Some reviews describe him as being almost brutal but his character almost certainly reflects how a father would have behaved at that time.  This is where life and art becomes rather cliched - that father wants to be respected and successful, fails in his job through no fault of his own and life changes for the family.  At times he takes the discipline too far and the children are clearly scared of him but he is not abusive by the standards of the time.  He is also very playful with them - making shadow puppets and drawing on their faces.

Impressionistic sequences 

There is too much to cover here but some of the things that stood out for me were how well Malick recreated the sense of long, hot childhood summers. Surely every viewer could relate to something here?  Butterflies, frogs, Halloween, reading stories by torchlight, sprinklers in gardens, climbing trees, kicking cans, playing in long grass, staring at weird adults, falling in love with classmates, firecrackers, peer pressure, breaking windows, roughhousing with brothers. And they always seemed to be surrounded by dogs.  

Roger Ebert described this beautifully as "where life flows in and out through open windows".

The creation segments are gorgeous and epic. Much of the space imagery looks like rich baroque paintings. We see galaxies, nebulae, lava, waterfalls, cells, amoeba, DNA, jellyfish, seaweed, calm and beautiful dinosaurs, hammerhead sharks, giant manta rays, the eye of a foetus, the asteroid hitting the Yucatan peninsula.  The music and whispers and soundscapes make for a magical experience if the viewer is will to immerse themselves.

My response

This film definitely did not bore or irritate me as it seems to have done with many filmgoers.  I enjoyed the sensory experience throughout and I was definitely taken on emotional journey. I wonder if the sense of devastation of the brother dying would have been more powerful if we had seen the boys together more before we hear the news that he is dead?

Malick really succeeds in evoking the wonders of childhood and how hard it is to grow up. When you are young your family and friends are everything so small things seem unsurmountable and we really feel this through young Jack.

The impressionistic sequences elevate this from being a straight story of the mundane trials and tribulations of a family growing old together who suffer a bereavement.  This allows us as viewers to participate and explore our greater feelings about the world and why we are here and how we should behave. 

Many things puzzled me, of course ... the doorway in the desert that adult Jack (Sean Penn) walks through in his sharp suit; the lost souls wandering around on the beach; what sparked adult Jack's specific angst and sadness at that moment (an anniversary of RL's death?); what were memories, what were dreams and what was imagination (eg the tall creepy man in the attic)?; how did he finally achieve happiness and resolution? ...

There are so many things explored in this film which connect us humans and I found it to be a wonderful lyrical experience. Malick took a very simple premise - ordinary family relationships - and made something truly magical.  I can understand why people were frustrated by some of the apparently 'arty' bits but I am sure every single thing meant something to Malick and his teams and was included the final cut to help take us on the journey.

My attempts to summarise the 'narrative' in a diagram...

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