Saturday, July 09, 2011

Tree of Life (2)

With The Tree of Life, some would assert - as if it is self-evident - that "the film" sets up a nature/grace dichotomy.  (Usually the next step is to grant that it's a simplistic binary, etc.)  But I am not convinced that it is "the film" which does this.  The binary itself is associated with the character of the mother, Mrs. O'Brien.  It is her voice-overs which introduce and maintain the concept, and I think it is a hasty rush to judgment which presumes that "the film" aligns her with grace and Pitt with nature.  "The film" - if we attend to what's up on screen, and on the soundtrack - instead associates the the nature/grace distinction as a binary with Jessica Chastain's character.

One of the opening segments depicts what we might presume to be Mrs. O'Brien's childhood - we see a ginger girl on farmland.  Why does this sequence exist at all, especially when it bears no explicit story relation - in dialogue or voice-over - to the rest?  I suspect that its role is to ground Mrs. O'Brien herself in a specific milieu, to grant her character a bit (but a crucial bit!) of historical specificity precisely to circumvent the criticism that she's a long-suffering wife, i.e., more or less a sexist failing on Malick's part.  But I think the glimpse we get of her upbringing, if indeed it is that, instead works to ground this character.  She's a farmgirl, brought up with a Christian sense of love and grace.  She remarks, when she introduces the nature/grace distinction in VO, that it is what "they" told "us."  She was gettin' religion on the farm.

These very values - the ever-renewing sense of grace and acceptance, which also provide her with her almost saintly ability to be that long-suffering, quiet, ideal housewife.  But the film does present us with cracks in the facade, and as Jack tells his mother, "You let him walk all over you."   Pitt's Mr. O'Brien doesn't have a similar scene of his own childhood because of his dominating presence: we can draw out something about his background and his beginnings by looking at how he verbalizes, how he gestures and acts.

... We can maybe think of Malick as something like a "symphonic modernist."  When I say this, though, I specifically want to avoid the vagueness that comes with airily gesturing toward Malick and his films as being "poetry," "poetic," "musical," etc.  Maybe "symphonic" is not the best word.  (But can we borrow from letters?  To call Malick "literary" might just invite people to automatically assume that I mean "novelistic" ...)  I use it to gesture, perhaps clumsily, to the way he organizes his material so as to construct meaning.  In Tree of Life, there are "movements" (Mrs. O'Brien; adult Jack; birth of the universe; etc.).  The connective significance of these movements is not narrative, though the film sort of tells a story.  (But more primarily it organizes a web of experiences: this is something narrative does, but not all things that do this must be narrative.) 

8 comments:

Daniel Kasman said...

Yes! Ryland and I were just talking about your first point yesterday, a major red herring most critics have unthinkingly picked up and ran with.

Edgar Jorge said...

Hey Zach, great observation. I think part of the reason for the grace/nature as mother/father dichotomy is that it has been assigned over and over in interviews by the cast (mainly Brad Pitt).
One make take the voiceover in the beginning as a "set up" for the conflict of the film, as I assume most critics have. Yet what Malick does for the next two and a half hours, among many other things, is to blur that distinction and how it corresponds to each parent. The mother points at the clouds and the trees and says "that's where god lives," the father points at a record of Tuscanini conducting Brahms.

More and more we see the Mr. Obrien removed from nature (patenting inventions, correcting posture, playing poker, walking through factories, in church) as we see Mrs. Obrien grounded in it (among the elements, animals, in the woods, hovering above like the wind). This is not to say that the label of grace should be applied to the father and that of nature to the mother, but instead it makes the dichotomy a purely conceptual one and not reflected in some sort of material reality, another myth to help us cope and go along.

Somewhat related: One of the moments that struck me the most in the final sequence, is a spontaneous kiss the mother gives to the father in that deserted beach. It is perhaps the only time we see them express their love in the film and, in spite of its shortness, it is an aggressively passionate kiss. Since Inger's final kiss at the end of Dreyer's Ordet, I have rarely seen the spiritual ecstasy and the sublime reflected in such an impulsive and bodily urge to kiss.

Jake said...

Thirded. And isn't it "the nuns told us," by the way? Which makes it still less probable we're meant to take the formulation as, er, gospel.

Adrian said...

Great post, Zach. The same thing goes, I believe for the 'one big soul' statements in THE THIN RED LINE, the insistent voice-over mode of which is precisely questions - not message-statements. THE NEW WORLD continues that mode of insistent self-questioning of any binary distinction, as does TREE OF LIFE.

Jon Hastings said...

Good observations.

I wonder, though: what's wrong with "poetic"? That is, specifically, why this anxiety around that word with this movie and this director (an anxiety that I share, btw, and have seen quite a few times before your post)? Is it really just because its vague or that it feels like its a surrender - a word that stands in for a concept that requires much more heavy lifting to really do it justice? I ask because I think running away from "poetic" is a bit of a mistake in Malick's case: his movies do feel to me to be closer to the kind of modern Romantic/narrative poetry that grows out of Wordsworth and Whitman (specifically, by someone like A.R. Ammons, whose poems jump scales from the personal to the geological to the microscopic, and where the heat in the poems comes from hat juxtaposition of incommensurates). Not that "symphonic" isn't also good, but it seems to me that poems (or at least these kinds of poems) are more directly "narrative" (like Malick's movies) than most symphonies. Calling this movie Malick's "Prelude" might be a bit of shorthand, but it seems to be closer to how the movie is structured than many other proposed models. (Moreover, I think the movie is amenable to a Harold Bloomian reading, a la 2001 - but that's even more of a tangent). Anyway, sorry for the digression, but I thought if there was any place to raise this kind of issue, it would be this blog!

Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone - as always, I apologize for the lateness of my reply.

Edgar - I didn't know that Pitt (et al) were trumpeting that nature/grace interpretation too. That's too bad. Another indication of the way in which the aesthetic of TOL and its fact as Hollywood product contradict. Regarding the singularity of the final Pitt/Chastain kiss - we do see them laying on a blanket in the grass, in "young love," for a brief sequence, too ... but you're right, that kiss does seem a little out of nowhere, and is emotionally evocative for reasons I still can't fully parse.

Jake - I couldn't quite tell if Chastain said "the nuns told us" or "they once told us." You may be right! Next time I see the film (viewing #3) I'll listen carefully.

Jon - strictly speaking, "poetic" could work just fine. It's just that the word has come to acquire such vague associations within the history of film criticism that I think it requires more unpacking than it may be worth to justify why, specifically, one should apply poetry as a viable point of comparison to this film. (When often what is meant by "poetic" is something like "lyrical," just as "literary" tends to evoke "novelistic.")

Zach Campbell said...

Drew McWeeny (in a somewhat positive review): "And while I understand that Malick is illustrating what he sees as the two ways through life, the way of grace or the way of nature, I'm not sure I've ever seen as much energy spent to so little effect."

The funny, condescending presumptions of folks who tsk tsk at what "Malick" does wrong, because - ultimately - he commits the crime of not telling an easy, compelling, clear plot. I wish more of Malick's critics would bother to at least show they understand some basic features of the movie in question ...

mainlymilitary said...

It can't really have effect, I believe this way.