Saturday, July 2, 2011

Tree of Life

Tree of Life is basically two movies. The first is an affecting, beautifully shot family drama set in suburban 1950's Texas. This is the one with Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain and is a lovely portrait of a disciplinarian Eisenhower era father and a gentler mother who attempt to raise three boys in a world that is becoming disenchanted by the certainties with which everyone grew up. The visual trope Terrence Malick is going for in this part of his film is very much in the realm of realist painter Andrew Wyeth (although sometimes it's a little bit like the Pearl Jam video "Jeremy") and the whole thing works very well. 
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The second movie in Tree of Life is the sort of film that got shown in 1970's planetariums. Its a history of the universe from the dawn of time to the present day. We get to see star birth clouds (images from the Hubble space telescope), the birth of the sun, the evolution of single celled creatures (in one quick scene we see mitochondria being captured by a cell), the colonisation of the land, the birth and death of the dinosaurs (via the Chicxulub event). I enjoyed this kind of film when I was 11 at Armagh Planetarium, but I'm not sure what it was doing in this movie. While I was watching it all I could think of was Carl Sagan's Cosmos and those Far Side cartoons about evolution (but of course this being a Terrence Malick movie there are not permitted to be jokes of any kind). As a planetarium movie it's not bad but I think I noticed two mistakes: I'm pretty sure Jupiter's Great Red Spot wasn't around at the time of the dinosaurs and you wouldn't have heard birdsong in the dinosaur forest because birds hadn't been invented yet.
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Malick wrote his PhD thesis on Heidegger and Heidegger said that death is the central fact of life and how we cope with death is essential to our being. Heidegger was famous for asking the big questions like: why are we here? and what does it mean to be alive? and how am I going to explain my flirtation with the Nazi Party after Germany loses the war? Tree of Life wants to ask these big questions too and I think it might have been more successful had it just concentrated on the Texas family. Reminding us of our insignificance in the big scheme of things - as if this is somehow news - doesn't really get us anywhere.
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I think it's possible that Malick has been following the wrong philosopher all these years. Albert Camus said the plight of man is absurd and insignificant but because of this insignificance living our lives becomes a heroic quest for meaning. Camus accepts the abyss and the chaos and laughs at it. The cheerful, dyspeptic Camus might be a better guide than gloomy old Heidegger and don't forget that when push came to shove and these two philosophical systems were tested Camus was on the side of the good guys in World War 2.

20 comments:

seana said...

I think I pretty much totally agree with you, though of course I didn't pick up on the birdsong/spot on Jupiter errors. My Finnegans Wake group decided to see it for Bloomsday, sort of, so I wrote up some brief impressions here. Actually, I seem to have gotten a bit sidetracked on Job, but I blame Malick for that.

Peter Rozovsky said...

The awesomeness of it all might have taken my brain to a place beyond knowledge, facts, and the necessity to get things right, but I like to think I'd have noticed the birds/dinosaurs thing.

Wait a minute. Dinosaurs evolved into birds, I have read, so maybe what you heard was dinosaur song, smartypants.
======================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yes I agree the Texas stuff was nice.

The book of Job is such an appalling indictment of the old testatment God I'm surprised that people can still use the Bible as a moral book. God comes accross as a moody power mad callous flippant dictator.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yeah maybe it was dinosaur song but it kinda sounded like birds in the temperate rain forest.

seana said...

The weird thing is that before whatever the name of the company was who took it over, there were some thoughts of filming it in India. I don't really get that, and I'm glad it turned out to be Texas, even if Waco has some odd, indeed Joblike overtones.

Where late the sweet birds did not sing, I guess. Or maybe early.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

It sounded like there were frogs in there too, but frogs are fine, frogs have been around for hundreds of millions of years and can pretty much survive anything.

My favourite frog is the North American Wood Frog - its bloody amazing.

seana said...

It's amazing, but then all hibernation is pretty incredible. I wonder why we can't do it.

I liked that guy's face. Very open and not full of himself.

Peter Rozovsky said...

The book of Job is such an appalling indictment of the old testatment God I'm surprised that people can still use the Bible as a moral book.

Think of the Bible as Hollywood. It tacked a happy ending onto the story of Job.
======================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

Philip Robinson said...

On the subject of the Tree of Life - would Genesis and Revelation not be more obvious points of reference in the Bible than Job? In any case you do the book of Job an bit of an injustice. The dialogue between Satan (the real author of Job's misfortunes) and God - in this the most ancient of Biblical texts - is essentially what Milton ran with, and the dialogue between Job and his 'comforters' has a Shakespearean ring to it - unlike any other book in the Bible.
But then you would expect a dinosaur like me to leap to the defense of Job, if not of the 'Old Testament' God.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its not that happy though is it? If I remembering correctly (and I may not be) dont his sons stay dead?

adrian mckinty said...

Phil

I just find it distasteful that God and Satan are playing with a man's life like that. Inflicting all that pain just to prove a point is like something Idi Amin would do. It just seems very vulgar to me.

seana said...

I was thinking this morning that the book of Job is more an answer to the false friends than it is to Job himself. I'm not sure that in the end we really know how Job really feels about the matter, since he is silent.

It could actually be in support of the we are all simulations theory, though, since the creator in that scenario would certainly think that one son was much like another.

If you haven't been over to Philip's blog lately, you should check it out, Adrian. Or anyone else interested in Northern Irish history.

Philip Robinson said...

Seana has it, I think, with "the creator in that scenario would certainly think that one son was much like another". Job had TWICE the number of sheep, cattle and other possessions that he had lost restored in the end, but his "double portions" of blessings only involved 7 new sons, replacing the 7 he had had also taken from him. (Most commentators think that is significant as the 7 'lost' sons would be 'restored' in the afterlife, signalling that they - unlike the livestock - were not Satan's to claim). Anyway, Job is a book well worth careful reading as it has many layers of metaphorical meaning.
I agree too Seana about Job's
'friends'. It is only a 'Job's Comforter' who tells you that your misfortunes are a punishment from God. Maybe some of the fundamentalists who see Aids in that light should be made to read Job.
Anyway Seana, thanks for the plug on my "Steinbeck's Redemption". I was hoping Adrian would check it out as it features Melbourne and nearby (in Australian terms) Lorne.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Everyone stays dead, but Job accepts his fate like a good believer,

adrian mckinty said...

Seana,

7 sons are offered as compensation for the 7 sons God allowed to be killed? Really?

Thats just awful. We're supposed to respect such an infantile and callous God who treats human lives as if they are sheep?

adrian mckinty said...

Phil

There was no concept of the Afterlife in the Old Testament. Thats a later invention. The ancient Hebrew of sheol is not a heaven but the place where souls turn to dust. The sons who are killed are killed. Nice.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Hopefully he nourishes thoughts of revenge.

seana said...

Adrian, if we're all just replicants, it doesn't matter. Even if it feels like it matters to us, it doesn't. I'm not siding with the sim-master here (unless it gets me bonus points and possibly future incarntions), just commenting.

Craig said...

While I was watching Tree of Life I really wasn't sure if I was enjoying it. But in the two weeks since, I keep coming back to it and thinking about it so it definitely affected me on some level. As small as his role was, I really didn't like Sean Penn. All he ever does is play moody, troubled guys. At least Pitt stretched himself.

adrian mckinty said...

Craig

It might be one of those movies that really grows on me on DVD. Certainly all the other Terry Malick ones did.