The Land of Nod — Malick’s Tree of Life

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Land of Nod

Let’s go back to the cosmic origins of Terrence Malick-the- filmmaker. In the beginning the young Malick gave us the masterpieces Badlands and Days of Heaven. These films were poetic allegories about the American experience. They achieved a resonance much larger than their thread-bare narratives would suggest and touched us in a manner that approaches the sublime: a fugitive and the young girl playing house in the forest in Badlands; a locust-fire in the wheat fields in Day of Heaven. In his first feature, Badlands, one senses the young director choosing the salacious Starkweather murders as a way of establishing broad appeal. A topic such as that would guarantee acclaim beyond the low earth orbit of film critics and art houses. His second feature, Days of Heaven, is less approachable but the sheer force of artistry dazzles us within the strict confines of the story, which is a retelling of Genesis. It is far more substantive a work to be merely a show-piece — but make no mistake — Malick wanted to impress… and he did.

But Malick’s penchant for favoring poetry over plot seemed to be gaining momentum. The Thin Red Line and The New World, his next two films, are visually arresting but seem rooted in a murky private language. They fail to reach the lushness of Days of Heaven and lack the narrative pull of Badlands. The Tree of Life brings this unfortunate movement to its apex. Not surprisingly the story, such as it is, is based on autobiography. It is as if the director has fallen so far inside himself that life-long personal demons take over the filmmaking.

One can view many over-arching themes in Malick’s work: youthful innocence searching for the garden, fraternal strife, the ever-present goddess (usually a strawberry blond)…. The Tree of Life brings us back to the genesis of Malick himself: an emotionally devastating childhood in post WWII Texas. There are few societies that reward introspective sensitive young people. The Lone Star State certainly follows this trend. Everything is big in Texas — including the clash between warm human emotions and hard driving relentless individualism. The Malick family had a casualty in the struggle: the suicide of the second son. The echo of Malick’s brother’s gun shot to the head over 50 years ago seems to be still echoing in the director’s head. Pain of this kind is cannot be quantified… but the artist has a duty to try. One would think a film about this paradigm of tragedy would be the chef d’ouerves of a visionary filmmaker of the caliber of Terrance Malick. Ironically the effort to illustrate universe- shattering pain diminished the force of the work.

Malick is at his best with an exquisitely crafted simple story with classic types: the sensitive loving mother, the brutal oppressive father, the beloved Christ-like brother. The moments, in Tree of Life, of the children interacting with the angelic mother and hard-bitten father rank with the best of his work. It is enough. The director, on the other hand, felt the need to embellish this heart-breaking story with poetic commentary and National Geographic slideshows of “creation.” It is almost as if the director was insecure about the beautiful simplicity. There is a sense that the audience would fail to feel the gravitas of the single most painful event in Malick’s life. One can hear the director shouting at his audience through classical chorus’ and flashy maudlin images — sunsets, butterflies, sunflowers, sand and surf — including the touchstone of all cinematic clichés: flying seagulls. I suspect Malick doesn’t own or watch television. If he did he would have known that all his visual pandering had been co-opted by mainstream TV advertising 30 years ago. The closing sequence, the emotional peak of the film, was supposed to feature a transcendent display of all the characters in a heavenly afterlife. Unfortunately for Malick, modern audiences equate this sort of thing with Verizon super-bowl ads. The saddest aspect of this work is the magic of the pitch-perfect montages of family life. The genius of his spare exposition and seemingly simple moments hint at what this film might have been.

The denouement features the father figure reflecting on his own failure to recognize the treasure in his life: his sons. Brad Pitt, who appears as a fierce red-neck from a Robert Frank photo, quietly speaks to the fact that despite the blow of losing his house — he has his family. It is especially poignant as this hard-luck would-be artist fell into the trap of listening to Dale Carnegie rather than Brahms. But one doesn’t expect someone living the dark side of the American dream to have the insight to see the real road to the pursuit of happiness. As he says to his oldest son “I was hard on you and I’m not proud of it”. This “hardness” was rooted in a dogged hope of shaping everyone around him to the same sad hopeless vision. The father wanted everyone in his family to feel the desperation of his quest. His verbal barrages were designed to shape his family so they would understand the true meaning of success. The insidious nature of his father’s cruelty was blindness rooted in isolation. The man was hurting and stopped being able to see those near and dear. Such arrogance cost the father his son. I believe the same thing may have cost Malick his audience.

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