Monday, May 30, 2011

Tree of Life: May 2011

"I don't like it;" four words that are used so very often. What do they mean those four words—are we supposed to like something, what does it mean to like? (Think favorably, perhaps. Show favor to. Dote? No certainly, not. For doting, conjures up images of over-protectiveness and we certainly don't want to send our progeny out into the world unprotected, do we?)

There is something at the heart of this film that is profoundly moving. My initial reaction was that I was fascinated by the experience of viewing this film. That sounds cold and, upon reflection, I think that because so much of this film is disjointed, but never careless, that coldness speaks to heartache.

Never a fan of stories that revolve around the loss of a child, in this instance mercifully played via partial phone calls, picture without sound and recurring narration references, this film is nothing if not about acceptance. So I accept it, from it's very first moment when on screen appears a divine monolith, in the form of what looked to me to be gaseous matter-in-formation, to its stunning and self-reflective conclusion montage of meeting all who will ever be on the white sands of some primordial shore. And I am glad. I like it. This film is extraordinary. It's not a movie, not in the way we are used to, and that is another reason for championing it. This film is so natural, and therefore chaotic, messy and pulverizing, that it is mesmerizing. Shot using film stock as well as digitally this film also blurs lines of distinction. And that is why I like it.

No question is too small, no question is too large; we search for answers, constantly. Much of our lives are hijacked by our innate desire to create order from chaos. We compartmentalize our time-- running to stay in shape, monitoring our food intake, yet still worry that we don't do enough.

But time marches on and eventually compartmentalizes us until we are but a memory, a form of gas from which reality morphs. We have idealized longing to fall back on which allows us, if we choose, to forgive, in a way similar to post-war British poet Laureate Robert Graves epic prologue to his opus The White Goddess, writing that he was "gifted with so huge a sense of (her) nakedly worn magnificence that I forget cruelty and past betrayal, careless of where the next bright bolt may fall." Acceptance over time can lead to a spiritual reckoning of self in the grand scheme. He claimed that this massive and undecipherable work exploded out of him during a brief and intense period, without warning, a kind of creative "big bang." As warned by the actor Peter Coyote, who gave me the book in 1989, "this will take you a year to read, but it will change your life." Perhaps the same can be said of watching Tree of Life that trying to explain it proves frustrating. If so, I posit that it's simply not "I don't like it". By definition, any system that becomes more efficient narrows its cause. Nature cruelly seeks perfect harmony yet leaves destruction in its wake. Grace allows us to pick up the pieces and move on.

The Western world bases much of its cultural evolution to the early Greek philosophers and Roman councilors who deified the proper nouns, among them Nature and Grace. Perhaps they are on to something, Malick may be asking in this telling; for they are the forces which govern this world.

I don't know enough about film history to speculate where this film belongs and it is supercilious and pretentious to even think along those lines. But, if I could speak eloquently about literature enough to discuss Milton's Paradise Lost or cinema about 2001: A Space Odyssey or about specific books from the Bible then I could so find a place for Tree of Life.

It is a singular work of titanic majesty by a most expressive and courageous soul. So personal that he probably can't explain it, the film is bracketed by the two most unreachable, defiant and other-worldly extremes of the human condition- the search for meaning from without and for understanding from within. Where did we come from? How did we evolve? What moves me? Who am I? Why do I love?

Or maybe even more devastating question, why don't I love?

When she says, "I give him to you, I give my son to you" I understood a closing of the only discernable narrative line in the film but also felt joy of unexpectedly receiving a gift. The filmmakers behind this opus have given it to us, unprotected. They will accept those who say those four words, and there will be many, I don't like it. This story made me think of three words, I am alone.
Thank you. Love.





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