January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
November 5, 2011
I’ve been asked to write a few words about the blu-ray release of The Tree of Life.
I’m glad to do so, because the blu-ray is outstanding. But I suspect some of my friends are wishing I would stop writing so profusely about this film. If American theaters would screen even a few films as interesting as this one, I’ll happily write about them. I’m waiting.
My first response to The Tree of Life was a two-part review for Image (Part One, Part Two), followed by an article about the virtues of “handmade” cinema. Then, in a lengthy blog post at Looking Closer, I responded to some of those who were frustrated with the film.
But great films are never the same experience twice.
So here is another introduction to a film that deserves frequent introduction… this time, in honor of its exquisite blu-ray release.
“Things mean things,” a teacher once said, speaking of poetry to my high school literature class. “Things mean things. Otherwise…”
Those ellipses hung heavily in the air.
Those ellipses are still working on me.
In the context of a poetry class, they were meaningful words. We were learning that every words counts in a good poem. Every word is doing “heavy work.” Every word is chosen for a reason. And everything—the rhythms, the line breaks, even the shape can make a difference.
But what about outside of a poem? Am I supposed to believe that the world around me—the news, the weather, trees, birds, my choices, the consequences of those choices—are meaningful? When I stare up at a starry sky, why does it make me feel so good? So grateful? Am I just fooling myself, thinking about what a storm or a mountain or a maple tree might be saying to me? Has poetry made me sentimental, or is it teaching me how to see the world? Do the heavens really declare?
Okay, believe it or not, this is supposed to be an article about a movie coming out on blu-ray. Stick with me. It is.
Because when I watch The Tree of Life, the latest film from Terrence Malick, I get a funny feeling. And I watch it on blu-ray, that funny feeling is that much stronger.
On a big screen, with bright, bold colors, you may find, as I have, that the imagery in this film—a cold and glassy city, a sky-reaching tree, the creation of the cosmos, a childhood, dreams, visions of a grander design—is all the more affecting. It sounds like a sales pitch, but it’s something simpler than that. Beauty matters.
Most popular filmmakers devise vivid, startling, flamboyant imagery to keep us glued to the screen. They show us wild and crazy things that we are unlikely to see in the world around us. They give us what we think want to see.
Malick is more interested in helping us see what we we need to see: this magnificent world, perhaps for the first time. He has such a gift for capturing and conveying a sense of the mysterious that it’s hard to believe this film was made by an American, in America, and released by an American studio into actual theatres.
And as a result, two-thirds of the audience seems to be confounded, even angry, about what they’ve experienced. They came as consumers and were asked to be something else instead… contemplatives. They came to be entertained and they were invited to participate in prayers.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.” And when I get the sense that something mysterious and grand is waiting to be seen more clearly in a work of art—the sense that “things mean things” I get an adrenalin rush.
I feel that rush watching films by Terence Davies, whose film The Long Day Closes may have inspired Malick as he worked on The Tree of Life. Describing Davies’ film, a critic at Film 4 wrote,
Davies has been criticised in some quarters for his refusal to grant easy access to his films. The Long Day Closes has no narrative structure, dramatic development or characterisation in the traditional sense. But then neither does memory.
Instead we are treated to an impressionistic patchwork of glimpsed images, snatched tunes, surreal daydreams and fragmented dialogue. They constitute the director’s own, very personal memories, but the recollections are so lovingly created, with such cinematic grace and emotional honesty, that you empathise with every grin and grimace.
He may as well be writing about Malick’s movie—or movies. There is good reason to believe that much of The Tree of Life comes from Malick’s own memories, but I would never advise anyone to interpret the film as narrowly as that. A good deal of the power in Malick’s films is that he films so much improvisation, and finds remarkable moments that give you the sense you’re seeing things that have never happened before and will never happen again. It gives realistic scenes a dream-like quality, and fragments of dreams and visions a quality that speaks with relevance into the here and now.
This also describes the dream-and-memory mode of Malick’s previous films The Thin Red Line and The New World, which feel inseparable from The Tree of Life to me… as if they are three chapters in the same epic poem.
It also reminds me of the surreal, poetic qualities of the great Andrei Tarkovsky’s dream-like film Zerkalo (The Mirror), Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique, the Dardenne brothers’ film The Son, films by David Lynch and Michael Haneke, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi, and Robert Bresson’s Au hazard Baltahzar.
These aren’t films that are popular with American audiences. They’re films that ask us to contemplate rather than merely consume.
And I sense my teacher’s profound ellipses at work every time I watch them. Every image, every sound, every musical selection, every scene—all of these pieces are speaking with and affecting all of the other pieces. It’s narrative fiction, yes; but more precisely, it’s a poem made of pictures, words, silences, colors, and chords.
Those ellipses pulse quietly in the striking juxtapositions between images of:
They burn in the questions that the characters ask:
They burn in the film’s silences, asking about the significance of seemingly arbitrary, incidental moments:
Every scene invites me to consider the implications of what I’m seeing, to compare them with other scenes. And in a Malick film, the environment is as expressive as any character, and so we should be watching for connections between characters and elements of the natural world. As the film plays, if we’re paying attention we cannot help but notice connections between characters’ decisions, their conversations and speeches, their gestures, and the natural world around them.
What some moviegoers see as just pretty pictures, Malick means for us to question: Why, right now, at this moment, do I give you a shot of a tree reaching its arms up to the sky? And what does this have to do with the close-up of the character’s furrowed brow?
This is why The Tree of Life demands several viewings. Each time I’ve watched it, the intricate, elaborate map of literary themes, soulful questions, visual motifs, and symmetrical events have become clearer.
So it is a very good thing that The Tree of Life has just been released on blu-ray and DVD.
And few films better demonstrate the virtues of blu-ray. Every shot in Malick’s film is a marvel for color, for light, for choreography, for persuasive and nuanced performances (including some performances by children that impress me as much as any I’ve ever seen), for the way the camera seems to dance and soar, for convincing naturalism, for an everpresent sense of mystery—sometimes all of these things at once.
As I watch this film, my synapses start firing like a fireworks display. I careen from thoughts about one aspect of its craft to another. I think about what an image says, then what its juxtaposition with the next images says. Then I remember an earlier sequence that seems connected to this one. The music gets my attention, and I’m thinking about why Malick selected this classical accompaniment. The special effects—primarily handmade by Douglas Trumbull through chemical reactions at a “secret laboratory” in Austin—take my breath away. And then I’m thinking of the Scripture that opened the film.
Why does this blu-ray presentation look better than it did on the big screen?
I’ve seen no competition for Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography at the movies this year, but in this digital presentation it is alive with colors and motion that remind me of nothing else. Perhaps they seem more concentrated on a screen smaller than the cineplex canvas. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a film that feels so much like a treasury of extraordinary, frame-worthy photography. The light in this film feels so natural, and yet is seems almost supernatural, causing me to pay more attention to the world around me and think—Is this world really so beautiful all of the time, and I’m just missing it? As the mother teaches her children, “Nature finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.”
The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround track accentuates an astonishing progression of original music by Alexandre Desplat, familiar classical selections, and other excerpts from composers like Kieslowski’s go-to composter Zbignew Priesner. And yet, the music is seamlessly blended with the sounds of the environment—birds and insects and dogs and mechanical rhythms and the clank of dishes in the kitchen. What the characters say in this film is only a small part of how the film speaks.
Things mean things. I’m convinced. And a few films—The Tree of Life has become one of them—strengthen my conviction of a benevolent spirit at work in the world around me every time I see them.
Those films work as poems, and they turn our attention back to our own lives—moments when we’re inspired and moments when we despair. They invite us to see how humility and compassion and grace lead to joy, and how pride and selfishness and competition lead to emptiness and despair. The Tree of Life reminds us that the trees we climbed as kids, the sprinklers that sprayed bright water into the afternoon sun, the creatures abundant in the grass, and the mysterious feelings that we experience when we bless and when we destroy… all of these things mean things.
Some other movie will win the Best Picture award at the Oscars this year. But I will be surprised if it offers half as much as this one. It will probably be a movie made with armchair moviegoers, not adventurers or explorers, in mind. It will entertain, but it will not invite you to pray.
So meditate on this movie. And go to the trouble to see the most perfect projection of the film that you can. In this case, blu-ray technology is doing us a world of good, making a fierce beauty possible on screens in our own living rooms, beauty almost as fierce as what’s happening in our own backyards and the night skies over our neighborhoods.
Jeffrey Overstreet watches far too many movies, writes film reviews and two weekly columns for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, maintains the Web site LookingCloser.org, contributes to Paste Magazine, and is at work on a series of novels. He works at Seattle Pacific University.