The year's most puzzling film has viewers scratching their heads. Here's a primer that should help
How does one watch Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”?
That is the question. Malick’s domestic epic is the most talked-about movie of the summer, and surely the most divisive — a two-hour-and-18-minute sound-and-light show that doubles as a nostalgia piece. Avoiding a strict linear plot, it instead offers a rush of images, sounds and sensations. It consists of fragments of a life remembered (and in a few cases, imagined) by its hero, an architect named Jack (Sean Penn), with special attention paid to Jack’s boyhood in 1950s Waco, Texas, where he was torn between the old-line machismo of his father (Brad Pitt) and the angelic, almost childlike openness of his mother (Jessica Chastain).
With this piece, I was aiming to write an “explainer” similar to this checklist of Spielbergian elements in J.J. Abrams’ early-Spielberg-eseque sci-fi adventure “Super 8,” but Malick is working in a different mode, or on a different intellectual plane, and is after different things. And he has over the years become a director that one cannot “explain” or otherwise pin down. Although Malick’s filmography has recurring themes and images and situations just like any other director’s, those aspects are not self-contained enough to be excavated like artifacts, labeled and put on display. One element tends to bleed into, or overlap with, others, in a way that makes the individual parts inseparable from the whole. More so than most directors’ movies, Malick’s films are all of a piece.
Although the film is released by Fox Searchlight, a boutique subdivision of 20th Century Fox, it has less in common with the typical studio film than with the tradition of European art cinema. It has a spectacular 20-minute sequence that re-imagines the creation of the universe, the forging of the planet and the gradual evolution of humankind, from multicelled organisms on up. There are a couple of scenes involving dinosaurs, with special effects by Douglas Trumbull (“2001: A Space Odyssey”), and lots and lots of searching voice-over that sounds like the hushed, poetic version of direct address in a stage play (“Father…mother…always you wrestle inside me”). It even has what a friend of mine calls “a 1970s head-scratcher ending” whose exact meaning no one can seem to agree on. No wonder that there have been walkouts — a lot of them, apparently — along with hosannahs from critics and quite a few civilian moviegoers.
The movie’s premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival drew a few boos, countered by enthusiastic applause. “The Tree of Life” is, in other words, the sort of film that either seizes your imagination or leaves you cold. It’s not the sort of movie you leave thinking, “Well, that was okay, I guess.” And it’s not typical of any filmmaking tradition except the uniquely personal one created by Malick, a mysterious figure who has made just five films since 1973, and hasn’t given an interview explaining himself in almost 25 years.
As regular Salon readers know, I’m a huge fan of Malick — I even did a five-part series of video essays on the director for the Museum of the Moving Image, which you can see by clicking here. So it’s no huge shock that I responded very positively to “The Tree of Life,” even more positively than my colleague Andrew O’Hehir, who had some misgivings about the film but praised it for being impressively different from most American studio pictures. But I also understand that your mileage may vary. And I believe there is no “wrong” or “right” way to watch a movie like this except to keep a completely open mind at all times, and that “The Tree of Life” is, by virtue of all the factors mentioned above, a different kind of picture than we’re used to seeing in U.S. multiplexes — a work more in the spirit of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (a film whose galactic panoramas Malick invokes in the film’s creation sequence) than 99 percent of the star-driven films being made today.
So what is Malick trying to do with “The Tree of Life”?
It’s impossible to say for sure, and the film is constructed in such as way as to deflect and even undermine one-size-fits-all explanations. But I’ve come up with a series of questions and answers anyway, culled from conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues over the past few weeks.
Bear in mind that none of the “answers” are meant to be definitive. They’re just my take. Yours will be different because “The Tree of Life” is designed to elicit unique, personal responses in viewers, as unique and personal as what Malick is putting onscreen. Nobody gets points for liking or not liking the film. It’s not a litmus test. And I doubt Malick intended it as such, because all his movies radiate a benevolent acceptance of difference, and show different people, groups, institutions, even nations and religions coexisting and clashing on the same planet without ever coming out and saying, “X is clearly superior to Y, therefore you should root for X,” or “This means exactly what it seems to mean and nothing more.”
With those caveats in mind, here we go.
[Caution: Spoilers from here on out.]
What are we looking at here, exactly? What is “Tree of Life”?
I think this is a 20th and 21st century cinematic memory piece in the tradition of such literary works as Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” and James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” but constructed in a much more fragmented way. I’ve had a number of arguments with fellow viewers about whose memories, exactly, we are seeing. Are they Jack’s? If so, how do we account for the parts of the film that seem to delve into the consciousness of his father and mother, and the images of the Big Bang and the creation of the earth, which obviously he could not have personally witnessed?
The obvious answer is that everything is happening inside the mind of Jack, and the images he could not have personally witnessed are his imagining of things that happened when he wasn’t there.
Honestly, though, I suspect that a lot of the reviews of this movie are mistaking it for a puzzle that one can eventually solve, and that’s a mistake because it’s really not that kind of movie. If there’s a puzzle aspect at all, you probably have to think of it as a puzzle that you discover in the back of a closet, a big bag of several hundred loose pieces in a bag, minus the box with the picture on it that tells you what the finished image is supposed to look like. Each shot or scene is a piece of the puzzle, and the pieces sometimes cohere into distinct patterns or panoramas that you can look and say, “Oh, of course, this is the creation of the universe, which ties into the creation of Jack’s own personality” or “this part is about the love-hate relationship between Jack’s mother and father and the traumatic effect that their conflicts had on the children,” or “this part is a freestanding sketch of the dad’s personality that gives us insight into who he is.”
I think what we’re seeing is the contents of Jack’s head during a particular day. He’s at an undefined crisis point, maybe just a typical midlife crisis, or maybe something more specific — he’s a architect in his late 40s or early 50s (Penn’s age doesn’t jibe with the chronology of the flashbacks, but that wasn’t a dealbreaker for me). This crisis might be due to divorce, or because the anniversary of his brother’s death just happened (the film starts with a flashback to a childhood scene that occurs many years after most of the stuff depicting in the childhood portion). But Malick leaves the exact fulcrum for all this reminiscing unclear. I like how this strategy runs counter to the mainstream Hollywood tendency to tie flashbacks to distinct events. My dad just had a heart attack, therefore I flash back to memories of my father.
I don’t need an anniversary or a traumatic event to trigger thoughts about my past. My own imagination is constantly racing through the past and the present and projecting into the future, with side trips into fantasy. I’ve even thought about the creation of the universe and dinosaurs a lot during adulthood, and not just because of this film. How about you?
What does Jack want?
I don’t think Jack “wants” anything, in the traditional, goal-directed Hollywood movie sense. The only thing he wants, I think, is to understand himself and his past a bit better, and impose some order on the chaos of his imagination without oversimplifying or falsifying any part of it. A big part of his journey — and I mean “journey” in the sense of a trip from cradle to grave and beyond, not “journey” in the Screenwriting 101 sense of “What does the hero want and how does he eventually attain it?” – consists of grappling with the fact that he doesn’t really understand all the forces that shaped him and probably never will, and that when he looks back on his life, he doesn’t really see a clear pattern there, a clear pathway guiding him from childhood through adulthood and into old age. Nor can he separate out the influences (nature vs. grace, mom vs. dad, the religious/cosmic vs. the mundane). It’s an ongoing process that stays unresolved, unfinished.
This is the first Terrence Malick film I’ve ever seen. Are they all like this?
Yes and no.
Over time, Malick’s films have become increasingly dense, lyrical and abstract. His 1973 debut “Badlands,” about a couple of young, dumb killers wandering through middle America, had a strict linear narrative, two main characters and one, somewhat unreliable voice-over narration. His second film, “Days of Heaven,” was much more elusive and allegorical, with a young narrator who was disconnected from the main action, and a story that invoked the Bible as well as the creation myths of other cultures. His 1998 film “The Thin Red Line,” based on James Jones’ novel, was less a traditional war picture than an inquiry into being, nothingness, mortality and love, one that just happened to be set in the World War II Pacific theater; it had multiple voice-over narrators and dipped into and out of them like the angels eavesdropping on mortals’ thoughts in Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire.” And his fourth movie, “The New World,” was in some ways a continuation of “Days of Heaven,” with three narrators, a sprawling story, and a searching, reflective style that linked the birth, adolescence, marriage and eventual death of its heroine to the cycles of life that affect civilizations as well as individuals.
With each new feature, Malick moves a bit further away from what we’re used to seeing at this budget level of filmmaking, edging closer to experimental cinema and the exceedingly private, delicate, figurine-like memory pieces of the English filmmaker Terence Davies (“The Long Day Closes,” “Distant Voices, Still Lives”).
But they always maintain a sense of what you could call “intimate immensity,” and are constantly connecting the evolution of individual lives such as Jack’s and his parents’ to the evolution of a community, a country, a world, and the universe itself.
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Two-for-one for Everyone — West Wind Solano Twin Drive-In, Concord, Calif. This family-friendly attraction with several spots across the U.S. (including California, Nevada and Arizona) prides itself on offering first-run double features (save for premiere events) on the cheap — which is quite the deal, considering their 65-foot screens are among the biggest in the biz. And if you have great car speakers, even better: squawk boxes of old have been replaced with Dolby quality audio piped through your car’s FM stereo.
For the Four-legged Friendly — Warwick Drive-In, Warwick, N.Y. Northeast city slickers looking for a place to watch their favorite movie stars under the stars need only veer six miles east of Vernon, N.J. What began as a family affair in 1950 has since become a seasonal institution offering rural and urban (and pet!) audiences two movies for the price of one on any of its three giant screens.
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See Stars Collide — Ford-Wyoming Drive-In, Dearborn, Mich. Open year-round (unlike many of its surviving contemporaries), this five-screen staple of the Midwest known as the “largest drive-in in the world” plays host for up to 3,000 cars on any given night. And if the double-feature doesn’t hold your attention, relax; you’ve got the best (car)seat in the house for the occasional overhead meteor shower.
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A Hole (Lot of Fun) in One — Wellfleet Drive-In, Wellfleet, Mass.Built in 1957 and still offering original mono sound boxes for those looking for an authentic experience (or not, as FM stereo is available as well), the summer-exclusive theater hosts double features of first-runs on its giant 100’ x 44’ screen. Come for the movies, stay for the mini-golf and flea market (on select days).
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Go Big or Drive Home — Bengies Drive-In, Baltimore, Md. The only thing bigger than Bengies’ prolific history (57 years and going) is its main attraction — boasting the biggest theater screen in the U.S. at 6,240 square feet. That’s 52’ x 120’ of pure anamorphic presentation. Complementing its time capsule of a snack bar (unchanged since ’56), previews old and new occupy the venue’s old-timey intermissions between features.
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Proof That Film is Forever — Shankweilers, Orefield, Pa. While we’re on superlative street, consider stopping at this roadside treasure: America’s oldest drive-in. Operating since 1934, it may not have the frills and pony rides of nearby Becky’s Drive-In, but it’s defied hurricanes and the wear and tear of time. Worth the one-hour drive from Philly.
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The Gritty Hollywood Reboot — Corral Drive-In, Guymon, Okla. Like a slasher movie menace that died (several times) in the ’80s only to be rebooted years after, the long-vacant Corral Drive-In was resurrected and restored in 2009, providing big entertainment at a nominal fee. And if the $6 adult admission doesn’t make you feel like a kid again, the venue’s inflatable bouncers most definitely will.
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Hop the Healthy Highway — Delsea Drive-In, Vineland, N.J. Less than an hour’s trip from Atlantic City, New Jersey’s only drive-in offers the best of both worlds — old school aesthetic outfitted with modern tech and healthier food choices to boot. Open seasonally, with first features beginning around dusk.
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Bring Your Backyard to the Big Screen — Starlight Six Drive-In, Atlanta, Ga. As much a backdoor barbecue as it is a night out at the movies, this six-screen Atlanta drive-in encourages what most in the theater biz forbid: bringing your own food and grilling it. Those looking to add a hip twist of the theatrical to their Labor Day getaway need only stock the cooler and pack some brats or burgers for the Starlight’s annual “Drive-Invasion,” which features a hot-rod show, live music, and B-movies galore.
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And really, what better way is there to cruise the nostalgia highway of old Hollywood than in a MINI Roadster? Allowing all the headroom one needs to see the stars on the screen and those directly above, the 2013 convertible goes the distance where it counts — on the road (obviously), not to mention the discerning driver’s wallet. Never mind that its fun-size frame also makes motoring in and out of tight traffic all the more enjoyable (or parking in even tighter spots for cozy romantics all the more convenient).
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