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This Weekend We’re Watching: The way of nature and the way of grace

This Weekend We’re Watching: The way of nature and the way of grace
The Tree of Life by Terrence Malik. Image: Plan B Entertainment

Almost a decade old, The Tree of Life has divided its viewership ever since its release. Nevertheless, Terrence Malick’s visual poem invites us to see the universe reflected in the mundane life of a suburban family.

Marmite — that notorious divider of opinion. Coriander is another one. Peanuts with raisins. The smell of petrol, perhaps, as you wind down your window and its tangible fumes clog the brain. Wars have been fought over lesser things; camps are established and battle lines are drawn out between those who are For That Sort of Thing and those who are Firmly Against It, Thank You Very Much.

These sorts of disagreements are not confined to the gustatory and olfactory senses; no, they extend to all things, but particularly to the films of Terrence Malick. A case in point: halfway through his second-most recent film Song to Song at a screening in Ster Kinekor in 2017, Ryan Gosling and Rooney Mara were doing their strange, wordless movements around one another (in deserts and empty car parks to the sound of whispering voice overs, naturally) with only half of the audience that had been there when the film started. The swinging doors went kerplunk! every few minutes as a departing soul shuffled out. Probably a Marmite eater.

Well, The Tree of Life seems to elicit the same reaction. The audience booed at its screening in Cannes, only for it to win the Palme d’Or a few days later. It divides cinephiles right down the middle. This article isn’t going to get to the bottom of why that is, but for those who want to delve, this is a film that rewards endless reflection. Every time you watch it, something you had never noticed before hits you like a bag of bricks. It’s a play of light and a montage of feelings and moods that more often than not will remind you of buried things in your own memories. Leave your narrative hat at the door as you come in.

The Tree of Life is a rare film in that it asks its audience to hold two thoughts in their minds at the same time. One is that humans, with all their foibles, desires, insecurities, triumphs and attachments are hopelessly insignificant to the vastness of an indifferent cosmos. The second is that it is this very incomprehensibility that renders everything about our lives — the seemingly good and bad — to be utterly precious and beautiful. Malick is a filmmaker that seems to say, Hey! Look at this, isn’t it wild that we are here at all? The film puts the human drama of a family living in 1950s suburban Texas alongside a cosmic drama that is one of ceaseless change and cataclysm. What you leave with — if you allow the film its magic — is that in-between moments are made significant. For all its larger-than-life events, most of the focus is on the mundane day-to-day that is defamiliarized. We see those quiet moments with new eyes.


It is, however, a 25-minute sequence of achingly beautiful imagery of the birth of the universe that is the proverbial coriander among audiences. It simply has no place in a conventional narrative and Malick obfuscates the rules of storytelling. Just as we get introduced to the leafy suburbs, there’s a near half hour of Hubble imagery with a warbling operatic aria on top. Ah, but it is gorgeous. Many tears have been shed at these sights. And it is no meandering screensaver, either. It tells, bit by bit, the story of the universe’s beginnings 13.7 billion years ago to Earth’s formation 4.6 billions of years ago, and then, an amoeba arrives on the scene: Life. Between the churning masses of heaving land that boil the seas, by a miraculous process, it splits itself. Now there are two. And so evolution is set off, and away they go! That amoeba is now a land-dweller, uttering its first primordial croak on terra firma. And then (brace yourself), we gradually arrive at the scene of a couple of dinosaurs. The inevitable meteorite, desolation, re-birth. And so on and so on. Until we reach, by and by… the birth of a boy, Jack.

And he is, in a way, a stand-in for all people. His microcosmic drama is ours. We can see in his growth from baby to toddler to adolescent his wonder at the new sights and sounds of the world. There is no real antagonist here yet. The world is at play as Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, Birdman, The Revenant) swoops the camera in and out of rooms, beneath tables, up trees, through the grass. The camera’s gaze is largely that of a child’s in this film. Not rushed by anything but its own curiosity, the frame lingers on things that in any other narrative would be cut out so that more time could be spent on human action. But Malick cuts his films himself, and he privileges the things unseen. It is not for nothing that his most recent film was entitled A Hidden Life. Although its narrative of a conscientious objector to the Nazi regime is less wayward in its plot, it similarly highlights the subtle blessings of the ordinary.

Jack’s adolescence is where most of the film finds itself. Life is, at first, like one long Sunday afternoon of playtime in the streets that never ends. His mother Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) gently calls out to him and his brothers from the stoep in the blue light of dusk; dinner is ready. And with dirty feet and grassy knees and bodies exhausted from games, they file in, for dinner is another affair altogether. The father, Mr O’Brien (similarly sans a first name and played by Brad Pitt), is that brand of man that values industry, hard work, and a competitive spirit to get oneself up in the world, to take what you can get, and don’t lose.

In contrast, the boys see the world in their mother, whose beauty is in her kindliness, her listening ear, her will to do good. In Jack, therefore, comes this conflict between two ways of being: “Mother, father; always you wrestle inside me, always you will.” Grace is exemplified in the mother and Nature in the father, and though the family exists in reasonable harmony in comparison to other dysfunctional families typically seen on the screen, there are various moments wherein the personalities of mother and father are in diametric opposition to one another. It is always there, this struggle. It’s in him as a child discovering his ego, as an adult (played by Sean Penn), and it was there in those CGI dinosaurs, choosing between mercy and survival.

Malick avoids any interactions with the media, and so his films are all that is given. No explanations, no “this is what that means”, just the sounds and images to speak for themselves. He did, however, after the release of his first film Badlands in 1974, say this: “When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them.” Public opinion seems to be split on whether Malick’s films are like feature-length perfume commercials or expressions of mankind’s interconnection with the universe. Starting with the epigraph of God’s response to the biblical Job (Jack O’Brien — get it?), the Catholic undertone to Malick’s work never results in a top-down cosmogony; if it is God, it is God in all of us.

The Tree of Life is not divorced from story. It is just willing to show us more than what our own eyes can see. Whether that’s through a microscope or a telescope, our lives wedged between these worlds remind us that a lot more goes on than we are aware of. Perhaps it is now necessary to engage in artworks such as these to remind ourselves of something bigger. This too shall pass. DM/ML

The Tree of life is available for rent or purchase in South Africa on Google Play.

Devon Delmar is a writer and director in Cape Town. His short films have been showcased both internationally and locally and he is currently working on his first feature. He is also a guest lecturer in the study of magical realism and history of cinema at the Film and Media Department of the University of Cape Town.

 

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