Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Tree of Life

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy might be the literary motif for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The movie looks at anything and everything through the lens of the eternal. It’s like being served a pizza with one slice containing a character-driven narrative and the other seven slices containing prehistoric creatures, the creation of the universe and the myths of Job and Mary Magdelene. The narrative slice is an odd contraption that starts out with the loss of a son in wartime and then circles back to the story of a boy and his two brothers, centering on a period in their pre-adolescence. The father (Brad Pitt) is an inventor with 27 patents whose greatest ambition in life was to be a concert pianist, a dream he never fulfilled. He is loving yet demanding and cruel towards his boys, particularly the oldest. The man blames his wife for not supporting him when he plays the disciplinarian, but it’s clear that this theme is secondary to the film’s organic and at times inorganic imagery (huge skyscrapers and the oldest son’s inventions), which place the ontogenic events in a phylogenic context. Several marvelous scenes dramatize this. For example, following the drowning of a child in the Waco town pool, we see the church where the service is held far in the distance in a vanishing perspective, with the families of the other children scattered through the foreground. Thornton Wilder used what was at the time an avant-garde dramatic style, with the Stage Manager in Our Town breaking the forth wall to present the story of an American town. In The Tree of Life, Malick’s device is to have his powerful story upstaged by the history of the world.

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