Posted by: dougery | August 3, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life is a big, dumb art-house film in all the best ways.

It is preposterously overambitious. It flaunts breaking sacrosanct ‘rules for filmmaking,’ by indulging in voice-overs and montages. It is alternately deeply moving and totally banal (which is to say, dull). And yes, some of my fellow theater-goers walked out last night. It happens with this film, it came as no surprise to me.

I am completely happy to have seen it.

The closer The Tree of Life comes to being a traditional movie, in terms of a straightforward plot, the weaker it becomes. Which is not to say it becomes less interesting. The ‘weakness’ is part of the message and is perhaps not quite the correct word. Maybe ‘ordinary’ works better. The film is built around an ordinary hour and a half center, the story of 3 boys growing up In Waco, TX. There is a father, he’s often a dick. There is a mother, she likes to wash things (the dishes, clothes, her feet at least 3 times). The kids do all-american kid stuff, they swim, they shoot off fireworks, steal things, break stuff, fight, play, laugh, glower, get yelled at or hugged.

I cannot overemphasize enough just how unexceptional the drama at the heart of this movie is.

Yet when it is paired with the montages that open and close the film it becomes something more. Yes, the creation of the universe, our planet, life on earth, dinosaurs, they are all present in these montages. But so are suburban trees and skyscrapers like spiderwebs, baby’s feet and waterfalls, seagulls on the beach and a cloud of starlings moving across a city writing shapes against the sky. The montage of the early romance of the mother and father, the birth of the children, the way the very young children interact is really powerful, for reasons of nostalgia or just big dumb (glorious) human empathy.

The beautiful cinematography unites otherwise disparate images, but that isn’t all.  I think that ordinary story in the center is meant to bleed back and forward into the cosmic forces the montages delight in. This is not a comment on how truly wonderful and amazing our most ordinary acts of love or hate are. It is the opposite.

We impose ‘grace’ and ‘nature’ onto life and the nothingness that surrounds it. When something is big and terrible and implacable, that’s nature. Where we find beauty we are also projecting our own ideas of grace. Most times they are muddled together–this is perfectly normal. The film seems to be commenting on the danger of separating the two. As the Mother and Father (and subsequently, the family) rupture apart, as grace and nature begin to distill and separate, violence and death fill the void.

That the film’s plot opens with our protagonists experiencing this death and pain even before the literal creation the universe is a stroke of genius.

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