Editorials, Film

Nostalgia for the Light: A Look Back at Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

By guest contributor Maurice Vellas

Hello, all! I’m glad to be writing for this fantastic blog again. I’m sure all you cinephiles have seen the trailer for To the Wonder, which was released a couple months ago, and I’m sure the first thing everybody said when they saw it was, “It looks just like The Tree of Life!” Well, yes, it’s all there on the surface at least: a free floating camera, bold and beautiful renditions of nature, voiceovers about the power of love, and big-name stars that Malick loves to put in his films. But before we go ahead and say that To the Wonder is going to be another Tree of Life (let’s actually take the time to see what the latter film was about, as it’s much more than its outer form. That’s just what brings it to life.

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It has been almost two years since Malick’s Palme d’Or winner was released to the public. The film has seen its fair share of gushing praise and also a bit of contempt from critics feigning to be offended by its “bombastic” nature. I think many on either side have missed the point. They get caught up in brief descriptions of the film’s outer form and inner content without adequately explaining what each does for the other. Moreover, they attempt to analyze it as an ordinary film, when what actually makes The Tree of Life such a masterpiece is its effortless creation and use of a new cinematic language to tell a story so strikingly relatable that portions of it can only be described as pure truth. (I know, a bold statement to make considering what I just wrote about other critics.) This film takes a new path in all of the major forms of production, as its acting, writing, cinematography, and overall direction are all vastly different from any film in the vicinity. If you still haven’t seen this gem, you are long overdue for a viewing. If you are one of those who has seen the film and remain dubious of the its worth, I hopefully will convince you to take the time to watch it at least once more.

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The Tree of Life, as many critics have said, is not an easy film to summarize. But to give those not familiar with it an idea, the film starts by revealing that a boy of 19 years has passed on, by showing the reactions of his various family members. The rest is essentially a massive childhood memory of the boy’s brother Jack, juxtaposed with a few out-of-this-world sequences that serve as metaphors to be compared with the main story.

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The images that occupy the frame of The Tree of Life evoke some of the most powerful human emotions because they are things we have all felt before. Sometimes they make our hearts burn with love, and sometimes they sting with the loss of it. This is only magnified by the fact that these images are shown through the perspective of a child. Jack has two brothers, a mother, and a father, the latter two being enormous forces in his life. He is constantly stuck between the harsh toughness his father expects of him and the freeness that his mother embraces. We see this through family dinners where the children are asked to leave the table before a fight breaks out between the dad and his boys. We see it through the time mom spends frolicking around the yard with the kids while dad is away. And we see it when Jack takes his jealousy out on his younger brother by taking advantage of his innocence. Imbued occasionally throughout all of the poetic-realism of the film are voice-overs by the main characters, which are Malick’s way of asserting what he has shown. These illuminate the few concrete messages director Terrence Malick wishes to impose. Some may be turned off by these parts of the film. I’ve often heard the complaint that they make it too preachy, although I disagree. When we process the “lessons” Malick gives us, we are hearing a voice of reason through Jack’s head. We don’t have to accept that, “Unless you love, your life will flash by,” but I sure found it beautiful to behold Jack’s reaction to that. It is the great human connection that, for me, is what makes film great. Malick also uses spectacular images of the universe and natural phenomena set against the intimate gaze of this small family, a family that, portrayed against the enormity of all this, should mean nothing, but somehow manages to touch something deep inside us.

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One of the most compelling reasons to watch The Tree of Life is that it is something completely new in the world of cinema. It introduces revolutionary styles of cinematography and editing that lend to its natural feel.

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The cinematography of The Tree of Life is a crucial part of its success in rendering a fictional world that feels effortlessly real. Almost the entire film was shot without studio lights. Virtually the only lighting used was practical light (lights visible in the frame) and sunlight. In the first days of the shoot lights were brought in, but soon sent back because of the unnatural feel they lent. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki remarks, “It’s like you’re setting a tone and artificial light feels weird and awkward after that.” The other major part of the cinematography in this film was camera movement. About ninety percent of the film was shot on a camera stabilizer. This causes a beautifully flowing and constantly moving camera that feels much less formal and much more natural than in a traditional narrative. The camera stabilizer also allowed shooting to be much more spontaneous, which allowed the genuine unscripted moments of acting to show through. Because of the cinematography, you don’t feel like you are watching a regular movie. You feel like you are remembering moments of life because the purpose of the lighting and camera movement is not to shape perceptions or embolden particular scenes, but to place you in the memory and see it unfiltered and bare, which happens to be more beautiful than any studio set could aspire to be.

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You will immediately encounter a pacing that general audiences are not used to. Initially, this could be frustrating for viewers who simply want to watch their ninety minutes of movie and leave, but those open to a new kind of experience will find this fresh and perhaps more effective than regular pacing. Instead of the traditional scenes that are used in most films to unravel the plot, Tree really only consists of three or four different segments. In fact, there isn’t really much plot at all. Whereas most movies are very deliberate with the patterns they take in their story arcs, this film is about letting the unintentional and the natural flow through as much as possible. The lack of plot is essential to the pacing of the film because it is not one planned scene coming after another to build on one great statement. The film is largely about interpretation. And really wouldn’t it be cheating to say something is up to interpretation when the filmmaker is in total control of how the visual and narrative information is presented?

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To understand how this type of pacing is achieved, we need to look to the editing process of the film. After the plethora of footage was shot Malick worked with editor Mark Yoshikawa to create a pacing that flowed without tiring. In American Cinematographer magazine Yoshikawa stated, “If something felt intentional to Terry, be it a performance, a camera move, or a sound, he would react against it [in the edit]… We ended up just cutting anything that felt, and that gave way to the jump cuts, which give the movie its elliptical feeling.” You would think that a segment of a movie that lasts a good hour or so without changing much would get boring, but because only the most genuine moments were presented in the final edit, the effect is quite the opposite. Everything we see is fresh and exciting, and we are constantly connecting with the film, seeing this nostalgic memory just as Jack sees it.

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All of these formal aspects, which create Tree’s own unique cinematic language, serve the film’s strongest aspect, its ability to interact deeply with human emotions and sensibilities. Roger Ebert, who gave the film four out of four stars, focuses mostly on this in his review. After describing how the film reminded him so much of his own childhood, he writes that “most of us, unless we are unlucky, have something of the same childhood, because we are protected by innocence and naïveté.” This means that you don’t need to have grown up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s to feel a connection to this film. What is really important is how perfectly Malick contemplates all the ways in which a child experiences and thinks about things. For Ebert it is the fact that the “scenes portray a childhood in a town in the American midlands, where life flows in and out through open windows. There is a father who maintains discipline and a mother who exudes forgiveness, and long summer days of play and idleness” that touch home. For others it may just be other personal events that these images evoke.

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I hope it is quite obvious. I recommend this film entirely. It is not to be watched once and then forgotten. That’s not the type of film this is. This is a film you may watch for the first time and be a bit confused by. Maybe it all goes over your head. But this is the type of film that takes some time to process, as it is not just instant gratification. It is a beautiful interaction between humanity and art. I have always thought that the ultimate goal of a film, or any story, should be to connect with what makes us human. And that is what The Tree of Life does.

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