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The Tree of Life (2011)
Nothing stands still.
Director: Terrence Malick
Drama
Fantasy

The impressionistic story of a Texas family in the 1950s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father. Jack finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith.

The Tree of Life (2011)

Connected Paths

I’ve been studying Chinese calligraphy in the context of the cinematic life. 1300 years ago, Chinese poet-theorists had the notion that layered expression, perhaps with four layers or more, was the purest expression possible. The first of these layers come with the ideograms: you ‘tell a story‘ using abstract pictures that reference other stories. Masters can then add several more levels in the way you draw the characters. The result is a barrage of meanings woven by emotions. Though the concepts unroll in a linear fashion, they do so with a symphony of simultaneous and referenced ‘stories,‘ most of them working invisibly. Space, and the things unspoken are as significant as the ink you see.

Most of these poet-philosophers would reference (even devise) basic laws of life. What we know as Taoism is more a result of calligraphy as the other way. No man could be a whole man without his writing.

We would be without something like this in the West until Shakespeare devised a different way of sneaking up on this, the ideograms being ‘acted out‘ (literally as characters) with the ‘laws of life‘ drawn from the Kabbalah of Bruno and Harriot. While China has an incredible legacy of calligraphic twists and turns, with great sweeps of changes and literally millions of masters, we have the more visceral cinema. To plum this notion of simultaneous layers from the flow of the world, we have the different curiosities of Greenaway, Ruiz, Medem, Lynch, Kelly, Quay…

And Malick.

I‘m especially attuned to his adventures. I took classes under him when he was a philosophy professor at MIT, and he was struggling, really struggling with the inadequate ‘logic of layers‘ available to reason about this sort of thing. (During that time, I was working to understand the geometric cosmology of the Tree of Life and incidentally how it embossed on the Jamestown story. I do not suppose a direct connection.)

Now we have this marvellous poem. I see the entertainment critics are puzzled. Story-listeners wonder where the story went. Public observers cuckkle over what went wrong while forcing themselves to celebrate it because it is obviously precious.

I suppose that 1300 years from now, this will be studied for the ways it interlocks the layers of experience, passion and expression, each layer with its own kinematics that touch at odd points. My grandchildrens‘ grandchildrens‘ grandchildren will remark in wonder on how much can be communicated by what is omitted. And though the technology will have changed, this will be seen to be as basic to the human expression as ink applied with a brush from the hair of your infant.

You will likely know the Kabbalistic controversy, presented here as ‘nature‘ and ‘grace,‘ but of course that is a perspective from grace. Usually it is described as grace and knowledge-by-effort (aka ‘magic‘) with different paths up a geometric diagram representing a tree. (Insert here the argument between Paul and George.) I wouldn‘t parse too much of this film using the tree of life tradition: the point is it is superlogical, but you sure can see what he is working from.

One of Malick‘s layers is the abstract but ordered ethereal dynamics of the universe, which he conflates with the gauzy unknowns of precreation.

Another is the creation of life and its dynamics; birth, sight, discovery, dominance.

Yet another is the artist‘s personal history as a child in Waco. He presents this quite literally; though the urge of the viewer is to attach narrative to what is shown, privileging this layer over the others. Malick slips off this layer via hidden doorways, but it has resonance for me because I grew up in that era, mostly in the Jim Crow south and did many of the things shown. It was shocking how many.

And another is Sean Penn recalling, creating, weaving it all together so that each layer is the origin of the others. (Our redheaded, angelic mother becomes a spiritual presence in all the layers. The most impressive is her barely recognisable figure as an aurora borealis.) Only Penn among living actors is experienced enough with narrative folds to pull off this calligraphy. (The other actor with similar vision, Heath Ledger, was to have played the opposing soul.)

A key ‘tree‘ image is that of the redheaded mother levitated in front of (in traditional terms: ‘on‘) the tree. Another is of ghostly, purloined lingerie zigzagging through a stream.

Posted in 2011

Ted’s Evaluation — 4 of 3: Every cineliterate person should experience this.

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