Tuesday, October 18, 2011

First Thoughts on The Tree of Life

What follows are my initial notes on The Tree of Life, written down after each of my four theater viewings of the film (a record for me).  I’ve edited them a bit to be more coherent to outside readers, since they were initially intended only for myself.  They mostly deal with all the little details that I noticed anew each time I saw it, and helped me remember the sequencing for when I finally get around to writing about it.  These notes would most likely have been more useful if I had put them while the film was still in theaters--with it out on DVD, it’s much easier for people to check things and get all the details of the film straight--but I’m posting them here anyway.  Why?  Well, it’s my blog and I want to, so there.
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First Viewing:
Wow.  Well, . . . Huh.  Okay.  So . . .
I Need To See That Again!
The closest thing I can describe it as is 2001: A Space Odyssey crossed with Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.  But that doesn’t really cover it.
And I’m not sure about that ending--not as good as The New World’s, that’s for sure.
But still.  Whoah.
*  *  *  *
Second Viewing:

  • Neon lights and city before flashforward to present
  • Jack present in memory of parents' grief over RL
  • Some words in voiceover are to RL, not God, including much of what mother says during creation sequence
  • Ending filled imagery of death, passing on, new imagery, giving up, forgiveness, angels
  • What’s with the attic circus?
  • Brother, mother, addressed at beginning and sent off at end
  • “The nuns told us”
  • Mother addresses children in voiceover, gives advice like father, comes out as platitudes but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong
  • “Unless love” line still too simple
  • Young Jack seen in desert but not at reunion on beach
  • Jack’s Wife brings in branches at beginning
  • Modern scenes definitely set in digital age, tho timeline doesn’t fit
  • The bad kid speaks in terms of temptation, paraphrases the Serpent
  • Two phrases in dialogue in trailer that are not in final film--”expect too much of him”, “fall down and weep”
  • Family clearly seen as microcosm, replays similar story of whole universe, pregnant belly juxtaposed with creation of planets
  • Birth--all in white, nurses look like the angels at end, bringing into world and ending paralleled, could end be scene of birth again?
  • Who is girl that leads Jack through door into desert?
  • Fellini’s 8 1/2 seen as having a cop-out ending at the time, too
  • Jack goes in and out of elevator before end, muses on fallenness of world he’s in, longs for innocence, sees walls as trapping him, house filled with windows and light that show trees all around, parts from wife in park?, shown wandering thru flat rocky salt-flat terrain right after creation, then asks about when you first touched me and goes to birth sequence, only smiles at very end, sees clouds reflected in glass
  • Shot of trees from The New World in creation sequence?
  • Final image of bridge and bird flying away comes right after a shot of what? --possibly a canyon
  • Only time parents really kiss each other at end on beach
  • Pitt's hand on Penn’s shoulder on beach is loving and fatherly instead of gripping
  • Shot of Jesus window in church, no other mention of savior, no depiction of Godly forgiveness, more about challenging God and trying to find happiness within the glory all around
  • Pitt overreacts at dinner table and is strict with other things, but never beats kids or even spanks them, really a good man struggling to be a good father, not doing as well as he should
  • Pitt’s only vices are light smoking and scene at poker table, otherwise seen glad-handing people and making friends with those in power, but also being responsible person of authority
  • Shot of mother in glass coffin comes after asking if she will die some day
  • Clearly another family seen fighting through windows
  • Woman next door--or possibly down the street--Jack watches her, takes water from her hose and looks at her legs, sees her doing laundry, sees mother do same things in other shots including rinsing feet in water with underwear visible through dress
  • Several images from picture-books: drawing of praying mantis, reading Peter Rabbit then shot of real rabbit in garden, drawings of Jungle Book, possibly same book as in Days of Heaven, but no images of television or movies
  • Also wooden toy blocks of Noah’s Ark
  • Reading with flashlight when lights are out
  • Story is of growth of a boy, how everything he saw when young was glorious, at first only good things then some bad and scary things which still held sense of wonder, but gradually turned to familiarity and rules and structure and boring routine, but Jack attempting to find that again
  • Pitt apparently found more success later, new house is very nice, spacious, with large windows, though not huge place
  • House and yard seem to change--epileptic guy is down a slight hill, but no hill most of time, sees side houses from different angles which makes it seem like a different yard, or perhaps it is different?
  • Image in between movements is swirling refracted light, could be God, soul, celestial body, or candle seen through hazy prism
  • Pitt and Chastain aged by makeup extremely well
  • Brief shots of mother as child, what do they mean? see her looking out window, parents around her, perhaps riding horse or in car, then never again
  • Children’s perception of parents is like ours of God--they are alternately wonderful, comforting, changeable, scary, punishing, apparently all-knowing, mustn't make them angry, can’t talk to them when done wrong, --but that doesn’t mean God is like parents and makes mistakes

*  *  *  *
Third Viewing:
  • Mother as child on farm:  stares out thru window w/ light on face, sees cows, then show holding lamb in her arms, might be in Ireland/Scotland?
  • When parents dwelling on child’s death: mother look in his room at guitar sitting alone and paintbrushes on desk then turns away, father kneels alone at bench praying
  • Definitely seem to be angels in this film:  several points at which girls in white and gray formless dresses are shown leading people places; girl in ‘fairy world’ leading very small children dressed all in white to be born, carrying a candle, a girl leads Penn thru the door, neither of these girls’ faces are shown; shot of girl calling dead person out of tomb, leading people through a hallway towards something, girl on beach leading R.L. (or Steve?) to Jack, two girls with Mother as she gives up son, girl opens the doors to salt flats (I think) young girl in front of Mother in giving-up-son scene looks like her younger self, girl behind her has similar appearance though with darker hair, could they be her other selves?
  • Nearly every symbolic image in the film is of Christian origin, only thing not is pagan temple entrance, but dead bodies in Middle Eastern place, angels, calling dead out of stone tomb, dead bride who is then alive, light in the darkness
  • When Jack talks about being led to “You,” shot of river with trees on either side, almost talking to it courtyard of Jack’s building is under construction, tree locked in cement blocks, but light still shines through it and camera still pulled up to sky by it
  • I’m hit very hard this time by Jack’s fall from innocence, his resentment building into evil deeds and how this attitude consumes him, shows up in everything he does, acts out against and resents mother, hates father, feels need to assert dominance over brothers, feels sexual desire/lust/objectification of women, hates what he’s becoming but can’t help it (“What have I started?  How do I get back to where they are?”); but then he manages to reconnect with his brother, comes to know shame and forgiveness, recalls how to offer grace and kindness, “What did you show me then?”
  • during creation sequence the camera goes into womb or egg or something and finds a (reptilian) fetus opening its eyes

*  *  *  *
Fourth Viewing:
  • I focused mostly on Job parallels, esp. the Sermon
  • Pastor/Priest sets up/describes the central conflicts of the parents with God, both of their struggles evident in Book of Job
    • Job though his righteousness would save him, his friends said he must have done something wrong
    • “has he not also seen God, who has seen him turn his back?”
  • Sermon sequence easy to lose in the background, seems like just showing family life and way they attend church, esp. since camera is catching so many things/people that pastor’s voice recedes into background, but really arguably heart of film’s theology
  • “Is there nothing that does not perish or pass away?”--shot of R.L. looking at window, then shot of Christ with purple robe and crown of thorns on window, “Man of Sorrows”
  • Jack lingers at back as Father kneels and prays at front of church, crosses himself, then lights candles and walks out (proud?, satisfied?), then Jack steps across pews with no one to stop him
  • Family outside: Father glad-handing couple of other people, people always walk out of sermon and talk to people happily, joke, chuckle, don’t feel affected by sermon and focus on “real life”
    • Father boasts to family, “That’s a friend of mine, owns half the town,” Mother says nothing
  • Later, it seems like an hour or two later on the same day but who knows, pretty definitely on a Sunday, Father is taking boys on tour of rich neighborhoods and explaining his materialist philosophy of life
  • Struck more this time by Father’s flaws--arrogance, boastfulness, show-off, bluster, covetousness
  • Jack and Father re-bond over working in the garden, Father pulls dead parts off a plant, still life-giving, positive activity in garden, --yard work seems more harsh and stern and unhappy, trying to force growth and order
*  *  *  *

And finally, just a note on the audiences:  At my first viewing, the audience was large and restless.  A guy in my row got up and left and came back at least twice (pushing by in front of me in the process), and several other people close by got up and left.  The second time I sat closer to the front, but I still heard a not-inconsiderate amount of noise behind me, at least one or two people walking out, and a person right behind me muttering about how boring it was.  The third time I saw it, a theater employee came in to introduce the film and explain that it was a difficult, different kind of movie that might not be what we would expect but that we shouldn't complain to the management about it.  After that, at least one person got up and went out the door during the film, but I don't know if they ever came back.  The audience was significantly smaller that time. These first three times were all at an art theater in Indianapolis, which took me an hour to get to.  The film did not play in my local AMC Theaters at all.  It was not until August that it was shown at the excellent IU Cinema, and I was able to see it for a fourth time.  There they had an introduction, as they do for every movie, and the presenter explained that while there were reports of people walking out all over the country, they had shown it the previous night and no one had walked out at all, which got some applause from the audience.  I did not see or hear anyone walk out that night either, but their were two or three people who came in a good twenty minutes late and sat down in front of me, which was a little weird.  Nevertheless, while the house was packed, it was a very good, respectful audience overall.

It is strange, perhaps, how this film had elicited so many accounts of mixed audience reactions, but I cannot say it was surprising.  Movies are not seen by so many as a realm for serious art and/or non-narrative work, that when a film challenges these assumptions they resist and reject it out of hand.  I find this tragic, but it is the way of the world and lamenting it overmuch seems to me a sign of either naive idealism or cynical elitism.  It is what it is, we just have to deal with it.

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