When I awoke this morning I had a singular panicked feeling… that I had missed the screening of TREE OF LIFE this morning. It was the thought in my mind. Upon seeing the film, I’ve decided that I can not pollute the ruminations of my mind with a press screening in the armpit theater of Austin for PIRATES 4.
It would be a disservice to do that. Today is Malick’s day for me. TREE OF LIFE could wind up being my definitive Malick odyssey that I’ve been raised towards. Unlike many of my friends, I did not come to Malick via Film School… My parents took me to Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN and BADLANDS upon initial release – and while I was far too young to fully appreciate those films – his eye, that magnificent lens captured me. It helped to inform how I would look at the world in wonder.
When I was a child, my parents took me to every movie. I was told to pay attention to the films, because we would… as a family… discuss the films afterwards. When I remember my life, the jungles & pyramids of the Yucatan, the Renaissance Faire that was nestled in the Piney Woods, growing up in Hyde Park in that Victorian home surrounded by epic trees. The Ranch with its rolling plains that practically spoke each season. Then my adult life in Austin with the various travels. I remember those times and they look MALICKy in my mind.
In THE THIN RED LINE, Malick took me to war, and through that war I discovered the true depth of his soul, that he could find the beauty in the chaos & horror of war. With THE NEW WORLD he took me to a virgin America. But TREE OF LIFE – it is about something far greater.
To me, TREE OF LIFE is a film about that point in your life when your brain woke up to the big issues. When your parents ceased to be heroes, when your mind was confused by the allure of the unknown, when death first touched your life and the world became scary, when you started ruminating about God and the birth of everything. When life was pretty simple and blissful, but then the first big PROBLEMS occurred.
The film is a combination of poetry, prayer and personal exploration. In the hours after watching, my father, wife, Quint & I began a discussion that was less fixated purely about the film we’d just seen, as much as how we saw ourselves in a reflection of that film.
I thought of Angel Pena. I knew him in 3rd & part of 4th grade before he died. He had a blood disease that required fairly frequent complete blood transfusions – and he loved life. He had a Hero/Monster maker and lived in a tiny house. The first house of a friend that was a completely different economic level. It was around 600 square feet and a family of 7 lived there. My house was a Victorian Mansion, very similar to the houses in TREE OF LIFE. In fact the upstairs sun room was built very much like the one in the film. I remembered that I believed that Angel could beat the disease that ravaged him. I remembered when the Blood Bank showed up at my school for the express purpose of collecting blood for Angel – and I remember crying that they wouldn’t take my blood because I was the wrong type. And I didn’t believe them. I was convinced my blood would save Angel’s life. And I learned… miracles don’t always happen.
In TREE OF LIFE, you have Sean Penn in the modern day – living his life, but for some reason… he’s haunted by a period of time leading up to when his family left his childhood home. He thinks about his brother who died later on, but who was so alive in the course of this story. He remembers being terrified, in awe of and unworthy of his father… a man who had idly wasted his talents as a musician, to have a practical life… and as a result is trying to raise his kids with a do it yourself edict to work for yourself. My father was similar in a lot of ways.
I can remember being taught to box with my Dad. Being told to hit him & being terrified to hurt my Dad. I can remember the lectures about the damage to your soul that is done when your work is soulless and not your own. He taught me that I could survive in this life by creating artwork, collecting and selling cool stuff & fully reinforced my passion for animation, martial arts, film & all things geek. I was raised to think about how we (a people) came to be…
Malick’s film conjures these kinds of memories. The film is essentially a classical musical depiction of the history of life as we know it leading up to this particular O’Brien family in Smithville, Texas.
When I was 11, my family was destroyed by divorce. I left the Victorian mansion that I grew up in and was whisked off to THE RANCH, where I spent my Junior High & High School years – but in many ways – this film captures the memories and the sensation of those memories for my pre-divorced years. There’s an idyllic quality to those years in my mind.
Now, I’ve no idea about most of your personal childhoods. When they first began to be over. What kind of father you had, what your parents were like, but if you have issues – or if you’re having a trouble being a parent and a family right now, there’s a chance this movie might not set well with you.
Very few films capture childhood and the epic way we sometimes view our Fathers. Back before they became demystified, if that day has ever come, my Dad still fucking rules. There’s towering Fathers like Atticus Finch… but more often than naught, there’s fathers like Brad Pitt’s Mr. O’Brien… Flawed in some manner. I think people are being hard on the character. I think he was a noble man of a different era. He was of the “greatest generation”. He had music in his soul, but then the war happened. His life took another path. He is jealous of others gifted lives. He believes to survive this world you have to be tough mentally & physically. That being a good man is not necessarily how to be a successful man. He goes through the motions of Church, but doesn’t really take it to heart – as he has his own particular gospel he is passing on to his boys. For me, this is a film about my grandfather on my father’s side.
It helps that TREE OF LIFE was shot around here, and one of the most poignant moments of the film takes place where I first learned how to swim & love to go swim with my wife today. Seeing this area in that other time period helps to inform about a generation that questioned the existence of God and were not burnt for it. And that generation led to mine and yours.
This was the period when Walt Disney’s FANTASIA was an incredibly powerful film that reflected a societal change that fully embraced evolution, the power of science and the death of innocence. This film reflects that same era with the same sweep and beauty that Disney gave us with FANTASIA.
OH – and then there’s the visual sweep of the film, which is just awe inspiring. I saw TREE OF LIFE exactly how I didn’t want to see it. In a tiny screen, in the furthest seat from that screen, with the most annoyingly loud rustling popcorn eating fella to my left and security guards that were quite obtrusive, even coming up to ask me a question after the movie was about 8 minutes into it. And don’t even get me started on the CRITIC with the loudest pager in the history of mankind going off.
TREE OF LIFE is to be seen in your favorite church of a theater. The best seat in the house. An audience that is all there to believe in Malick. Go into this film and be swept away. Allow the film to take you where it may. For me, I was a child that had run of the city of Austin with the safe base that was my home on Red River. It made me consider the kinds of scenes that belonged to my father’s childhood… and it made me consider the strength of my grandfather… a man that took his family to a whole different economic class than where he began. The film has me pondering the birth of atoms, the expansion and creation of galaxies, the beauty of the birth of life in its most microbial form, the paradise of the Dinosaurs and the beauty that we live in today. A world everything has led to. Where do we take it from here?
What a wonderful thing for a film to do. To ask God, “Why?” and to have the answer be “Creation.” - wow. LOVED IT!
This is a film that doesn’t answer any of the questions, but it gets you to think about them. There’s a film I’ll be reviewing next that is kind of the answer to this film. It’s called THE TRANSCENDENT MAN – and it is an entirely different kind of genius in the form of a documentary and a man.
If you love your Malick to be a mirror for our soul, you’ll love TREE OF LIFE.
Oh... and Douglas Trumbull - you're still #1.