THE TREE OF LIFE – Movie Review


A brief preamble: I wish that criticism could, if rightly formed, fully encompass a work of art, be welded to it without a joint. Perhaps that would alleviate a portion of the critic’s secret shame of impotence and incongruity, of being an unfit judge by default. Criticism is didactic and comprehensive, striving to articulate, to rend the veil and expose the intricate workings, the small gears and integrated circuits of the machine and present them for our inspection. But at the heart of the work lies a mysterious vibrating orb of life and the tendency to explain it springs forth from the same source as the tendency to render it inert, to pin the butterfly to the cork board in order to fully see the beauty of its design. The work of art is not primarily a vehicle for the transmission of some moral or truth, but just a beautiful object. Just. There are other problems particular to movie criticism, namely, that one form relates to the world through words while the other through images. How do you bring those two together? I don’t know. So keeping in mind this brief note of protest, I offer a few feeble ekphrastic paragraphs gathered around Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life.

What infinite cosmologies have been dreamt up and labored over by man in hope that one day some surfeit of force would finally translate him to other orbits more congenial to his true nature? Lots and lots. And when I see images of a star or its antecedents, the vast undulating clouds of gas coalescing into orbs of unimaginable size over unimaginable periods of time, I am awed by the primitive energy and sublime beauty. But you don’t need a telescope to experience these feelings. You can find a dollar on the street or happen upon a floating garbage bag like the one in American Beauty. This still happens with the benefits of a modern education. What would man, newly endowed with a denominating spirit, seeing with innocent eyes, wandering an alien landscape, think? Would he see the world for what it was? A world that has, in Malick’s films, been largely supplanted by a world of our own design, shoddily constructed. A world of exact knowledge, systemization and indexability. A world in which one is aloof to the difference between a handful of rocks found in your back yard and a handful of those brought back from the moon. In short, the dominant Western outlook. Or as Malick writes in the script, ““The buildings hem him around like the trees of a wild forest. A false nature; a universe of death. A sightless world, roofed over, shut off from things above. Here one must stoop to walk. A world that would exclude the transcendent, that says: I am, and there is nothing else. A world without love.” But juxtaposed against this world is another one, usually glimpsed only by a single character: Holly in the Badlands, Linda in Days of Heaven, Rebecca in New World and Witt in The Thin Red Line.

‘In this world a man himself is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.

You’re wrong there, Top. I seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.’


People are world disclosers. Films are world-synopses. At first, things were seen as springing forth independently. Then they had to be nurtured into becoming, Then they were finished works, created. Finally, in our own time, things have come to be seen as falling under a rubric of organization, to be marshaled into standing reserves in order to satisfy the multifarious desires of autonomous subjects. And so people have become fluid and many-sided. In this world the worth of a man lies in his technical mastery and his ability to gain acclaim from other men. The patriarch of the family in the film, Mr. O’Brien, does this by working at an oil refinery after having his artistic ambitions dashed, submitting numerous patents, traveling the world in order to sell said patents, to no avail. Driving home from church he points out the houses of the wealthy and seethes contempt and envy. In Malick’s words “He has the unshakable belief that he must approve or modify everything the children do. He is full of petty and exasperating cautions. Watch! Step there. Open the door!”His eldest son, Jack, grows up to be an architect. There is discord in the family. And death. The father tries to inculcate strength through intimidation and fear, exposing his children to the world’s harshness by proxy. The mother is loving and open and represents a sort of innocent, domestic bliss, though, of course, over time the two relationships become inexorably intwined. The origin and development of the family is contrasted with that of the universe. Comparative ontogenesis. “The sky fills with steam. Rains fall for millennia, cooling the surface by degrees. For ages, there is no clear day of sun, no night of stars; only thunder and lightning. But by and by the mists drift off, the cloud part and the first land appears, a low island of meteoritic rubble and stark volcanic stone”

It is a half-finished bildungroman. Maturity entails confusion, a separation from the seminal source. As an adult, Jack struggles between the conflicting influences of his father and mother and their respective ways of living. A continuing struggle. He hasn’t yet reached the point where he could say “The happiness of my existence, its unique character perhaps, lies in its fatefulness: expressing it in the form of a riddle, as my own father I am already dead, as my own mother I am still alive and, grow old still. This double origin, taken as it were from the highest and lowest rungs of the ladder of life, at once a decadence and a beginning, this, if anything, explains that neutrality, that freedom from partisanship with regard to the general problem of life, which perhaps distinguishes me.” Which is something, if said, that could be affirmed fully, and without reservation.

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