We went to see Tree of Life yesterday, and I sat and carefully watched to see why it was so difficult as had been reported by reviewers and those I’d talked to about the film. My impressions are that, like the Beatles way back when, it was a film heavy on symbols and mixed meanings. I remember reading someplace in the Sixties what the Beatles had to say about one of their songs, but I can’t remember which one. Anyway, the song didn’t make much apparent sense but got everyone trying to figure it out, a little like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” but that wasn’t the song. They were smugly satisfied that they could feed the public something that made no sense but sounded like it did, an inside joke about the stupidity of their listeners. I think Tree might be somewhat the same.
The symbolism sort of overlaps, and the words whispered at various points are so hard to hear and out of context that we don’t know what’s going on. But the main sets of symbols are the trees and the water. All the shots of trees are supposed to suggest how intertwined the human race is, how complex that relationship is. The water always suggests life and fertility, and there were water scenes everywhere. Then there’s the overlapping. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is like Job in his suffering, and a little like the Old Testament Jehovah, the angry, punishing father, and Jack, the oldest son, is a little like Cain, with the second son like Abel. Jack is a very strange little boy. Right after his brother is born, we see him sort of frowning at the baby. And in almost every scene thereafter he’s seen with that awful look on his face, even when he’s hugged by his father or punished by his father. And we hear him pray that God will kill him, and later tell his father that he’s much like him in his anger and darkness.
That twenty-minute section near the beginning was beautiful and said more about what Malick was getting at than anything else: the fiery beginning, or Genesis, followed by the oceans and the beginning of life, the dinosaurs with the raptor about to feast on the fallen creature, stepping on his neck, then deciding against it. I guess that was to show the start of life’s compassion. The cinematography was gorgeous but maybe a bit too long. And then back to the narrative plot (which kept folding back and forth between reality and symbolism, present and past). The O’Briens get the news that their 19-year-old son has been killed. We never find out how he died, but since Mrs. O’Brien gets a telegram, we assume he was killed in war, probably Viet Nam. This was the youngest son, the one who might have fulfilled his father’s dream of being a musician. The rest of the plot is a series of flashbacks to the three boys when they were still adolescents, the strictness of the father at the dinner table, the punishments involving that odd flight up the stairs to the attic, the drawing of the line between their yard and the neighbor’s, Jack’s tentative move toward evil, Satan, when he and the band of boys break out the windows of an empty house, the shooting of the frog tied to a rocket, the breaking into a house where he goes through the woman’s underwear, taking a slip and then releasing it into a stream, the planting of the tree and the growth of that tree over the years, the growing separation of the O’Briens with the father the stern disciplinarian and the mother a childlike innocent. And then there’s the aging Jack, the architect who “thinks of his brother every day” and is so dissatisfied with his life. Whoa, that’s a bunch of symbols and misty meanings behind a very simple plot. Just look at the little suggestions of symbolic meaning: the partly shaved head of one of the boys (Jack’s?), the desolate doorway Jack steps through to follow the barren landscape, the drowning of the boy in the flowing water. This last one suggests that even in the life-affirming water, God can whimsically reach out and take a life just to show his power. I think one of the best symbols of all was that minute-long view of the starlings’ flight. We used to see it in New York, and it’s so mystically fascinating to watch the shifting patterns of those thousands of birds, all flying together in moving Rorschach blots. I think Malick must have been suggesting just that: the mystery of the flight, the mystery of life and death. Even at the end you get the feeling that Mrs. O’Brien might be Mary, who “gives God her son.” And all the people with Jack at the end, all walking around in the shallow water, an affirmation of life.
Wow, does that sound like a bunch of bullshit. Anyway, there you have my impressions of Tree of Life. I think I may have to stick to flicks like Dumb and Dumber for a while.
I hate to keep beating this dead horse, but I can't help it. We're now down to the last eight dancers in So You Think You Can Dance and I have to say once again just how good a show it is. I think Melanie will win simply because she's such a good dancer, and so elegant in her moves and hand gestures and facial expressions. But the other seven are really good. This past week, the ten finalists all danced one number with an all-star from past shows, and each one thirty-second solo. Nine of the ten performances were great, with only one not up to par. Unlike American Idol, the three judges are all so informed on what they see, even this week's guest judge, Neil Patrick Harris, spoke meaningfully about each performance. The judges on Idol nearly all say the same stupid things after a performance. Their musical expertise isn't nearly as great as the dance expertise is on Dance. I can hardly wait for next week's show. I just hope Cat doesn't show up in another outfit with a too short skirt. She looks so much better, classier, in a calf- or floor-length skirt. Check out Melanie and Pasha's Viennese waltz from last week's show. Click on the bottom right to view it full-screen.