Orientation: “The Tree of Life”

A Gift

Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” cannot be evaluated as one might evaluate most films. Because, unlike most films, “The Tree of Life” is not simply one that you pay money to see. It is, like so few and rare of films, a gift. A gift in intention and, properly oriented, a gift in reception as well. When someone offers you an unexpected gift, you do not evaluate, you do not lambast, you do not challenge, for its very gesture is a loving expression of thought, a challenge to see the giver anew.

“The Tree of Life” finds itself in this category easily, as if the director himself wandered in from a storm and offered you his overcoat. The intention behind the film is clear from the very beginning, and its visual language is that of deep, thoughtful prayer.  The first thing you see is the slowly churning lantern of a light organ (similar to the one that is playing nonstop at LACMA - whenever you feel inclined), and at that moment, you understand that your approach to watching movies was completely wrong. You’ve grown so cynical, so critical of what films don’t do, that you’ve forgotten what they can do. 

And so, “The Tree of Life” is a gift, a reminder. “Yes, of course. THAT’S why.” When I left the theater with Charles, we both felt like being thrust into reentry of the world. The film is a primer in that it re-calibrates how you listen and how you see. It’s what I’ve always hoped synagogue would do for me but never could. Perhaps the Rabbi should have stopped talking altogether.

“The Tree of Life” is less of a straightforward story and more of an endlessly rewarding detective piece. The more that’s uncovered, the more the film softly burrows into you. It slips around in time a fair amount (as if time had no boundaries whatsoever), but most of it takes place in the 1950s, where Jack is one of three boys in a loving, complicated family. It moves to current day, where adult Jack is adrift and haunted by the death of his brother. And it moves to the beginning of life on earth, and the birth of the universe. In no particular order.

The scope is tremendous. “The Tree of Life” manages to do what even Kubrick couldn’t in “2001”: to draw threads between the intimacy of human experience and the grand ineffable cosmos. Immediate and universal, the very big and the very small. “The Tree of Life” addresses that divide and seeks to bridge it. Every whispered voiceover (Malick’s cinematic scar tissue) is a prayer and a question.

When we left the theater, after a long time, Charles meekly said, as if he was trying to relearn how to speak altogether, “There are… I guess there are no words…” And we nodded to each other. To be touched by cinema is to see the world, yours and others, as completely the same. Only a gift can do this. Don’t mistake “The Tree of Life” for anything less.