Are Your Political Opponents Crazy?
American Responsibility

The Tree of Life

See it if you possibly can. I'm not going to say anything more about it now, partly because I'm still pretty close to speechless, but I'm interested in hearing what others have to say about it. And I suppose we have to allow spoilers to have very much discussion. 

I did write a Sunday night journal yesterday, by the way, but haven't had a chance to post it. Tomorrow sometime.


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"I'm not going to say anything more about it now, partly because I'm still pretty close to speechless"

This was precisely my reaction, even after the 2nd viewing. Greatly looking forward to your thoughts.

I take it you were less critical than I, even though I hedged my criticism with praise?

I don't know yet, Daniel--I didn't read your review, or any others, because I wanted to see it first. I'm guessing I liked it better, though. Will read review later.

I was hoping to see it again this week, but it now appears that my window of opportunity has closed. Ah well, it is still lingering in my memory anyway.

An aspect of the film that has stayed with me more than others is the evocation of childhood, and especially of boyhood. One might have thought, given the non-linear editing style and paucity of continuous scenes, that the film would tend toward abstraction, and of course it is addressing itself to some big, 'abstract' questions, but it is really remarkable to me how vividly it captures the feeling of being a kid, 'like ten thousand windows opened on all sides of the head', as Chesterton said.

I suppose the two elements of the film that are likely to divide viewers are the 'creation sequence' and the 'beach sequence'. The former I thought worked brilliantly; the latter less so, perhaps partly because it is not clear to me what he is trying to depict. Some (including A.O. Scott in an otherwise very perceptive review) have said that it depicts the afterlife, but I think it is supposed to be the character's memory, or heart, or inner being, or something like that -- the place where those he loves are treasured. On either theory, though, I think the sequence still underwhelms.

I am curious to know what you thought of the use of music in the film. The fact that he selected overtly sacred music to play through the creation sequence is, I believe, very important, but I haven't seen anyone comment on it. It is important because it undermines the idea that that sequence is 'impersonal'; on the contrary, the music tells us that even this is a reflection or manifestation of holiness. Or something like that.

Is this the first of Malick's films that you have seen? I can't remember.

I just wrote a great long comment and it disappeared.


It is always faster to write it the second time.

Well, since it was based on your comment, that means I have to read your comment again, but I'll struggle through. ;-)

The creation scene follows the line, "What are we to you?" Maybe it's, "Who are we to you?" I think that this disproves the idea that it is impersonal. I guess someone could think otherwise, but I disagree.

I thought that this part of the movie was very beautiful, but a bit too long. It might not have bothered me though if my husband had not been sitting next to me slitting his wrists. I would have been able to just enjoy it.

The lack of continuity is a bit confusing while you are watching the movie, although it didn't bother me that much, and after the movie my brain started rearranging scenes so that I remember it as a continuous story.

I think the movie was full of grace. I loved the mother. She was full of grace. I wish I could be that mother, but I'm not.

I loved the reconciliation scene between the two brothers.


I just got out of the all-day software training class which is what has been taking all my time these past two days and will do the same tomorrow and part of Thursday, and am reading these comments, and maybe it's just the tension of the day, but I can't stop chuckling at that picture of you & Bill in the creation sequence, Janet. Poor guy. In this case I'm of a very different mind, but I can imagine circumstances in which I would sympathize.

I'll write at least a little more later. I now have to work several hours to do the work that wasn't done while I was in this training. I need the little gmail fist-shaking emoticon here.

Condolences, Mac. Best of luck to you.

I'm away for the next five or six days, so I have to drop out of the conversation for the time being.

Janet, my wife would have had the same reaction. She bowed out in advance.

I wasn't quite slitting my wrists, but thought a little of that went a long way, and there was a lot of it; all in all I wish he had spent a little more time on plot- there were a lot of hints about things that were never expanded on- and a bit less on the abstract cinematography (though the music was consistently wonderful).
Anyway, I wrote about it, and won't repeat myself:

Having disposed of the Sunday Night Journal while I ate a sandwich, and still not at leisure to comment at length, I'll say it would be a lot easier for me to list the very few things I didn't care for than the ones I loved. I was not bored for an instant in the creation sequence. I was beginning to get a bit restless after the father-sons conflict had gone on for quite a while, but then suddenly we were at the end, or rather the beginning. I think that's almost my only significant complaint.

Movies are very powerful, and I'm very impressionable, so it's easy for me to be wildly enthusiastic (or sometimes the opposite) about a movie, then back off later. It's been 24.5 hours since the beginning of the showing last night, and no signs of backing off yet. At the moment I think it's a capital-G-Great movie. Tonight is its last showing here, and if I didn't have so many other demands on my time I'd see it again.

Thanks, Craig. Sorry you'll be gone but maybe when you get back there will be a good bit more to read in this thread. I certainly have more to say.

I did get a chance to read your review, Daniel, albeit hastily, and agree with everything good you say about it. Some of the things you note as flaws did not strike me as such: I loved the way the narrative was suggested as much as constructed, for instance.

Still not time to comment at length...probably not until late tomorrow.

Oh, and I think Janet's "full of grace" is about as good a three-word review as could be had.

I don't think that the 'Beach' sequence was supposed to be a depiction of heaven. Instead it seemed to me a poetic or metaphorical representation of the idea of reconciliation, both spiritual and familial. It is a picture of what Jack is feeling as he becomes reconciled to what his family was/is, and also as he begins to recognize the "glory" around him. This may, in his mind, have an eschatological element to it, but I don't think that that is primary in the scene.

"I loved the way the narrative was suggested as much as constructed, for instance."

Me too. Watching the film was like reading a poem -- it takes "work," and Malick doesn't lay everything out for you. As opposed to most movies nowadays, one needs to be an active, not passive, viewer.

Related to this is the feeling that in engaging the film actively, you have to allow yourself to be pulled in and carried along by its rhythm, imagery, etc.

Very hastily as I head out the door: I don't think the last scene is "heaven" in any final sense. It might be a sort of way station, or it might be something like what you say, Rob--a spiritual reality that exists now. Either way, it's in eternity. I didn't find it necessary to resolve that question. It's a place or condition of recognition and understanding. I think the most important thing there is the words of the mother, which sort of bracket the opening quotation from Job.

It occurs to me that my reaction may have a lot to do with my state of mind at the time, besides my very high hopes.
I drove an hour after working in the 90 degree heat. After a day like that I feel like a wrung-out dishrag, or maybe a noodle. I was hungry, and drove in great anticipation of the Jamaican jerk chicken I was going to eat before the film. Well, the restaurant was closed, a huge disappointment. Then I got lost trying to get from the Jamaican restaurant to the theater, and as I neared the theater my brake pedal went to the floor and I had to pump the brakes to stop. Running late I wolfed down a mediocre sandwich in a pub next to the theater and hurried to watch the film.
So I was not in a meditative mood; I was worried about driving home with bad brakes (they were fine and it has not recurred, one of life's little mysteries), tired from the heat, and annoyed that I was not savoring the aftertaste of jerk chicken, which sticks with you...
So, while I find it hard to believe that I would have found the movie as tightly coherent as the trailer, I might have been more attuned under different circumstances.
I do want to see it again.

All that could certainly affect one's reaction. I was thinking about that last night, actually--about the fact that within a few seconds of the opening I was more or less on board, and favorably disposed. I came to it with no strong expectations one way or the other. I wasn't that enchanted by the trailer, and mainly I was just interested. I would not have been surprised if it had been another somewhat overblown thing of the sort Hollywood tends to come up with when it wants to be Very Deep, like American Beauty (which I thought was a mixed bag at very best). I can imagine that if somehow this movie had gotten on the wrong side of me, or perhaps if I'd had a day like yours, I might have thought it pretentious etc.

But it's been 36+ hours now and the emotion still starts rising in my chest when I think about certain scenes.

Last night we watched the Ethan Hawke Hamlet. It was much better than I expected. I don't usually like Shakespeare in the 21st century, but I think this one really worked.


Haven't seen it. I tend to agree with you about modernized Shakespeare. One of those things that was cute the first time. Jay Nordlinger, who writes music reviews for The New Criterion, describes some "updated" opera productions that are just pretty much twisted in their use of shock techniques and politicization.

By the way, one problem I had with Tree of Life was that I couldn't always understand the whispered prayers/reflections. The screen in the little theater where I saw it was fine--not as big as the standard, but big enough. But the sound system seemed to have problems--those low voices were hard to understand for me. I thought maybe it was just my old ears, but my wife's hearing is fine and she thought the sound was very muddy. So I may have missed some important things.

They were hard to understand.


I saw two excellent productions of Hamlet before I left GB. One was on TV at Christmas 2010; the other was beamed live from the RSC at the Southbank to a couple of dozen cinemas, one of which is in Aberdeen. Both had a similar set and atmosphere, depicting Denmark as a place where one is spied on all the time, and its pretty understandable for Hamlet to go nutz under those circumstances. IOW, it's about the situation not his psychology.

It must have been Christmas 2009, because Christmas 2010 I was in transit to the US

That reminds me, I never have seen Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.

I think Daniel's troubles on film night may go some distance to explaining some of the negative aspects of his opinion of The Tree of Life; for a film like this, one really has to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. I know I cannot sit and watch a slow and thoughtful film if I am stressed or distracted by other things.

I'm glad you liked that Hamlet, Janet. It is a favourite of mine. Not perfect, by any means, but with an interesting slant on the play.

The only Shakespearean adaptation that I thought went way overboard on depravity (to pick up on Mac's comment about depraved opera adaptations) was Titus, starring Anthony Hopkins. Yuck. The violence was stomach-churning. (In its defence, though, a good deal of that disgustingness is in the play -- though of course not rendered with such fidelity on the stage.) Yuck.

Yes, Titus is dreadful enough in print. I can only imagine what a contemporary film-maker would do with it. I wouldn't dream of watching it, and hope I never walk into a room where it's playing.

That may be what made me put in in my queue, Craig. It was something I read either here or there.


Despite its idiosyncrasies and occasional casting faux-pas, I like Kenneth Branagh's film of Hamlet very much. It is almost 4 hrs. long as it is a film of the entire play. It does have an intermission however!

Waiting for further thoughts on The Tree of Life, Mac!

Alas, I'm severely overloaded at work and under a lot of pressure, and Tree of Life is fading rapidly from my memory. Maybe I can manage something this weekend.

Going to see it again this weekend. I thought it had gone, but it just changed cinemas.

Tree of Life is still playing here. I'm a bit surprised. I went to see it on June 25 and I think it had been on for a week or so then.

In looking through my emails, I found something I had said about it which I had forgotten. The scenes with the children as babies and young children were so amazing. I can't believe the reactions that they were able to capture in the children.


I wish I could see it again, then write about it. In a theater, not after it comes out on dvd. It wouldn't look too great on my tv. I don't suppose there's much chance that it will get a wider release.

Tree of Life is being played in a UND theatre in a couple of weeks! I am really relieved I don't have to wait to see it on DVD.



Maybe you should take your theology and film class to see it!

That's great. I hope the theater is reasonably well-equipped, both visually and sonically. Sound is a really important element--not just the music, which is *really* important, but voices, which when I saw it were occasionally indistinct. It really makes use of current movie technology.

Too bad there isn't a 3D version. :-)

All I know about the cinema is it has enormously high ceilings and is very plush.

That sounds promising.

I saw the Tree of Life last night. I thought it was wonderful. I agree with those who say the beach scene is the last successful. I would place it in the collective unconscious, rather than in heaven. The CU is a dull place after three minutes. The scene would have been fine at 3 minutes. The rest of it, from creation through the dinosaurs through the 1950s childhood, through the mother as grace and the father as nature (to over do it a little) was just great. I thought it was gripping, highly enjoyable. I speak as a literal minded person who usually prefers films with a clear plot.

Very pleased to hear that you liked it so much. I do wish the studio would give it a shot in wider release but I suppose they may be right about its limited appeal. I'm not one of those who found the beach scene dull but I did think it was a bit...unfocused, I guess. I really want to see it again.

I've made no attempt to find out what the director intended in the beach scene, so don't know if he has shed any light on it.

The theatre they showed it in here was completely full, but that must be everyone at UND who wanted to see it (they put it on four or five times on Friday and Saturday, and the one I went to on Sat was the penultimate).

I saw a Netflicks movie on a 'huge' TV screen for the first time last month [both Neflicks and huge screen were new to me]. It makes me sorely tempted to buy such a TV/screen. Movies like this would not work on my TV screen, but it is not that they wouldn't work outside a movie theatre. They just need something bigger than the average old fashioned TV (like mine).

I don't know much about Malick, but I have a recollection some of his films have bombed (Days of Heaven?). That may be why this is released on restricted view.

Yeah, I'm sure the straightforward financial calculation was probably decisive. This is Hollywood, after all.

I'm tempted, too, but have relegated that impulse to the "one of these days" category. It wouldn't make that big a difference on that many movies for me. Aside from the occasional art-y film that really makes use of the big screen, big dumb spectacle movies--action films etc.--would be more fun, too. But I rarely watch things like that anyway, for lack of time. Maybe if/when I retire.... One also would want a good sound system, too.

The Tree of Life has been released on DVD. As mentioned already, however, I'm not sure it's the type of film that will make a good transition to the small screen.

Still, if you haven't seen it, it's probably better than nothing, although you could take a chance on its being rereleased to the theaters towards Oscar time if it gains any major nominations (which if there is any justice, and the Academy has any pretense to good judgment, it will.)

I would certainly prefer to see it again on the big screen, and with really good sound. But I'd still be interested in watching it on my non-flat-screen tv with a set of cheap computer speakers (better than the tv's, anyway). I'm sure it would be a more detached viewing, more studying it than being absorbed in it. But there are things in it that I'd like to study.

I think I'm going to hold off watching it again for awhile, but I would like to see the extras on the DVD -- a "making of" featurette and interviews about the film with directors Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. I'll probably just get that from Netflix for now.

Not sure if I posted this before in another thread, but here is a fine video discussion of the film by Roy Anker, an English prof. from Calvin College:

That sort of rings a bell--you may have posted it. I often have problems with online video, due to insufficient network speed, I guess. Often it stops and starts so much that it's unwatchable. I'll try this over the weekend, though.

Thanks very much for the video discussion. I will show my students, many of whom enjoyed the film.

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