Aaron Kian started out the Cinema 1544 year in appropriate style – by being late (the next time we start on time will be the first). Fortunately, we were able to watch his selected short film in the meantime – this one is an Argentinian non-talkie called “El Empleo” (“Employment”), directed by Santiago Grasso. It’s only about 6 minutes long, so it’s probably worth a view:
If you simply can’t put in the time, it’s about a man on his way to work in the morning. It would be completely mundane were it not for the fact that most of his everyday implements (chairs, table, taxi cab, traffic lights, etc.) have been replaced by humans. And you’re about to assume that the point of the film is that he is a member of the exploitation class until he assumes his position – as somebody else’s doormat. Who’s to say that the doormat owner doesn’t work as the clothes hanger for the person who is the shower curtain for the main character’s table? The exploited and the exploiters are one and the same.
For our feature presentation, we watched a very recent film – Terrence Malick‘s polarizing 2011 feature The Tree Of Life. I’m not sure it’s the most challenging film I’ve ever seen (it could well be), but I think it’s safe to say that The Tree Of Life is the most challenging film I’ve ever actually liked.
As far as narrative goes, there isn’t much, but I think it divides fairly neatly into four sections.
The first section does the natural job of setting the stage by introducing us to a Texas family and revealing the seminal event in the family’s history – the death of the middle son at the age of 19 (no cause is given). In a film filled with beautiful cinematography and scenes lush in visual, emotional, and symbolic scope, two truly stand out to me. The first is when the mother, in a tender moment with her doomed son, wraps him in a wispy curtain that augurs a funeral shroud.
The family is fractured, and while the eldest brother Jack has become a high-powered architect in an unnamed city, he is still haunted by memories of his brother and how he and his family fit into the grand scheme of life. Much of the dialogue in the film is character voiceovers, often directed at a nebulous concept of God.
The second section of the film is kicked off by one of these voiceovers, when Jack’s broken mother asks, “What are we to You?” What follows is an extended (perhaps 25 minute) series of images chronicling the vastness of the universe and the origins of life on Earth.
The sequence culminates in a few sequences showing CGI dinosaurs which are among the least-satisfying visuals of the film.
Eventually this sequence ends and we are brought from the vast scope of the universe down to a third section giving us a microcosmic view of our featured family, starting with Jack’s birth and concentrating on scenes illustrating their lives.
The mother, played by Jessica Chastain, is the personification of Grace. In a voiceover she relates that:
The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.
The father, played by Brad Pitt, is the personification of Nature.
He isn’t bad-hearted, but he’s overbearing, ambitious, and much of the third section focuses on Jack’s increasing resentment of his father as he approaches adulthood.
“Mother, Father, always you wrestle inside me,” Jack says, and he begins to act out and question whether God is good after he witnesses the drowning death of a friend.
The third section ends as the family is forced to move from their home because their father is transferred, and the fourth section begins, where the adult Jack (played by Sean Penn) has a vision wherein he is led into the desert by the younger version of himself.
In what is to me the second iconic moment of the film, Jack is led in his vision to the frame of a door in the desert which he hesitates to pass through. Although I can’t seem to find an image of it online, there is an extended sequence wherein the sun (above see outside the frame of the door) is carefully shadowed by the door, with its radiance coming out from behind. As Jack hesitates to go through the door the camera zooms in and out, pans left and right…but always carefully keeps the sun behind the thin frame of the door – a technically magnificent shot that may have few equals.
In retrospect, the sun plays a pretty large role in Malick’s cinematography in this film throughout, not just in that one iconic scene.
Returning to Jack’s vision, after wandering through the desert, he is led to a beach where all of the acquaitntances of his childhood are gathered and milling about somewhat aimlessly. In the crowd he finds his dead brother, and returns him to the family in a joyful reunion.
Finally, with this catharsis provided for him family, his bereaved mother is able to let her son go:
I give him to You. I give you my son.
Creation. Birth. Death. Love. Grief. Acceptance. Nature. Grace. Beauty. Hope. This is The Tree Of Life.