Archive for November 10th, 2011

Is “The Tree of Life” a pessimistic movie?

The Tree of Life” is hailed as one of the masterpieces of filmmaking, and it’ll probably be a contender at the upcoming Oscars. The cinematography is amazing, the editing even more so, and the impressionistic “hidden” puzzle messages is found throughout the 140 minute movie’s scenes or scarce dialog.

The movie tells the story of Jack, a successful architect. Through his flashbacks we see how his early life in the ’50s and ’60s made him the person he’s today: an unbalanced, confused and rather sad person. But that’s where the norms stop. A lot of viewers were put off by the way the story is told: in a very fragmented way (“Memento” is traditionally narrative compared to this movie). On top of that we get some seemingly off-topic imagery of the birth of the universe (a 10 minute non-speaking sequence).

Personally, I didn’t mind the way the story was told. I’m used to experimental cinema (I spend quite some time watching experimental short films on REDUX via the GoogleTV, or on Vimeo via the Roku), so I actually like the impressionistic approach to editing and filmmaking. Without such efforts, there’s no progress. Apparently, a lot of filmmaking students use this movie as their main study, same way Kubrick’s “2001” used to be in the ’70s & ’80s.

Where I hang up with “The Tree of Life” though is on some of the message(s). There are many messages on this deeply philosophical movie: grace & mercy vs nature & violence (and how we should achieve balance between the two), how small & insignificant we are compared to the universe, how everything dies but something new is born from it, how much glory there’s around us to keep up move on even after something traumatic happens to us, our need to heal, how we are all finite and so we must make the most out of our relationships — since that’s all we have.

Obviously I don’t disagree with many of the messages in the film. But the movie tries a bit too hard to show us that “we are nothing in the cosmic time”. On a personal level this is of course right. We’re all going to die, we are all less than nothing in the sea of everything.

But on a grander scheme of things, as a species, or as a collective consciousness (for when species won’t matter anymore), I refuse to believe that there’s nothing we can do to stop the end of our existence when our universe dies. I refuse to believe that we live in this universe (“we” as in a collective consciousness of all sentient beings in the universe) only as long as our universe is also alive. This does not resonate with me, because it’s a very Christian approach to life, the universe, and everything. It’s very limiting, very mold-y, very dogmatic, very restrictive. The Church has tried for centuries to mold us and remind us of what we aren’t or what we can’t be (God), and how we should strive to find happiness in our little, insignificant existence. Maybe out of just plain revolting, or maybe because I don’t believe in limits, I can’t give up easily to strive to be more than I am.

I always thought of myself as a pessimist, but in this case I feel I’m more optimistic than Malick, the writer/director of the film. Like Stephen Hawking, I also believe that there is an ultimate prize for having a chance in living, and that prize is to evolve and become so advanced, that the Universe, its laws, and its limitations and dangers won’t matter anymore. In that scenario, we could out-survive it. Maybe by creating the means to move to another, younger universe, or maybe by controlling our existing one from tearing apart. I don’t know how, and surely we won’t know how for a few more millions or billions of years yet (“we” as any species or collective consciousness with the capability to reach that state, might not be humans who get that ultimate prize). But one thing is certain, I won’t give up our fate to universe’s laws and rules. I will do my best to overthrow these laws, and rules, if they get in our way “to live”. Because as I mentioned in the beginning of this article, without such bending of the norm, there’s no progress. Progress is vital to me.

So overall, I just have trouble with the deeper meaning of the film when taken in a grander context (the film invited discussions such as this after its Creation sequence, which was in itself grand). The film works on a personal level, but I have the feeling that Malick has either a bit too much of a Christian influence in his philosophical and existential opinions, or he doesn’t see all the possibilities. The funny thing is that many Christians hated the film, just because the Creation sequence featured evolution & big-bang, and not a God Creator. Malick obviously tried to get both atheists and Christians to like his film (evolution/creation scenes and existential questions for atheists, and God, prayers and overall deeper meaning of the film was meant for Christians). But the movie’s dinosaurs & CGI won’t fool me.

Overall the rest of the deep meanings of the movie are great though (if only when applied at a personal level), and filmmaking-wise the movie is revolutionary. It’s funny that most people who hated the movie, hated it for its “incoherent” editing and “pretentious” feel. Personally, I found these elements amazing on the movie. Where I have a problem with the movie is in a few of its deeper meanings instead.

Rating: 8/10