Defending “The Tree of Life”

Over at Letterboxd (invite-only beta for now, but I can get one of you in if you ask nicely) I recently reviewed “The Tree of Life,” upon seeing it again last week, thusly:

This is maybe the most important film ever made.

Another user, Jason Marc Schoener, challenged my assertion:

Please tell me what you liked about this film? I watched it last night and am struggling to understand the hype. True it’s beautiful, and the score is wonderful, but it was so pretentious. From the whispered voice over work, to the constantly swooping in camera movement, to the ending. I’m really trig to grasp what is so profound about it. Thanks.

I responded this morning, and since I’ve never really wrote that much about my favorite film of last year (except for these musings on its much debated ending) on this weblog, here’s my defense of “The Tree of Life” for all to read:

Yes, I can see why you (and many others) are seeing “The Tree of Life” mostly as a pretentious exercise. But for me, it all worked. Everything. (Even the more religious aspects, and I’m as far from religious as you can get…)

As I was watching the film again the other day, I kept thinking, if we ever make contact with an intelligent alien life form and try to explain the human condition to them, just show them “The Tree of Life.” It conveys a wide range of emotions, love, hate, trust, anger, and what it’s like to be a child, to learn, to grow, to be disappointed, to succeed, to have faith. At least for me it does. Maybe you have to be open to it, but there isn’t one second in “The Tree of Life” that I would cut, not the forming of the universe, not the dinosaurs, not whatever you may think the last few minutes represent.

The heart of the film is basically Sean Penn’s character Jack remembering his childhood, and the “constantly swooping camera movements” you mention, for me, perfectly capture that. Of course that means that the film doesn’t follow the standard way of showing people, dialogue or actions that we’re so used to, and that can be off-putting to some. But when I watched it in a theater (in Luxembourg, on the biggest screen I’ve ever seen a movie on, I think), I was totally enthralled by it. In fact, I felt like a child, experiencing things with a fresh eye, full of awe and a sense of wonder for the world around me. And again when I saw it at home, although of course I would recommend you see it as big (and as loud) as you possibly can.

I don’t know if I can ever win you over – if you didn’t like it you didn’t like it – but I hope I could begin to explain why I think so highly of the film.

Have you seen “The Tree of Life”? What do you think? Greatest movie ever made, pretentious trite or something in between?

2 thoughts on “Defending “The Tree of Life”

  1. I think it is a masterpiece–I have never been so moved by a film. I can understand why many people get frustrated by it–it takes a little work to follow, and most of us either aren’t used to that or don’t have the visual literacy to do so. But as you unpack the visual poetry you’ll find a profoundly moving story. Malick’s editing allows you to have just the kind of identification with certain scenes as you’ve described here (I was particularly affected by several of the childhood images). It is a stunning achievement. But you have to watch this film the way you read poetry, not the way you read a popular novel. Malick doesn’t condescend. I have been getting a bit annoyed lately by all the bashers of this film. Its o.k. to not like a film, but there seems to be more than the usual disgust at those of us who do. Why?

    By the way, thanks for defending this wonderful work of art. I also provide some explanation of it on my own blog,

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