Experimentation and The Tree of Life

Tree of Life posterI’m terrible about getting out to the theater, but Jason’s review compelled me to go see Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, a two and a half hour journey of a film that defies description. At first I was worried about including possible spoilers in this post, but I’ve decided not to worry about that. The film cannot be experienced secondhand; I could write out the entire thing minute-by-minute and you still wouldn’t get it until you’d seen it.

At first glance, Tree of Life is about a Texas family in the 1950s. It follows the oldest child, Jack, from birth until the age when he starts questioning his parents and his place in the world (I would guess about age 11); these childhood memories are filtered through the backwards glance of adult Jack. But though the film centers on this one family in all their specificity, these characters are really meant to stand in for us all, as the film explores central questions of faith, love, death, and loss — in short, the meaning of life, and more to the point, what it means to exist, for each of us, as individuals. If this sounds like a lot, it is… and I haven’t even mentioned the creation sequence or the surrealism, or the stunningly nonverbal nature of most of the scenes.

I really don’t know how I would have received this movie if I’d watched it six months ago. There were at least two separate groups of viewers in the theater who just didn’t understand the film and were trying to. Before IWL, I might have been among them, but after a few months of committing to experimentation and being among other artists who feel the same, I’m much more receptive to trying to experience a work on its own terms (rather than fitting it into established guidelines for how things are supposed to be). As it was, suspending my analytical brain was probably the best way to watch this film. It confused me, at least intellectually. But as Erik and I left the theater, both of us teary and silent, I had to ask myself: Does art need to make sense in order to be good? If I’m this moved by something I don’t understand, what is the point of making sense?

Mention experimental art to someone and their mind will automatically conjure up the worst, most incomprehensible avant-garde work they’ve ever seen. I have little patience for experimentation that’s unwatchable (unlistenable, unreadable, etc). For me, the goal of experimentation is to create something new and unfamiliar that is yet resonant and meaningful to its audience. In this view, experimentation is exciting because it forces us to value — and therefore strive to develop — our personal voices above all else, including if necessary the established criteria for what makes something “good.”

The Tree of Life is that for me: a completely realized artistic vision, so true to its creator’s way of thinking that it doesn’t always make sense to the rest of us. Maybe I don’t agree with all the choices, but I’m still exhilarated that Malick was bold enough to make them. The fascinating thing about a work that defies convention is that it’s really hard to judge it as good or bad — or perhaps it shows us, clearly for once, that all our criteria are generalizations that fall to pieces when set against the backdrop of a truly unique perspective. I saw this reflected in the bewildered responses of the people sitting behind us. The woman said plaintively, “But there was no story,” adding after a pause, “but the cinematography was gorgeous at least.” “It was about an hour too long,” said her companion. “Good music, though.” They didn’t know what to make of it, and in the sense that I can’t give a simple assessment of it, neither can I — but I’m not trying. Did I like it? I have no idea! But it was deeply interesting, and to me that’s even better.

There’s a lot more I could say about the film, but I think that’s the gist of it. It’s really one to see and then ponder and discuss, so if you’ve seen it or are going to, let’s talk. It’s almost worth seeing for the cinematography alone (the same guy did Children of Men), which is so incredible it makes film seem more real than real. Some critics have hated it, and I don’t blame them, but if you are at all interested in how vision translates itself into art, I think this is a good one for you.