Tuesday, June 21, 2011

movie notes. the tree of life.

(contains spoilers).

I wasn't sure what to expect from Terrence Malick's latest film, The Tree of Life, but the trailer had been haunting me since I saw it, months ago. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, although generally this is not something that encourages me to see a film. It is even harder to describe the film, now that I've seen it. I don't quite know where to begin. There is that strange, flickering light that wavers onscreen; is it the origin of the universe? I have no idea.

Early in the film, a woman in a house filled with pristine mid-century modern furniture receives a telegram telling her that her son is dead. We watch her husband receive the news at an airfield, barely able to hear above the roar of the planes. We watch her grieve. We flash forward in time again to see another son, now a grown man, still with the weight of his brother's loss upon him. This man, played by Sean Penn, moves silently through his contemporary glass box of a house with its barely furnished rooms, his hair sleep-tousled into a bouffant crest like a startled cockatiel. He seems lost. What is he looking for? We see the earth form itself, waves breaking apart, land rising, dinosaurs in forests and along rivers. Wait. Dinosaurs?

But the heart of the movie, for me, is these three brothers in childhood. The time looks to be the early 1950's. There are two ways through life, says the mother, the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you'll follow. You feel that the mother has chosen one path, and the father another, and that their boys are forever pulled between the two. There is something menacing in the way the father treats them, and yet there is a kind of deep love there, in the way he looks at his sons, in the way he is forever cupping one hand around the neck of one of the boys, pulling them into an embrace. I keep thinking of a line by Kim Stafford in the prologue of Early Morning, describing a bike ride with his brother before dawn. Their father, the poet William Stafford, puts a hand on each of their shoulders before they set off on their bikes, heading down to the Pacific ocean. How long can you feel a hand, steady on your shoulder, after that hand pulls away?

This heart of the film, the three boys, is what I loved most. Their family is not like my family and my childhood was not that childhood, but there were things I remembered. What it felt like to run through tall grass, flinging myself down into the green coolness and rolling down a gentle slope. Swimming in a river or a lake or an outdoor pool under a hot sun. Being with my two cousins, when I visited them in Taiwan or later, when they came to live with us in Seattle. They were like my brothers, and some nights we would all fall into one bed together, our arms and legs tangling in sleep so that one would wake with someone else's foot in their face. The stinging nostalgia almost made me weep.

Stafford, Kim. Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford. Greywolf Press, 2002. p. ix.

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