Page Two: 'Life,' the Universe, Everything
The devastating illumination of Terrence Malick's new film
The Tree of Life proved, unexpectedly, to be the most personally devastating, emotionally upsetting film experience of my life. I had forgotten just how painful and horrible, on a day-by-day (every day) basis my childhood had been. Tree of Life reminded me.
I have long remembered the almost exact time when I first fell in love with movies. It was during a very early afternoon one summer's day in my grandmother's bedroom at her house in Lakewood, N.J. Cutting through her room on my way outdoors, I glanced at the TV, which someone had left on. I paused to watch some of the movie that was on. I never made it outside but instead crawled up in her large, friendly, overstuffed bed to continue watching. (I must point out that the only thing even distantly friendly about my grandmother was the bed.) The film was Frank Capra's Lost Horizon. The film completely captivated me. When it was over, I lay on the bed stunned. A grand new light illuminated my life.
Fortunately, during the half-century since, being stunned at movies has never been a unique experience. There were so many extraordinary new movies released, as well as the many decades of great movies produced before I began seriously watching, that there was a long run when encountering the extraordinary was routine.
Growing up in the New Jersey suburbs, I began to go into New York City to watch movies when I was maybe 13. Still, I've had more great experiences watching movies in Austin than I ever had anywhere else. In 1976, I moved to Austin, becoming a film graduate student in UT's Radio-Television-Film Department the next year. I was involved with the original CinemaTexas, serving as its film programmer for several years, and was on the board of the Student Union film program. I graduated from UT with a master's degree in film in 1980, we founded the Chronicle in 1981, the Austin Film Society began in 1985, and the first South by Southwest took place in 1987. Interestingly, during the last quarter-century or so, the vast majority of my most memorable film viewing experiences has been at AFS screenings.
Watching The Tree of Life directly, electrically connected to that early-afternoon viewing experience in Lakewood, N.J., so many decades back. The latter introduced me to the extraordinary experience of watching a great movie, while the former was a very much welcome rebirth of wonder. This is not even to hint that Malick's new film somehow lessened the power of all the great films I've been so lucky to see in the intervening decades. A truly great film enriches one's life, resonating with every great film one has seen. I'm uncertain what would be the most appropriate metaphoric image with which to describe the role of Malick's film in my life. I don't want to use the term "bookend," as it implies closure, the end of some period of watching great movies. There was no closure. Maybe it is best considered as the resonance of a door first opening, set against the reopening of that door, which had been slowly closing.
If The Tree of Life had been a review assigned to me back when I was still regularly reviewing movies, my first reaction after the screening would have been to immediately contact the editor to get the review reassigned to someone else. This is not a film review, as I could not write one about this movie. My response is so completely and complexly personal that I am spectacularly ill-equipped to review The Tree of Life in any way not overwhelmingly autobiographical.
The Tree of Life reminded me in so many ways of the completely and unrelentingly painful experience of my childhood. This remembrance had nothing to do with retrieving repressed memories, deliberately forgotten sexual abuse, or undue parental brutality. In a far more mundane way, I have always remembered the suffocating and comprehensive feeling of inadequacy of those early years, dominated by such constant misery and failure. The passage of time, accompanied by the grace of the past few welcoming, affirming, and productive decades, just took an edge off the details.
One can have had a truly battering and painful childhood without claiming that it is unique in much of any way. There was no exaggerated deprivation, social stigmatization, or extreme circumstance. I was not raised in a Nazi concentration camp nor in a country in the midst of war. I was not of the 120,000 of Japanese heritage who were sent to one of 10 U.S. internment camps during World War II, nor was I a black child raised in the American South during the century of Jim Crow segregation. My parents, sisters, and I were not slaves nor members of the untouchable caste.
I grew up in a middle-class family in a middle-class suburban community outside of New York City. Compared to the settings of so many other people's childhoods, mine was near idyllic.
My father was not unemployed or imprisoned, nor did he work in a coal mine. We are not talking of living in a world of oppression as depicted by Dickens or being the 12th child of a hopelessly poor family in deepest Appalachia or the most dangerous inner-city ghetto battlefield.
What was wrong with my childhood? Consistently I felt out of place, that I had acted inappropriately, and that I was completely lost when it came to understanding the world around me. I was driven by urges and obsessions that seemed not just unhealthy and unclean but uncontrollable. My greatest torments came from who I was and what I did.
There is no special sympathy being asked for me here, and none is expected.
A post-World War II baby boomer, I grew up in a household where my father very much felt that he did not get to achieve his potential (get to lead the life he could have led) because too early on he was thwarted by the responsibilities of family.
It wasn't just that my father and I didn't get along, although that was there; it was that we operated on different planes of existence. I knew that he felt as though routinely and regularly I failed in the world and disappointed him. Painfully, I shared the exact same perception.
My father felt a great deal of anger, a burning rage sometimes directed at the outside world, sometimes at his son.
Malick's film captures the extraordinary awkwardness and constant fear of living in just such a world. As hard as it would seem to be to convey the truly awful, gut-destroying storms of a father's quiet and constant rage, Malick does.
Yet this is no tightly focused, slight family drama, but far more terribly, the invocation of a world where no inhabitant feels either comfort or control.
Combing unique and repeated images, a universe of sounds, barely heard and clearly articulated voices, cosmic visions and family scenes, it slowly constructs the most imprisoning of structures: the confines of one's own memories and experiences.
In the middle of the film, I wanted to go wherever I needed to go to find the filmmaker to ask him how he managed to remember seemingly meaningless gestures and never entirely noticed looks that ended up, over the course of childhood, inflicting the most brutal and unrelenting tortures.
Conceptually audacious, The Tree of Life is the most daring film in at least a couple of generations. Ambitiously and exquisitely cinematic, it is without apology – but with genius – not just a history of the universe, but a sophisticated, philosophical contemplation of the meaning of life. At its heart, Tree considers the similarities and contradictions of grace and nature, of the spiritual and the secular, and of science and belief.
All of this is a way of creating a film that provides context by which to consider the dynamics of the most mysterious of all relationships – one in which contradiction is harmony, belief struggles to survive doubt, and love, at once demonic and beatific, demeans and redeems: that between child and family and that between man and God.