Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Herr Wozzeck Comments On: Malick's Imagery

Warning: this commentary will contain major spoilers for The Tree of Life. You have been warned.

As I've been going around these past few days, I've found that The Tree of Life has stuck with me in a lot of ways. This I think is the sign of a great movie: it sticks with you for periods of time like this.

But then I also came to a realization: Tree of Life is about as far away from a conventional movie as anybody can get in today's day and age. It's a great movie, but it sure as hell isn't as accessible to the general movie-going public as you'd think. Technically, it's not for everyone.

So I thought I'd go ahead and comment on some of the movie's stranger shots, see if I can help make anyone else make sense of it. Some of the shots are there simply for symbolism, and while the symbolism can be clear at some points there are plenty of instances where the imagery gets extremely obtuse as to be indecipherable.

Keep in mind, the symbolism behind these images are how I personally interpret them. Someone with more knowledge of film or someone who worked on it (hint hint, Terrence Malick himself) will know much more about what the imagery means than I do. But I thought I'd supply an interpretation of his more symbolic shots. So here we go:

The Boy Swimming Out of the Water

If you've seen the trailers for this movie, there are two shots of a boy swimming out of a submerged room. It's a scene that could have come straight out of Inception out of context. But in context, it's actually the least obtuse image in the whole movie: basically, that bit is symbolizing childbirth. It's a really strange way to symbolize birth, but it's the most easily deciphered image in the whole movie.

The Mother Dancing in the Air

One of the stranger images that the trailer doesn't show is a four-second shot in the middle of one of the montages where Jessica Chastain's character is seen next to a tree... and she's floating up and down like she's freaking Wendy from Peter Pan. It kind of comes from the middle of nowhere, so at first it's a difficult image to figure out.

I think the key to this particular image is that events later in the movie give some context to it. The mother is more the kind of mother who dotes on her children: it very well could be that it symbolizes what Jack thinks of his mother looking back on it. This is from a montage from fairly early in Jack's life, too, though I have trouble remembering if it was early childhood or if it was after the birth of one of his brothers. Either way, Chastain is shown to dote a lot on her child, and in doing so she seems like the happiest woman alive. So I think that image symbolizes that.

The Beginning of Time

One of the things that annoyed me about the movie was that it spent a large part of the beginning on all this establishing stuff that sets up a framework for meditating on the significance of life. So it goes through the big bang and the dinosaurs before we eventually end up with our suburban family in the 1950's.

It's a framework establishing thing, but honestly, I don't see the point of it. The reason for this, though, is most likely because I don't see this movie in quite the same way as most other critics have. They see it as a meditation on man's place in the universe: I see it as an experience of life, with a little thought on what it means to be human. A large part of the movie is shot like the way we would remember life: we only remember snippets from our past, with the more important events taking precedence. It's essentially a coming of age story with a little bit of universe placement-pondering the way I see it. Hence, you can likely understand why I see some of this imagery as being a little too much.

That said, though, I can see why other critics place more importance on that. Sean Penn's character only appears for about half an hour of screentime (despite his billing) and he doesn't get that much to do. However, it should be noted that all his scenes occur at the very beginning and the very end of the movie. Essentially, Malick establishes that one of the brothers died in Sean Penn's piece of time. (No, we don't actually find out which one it is that died.) As well, Penn looks lost in a lot of his scenes, like he doesn't know where he's supposed to be or even why he's where he is in general. Hence, the whole movie reads like it could be interpreted as a man trying to find his place in the universe.

The Beach Gathering

Also not featured in the trailer:

There's this incredibly weird scene that comes right out of nowhere near the end of the movie: basically, all the characters of the movie (including Sean Penn) get together for about five minutes and walk around a desert/beach area. It's one of the stranger symbols, and I have absolutely no definitive idea what its significance is to the rest of the movie. I am not sure what to think of this scene, as the movie could have ended right afterwards.

But we get some shots after that establish Sean Penn's location.

This leads me to believe that it's a sort of 'coming to terms with oneself' in its significance. Every character the young Jack associated with is there, including... young Jack himself. It comes a bit after Jessica Chastain gives some narration about how love is the meaning of life, so it lends itself to the interpretation that he's finally come to terms with everything that's happened earlier in his life. The movie in general also seems to linger on the more negative moments of Jack's childhood, so he comes to the conclusion that even if life sucks it is still a part of existence. I wouldn't know definitively, but I think this is the strongest interpretation of that particular scene.

So those are my thoughts on some of the images of Tree of Life. There are plenty more where that came from, but I'd likely be stuck here all day if I tried to decipher all of the movie's stranger shots, so... you get this one. I hope you enjoyed it, and for all you film critics out there, feel free to mention what you your interpretations of some of this imagery are.


  1. I think you're right on the first two, and kind of correct on the third.

    I saw the beginning of time sequence as absolutely necessary based on the theme of the film - which was spelled out in the beginning with the quote from Job. When the Chastain character basically gives the same question - we get God's answer. In other words, God has other junk to worry about besides one lonely boy who died.

    I think in addition to being about Man's place in the cosmos it's ALSO about what it is to be human (Malick covers a lot of ground!)

    The fourth sequence, I think you missed the boat entirely. That's a flash forward to death/heaven/end of time. We see the Sun at a Red Giant phase and then a white dwarf before we see Penn wandering in the desert. Soon he finds the beach (God's Golden shore?) where other people, including his own family, are. Important to note is the door image in the desert that appears multiple times - tying into the door we saw during the birth sequence.

    ANYWAYS - on the beach we see everyone as the age that Jack (Penn) wants to see them as I believe. That's why everyone is young, the way he sees them (presumably Penn sees himself in his 50's - since who knows how old he was at his death). The only time we definitely see someone from another POV is when Chastain sees Pitt...and his character transforms from old (aged, wrinkled hand) to young.

    Since I took this entire sequence to sort of imply, no matter how far apart in years we die, we arrive in "heaven" together (after all what is time to God?) that is why you further see the scene where Chastain allows her son who died to move through the door....making her peace with God (after her faith was challenged earlier).

    Even as an agnostic -- I found all of this very moving and beautiful.

    We then move back to an alive Penn and he looks at the bridge over water. Does that symbolize the bridge from mortality into the infinite? That is my theory.

  2. And sorry, it wouldn't take my profile. Call me CJ

  3. Again, I hope to stress that this is how I personally interpret the movie. I'm pretty sure it's not what Malick had in mind (especially considering your points above), but there's a certain beauty to taking a different meaning from what the filmmaker intended, yes? Something being able to be interpreted in multiple ways is kind of beautiful in itself, you know?

    Some of the symbolism might make itself clearer on a second go. Unfortunately, that second go is going to have to wait a little bit as I'm not near a theater that's playing it at the moment. Maybe when I get back to Boston in a couple of weeks...

    Either way, I think we can both agree that this isn't a movie for everyone: I saw one guy get up a little after one shot of dinosaurs. I never saw him re-enter the theater.

    His loss, I say. He missed out on what I think is ultimately one of the best movies I've seen in a long time.

    -Herr Wozzeck

  4. Oh definitely...I didn't mean to belittle your theory. I just know how Malick weaves spirituality/religion into his films (with the exception of Badlands I suppose, but even that had a Paradise Lost theme - which is really Malick's favorite to explore).

    I also need to see the film a 2nd time. I saw it first nearly a month ago on opening day in Los Angeles, and it's never been far from my mind since. I am not one to truly label films "masterpiece" until there's a few year cooling off period, but it's seriously the best thing I have seen in a long time.

    Maybe ever.

    Anyways, nice blog - hope you don't mind me conversing with you. I've had numerous convos with people over this film since have gone searching for other takes on it.

    BTW- what do you think the man in the attic with the book, I think it was a Bible, while a young boy (Jack at a very early age?) rides a tricycle means? I've yet to find a consensus on that one.