So Tree of Life just ended—wait no it didn’t. There’s some more running around on a beach. There’s a mask floating in the ocean. Why’s there a mask floating in the ocean, Terrence Malick? Okay, so Tree of Life just ended—fuck, we’re back in space, and there’s the image of an undulating nebula thing. Is it done yet? It’s going… it’s still going… Okay, so it seriously just ended, and I have this tremendous sense of relief. I let out a huge sigh and look around at my friends for a reaction, but they seem just as confused, perhaps even astonished that Malick cared enough about the audience to give the film an ending, having felt that the movie might just transition into a ten hour planetarium show punctuated with additional creepy whispering. I awkwardly half-smile, shift my eyes back and forth, scratch the side of my head. I go over the movie in my mind. How am I going to react to this?
It would be easy to say this is a bunch of pretentious bullshit, a grandiose operatic (with opera even!) product of an out of control ego. I could make jokes about how the movie should’ve been called Sunlight Filtering Through Leaves because of the billion shots of sunlight filtering through trees, grass, behind people’s heads, sparkling in sprinklers, behind the earth—hell, even a scene where the sun swells up and devours the planet. In the way that Star Trek had a lens flare in nearly every shot, Tree of Life always has sunlight flickering behind something.
It would be easy to bring up the dinosaurs, all those CG dinosaurs. There’s an unintentionally hilarious scene where a velociraptor type dinosaur puts its foot on a dying dinosaur’s face, lets its foot off the face, then puts it back down on its face, then lifts it up and walks off. There’s another scene where a Loch Ness monster lays silhouetted on a beach, and he (or she maybe) swings a long rubbery neck toward the camera as it looks at a fat gash in its side, and then away in a gesture that can only say, “Seems bleak.” I seem to recall there’s another scene of a miniature triceratops running around in the woods, confused, lost maybe. Maybe I made it up.
It would be easy to bring up the endless section in outer space where you see a galaxy forming, a close-up of stars churning with rumbling bass noises, Hubble photos brought to life—all set to opera with the occasional whispered non sequitur. It made me think of Dune with all the whispered thoughts (“And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!”).
It would be easy to bring up Sean Penn. Did Terrance Malick really need an Oscar Award winning actor to portray a character who simply wanders around skyscrapers and rock fields looking sad and confused, saying almost nothing to anyone for the entire film?
It would be easy to say that the movie seems like a never-ending perfume commercial (“The new summer fragrance from Dior…Ennui™”). Or a jeans commercial for that matter.
It would be easy to bring up the epigraph from the Book of Job, another time-tested hallmark of pretentious art. I think of all the creative writing classes someone passed out a piece with an epigraph at the front, how it nearly always meant a thirty page story about a guy who sits on his roof and contemplates existence. I mean, if someone said, “Brad, write a parody of an art house film,” the resulting film would probably look something pretty similar to Tree of Life with its opera soundtrack, explicit symbolism (“So, like, the mom represents grace and the dad represents nature, and then the mask falling into the ocean represents our masks falling off at the end of our lives, and then…”, the deliberately crazy camera angles, and the random unnecessary dream imagery of the mother floating or in a glass coffin.
It would be easy to bring up all of these things, but I can’t dismiss it because the movie’s genuinely beautiful, profound, and I would’ve been completely thrilled by it if I’d seen it in, say, an art gallery. But in a movie theater, I sort of expected more entertainment or at least to be actively engaged for a majority of the duration. I didn’t expect that I would need to expend such a great deal of cognitive effort to interface with this goddamn movie for so long. There were approximately fifty times when I adjusted in my seat, looked around at my friends, and thought, ‘I’m watching a movie right now. It’s a “deep movie”, but I’ve become disengaged. I would like this experience to end now, but it’s going to keep going for a long time, and there’s no way to skip through to the end. I can only endure.’
I look at my friends as we exit the theater, trying to gauge the reaction. It’s important not to be seen as a philistine, but also not to be seen as a movie snob, someone desperate to appear artsy and intellectual by expressing one’s adoration for the highly wrought movie. No one wants to be the dumb one, the one who doesn’t like smart things, the one who maybe wants to go home and watch Night at the Museum, the one who enjoys Jeff Dunham and Kevin James, the one who probably hasn’t read a book for awhile.
“I liked the dinosaurs,” says someone.
“The dinosaurs were cool,” says someone else.
“During the time when there weren’t dinosaurs on the screen, I thought, ‘When are they going to show more dinosaurs?’”
“That was probably the most disappointing aspect of the movie. Not enough dinosaurs. The movie should’ve been called Not Enough Dinosaurs.”
“I was hoping for a scene where Brad Pitt’s yelling at the kids and then a dinosaur comes in and bites his damn head off.”
“Agreed. It needed a scene where one of the boys says, ‘I have a confession to make,’ and then he pulls off a mask to reveal a dinosaur head and says, ‘I’m actually a velociraptor. I hope this doesn’t make things weird between us.’”
“Not that it wasn’t a good movie,” I say. “But I’m glad that experience has come to an end.”
I wait for the other members of the group to submit their tentative ambiguous opinions, and, listening to them, I then feel more certain of my own opinion, can shape all my disparate feelings into an overall thesis that is neither dumb nor pretentious, but still authentic. I think, ‘It’s important to transcend the knee jerk reaction of, ‘That’s a bunch of bullshit,” and to remain open to artsy films.’ But man, sometimes, it’s so hard.