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Searching for Metaphors in 'The Tree of Life'

 | Review |

  BY Gautam Valluri

The Tree of Life

"The capacity for pleasure can only be as much as the capacity to suffer."- Miguel del Unamuno

Tree of Life
is an epic. It's more of a visual opera as opposed to a film. Terrence Malick takes what is usually seen as an undramatic aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and does what no one else thought of doing. Epics have been traditionally associated with the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.20:1 and above. This is because classically any film that looks like it was going to be an epic was issued to be shot on 70mm film cameras. Malick ironically was rumoured to have employed the use of 70mm cameras for some of the large-scale shots in the film.

I'd like to think of the film as perhaps Malick's most autobiographical work to date. Malick, through the character of Jack gives us a rare view at Terrence. The use of his camera is unbelievably subjective and somehow puts us right in the middle of his view and lets us be him. We see what Jack sees and Jack only sees what Terrence saw. We feel jealousy when Jack feels jealousy towards his newborn younger brother, we feel the warmth of Jack's mother as she whispers to her son and we feel his fear and his hatred towards his father when he is tough on him. We see and we feel and we do it between interludes of spectral photography, of a universe in motion, of microscopic beings reproducing asexually or an Elasmosaurus washed up on a pre-historic beach. These are all important events that allegedly changed and shaped the course of the history of our known universe and these moments are presented side-by-side to a very personal story. The personal story of a family in extremely tight close-ups, of their warmth, or their routine, of their issues and of their life. Who says these didn't shape the course of the history of our known universe?

"There are two ways you can choose to go through life. The way of nature and the way of grace."

There is a scene in the beginning of the film when we see a young wounded Parasaurolophus lying on the bank of a stream when a Trodoon approaches it and pins it down with its foot. The way of nature says that the larger and more able creature must prey on the weaker creature. This is the way it seems our known world has evolved- survival of the fittest. Terrence brings forward an interesting question here. The Trodoon lets the wounded Parasaurolophus go. The choice made here is in favour of the way of grace. Could this be the first sign of what eventually evolved into what we now call 'compassion'? 

The story of Jack and his family flashes by at breakneck speed and jumps liberally back and forth in time. We also see Jack in atlas four different ages as a boy. We grow up with him but we also have a sense of what he will grow into. Terrence allows us grow up with Jack with the advantage of foresight. By doing this he is forcing us into being the elder Jack who can look back onto his childhood with the exact same advantage. As much as we would love to be the young Jack, Terrence doesn't allow us to. Perhaps this is the only way Terrence can remember his younger self?

"Unless you love, your life will flash you by."

At 26, when I look back at my boyhood, I remember how everything was so simple. I remember the warmth of an orange sunlight and its beams cutting through branches of trees and gently warming my skin. I remember people, my family in extreme close-ups. I remember the smell of my parents, the smell of the air of my childhood home, the smell of rain just before it would pour down, the smell of accidentally waking up at 6am during summer holidays. I breathed deeply then and my mind allowed my heart to take in the world around me through my five senses. Terrence does that so powerfully. Come to think of it, Young Jack is the real protagonist of this story. It's him all the way through. The scene where Jack apologizes to his brother after injuring him by shooting his index finger point blank with a pellet gun is perhaps one of the most important scenes ever filmed. I thought about it so much, long after the screening was done and long after walking through the streets of my neighbourhood, at almost midnight and the realization suddenly struck me that this scene was the moment when Jack for the very first time understands regret. He realizes the only way to have any sort of relief is through the forgiveness of his brother. He hands him a wooden plank and gives him free reign to punish him with it. He realized for the first time that the physical pain he will suffer if his brother does hit him is only momentary but the emotional suffering he would have to put up with if he hadn't apologized, would be unbearable.

Not many films have managed to make the viewer feel the same things as the character on screen and this is certainly one of them. We feel guilt, remorse, anger, hatred, love, comfort, peace, uneasiness, disgust, horror, fear, nostalgia and everything else that Jack feels and at the exact same time. Terrence's visuals evoke the feelings before the visuals confirm the feeling. He uses music cleverly- Alexander Desplat's stirring score raises the hair on the back of the neck several times throughout the film. The sounds of the era the the film is set in carries a certain personality to it. It sub-consciously evokes nostalgia, after all the film is all about nostalgia. How does he do it?

"You will be grown long before that tree is tall."

Well the trailer misleads us completely. The tree that Jack's father plants and toddler Jack so innocently pats down only appears in that scene of the film. The Tree in the Tree of Life is not a real tree but a metaphorical being that branches out endlessly, farther and stronger than ever and its origins contained in a single seed. This seed is the origin of life itself. Jack also happens to be the first born of the three brothers in the family. Being a first born myself, I can vouch for the fact that first borns always have it tough. We see him struggle between having to be the eldest and thus the most responsible of the three brothers and having the urge to be a boy left loose in a meadow, free to run in any direction. He struggles for his father's affection but fails to find a way. His two brothers reach their father in two different ways: one through his passion- music and the other through just being the youngest of the three. First borns have it tough because they are born first. Perhaps, it was only apt that Jack was the 'first born'. Going back to the seed that gave rise to the metaphorical tree in the Tree of Life that eventually branches out endlessly, if this metaphorical tree were the first tree ever then that would mean that the seed that gave birth to it was the first seed ever- the 'first born'. Where did this seed come from?

Terrence plays with abstract forms and leaves them there on the screen for us to interpret whatever we want to. These work like Rorschach's inkblots. We see what we want to see. These could also work like mirrors in which we see ourselves and through their fluid abruptness, get transported back in time and see ourselves as we were when we were children, in simpler times when we didn't have the need to look forward too much, where we could still think of being able to take in our present oblivious of the fact that our present was fast becoming our past. This we see in hindsight and through rose-tinted glasses almost as if we've deleted all the moments that we don't really need to remember, after all this is how cinema works doesn't it? Just like how after Jack is woken up in the morning by his mother, we cut to him fully dressed and getting on with his day. The filmmakers didn't bother to shoot footage of him brushing his teeth or going to the loo because these are the details that cinema usually omits.

"Instead of being children of our past, we must look forward to being parents of our future." - Miguel de Unamuno

Time travel is impossible yet we do it everyday. We travel forward one second at a time towards our imminent ends. We also travel backwards through nostalgia, even though we cannot physically transport ourselves back to that time we still remember the way someone smelled, the sound of their whispers, the taste of the space between, the colour that trailed behind them as they moved and the feel of static that was created from the charge between you and them. When all the senses can re-enact everything that accurately then it technically means that you have travelled back in time doesn't it? So what if its not accurate? How can you prove that it isn't? Memories are exactly how you remember them. It will never match how someone else remembers the same moment but then that much of difference exists even in perception. How you perceive things will become how you remember them and if everyone perceives things differently then they will surely remember it differently as well. Perception is the 'seed' that gives rise to the tree whose branches become 'memories'.