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Climbing the Tree: A Thematic Analysis of The Tree of Life

02/05/2012

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  . . . when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.”

The film opens with this passage from Job 38.  This is Malick’s “thesis,” and the rest of the film is his supporting argument.  The juxtaposition between Jupiter, Seaweed, and Jump Cuts is not arbitrary.  It’s an impressionistic portrayal of how God sees and experiences His creation.  The cosmos are not unrelated to the planting of a tree, or the wounding of an animal.  But like the branches of a tree, all life finds its roots in the Earth.

Malick’s films are significant because of how unashamedly they embrace thematic editing, rather than causal narrative editing.  In traditional causal editing, one shot directly causes the next shot, which directly causes the next shot after that and so on until the end credits.  But the films of Terrence Malick do not emphasize narrative.  They emphasize theme, truth, and self.  As such, Malick’s preferred editing style is very impressionistic and thematic.  When shots of trees are juxtaposed with shots of children growing up, we aren’t meant to understand them as being “causally” related.  But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t related.

Mainstream audiences expect narrative in their cinema.  They expect a protagonist and an antagonist.  Films that do not have a strong emphasis on this type of story are considered to be shoddy and poorly made.   This expectation is largely due to the lack of film education in our culture.  Film did not start out as a storytelling medium.  It started as a record of life.

When shots were first assembled together in sequence, there were many experiments with what could be accomplished through cutting.  The speed of the cuts and the order of the cuts were found to produce different effects in the audience’s experience.  It was Sergei Eisenstein who said, “Language is much closer to film than painting is.”  Each shot is like a word that represents a given association in the receiver’s sub-conscious.  When specific words are placed together, they give a certain meaning.  Thus, traditional narrative grammar in film might sound like this: The Dog ran away from the pound.

But Malick uses different pieces of information to produce a different idea in the audience’s mind.  His grammar may sound more like this: Dog, barking in the wind, the pound behind, the World ahead.  It isn’t wrong.  It’s just different.  I call it “Linguistic Impressionism.”  It represents the experience of life, rather than recording the facts of it.  Terrence Malick is a poet who all but ignores words.  The images are enough.

And this is one of the most significant reasons that contemporary audiences might not “get it.”  In most narrative film, we’re used to being told through dialogue what the story is about, who the good guys are, and what’s at stake.  We often listen to movies, rather than watch them.  But in Malick’s films, he cuts away from the dialogue.  He focuses on the moments and the memories.  The impression of what life is like.  And as this film demonstrates, life is like a tree.

All life is interconnected.  Like leaves that stem from branches, which grow out of a single trunk whose roots are in the earth.  As new branches grow, the other branches move to accommodate it.  A part of the tree may fall off or die, while the rest of it grows and moves on.  The tree grows with time; it changes shape, and suffers through the elements.  But it survives.

There are frequent shots of trees interspersed throughout the film.  We are often positioned to be looking up at it them, as if with childlike wonder, as the Sun is seen through the branches.  The scope of life is awe-inspiring.  But it is not the size that makes it grand.  It’s the details, interwoven, telling a story.

The Tree is not the only piece of significant symbolism in this movie.  Some of the less disputed symbols are Grace (the mother, also possibly water), Nature (the father), and God (the Light).  In the case of God, the real representation of Him appears to be the recurring orange light.  But there are anticipations of him in images such as the sun, the lamps, and the various candles seen throughout the film.  When we are granted images of the sun shining down onto the trees, it symbolizes God gazing down upon creation.

When Jack says, “Mother . . . Father . . . always you wrestle inside me.”  He is referring to his innate spiritual conflict between Nature and Grace.  The mother describes the difference at the start of the film when she says, “Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.   Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Before Jack is born, we see a woman in white leading small children toward a gate, and then we see one of them in a submerged bedroom, swimming toward the surface.  The woman is an angel leading young souls to their births, and the underwater bedroom is the womb.

The second to final image of the film is of a bridge standing over water, leading into the sunset.  It is very telling symbolically, and punctuates the film quite well.  We are led over Grace to meet God, the Light Source out of which the Tree of Life is grown.  It takes water and sunlight to make a plant grow.  It takes Grace and God for life to grow.  As a dying branch falls to the ground, it is returned to its roots.  Eventually, the whole tree will be returned to the earth, one piece at a time.

In Jack’s vision of Heaven, all people have come together on a beach to celebrate life.  They are reunited.  They are happy.  They are reconciled.  The Mother says a prayer, offering her son to God.  It recalls one of her first lines in the film; “he was in His hands the whole time.”

As the film jumps through space and time, exploring the light years and the eons, it seems patently obvious that this film is not from any human’s point of view.  Rather, it is from the point of view of God, who experiences all of creation at once.  The Mother asks, “Where were You?” and God responds by taking us back to the Creation of the universe.

The evolutionary process begins in water; Life begins by Grace.  God is everywhere.  He is with the newborn as it rests on its mother’s chest.  He is with the wounded dinosaur as it lays stranded on the beach.  He is with Jack as he chooses to do wrong.  And He is with the Cosmos, as they begin and end.  God has seen such struggles of the universe that any human pain (like being shot with a BB gun) should be inconsequential to him.  And yet He is there, suffering with it, despite its cosmic insignificance.

The juxtaposition between human pain and Divine presence plays out like an eternal dialogue, with each asking the other, “Where were you?”  God responds to Job with evidence from the foundations of the earth.  Mrs. O’Brien asks of God the same question that Job had asked, and receives the same answer.  Whenever this question rises in the film, Malick presents us with images of nature, or in some cases, glimpses of Heaven.

Malick frequently employs voice-overs as a means of demonstrating to us the heart of the characters.  The voice-overs are in present tense.  They are often prayers; they are the characters’ innermost thoughts and feelings.  They are notches on the Tree of Life.  The Tree is raised up out of the earth by God, and in its prime seasons will continue to produce more life around it.  Mr. O’Brien is a gardener, but his plants are dying.  Even the grass in his yard is weak, because he does not grow with love.  What the Mother says, “The only way to be happy is to love.  Unless you love, your life will flash by . . . Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.” the Father echoes in disappointment when he says, “Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.

The opening and closing images are the same: a glowing orange light.  This is God, at the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, holding the Tree of Life between His hands.  It is a Tree that He planted, and that He has lovingly cultivated, despite its natural tendency to oppose Him.  This presence in creation is how God answers Job’s question.  “Where was I?  I am HERE.  Where I’ve always been.

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One comment

  1. I enjoy the efforts you have put in this, thanks for all the great articles.



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