The Divine Guide in Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life"

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:2-4)

“…also, on either side of the river, the tree of life.” (Revelation 22:2)

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10 Transcendent Moments in “Life”

It’s been about a week since The Tree of Life came out on DVD/Blu-Ray, which means lovers of the film like me can watch, re-watch, dissect and pause to our heart’s content. As I’ve reflected on the film (I think I’ve seen it about 8 times now), I’m no less awestruck by its beauty now than I was in the beginning. It’s a film overflowing with the sublime, the transcendent, the holy. I’ve heard others call it a worshipful experience and I certainly concur.

The following are the scenes that get me the most, each time I watch Life. They are, in my opinion, the 10 most transcendent sequences of the film. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.

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Tree of Life: From Genesis to Revelation

Tree of Life resurrects the era when Hollywood still aspired to greatness. Not since 2001:  A Space Odyssey (or less successfully, The Fountain) has a filmmaker attempted to capture both the origins of life and our ultimate destination. Director Terrence Malick came of age when movies still mattered. And with Tree of Life, only his fifth feature in forty years, Malick has drawn upon ancient biblical wisdom to prod and comfort adventuresome filmgoers. Some will find it tedious and overreaching.  But those who surrender to the resplendent images may find the experience unexpectedly healing.

Countless stories have started with the problem of pain. We wonder why the innocent suffer. Why do bad things happen to good people?  Tree of Life opens with quotations from the book of Job. In the biblical narrative, Job loses his wife, his children, his health and his home. Friends offer bad advice, blaming him for his ordeal, suggesting he repent from whatever sins caused God to send so much suffering.

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Tree of Life Debuts at Cannes

On Monday morning, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was seen for the first time in public, at its monumentally anticipated premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. At long last, after years of delays and steadily building hype, Life was seen by its first public audience.

The screening took place early in the morning at 8:30am Cannes time (reportedly there were long queues even at 7am, including fights, pushing, and near-riots), or 11:30pm PST, so of course I stayed up to monitor the feedback on Twitter. Predictably, the initial buzz is all over the map, with some heralding it as a masterpiece and others scratching their heads. Reportedly the screening was met with both sustained cheers and a few isolated boos (not atypical for Cannes). In any case, Malick’s film is certainly the talk of the festival.

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The New World

In some ways, The New World serves as the perfect lead in to Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life. Why? Because TREES are a major theme of World. Yes, trees.

Throughout World, Malick’s fourth film, trees are an essential image and metaphor. Early in the film, trees anchor the boats as the European colonists arrive. At the end, tree comprise the final shot. We look upward at a towering cathedral of trees, and then the film ends with the delicate drop of a leaf.

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The Thin Red Line

After two acclaimed films in the 1970s, Terrence Malick fell off the Hollywood radar for two decades, moved to France, and lived the quiet life of a recluse. No one knew when or if he would ever make another film. But in 1998 he emerged with a third film, a big-budget WWII film (adapted from a James Jones novel) released the same year as Saving Private Ryan. It’s as if Malick wanted to hold the unresolved tension of his first two films as long as possible, waiting for just the right project to release the catharsis.

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Days of Heaven

Days of Heaven is the second film from Terrence Malick, and probably his most accessible and aesthetically stunning film.

Heaven follows Bill (Richard Gere), a fugitive from Chicago who tries to make a new life for himself, his little sister (Linda Manz), and girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) in the wheat fields of West Texas. Having killed a factory worker, Bill is propelled westward in search of a new start—a redemptive return to Eden.  The trio arrive at a farm and start their blissful new life there as fieldworkers, until the Farmer (Sam Shepherd) falls in love with Abby and an unstable love triangle forms.  From there, the film plays out in the precarious borderlands between love and jealousy, depravity and redemption, and the particularly Malick-ian terrains of grounded earth and infinite sky.

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The film career of Terrence Malick began in 1972 when, after two years studying at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, the former Rhodes scholar began work on his first feature, Badlands. A deeply atmospheric, myth-driven retelling of the infamous 1958 killing spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Fugate, Badlands explores the phenomenon of innocence in the midst of that most disturbing of evils—the evil of the everyday. Citing influences such as The Hardy Boys, Tom Sawyer, and Huck Finn, Malick has stated his intention of capturing the concept of “innocents abroad”—of innocence in the face of overwhelming drama. Indeed, the focus of Badlands is on the curiously sedate mindsets of its characters who witness and partake in evil as if it were just another mundane activity to engage in.

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May is Terrence Malick Month

I’ve declared May to be Terrence Malick Month. On my blog at least.

Why? Because something is happening this month that happens only about once every 93.5 months: A Terrence Malick film is being released. The reclusive, mysterious filmmaker has released only five films in his 40 year career. One in 1972 (Badlands), one in 1978 (Days of Heaven), one in 1998 after a mysterious two-decade absence from civilization (The Thin Red Line), one in 2005 (The New World), and then this year. In this case, the film in question is called The Tree of Life, and it’s been a long time since so much hype has surrounded a film that so little is known about.

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The Tree of Life Trailer

Christmas came early for many of us last Wednesday, when Fox Searchlight released the first trailer for Terrence Malick’s highly secretive, incredibly anticipated fifth film, The Tree of Life. If you haven’t watched it yet, stop everything, turn up the sound and immerse yourself in it.

One suspects that Mr. Malick, perfectionist auteur that he is, labored many weeks in the editing room on the trailer alone. In addition to being a truly effective trailer (in that it stokes one’s curiosity and kicks the online chatter into overdrive), it is also vintage Malick: beautifully photographed with gorgeous, Germanic music (in this case Smetana’s “The Moldau”), juxtaposing the domestic everyday with the universe’s grandeur in a way that highlights the glorious majesty of both.

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