I recently moved from Sydney to State College, Pennsylvania – home of the Nittany Lions, JoePa and student partying (especially when someone gets assassinated). The town is picturesque, with manicured lawns, flowering pears and leafy lindens, squirrels and jackrabbits, and svelte co-eds jogging along the sidewalk at all hours. New to ‘small town America’ the streets, homes and people evoked Hollywood images from Leave it to Beaver, Stand By Me, and on the more depressed edges, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
In my first week here I was fortunate to be able to re-watch Tree of Life at the State Theatre. Located on the main street (College Ave) the State Theatre is an elegant, yet understated theatre built in 1938 that continues to show new release, art house, and classic films. Tickets are $8.50, wine is $7 – next time I think I’ll go dry.
Watching Tree of Life, a very American perspective on the human condition, from the fringe of ‘the heartland’ further added to the satisfaction of revisiting Malick’s enigmatic film. Like the screening at the Sydney Film Festival, some viewers were frustrated enough to leave, while others continually looked at the glow of their smartphones – presumably looking at the time, or perhaps trying to find a review that provides some meat to the skeletal gestures and subtle whispers.
I would not claim to have a certain interpretation of this film or suggest the meaning, but on second viewing a few scenes and themes struck me:
Both physical structures featured (family home(s), church, office space, and city scape) and the occupation of Jack (Sean Penn) as an architecture echoed the act of divine creation. Importantly, the interaction between the natural and created, or environment and world, served to underscore humanities imitation of the divine and desire to control, order and design.
The will to control, both the environment and world is evidenced by Mr O’Brien’s (Brad Pitt) fastidious concern over property boundaries, garden maintenance and the front lawn. These concerns are deeper than mere aesthetics but represent the character of the person and their place in the world among others – the first audible dialogue is Mr O’Brien telling Jack where the boundary between their yard and Spencer’s yard lies.
A specific example of O’Brien’s will to control is in an early scene where Mrs O’Brien is publically grieving with her friends and Mr O’Brien insists that ‘we are alright’ while simultaneous choking the garden hose in order to halt the flow of water. Whether this is an expression of control over himself, his wife or his world I am unsure. However, the limit or superficiality of O’Brien’s control is highlighted by his inability to revive the boy at the swimming pool. The power over life and death is beyond O’Brien’s grasp.
Love & Death
Immediately following Jack’s first experience of death is his first experience of romantic love or attraction. However, this is soon skewed into something illicit when his object of desire shifts from his young peer to the neighbor’s wife, breaking into her house and stealing her underwear.
Wisdom of Job’s Friends
An obvious point is the parallels the narrative shares with Job. However, without reading too much into each scene, the ‘wisdom’ or comfort offered Mrs O’Brien after her son’s death reflects the cheap sentiment or simple comfort offered to Job. This is particularly pointed when the Priest says, presumably after the funeral, “he is in God’s hands now”, to which Mrs O’Brien responds “he was always in God’s hands”, highlighting the emptiness of the Priest’s words.
For an insightful discussion on the philosophical influences on Malick and themes in his films, this interview with Robert Sinnerbrink on the Philosopher’s Zone is very good.