“Terrence Malick’s [The Tree of Life] is a form of prayer. It created within me a spiritual awareness, and made me more alert to the awe of existence. I believe it stands free from conventional theologies, although at its end it has images that will evoke them for some people. It functions to pull us back from the distractions of the moment, and focus us on mystery and gratitude…
Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer ‘to’ anyone or anything, but prayer ‘about’ everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.
We all occupy our own box of space and time. We have our memories and no one else’s. We live one life, accumulating it in our minds as we go along. Terrence Malick was born in Waco, Texas, and has filmed much of The Tree of Life in small Texas towns; the house of the O’Brien family is in Smithville. I felt like I knew this house and this town. Malick and I were born within a year of one another, and grew up in small towns in the midlands. Someone else, without my memories to be stirred, might be less affected by its scenes of the O’Briens raising their three boys.
I know unpaved alleys with grass growing down the center, I know big lawns with a swing hanging from a tree. I know windows that stand open all day in the summer. I know houses that are never locked. I know front porches, and front porch swings, and aluminum drinking glasses covered with beads of sweat from the ice tea and lemonade inside. I know picnic tables. I know the cars of the early 1950’s, and the kitchens, and the limitless energy of kids running around the neighborhood.
And I know the imperfect family life Malick evokes. I know how even good parents sometimes lose their tempers. How children resent what seems to be the unforgivable cruelty of one parent, and the refuge seemingly offered by the other. I know what it is to see your parents having a argument, while you stand invisible on the lawn at dusk and half-hear the words drifting through the open windows. I know the feeling of dread, because when your parents fight, the foundation of your world shakes. I had no siblings, but I know how play can get out of hand and turn into hurt, and how hatred can flare up between two kids, and as quickly evaporate. I know above all how time moves slowly in a time before TV and computers and video games, a time when what you did was go outside every morning and play and dare each other, and mess around with firecrackers or throw bricks at the windows of an empty building, and run away giggling with guilt.
Those days and years create the fundament. Then time shifts and passes more quickly, and in some sense will never seem as real again. In the movie, we rejoin one of the O’Brien boys (now played by Sean Penn) when he grows to about the age his father was. We see him in a wilderness of skyscrapers, looking out high windows at a world of glass and steel. Here are not the scenes of the lawn through the dining room windows. These windows never open. He will never again run outside and play.”
As a minor aside, I cringe when I read Ebert trying to equate the movie to a form of prayer. That’s really not le mot juste in this case, and Terence Malick would be the first person to laugh off such a description. It’s not that I believe prayer must always be made in the form of a request — and I, like Ebert, am someone who basically spurns the temptation to make self-serving, material petitions to an omniscient being — but he just foolishly conflates artistic expression, and philosophical reflection, with devotional prayer. Which is very stupid.
Check out Ebert’s top ten movies of all time. Yes, The Tree of Life makes the cut.
Watch The Tree of Life trailer here:
Watch the trailer for Malick’s newest movie, To the Wonder, which will be released later this year: