The Tree of Life

I rented The Tree of Life last week. It’s a Terrence Malick film, and they are notoriously obscure and arty and weird and inaccessable, even to the actors who star in them. So it always feels very pretentious to me to say that one actually enjoyed a Terrence Malick film; however, I do like his movies in general, and I really loved The Tree of Life.

Not that I can fully recommend it – see above re: obscure, arty, and weird. I mean, there’s a 15 minute segment near the beginning that is just lovely, if inexplicable, shots of the cosmos and the solar system and giant waves here on Earth. Plus, there’s a small scene of dinosaurs, which is actually pretty cool, but odd.

(I may have fast forwarded through the cosmos shots. I admit nothing.)

What makes the movie magical, however, is the scenes of young family life in Texas in the 1950s. Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain play young parents to three boys, and these scenes are stunningly beautiful and nostalgic and perfectly dreamy.

It’s almost worth owning the movie for this one sequence in particular that traces the first few years of their oldest son’s life. We see his birth, a quiet event full of white sheets and starched nurses; a bassinet near a window with billowing white curtains; feet in tiny white leather shoes taking their first steps. The toddler boy sits on his mother’s lap as they learn the names of animals in a wooden Noah’s Ark set. We see him struggle to crawl up the stairs for the first time; later, his face is full of wonder and interest as he meets his new baby brother.

It’s touching and very, very true, and I just couldn’t believe how easy it was to forget all that. It’s only been five years since I had a baby, but I forget so much. I forget what it’s like to hear your baby babbling and then realizing they are actually telling you something meaningful. I forget the triumph of a little hand finally being able to reach something on the table. I forget the peace – and the total, total exhaustion – of 3 a.m, a rocking chair, and a fussing baby in your arms.

This past weekend we went to Montreal, and on the drive down we passed a minivan pulled over on the highway. The back hatch was open and inside, there was a preschooler sitting on a little potty. We used to do that, travel with a potty in the back seat for highway emergencies. It nestled in there between the playpen and the diaper bag and the box of toys and the suitcase containing three outfits per day, for all of us. Now we can go away for the weekend with a single suitcase and a cooler of car snacks.

Times change.

It’s okay, though. In fact, it’s so okay that I’m pretty cranky these days with Little Miss Sunshine, who just turned five years old but likes nothing better than to pretend to be a baby. “Can I be your baby?” she’ll say, and then she’ll get a wide-eyed, slack-jawed look on her face, say lots of “nyah nyah” and “bip bap.” You’re expected to carry her around, fix her a milk in a sippy cup (we have just one left from the old days), coo and fuss over her. You have to dress her and take her to the potty (“Pretend I am having a diaper change”) and deal with her refusal to talk or understand the things you say to her.

She’ll always be my baby. But really, does she have to be so…babyish?

I’m far enough removed from those baby days that I can look back with weepy-eyed nostalgia and remember the softness of a baby’s hair and the feel of a milk-drunk head passed out on your chest with nothing but dreamy happiness.

But I’m not so far removed that I don’t value the fact that I have an inch of freedom now, days that are just as busy and just as hard, but days when I shouldn’t by rights have to wipe anyone’s butt or wash the 50 different tiny parts of a sippy cup.

My tree of life has grown big, wide, strong. It’s fruit picking time.

4 thoughts on “The Tree of Life

  1. Nick

    I’m so glad you saw it! I thought Tree of Life was wonderful … it was third on my top ten list last year.

    I was in a very particular mood when I saw it, and I didn’t even mind the birth of the universe sequence. Odd as it sounds, I think that sequence made total sense … this isn’t a spoiler because it happens in the first ten minutes, but if you’re trying to comprehend the death of a child, I feel that it’s natural for your thoughts to try to go from that to considering your place in the cosmos.

    And I agree that the real power of the movie is in that childhood sequence. What wonderful child actors he found! And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better Brad Pitt performance.

    The only parts of the movie I didn’t like were the Sean Penn parts, especially the weird beach reunion ending. But happily that part’s easy to ignore.

    1. I agree the cosmos bits do fit with the theme of the movie. I just think they were a little too long – or maybe I was just tired! I really like the dinosaur scene, though, weird as it was. I read online that it was meant to show the birth of empathy – the first time a creature did something kind. I love that, it fits with the movie so well.

      I’d seriously considering buying it for the young family scenes alone. They are just gorgeous, and so perfect. I also read online about Malick’s rules for those scenes – no primary colours, deep blacks, natural light only (which required them to have three different houses for filming, so they could catch natural light at any given time of the day. The result is such a perfect sepia-toned memory and I loved it.

  2. Huh! I have never actually seen a Terence Malick film, which is weird because back before kids I pretty much lived and breathed movies, including plenty that were arty and weird. Tree of Life sounds arty and weird and interesting and intriguing, so I’ll add it to the list of movies I ought to see one of these days.

    Hey, according to IMDB, Terence Malick was born in Ottawa, Illinois. I didn’t even know there was an Ottawa in Illinois.

  3. I just had to say that playing “baby” is the worst game ever. My niece used to love it, and it drove me nuts. (Especially when I was the baby, because then I’d try to say “OK, let’s do something else”, and she’d tell me “Shh, babies can’t talk).

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