This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Tree of Life: Memory Through the Grace of God

Critical Report by Kiersten Depina

On March 10th, 2017 the Centre for Memory and Testimony held a screening of the film The Tree of Life (2011) by Terrence Malick at Ryerson's School of Image Arts.  This screening was a part of the film series entitled: Screening Memory and was followed by a guest lecture by Professor Colman Hogan ‑ co-director of the Centre and professor at the department of English at Ryerson University.  The lecture given by Hogan alluded to the many different underlying messages and themes of The Tree of Life.

The film surrounds the life of a family living in the suburbs in the 1950’s.   Following the initial death of one of the sons, the majority of The Tree of Life flashes back to scenes of the family, with the focus on Jack ‑ a brother to the boy that dies.  The film has a lack of underlying plotline.  It begins with the death of Jack’s brother, followed by scenes of Jack’s adult life, leading into a sequence of the creation of the universe.  Memories of Jack’s childhood are presented in fragments and intertwined with different scenes of nature, composing the remainder of the film. 

After the screening, lecturer Professor Coleman Hogan deconstructed different aspects of the film.  The first was a sequence presenting the creation of the universe through abstract images and nature scenes.  The film begins with a quote from the book of Job in the bible that reads, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  Professor Hogan argued that this question is the premise of the entire film, as the film itself serves as a response to Job questioning God’s role in the world.  I disagree with Hogan as I feel the film lacks all premise and presents a collage of different images of life that the audience interprets and finds meaning in, for themselves.  I feel Malik is also attempting to emphasize the smallness of God’s role beyond that of our initial creation, due to the grandiosity of the creation sequence in comparison to the images of human life.

Professor Hogan then explained the importance of death in the film. The film begins with the death of one of the sons.  In their grief, the parents question God’s allowance of death, mirroring the question Job poses.  Hogan argued that it is after the moment of death that the rest of the movie develops in response.  He explained that through Malik’s presentation of death, it is portrayed that death is directly correlated to life and that through death stories can develop.   I agree that the concept of death is a prominent theme, as there are many instances of death that occur throughout the fragments of memories. In addition, I find the characters’ reactions to death also bring to light important characteristics of their individual personalities, necessary for their character growth.

The latter half of Professor Hogan’s lecture deconstructed the final scene of the film.  In this scene, adult Jack wanders aimlessly through a beach-like environment, interacting with younger versions of himself and people in his memories.  Professor Hogan explained that this scene presents Jack’s fantasy of heaven.  Jack is able to physically interact with his memories, and appears to be outside of time.  Hogan also implied that the film itself never answers any of Jack’s questions involving God, and that the ending is representative of Jack finally receiving answers.  Throughout the film Jack physically expresses sadness and feelings of alienation, but in the final scene, he appears happy and at peace.  Hogan noted that this scene does not compare to the magnificence and sublimity of the creation sequence earlier in the film, and that the contrast emphasizes the smallness or insignificance of the human experience in relation to everything as a whole.  I agree with Hogan’s concept of the scene presenting Jack’s idea of heaven and that human life is a small aspect of all creation.  I also feel that the absence of God in the final scene further portrays the idea that God plays a very miniscule role in the lives of people outside of creation.  Even in the moment where Jack transcends his human life, God is physically not present.

Overall, the screening event for The Tree of Life presented the film in a very introspective and thought provoking way.  Although brief, the discussion following the screening allowed for the audience to question the role of each image and form a better understanding of director Terrence Malik’s cinematic intentions.  Professor Colman Hogan’s lecture provided interesting theories behind the imagery within the film.  Moving forward, an ongoing question that remains is the relationship of God to humanity.

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