The Tree of Life + A River Runs Through It

Double feature: So “The Tree of Life” has turned out to be a pretty divisive film, even for Terrence Malick fans like myself…I saw it weeks ago, and still can’t put a bow on my feelings about it.

Part of this has to do with the number of disparate (some might say irreconcilable) threads that the movie attempts to connect into a cohesive whole.  Other movies have mined parts of this territory before, and screening them after “The Tree of Life” may illuminate the film’s innovations of depth and intention.

The thematic overlap between “The Tree of Life” and the more conventional “A River Runs Through It” turns out to be fairly significant.  Both films explore the nature of fraternal bonds developed within a strict, religious household.  In both, brothers strive to come to terms with the presence of evil in God’s world.  Each film provides ample evidence of this evil, but counters it with proof of its opposite – the peace of the outdoors, the comforts of a woman’s love.  And each makes liberal use of voiceovers and dust-mote-flecked sunlight to heighten its elegiac mood.

(“The Man in the Moon” provides a similar parallel, but swaps out brothers for a pair of sisters.)

For a marathon: A particularly moving element in “The Tree of Life” concerns children’s interpretation of the dynamic between their parents.  In the character of its family’s oldest son, “Terms of Endearment” also touches on a boy’s attempt to grasp the rules governing his parents’ relationship.

In many ways, “The Thin Red Line”‘s Private Witt is a more credible (or maybe just more sympathetic?) adult version of “The Tree of Life”‘s Jack O’Brien than the one depicted in the film itself.  Check out this earlier Malick film and see how naturally the thoughts and actions of young Jack flow into Private Witt’s interior monologue.

At first, “The Tree of Life”‘s cosmic origins/lugubrious dinosaur interlude brought to my mind nothing so much as planetarium visits and middle-school biology shorts about reproduction.   Later, I realized that the documentary “Fractals: The Colors of Infinity” provides an apt analogue to its curiosity about the underpinnings of life.  By explicating the patterns and proportions that preside over the natural world, it might just show you a tree of life more integrative, more concrete, and more awe-inspiring than the other.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “mschmidt62” and “qousqous” at Flickr)

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