Perhaps the peak of artistic achievement lies at the rare meeting place of Art and Philosophy. Certainly the poets Dante and Milton are worthy examples of this. Both were vigorous thinkers, immersed in the issues of their days. And in the realm of Art, their epics have visual properties closely aligned with Renaissance painting.
Sometimes such blends have been achieved in prose fiction or the drama. There is no reason that film, which is by nature a visual art, cannot also connect Art and Philosophy. The film director and writer Terrence Malick has both the ability and aspiration to accomplish such a feat. His impressive background in philosophy includes Rhodes Scholar work at Oxford and a published translation of the existentialist Heidegger.
His recent film The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain and Sean Penn, is quite ambitious along these lines. Malick experimented hard near his home in Texas to create a painterly look to this film striking for its original use of color and light. And along philosophical lines, he attempts to project onto the struggles of a Texas family universal questions such as the meaning of suffering.
It is a shame that this film does not uniformly match in execution what it has in aspiration. The central story is of a family having three boys in the 1950’s. The oldest boy is quite troubled, due largely to the frustrations of his father, played by Brad Pitt. The boys suffer also from the tension between their parents. The Pitt character and their mother, portrayed by Jessica Chastain, cannot agree on such matters as disciplining their children.
When the film addresses this central story, it is quite compelling. But when Malick goes to bigger issues or to the larger story, the film does not work so well. One of the boys later dies, and the Chastain character is explored as an Earth Mother standing for universal suffering. While Ms. Chastain is an excellent actress, her voice is not suited to the profound voiceovers she is given.
Malick attempts to explore parenthood in its largest aspects, and to do this he stops the film’s action for an approximate half hour as he presents natural history. This includes the forming of galaxies and the predatory movements of dinosaurs. Yet, in film history, Sergei Eisenstein contrasted and connected diverse ideas and images better through his montages, and D.W. Griffith, in his 1916 film Intolerance, did a better job of comparing events from distant historical epochs. It should also be noted the treatment of natural history is much swifter in TV’s Big Bang Theory.
But the most troubling aspect of the film is that involving one of the family’s sons as a grownup. This son, portrayed by Sean Penn, is now a successful architect. In a vague way, he is shown to brood over his mother’s suffering and his brother’s death. Near the film’s end he has a symbolic reunion with members of his family, living and dead. But the film does not go into any detail as to his current interactions with people. And as it does not realize him in his current life, it cannot in any meaningful way connect him with his past.
The Tree of Life stands as a fascinating failure.