by CHARLIE PINGEL
To say that the past decade was huge for film would be an understatement. The historic nature of the 2010’s on-screen goes beyond simply being a big deal. It will likely be etched in the tomes of film history as the most important transitional period film has faced since the advent of sound.
With the convergence of filmmakers of Hollywood’s golden era alongside newcomers, this great exchange left us with many important beginnings and ends to some of cinema’s biggest names. Whether it be Abbas Kiarostami’s final masterpiece before his retirement and death in “Certified Copy,” or Ari Aster’s modern horror trendsetter and debut in “Hereditary,” we have been fortunate enough to witness the cataloguing of many films that will likely come to be known as classics.
Considering the massive pile of A+ cinema that came to grace our screens throughout the decade, one in particular stands out in my mind as the best. A film bringing together everything that makes film the grand culmination of artistic mediums that it is, weaving its narrative and meaning through the collaboration of moving image, poetic dialogue, and sweltering orchestral music, Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” stands atop all others as my favorite film of the decade.
This film remains deeply special to me for two reasons, the first being its main theme. Malick opens his film very intentionally with a block of text from Job, a book of the Bible. It reads: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
As a practicing Christian, this splicing of passages is one of my favorites, specifically the first part. Malick, also a Christian, sets his thesis by using this passage to open the film. It is all ultimately a question of one’s conscious place in relation to everything that ever was.
This is the journey of the film, from the beginning of time to one man’s life, a life that to others may seem insignificant, but to himself is a grandiose cosmic symphony of chance and spirituality. Through relations to a defining event in his childhood juxtaposed with his contemplation of childhood as a whole as an adult, we see Malick questioning his own position through this semi-autobiographical lens. Religion versus masculinity, family versus charity, the individual versus the whole. Where does one sit in the midst of an ever expanding void, billions of light years deep with no end in sight? And Malick answers this with the opening passage.
One must understand the context of that passage as well to really see what he is getting at. At that point in Job, God is finally answering Job’s long-winded questioning as to why such awful things were happening to him. God answers him with that question, “Where were you?”
By leading with this moment and following up with one of the most beautiful fifteen minutes ever put to film, Malick answers his own line of questioning with the words of his god, with a question of its own. By answering Job with that question (and in a way, Terrence Malick), it is a form of saying no to the questions that proceed it. “No, because you don’t have to know.” It becomes a question of religious trust, and that is in many ways the main theme of the movie.
It is not some futile mediation on why bad things happen to form us. It is a mediation on the question of faith and the necessity of spiritual trust in relation to one’s existence. Is it better to trust in the grand tapestry of life woven by some unseen higher power? Or would it be wise to seek one’s path strictly as its own line of formative chance?
And he considers these questions with what I would say is one of the most extraordinary relations of childhood experience versus that of adult retrospective in art, ever. Everything is occurring within one man’s memory. This movie is meant to be watched at a time in one’s life where the ability exists to reflect on childhood and the strongest moments of it.
These moments, though we are seeing them as children experience them, come as the vision of an adult who now understands what was occurring in that moment. To a child, the moment where the man seizes on the front lawn, or the mom is cat-called outside the drug store would mean nothing as the relation of the imagery is very much from that perspective. However, the impact on adults flips it on its head completely.
Every moment is a realization of trauma or misunderstanding. It’s all formative and that experience comes across as raw and strictly stream-of-consciousness. It rejects film form by not knowing when it will return to its present consciousness. It is a look at the past as we experience it in our memories, and when it reaches its destination, we return to the mind, a man’s earthly relation of what heaven must be like to swell up such worth and joy, all pulled from his lived experience.
What Terrence Malick crafted with this film was the one accessible relation of a life within the stream of the cosmos that adequately represents how it feels in real time, from the beginning of time itself to the indefinite joy of eternity. It is a vision of life and a celebration of humanity that we may never see again, and that alone places it at the top of my list.