Sean Penn

A Tale of a Father and a Son

Painter Makoto Fujimura and his son, C.J., a Philosophy and Music major at Bucknell University, discuss The Tree of Life. The film, written and directed by Terrence Malick, opens in select New York and Los Angeles theatres May 27.

Makoto Fujimura: The intrigue going into Terrence Malick’s new film The Tree of Life, lead one to believe that it would be either one of the greatest films ever made, or a mystery of a film that would lead to a box-office disappointment.  The trailer is filled with promise as it surely is one of the greatest trailers ever made. How can any film live up to the poetic narrative, and the expectation, set up in the trailer? When the movie started, the jarring nature of the initial few minutes made the viewer uncomfortable, and the couple next to us started to chat.

The Tree of Life, Fox Searchlight.

C.J. Fujimura: The disjointed style with which the film begins actually felt unsurprising and appropriate, although I found myself asking how it could be maintained for a feature length.  Malick, from this place of uncertainty, which was surely felt throughout the audience, orchestrated long stretches of imagery and abbreviated moments of human drama into something that can certainly be described as poetry through film. This method turned the medium, usually used to depict or translate events in real time through screen and sound, into a collage of timeless moments and nameless characters. The drama that is represented is more than just the struggle of one family to overcome the loss of a beloved son. It is the dynamic ebb and flow that has been passed down through the universe itself from the beginning of time.

Makoto: The Tree of Life IS a true masterpiece. Great art makes you believe in the medium of art itself. Picasso makes you believe that paint and collage can do great things. The Tree of Life makes one believe in the medium of film; and film that is designed (thank God) specifically not to be seen with 3-D glasses. The movie is better than the trailer, and the viewer does end up journeying into the narrative of a family struggling to find peace in Waco, Texas. The people next to me did eventually become quiet, settling into the emotional depth of what Malick weaves together masterfully.

C.J.: The future of culture is tightly intertwined with the universal. Globalization has created a worldwide sense of community, and art is at the forefront of this new script. This is a story which cannot be read or understood by one set of symbols and, as such, Malick has used every corner and crevice available of the expressive space that film allows. Tree of Life manages to suggest great potential for this medium, and the arts in general by association, to tell this story.

Makoto: There are paintings imbedded in every scene of the film, either consciously or unconsciously. Wyeth pops up, with Bill Viola and Pipilotti Rist seeping in between the scenes; Jessica Chastain, playing the grieving wife, even looks like Helga (Andrew Wyeth’s favorite model). At times I even felt that I was in Chelsea galleries, rather than a theatre. Sean Penn’s character, an urban architect who designs both his own and his parent’s Philip Johnson-esque modernist house, meanders about, lost in a fragile house full of light. We are to remember his teenage days, as a leader of a pack of friends in the dull summers, throwing rocks through windows to prove his toughness. We hear the broken glass, but we also feel the sharp edges of despair and loss.

C.J.: We are the YouTube generation. We would rather change the channel then stay put on one story. Our culture is built of bits and pieces thrown together in whatever way works for us. Each part seems small but they are linked by association and they coalesce into a whole. Our musicians don’t cover classics, they sample them. There is too much available, and it comes at us too fast, for us to be satisfied with single strain narrative in the same way that previous generations may have been. The stories are out there to be read, but we are the ones who connect the dots. For us, Malick’s approach is not new or jarring — it’s fitting. The pieces brought together on screen encourage the viewer to make their own connections and form their own greater theme. This film aims to portray life itself, the universal drama, in the same way we understand it: by clicking through all of the related videos on the right side of the YouTube page. From each we take a moment, a line, or a gesture of beauty, and without each, the whole would not be complete.

Makoto: Pay attention to what is in-between things on screen. Note the dragonfly that buzzes in between the father and the mother as darkness enfold the town; see the abstract patterns behind Brad Pitt’s face turned away from the camera — a father oblivious to what is disappearing.

C.J.: We are not given classic Brad Pitt cool-as-hell moments, and blades of grass get more screen time then Sean Penn. It is hard to tell how this will be received, but for me, this fresh approach to film begets a fresh approach to acting, and every one of the actors succeeded, which is remarkable. I’d like to believe that this is only one example of the generative power this film, and other works of art in the future, might have.

Makoto: The Tree of Life is a deeply theological film.  Not since Magnolia has a film captured the depth of the depravity of our hearts, the temptation that sways us, the despair of the loss of life.  It lacks, though, the reality behind what is to come.  What is depicted as heavenly turns out to be nostalgia more than Heaven invading the Earth, or a vision of the New Heavens and the New Earth. The world of reconciliation comes in a stark, desert-like flatland. But the “theology” behind the master may turn out to be more a philosophical, metaphysical search informed by Kierkegaard and Heidegger, than the reality of faith.

C.J.: As a whole, my generation is not excited about faith. It is perceived as a foggy windshield through which the road cannot possibly be seen clearly, although the driver sure looks comfortable. To a peer who is turned off by the heavy presence of faith throughout the film, I would suggest that the portrayal of spirituality is necessary for Malick’s purposes. Faith and religion, much like art, are an attempt to understand something which cannot otherwise be understood. There is no better vehicle for a movie like The Tree of Life than prayer because it focuses the mind on the intangible. The movie would be less effective without spirituality because it would be more difficult for the viewer to accept the metaphysical nature of Malick’s writing and directing.

I think, though, that my peers misunderstand their own struggle with faith. There is faith built into everything we do. It is not a choice, it is a necessity. The choice is this; which understanding of faith is the best?

Makoto and C.J.: The Tree of Life is a film that has to be a film; no other medium of art can capture what Malick captures.