So last Tuesday, I saw Tree of Life. This was the first time I ever left a silent theatre, as in the movie ended, and everybody in the theatre was either sniffling or quiet.
I’m not going to review the film, don’t worry. But, what I want to talk about is that thing I recognized at the beginning, middle, and end of the film — that eternal flame — from a couple of my physics textbooks and lectures. It’s Thomas Wilfred’s “Opus 161.” Ok, I didn’t remember it that quickly, and I had to look through my notes, which I couldn’t find. But then The New Yorker’s Gregory Zinman did the most intelligent thing ever: he waited for the credits to roll. (More reasons to read The New Yorker now: it always confirms that I’m not imagining or misremembering things.) What I originally remembered was that Wilfred’s name and a picture of his “Opus 161” appeared in the reflection section of my book, because he used mirrors and bent pieces of metal to alter/transform light rays produced by lamps and lenses, in order to create this kind of effect. (Vid below.) According to Zinman, the “piece runs without repeating itself for one year, three hundred and fifteen days, and twelve hours.” Not quite eternal, but close?
But in some way, the interaction — of the lenses, the lights, the metal — is what is most telling about the film, I think. No, about life, really. All these separate pieces that, in some way, cross paths. These things inadvertently affect each other and all come together as a relatively coherent whole. This, this is a mechanism that runs for a long time — at least for a working art installation. The mechanism pushes forward and onward, and it never stops. But we don’t see these little bits — well we can, but we cannot do both at the same time. What we see, what we experience, is completely different. It is the perfect example of human perception: we see and we experience only the end of a number of processes we are completely unaware of; a series of interactions and reactions that were prewired, predestined. Jack O’Brien’s (Sean Penn) memories are prime examples: they are clouded and from his perspective only. Unreliable narrative? Perhaps. But this is what we do everyday: we interpret and misinterpret actions and we remember things from one perspective only — our own. And so we try to tease apart events to search for some kind of truth, to deal, or to move on. Wilfred conceived different ways to manipulate light, and what we’re left with is a burst of colours, that swirl so slowly. For such a harmless flame, it has sparked so many questions from film critics, who were baffled by the light/flame/illusion. During the movie, it felt like a voice at the back of your head: it would appear over and over again, and you knew it was significant, but what was it?
Read the article in this week’s New Yorker, if you can. (The one talking about women in pop, aka Beyonce vs. Gaga.) It’s in the “Talk of the Town” section.
Also, Tree of Life, is not what you’re going expecting. I guess this means that the trailer is both useless and, in a way, useful: Malick is probably the one director who can artfully steer focus away from the Sean Penn and Brad Pitt personae. Well sort of: Brad Pitt character looks and sounds like Benjamin Button Brad, but whatever; you don’t care for too long. And yes, there are dinosaurs; but no, it doesn’t quite feel like a two-hour-plus-screensaver. Honest.