I recently saw The Tree of Life. The major selling points for me were threefold: 1) dinosaur, 2) Brad Pitt, and 3) free popcorn.
I loved the film. It is not at all the kind of movie that I can imagine watching every week (see: Center Stage) but it is the kind that sticks. Images, moments, and feelings from it have been bouncing around in my head ever since I saw it. The film has a sticky texture to it, recalling the writings of Kathleen Stewart and Laura Marks. It moves from affective moment to affective moment in a highly pleasurable non-linear way, immersing its viewers in an emotional, tangible, consuming world.
And yet, the delight I felt at the film’s end was short-lived. Once I was liberated from its immersive space, I was able to acknowledge questions the film initiated but never answered.
The main question I have is: would this exact (critically-acclaimed, art-house) film be possible if it was about anyone other than a bunch of white dudes?
It isn’t an original critique, but bear with me as I sort through. Spoilers ahead.
The film tells the story of a heteronormative, white, middle-class Texas family in the 1950s. There are three sons, a quiet and playful mother (Jessica Chastain), and a strict, music-obsessed disciplinarian of a father (Brad Pitt). The movement of the story is located in the build-up to and fallout that happens around the death of the middle son (pictured above in his mother’s arms). The fallout continues in the oldest son’s (pictured above to the right) adult life where Sean Penn plays a successful yet emotionally broken man.
The Tree of Life doesn’t show any other characters outside of their suburban Texas 1950s life, thus the framing device of Jack’s (Sean Penn) adult life hugely privileges his experiences and feelings. There is a huge amount of time devoted to following the young brothers on their adventures and in their negotiations of domestic life. Jessica Chastain’s character is mostly reserved and wholly devoted to her sons and her husband. There are glimpses of her inner angst and frustrations, but the film avoids identifying with her or delving into her pain in the same ways that it does with its male characters. The film flattens her, which could be attributed to the domestic abuse and grief she suffers from, but that explanation isn’t satisfactory and lets the film off the hook too easily.
The point is: viewers are intertwined in the experiences of the overwhelmingly male cast and I think that director Terrence Malick makes this decision in order to avoid any (feminized) threat of melodrama in his movie about Important (white) Male Pain.
Just as this film had to be about men, it also had to be about white men. Set in the 1950s, I know, but the only bodies of color that appear on the screen are those in a fleeting moment at a funeral and in a more extended scene when Brad Pitt’s character takes his sons to buy barbecue (just kill me now) from a group of black men on a Sunday afternoon.
The main characters pull up to a large yard where a few men stand around a large smoker/grill thing and Brad Pitt tells them he wants a pound of brisket while the film takes a detour around the space where the sons wander freely, staring openly at the (mostly) children of color who stare back at them from their play, sitting, and work. There are no clear cues from the film, visually or aurally, about what is happening in this scene. Upon reflection, it appears mostly as a concession. The boy characters would have known that there were people who weren’t white in their world, but they only had to encounter those people when they wanted to buy some barbecue.
Why isn’t that injustice a major focus?
Why is it that there still can’t be a film featuring an African American (or any racial “minority”) perspective that could achieve the same cultural capital and genre-mobility as this one? Why is it that major films in 2011 are still relying on white people to convey a universalized depth and breadth of human experience? Granted, this film has a very specific location and setting, but it is crafted to constantly evoke the cosmic consequences of these characters’ experiences and feelings. These white guys are constructed to represent a universal pain of loss, grief, and growing up. And it was downright convincing to me until I could extract myself from the intricacies of the film which are hugely problematic specifically and in terms of the more general state of culture that they reveal.
At least the dinosaurs are still pretty cool.