Want to solve the mystery of Tree of Life? This is one of the most original films to come along in some time, but most people don’t know what to make of it. They suspect something important is going on, but they don’t have the experience to know what it is. The secret is in the genre and the story structure.
One of the best techniques for standing above the crowd in professional screenwriting is combining two genres that don’t normally go together. Writer-director Terrence Malick has done just that, connecting the Masterpiece form with the Memoir-True Story.
To really see how and why Malick creates this bizarre hybrid, you really need to go back to his 1978 masterpiece, Days of Heaven. The story is so primal it seems Biblical: a man pushes his girlfriend to marry a dying farmer to get a piece of his fortune. This moral tale takes place in a magnificent but incredibly harsh natural world, in the turn-of-the-century American West, complete with betrayals, revenge, fire and locusts. Sections of the film are connected by fast-motion photography of plants growing and the earth moving through its daily cycle, like a nature documentary. And the whole story is told through the memory of a 13-year-old narrator.
Notice that Malick’s basic technique in Days of Heaven is to set up a very top down Biblical story while also setting up a very bottom up view of man deeply embedded in the natural world. This combination of Biblical with naturalistic is unique in modern film, but it was a hallmark of late 19th century authors like Thomas Hardy. The combination seems like it shouldn’t work because the Biblical and the natural feel like opposites. But in fact Malick shows that they are both grand systems that try to explain how human life works.
This background from Days of Heaven points up the key story technique Malick uses to combine Masterpiece with Memoir-True-Story in Tree of Life: he sets up an extreme contrast between vast story frames and incredibly short scenes.
A mainstream Hollywood movie usually focuses on a few characters in some generic present, and tells its story through 50-70 scenes that average 2 minutes apiece. Tree of Life places the characters within massive frames of nature and history, but tells its story in 200-300 scenes that are often without dialogue and no more than a few seconds long.
These frames include the creation of the universe, the evolution of life on earth, including dinosaurs, the Oedipal battle between fathers and sons, 1950s suburban America and ultra-modern, present-day city America.
Malick’s use of huge story frames isn’t without precedent. Most famously, in James Joyce’s story of a boy growing up in Catholic Ireland, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, hero Stephen Dedalus writes in his geography book: “Stephen Dedalus, Class of Elements, Clongowes Wood College, Sallins, County Kildare, Ireland, Europe, The World, The Universe.”
As in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, these story frames are not just categories by which Malick defines his characters. They are also systems, and they quietly but inexorably lock the hero of Tree of Life, along with his family, within a powerful slavery.
Of all the many frames in this story, the main one is the “storyteller,” oldest brother Jack as an adult, played by Sean Penn, who remembers his childhood upon hearing of his younger brother’s death. If we recall the discussion of genres and story shapes in the Anatomy of Story Masterclass, we can see why this storyteller technique is the second key to combining the Masterpiece genre with the Memoir-True Story in Tree of Life.
The desire line, the spine, in a Masterpiece story is always some version of “finding a deeper reality, contrasting time, perspective and system.” For Memoir-True Story, it’s “to find the meaning in one’s own life.” Using his brother’s death as a trigger, Jack recalls his boyhood and in the process tries to make some sense of the meaning of his own life. Because this is a memory story, Malick is free to play with the past in any order he chooses, and show time frames that vary from the evolution of the universe to a memory only a second long.
After setting up all these massive frames of time, space and character in the early part of the film, Malick then goes in the opposite direction, the sensual, to tell the main story. One effect of the 200-300 short scenes is that the viewer gains a sense of flow, process, and becoming at every level of life. Just as Van Gogh’s paintings of objects are simply packages of lines of force, the objects here, from bursting stars to desert rocks, have energy literally flowing through them.
The combination of sensual images with short scenes becomes a different kind of story language, a visual poem, and much of the film plays like a silent movie. This is Malick’s cinematic version of stream of consciousness, far more believable and emotionally real than most voice-over narrations that play over standard-length scenes of dialogue.
No matter how short most of these moments are, each is an event, an action which, when strung together in sequence, gives us the story of a boy growing up in America. The father is a harsh, sometimes physical disciplinarian while the mother is a gentle ethereal woman with infinite love for her three boys. Our hero is the oldest of the three, and he does some things to the middle brother, now dead, that show a jealousy, a nastiness, and make him feel guilt now that he remembers those actions as an adult.
Over the course of the story, the outside world, the killer systems, invade the boy’s life. The father loses his job in the factory, along with his belief in the American ethic of working hard to rise to the top. And the boy has to leave the house that he grew up in.
Unlike his father, Jack has grown up to be a successful man in business. But the modern skyscraper environment he lives in seems a major loss compared to that house of his childhood. That’s why he remembers. And that’s why he mourns, not just for his dead brother but for a community, a fleeting moment in the span of a human life when he was free and loved and full of potential.
As this naturalistic story plays out, the second strain, the Biblical, the spiritual, comes through in the scenes as well. First by the fact that these aren’t just brothers in their actions. Our hero is Cain to his brother’s Abel, even if he didn’t finally kill him. Then there are the voices of the heavenly choir that play throughout. There’s the use of voice-over where we hear the beliefs of Mother and Father. And of course there’s the communal ending.
In Jack’s mind, they are all together again at the seashore, walking through the water as requiem music plays and the ethereal choir sings. Father carries the dead son. And Mother says, to death, to the universe, to God, to something, “I give him to you. I give you my son.”
I wish I could say I loved this incredibly ambitious film. But I didn’t. My response to it was similar to what I’ve discovered about Citizen Kane: everyone respects it as one of the great films of all time, but I don’t know a single soul who loves it.
If you want to take a shot at writing a masterpiece of your own, it’s instructive to see why this occurs. Story frames, whether of time, point of view, or system, are fundamental to advanced storytelling. They are what allow the audience to see deeper and to see bigger than they can with their own eyes.
But there is a great danger. The more frames you place on a story, the more you literally back the audience away and drain emotion from the experience. It’s like placing a window frame around a window frame around a window frame around a character. You can see intellectually what the person is doing, but finally you just can’t feel it.