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The Tree of Life: Blame the Architect?

The Tree of Life takes you from creation to heaven – I’m not kidding – with a long interlude into an intimate moment of eternity, as Brad Pitt plays a stern father raising boys in a small Texas town. If it worked in the Old Testament, who says it can’t work in a movie?  It depends on how you like your sacraments. And it might depend on whether you agree that today’s built environment is the work of the Anti-Christ.

This isn’t Days of Heaven, but it’s Dazed and Confused, as the epic fast-forwards to the present where Sean Penn plays Pitt’s eldest son, an architect in what looks a lot like downtown Houston. His talented brother has committed suicide, and Penn grieves solemnly in locations that are hemmed in by gleaming high-rises. The skyscrapers form an existential prison of shadows from the buildings and blazing sunlight, a rectilinear frame for a moral that Malick seems to be handing down, i.e., that we’ve built our way into this inhuman mess.

Penn’s office has high ceilings that suggest the much-cited ambitions of this or that architect to design his era’s cathedrals. Is the architect the designer of a Faustian bargain? Is design destiny, or is destiny design here? Probably all of the above, and all the more mysterious because Penn barely says a thing.   Why talk when you can brood. The frown says it all.

Let’s step back for a moment.  As the movie shifts back and forth across time,  Pitt and wife Jessica Chastain learn of their son’s death in their simple modernist house, where they seem to have moved once their sons have left home. But most of their story takes place on a shady tree-lined street in what’s supposed to be Waco, but seems to have been shot somewhere else. Malick was born in Oklahoma. He grew up in Austin, where he lives now.

The family in The Tree of Life raises its children in a traditionally designed house with a kitchen where Chastain cooks, a porch in front and a yard where the kids play –  the crucible for the right values? –  and Pitt is a musician who missed the opportunity to hone the talent that God gave him. Ah, the sins of omission. Now he plays the organ bitterly in church and works as a manager in a huge plant, which we see as a hulk of inhuman proportions. Brad Pitt, as you may recall, is an architecture nut, and applied (in vain) to be an unpaid intern in the office of Frank Gehry. Has he atoned for that in this film, which was shot in 2008? Not yet, if rumors of Pitt designing a hotel in Dubai are true. Compared to the soul-less landscape of Dubai, Houston is Lourdes.

It’s hinted that his son, played by Penn, has turned the corner away from his upbringing when we see him awake (next to a beautiful woman) in a modernist house. It’s an airy place, filled with light, but somehow humankind has gone in the wrong direction. The evidence for that suspicion hammers away when Penn heads to work, and it’s a glass and steel wasteland, where he can’t find a place of comfort.

Wait a minute. I thought that modernist architecture was inherently good for Born-Again Christians because the lack of adornment and right angles made it hard for the Devil to find a hiding place.  Not for Penn, who heads out to the arid rocks of God’s desert to think about it all. Think of Moses, John the Baptist, and St. Jerome.  For get about God, or the Devil, being in the details.The Devil is inside us.

See The Tree of Life for the dazzling cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki. As for the sermonizing, you’ll wonder why a jury at the Cannes Film Festival gave the film a prize.

 

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