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Life and Death: The Symphony Through Art

Thoughts on the the life and death theme woven through “The Tree of Life”

By Barika Taheer Edwards

Terrence Malick’s new film explores life through the perspectives of faith,  grace and surrender.

The filmmaker who has been said to be the J.D Salinger of film opened The Tree of Life this weekend. Terrence Malick’s film career spans since the early 1969 and while Sean Penn has done 17 of films since his 1st appearance in Malick’s 4th film, The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life is the elusive brilliant director’s 6th film.

The elusive and brilliant director’s Sixth film explores life through the perspectives of faith, grace and surrender.  The Tree of life is a truly breathtaking, heartbreaking visual symphony that brought me to tears.

Opening with Job 34:8,  Job’s questions God the meaning of life God answers Job bluntly and frankly you are just a man how can you judge God. The film is a rare moment in cinema where the deep questions mankind has regarding the meaning of life. what is faith, grace, why is there evil in the world, am I evil and shortly after the opening we hear the mother of the story’s voice asking God why bad thing happen. These are the discussions that we rarely talk about and are afraid to delve into with friends and family and has caused a bit of controversy for the among critical cirlces.

Through nonlinear movements like those in a tonal symphony, the film spans from the dawn of life on earth to its main story that follows the O’Brien Family living in rural Texas from the birth of their oldest son, Jack and his younger brothers, juxtoposed with Jack’s now adult life in a tower skyscrappers of the city on the anniversary of his younger brother’s death. Opening with the announcement of his brother’s death, Malick brings a tenderness to the film with vignettes of life’s milestones in the simpliest form: the baby’s first steps, the first tinge of jealousy upon the arrival of  the younger sibling, putting stingy iodine on their children’s injuries and moving from the childhood home.

What I have love about Terrence Malick is his ability to visually portray emotions,  daresay, that are beyond the actor. There  is a sort of stirring and brewing with each choice he makes in cinematically, musically and through minimalistic dialogue.

Today we are often inundated with loud, nondynamic and percussive sound and with fast-moving CGI that’s just a blur. Watching a Malick ‘s piece is like savoring, He selects precise sounds, his piece weaves sound in and out and around you. He finds emotions in innate and sometime unobserved objects to convey emotion.
Another film I really enjoyed was  “A New World”  which I could only describe it as poetry on film. The Tree of Life is a tonal piece not poetry this time but again it was like a brewing pot.

While watching The Tree of Life, I remember the lost the closest sibling a dear friend experienced and how difficult it was for the family. It is very interesting situation observing death and mourning while you are not directly impacted on the same level of grief. The Tree of Life follows the siblings from birth of Jack and his younger brothers, you become personally invested in the care his parents give to their family and their sons. How they helped them to walk, washed them, held them, put stingy iodine on the feet, taught them how to love. I couldn’t just chalk it off as a film about death as we all will have to return our investment in lives to death I thought about the pain my friend’s family had to go through losing their child tragically and surrendering their grief.

Jack has not surrender the lost of his brother many years later until the end. It’s about returning what is given to you and letting go.

I sat in the tube and watched the water drip off my fingertips and realized there was something there, something that stir curiosity. 

What I have loved about Terrance Malick is his ability to make filmmaking poetry and the emotion is there stirring and brewing with each choice he makes. Often we are overwhelmed with loud, nondynamic and percussive sound and innundated with fast-moving CGI it become a blur, watching a Malick piece is like savoring. He selects precise sounds, his piece weaves sound in and out and around you. He finds emotions in innate and sometime unobserved objects to convey emotion.  “A New World” was like watching poetry on film. The Tree of Life is a tonal piece not poetry this time but like a brewing pot.

Life and Death

Death is not a topic that we want to think about. Throughout watching the piece, I thought about life and death and leaving behind. The question of “Why God.” Often when tackling difficult topics the best way to explore them are to find new ways, often appearing very experimental to get an inkling to the heaviness and depth of what one feels to live and to die. Often people would call these pieces artsy-fartsy because they are confusing and often in your face, as some may perceive Malick’s The Tree of Life as. A few artist came to mind who have also explored death and life.

Ashes and Snow

I have a museum print in my livingroom from this nomadic museum that arrived in NYC in DATE.  You walk through the dock surrounded by shipping containers while a dozen photos on linen have light shown down on them from the high and dark ceiling. Peebles surround a wooden walkway. It appears like you are walking into a temple. At the end of the dim lite doc a movie plays and the music gets louder and changes with each step to change your energy and inner- reflection on the exhibit.

Ashes and Snow walking through the Exhibit is a Journey of Life to Death to reincarnation

When I first walked into it, I my inner critic and intellectual critic got in the way of trying to quickly understand it.  Once I silenced it and just allowed myself to be I stayed for 4 hours and I left saying I get it and wow it was beautiful. Gregory Colbert explored life and death of self through journey and re-emergence to a more whole and complete self.  Surrender again was the solution.

The Gates

Yes the often labeled as a monstrosity and the awful 80’s orange drapery that lined through Central Park, albeit was as artsy-fartsy as many could label the enigma the plagued New Yorker’s conversations for the year. I actually liked The Gates and found walking though it (a bit embarrassing but once censoring the intellectual critic) I found The Gates fascinating following them. My interpretation of them was the path of life that you take, sometimes you can get off the path (stand on the Central Park rocks) but life keeps going around you, life weaves and its path can be unpredictable as it slopes and curls with the wind that brings fluidity to your direction and eventually it will end.  Walking through the gates this was what I discovered.

Documenting Death

“The feet look like they were out in the desert -- that they'd been baked and cracked and they're dried, dried, dried out.” - Isaiah Zagar Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

Jeremiah Zagar (director of In A Dream) who was a guest on our 2010 Mind Show about artist with mental illness, documented his grandfather’s death.

“I was fascinated with him dying. I wanted to know what it looked like.” - Jeremiah Zagar Photo by Jeremiah Zagar

When observing death you are  able to celebrate life in a deeper way.

Other artists are finding a way to convey life and death through art. Some tread the line of morbidity in some eyes such as the ashes of loves ones portraitures http://www.ashportraits.com to Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life.

The Life and Death of Gil Scott- Heron

Celebrating and reflecting on the life of Gil Scott-Heron, Talib Kweli spoke to us on today’s Artsy Fartsy Show about how Scott-Heron influenced him. A big thanks to Talib for taking the time out to talk to us.

Check out the interview which will be posted soon through PRX.org. 

New York City Hip-Hop artist MaG also shared his thoughts with us today on Scott-Heron:

“I guess when talking about Gil Scott’s life and death, it makes me think of how much of his work and words have influenced an entire generation of hip-hoppers; myself included. When you mention a Common, Nas or Mos Def, a Dead Prez, or even Talib and a whole slew of other socio-conscious emcees, you almost always have to mention that it was Gil Scott who really made it acceptable to be so politically aggressive on record. Outside of the Last Poets, I feel like you can argue Gil Scott was the originator of putting poetry to a beat.” -“MaG™” J. Daniel

Thank you to MaG as well! Check out his music here: http://www.mrmag.bandcamp.com


Win a CD of the Amazing Haunting Soundtrack from the “The Tree of Life”. All you have to do is comment on your thoughts about Life and Death expressed through art or your thoughts on the passing of Gil Scott-Heron.