I recently had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life while sitting two rows in front of Terrence Malick’s 99-year-old mother. The special screening took place in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a small town north of Tulsa. Malick spent part of his youth in Bartlesville and recently returned to film his still-untitled next project (though some have called it The Burial) starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. The film was screened in a fairly unassuming shopping mall located just off of state highway 75. Okay, so it wasn’t the most majestic setting possible, but it was good enough. Not scheduled to be officially released in Oklahoma and the surrounding region until later this month, I heard about this “secret” happening a couple of days before from an acquaintance that lives in the area. It was touch and go until the day of the screening as to whether or not I would be able to attend, but I was greeted with an early morning text that simply said, “You’re in.”
I’ve been a Terrence Malick fan since my late teens when my father, having loved Badlands since its original release in 1973, took me to the video store to rent a somewhat-scratchy VHS copy of that landmark road movie. The films that followed, Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) all mean a great deal to me both artistically and personally. So it’s no surprise that I was just a little excited several years ago when word first began to circulate about The Tree of Life. I followed the rumors, the casting changes, the false starts, and the rest with a great deal of attention. With each new morsel of information (dinosaurs, space, asteroids) my hunger grew. It’s hard to explain, but I wanted to both know everything and absolutely nothing about this film before I saw it.
I left work a little early the day of the screening, giving myself ample time for the 45-minute drive from Tulsa to Bartlesville. The road between is straight and flat, peppered with occasional cattle, goats and abandoned cars. I blasted classical music, recalled my previous experiences with his films, and pretended the late evening light was meant just for this moment.
I sat in the second row back from the screen. The theater was small and I wanted as much of my field of view as possible to be taken up by the film. Among the other attendees were relatives and friends of the Malick family, none more important than the director’s mother, Irene, sitting behind me in a wheelchair. According to Malick’s wife, Alexandra “Ecky” Malick, who spoke briefly before the film, this was Irene Malick’s first time seeing the film. Malick himself was characteristically absent, as was his father, Emil.
If you’ve seen or even read the copious amount of press this film has already received, you know what a personal statement it is. The central story is set in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s and follows a father, mother and three brothers through the eyes of the eldest boy, Jack. Terrence Malick was the oldest of three brothers. He lived as a boy in Waco. One of the brothers in the film dies at 19 under mysterious circumstances. Malick’s brother, Lawrence, is said to have taken his own life around the same age. Terrence Malick’s remaining brother, Chris, died in 2008 at age 60. A cause of death was not released. Though it’s been portrayed as obtuse in its telling and abstract in its ideas, this film is as starkly autobiographical as any by Fellini.
On the drive back to Tulsa, completely wrecked by what I’d just experienced, I couldn’t get Malick’s mother out of my head. What did she think? Was it obvious to her? Did she get it? In the film, the mother is portrayed as an ethereal, almost angelic archetypal figure of grace and beauty. Yet sitting behind me, in a stainless steel wheelchair, having lived on this earth for nearly a full century, was the woman herself in flesh and blood. As images of an imagined afterlife flickered on the screen, I wondered if it would ever cross her mind that her son may have created for her, the only true afterlife that really exists.