Sunday, April 1, 2012

"Curtains" - High School Students Write About The Tree of Life

Every year in my A.P. Literature and Composition class for high school seniors, in an effort to change the pace and take a break from reading heady literature, I show Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. I choose this movie because I know none of my students have seen it, and I’ve always been pleased by the very positive responses. After watching, the students write an essay exploring the themes of longing, sin, and damnation in an indifferent world, and how the imagery reflects those themes. I often get essays that are some of the students’ best work.

This year, with the Academy Award nominations coming out at about the same time, my students were aware that The Tree of Life is another film by Malick, and I told them I would show them the opening forty-five minutes and I would ask them to make observations about images that seem to echo Days of Heaven. Very perceptively they commented about “nature,” “snakes,” “curtains.”

When I asked them how they felt about the film, they gave the following responses:

“This movie isn’t about anything.”

“It’s like a long novel.”

“It’s like a bunch of screensavers.”

But responses were positive enough that I decided to show them the whole movie if they would write an essay on it. After finishing the film, most of them were glad they had seen it. One girl said she loved how the film tells its story with symbolism. One boy admitted it just wasn’t his cup of tea. Another girl remarked how she didn’t do well with “that religious chorus music.”

Nevertheless, my students wrote some well-written, perceptive essays analyzing the character of Jack, his conflicts, his motives, and what the imagery reveals about him.

Below, with my students' permission, I have included unedited excerpts written by each of my young film writers:

This film does not rely heavily on a script but mainly on Malick’s use of images that say more than a script could ever say.

Jack’s learning of how to smile, talk, walk, and play are all chronicled, as is his sibling rivalry, as evident when Jack, as a two-year-old, throws blocks when his mother devotes attention to his newborn baby brother.

Looking up from the trunk of the tree, Jack sees many different branches twist and twirl in many different directions. Each branch resembles a course or journey in life, but Jack can only choose one.

Malick almost exclusively uses silent images to portray the most profound periods of emotional development. For example, the scene in which the white crib of a newborn brother looms ominously in an empty room introduces the sibling rivalry that culminates in Jack shooting his own brother.

Malick realizes progressive disillusionment with the realities of adulthood through several other brief sequences as well, as Jack goes to the funeral, witnesses a handicapped person, and sees the cops arrest a man off the street.

Occasionally, however, Jack glimpses the veins of grace that the father still possesses as he plays the piano or speaks candidly of his failures. Ironically, the father’s duality mirrors Jack’s own adult character once his grace has been corrupted by a similar lust for success and dominance.

One of the most poignant scenes of Jack’s conflict is seen when he witnesses a moment of genuine compassion between his father and his little brother. The father is only able to show his sensitivity when he plays the piano, so when the middle son picks up a guitar and starts strumming it out on the deck, the father and son are able to form a connection between musicians. As the father smiles at the middle son, Jack sees an effortless compassion from his father that he has never received.

We see Jack discover his identity while struggling to find the balance between morality and free will. With his father around he is compelled to behave in order to avoid serious consequences, while with his mother around he takes advantage of the opportunity to act out. It becomes clear that Jack’s bond with his father has shaped him, causing him some dissatisfaction before he ultimately accepts the reality of their relationship.

During a meal, Malick uses the simplicity of long, tense silence and Jack’s passive body language, such as slumped shoulders, his chin tilted to the floor, and restless wandering eyes, to convey the uncomfortable atmosphere that results from Jack’s inability to relate to his own father. The images of the children running through the house and playing harmless, immature tricks on their mother after their father has left on a business trip contrast with the uneasy and lifeless feelings that overcome Jack when his father is around.

A more compassionate side of Father is revealed when he loses his job and is forced to face the reality of his failed dreams to be great. Mother's take on life shines through Father's disappointing struggles and the viewer hears her voice saying, "Unless you love, your life will flash by."

The scene in which Jack's mother mourns in a forest of ancient, sky-scraping trees suggests that nature continues to progress, unaware of the humans who attempt to find meaning in it before passing away.

Repetitive images of animals, like snakes, birds, and dogs, imply a natural freedom that humans may never be able to achieve.

As the dramatic choir music is played throughout the movie, it makes the viewer deeply contemplate the beauty and symbolic significance of seemingly unimportant everyday objects such as curtains and windows.

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