This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media
given by Dr.
Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Bergman's Persona: the most erotic scene of cinema

I went to the beach on my own. It was a warm and nice day.There was another girl there. She had come  from another island because our beach  was sunnier and more secluded. We lay there  completely naked and sunbathed... dozing off and on,  putting sunscreen on. We had silly straw hats on. Mine had a blue ribbon. I lay there... looking out at the landscape, at the sea and the sun. It was kind of funny. Suddenly I saw two figures  on the rocks above us. They hid  and peeped out occasionally. "Two boys are looking at us,"  I said to the girl. Her name was Katarina. "Let them look," she said,  and turned over on her back. I had a funny feeling. I wanted to jump up  and put my suit on, but I just lay there on my stomach  with my bottom in the air, unembarrassed, totally calm. And Katarina was next to me with her breasts and big thighs. She was just giggling. I noticed that the boys  were coming closer. They just stood there  looking at us. I noticed they were very young. The boldest one  approached us... and squatted down  next to Katarina. He pretended to be busy  picking his toes. I felt very strange. Suddenly Katarina said to him, "Hey, you, why don't you  come over here?" Then she took his hand and helped him  take off his jeans and shirt. Suddenly he was on top of her. She guided him in  and held his butt. The other boy  just sat and watched. I heard Katarina whisper  in the boy's ear and laugh. His face was right next to mine. It was red and swollen. Suddenly I turned and said, "Aren't you coming to me, too?" And Katarina said,  "Go to her now." He pulled out of her and... then fell on top of me,  completely hard. He grabbed my breast. It hurt so much! I was overwhelmed  and came almost immediately. Can you believe it? I wanted to tell him to be careful  not to make me pregnant... when he came. I felt something  I'd never felt in my life... how his sperm  was shooting inside me. He held my shoulders  and bent backwards. I came over and over. Katarina lay there watching  and held him from behind. After he came,  she took him in her arms and used his hand  to make herself come. When she came,  she screamed like a banshee. The three of us started laughing. We called to the other boy, who was sitting on the slope. His name was Peter. He seemed confused and was  shivering there in the sunshine. Katarina unbuttoned his pants  and started to play with him. And when he came,  she took him in her mouth. He bent down  and kissed her back. She turned around,  took his head in both hands, and gave him her breast. The other boy got so excited  that he and I started all over again. It was just as nice as before. Then we had a swim  and went our separate ways.  

Alma (Bibi Andersson) Persona (Sweden, 1966) dir. by Ingmar Bergman

In the Pervert’s Guide, Slavoj Žižek classifies this Bergman’s sequence as one of the most erotic scenes in cinema simply by the way she recounts a scene of sex, a beach orgy, without flashback pictures. 

Persona 3 300Persona 2 300
Persona 13 300            Persona 14 300

"By telling rather than showing, then, Bergman has been able to tell and show. Bergman lets Alma’s telling provide a sort of virtual flashback, while he also creates a ripening interchange between characters in the present. Instead of simply sandwiching fragments of the past into the present action, he has built up two smooth arcs of action, one that we imagine and one that is set before us in precise detail, with its own emotional modulation. The bliss of the past events is refracted through the pain of telling them."


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Deconstruction and Metacinema by Jacques Derrida

French philosopher Jacques Derrida explains his concept of deconstruction through pure metacinema moments in these first excerpts from documentary Derrida (2002) directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering:

Paths of Hate by Damian Nenow

How far does the rage go between men? Man vs. man, ideologies, war, illogic... An interesting and very well done reflection on the war.

The struggle. Its scale is irrelevant or the ideology that stands behind it, no matter whether it is two people or a million. It is followed by only a scar - the bloody traces... Paths of Hate is a short tale about beasts, which lie dormant deep in the human soul and push them into the abyss of blind hatred, rage, and anger. Chasm that leads to the inevitable destruction and annihilation. In the sea of comprehensive, grim, existential desire to put an animation film which will be primarily for spectator entertainment. A spectacular and visually attractive movie. On the other hand I wanted that Paths of Hate was more than just another pokazówka technical capabilities, all hitting the wielgachnych robots or trolls Paths of Hate is an audiovisual project in its truest sense. - Damian Nenow.

Nenow creates his films from the very beginning, assuming that music and sound is no less than half of the final result. However, what made the film music for this animation is quite a surprise even for the artist: "I never expected it to rise to my film fully worthy rock hit," say Nenow.

Paths of Hates (Poland, 2010) directed and written by Damien Nenow

Thanks Jas for this great video.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A free replay (notes on Vertigo) by Chris Marker

“Power and freedom.” Coupled together, these two words are repeated three times in Vertigo. First, at the twelfth minute by Gavin Elster (“freedom” underlined by a move to close-up) who, looking at a picture of Old San Francisco, expresses his nostalgia to Scottie (“San Francisco has changed. The things that spelled San Francisco to me are disappearing fast”), a nostalgia for a time when men—some men at least—had “power and freedom.” Second, at the thirty-fifth minute, in the bookstore, where ‘Pop’ Liebel explains how Carlotta Valdes's rich lover threw her out yet kept her child: “Men could do that in those days. They had the power and the freedom...” And finally at the hundred and twenty-fifth minute—and fifty-first second to be precise—but in reverse order (which is logical, given we are now in the second part, on the other side of the mirror) by Scottie himself when, realizing the workings of the trap laid by the now free and powerful Elster, he says, a few seconds before Judy's fall—which, for him, will be Madeleine's second death—“with all his wife's money and all that freedom and power...”. Just try telling me these are coincidences.

Such precise signs must have a meaning. Could it be psychological, an explanation of the criminal’s motives? If so, the effort seems a little wasted on what is, after all, a secondary character. This strategic triad gave me the first inkling of a possible reading of Vertigo. The vertigo the film deals with isn't to do with space and falling; it is a clear, understandable and spectacular metaphor for yet another kind of vertigo, much more difficult to represent—the vertigo of time. Elster's ‘perfect’ crime almost achieves the impossible: reinventing a time when men and women and San Francisco were different to what they are now. And its perfection, as with all perfection in Hitchcock, exists in duality. Scottie will absorb the folly of time with which Elster infuses him through Madeleine/Judy. But where Elster reduces the fantasy to mediocre manifestations (wealth, power, etc), Scottie transmutes it into its most utopian form: he overcomes the most irreparable damage caused by time and resurrects a love that is dead. The entire second part of the film, on the other side of the mirror, is nothing but a mad, maniacal attempt to deny time, to recreate through trivial yet necessary signs (like the signs of a liturgy: clothes, make-up, hair) the woman whose loss he has never been able to accept. His own feelings of responsibility and guilt for this loss are mere Christian Band-Aids dressing a metaphysical wound of much greater depth. Were one to quote the Scriptures, Corinthians I (an epistle one of Bergman’s characters uses to define love) would apply: “Death, where is your victory?”


So Elster infuses Scottie with the madness of time. It's interesting to see how this is done. As ever with Alfred, stratagems merely serve to hold up a mirror (and there are many mirrors in this story) to the hero and bring out his repressed desires. In Strangers on a Train, Bruno offers Guy the crime he doesn't dare desire. In Vertigo, Scottie, although overtly reluctant, is always willing, always the one taking the first step. Once in Gavin's office and again in front of his own house, (the morning after the fake drowning), the manipulators pretend to give up: Gavin sits down and apologizes for having asked the impossible; Madeleine gets back in the car and gets ready to leave. Everything could stop there. But, on both occasions, Scottie takes the initiative and restarts the machine. Gavin hardly has to persuade Scottie to undertake his search: he simply suggests that he see Madeleine, knowing full well that a glimpse of her will be enough to set the supreme manipulator, Destiny, in motion. After a shot of Madeleine, glimpsed at Ernie's, there follows a shot of Scottie beginning his stake-out of the Elster house. Acceptance (bewitchment) needs no scene of its own; it is contained in the fade to black between the two scenes. This is the first of three ellipses of essential moments, all avoided, which another director would have felt obliged to show. The second ellipse is in the first scene of physical love between Judy and Scottie, which clearly takes place in the hotel room after the last transformation (the hair-do corrected in the bathroom). How is it possible, after such a fabulous, hallucinatory moment, to sustain such intensity?

In this case, the censorship of the time saved Hitchcock from a doubly impossible situation. Such a scene can only exist in the imagination (or in life). But when a film has referred to fantasy only in the highly-coded context of dreams and two lovers embrace in the realist set of the hotel room; when one of them, Scottie, thanks to the most magical camera movement in the history of cinema, discovers another set around him, that of the stable at the Dolores Mission where he last kissed a wife whose double he has now created; isn't that scene the metaphor for the love scene Hitchcock cannot show? And if love is truly the only victor over time, isn't this scene per se the love scene? The third ellipse, which has long been the joy of connoisseurs, I'll mention for the sheer pleasure of it. It occurs much earlier, in the first part. We have just seen Scottie pull Madeleine unconscious out of San Francisco bay (at Fort Point). Fade to black. Scottie is at home, lighting a log fire. As he goes to sit down—the camera follows—he looks straight ahead. The camera follows his look and ends on Madeleine, seen through the open bedroom door, asleep in bed with a sheet up to her neck. But as the camera travels towards her, it also registers her clothes and underclothes hanging on a drier in the kitchen. The telephone rings and wakes her up. Scottie, who's come into the room, leaves, shutting the door. Madeleine reappears dressed in the red dressing-gown he happened to have draped across the bed. Neither of them alludes to the intervening period, apart from the double entendre in Scottie's line the next day: “I enjoyed, er... talking to you...” Three scenes, therefore, where imagination wins over representation; three moments, three keys which become locks, but which no present-day director would think of leaving out. On the contrary, he'd make them heavily explicit and, of course, banal. As a result of saying it can show anything, cinema has abandoned its power over the imagination. And, like cinema, this century is perhaps starting to pay a high price for this betrayal of the imagination—or, more precisely, those who still have an imagination, albeit a poor one, are being made to pay that price.

Double entendre? All the gestures, looks, phrases in Vertigo have a double meaning. Everybody knows that it is probably the only film where a “double” vision is not only advisable but indispensable for rereading the first part of the film in the light of the second. Cabrera Infante called it “the first great surrealist film,” and if there is a theme present in the surrealist imagination (and for that matter, in the literary one), then surely it is that of the Double, the Doppelganger (who from Doctor Jekyll to Kagemusha, from the Prisoner of Zenda to Persona, has trod a royal path through the history of the medium). In Vertigo, the theme is even reflected in the doubling-up of details: Madeleine's look towards the tower (the first scene of San Juan Bautista, looking right, while Scottie kisses her) and the line “Too late” which accompanies it have a precise meaning for the naive spectator, unaware of the stratagem, but another meaning, just as precise, for a watchful spectator seeing it a second time. The look and the line are repeated at the very end, in a shot exactly sym- metrical with the first, by Scottie, looking left, “Too late,” just before Judy falls. For as there is an Other of the Other, there is also a Double of the Double. The right profile of the first revelation, when Madeleine momentarily stands still behind Scottie at Ernie's, the moment which decides everything, is repeated at the beginning of the second part, so precisely that it's Scottie who, the second time, is “in front” of Judy. Thus begins a play of mirrors which can only end in their destruction. We, the audience, discover the stratagem via the letter Judy doesn't send. Scottie discovers it at the end via the necklace. (Note that this moment also has its double: Scottie has just seen the necklace head-on and hasn't reacted. He only reacts when he sees it in the mirror.) In between, Scottie's attraction for Judy, who at first was merely a fourth case of mistaken identity (the constant of a love touched by death; see Proust) Scottie encountered in his search through the places of their past, this attraction has crystallized with her profile in front of the window (“Do I remind you of her?”) in that green neon light, for which Hitchcock, it seems, specially chose the Empire Hotel: her left profile. This is the moment when Scottie crosses to the other side of the mirror and his folly is born ...

...If one believes, that is, the apparent intentions of the authors (authors in the plural because the writer, Samuel Taylor, was largely Alfred's accomplice). The ingenious stratagem, the way of making us understand we've been hood-winked, the stroke of genius of revealing the truth to us well before the hero, the whole thing bathed in the light of an amour fou, “fixed” by what Cabrera (who should know) called the “decadent habaneras” of Bernard Herrman—all that isn't bad. But what if they were lying to us as well? Resnais liked to say that nothing forces us to believe the heroine of Hiroshima. She could be making up everything she says. The flashbacks aren't the affirmations of the writer, but stories told by a character. All we know about Scottie at the beginning of the second part is that he is in a state of total catatonia, that he is “somewhere else,” that it “could last a long time” (according to the doctor), that he loved a dead woman “and still does” (according to Midge). Is it too absurd to imagine that this agonizing, though reasonable, and obstinate soul (“hard-hitting” says Gavin), imagined this totally extravagant scenario, full of unbelievable coincidences and entanglements, yet logical enough to drive one to the one salvatory conclusion: this woman is not dead, I can find her again?

There are many arguments in favour of a dream reading of the second part of Vertigo. The disappearance of Barbara Bel Geddes (Midge, his friend and confidante, secretly in love with him) is one of them. I know very well that she married a rich Texan oilman in the meantime, and is preparing a dreadful reappearance as a widow in the Ewing clan; but still, her disappearance from Vertigo is probably unparalleled in the serial economy of Hollywood scripts. A character important for half the film disappears without trace—there isn't even an allusion to her in the subsequent dialogue—until the end of the second part. In the dream reading of the film, this absence would only be explained by her last line to Scottie in the hospital: “You don't even know I'm here...”

In this case, the entire second part would be nothing but a fantasy, revealing at last the double of the double. We were tricked into believing that the first part was the truth, then told it was a lie born of a perverse mind, that the second part contained the truth. But what if the first part really were the truth and the second the product of a sick mind? In that case, what one may find overcharged and outrageously expressionistic in the nightmare images preceding the hospital room would be nothing but a trick, yet another red herring, camouflaging the fantasy that will occupy us for another hour in order to lead us even further away from the appearance of realism. The only exception to this is the moment I've already mentioned, the change of set during the kiss. In this light, the scene acquires a new meaning: it's a fleeting confession, a revealing detail, the blink of a madman's eyelids as his eyes glaze over, the kind of gaze which sometimes gives a madman away.

There used to be a special effect in old movies where a character would detach himself from his sleeping or dead body, and his transparent form would float up to the sky or into the land of dreams. In the mirror play of Vertigo there is a similar moment, if in a more subtle form: in the clothes store when Judy, realizing that Scottie is transforming her piece by piece into Madeleine (in other words, into the reality he isn't deemed to know, making her repeat what she did for Elster), makes to go, and bumps into a mirror. Scottie joins her in front of the mirror and, while he's dictating to an amazed shop assistant the details of one of Madeleine's dresses, a fabulous shot shows us “all four of them” together: him and his double, her and her double. At that moment, Scottie has truly escaped from his hospital chair: there are two Scotties as well as two Judys. We can therefore add schizophrenia to the illnesses whose symptoms others have already judiciously identified in Scottie's behaviour. Personally, though, I'd leave out necrophilia, so often mentioned, which seems to me more indicative of a critic's neurosis than the character's: Scottie continues to love a truly living Madeleine. In his madness, he looks for proof in her life.

It's all very well reasoning like this, but one must also return to the appearance of the facts, obstinate as they are. There is a crushing argument in favour of a phantasmagoric reading of the second part. When, after the transformation and the hallucination, Madeleine/Judy, with the blitheness of a satisfied body, gets ready for dinner and Scottie asks her what restaurant she'd like to go to, she immediately suggests Ernie's. It's the place where they first met (but Scottie isn't meant to know this yet—Judy's careless “It's our place” is the first give-away before the necklace). So they go there without making a reservation. Just try doing this in San Francisco and you'll understand we're in a dream.

As Gavin says, San Francisco has changed. During a screening at Berkeley in the early eighties, when everyone had forgotten the movie (the old fox had kept the rights in order to sell them at a premium to TV, hence the cuts for commercials and the changed ending) and the word was that it was just another minor thriller, I remember the audience gasping with amazement on seeing the panoramic view of the city which opens the second part. It's another city, without skyscrapers (apart from Coppola's Sentinel Building), a picture as dated as the engraving Scottie looks at when Elster first pronounces those two fateful words. And it was only twenty years ago... San Francisco, of course, is nothing but another character in the film. Samuel Taylor wrote to me agreeing that Hitchcock liked the town but only knew “what he saw from hotels or restaurants or out of the limo window.” He was “what you might call a sedentary person.” But he still decided to use the Dolores Mission and, strangely, to make the house on Lombard Street Scottie's home “because of the red door.” Taylor was in love with his city (Alex Coppel, the first writer, was “a transplanted Englishman”) and put all his love into the script; and perhaps even more than that, if I am to believe a rather cryptic phrase at the end of his letter: “I rewrote the script at the same time that I explored San Francisco and recaptured my past...” Words which could apply as much to the characters as to the authors and which afford us another interpretation, like an added flat to a key, of the direction given by Elster to Scottie at the start of the film, when he's describing Madeleine's wanderings; the pillars Scottie gazes at for so long on the other side of Lloyd Lake—the Portals of the Past. This personal note would explain many things: the amour fou, the dream signs, all the things that make Vertigo a film which is both typically and untypically Hitchcockian in relation to the rest of his work, the work of a perfect cynic. Cynical to the point of adding for television—an anxiously moral medium, as we all know—a new ending to the film: Scottie reunited with Midge and the radio reporting Elster's arrest. Crime doesn't pay.

Ten years later, time has continued to work its effect. What used to mean San Francisco for me is disappearing fast. The spiral of time, like Saul Bass's spiral in the credit sequence, the spiral of Madeleine's hair and Carlotta's in the portrait, cannot stop swallowing up the present and enlarging the contours of the past. The Empire Hotel has become the York and lost its green neon lights; the McKittrick Hotel, the Victorian house where Madeleine disappears like a ghost (another inexplicable detail if we ignore the dream-reading: what of the hotel's mysterious janitress? “A paid accomplice' was Hitchcock's reply to Truffaut. Come on, Alfred!) has been replaced by a school built of concrete. But Ernie's restaurant is still there, as is Podesta Baldocchi's flower-shop with its tiled mosaics where one proudly remembers Kim Novak choosing a bouquet. The cross-section of sequoia is still at the entrance to Muir Woods, on the other side of the bay. The Botanical Gardens were less fortunate: they are now parked underground. (Vertigo could almost be shot in the same locations, unlike its remake in Paris.) The Veterans' Museum is still there, as is the cemetery at the Dolores Mission and San Juan Bautista, south of another mission, where Hitchcock added (by an optical effect) a high tower, the real one being so low you'd hardly sprain an ankle falling off it, complete with stable, carriages and stuffed horse used in the film just as they are in life. And of course, there's Fort Point, under the Golden Gate Bridge, which he wanted to cover with birds at the end of The Birds. The Vertigo tour is now obligatory for lovers of San Francisco. Even the Pope, pretending otherwise, visited two locations: the Golden Gate Bridge and (under the pretext of kissing an AIDS patient) the Dolores Mission. Whether one accepts the dream reading or not, the power of this once ignored film has become a commonplace, proving that the idea of resurrecting a lost love can touch any human heart, whatever he or she may say. “You're my second chance!' cries Scottie as he drags Judy up the stairs of the tower. No one now wants to interpret these words in their superficial sense, meaning his vertigo has been conquered. It's about reliving a moment lost in the past, about bringing it back to life only to lose it again. One does not resurrect the dead, one doesn't look back at Eurydice. Scottie experiences the greatest joy a man can imagine, a second life, in exchange for the greatest tragedy, a second death. What do video games, which tell us more about our unconscious than the works of Lacan, offer us? Neither money nor glory, but a new game. The possibility of playing again. “A second chance.” A free replay. And another thing: Madeleine tells Scottie she managed to find her way back to the house “by spotting the Coit Tower'—the tower which dominates the surrounding hills and whose name makes visiting French tourists laugh. I “Well, it's the first time I ever had to thank the Coit Tower,” says Scottie, the blase San Franciscan. Madeleine would never find her way back today. The bushes have grown on Lombard Street, hiding all landmarks. The house itself, number goo, has changed. The new owners have got rid of (or the old owner kept) the cast-iron balcony with its Chinese inscription “Twin Happiness.” The door is still red, but now blessed with a notice which, in its way, is a tribute to Alfred: “Warning: Crime Watch.” And, from the steps where Kim Novak and James Stewart are first reunited, no one can see any more the tower “in the shape of a fire-hose,” offered as a posthumous gift to the San Francisco Fire Brigade by a millionairess called Lilli Hitchcock Coit ...

Obviously, this text is addressed to those who know Vertigo by heart. But do those who don't deserve anything at all?

Originally published at Positif , n°400, june 1994, p.79.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Yasujiro Ozu's Late Spring and the Image of Time by Gilles Deleuze

“An empty space owes its importance above all to the absence of a possible content, whilst the still life is defined by the presence and composition of objects which are wrapped up in themselves or become their own container: as in the long shot of the vase almost at the end of Late Spring [directed by Yasujiro Ozu, 1949].
“The vase in Late Spring is interposed between the daughter's half smile and the beginning of her tears. There is becoming, change, passage. But the form of what changes does not itself change, does not pass on. This is time, time itself. 'a little time in its pure state': a direct time-image, which gives what changes the unchanging form in which the change is produced.” 
Gilles Deleuze, Time-Image

Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey

A. A Political Use of Psychoanalysis

This paper intends to use psychoanalysis to discover where and how the fascination of film is reinforced by pre-existing patterns of fascination already at work within the individual subject and the social formations that have moulded him. It takes as starting point the way film reflects, reveals and even plays on the straight, socially established interpretation of sexual difference which controls images, erotic ways of looking and spectacle. It is helpful to understand what the cinema has been, how its magic has worked in the past, while attempting a theory and a practice which will challenge this cinema of the past. Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriate here as a political weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.
The paradox of phallocentrism in all its manifestations is that it depends on the image of the castrated woman to give order and meaning to its world. An idea of woman stands as lynch pin to the system: it is her lack that produces the phallus as a symbolic presence, it is her desire to make good the lack that the phallus signifies. Recent writing in Screen about psychoanalysis and the cinema has not sufficiently brought out the importance of the representation of the female form in a symbolic order in which, in the last resort, it speaks castration and nothing else. To summarise briefly: the function of woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious is two-fold, she first symbolises the castration threat by her real absence of a penis and second thereby raises her child into the symbolic. Once this has been achieved, her meaning in the process is at an end, it does not last into the world of law and language except as a memory which oscillates between memory of maternal plenitude and memory of lack. Both are posited on nature (or on anatomy in Freud's famous phrase). Woman's desire is subjected to her image as bearer of the bleeding wound, she can exist only in relation to castration and cannot transcend it. She turns her child into the signifier of her own desire to possess a penis (the condition, she imagines, of entry into the symbolic). Either she must gracefully give way to the word, the Name of the Father and the Law, or else struggle to keep her child down with her in the half-light of the imaginary . Woman then stand& in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.
Continue to read here

Can anyone explain to Sean Penn the purpose of his character in The Tree of Life?
In an interview to Le Figaro, Sean Penn (Into the Wild's director) showed his disagreement to Terrence Malick's directorial work in The Tree of Life, in which the actor plays one of the main roles:

Here some possible answers to Sean Penn's concerns proposed by Philosophy and Film students:

The character that Sean Penn plays in The Tree of Life rounds out the film by providing a present-day context to the events of the past. At the beginning we witness the parents of three boys learning of the death of their middle child. On the anniversary of his brother’s death, adult Jack (played by Sean Penn) lights a candle, goes to work, calls his father, but, confronted with grief, is unable to be present in his surroundings. Now a successful architect living in a beautiful white cube of a house with an understanding wife, Jack feels like he is “bumping into walls” when he is at the architecture firm’s office. He goes for a walk and introduces the audience to a long sequence of flashbacks by saying “I see the child that I was.” Jack also contemplates his relationship to God and the unanswerable question of, “If there is a god, why is there suffering?”  Through fantastical sequences that show the vast and unstoppable forces of nature that have been at work since the beginning of time, and through witnessing snippets of Jack’s childhood as bystanders, the audience is bidden to share in the same questions and in the family’s grief. Through this reflection, Jack comes to a realization that it was his Brother and his Mother that led him to God, that God was always there calling him, and that his Father and his Mother will always wrestle inside him. In the end, in an abstracted time and space, the family find the middle son and find a form of resolution and peace with the loss of him. The Mother offers her son to God.
Through Sean Penn’s character the audience is given context for the complex images throughout the film; however, that does not explain why Sean Penn was chosen to play adult Jack. After all, Jack had hazel eyes and a flattened nose so it does not make sense that he would grow up to have blue eyes and a nose that is definitely not flattened. Such incongruities add unnecessary confusion to a film that already is not exactly straightforward.
Piragashini (Perry) Chandrakumar:
I personally don't think Sean Penn was supposed to add anything to the movie. He was simply a prop in this movie for Terrence. It was about a family who suffered a loss. The family was controlled by the father and I believe he was the hardest on the eldest son. The eldest son as a result of this, was kind of the pillar and strong member of the family guiding his little brothers. In the future Sean Penn (one of the brothers) seemed like he became successful but was very lost. He didn't have guidance anymore because his brother was gone. His purpose in the film was to show us how socially awkward he became and how lost he was in the world without his older brother to guide him. Near the end of the movie he is asking for guidance from his brother and finds some sort of peace.
Shalini Shanmuganathan:

I think Sean Penn was trying to figure out what he was doing in the end when he had an illusion that he reunited with his family. He was going up the elevator and I guess he felt like he was going up his "tree of life" revisiting the people from his past like his friend who was burned in the house fire, his youthful mom and dad, and his two younger brothers. I think Sean Penn felt like he needed to give his mother closure for the loss of his brother. In the end he reunites his little brother with his parents. Of course his mother is extremely happy and emotional. She eventually is seen with two ladies, whom I think are angels and tells God "I give you my son". The dead brother is then seen walking out of a door to a deserted place which resembled heaven.

Sean Penn then starts going back down the elevator and then they also show the camera descending from the tree. I think that resembled him getting back to reality and the present. Once Sean Penn got off the elevator and walked outside he looked emancipated as if he just knocked back into reality. He seemed a lot more happier as if he himself found closure. For him closure was giving his mom happiness.

Jelena Macura:
In my opinion, Sean Penn’s character in The Tree of Life adds to the context of the film as the audience, through the character’s childhood memories and flashbacks and current state of being, is able to generate a deeper meaning of the film’s story.  I feel that Sean Penn’s character is very central to the story because his current mental state allows the audience to better understand the significance of the character’s childhood.  As such, I feel that the audience is able to fully experience the character from his birth, rebellion, tragedy, and ultimately adult life in which the character finds himself in a confused state still haunted by the death of his brother, the memories of his strict father, and the memories of his overall childhood.  

Maryam Rahimi:
In my opinion the whole movie can be looked at as Sean Penn's mental process as he ruminates through the past. The memories of his relationship with his parents and siblings, of passing through puberty, of he rebellious teen age years. He also remembers of being lost between what his mother teaches him about God and nature and what he sees of the world. The movie shows even as a grownup he is still lost in the world and has unresolved issues. His role is to show a human being who is suffering the pain of being confused about his being; existence of the world, God, nature; and origin of the world. The adult audience needs him to relate too.

Daniel Rokhvarger:
I think what Sean Penn adds to the film is structure and perspective. The whole story is told through the images of experience that his character had along with his family in childhood. Images forwarding to the future show a confused, disoriented, older Sean Penn who, like in childhood, is still struggling to make sense of his life and reach an inner peace. His character is the embodiment of man's timeless struggle to find meaning in life. In a way, his character serves a significant narrative role as it guides the film's plot and gives it purpose.