Monday, December 12, 2011

The Tree of Life, a very strange beautiful film, and a bit of a Rorschach Ink Blot.

The story, minimal, is simple to relay: We have a film that revolves around the death of a son. Much of the film is a conflict concerning the duality of life (more on that just below) going on within the mind of the main character, Jack, as he mulls over loss, talks to his father over his cell phone, apologizes for something he had said to him, and arrives at a sort of resolution or accommodation with the grief, with his father, and with God. We have a film undeniably religious in premise, taking as one of its leitmotifs, the book of Job. God’s response to Job’s protestations over the agonies he endures in that famous story begins the film, and the biblical story makes an appearance again at roughly the halfway point, embodied as a sermon on the subject, being audited by the family that is the focus of the film, during a Sunday service.

Now, having said all that, this film is very visual, impressionistic, and has a minimal script, much of it whispered voice-over, most of which reflects the thoughts of Jack as boy, and Jack as an adult. The character with the largest amount of the minimal dialogue is actually Jack’s father, a disciplinarian and sometimes borderline abusive figure, with prodigious musical and engineering ability. He, Jack, and his mother all contribute to the voice over sections of the script. But the father dominates the ‘live action’ dialogue.

The dialogue reflects three basic and related themes: The contrasting life philosophies or outlooks of the father and mother; the struggle within Jack of reconciling the existence of injustice, pain and suffering with the existence of God; and Jack’s Augustinian struggle with his own moral failings, his own willing wrongdoing, and his concern that he cannot recover from these.

The film gives us labels for the two approaches to life exemplified by the parents: The ‘way of grace,’ and ‘the way of nature.’ A simpler, hopefully straightforward way to explain the contrast is this: For the father, the world is primarily a Hobbesian arena for competition, acquisition and protection of property and reputation or standing. For the mother, the world, or more precisely, life, (not only in the form of human interaction, but the natural world around us), is something to experience aesthetically; it is an object of awe and delight.

The film skillfully plays these two attitudes against each other, not only in the life and domestic turmoil of the family, but also as a conflict within Jack himself, who, as portrayed later in life, is coming to terms with the two aspects of life. The film is apparently a sustained look inside him as he deals with the anger, grief and guilt brought about by his interactions with his father. (What is not clear is if these interactions are brought about by the death of his brother, or if they are brought about by the later death of his mother. His brother dies at the age of 19. Yet, we see adult Jack, talking with his father over the cell phone, is considerably older than that.) Jack is a successful businessman, surrounded by the steel and glass of human technology and power. He, like his father, organizes and leads in the corporate world. Yet, that clear cut world of steel and glass is penetrated here and there with nature, trees (not surprisingly, given the title of the picture) sun, flowing flocks of birds, reminders of the awesome.

The picture portrays the conflict of these two standpoints not only in the person of the parents, but in the lives of the children as well. Young Jack takes after his father, while his brother, whose death serves as the starting point of the film, is much more like his mother. He does not care to fight, or engage in the pecking order of youthful gangs, nor does he initiate destruction or theft of property. He does not try to exert power over others. Jack does these things, even exhibiting cruelty toward his brother. The mother takes the death of Jack’s brother very hard. Jack wonders at her ability to withstand it.

This brings us to a fundamental point driven home by this impressionistic movie. At its root, it asks if there is some fundamental flaw in a world that combines sublimity with suffering, aesthetic value with cruelty, life with death. Jack addresses such questions to God throughout the film, as he grows in his awareness of the pain suffering and cruelty around him, in the world, in his house, and ultimately, within himself. Why is it that these two aspects of the world come as a package, so to speak? Do they have to? That is the fundamental question at the heart of this film.

Even Jack’s father, a ‘local’ embodiment of the cruel, is not simply cruel. He is by no means a monster. He wishes to prepare his sons for a difficult world, and is tough on them, while he also has a keen appreciation for music and talent for it. He plays duets with his son. In effect, the father is not as one dimensional a character as the mother. He has suppressed his aesthetic side in the interests of practical life. He tells his sons he had to give up the professional pursuit of the aesthetic for the practical, and does not want them to have to do so. Yet, he also wants to harden them for the world as it is, and for the probability that they too, will have to yield to the practical. He teaches them to fight because they will have to. His view of business and law is that of the realist. Yet, he is also aware of beauty, and, at least in the form of music, he is aware that some beauty requires for its existence, limitation, work and discipline. Such is the case with music, as he pointedly states at one point in the film. Jack’s mother is much more intuitive, or immediate in her aesthetic experiences.

So, we can say this: There are aspects of this awesome object, this world, this universe, within which we live, and of which we are consequently a part, with its undeniable beauty, that are also as equally undeniably awful, in the sense of eliciting a sense of disgust, dread and fear. Furthermore, it appears to be the case, for at least some of the awesome and beautiful, that it requires, for its existence, attendant pain, suffering, and limitation. For example, an aspect of life as we know it is death. Death is a recurrent image and theme in the film. There is the death of the brother, a death of a peer at a swimming hole, and an intentional killing of a frog. We see the children coming to terms with mortality, asking mother if she will die as well. We see the brother bury something when they are forced to move due to the Father’s career change.

We are reminded of the transitory brief nature of passing generations by the recurrent appearance of a field of sunflowers. Beginnings and ends. Life and death. Unceasing change, yet a passing on, and endurance of life as its branches ramify. Generations sustain life in a serial but quantum form, presenting a punctuated story of long term continuity, symbolized by the ancient tree in the yard, one of many trees that appear in the film. A tree is planted by the family, and mother tells children that it will become large and aged. Indeed, it will outlast them all. It will endure through change. Life will endure through many deaths.

Over the course of the film we see beginnings and ends on a much larger scale; we see the birth and death of our solar system, a history of life on Earth, which includes scenes of death. But the film offers a vision of evolutionary continuity as well. We see predatory behavior and mortal injury in the age of the dinosaurs and earlier. But, in the representation of that continuity, with its contained agonies, we see progression and evolution.

However, on an even larger time scale, the cosmological, we are reminded that the continuity of life on Earth will be broken. Toward the end of the film, we see the utter extinction of life on our planet, as the sun expands into red giant phase, blowing away the Earth’s atmosphere, and charring its surface. We see further into that bleak and featureless future, a frigid and shadowed rock, orbiting a distant cold and pale sun, now reduced to dwarf star. A grim finale indeed, if the film were not basically religious in its premise. But, naturalism is not the frame of the film. This is not all we see.

Concurrent with that portrayal of the terminal phases of Earth’s evolution, we see doorways, lights amidst darkness, windows beckoning; children leading us through darkness to doorways, leading us, and Jack with candles. We see the sun, also leading at times; and as this imagery develops, we see the penultimate scene is undeniably a presentation of an afterlife. Young Jack leads adult Jack through a doorway to a reunion of sorts on a beach. Mother is there. Father is there. Lost brother is there. Others lost earlier in the film are there as well. Others that had suffered are there. Everyone is happy.

Yet, that is the penultimate scene. It does not end the film. The final scene finds us back on Earth, in the present, with adult Jack having exited his steel and glass work place, presumably after his phone conversation with his father. He steps into nature, (such as it is) in the city, we see a slight smile of what appears to be reconciliation, be it with his past, his father, or with God, is hard to tell. It’s probably safe to say, ‘all of the above’ given the premise and the direction of the bulk of the film’s minimal dialogue.

Jack has suffered, but come to reconciliation. Unlike the story of Job, there is no clear cut restoration of what he has lost. Mind you; there is a portrayal of such restoration in the beach scene, however, it is important to note that this does not occur in the final scene. So, we are left with a question, (perhaps borne of taking the sequencing too literally), of director/writer Terrence Malick’s intent with the last two scenes. Does he intend only to give us an impressionistic portrayal of the power of religious beliefs to aid in our contending with death, pain, suffering and cruelty, or does he actually intend to portray the truth of those beliefs?

I think the film is intentionally ambiguous in that regard, because its primary intent is to simply pose the question with which we opened, concerning the duality of life as we know it, cosmic history as we know it, and to point out that we are all in a sort of estranged position epistemologically, concerning these ultimate questions. We don’t have certitude for any of the proposed answers to the ultimate questions, but we do all have the certitude of those questions, in perpetuity.

If your tastes tend toward the abstract and impressionistic, you will find much to like in this film, and will, no doubt recur to it. If your tastes tend to the cosmological, you will be fascinated by its visual richness. If, on the other hand, you want robust philosophical dialogue, and conventional narrative structure, this film will test your patience. You will probably come away with the conclusion that Malick could have done what he set out to do with about half of the film on offer.

Q: 'beep...beep...beep...' What's that sound?

A: It's the sound of the Deeetroit Lions Cornbread Truck (reg. U.S. Pat Off) backing into the playoffs.


But, certainly they backed into this latest victory. Saint Nick delivers early present.

So, cue Opera Man Lions Fan: