Scattered Thoughts About The Tree of Life

§ 1  The charges of anti-materialism seem unfounded to me. Unless, that is, life & its living somehow do not count as “material.” Then, sure, it’s decidedly anti-material.

§ 2  There is an unseemly quality to the film. Rather like you are an intruder on something you should not be privy. By this, I don’t mean there is some secret knowledge conveyed–something ordinarily kept safe and hidden. It’s that the watching the film is akin to watching somebody pray. Even if the one praying don’t care that they’re being seen, there is something not quite awkward but unsettling about the sight of prayer. There’s a guy I see at random hours in my neighborhood who I will come across standing before a tree, sometimes just staring and other times palm extended and gently touching it. I’ve seen him several times now and each time, despite “knowing” he is in some kind of prayerful meditative pose, my initial instinct is to check on his health and well-being. I think it is this internal discord, rather than the mode or object of prayer itself, that makes it so unsettling.

§ 3  The only immediate opinion about the movie that I think I trust is “God, this is boring.” It should go without saying, of course, that I disagree. It is mildly amusing to me that people still go to films, esp. those deemed “serious” by the critical powers that be, without doing any preliminary research. They hear “This was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes,” therefore “I must go,” without so much as queuing up a Malick film in Netflix to see if it is their thing.  Hell, even a YouTube search would’ve freed up the evening of those who walked away openly exasperated by their lost two-and-a-half hours. It is not decisively that different from his other films, after all, in terms of its ponderous pacing. Due to the pre-release buzz and the quality of viewer who will inevitably show up to see it (esp. if it ends up getting Oscar hype as well), it may be more unintentionally antagonistic to the viewer than even many of the intentionally antagonistic works of Haneke & van Trier.

§ 4  I was expecting to thoroughly dislike the CGI dinosaurs. But, actually, no. I took them as a kind of counterpoint to Kubrick’s apes. Where for Kubrick, the dawn of man is accompanied by the ape’s awareness of utility and tools, for Malick the evolving patterns of life are steeped in a kind of compassion (the grace spoken of early in the film, I guess) not normally associated with the earth’s original inhabitants.

§ 5  This invocation of “grace” is liable to piss off Anthony, at least when it is first spoken in the film. But I think it is pretty apparent that it holds no ecclesial reference. God the Father, certainly, is neither an answer to nor object of Malick’s prayer. If anything, this God, the Father, comes with its own set of failures and is perhaps as deeply implicated in the processes of life as we all are. These processes of life, I think, are the sources and outlets for the divinity about which Malick is reflecting–a divine grace that informs God no more and no less than it does life as a whole. God the Father, as it were, is perhaps not so much “killed” as he is incorporated into creation as a whole. And importantly, creation is always happening. Creation is not merely directed “forward” into the future (potentiality), or even “backward” into the past (memory); it is happening by way of untold directions and angles, the tangle of branches, of individual shoots colliding and intersecting, joining, breaking apart, and perhaps even dropping the seeds from which other such tangle of branches might form on other trees, other universes united in the mere fact that they’re living. All this is to say, this “grace” is not the gift given or refused by some God–i.e., where some have it, some don’t, or at least not in the same measure–but a grace that has prompted us to name God in the first place. Is it, I wonder, then, a grace given to God by those who choose to name him?

§ 6  There is very early in the film–and I believe also some of the promotional material– a stated opposition between the way of nature v. the way of grace. This is also played out pretty explicitly in the contrast between the way of the Mother and that of the Father. There is a temptation for Malick and viewer alike to keep these two “ways” separate. There may well be a privileging of one over the other, but there is I think  no choosing of one way, as it were, and not discovering it is overlaid with the one you sought to avoid. I’m not at all sure if the film agrees with me on this point. Clearly, the Child honors and beatifies the Mother (the way of grace, I suppose)–but it seems to me too naive to do so singularly at the expense of the Father (the way of nature). I’m not convinced that Malick does this: Brad Pitt’s character is flawed, to be sure, but perhaps so because he is subject to the world–the give and the take of social class and societal role–in a way that the Mother only occasionally is depicted as enduring, not because it is essentially deficient. Nature can be no more devoid of grace than grace is absent of nature.

§ 7  As to whether I like the film. I’ve had a few days to consider this question, and I think I can settle on a tentative (but not quite ecstatic, for reasons stated above in § 2) Yes. I loved the domestic-life photography even more than I did the much ballyhooed depiction of evolution. The music was exquisite. The acting was mesmerizing and mysterious. And the parts I did not like so much, e.g. Sean Penn’s beachfront melodrama, were not excessively distracting to everything else the film brought to the table. There is an homogeneity to the film, a certain flatness–none but white faces, mostly male (and one totemic female)–that is unfortunate in terms of its general receptivity as a film. But it also strikes me as a deeply personal, if not autobiographical, film that is not looking for absolution or excuses for its many abstractions. That it feels no apparent burden for doing so, I suppose, may in fact be very problematic, though, and definitely worthy of more thought and criticism.

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55 Responses to “Scattered Thoughts About The Tree of Life

  1. Hill Says:

    I am glad I saw the film.

  2. Nathan Says:

    It’s unfortunate that this post only has one (quite meager) response. Perhaps we can blame this on the limited release.

    I tend to agree with you as far as your observations go. The anti-materialist take just lacks imagination or at least a willingness to listen.

    Also, when I first saw the trailer, the Nature/Grace polarity left me skeptical, even though Malick has never been one to draw fine lines. I think you are right, however; Malick progressively coalesces the two in tandem with Jack’s maturation as the story progresses in tandem. After all, it would seem that Malick would have us believe that stark opposition of Nature/Grace is naive, for little boys who haven’t masturbated yet or something; the POV shots throughout the 50’s narrative show us this as Jack grows into a sympathic understanding of the Father (and concomitantly nature).

    This is my question though: Are you convinced that the dinosaur scene is a depiction mercy? It seems too counter intuitive, even too arbitrary? Could it not also be the case that the carnivore saw no sport in devouring an incapacitated herbivore? I wasn’t sure how to take it. How is this an example of Malick’s conception of “grace”?

    I was disappointed with the ending as well. It lacked imagination. It seemed like I was watching the resurrection scene from a passion play pageant put on by brother’s Sunday school class. He lost me there.

  3. Brad Johnson Says:

    “Mercy” is perhaps a bit much, re: the dinosaur, I admit. Maybe incipient grace, in the sense that brute instinct isn’t followed through to its natural end. This would incorporate your notion re: “no sport in devouring . . .” The grace aspect would be in not merely following through one’s “natural” inclination. I do think, however, that if this is the case we should be a little wary, as I see no reason to overly vilify all such inclinations. (Though, again, I’m not at all sure that’s what Malick is doing. He’s rather slippery here.)

    I actually didn’t take the beach scene as an imagined resurrection. More of an imagined awareness of all roads converging, as it were. It was a reverse re-enactment of life crawling on the beach from the ocean earlier in the film. While I’m not entirely sure what it means, there is a sentiment in the following tweet that I read after I saw the movie that I quite liked: “Tree of Life = protestant version of Fellini’s 8 and a half. We all end up on the beach, in any language”

  4. Brad Johnson Says:

    Oh, and yes, I think it is safe to assume that this post may have jumped the gun. When is it released nationally?

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Isn’t the beach reference better suited to La Dolce Vita? Maybe I’m forgetting the ending of 8 1/2, though.

  6. Nathan Says:

    Yes, I think you are right about the resurrection bit. What proved most powerful about the final beach scene actually a mental connection I made with a couple of quotes from the “Thin Red Line.” (1) “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?” And, (2) “Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of, all faces are the same man.”

    I think the ideas of convergence or perhaps the subjective realization and acceptance of a cosmic connection is what he’s after — not a general resurrection or “afterlife.” Still, what makes its seem cheap is its universality, that is, his depiction of every thinking subject “getting it,” from his dad to his dead brother. Its lovely, but almost too monolithic and thus characterless.

    Thanks for the thoughts!

  7. Brad Johnson Says:

    No, I think 8 1/2 works pretty well, actually. Here’s a clip to the final six or so minutes.

    I have to disagree that the scene depicts every subject “getting it.” It seems to me that the depicted awareness is that of Penn’s character (Jack) and is not necessarily that of every “thinking subject” seen on the beach. I took those people represented as being his world, those people who were and are a part of his existence (his town, job, etc.) The amount of people there, after all, did not appear innumberable.

  8. bob mcmanus Says:

    I haven’t seen the movie, and likely won’t for 6 months to a year. I have plenty.

    3: You have most probably seen some of the movies recently categorized as “Contemplative Cinema” because many of them are older, like Two-Lane Blacktop, Andrei Rublev, Paris, Texas, Playtime. I don’t see any Malick.. Some like Kiarostome’s Five can be extreme, but many contain narrative elements. The theory is developing more slowly than the art. I won’t add a link but theory can be googled, and mubi has a list for a “Contemplative Cinema Starter Pack” with 165 films.

    As to whether the directors of CC and it’s kin are hostile or antagonistic toward the viewers, well, acts of love giveth and taketh away. It is almost always “spiritual,” but rarely schematic or eschatological.

  9. bob mcmanus Says:

    And you know what? We fans of CC rarely ask what a movie “means” The point is contemplation and seeing what is in front of us.

  10. Nathan Says:

    Brad, the wide release date is July 8th. Re the beach scene: Your take is more appropriate and in keeping with the overall interiority of the project. Thanks for clearing that up.

  11. Brad Johnson Says:

    Holy crap. A whole month!? I badly jumped the gun.

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    It’s playing at the Landmark Century in Chicago, something like ten slots per day. I’m planning on seeing it this week, though I’ve never seen a Malick film before.

  13. Hill Says:

    You definitely should watch them. You could knock out a Malick completism project in one weekend easily.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    They are all in my Netflix queue. The Girlfriend would surely rebel, though — more of a weekday project.

  15. Brad Johnson Says:

    Two notes. (1) I would not suggest you watch them in quick succession anyway. (2) She actually may rather like Badlands & Days of Heaven. Malick’s attention-straining contemplations don’t kick into high gear until Thin Red Line.

  16. Hill Says:

    I absolutely loved Badlands. I just recently saw it for the first time.

  17. Hill Says:

    Brad, have you seen The New World? If so, what did you think of it? I have yet to watch it but it is high on my list.

  18. Brad Johnson Says:

    Hill, yeah, It’s a pretty divisive film, I think. Most people agree that technically it’s a marvel–the cinematography, esp.,, as well as the candid performances and attention to detail. A lot of people, if I recall, found the plot lacking & slow. I, however, didn’t mind it, and quite liked it. If you liked Tree of Life, you should definitely give it a go.

  19. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I just got back from seeing it and will need more time to process — so hopefully I can leave a more substantive comment tomorrow. But for now, I’ll make two remarks.

    1. The theater was absolutely packed, which shocked me for a 1:00 showing on a Wednesday afternoon. The theater, which appears to be the only one in the region playing it, is also doing ten to twelve showings per day.

    2. My biggest point of reference throughout was 2001: A Space Odyssey. It felt almost like a remake — albeit with a completely different premise.

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Okay, since I’m chatting with Brad, I’ll throw some thoughts out on the so-called “resurrection” scene. I’ll say first of all that I didn’t “like” that scene and was impatient for it to get over with — so maybe I’m trying to redeem it through interpretation.

    But it seems to me that we should read the scene as a kind of metaphorical enactment of the way that his brother’s death has transported Jack back to a crucial era of his life, which was mainly focused on his family but also included the people in the town (I think, for instance, that we’re supposed to understand the mysterious woman alongside the mom when she says “I give you my son” as the woman whose undergarments he stole?). The story presents that time as one of growing anger as he takes the “nature” path of struggling uselessly against his father. He doesn’t want to relive all that, though — see the conversation on the phone where he apologizes for bringing something up, etc. — and so he imagines a kind of “redeemed” version of that milieu that is dominated by the mom’s “grace”-based perspective, graciously giving up her son.

    Notice, however, that the reaction of the fantasy-mom in the beach/resurrection scene is emphatically not how her real-life reaction is portrayed. She’s angry and devestated — she says she wants to die, and more generally she wants to indulge in her pain. Meanwhile, father is filled with regret and very repentant for how he treated him and gently tries to keep her from going over the edge.

    This repentant father, who we start to see after he definitively fails in his career ambitions with the closing of the plant, may represent one way of combining nature and grace — through active attempts at repentance and reform. The other way is the fantasy-mom’s response, where grace is reduced to a superficial overlay that endorses what nature has already done (there’s no one to “give” her son to, and certainly no one asked her if she was willing to). And this “gracious” endorsement may amount to functionally the same thing as the real life mom’s despair, except with a kind of sentimental twist. Becoming a son of God by shouting for joy at the inexplicable power of being, one could say.

  21. Adam Kotsko Says:

    You could map out these two responses as ways of combining grace and nature in connection with “personal” and “natural” forces — an asshole father vs. a freak accident, for example. (No cause for the brother’s death is given.) In this connection, it’s kind of interesting to look at the scene where the father is portrayed taking charge of the attempt to save the kid who drowned at the pool.

    Since I’m typing, I’ll throw this out there — what’s with all the damn feet?

  22. Brad Johnson Says:

    We’ll make the conversation official and put it all in the comments.

    Re: the fantasy-mom’s statement, does there have to be a “who” she’s addressing? Could it not be a giving him precisely to nature, and this is perhaps the pinnacle of the “way of grace”?

  23. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That’s what I intended to say — I brought up the “who” just to emphasize that there’s no indication it’s supposed to be God.

  24. Brad Johnson Says:

    Ah yes, so you did.

    I guess it was just your use of “superficial” that threw me off. Because, really, what else can one do but submit in the end to nature? We seem to agree that the assent is to some extent superfluous and entirely for oneself (your terminology), where I deem it a kind of dignified acquiescence that in the scheme of nature is extravagant (in the good and bad sense, maybe) and unseemly.

  25. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Definitely unseemly — hence the feeling of sentimentality that I initially took away from “I give you my son.” And superficial in the sense that it doesn’t really affect reality in any “deep” way. (As you indicate, nature wins no matter whether we accept it or not.)

  26. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Okay, the feet. We have the wonder at the baby’s tiny feet. We have a kind of Achilles heel reference when he hurts his foot — redoubled when mom puts ice on his feet to wake him up. We have the sexy neighborhood woman hosing off her feet (ruh roh!). Mom is barefoot in the fantasy beach “resurrection” scene. The only part of father visible when he’s tempted to crush him under the car is his feet (which are never bare — and those were actually some nice shoes). Am I missing any other places where feet are thematized?

  27. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Oh, duh! He leans down and kisses mom’s feet in the fantasy beach “resurrection” scene.

  28. Nathan Says:

    I agree, the “you” constantly addressed by the characters throughout the film is understood by adult Jack to be nature and its processes. In the final revelation/resurrection scene, however, I do not take the Mother’s response of giving the son over to nature (note the biblical allusion to Hannah and Samuel) as juxtaposed with the nature-grace conglomeration that is the Father. As Dan said (much) earlier, the revelation/resurrection scene is the realization of the place of the parts in the whole in the mind of Jack. The Mother’s naivety, altruism, and the sum of her actions are re-conceived (and properly conceived as Malick would have it?) as a way of participating in nature, not fighting against it as he once supposed in his childhood (hence the Mother’s hands lifting up). Likewise, adult Jack identifies his father’s place within the natural process (hence, the Father’s hand on his shoulder as a recognition). But, I don’t see a favoring of one over the other. Could you explain more, Adam?

    Also, I don’t think Malick wants us to see this Jack’s take on life in the scene as a mental fabrication or an imaginative twist on reality for the sake of coping. Rather, the scene is something entirely new and positive in Jack’s way of being, constituting his being in some sense. Now, this might be “superficially” depicted, and the answer might be superficial as well. Still, I believe this is what Malick would have us believe.

    Malick is well versed in Heidegger, even translating one of his works into English. I wonder if there are any connections to Dasein or being present at hand and all of that jazz… Anyone have any thoughts on that?

  29. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I reject and renounce my use of the word “superficial,” as it’s apparently become an immovable obstacle to understanding what I’m trying to say.

    On your question, I’m honestly not sure where you’re coming from such that you think we disagree. Perhaps you could state it differently.

  30. Nathan Says:

    Well, I take it you mean that the Mother (in the fantasy) and Father (in Jack’s recollection of his reforming life) demonstrate two ways of dealing with the problem of nature — the one is repentance and reform (Father), the other is the “superficial overlay” of acceptance (the Mother). And sorry for bringing up superficial again, still not sure if you meant this to be positive, negative, or neutral, but I usually take it to have a negative connotation. And not sure if you think Malick means it to be “superficial” or you take it as such. Anyway,

    I suppose I envisioned the Mother and Father as occupying the same space in resurrected beach Jack’s mind rather than co-existing as competing alternatives. Resurrected beach Jack sees their place in nature as simply part of the process and glories in it to some extent. But, from what I gather, your reading of the final scene has an ethical dimension to it, posing alternatives acceptance of the movement (Mother), or repentance and reform (Father). I suppose this is what I didn’t get/ didn’t see. I saw less evaluation from resurrected beach Jack and more or less a “totalizing” re-conception of the meaning of life.

  31. Adam Kotsko Says:

    That does seem to be a fair assessment of what’s going on in that scene. I’m not sure myself to what degree my own reflections are supposed to reflect Malick’s intention or my own riffs, so I don’t blame you for being unclear on that. Such are the dangers of posting only an hour or so after watching!

  32. Hill Says:

    Adam, for our sake, you should watch The Thin Red Line as soon as possible, as it addresses many of the same themes (in the context of war) and you have a unique opportunity in being able to view them both for the first time in close proximity.

  33. Hill Says:

    For what it’s worth, I also think it’s a better movie, at least for now.

  34. Nathan Says:

    Yeah, if you watch Thin Red Line soon, consider doing a write up/eval. I watched it about a month prior to seeing Tree of Life, but still haven’t made up my mind on their relation.
    (Aside: probably not the best venue, but its hard to track you down via email, Adam. Are you still checking your kzoo email? I sent you an article solicitation a few days ago for the Princeton Theo. Review).

  35. Adam Kotsko Says:

    My e-mail is akotsko at gmail. I tried to seed Google so that that would come up if you search “adam kotsko e-mail,” but maybe it didn’t work. I have not been checking the kzoo e-mail because I was under the impression it had expired.

  36. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Thin Red Line is on Netflix Instant… I may well do it.

  37. Brad Johnson Says:

    Nathan, I like your elaboration on the beach scene there. Very well said, esp. the last paragraph.

    If anybody is interested, I have on file a very long essay about Thin Red Line, Heidegger, etc. (published somewhere, I think) a file written by Jason Wirth (who also wrote an excellent book on Schelling; does a lot on Buddhism). If you’re interested, I can forward it along. I doubt he’ll mind.

  38. Brad Johnson Says:

    It is? The wife has a hair appt. tonight, I may well get to it again this evening. I’ve not seen it since the original theater release.

  39. Nathan Says:

    I’d be interested, Brad. Email: na dot c dot maddox at gmail. Thanks.

  40. Hill Says:

    I believe that The Thin Red Line is the only Malick film available on Netflix instant.

  41. Hill Says:

    The number of A-List actors in The Thin Red Line is really staggering. It’s worth reading the Wikipedia article to see that at least that many more A-List actors were edited out of the original 5 hour cut and that probably again that many more actively tracked Malick down to attempt to be in the film.

  42. Jim H. Says:

    After scrolling through the comments, I’d like to add one point re: the beach scene. My take was that it was the space of mute memory in which Jack’s search for transcendence(?) happens. All of his kinfolk reappear at their earlier ages. Others roam about aimlessly waiting for Jack to approach.

  43. Jim H. Says:

    Brad,

    I enjoyed your take on The Tree of Life. I believe, however, you missed the literary point of the film. I blogged my own review, so if you’ll forgive me I’ll quote:

    “Most reviews I’ve read, tell us this film is Malick’s “prayer” or his “message”. This, I feel, misreads the movie. The film does pose the Miltonian question of how to justify the ways of God to men. Specifically, how can we relate in our Ur-situation [that’s my word] of mortal loss and grief to the majestic, cosmic forces that created the vast Universe in which we find ourselves? Malick does not, however, answer the question. I take away no authorial message. And all the better.

    We do, however, get the answers of his principal characters: Mr. O’Brien’s (Brad Pitt) solution is to conquer his disappointment and grief by struggling to build big, lasting monuments to the ego. Mrs. O’Brien’s (Jessica Chastain) solution is to love it all, good and evil, when we have it and, when it goes, release it all back to the infinite in the same spirit. Jack’s (Sean Penn), their son, solution is to wrestle with the soul and wander about, lost, along the shores of memory, seeking out the infinite, searching for the transcendent in a world where it does not readily present itself: the search itself being the BRIDGE. [Maybe he’s supposed to be a cut-out for Malick, but that’s not for me to say.]

    This is the artistry of the narrative.”

    In fact, I put up two responses, an objective (“Picking up a Few Acorns”) and a subjective (“Ideas of Reference”). The in-breaking of conscience is the central fact of Jack’s journey, and this is the “bridge” (the enigmatic last frame of the film)—as tortured as it may be for we mere creatures.

    I certainly appreciate the theological attempt to impose/find some overarching meaning, but I tend to see the work of art in concrete terms (meaning being specific to the characters, narrative, text) and not abstractions—though, clearly, the film lends itself to such large symbolisms (life, nature, grace, good, evil). Call mine an incarnational reading if you want to be theological.

    W/r/t “The Thin Red Line”: It came out at about the same time as Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan”, which tended to suck all the oxygen out of the discussion. The latter was a really good war movie, the former a work of art that just happened to be about war. Witt finds a last moment of grace, even as the machinery of warfare and struggle continue on heedless.

    Best,
    Jim H.

  44. Brad Johnson Says:

    Jim,

    I read your review & appreciate your comments. I suppose my only response is that I don’t see any reason to so singularly distinguish between my approach to the film and a literary approach to it. There are, after all, literary approaches that make abstractions, and literary approaches that do not. But both are still literary approaches. It’s largely akin to what occurs in my old disciplinary world: where biblical critics object to theologians for too much abstracting — everything must be about the text, the history, etc. I don’t object to their objections so much as disregard it.

  45. Brad Johnson Says:

    It’s also on par with talking about a novel, say, and writing about it, “[Author x] presents us with [y]. . . .,” and having somebody object, “Well, no, the author does no such thing. His/her character does this or that, and sets this or that in motion. The author has nothing to do with it, really.” That’s a way of reading, and even one I entertain from time to time. I’m of the mind as long as you flag which method you’re employing and remain somewhat consistent, have at it.

  46. Jim H. Says:

    Absolutely. I don’t really disagree with your points.

    My point was that to treat something as an allegory when there are specific, immanent readings is to do the artist and, more specifically, the artwork a disservice. It serves as a check on the tendency to want to read too much into the work—a problem Adam (I believe?) addresses in another context in his recent post about “literalism” w/r/t the Bible. It also serves as a check on the subjective. The text is the limit of its own readings; so’s the film.

    I suppose, carrying forward your biblicalists v. theologians point, I could come up with a systematic theory of art (and, specifically, film) from arguing about the allegorical reading of “The Tree of Life” or have it validate a pet project of mine—namely, a critical theory. But, from a writerly/artistic point of view, I’m concerned about what a teacher of mine once referred to as the “regional qualities” of the work and how they conspire to produce the “aesthetic experience” of the work—which, in my case, was profound and moving. Thus: (a) the more all the elements work together, and (b) the more of each of these elements I am able to piece them together in a coherent reading of the text/work; (a’) the better the work of art, and (b’) the greater my overall experience.

  47. Nathan Says:

    Question, Jim. What exactly about Brad’s (or those of us who share a similar reading) take on the film is inherently or foundationally theological (as you stated in one of your first posts and allude to in this last one)? We all said the movie was not anti-materialist. Not only that, I think we were considering possible philosophical perspectives within the film itself not theological (or even “Christian”) readings we could map out onto it. If we want to talk about the problems of recovery of authorial intent, I think that’s fine, but I don’t mind approximating what seems to me to be Malick’s concerns/interests. The fact that he is an auteur and similar issues such as the one’s we’ve raised stretch across a number of his films, seems to allow for a philosophical reading as one that is internal to the film. Lastly, the links to his personal history and interests (what little we know of it) also seem to give such a reading some legitimacy anterior to my own interests.

    Could you say more about how you perceive the film operating “its own limits?” Or, why the “allegorical” reading is clearly not what was intended?
    Thanks

  48. Brad Johnson Says:

    Jim, that all seems very reasonable and good. So reasonable & good, in fact, that I don’t differentiate as much as you between, in your words, a concern w/ the “regional qualities” of the work & said work’s engagement with themes that extend beyond its particular grammar, poetics, architecture, etc. .Either “end” (though they are hardly spectrum opposites) can be over-privileged to some extent, and I value highly the pursuit of a tension between the two.

  49. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I honestly don’t get what Jim H. is getting at, particularly if he thinks he’s advocating something significantly different from the interpretational practices the rest of us are using. Can you at least link us to a review or article that embodies the kind of interpretation you like, Jim H.? If not on Tree of Life, then some other widely familiar movie.

  50. Jim H. Says:

    Thanks N & B for an engaging discussion. I’m not saying the take is foundationally theological—I don’t think. My point was that Malick didn’t really have a ‘message'; the film isn’t a sermon, as such. It’s about specific characters in a specific place and time. That the issue these characters are dealing with is a decidedly theological—Miltonian—question is certainly germane to any discussion of the film. (Just like ‘The Thin Red Line’ is a work of art that just so happens to have war, a specific battle, in fact, as its locus, background, subject matter.)

    I don’t want to venture into authorial intention. I don’t know what Malick’s intended message might be, tho’ I’ve said that Jack’s struggle may be a cut-out for Malick’s. That’s not a necessary connection for a full appreciation of the movie, however.

    The form of the film is present-day Jack’s existential anxiety, his reflection on it, his search of his memory, his focus on the edenic days of Waco, Texas and his awakening to conscience (scrambling over benches, chunking a rock through a shed window, sneaking into the woman’s house and stealing her slip [and releasing it into what looks very much like the same river the dinosaur died in!], and shooting his brother in the finger with the BB gun [again, IIRC, at that same freakin’ river no less! Not a coincidence.].

    The whole movie, it seems, takes place inside the consciousness of Jack. We see dad, mom, brothers, creation, evolution, from his POV. Through his eyes—not Malick’s. In the gauze of his memory. With the music, we feel it as Jack does. With the imagery and the scene selection, we take away the precisely the significance Jack does. And isn’t that a bridge Jack’s building?

    So, yeah, maybe Jack is Malick’s stand-in; in which case it would be appropriate to say ‘Malick thinks…’, ‘Malick feels…’, ‘Malick is saying…’. But it’s not necessary.

    So, if, as you’ve suggested (and I don’t think necessarily wrongly), Dad is Nature & Mom is Grace, then that is the way Jack sees/saw them, and it is part of the framing of his dilemma/crisis. It isn’t, to me, Malick making allegory. It is Jack trying to reconcile the grief, loss, pain of conscience, and lack of self-control and -understanding of his own life to that, okay, Father God who created the Big Bang and the stars and the galaxies and the planets and the primordial ooze and the lightning spark of life and the jellyfish and the wounded sea-beast and the dinosaurs and, yes, Jack himself.

    Is Jack ultimately successful? Is modern man successful? It’s the question of the film. We don’t really know how Malick has resolved the question. In fact, I believe the film merely poses the question via Jack. It forces us to ask ourselves: is the human conscience and our consciousness of ourselves as mortal & moral beings the bridge to that Father God? Are these the embodiments of the divine in us?

    Jack may be theistic, but that doesn’t mean Malick or the film is.

    Thanks, guys, for pushing back. I love the film. I saw it over the weekend, and I’m still reeling from the impact. It’s clear from your discussion (to which I was regrettably late) it moved you as well.

  51. Jim H. Says:

    @Adam: I had to search. I had only read Anthony Lane’s review.

    I think Nick Pinkerton, in his piece in the Village Voice, gets close here: “In large part, the film can be read as occurring in the mind of adult Jack returning to his birthright of memories: the indivisible combination of Mom, Dad, God, and backyard.”

    Most of the reviews don’t really try to put it all together. Lane doesn’t. Even A.O. Scott’s excellent review in the NY Times gives a bit of a shrug at the effort: “But the imagination lives by risk, including the risk of incomprehension. Do all the parts of “The Tree of Life” cohere? Does it all make sense? I can’t say that it does.” He is at least asking the right question.

    I think the film awaits criticism. I’ve sketched an outline of one. Newspaper reviews tend to be superficial.

    For perspective, here’s Stanley Cavell in “More of the World Viewed”: “[m]movies may be written about, and … some are worth thinking and writing about, with the same seriousness that any work of art deserves, with the same specificity of attention to the significance of the work at hand and to the formal devices of the work by means of which this significance is achieved.” The World Viewed @ 163. How do the formal devices conspire to convey significance, or, in Beardsley’s terms “aesthetic experience”? That’s pretty much what I was saying, but you don’t have to take my word for it; Cavell IS the man.

  52. Grace in nature: more on The Tree of Life at (Ir)religiosity Says:

    […] of the most talked about parts of the film is the origins and evolution of life sequence. Reading this post and the comments that followed it struck me that Malick’s version of pre-history offers an interesting counterweight to that […]

  53. david cl driedger Says:

    Just finished watching the movie and wanted to draw attention to one of Brad’s original statements,

    There may well be a privileging of one over the other [grace and nature], but there is I think no choosing of one way, as it were, and not discovering it is overlaid with the one you sought to avoid. I’m not at all sure if the film agrees with me on this point.

    One of the final scenes is Old Jack looking at the sheer glass surface of a modern sky-scraper and having it reflect and blend with sky and clouds. However, you want to interpret that your comment about them being overlaid seems justified in that shot.

    I don’t know that I can revive this post but I haven’t found any comments on how the ‘death announcement’ came at the beginning of the movie in an explicitly modern home (after father is fired and moves from their ‘traditional’ home) with modern art and paint brushes around. This shifts seamlessly to Old Jack’s modern home (with mid-century modern accents). Had father finally made it? It would not appear so as he was setting out for another flight to hawk his ideas. Had the youngest son become a genius musician/artist by 19 (I believe the age he died)? Did Jack design and build this home for them? Whatever.

    Interesting fodder. Great imagery. Mostly narcissistic mush (perhaps that is the fine line of seeing someone in prayer). I really thought it would be eviscerated here (as I waited to read comments until I had seen it). Regarding Adam’s later post about masculine critique I found myself chuckling at many of the scenes because I think Malick got it so right in many instances (mostly the banal . . . which were very important). Not that these do not have extreme ‘sensitivities’ to them but framed in larger contexts (as to what less privileged classes experience) it left me thinking okay let’s get on with it then.

  54. Some hate for The Tree of Life; Or, my apparent obsession with AUFS | the de-scribe Says:

    […] wrote an initial comment over at AUFS on my first impression of The Tree of Life.  And the more I think about it the more I […]

  55. Pedagogy of the Depressed Says:

    After seeing Tree of Life, I went straight to the library to look up The Essence of Reasons, part of a Festschrift for Husserl that Heidegger wrote (and Malick translated back in 1969). Pretty cool stuff. I liked this short passage, in particular, on first view:

    ‘Where Heidegger talks about “world,” he will often appear to be talking about about a pervasive interpretation or point of view which we bring to the things of the world. This, in any case, has been the view of many commentators. But there is little sense of speaking of a “point of view” here since precisely what Heidegger wants to indicate with the concept is that none other is possible. And there is not more sense in speaking of an interpretation when, instead of an interpretation, the “world” is meant to be that which can keep us from seeing, or force us to see, that what we have is one. Heidegger’s concept is quite like Kierkegaard’s “sphere of existence” and Wittgenstein’s “form of life,” and, as with them, it enters his inquiry only at the limits, when a problem moves out of his depth, or jurisdiction.’

    From the ‘Translator’s Introduction’, Terrence Malick, The Essence of Reasons, xv.


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