The Tree of Life: On watching it alone

In discussing The Tree of Life with people who were planning on seeing it, the perceived necessity of seeing the film alone has frequently come up. Although I normally love discussing movies with The Girlfriend, for instance, I was glad to be able to see it myself so as to aid digestion. I also talked to a friend who was firmly planning to see it without his wife, and I advised another friend to see it without his girlfriend.

Do you notice the pattern here? All of us are men! And all the people we want to see it without are women! Which brings me to an incredibly obvious fact about The Tree of Life that I have not seen discussed as of yet: it is an overwhelmingly and even embarrassingly masculine movie.

Everyone who wants to see it knows the basic premise and therefore knows that it shows masculinity at its most vulnerable. Even though women are culturally conditioned to be adept at identifying with masculine narratives in general, I think it’s safe to say that The Tree of Life is too intense, too precise in hitting at the shame that is so integral to the formation of a masculine identity — there’s always the chance that they’ll be skeptical, or critical, or even just reflective in a way that will be jarring for the male viewer who just had his heart ripped out by being forced to watch and admit to himself that it really was like that, on an emotional level if not in all particulars.

I have long been of the opinion that one of the contributions men can make to feminism is to provide an internal critique of masculinity, and I think there’s a case to be made that Stanley Kubrik — Malick’s primary point of reference here — succeeds in that. I wonder if Malick does, though, either here or in The Thin Red Line. (I still haven’t seen his other films, and Netflix isn’t cooperating in that regard — apparently I’m not the only one wanting to catch up on Malick’s back catalogue.)

This is something I’m still mulling over, so I’m hoping someone will get things rolling in comments, or at least ask a good clarifying question…

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25 Responses to “The Tree of Life: On watching it alone”

  1. Joe Says:

    “the perceived necessity of seeing the film alone”

    What do you mean by this? I went to see it with my girlfriend and am going to review it with a queer woman on the Old Mole. Did I miss something?

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    What do I mean by this? I describe what I mean immediately after. Did you stop reading after that phrase?

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I nowhere imply that the desire to see it alone is universal — though I do expect that for guys who are expecting to be really into it, it is probably more common.

  4. Joe Says:

    I read the whole thing. The closest thing to an explanation to that question though seems to be that the film is embarrassing for those who would identify with the masculinity it exposes, but what was getting at in asking you that is an elaboration of why embarrassing = need to see it alone. I don’t know why you respond as if I asked a maliciously stupid question either, because I wasn’t under the impression that you were suggesting anything universal or even broadly applicable to men. I didn’t find the film embarrassing and I’m interested in how/why that perception differs among male viewers.

  5. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Isn’t it kind of intuitive that you’d want to keep something embarrassing to yourself? Or that if you wind up strongly identifying with a movie, it would be disturbing for one’s intimate partner to be skeptical or indifferent? I honestly don’t understand why this would be unclear or in need of explanation, and the way you went about asking it got under my skin a little.

    So what was your experience of the movie, if it didn’t match what I’m describing?

  6. Brad Johnson Says:

    Isn’t it kind of intuitive that you’d want to keep something embarrassing to yourself? I’m not so sure that sentiment is true anymore. Where would blogging, Twitter, Facebook be w/out “over-“sharing of embarrassments?

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I really, really want to get back on topic!

  8. Joe Says:

    “Isn’t it kind of intuitive that you’d want to keep something embarrassing to yourself?”

    I would expect if a film were so embarrassing as you made it out to seem that you wouldn’t even want to be known as having seen it; you’d go under the cloak of something else. From what you wrote, I didn’t get the impression that you or these other male people hid the fact you went to see it.

    I had wanted to see the film since the trailers started showing up. I had no idea it was going to so pointedly tear into masculinity, but from the “fierce will” remark they include in the trailer I figured there would be a bit of over-performance. What struck me was the identification of chimerical masculinity with narcissistic, hedonistic, ultimately finite nature. The need for a “fierce will” arises from the natural facts of market competition. The ideal man doesn’t try to get around or ahead of nature, but is himself all-too-natural and grounds his getting ahead in terms of nature. The humbling of the Brad Pitt character was satisfying to watch, and not just you get to seem this person animated by a principle that absolutely repulses you fall apart, but because I think you see him actually begin to dis-identify with who he was.

  9. Daniel Says:

    I viewed the fall of eden as inseparable from the sin of masculinity in the film. all is well when a man is not around, and a mother knows best how to raise boys.

  10. Daniel Silliman Says:

    This makes me want to see the movie more. (This=post, not WhatTheHell comment thread). Not sure if I’ll see it alone or not … it might be a good idea, though.

  11. Vesna Says:

    Just watched the movie myself, and yours is by far the most salient point of view on this movie I have found. I’m a woman, and pretty much hated it. I find the story of the family exploitative, almost like an emotional porn, and the religiosity of the movie is, to me, cloying. The very end, when people wander on the beach and there is a mask (!) falling through the water made me groan. I believe that without the obligatory happy ending, when everyone is forgiven and reunited in lov, this movie would have been much more palatable. Visually, movie is stunning, and I loved the music score. What bothers me the most about this movie is that the director doesn’t trust viewers to make their own mind, but force feeds his point of view.
    To see it alone, or not? I love discussing movies with friends or s/o, but I can understand why you would want to see it alone. I think that may e seeing it with a guy friend would work better, if you are not reluctant to share how you felt afterwards.
    P.S. What was with the Brad Pitt channeling Marlon Brando from the Godfather? Otherwise, he was brilliant in his role.

  12. Vesna Says:

    Appologies for the typos in the previous post, and thank you, again, for providing me a forum to sound of my opinion on The Tree of Life. By the way, I can also see why the ‘happy ending’ is necessary for this movie to work out, but I still think that is an example of director not trusting his viewers.

  13. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The ending is probably one of the hardest parts of the movie to take. In terms of the critique of masculinity, I think that the need to channel “acceptance” or “grace” through an idealized vision of his mother is a questionable move. Though it’s better than the son’s demonization of his mother while dad is on his trip, it still projects something onto the mother that has nothing to do with her actual humanity — the audience gets to see her reaction to the younger son’s death outside the frame of Sean Penn’s fantasy/recollection/etc., and you never get the sense that he understands that.

    Joe, I do agree that the humbling of Brad Pitt is satisfying, and the fact that he feels remorse for making the dead son feel “shame, my shame” points toward a real redemption for the character.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Also, not to harp on the embarrassment thing — perhaps I didn’t choose my words well — but I think there’s something qualitatively different between intense childhood recollections and “contemporary” revelations on Twitter, etc. I think we’ve probably all experienced times when our family is reminiscing and trips on something that you felt embarrassed or wronged about at the time — and even though you know it doesn’t matter and you should be able to laugh with everyone, you still feel kind of like you did at the time. It’s more vulnerable than “I got drunk and made a fool of myself this weekend.”

  15. Richard Says:

    I don’t know. I saw the movie with my wife, and I’m glad I did (she liked it, for what it’s worth, in partial response to Vesna). I don’t really identify with masculinity, so perhaps that’s a reason why I don’t feel this need to see it alone, or feel embarrassed by what’s on display.

    This gives me the opportunity to address a point from the other discussion. Brad raised the question of the Nature vs. Grace opposition. I have to admit that I was a little surprised when he then identified the Mother with Grace and the Father with Nature. I mean, I can see why, now, after reading the ensuing discussion, but my initial instinct was the opposite. The Mother with Nature, because she is comfortable with what Nature has to offer, accepts it; the Father with Grace, because he struggles to be accepted, does not accept nature as it is, struggles for God’s grace.

    This was just my immediate response to the question, perhaps guided by my own feminism and my lack of grounding in theology.

  16. Brad Johnson Says:

    I watched The Thin Red Line again not long after first viewing ToL and I was struck the a similar dynamic at work w/ respect to women in both films. Actually, a dynamic that runs through basically all of Malick’s films. I’d have to re-watch Badlands to confirm its presence there, so just abstract that one out for a moment. Throughout the course of each movie there is a process of feminine de-idealization. Take, as an example, the only female in The Thin Red Line that could be considered a character, the wife of one of the soldiers. Throughout much of the film, she is emblazoned by bright colors in blissful memories . . . until, I won’t spoil it, reality strikes. (Similar situation with Days of Heaven, but it’s more woven into the fabric of the whole plot.) One could perhaps argue, too, that Witt’s search a peace embodied by his mother at the time of her death is another idealization, and that his discovery of this peace is encrusted with the crude intrusion of reality. (Again, trying to avoid to give too much away.) In this sense, following up on what Richard says above, the feminine even in ToL could very well be Nature identified & Grace idealized, and the task is somehow to breach the dialectical distinction.

  17. Erin Says:

    I feel a bit odd coming into this discussion, since the frame is at once thematizing of gender and (at least partially) enacting a gender dynamic that I find…maybe unwelcoming, as a woman (insofar as the impetus for discussion seems in part to be “isn’t it interesting that *we* want to see this without our female significant others?”). I’m guessing that this was not your intention, but I did want to register my confusion with the set-up, since I was excited to see a discussion of the movie, which I just saw last night with my partner. I/we had been looking forward to it for some time, and I thought I had some idea of the basic premise, which, I’ll admit, I didn’t take to be about masculinity as such–either before or after seeing the movie. Maybe I should also add here that I am a feminist philosopher.

    The movie certainly is quite masculine; there are very few women in it at all, and their characters are less developed–but, honestly, I found this pretty much in keeping with the vast majority of movies I’ve seen, well, ever. Certainly Hollywood movies, anyway. I think at times the movie does a really, really amazing job problematizing the masculinity–as well as the religiosity and humanism–instantiated in the family drama it takes as its (sort of) central object. I took the cosmos-sequences, cell-biology sequences, and even weird CGI-dinosaur sequences to be aimed at precisely this. So maybe my point is that I think we have to distinguish between the values/choices/opinions expressed by the family (and the stuff about nature and grace is included here, insofar as it is voiced by them) and what the movie itself suggests, which looks more complex to me.

    At least, it did until the last 20ish minutes. I really hated the way the beach scene played out, because it seemed to me that the movie would have been more consistent without this happy ending. Actually, I was waiting for all of the characters to get sucked under by a giant tidal wave, which I thought would have been both morbidly beautiful and consistent with the (seeming) anti-humanism at the beginning of the movie.

  18. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Erin, I apologize for the off-putting framing. The idea that we could read the rest of the film as potentially going against the family’s notion of grace and nature is very interesting to me. I suppose part of that turns on whether we understand the vision of the universe’s origin as somehow happening “in Jake’s head” in the way the family recollections do.

  19. Erin Says:

    Hmm, I think that’s an interesting idea, and there’s a sense in which a reading like that is bolstered by the opening and closing shots–the ones that are a mostly-black screen with faint glimmer of light. BUT I also thought it really important that the interspersed cosmos-scenes contain none of the internal monologue/narrative that recur throughout the family drama. I’m also dubious that we’re supposed to think everything is going on in Jake’s head because not even the family recollections are this way–we’re privy to the thoughts and experiences of the mother, for example, in a way that no one else is, not even her family (since her circumstances have been repressive enough to disallow giving voice to most of what she feels). Incidentally, I thought the actress who played her was phenomenal.

    I guess it’s because I think the movie is actually about displaying AND simultaneously drawing attention to the problems of our own narcissistic views of life (and even the eponymous tree does this!) that I think the seemingly heavy-handed religiosity is warranted. We experience events of horrific trauma in a few individuals lives, and their attempts to cope with them–and then we cut immediately to something that visually jars us into acknowledging that this event is at once continuous with the rest of the natural world (life), and in some respects insignificant in relation to it. So, I’m thinking that even when we have the mother, at the end, doing this kind-of-cheesy acceptance thing, we then cut to just a shot of huge waves (which are maybe symbolic, but could be quite literal as well). The thing that was confusing to me about the beach sequence at the end was how much it left the family central–I was convinced, till then, that the movie was only kind of about them, and more about the themes I’ve been describing. But now, I’m wondering if the closing shot–again, the darkness, with a glimmer of light, but (if I recall correctly!) no voice-over indicates something like the death of the Jake character- and the rest of the family- and thus an end to their concerns, even as the continuity of Life itself remains.

  20. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I might be trying for an overly unified reading of the film as all being in Jake’s head — I don’t think the images of the mother finding out and dad coming home, etc., are meant to be taken in that way, for example. The cosmos scenes do have some voiceover, but it fades away. The music does, too, right? I got the feeling that the dramatic liturgical music (with the repeated “lacrimosa,” meaning sad) was competing with the cosmic and non-human drama unfolding on the scene — then fading out. Overall, it was a really brilliant staging of God’s response to Job, from a naturalistic perspective.

    I honestly didn’t find the movie’s religiosity to be so over-the-top, but that might just be my own background. It seems to be trying to provide a “religious” approach that would still be naturalistic — Bruce Rosenstock (a commenter here) compared Malick’s approach with American Transcendentalism, which seems right.

    Maybe we’re meant to take the waves as somehow overtaking the family — but without sweeping them away. Just as God says that Job was 100% in the right and yet still has the bombastic “where were you” speech, Malick seems to be trying to say that the pain and shame and struggles of the family are all very real, even if they seem like rounding errors from a cosmic perspective. That’s a view I’m very sympathetic with, actually. I never find it very convincing when people point to the overwhelming size of the universe and say humanity must not be very important — because we’re not big enough or something? There’s something distinctive going on in a human family that doesn’t go on in star formation, though. And even in the face of all that cosmic grandeur, we’re still going to wind up being more interested in our own affairs — and I think that has to be okay.

  21. Hill Says:

    Adam, I think your final paragraph in that comment is the essence of the movie. It’s a kind of response to the attitude that “humans are so insignificant in the context of the universe!”

  22. dbarber Says:

    Caputo said something along these lines, at the Syracuse conference, as a response to Brassier. There may be no ultimacy to human life, it may all come to nothing … but why does life need to be free of extinction in order to have value? (Using Eckhart’s wonderful sermon on the whylessness of life.)

  23. Adam Kotsko Says:

    One could say that the position we’re opposing here is a kind of secular theism, where the only thing that “matters” is the eternal (though now it’s supposedly the world as such rather than God). One could say that Malick is putting forward something structurally similar to Christianity, with its short-circuiting of the divine and the human — but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. He’s not saying that human concerns are eternal. They just are what they are. The two levels just let each other be.

  24. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    That sounds a lot like irony, Adam.

  25. Pedagogy of the Depressed Says:

    Just had a chance to see Tree of Life here in the hinterland.

    All I can say is: Frig.


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