Belated Thoughts on Malick’s Tree of Life I: The Tension of an Allegory Wishing Not to Be

I saw Tree of Life back when I still lived in Nottingham. It was, in fact, the last movie I watched at Broadway Cinema, by far my favorite cinema in the world. I went knowing too much about the film already because of all the attention it had received, not just by the usual film critics I read but also by the theological blogosphere as well. And so I put off going to see the film in part because so many Christians had prostrated themselves in acts of piety that were only outdone in terms of awkward intersubjective embarrassment by their attempts to squeeze the movie into some pre-fabricated theological fan-fiction they feel they must repeat ad nauseum lest they fall into unbelief. Because of this I found that working up the energy to go see the film was harder than any other film I’ve gone to see.

In order to go I had to, and I’m not kidding, perform phenomenological exercises. I went under the epoche, bracketing what had become my natural attitude regarding the film. A natural attitude I can accurately describe as pure contempt (I love the French word for contempt, méprise, which I think actually, for those who can catch my citation here, bears on Tree of Life). So I went and I watched the film. I think I can even say that I watched it “so hard”. But I found after watching it that I couldn’t yet say anything about it. That would require more routing out of this natural attitude and coming to terms with what any actual critique could be beyond my contempt for the Christian theologians who had conspired – yes, it was a conspiracy! – to ruin this film for me. I think, after nearly three months of waiting I finally can express my thoughts on this film. I’m going to present this as a series of posts, which, for those who may be offended by some of my clearly polemical statements, is a witness to the seriousness with which I am giving this film. Some of these posts may deal more with the Christian theological reading of the film than the film itself, but those will be in part a defence of the movie against Christian theological overdetermination. For those who haven’t seen the film there is clearly going to be spoilers.

For this post I want to focus on the film itself. A reflection on the film that brackets out the rest of the world and thinks only the immanence of the film (though one that is still immanent to the films it cites). And, with that bracketing in place, I could see that this was a truly great film. A film made by a great director. Wherein lies that greatness though? It certainly isn’t in the talents of the actors he marshals. It isn’t in the preoccupation with ponderous shots of trees. It certainly isn’t in the dinosaurs, or at least not in any obvious Hollywood sense. No, the greatness lies in the way he tells us a story we already know without ever telling us the story. The film is ostensibly about a family and it posits a kind of originary dualism at the heart of this family, of every family, for this is but the archetype for the American family which is of course the archetype for every family. This dualism isn’t new to cinema, even if it is presented in an archaic theological way. In the film it is either the way of nature or the way of grace, but that is simply the way of the father (discipline, work, merit – none of which is particularly natural in any obvious sense) or the way of the mother (play, fondness, warmth – which isn’t particularly unnatural). We know this story. From the get go, we know this story. It’s the story of our first alienation at the hands of our father. Of the warmth we feel for our mother who always stood between us and our fathers. We know this story even though it isn’t even true for many of us! Because of course mothers are not always saints and fathers are not always devils, and often they are together one or the other. But we still know this story.

We see the life of a family, then, navigating its own self-identity and its own reproduction (reproduction perhaps being the real site of this story, more so than grace or nature). We see that one of the children – who knows which and really it doesn’t matter because we know this story – has been clearly damaged by this conflict between nature/grace or father/mother. We know too that the family has experienced loss as one of the children is killed in Vietnam (though is this the way of nature or grace?). Again, we know this story.

And because we know this story Malick sees no reason that he has to spell it out for us. We’ve seen this in a thousand different films. And so the greatness of the film consists in part becasue Malick can strip that story to a series of affective shots. Because we can assume the story, a real assumption of the story rather than a filling in of the blanks which is more common in film anyway, but because we can assume the story we’re free to see the story in a new way. We see the immanence of family life. The slam of a screen door takes on a new dimension, a more naturalist dimension (naturalist in the sense of naturalist art, not scientific naturalism). We can experience the nostalgia of a street filled with children differently when we don’t know or care about their names or their personalities, only seeing their personhood as stupid, playful boys. The first experience of lust is expressed, perhaps naively, but still more directly in the excitement stirred by nothing more than women’s underwear. What in our adulthood we know is nothing, at least when it is off the woman.

All these elements can be called the non-didactic elements of the film. I’m borrowing this term from Badiou’s philosophy of film, though I suspect it isn’t native or particular to him, but it is a more accurate term, I think, for Malick’s film than the naturalism I used above. Its meaning is simple. Many films, perhaps even most of them, try to teach something. They have some moral purpose, even when it is a seemingly anti-moral purpose, there still teach something. They are trying to say something directly, or as directly as one can through a film, and this directness is what gives films their didactic character. A non-didactic film presents the truth of something directly, rather than the moral or anti-moral lesson. If it has a moral/anti-moral lesson this is always presented indirectly. An example of this kind of film would be Gomorrah or perhaps, in a more popular vein, Traffic. Clearly in the realm of television the best example is The Wire. And Malick’s film, in so far as its greatness lies in part in its non-presentation of a story we all know in order to speak the truth of such a story, is clearly non-didactic in this way.

But there is a fundamental tension underlying this non-didactic element and it has to do with those dinosaurs. For he doesn’t just use present a story we all know through the absence of the usual techniques, but he also places that story within a cosmic framework. In the midst of this story – remember its a story we all know and so a very banal story of the family – Malick suddenly jumps to the creation of the universe. Is it a theistic creation? Well, without breaking our epoche completely, I think the answer must be no even though so many Christians prostrate themselves before the film. It’s the Big Bang. It’s the evolution of things. There are clear religious overtones to it (even if we don’t know the name of the choral music playing over these scenes, we still experience it as choral music), but it accords perfectly well with Darwin’s final words in The Origin of Species where he talks about evolution witnessing to the grandeur of life and hints that this actually suggests a God that respects his creation, creating only law that guide it in its own self-development. But nonetheless there is still something didactic going on in placing this family within the story of the cosmos. Something that witnesses to a fundamental piety, the same piety that these Christian theologians latch upon to steady them as they prostrate themselves before the film. This piety is towards a kind of nostalgia. A kind of feeling that the family is at the origin of the life. Perhaps not the universe, but certainly of life. And it is this, all too direct communication, that undermines the non-didactic element of the film.

In my next post I’m going to look more at this element, exploring the nefarious influence of nuptial theology upon the film.

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7 Responses to “Belated Thoughts on Malick’s Tree of Life I: The Tension of an Allegory Wishing Not to Be”

  1. Francis Says:

    I think the key aspect of the cosmos/dinosaurs scenes which communicates theological content is the mercy/compassion exercised by the big dinosaur. It may be Malick’s way of getting across that the world proceeds at least in part by means other than stricly evolutionarily necessary. That is Malick’s way of communicating a theistic creation.

  2. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well, if that communicates theistic creation it sure does it obliquely. One doesn’t have to accept a theistic divine in order to see mercy in the actions of things. Even if you think of it as contrary to an evolutionary drive, well, nature does that kind of thing all the time! And yet evolution continues.

    But the more important point is, well, yes, that scene is exactly what betrays the non-didactic element of the film. It’s even a bit garish in a way that most of the film is now.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If we stick with Anthony’s “immanent” reading, it more strongly implies that something like grace is already inherent within nature. It’s also surely relevant that the dramatic and even desperate-sounding religious music gradually fades out in the cosmic section — that is to say, the most obvious immanent clues point us away from a theistic reading.

  4. Hill Says:

    Been waiting for this for a while. Great post. Looking forward to the rest of them.

  5. Brad Johnson Says:

    I see how you get from Point A to Point B here, but I’m not as sure as you concerning the placement of the family at the “origin” of life. Centrality, perhaps — actually, for Malick, that would probably need to be “probably.” But the origin? — I’m not so sure. Two reasons: (1) I don’t think he permits such a distinction between “the universe” and “life” as you. They seem indistinguishable to me in his presentation. (2) There seems to me something “larger still” in Malick’s understanding of the physical family, something larger-still (though not necessarily theistic — namely, evolution) in & from which the family inevitably participates and sometimes (perhaps should, if we permit Malick his didacticism) model.

  6. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Well perhaps I’m too harsh about this. I touch on it in the next post trying to flesh out why I think I’m right in reading it as central in this way. It’ll be up Monday.

  7. Maladjusted Says:

    Fascinating post, APS.

    On the issue of the film’s theism, I have to agree with you: I never saw it as ‘theistic’ in any conventional sense, the Catholicism of the family, the discussions of nature and grace and the tendency for the characters (and especially in voice-over) to address their speech to a divine “thou” notwithstanding. But having said this, I do have to admit a prejudice: I can never see one of Malick’s films without thinking about his fondness for Heidegger: a biographical fact which maybe I’ve allowed to give far to much force in my readings of his films thus far. (In fact, if I think about it, it’s precisely the sort of thing that I should have subjected it to the ‘epoche”, no?)

    Nonetheless, I can’t shake the — to be slightly silly — feeling,when watching any of Malick’s films that:
    “it’s about Being, people, Being!”.

    For example, just before seeing the film, I was talking to a friend about ‘The New World’, which I referred to as “Pocahontas and Being”. (Thin Red Line=”War and Being”, Days of Heaven=”Love and Being” et cetera). If I had to give this one a name, in the same series, t would have been “Being and Being.” :P

    Explaining throughout the film: I got the sense that it was about that which ‘shone through’ the totality of beings (axolotl’s and dinosaurs, men and women, surges of magma, planet-scapes, in the water and in the sky, in childhood memories of rebellion, of death, in all of it. Put like this, I realise that it could sound theistic (I definitely thought the film wasn’t quite pantheistic despite leanings in that direction), but I still thought it left no room for God a a Supreme entity, on top of the world in his Hyper-Uranian, timeless paradise. Instead, I thought that the film was kind of suggesting that theism and theology, were in a way a derivative human response to the wonder of Being, where Being was that which ‘shone through’ everything that exists, the totality of Beings, in the rhythm of existence et cetra. Maybe I’m pre-empting your next post too much, but when you mentioned nuptial ‘theology’, I initially misread that as ‘natal’, which was closer to what I thought was going on: i.e. I got the sense that the film continually touches on (as well as evoking) a wonder at existence itself, generated through thinking about the multitude of existing things and their infinite modes of existence. But I didn’t think it resolved into a ‘ah, the Lord God made them all’ sentiment, as much as a, ‘the wonder is so great’ that humans — being human — have a tendency to want to see the sense of ‘what appears through appearance’ into a separate entity, and then to address it as a ‘thou’ which might try and make good things happen. (I particularly thought that there was a suggestion, contrary to the mother’s faith that the way of grace and the way of nature blur into each other). Am I on crack, or, an unrelated note, completely wrong here? I actually just saw the film last night.


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