This will be the final post from me regarding Tree of Life. The last post, perhaps because of more pressing matters being discussed on the blog, didn’t seem to stir up much discussion and I doubt this one will either. In part I think it is because of the polemical nature of these belated thoughts and because theologians rarely come out of the woodwork to answer to those who cry violence against them. And that is where I’m going to start, the question of violence, and the way in Tree of Life violence is always repressed, always pushed just out of view through the underlying hermeneutic discussed in the last post. And I will also have to respond to one of the reviews of Tree of Life that annoyed me the most and that made it a difficult decision to even go see the film.
The review by one-time author at AUFS Joshua Davis read a dichotomy into Tree of Life, I think wrongly but not without some evidence, and that dichotomy was stated this way: irony or worship. For Davis, as for many theological readings of the film, Malick’s was a film of great theological beauty, witnessing to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Apparently there were a few hidden cues in the film for those, literally, with ears to hear for liturgical music rings out throughout the cosmic scenes. And this dichotomy would be in some sense fine if it wasn’t a demand implicitly given to Davis’ fellow audience members who are fans of Lars von Trier, who I guess is the villain for Davis, and who are purveyors of a culture of something he calls “hepcats”. It’s funny though, I know the theatre Davis was talking about, it’s located in Chicago at Clark and Diversey. It is the theatre that tends to play smaller art house films, but it’s hardly the centre for hipsters in Chicago, and I fear says more about the author than the denizens of this non-neighbourhood. But the part that truly bothered me was this setting up of Lars von Trier as the filmmaker of irony, which is, when compared with worship, evil. Whereas Malick is the director of light, the director of worship and good. But doesn’t this just turn Malick into an art house version of Thomas Kinkade? A kind of worship that we can perform precisely because all that light blinds us to the evil in the world? Blinds us and misdirects our attention so that when one cries out violence, the response is “without love life merely flashes by”. Well, sure, but the point is that in the midst of violence time also slows down. In the midst of pain, in the grip of the violence of depression, of a depression even brought on through too much pathos for the other, time can feel to drag on. There is no flash. And so this is a false choice, perhaps borne out of a false question, as Bergson would say. Irony or worship? No thanks.
Now Davis is not the only one to have somehow brought Malick and von Trier together. On twitter Brad also mentioned feeling like Melancholia was implicitly in dialogue with Tree of Life and film theorist Steven Shaviro sees a connection between Tree of Life and von Trier’s latest Melancholia, though he goes in the opposite direction claiming that von Trier’s vision offers a better response to the nihilism of the contemporary socius. While I found Davis’ review insulting at a personal level (some of my closest friends are well dressed and interesting and some might call them hipsters) as well as at a theoretical level, I don’t think the answer is to pitch a theologico-philosophical war between filmmakers. Rather, following a more radically immanent method, one that refuses an exchange between the identity of the films, I want to suggest that something could come from simply talking about both. Why must there be a choice? They may not be exchangeable with one another, but the Real will always outstrip a single film, a single thought.
What strikes me between the two films is the stark differences between the presentations of the violence of nature and the hermeneutic machinery at work in each that clearly differentiates them. For Malick the interplay of nature and grace always means that nature will always come to be meaningful. Life, surely situated within nature even if the how of this situatedness is underdetermined, and life will will not simply pass us by if we love, if we make it meaningful. But for von Trier, at least in his last two films Antichrist and Melancholia, nature is evil. I want to say more about von Trier than I will allow myself to say here, but von Trier presents in Antichrist a throughly philosophical argument that far exceeds the usual philosophies of nature we get. For nature isn’t simply cold, for as She explains, people are part of nature, and as both men and women are part of nature they too are evil. There is a stark gnosticism here. One all the more interesting because it is a gnosticism delivered by speaking women, not the men who try to push away their depression, their anger, in addition to the usual silencing of women intellectually. In von Trier the violence of nature can’t be explained away through telling a story of the family, through a kind of essentialized sexual difference. For sexual difference of this kind doesn’t determine nature at all, it doesn’t give it meaning, but is itself subject to the violence of nature itself. And so the answer that von Trier gives us is not the Beast rising from Lake Michigan with the Antichrist astride her and then ironically waving off destruction as passé and last year, but rather something more akin to Islamio-gnostic submission. (Here I recognise I am in danger of reading into von Trier a philosophy that he probably doesn’t know about, but let’s call it a creative schiz rather than an overdetermination of von Trier’s films.) How do we survive in this badly made world? Through a dissimulation from our true selves. The selves that, as Justine does in Melancholia, throws on a fake smile to help smooth our way through a ritual we are subject to but do not understand, all the while the true cultivation of ourselves is only unveiled in the blue moonlight of our nakedness. Bathing in our melancholia, preparing for the end of this world, preparing for the end of evil. Though here I would have to say more about the absolute difference between the end of Antichrist and Melancholia. In each case something like the Angel comes, as the Angel must always do, but the form of that coming is in each case an expression of two very different affects.
So this is what I have to say ultimately about Tree of Life. In Malick’s vision there is something glorious in nature and that comes through the family, through the relationship of nature to grace, consummated in the creation of a child. It is a beautiful story, but that beauty only lasts as long as that story of the family finds a way to put up with pain, with the violence present underlying the family itself. The story is there to perpetuate the anthropological machine and as such it doesn’t really demand we worship God, it demands we worship a World where the possibility of grace always lets us get up when the Father pushes us down. It exists only through the deferral of a kind of gnosis present in von Trier. There all of us, even the most high born who form the casts of his last two films, each of us is nothing but an inglorious basterd. There is nothing ironic about that. Rather, at the very least, it tries to direct our attention in a new way. To violence and so perhaps to salvation, but always to struggle. And in this way von Trier is at least honest. For all the glory of the film, for the praise rightly directed towards it, I’m not sure I can say the same for Malick.