The Tree of Life: An (un)Review
In the world of cinema, there are two basic kinds of people: those who “go to the movies,” and those who love the art of film itself. For the latter group, the release date of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life in their respective city was tantamount to a high holy day. Malick—the reclusive director—has only made four films in the past 40 years before this current release. Each piece has in turn been critically acclaimed. The Tree of Life was certainly no exception to the rule, receiving the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the festival’s most prestigious award. This all took place despite the fact that Malick did not personally appear in support of the film at Cannes (although he was there), and refuses to do any publicity.
Confession: I believe that The Tree of Life is a masterpiece and a deeply important film. As someone who teaches courses in philosophy of film, and having seen the film multiple times myself, I have repeatedly told all interested parties that this is not a film for the folks who like to “go to the movies.” In fact, I have actively discouraged people from going to see it. Terrence Malick is a highly philosophical auteur filmmaker whose works defy the traditional conventions of dialogue, narrative, and story arc. Complicating matters, however, The Tree of Life stars three of Hollywood’s biggest names: Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain. Consequently, people have shelled out their hard-earned dollars and filed into the theater to see a blockbuster. They were in for a rude awakening.
Each time I have seen the film, I have felt like I was entering a zone demarcated for spiritual warfare. It opens with an epigram from Job 38:4,7 ("Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation . . . while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"), and immerses its viewers into what I can only describe as an intense experience of emotional vertigo for the next two and a half hours. The film arrests the individual’s senses at every level: intellectual, psychological, and visual. The cinematography is stunning. The portrayals of the O’Brien family, set in 1950s Waco, Texas, provide what can only be described as the most moving repristination of childhood ever captured on film. The voiceovers from the film’s protagonist, Jack, confront the audience directly with the existence of God.
Reactions to The Tree of Life have already become the stuff of legend. Some respond to what they are seeing with deep, sensate weeping. Others grow visibly angry and verbalize their protests before storming out of the theater. Still others emerge from the auditorium in a state of shock. But everyone leaves talking about what they have just seen. Personally, I felt the right response for me afterward was a period of silence.
Film criticism has fallen decidedly on hard times, and nowhere has this been more evident in the reviews of The Tree of Life. Although Roger Ebert has heralded the film as the most ambitious film he has seen since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, reviewers have struggled to wrap their minds around Malick’s magnum opus.
For secular audiences, the content borders on offensive given the work’s explicit theism and anomalous ending (e.g. is this an evocation of the afterlife or not?). The general line of attack for them has been: “Malick has taken on the meaning of life, but we remain very piously unconvinced by what we perceive as his ‘answers.’” Perhaps more enlightening are those who apply a Freudian/Lacanian grid to the story, referencing the Oedipal impulses they see tacit in Jack’s relationship to his father and his mother.
Christian reviewers, by way of contrast, appear almost desperate to figure out what every scene “means” in the film. We would like to believe that Malick’s genius is a catalog of one-to-one correspondences with orthodoxy, ready-made for illustrative sermon material. To be sure, there is plenty of fodder for such interpretations: the nature vs. grace dichotomy, the explicit and latent references to Scripture, the themes of darkness and shame versus light and love, the seemingly weak church and pale Christ juxtaposed to the youthful passions of Jack, and the redemption/reconciliation sequence that closes the film.
The whole work overflows with theological intensity. For example, what other filmmaker besides Malick would have such a high view of the sanctity of human life so as to suggest that the significance of one child's birth can only be understood in light of the totality of the universe's creation? And what do we make of the sequences with the older Jack among the skyscrapers of Houston? Could it be, as one colleague suggested, that you can go running from your emotional and psychological "stuff," but sooner or later, your "stuff" is going to come looking for you?
But whereas we are driven to do theological analysis on The Tree of Life, I wonder if we might be missing the film’s own internal governing hermeneutic. Terrence Malick transports the individual into the pure feeling and wonder of existence in light of our experience. Could it be that the analogue for this film is not Western Christianity, but rather Eastern Orthodoxy? Is The Tree of Life meant to be dissected and explained, or does the filmmaker intend for us to think of his piece as an icon, transporting us into another world in which restoration, reconciliation, and grace are not scorned by mockers and enervated by skeptical disavowals?
High Priests of Culture
Recently, philosophers have begun asking the question of whether or not film has/will become a new form of thought itself. In his massive two volume work on Cinema, Gilles Deleuze argues that film is not merely a medium for communicating messages or stories, but also a means to fuse thought and image together in an instant of ecstatic realization. Similarly, Jacques Rancière has written that film gives us the ability to do something that ideologies have wanted to do for centuries: make the abstract and unrepresentable, representable. It has the potential to combine image, sound, and thought into form that has a distinctive power to explain the world around us.
If these analyses turn out to be apt, then The Tree of Life may well be remembered as a turning point in the importance of how we think about film itself. It may well accelerate the feeling of many people today that their aesthetic experiences through the arts are religion enough for them. Anton Chekov once reflected on his ambivalence toward the theater and the “high priests of the sacred art”—that the actors show us how to live, what to do, and who to be. Today, there can be no doubt that the high priests, priests, and acolytes of our culture are the producers, directors, writers, and actors. As film increasingly presents people with opportunities to replicate certain aspects of religious experience, we must pause to reflect upon the growing reality of “theater as temple.”
This phenomenon puts us back, curiously enough, in the position of the ancient Mediterranean world, in which Greek dramas brought together the worship of the gods, the understanding of the state, and the norms of society. In such a world, we have no choice but to repair to the foolishness of preaching, return to what Luther called the “poor tokens of the Word of God alone” . . . and hope at the end of the day that Terrence Malick is on our side.