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Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? Where has he gone? No one can tell! (Part the First)

March 14, 2012

For a while now, the estimable Mitchell Brown has had a great post up at The Discrete Bourgeois that contrasts Terence Malick’s depiction of time and of place in the recent and much-argued-about The Tree of Life with—dig this—John Ford’s depiction of approximately same in his She Wore a Yellow Ribbon from 1949.  Both Mitchell’s post and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—which I hadn’t seen until he screened it for us back in November—are very much worth your time.

I’m pretty sure The Tree of Life is, too—and that hedged “pretty sure” is basically what Mitchell’s post is about: Malick’s film is easy to admire (visually stunning, etc.) but not so easy to love, or to feel satisfied by.  Although it’s remarkable for its inventiveness, as well as for both the vastness and the specificity of its ambitions, the film ultimately feels very personal, even private, in its perspective and its rhetoric (whether it actually is or not) in a way that’s distancing for its audience.  Its successes come at the expense of engaging us on certain levels.

In his post, Mitchell does a great job of describing how John Ford goes about telling a story of similarly sweeping scope to Malick’s in such an adroit and hospitable way that his audience is barely aware of his ambitions until the theater lights have come back up.  I don’t really have much to add to Mitchell’s reading of Ford; what I’d like to do here is come at this comparison from the other direction: to talk about how The Tree of Life does and doesn’t work, and about what Malick’s filmmaking choices earn him and cost him.

In the course of arranging my thoughts on this subject, it’s become painfully clear to me that there’s just no good way to hammer this stuff out in a single post.  Thus I hereby present what I project to be Part One of a short series.  My aim—in order to avoid marooning poor Terrence Malick in New Strategies limbo with Cairo the Anti-Terror Dog and the eleven-year-old children from The Birds—is to present these posts on successive days.  We’ll see how that plays out.  Place your bets!

Okay.  What The Tree of Life sets out to do, to my way of thinking, is to depict—with maximal mimetic precision and minimal concession to narrative clarity—the response of an individual consciousness to a range of existential questions.  More specifically it’s about the efforts of the film’s protagonist, in light of his brother’s untimely death, to make sense of his life, and of the universe, and to figure out what the former and the latter have to do with each other, if anything.  The film works in approximately the opposite way that most serious dramatic films work: these films generally depict a few significant events and the reactions of a group of characters to them, and then leave it up to the audience to infer what’s going on in the characters’ heads and hearts.  Tree, on the other hand, doesn’t much care about telling us a story, but DOES want to show us exactly what its protagonist is thinking and feeling.  (One almost imagines Malick starting with a truism about film—that it can show images, but has to induce its audience to infer ideas and emotions—and then setting out to disprove it.)

As Mitchell correctly notes, many of The Tree of Life’s admirers tend to come across as dismissive of efforts to “figure out” the film, or to pin down its meaning.  The consensus among these folks seems to be that there’s really not that much to figure: Malick’s movie may be unconventional, but it’s also basically straightforward and sincere.  These fans are apt to reassure us that any puzzlement we may feel isn’t due to philistinism on our part; it merely comes from the fact that most of the standard interpretive stuff we’re accustomed to doing with “serious” movies has pretty much been done for us in this case.  What the film has to tell us, it clearly states; it doesn’t claim to have any better answers to big questions than its befuddled characters do.  Even the nuts-and-bolts content that ISN’T made clear in Tree—content that seems to have been deliberately elided or withheld, such as the precise chronology of depicted events, or some of the characters’ biographical particulars, or the precise ratio of fantasy to reality in what we’re shown—isn’t necessarily rewarding for us to puzzle through: knowing the circumstances of the brother’s death, for instance, wouldn’t exactly make us more receptive to our encounters with dinosaurs and nebulae and stuff.  If the film’s earnestness and directness leave it open to charges of self-indulgent sentimentality, well, then it’s redeemed by its sheer beauty and its evocative strangeness.  And that’s pretty much all you needed to know to fill out your Oscar ballot.

Or so go the usual pro-Tree arguments, at any rate.  Until I began working on this—initially it was just supposed to be a comment on Mitchell’s post—I was pretty much coming from the same place: I saw Tree, I basically liked it, and I felt like I, y’know, got it or whatever.  I was aware of a bunch of divergent opinions on the film—at Cannes it was famously both jeered and awarded the Palme d’Or—but I figured that all the back-and-forth basically boiled down to viewers’ varying appetites for metaphysical earnestness: if you’re cool with it, then you thought Tree was one of the best movies of the year; if you’re not, then you didn’t.  The case against the film that corresponds to the pro argument set forth above was crystallized for me by an urbane middle-aged couple who sat in front of us at the theater in Evanston where K and I saw Tree: sometime round about the eighth reel, during one of Sean Penn’s plaintive voiceovers, the gentleman leaned over to his companion and audibly muttered the words “Jesus freak.”  Shortly thereafter the couple walked out.  (I should mention for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the folkways of Chicagoland that Evanston is the kind of town where comments like “Jesus freak” are indeed intelligible as heckling.)

Although—just to be clear—the not-infrequent protestations made by certain persons of faith about their perceived oppression by the forces of secularism kind of make me want to shoot something with a gun, I still think it’s possible—possible—that we arugula-eating, pew-eschewing, art-film-watching liberal elites have gotten a little bit lazy in our viewing habits.  It could be that we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing “serious” film directors use religiosity as a quick signifier—of rooted steadiness at best, of cruel bigotry at worst, of a disinclination to doubt in any case—that when a film makes a clear sympathetic effort to convey the complex and conflicted worldviews of religious characters, our assumption tends to be that the filmmaker must share that worldview.  The protagonist of The Tree of Life grows up in an observant Catholic family in small-town Texas; as an adult he works as an architect in the city, and although he doesn’t seem overtly religious, his voiceover—which is addressed to a supreme otherworldly power—makes it apparent that he still tries to make sense of the world through the lens of faith: even if his belief in God has been shaken, his faith is his only framework for asking the questions that trouble him.  Although Terrence Malick is famously reticent regarding his private life, most watchers of Tree will know that he too was raised in Central Texas in the 1950s, and many will also know that he too lost a younger brother at an early age; therefore we can hardly help but view Tree as near-autobiography, and to conclude that the perspective from which the film’s protagonist views the world is very close to Malick’s own.

I am not sure that that’s the case.  (At minimum, I strongly suspect that Malick is not a Jesus freak.)  With the benefit of Google and a few months’ hindsight, I have become convinced that I—along with many others—was a little too quick to make up my mind about The Tree of Life.  Whether they lionize it as a heart-on-its-sleeve address to the infinite, or they write it off as self-involved reverie, I think the majority of opinions I’ve heard or read about the film don’t credit it with the complexity it actually possesses, and don’t really take into account the full measure of its weirdness.  Since I’ve only seen the movie once—and since I am frankly not in a huge hurry to sit through it again—I can’t claim to be able to accomplish that full measure-taking here.  But I AM going to take a crack at arguing that, sincere though it may indeed be, it possesses more moving parts than might initially be apparent.

We might as well start with the dinosaurs.  In Tree’s most-talked-about (and certainly most-ridiculed) scene, we see what Wikipedia informs me is a young Parasaurolophus being set upon by a predatory Ornithomimus on a riverbank.  (You can watch the scene here, courtesy of the New York Times.)  The young parasaur is injured or sick; it huddles helplessly on the ground while its fellows flee the premises.  The predator scampers over in a very Jurassic-Park-velociraptory way, stomps on the parasaur’s crested head, and is clearly ready to start noshing.  Then it stops.  It lifts its foot, as if to get a better look at the parasaur’s face; the parasaur raises its head, and the predator smooshes it down again—more gently this time, as if only concerned with maintaining its control over the situation.  The predator lifts its foot again; the parasaur remains still, and the predator’s foot comes down a third time: just a tap, a touch that seems curious, exploratory, and almost—not quite—affectionate.  Unless I’m mistaken, the predator brushes a clawed toe along the parasaur’s distinctive crest, as if suddenly wondering: Just what the hell ARE these things I’ve been eating?  Then it departs across the river, leaving the young parasaur unharmed.

Am I a total dweeb for being moved by this scene?  Maybe it’s partly that NPR has been awash lately in stories of animals that exhibit capacities for cooperation and caring that seem to match (or exceed) those of humans—rats will rescue each other! Tom Brokaw concludes a long interview with a portentous story about elk!—but thinking about the scene now, I find I’m MORE affected than I was when I actually watched it.

For those who haven’t seen Tree, it may be helpful to describe—and for those who have, it may be helpful to recall—the context in which Malick presents the dinosaur scene: it appears in the midst of a condensed history of, um, everything, starting with the Big Bang and passing (briskly by cosmological standards, unhurriedly by cinematic ones) through the formation of the solar system and the earth, the appearance of increasingly complex organisms, and their migration from the oceans onto the land.  (This sequence is introduced by the voiced-over interrogatory of the film’s protagonist, Jack O’Brien, played as an adult by Sean Penn and as a child by Hunter McCracken.  As grown-up Jack’s ruminations on his brother’s death lead him to imagine the vastness of time and space, Malick shows us time and space—or shows us Jack’s imaginings of them, at any rate.)  Even during the dramatic events of the dinosaur scene, there are strong reminders that this episode is only a flicker in a sequence—let’s not call it a story—with a beginning and an end that vanish into infinity: the dinosaurs’ encounter, we notice, is underlain by the constant sound of the river beside them, and the earth beneath them is covered by stones that have been worn conspicuously smooth by that river.  After the dinosaur scene ends, the next thing we’re shown is an asteroid striking the earth, presumably dropping the curtain of extinction on the two players we just finished watching, along with the rest of their kind.

To my way of thinking, the peculiar encounter between the Parasaurolophus and the Ornithomimus is—and kind of HAS to be—the most important scene in The Tree of Life: the key (well, certainly a key) to everything else that Malick shows us.  But what are we, as viewers, supposed to do with it, exactly?

We should note that what’s confounding about the scene isn’t that it’s all that difficult to interpret.  Most viewers will pick up pretty quickly on the fact that what we’ve just witnessed contradicts—or at least complicates—a certain declaration that has been quoted by many if not most reviewers of Tree, and that I recall as the first major assertion we hear made in the film:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.  You have to choose which one you’ll follow.  Grace doesn’t try to please itself.  Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.  Accepts insults and injuries.  Nature only wants to please itself.  Get others to please it too.  Likes to lord it over them.  To have its own way.  It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.  And love is smiling through all things.  The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

We hear this spoken in the voice of Jack’s mother; much of it, come to find out, is an unattributed paraphrase of Book 3, Chapter 54 of The Imitation of Life by Thomas à Kempis—which makes it a quotation (Mrs. O’Brien) of a quotation (“the nuns”) of a quotation (Thomas) filtered in turn through the adult Jack’s recollections.  Thus the film is interposing something like five reportative layers between us and the content of the statement, a fact that many incautious commenters have tended not to pick up on.

To be sure, the nature/grace dichotomy is handy for charting how Jack understands his parents’ personalities—i.e. Brad Pitt’s stern Mr. O’Brien = nature while Jessica Chastain’s gentle Mrs. O’Brien = grace—as well as the internal tensions that make Jack who he is.  (The validity of this interpretive schema seems to be at least semi-confirmed by the adult Jack’s late-in-the-film voiceover: “Mother.  Father.  Always you wrestle inside me.  Always you will.”)  But the dinosaur scene serves up a pretty clear signal that the nuns’ assertion is at least somewhat out of whack: you’d have to work pretty hard to find a critter that’s a purer product of nature, redder in tooth and claw, and less, y’know, christlike than a predatory bipedal dinosaur, and yet the film presents us with the spectacle of just such a beast acting against what we have to assume are its best interests when it mercifully passes up an easy meal.  (Unless of course the helpless parasaur is totally infected with like listeria or something—in which case, clever girl!—but I don’t think that’s the most fruitful reading of the scene.)

The dinosaurs’ encounter indicates that manifestations of what the nuns call “grace” are present in nature, pretty much right from the starting whistle.  In fact, Tree seems to suggest that the kind of jerk-ass behavior that the nuns—in imitation of Thomas’s Imitation—ascribe to “nature” may be uniquely human, or at least arise from particularly human existential circumstances.  Another interpretive connection that most viewers will make pretty quickly: the predatory dinosaur’s apparently motiveless sparing of its prey is mirrored (and inverted) by the scene late in the film in which the young Jack convinces his younger brother R.L.—the guitarist brother whose death at age nineteen is presented as the film’s central problem—to place his fingertip over the barrel of a skyward-aimed BB gun; young Jack then pulls the trigger.  As instances of wanton cruelty go, this is a pretty good one; the scene also reinforces the family schema that’s developing along the nature/grace axis: mild, artistic R.L. is clearly his mother’s child, while Jack, to his own chagrin, takes after his dad.  (“I’m as bad as you are,” the young Jack says to his father at one point; “I’m more like you than her.”  See also his blunt, effective paraphrase of Romans 7:15 slightly earlier in the film: “What I want to do, I can’t do.  I do what I hate.”)  And of course the association of the doomed R.L. with his mother and with what the nuns call “grace” serves to further erode the validity of the passage quoted above, particularly its closing statement that “no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”  The failure of this statement to be true is, in a nutshell, what the film is about; the context in which the assertion is made—the problematic opposition of nature and grace—is the key to how the film works.

So the dinosaurs, like I said, aren’t difficult to interpret.  What really provokes all the strong reactions to the scene—the eye-rolling, the snickering, the irritation, the bafflement—is that they’re difficult to justify.  Years and years of narrative works that genuflect to Aristotelian unities have trained us to expect that stories will limit themselves to depicting only as many times and places as are absolutely necessary; The Tree of Life doesn’t so much throw these unities out the window as shoot them from a cannon.  (During the creation-of-the-world sequence, I couldn’t help thinking of that old Bloom County strip where Bill the Cat has come back from the dead and all the tearful celebrations are captured in a soaring and widening crane shot that ends up showing the entire earth from orbit: “TOO WIDE!  And too damned silly!”)

By broad unscientific consensus, the dinosaur scene is the most memorable one in the film—it’s the one everybody wants to talk about around the water-cooler—and this is surely not an accident.  (I mean, I doubt very much that Malick has been complaining to his therapist about how he made a beautiful movie about faith and family but all anybody wants to talk about is the bit set in the Late Cretaceous; I’m pretty sure dude knew what he was doing.)  The dinosaurs are memorable precisely because they’re so flummoxing: they represent the riskiest moment in the film, the moment at which Malick lays out his cards and more or less demands to know whether the audience is with him or not.

That’s probably enough for today’s installment; we’ll return to the terrible lizards—and what they’re doing in this movie—tomorrow.  Don’t touch that dial!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2012 9:19 am

    “We’ll see how that plays out. Place your bets!”

    My money’s on you.

    Waiting for tomorrow’s post with bated breath.

  2. March 14, 2012 10:07 am

    I bet that I will be here tomorrow, looking for the follow-up.

  3. Carlos David permalink
    March 14, 2012 6:34 pm

    I’ve seen the film several times and read a significant portion of what has been written about it (which is a lot), and I must say your essay is way up there with the very best.

    I was also very moved by the dinosaur scene. It is indeed the point where Malick begins distancing the film from the simple grace/nature dichotomy and goes for something more complex.

    I look forward to your next installment.

  4. March 15, 2012 8:26 am


    This is very enjoyable. I’m Adam Big Other buddy or nemesis – I’m glad he sent me this. I was similarly touched by the dinosaur scene.

    “Although it’s remarkable for its inventiveness, as well as for both the vastness and the specificity of its ambitions, the film ultimately feels very personal, even private, in its perspective and its rhetoric (whether it actually is or not) in a way that’s distancing for its audience.” – this seems the crux of what you are talking about/getting to, I approached this is in a different way:

    I’m looking forward to part two.

    Greg Gerke

  5. March 15, 2012 11:18 am

    Nemesis, definitely.

  6. March 15, 2012 12:35 pm

    Thanks for this. I loved ‘Tree of Life’ and saw it twice. My impression of the film – beyond the beauty of it – was that it was an extended meditation on theodicy. It answered the question – how can there be evil in a world created by G-d? (or more specific to the film – why do those who live in grace come to bad ends?) by pointing to the overwhelming glory of creation.

    (My favorite scene in the film is when the brothers are crying before the family moves away from the town. In addition to all the beauty and metaphysical depth of the movie, it is probably the best depiction of masculinity in a film… maybe ever?)

  7. June 2, 2013 4:52 pm

    Merci bien, Adahkao! — both for adding me to your site, and for the French translation. (“Merci bien” just about exhausts mon français . . .)

  8. June 16, 2013 12:42 pm

    Hahaha that’s a good begining though ! That’s a pleasure to talk with an English person (your article gave me the opportunity to learn more vocabulary), in addition to the fact that your analysis is really good to me, precisely when you’re talking about the role of ART (as you could have seen). By the way, the website I post your article on is really about that kind of reasoning; I want to show how art really is, how the technique is something like mathematics, not as a thing that would depend on each person’s tastes or personality, if you know what I mean… And I’m sure you know what I mean ! So thank you again, and keep the good work !


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