22 December 2012

Mal-Formed Thoughts and Half-thoughts on The Tree of Life

Some anticipated themes:

1.  Does The Tree of Life merit its title?
2.  The style of the film
3.  The psychology underlying it
4.  The intended audience
5.  Certain narrative problems (ambiguities, lack of locus/frame/etc.)
6.  Theological undertones

1.  Does The Tree of Life merit its title?  This is a difficult question.  What is intended by "The Tree of Life"?  The film's epigraph is from the book of Job, though its title takes us back to Genesis.  Let's be generous and attempt to find a sense for the title.  The tree is a tree in paradise, the fruits of which preserve us from death before the fall.  With Job as its theme, though, the film cannot be about the fall, cannot be a matter of mapping evil onto that original fault.  And so it cannot be about our loss of paradise, or about the tree of life as preserving us from death.  At least, not in the obvious way.  Instead,  let's take Job as the key and begin from there.  "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" This is from God's reply to Job's complaint.  Job's complain is about the pains he has suffered, and the difficulty of justifying the existence of pain without fault.  By my intuitive reading of his reply, God is saying that he needs no justification for the design of what he has made. Something along the lines of St. Paul: Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?  But perhaps Malick takes a different reading of the reply to Job.  Perhaps it has something more to do with natural evil, with the evils of pain and death and their role in the tree of life itself.  In this case "The Tree of Life" is less about the original gift of immortality than it is about the place of suffering in the unfolding of creation itself.

2.  The film is beautiful.  There's something about the way the camera follows the boys around that makes it possible to identify with their experience.  The shots are all beautiful, the imagery is amazing, and there are some really cool visual metaphors.  I think everyone recognizes this enough that I don't need to say more.

3.  Obvious freudian undertones, rebellion, relation to authority, development of personal identity, etc.  This layer of the thing is probably the most obvious and the least interesting.

4.  It demands a particular audience.  I think in order to love this film one probably ought to have had the sort of childhood portrayed in it.  Not in every particular, but in the kinds of places and people and experiences.  My childhood was devoid of almost all of these tropes (no domineering father, no saccharine/angelic mother, no broken windows, no brothers, no lectures on making one's way, no wispy moralizing on the way of grace).  I can appreciate the portrait given of all these things, but lacking grounds for identification, I do not really know them.  They seem to me to make up a system of tropes given reality because of Malick's directorial skill, but which, if not masked by all this beauty, would end up being grim and stiff symbols.

5.  Narrative problems.  The film lacks a center.  It lacks a definite frame.  Is the Sean Penn storyline the frame?  Is it a fragment of the whole?  If it's just a fragment, then what does it have to do with the rest?  Why include it?  If it's the frame, then what exactly is going on there?  Any story or graspable evidence about Sean Penn's current life (aside from being the emotionally scarred adult version of one of the brothers) is so effaced in the film's portrait of things that he's basically meaningless.  Yes, one of the brothers dies, yes, another grows up laden with the pain of the memory.  But it is not the voice of that adult that remembers the pain, but the voice of the child.  And what exactly is the boundary of these memories?  At first glance the title suggests something cosmic: perhaps the progression of life itself and the path its branches trace back to the unitary source.  Then we get something else: the problem of evil, the dialogue between suffering men and a silent creator.  But what the movie shows us most of all is neither of these: it's a reflection on reminiscences of childhood and a demonstration of our habit of selecting memories for their emotional and moral weight.  I have a sense that Malick is groping here for a Kierkegaardian balance: the preservation of the Universal and the Particular in relation to each other, the Universal maintaining its grandiosity and power of explanation, and the Particular nonetheless keeping hold of its incommunicable inwardness.  But does he do with Job what Johannes de Silentio attempts with Abraham?  No, I don't think so.  I think the tension between the two is sidestepped, and what we get instead is a few layers of incomplete narrative structures, each rendered less intelligible by its relation to the others.

6.  The theology is good, assuming I'm not just reading orthodoxy into it (a definite possibility).  I appreciated the steady patter of biblical citations incorporated into dialogue.  I appreciate that Malick is attempting to give a treatment of these themes, which are difficult and not exactly disposed to be engaged in a narrative the way they are here.  He does very well.