Friday, June 24, 2011

A Very Personal Reading of the Tree of Life

Terrence Malick is more poet than a storyteller. As a result, his films are always moving, beautiful and thought provoking, meditations. However, they are not always successes as narratives. Despite Malick’s attempts to tell stories he is usually too consumed with other aspects of his art to do his stories justice. Perhaps that is why “The Tree of Life” is, for me, his most enjoyable film. It is only concerned with story in certain portions of the film, and then only very loosely. Malick embraces the fact that this film is a meditation. He pieces together diverse verses and stanzas, centered on a theme and then leaves it to the audience to interpret.

Many reviewers are calling this latest effort pretentious, but the most pretentious things related to “The Tree of Life” seem to be the reviews. Any reading of this film would have to be personal; with the filmmaker’s being perhaps the most authoritative. Since that is not likely to be revealed any time soon, here is merely one personal reaction:

The themes here are clearly Job’s, mostly questions about good and evil, why does God allow the world to be as it is, and is there hope to be had? As with the Biblical source that it plays with, the film is not going to give any answers. However, in contrast to “2001: A Space Odyssey” (a film that this movie is in some ways akin to) “The Tree of Life” is rich in humanity, emotion and hope.

The dichotomy of the film is “Nature or Grace.” It reflects the Biblical idea of flesh and spirit, law and love, or the way of the creature versus the way of the Creator. It is wrong, perhaps, to call it a dichotomy, because there is not always a clear distinction between nature and love in the film.

The term Nature can be misleading. It does not mean nature in the sense of creation or the environment. In fact, in the visions of early creation, we see examples of Grace ruling. Also, Nature in this film is seen in the glass architecture of the cityscape. Grace is found in trees and plants and landscape. Instead, Nature is man’s fight to survive, the struggle to overcome and succeed.

In the Father, Nature is represented by the stern training he uses to prepare his children for the harsh reality he has encountered in the world. It may even be born out of a love, but the results are often evil or at least harmful.

Grace, on the other hand is about things like forgiveness, trust and beauty. It is clearly the nobler path, but that does not mean that it is a safer path. Tragedy impacts all lives, and the prayers throughout the film are largely concerned with the questions that tragedy inspires.

Where the story falls apart, is when the child representing the main perspective of the film reaches the age where he starts to become his own person. Throughout his life he has observed the way of Nature in his father, and the way of Grace in his mother. The way of Grace is more attractive to him, and his younger brother seems to embrace it easily. To his own horror, though, our main character is becoming his father.

Up until this point, the entire film has felt universal to me. It may not be, but to an American boy with ties to Texas, it is familiar. Malick has tapped into sources that feel very real. The loss of innocence, however, feels false, overdone, and foreign.

Perhaps it is due to the fact that I was given a gift as a young boy. I have a clear memory from when I was three years old. It is one of the most formative memories I have. My father lost his temper with me over the fact that I was afraid of something on my favorite television show. All he did was make me turn the TV off and go to my room. Later that morning, though, he apologized to me and told me he was wrong for the way he had reacted. Just as I answered to his authority, he had an authority in his life as well.

That is not to say that I never later on butted heads with my Father. I did. But it was never a fight against Nature as seen here in this story. Perhaps the best path is a balance between Nature and Grace, with Grace given preference in all things.

The very end of this film is where things become completely impressionistic. No one may really know what happens in the mind of the child, now grown up, as he comes to terms with his past and with God. Perhaps not even the poet himself. However, it is a hope that, in the context of the story itself, could be rather empty. Unlike the concrete visions of the beginning of reality, this all occurs in the mind of a man. That is consistent with the source material for this meditation. Job does not answer any of its questions either. You either accept God’s stance or you don’t.

Who are we to ask such questions?

(Perhaps it should be said, this is a must see film for people who like to think, for those who love beauty, and the music is stunningly amazing. Recommend!)

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