Friday, December 2, 2011

The Tree of Life

I was really looking froward to seeing Terrence Malick's new film, and I still think it's an important film to see, but I also think that it fails to reach the heights it aims for. It's beautifully shot and addresses the problem of evil, how faith in God can be possible, and what such faith might mean or be. So it's got a lot going for it. But it also seems often like an extended music video for church music: choirs sing loudly in the background while we see images of rolling clouds, cells moving inside organisms, dinosaurs wandering through prehistoric forests, jellyfish pulsing through the ocean, and so on. At one point I wondered whether Malick was using stock footage. I'm sure he wouldn't do that, but the fact that it crossed my mind might give you some sense of how close the film comes to trading in clichés. 

Another indication of a flaw in his plan comes before the film begins when a message comes up advising you to watch the DVD with the volume turned up loud. It's true that you do need to turn it up to hear everything, but then the loud parts are really loud. I think you're meant to be overwhelmed by the experience of watching it, which means that seeing it at home is probably not the way to go, unless you have a really big TV. The use  of sensory bombardment suggests a certain lack of subtlety.

What about the plot? The story, such as it is, is about coping. How do you cope with the death of a child? How do you cope with frustrations and failure in your career? How do you cope with parents who are impossible to live with? The 
answers suggested are: a) turn to God, b) you shouldn't be so focused on your career in the first place, and c) it's hard/turn to God/they wouldn't be so hard to deal with if they would turn to God. The God in question is not the low church God who shows up like Lassie to save the day with a miracle. It's a much more high church God, with very traditional music (Bach, Berlioz, etc.--see here for a full list), not Kumbaya, and pretty WASPy people. The question throughout is Where is God?, and the answer is roughly that God is in the endless, fascinating life of the universe. But the movie is more fascinated by the endlessness than by anything in the universe itself, it seems. It isn't about dinosaurs or jellyfish, after all, but moves from one image to another just to show how much potentially fascinating stuff is out there.

Mostly the film keeps its attention on a family of real people, but is detached enough that they aren't really knowable as people. The mother is elegant and loving, probably Christian, but that's about it. The father is somewhat Randian, showing entrepreneurial tendencies and encouraging his sons not to be too moral if they want to get ahead. He is also bitter about not having had a successful career as a musician. He loves his sons, but is also a bully. A cruel but loving father, perhaps a bit like the Father the film asks about. And then there are the sons, who don't say much, and are mostly passive and confused.

The best part of the movie comes at the beginning, right after the instructions to turn the volume up, with a quotation from Job:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? ... What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?
Then we're introduced to the film's vision of the world, which is something like an artful version of a child's point of view. The worst part of the film is the ending, where people wander around on a beach in something like a vision of heaven, but more like a painful parody of such a vision. (There are also almost framing scenes of sunflowers near the beginning and end of the film, very much reminiscent of Lebanon--is this some biblical reference I'm missing?)

The worst thing about the film is that it offers an answer to the problem of evil. Despite the boy's death at the beginning of the film, in the end everything is all right. Some change of perspective has supposedly been achieved. But it has been achieved by becoming detached, as if the answer to life's problems is not to live in the world but in abstraction. I prefer the answer given in Job, which is no answer at all. The best thing about the film is its asking of the question, both the fact that it presses it and the way that it presses it, the images it uses to do so (despite the occasional misstep).

For a good, and much more positive, review see here.


  1. I saw the movie in a cinema with a friend who, despite having seen it once and admitting that it was "flawed," wanted to see it again. I found it difficult to sit through. Hitherto, I had known Malick only from Badlands and Days of Heaven, and the one thing that I thought a movie of his could not be was derivative. But The Tree of Life continually reminded me of Kubrick, especially the Kubrick of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and entirely to Malick's disfavor, right down to the powerful presence of classical music in the sound track, which in Kubrick's movies always defines the action but in Malick's movie often seemed idle and arbitrary.

  2. Yes, I thought of 2001 too. Apparently it's not a coincidence. Here's Wikipedia:

    After nearly thirty years away from Hollywood, famed special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull contributed to the visual effects work on The Tree of Life. Malick, a friend of Trumbull, approached him about the effects work and mentioned that he did not like the look of computer-generated imagery. Trumbull asked Malick, "Why not do it the old way? The way we did it in 2001?"
    Working with visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, Trumbull used a variety of materials for the creation of the universe sequence. “We worked with chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography to see how effective they might be,” said Trumbull. “It was a free-wheeling opportunity to explore, something that I have found extraordinarily hard to get in the movie business. Terry didn’t have any preconceived ideas of what something should look like. We did things like pour milk through a funnel into a narrow trough and shoot it with a high-speed camera and folded lens, lighting it carefully and using a frame rate that would give the right kind of flow characteristics to look cosmic, galactic, huge and epic.” The team also included Double Negative in London, under the supervision of Paul Riddle, who handled the astrophysical aspects of the segment. Fluid-based effects were developed by Peter and Chris Parks, who had previously worked on similar effects for The Fountain.

    I think The Thin Red Line is his best film, at least of those I've seen (I can't remember whether that's all of them or not).

  3. The worst thing about the film is that it offers an answer to the problem of evil.

    I haven't seen the film, but I appreciate the above thought, in principle, as a criticism of any film that does that. But maybe that's something strange about me. I guess the point would be that being serious and uplifting is hard, and the upliftingness has to be earned in full seriousness?

    At any rate, thanks for keeping my expectations low...

    On a side note, I have to thank you again for bringing my attention to Paradise Now. Talk about a film that doesn't offer a solution...I showed the film to my large class Wed and today--and it crushed them (and me again). I'd guess it made some of them think more than anything I've done or said in the class. Which is the point. Thanks.

  4. that's hilarious. how do philosophy teachers know they had a really good day in class? 'i totally crushed them today'.

  5. Ok. Well, it's only one kind of good day in class...

  6. We get to confuse them too. That's often good.

    I guess the point would be that being serious and uplifting is hard, and the upliftingness has to be earned in full seriousness?

    That's true. But I also don't like solutions to the problem of evil generally. I think it has to remain a problem for believers, if their belief is not to be insensitive. The kind of response to suffering and disaster that I like is the kind shown by the Archbishop of Canterbury here. After the Asian tsunami in 2004 (referring back to an earlier disaster in Wales) he wrote:

    "I remember watching a television discussion about God and suffering that weekend - with disbelief and astonishment at the vacuous words pouring out about the nature of God's power or control, or about the consolations of belief in an afterlife or whatever. The only words that made any sense came from the then Archbishop of Wales, in a broadcast on Welsh television. What he said was roughly this: "I can only dare to speak about this because I once lost a child. I have nothing to say that will make sense of this horror today. All I know is that the words in my Bible about God's promise to be alongside us have never lost their meaning for me. And now we have to work in God's name for the future.""

    He says here also that: "The question: "How can you believe in a God who permits suffering on this scale?" is therefore very much around at the moment, and it would be surprising if it weren't - indeed, it would be wrong if it weren't."

    I agree with him that this question ought to remain around. My fear is that The Tree of Life aims to quiet it, or to almost literally shout it down.

  7. Yeah. Tom Honey starts with some of a statement from the Archbishop of Canterbury in his own talk/sermon in response to the tsunami. (Have I mentioned this before? If so, sorry.) He gives it at TED here. I use this in class, too, because he's pushing on the limits of theism from within, but he also says (spoiler) "I don't know" at the end, and suggests that "I don't know" "might be the most profound theological statement of all" (sorry if that's not an exact quote).

  8. That's something I'll have to watch (and I don't remember you mentioning it before). Thanks.

  9. The bit about God finding someone a parking space is familiar, but otherwise I don't think I've seen this before. It's very good. Speaking of repeating oneself, "I don't know" are words that always make me think of Larkin's Mr Bleaney (both the poem and a reading of it by Larkin are at the link, along with a bio of Larkin). That might just be me, but I would bet money that Honey studied Larkin in school (he looks about my age, and anyone who studied English in the last part of high school in those days read Larkin) and he might have this poem in mind. Even if he doesn't, the poem is reminiscent of Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does a Man Need," and might be taken to offer a general attitude toward life. Bleaney was undemanding (he had few possessions), caring (he looked after the garden), generous (he encouraged his landlady to buy a TV that would disturb his peace), and either saintly or pathetic, depending on how you look at him. The narrator, following in the same path, doesn't judge. His last words are "I don't know." The poem could be taken to suggest that we are all in basically the same boat, and have no decent option but to be like Bleaney (seen as modestly saintly) and, above all, epistemically humble and non-judgmental. There is a kind of skepticism (skepticism as something like post-Kantian humility) that we can, and perhaps should, live.