Raw beauty, seeking grace
Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is not, as a piece of cinematic art, very subtle. Nor does he allow any viewer wondering in unawares, seeking only entertainment or a chance to escape summer heat in an air conditioned space and a tub of popcorn, to imagine that this film can be mindlessly consumed. My friend Steven Garber likes to remind people not to leave their brains at the box office, and Terrence Malick takes that one step farther—he simply won’t permit it. The Tree of Life is such a richly constructed film that we either think while it is showing, or become quickly convinced we shelled out good money for the wrong movie. People who want an easy to follow story will be disappointed. So will those who want answers rather than questions. Actually, that’s not quite correct: I think Malick does suggest an answer, but I would suggest it is not ultimately fully sufficient for the questions he raises. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
Let’s begin, as Malick does, at the beginning. In the darkened theater the screen goes black. After a pause simple unadorned text appears, ancient words spoken by God.
Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? …When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Job 38:4, 7.
An extended, stunningly crafted visual montage of creation follows. A voice-over speaks of two ways, nature and grace, between which we must choose.
The nuns taught us there were 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.
A story slowly unfolds of a family that like all families knows both blessing and curse. The O’Briens know goodness fostered by gentle beauty (in grace personified by the mother) but then are slowly strangled by a quiet wickedness (in nature personified by the father), made all the more painful by the cruel interruption of the death of a son gone off to war. Throughout the film we are made to live in a succession of memories and brief snippets of experience, fragments of reality mixed in with dreams, fears, hopes and the confusion of daily life with its surprises, disappointments, and nightmares, all the while trying to make sense of life. Forgiveness is needed, sought, and given while a lost son, now grown and away from home lives out his life in an urban setting beset with endlessly moving, nameless crowds among and in buildings that like desert caverns open to a sky so blue it seems to offer hope. In the end, the yearning for a world touched by love in relationships is the dream that seems to hold promise in overcoming the deep scars left by the brokenness that has been lived out so painfully, so cruelly in a world of such unspeakable beauty.
If that doesn’t seem to be clear and orderly enough to be an adequate summary of a film, you probably haven’t seen The Tree of Life.
Most filmmakers use the screen like the blank pages in a journal, projecting an unfolding story that is the primary point. Occasionally films are released for which money and effort seemed to be poured into everything but the story—Avatar (2009) comes to mind—and the fact the story is the primary point is painfully obvious. Terrence Malick uses the screen more like a painter would a succession of canvases. He paints a succession of images and sounds as a series of impressions that are experienced much like the momentary glimpses we get into life and reality, day by day. They appear before us unhurried, insistent, leisurely enough to permit us to reflect on their meaning, to wonder or shudder. Another way to think about it is this: Most films are like classical music, with a beginning, a middle and an end (though not always arranged in that order). Terrence Malick, on the other hand, shapes a series of visual and audio impressions for us to experience, each appearing like the swelling notes in a piece of improvisational jazz, always on key but circling around like the content of our memories, raising questions, evoking both awe and dread. The editing of The Tree of Life suggests to some a classic postmodern consciousness, but I cannot see that. This film is if anything profoundly impressionistic—not in the line of artists like David Hockney, or Yoko Ono, or Jeff Koons, but rather Claude Monet, or Édouard Manet, or Mary Cassatt—a resoundingly modernist vision of life shaped by an artist sensitive to his postmodern audience and times.
Watching The Tree of Life conjured up for me memories of being in college in the Sixties, skipping class to catch the latest film by Ingmar Bergman. His films always made me feel like he was treating me with respect, inviting me into a conversation about the biggest questions of life, the issues that can only be explored by thinking about story, about art, about truth, about nature, about grace. Art by its very nature touches on the big questions of life. Most art touches on these things implicitly, not explicitly. One reason is that it is hard to make art that addresses the big questions directly without the product descending into sentimentality, which means it is no longer good art but a form of propaganda. A few filmmakers have succeeded in creating movies that raise and address the questions explicitly—three that come to mind, besides Bergman, include Krzysztof Kieslowski, Woody Allen, and Terrence Malick.
Another similarity with Bergman is Malick’s existentialism. This is most obvious in his earliest films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978)—both of which can be, I think, plausibly seen as cinematic windows of insight into existentialism. This may be reflective of his interest in the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, one of whose works Malick translated and published. Malick is very reclusive, refusing all interviews, and so I want to be careful here, and not read things into him and his work, but it seems to me that he has maintained an existentialist sensibility over the years in his work. The beauty of the cosmos is overwhelming, as is the fragmentation that festers so deep within us, and somehow it is in and out of our choices that significance seems somehow, mysteriously, to arise. Similar themes appear in Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005).
From a Christian perspective, existentialism—I’m referring here to the actual philosophy proposed by the likes of Albert Camus (1913-1960), Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), or Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)—was something of a positive effort in the history of ideas. Naturalism, based supposedly on the theories of modern science, proposed an impersonal cosmos of raw time and chance, with no meaning or possibility of morality. The existentialists said No: significance was possible because choice existed. Their attempt to provide dignity and a sense of meaning was noble but fatally flawed, since choice alone is insufficient to provide meaning if we are choosing between ultimately meaningless options. Existentialism had an added benefit: it feels true because we do make choices, all the time, and our choices, especially the ones that seem important feel imbued with meaning, since choosing can lead to blessing or curse, results that play out in ripples across time and space and lives. Thus the enigma of existentialism since its heyday in the Sixties: very few propose it seriously as a formal philosophy for life but Western culture is shot through with a sense of it. It’s that unexamined but firmly held conviction that our choices as individuals matter, our moral motions are meaningful, and our sense of awe at the beauty of nature makes a love that blossoms into some form of mysticism the true hope for the future of humankind.
I do not mean to suggest that The Tree of Life is an exposition of existentialism, for it is not. Nor do I think we should try to parse every scene or shred of dialogue or moment of music to uncover what it means. Nor do I think we should think the biblical quotations and allusions transform it into a Christian (or even religious, narrowly defined) film. What I mean to argue is that The Tree of Life is likely the film that will be remembered from the early 21st century as a true cinematic masterpiece, a piece of art that explores the most ordinary details of life in light of the deepest questions we can possibly imagine. But in terms of answers, something is missing.
As I watched the film with four of my closest friends at a small theater in St Paul my heart ached for what is missing: atonement. Atonement is not a notion that’s well received in our postmodern world, associated as it is with bloody sacrifice and an angry God. Yet no forgiveness is possible without it. What is forgiveness if it is not accepting the pain you have inflicted on me instead of making certain you feel pain in return? An offense against you, whether great or small, instantly places me in your debt because the offense hurts you in some way. There is no way to speak meaningfully of forgiveness without also speaking of sacrifice in satisfaction of the debt. The only question that remains is who will pay and how much will be the cost. Atonement refers to the satisfaction provided when a debt is fully paid.
When the debt is greater the stakes increase. Consider this example: The media affords us occasional brief glimpses as tens of thousands—thousands!—of girls and women are brutalized as rape and mutilation are used as weapons of war in Africa. Assume for a moment that a god exists, but that as its omniscient vision pierces the forest canopy to the horror unfolding on blood-soaked ground this god is forever serene and so is unmoved. I don’t know about you, but to my mind this god is not sufficient for the world as it is, and not worthy of worship—though it has become the postmodern ideal. Now imagine a God that sees and is filled with righteous wrath, an anger birthed in love for that which has been so cruelly ripped apart, a wrath determined to redeem, even at the inexplicable cost of accepting the weight of atonement on himself. It is atonement—horrible yet necessary—that finds its fulfillment in the crucifixion of Christ. It is not nature or our finitude that is our problem, but a moral debt we have incurred. A debt that is human (it is human beings working their cruelty under the forest canopy) yet so immeasurably huge that only God can possibly pay it (no mere human could suffer enough to equal the total horror under the forest canopy). The solution is found in the choice of God to enter human history as a man, out of love alone, and then, in an hour of unimaginable darkness be cut off from the very source of love, and in that death absorb and fully pay the debt we could not begin to pay. Only then is the story of The Tree of Life complete. Only then do we find access to the tree of life.