34 thoughts on “Yet another post on The Tree of Life

  1. Adam, your previous post focuses on masculinity’s sin and the sin of masculinity, and the discussion was turning to theological issues. I wanted to pick up on both themes and I’m glad to see you’ve started this new thread. Here’s my thought: God is silent throughout the film, addressed by the characters (as in Job) but silent. There’s a lot of implicit response along the lines of, “Where were you when I created the universe? How dare you call my justice into question?”, in all that cosmic stuff. There’s no whirlwind, though. There is, however, a decidedly Christian response coming from a decidedly Catholic God. Before I explain that crack in more detail, let me just suggest that this movie plays like a Christian answer to the decidedly Jewish remake of Job by the Coen brothers, A Serious Man (obviously not made with Malick in mind, nor did Malick likely have the Coen brothers in mind, since he started plans for his movie back in the 1970s). What’s Christian (Catholic) about this movie? The voice of God is at least ventriloquised by the Mother when she says (her last words, I believe) “I give you my son”. Her hands are raised up to heaven in a gesture of offering. So this is Mary, Mother of God, offering her Son (recall all the Son-flowers at the end) to the Father. Her act of Grace brings the sacrificial death of the Son by the Father (“You want to kill me” “You want me dead”) to its redemptive conclusion. The Father is reconciled to the Son through the Love of Mother.

    Lest people think that I am somehow unsympathetic to this theme, let me say that I loved it in the great novel by James Agee, A Death in the Family, also a profoundly Catholic (Anglican Catholic) work of art. And I love Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men which does the cosmic stuff way better, and offers us a vision of lives sacrificed on the altar of capitalist greed in the form of a Mass (he divides his narrative into Introit, etc.). Malick is trying to be our new Agee (read the opening of Death in the Family for one of the most beautiful evocations of the edenic life of the child in the summertime), but he fails, in my opinion. Not because the Christian answer to Job (the beyond-justice grace of the gift of God’s son) is less appealing than the literal whirlwind that closes A Serious Man with a thundering and stunning question mark. But because, I think, he has gone to the other extreme from Mel Gibson: it’s sentimental kitsch. He has just barely managed to make the Mother of God into a living, breathing human; mostly, she is just a shimmering apparition. The beauty takes the sting out of death (again, I am not encouraging the Mel Gibsons out there). I know that’s the point of the death of the Son, but there is a real danger of aestheticizing death when the beauty overwhelms the pain. Also, the Mother of God in this movie is about as close as you’ll ever get to a Virgin with three children.

  2. BTW, the Tree of Life is, of course, in Christian symbology identified as the Cross; a quick Wickipedia search even references a legend that the Cross was made from the Tree of Life.

  3. I admit that I’m very resistant to the reading of the film as sentimental kitsch. But perhaps only because it has become the standard negative reaction for those who dislike the film for reasons other than it being slow, boring, etc. It could be that this is the more appropriate reading of the film; but it is also the decidedly least interesting. Whether it needs to be read in an interesting way, I suppose, is a different matter, but is one that I think the film gives us material to devise.

  4. Ok, forget about calling the movie sentimental kitsch. The stakes that Malick are playing for are pretty high: Is this a successful restaging of the drama of the sacrificial death of the Son of God? Does it work? Not for me. Maybe I am not sure why not yet.

  5. It’s interesting to me, Bruce, that you also pick up on the Paschal lamb aspect. (It was nothing I even considered when watching the film.) I shared a review last week or so that sent Anthony into a destructive paroxysm that I think he only now is coming down from. I shudder to share it again, lest he detonate the button that will destroy the internet, but I’m feeling adventurous

  6. I must admit that I didn’t get the Christological aspect at all when watching it, though it makes perfect sense once you (Bruce, though not the linked review) point it out.

  7. I wasn’t going to bring it up… and as I haven’t seen the film yet I can’t really comment, but if the film is (as Joshua suggests) a forced choice between “irony or worship” then I can’t help but think it is sentimental kitsch. It’s what keeps me from looking forward to seeing it. Though I should say that Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was, as Bruce says, sentimental kitsch, but it also was the most interesting historical Jesus story film made so far (other films, like Jesus of Montreal, are interesting Jesus story films, combined with a Christ story film, but it isn’t ‘historical’). So… kitsch doesn’t mean “bad film” necessarily.

  8. I actually rather stand by the non-Christological reading developed in the comments of the first ToL post, quite frankly. Where the Christological reading inevitably and eventually shuts down conversation, whether it be because of our choice of “irony or worship,” the one we started teasing out there not only invites but requires it. Arguably, ours was an exercise in turning kitsch into art, but I’m not inclined always to see that as a bad thing.

  9. Re: the Christological reading. I’m going to push against it a bit, if not outright reject it. I would argue that the dead child is not given to the Father. The child is given over to death, to nature, etc. — not to a divine Father. Moreover, if memory serves, the child who says the Father (Pitt) wants him dead is the one who lives, not the one who dies. If there is a divine Mother, she is a chastened one whose status as “divine” is such that she has to submit to nature.

  10. I agree with Brad. Even if the Christological symbolism, etc., is there, it still seems to me that Malick is mutating it significantly in turning it in a naturalistic direction.

  11. I just read the blog post that Brad gave us the link for. That adulatory worshipping of the movie is the response that I was afraid I would have when I told my wife that I would rather see it alone. I knew that if she were there, she would puncture my worship before the sublimity of movie. (I was one of the guys Adam’s first post mentioned). I am absolutely persuaded that the Christological reading offered by the blog post is right (he points to the final words of the Mother just as I do), and I think that the title of movie, together with its explicit invocation of Job (to say nohing of the agnus dei at the end) clinches the Chrisotlogical readings. I think the blog post doesn’t appreciate the Mariological dimension, though. Anyway, if the Christological interpretation shuts down conversation, it’s not the interpretation’s fault, it’s the movie’s fault for leaving the viewer with no other choice. The movie hits us over the head with Mariology. This is a pretty damn pretentious movie. Why didn’t I exit the movie in a state of ecstasy? (And as I have said, being Jewish is no obstacle to my being vulnerable to a good Mariological sucker punch.) What went wrong? I want to say: he stripped the story down too far, he left the Tree of Life loom too large. I mean, why not give us the scene of the death? Why not let us see more than 30 seconds of grief (have people seen the really wonderful, in my opinion, remake of The Killing on AMC–now there was some grief)? Why not let us see the brother as an adult with his aged parents? For God’s sake, if the gospels had stripped its narrative down to this bare level they would have never made gotten much of a purchase on our imagination.

  12. Adam, this may be naturalism, but I would rather call it Natural Supernaturalism, to borrow a phrase from Carlyle, I think.

  13. Bruce, It’s fair to say that “naturalism” is an overly simplistic label — I’m mainly using it to cut against religious interpretations. And I don’t think it’s possible to deny that those Christological and Mariological elements are there in the movie. Once pointed out, they’re pretty clear. I’m just not convinced that they’re being mobilized toward recognizably “Catholic” ends.

    (Admittedly, I didn’t leave in ecstacy either — like almost everyone, I found the whole beach scene really annoying at best. Perhaps that was my unconscious mind saying, “Oh shit, this is just the same old Christological story we’ve heard a million times,” and so perhaps the attempt to push it in another direction is an attempt to redeem the unredeemable.)

  14. For God’s sake, if the gospels had stripped its narrative down to this bare level they would have never made gotten much of a purchase on our imagination. — Which itself may also speak volumes to the fact that Malick is not necessarily a strict, bog-standard Christological reckoning of things, unless you are already bound & convinced that it is pretentious failure.

  15. @Brad: I am pretty sure the child who says the Father wants to kill him is the one who dies. The Mother lifts up her hands in a gesture of offering when she says “I give you my son.” She’s been talking to God all along, and not to Nature. She doesn’t need chastening since she is sinless as Mother of God. When she strikes out against the Father it is to defend the younger son, her “natural son”, not the first born Son. It is a moment of anger that comes from Nature rather than Grace. Nothing about her makes psychological sense, or is motivated as explicable psychologically, since she is the Mother of God.

  16. Wait! So you’re saying that Sean Penn is identified with the younger son? I understood him to be the older son, whose brother’s death leads him to reflect on how his struggle to become a man led him to mistreat him, etc. Part of the evidence in favor of my view is that the younger son is blond, whereas Sean Penn is not.

  17. @Brad: I am not convinced the movie is a pretentious failure. I am convinced it is pretentious, but that is not inherently bad. I am convinced that if the movie is a success, it must be demonstrated to be such not despite its Christological/Mariological imagery (and its overt attempt to answer Job), but because of these things. Perhaps it is a great collection of beautiful images, but its status as a great movie, which it wants to be, must rest on whether it has achieved its ambitions in the realm of narrativizing the drama of Christ. As a narrative of a family’s attempt to cope with the death of child, it is a failure. A comparison with any number of such movies should make that clear.

  18. According to the credits “young Jack” (who later becomes Penn’s character) is the eldest son, and it is he, I’m pretty sure, who said that the father wished him dead.

  19. Wow, this is a really embarassing thing. I certainly did think that the older child is the one who dies. He’s the one who had the chance to turn the music for his father as he played the piano, the one regret the father mentions. He’s the one who is picked on by the father, and therefore it’s more emotionally compelling to have him be the one killed. Sean Penn doesn’t seem like he’s very troubled by his meanness to his younger brother, or I didn’t see that, but he does seem like that loving younger brother who so completely trusts the older one. Wow, is this not a reason to question the storytelling in the movie?

  20. Honestly, it may be even more ambitious than you say, Bruce — it’s trying to create a better answer to Job than Christ, or at least a more modern one. And I don’t think either of us is trying to explain away or minimize the Christological imagery and themes. We’re trying to make a case for the way he’s using them.

  21. I confessed earlier that I was ready to be blown away by one of the greatest films of all time, so maybe I was disappointed because my expectations were so high. I am completely open to being persuaded that as a “more modern” answer to Job than Christ this is a great movie. I am ready to worship.

  22. It seems to me that there’s a sense in which his answer isn’t that much different from the Coen Bros. — the message of A Serious Man seems to be, “Stop asking stupid questions.” The affect of the two movies could not be more different, though, and I wonder how one can make sense of that.

    After processing somewhat, I began to think of “I give you my son” as weirdly equivalent to the last line of the song from Magnolia: “So just… give up.” It’s a fait accompli — the son is gone. There’s nothing to give and no one to give it to. So endorse it joyfully! Right? (Maybe I shouldn’t have watched it while I’m working back through Phenomenology of Spirit.)

  23. Bruce, we are clearly at fundamental odds at what the film’s stakes are. I will grant the religious / Christological imagery, but I see it as directed at something very different than “narrativing the drama of Christ.” At the end of the day, I’m not convinced that either the title or the Job reference, etc. are a slam dunk argument. Many an artist, be they bad, mediocre or great, have appealed to all manner of Christian and Biblical forms and citations, and many an interpreter has discovered in their work as much heresy as they have piety. I’m of the mind that for a work of art to be great it “merely” has to have the capacity to incite and support a complex unfolding of (sometimes contradictory) interpretation. I do not think greatness resides in the immediacy of its ambitions.

    For my part, I see the film as dramatizing the breakdown of the duality between grace & nature, in such a way that in it being subordinate to the way of nature, the way of grace is blazed. The choice between the two, which is stated axiomatically at the beginning of the film is by the end, if not rejected, is problematized in a mighty way. The choice as such, i.e. one way or the other, bub, ultimately doesn’t exist: which, per Adam’s post here re: Augustine, might be the ultimate confession. (I would submit this problematizing of bliss, or at least its most simplistic iterations, runs throughout most of Malick’s oeuvre.)

    Also, to get this off my chest: everybody goes on and on about the beach qua resurrection scene. I will admit that I might just be extraordinarily dense, but I took that in a supremely naturalistic way. Just as the organisms came from the sea, so the organisms return. The sea being, I suppose, a mystical amalgamation of nature & divine, if you wish, but even then not necessarily. Regardless, if that is a resurrection, it surely is one very different from that envisioned in all manner of Christianity.

  24. I love Magnolia. But the death of child is not something that lends itself to the “nothing to give and no one to give it to” philosophy. Think of the wonderful movie In the Bedroom or, more recently, that AMC series The Killing I mentioned. And wouldn’t it kind of undermine whatever appeal Christianity, even in some atheistical death of God version, might have? I mean, why get all worked up about the death of God on the Cross if there is no one on the Cross and no one to die for? I am sorry for being a bit over the top here, but I do think that Malick wants very much to tap into the pathos of the death of the child and link that up with some sort of Christological answer to Job (it’s not Nature–Old Testament–it’s Grace–New Testament). Maybe one problem is that when the world is shattered by the death of the child it’s not fixable, and no amount of strange and wonderful beauty (frogs coming from the sky) will heal it. If Job didn’t get his children back at the end, the book could never have persuaded anybody that God’s justice was anything other than sadism. It’s one thing to say “my ways are not your ways” and another to say “I will kill your children and that just my way–take it or leave it.” That is really how A Serious Man ends, a bleak accusation against God. But Malick wants something redemptive. He better have a good story (THE good story) to make the death of a child redemptive. My only worry is whether it works.

  25. @Brad: I am not sure how the nature/grace dichotomy is problematized at the end of the movie, mightily or otherwise. In the way it’s framed, Nature is Fallen Nature (selfishness, etc) and Grace is Love without expectation of return. Why is this problematized? The Father is perhaps torn between the two sides (call them Wrath and Love), and finally transcends Wrath (as a response to his failures as an artist–like God who couldn’t pull off the symphony he planned) through Love (via the Mother and, if the guitar-playing son is the one who died, the Son who fulfills his divine Music). Even though Malick is ABD in Philosophy with a planned dissertation on the concept of World in Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein, I wouldn’t think that he’s sympathetic with an immanentist ontology that would collapse Grace and Nature.

  26. The problematizing is less one of ontology, and more a matter of one’s positioning w/ regard to nature/grace — i.e., “the way of”-language. This is what I find problematized by the end of this film, as well as a good many of his other films: that the ways are not necessarily distinct even if the intended “destinations” are (though this latter point I think this is not something that is necessarily settled). To take an example that probably makes more people cringe than even the beach scene: this is how I understood the dinosaur that doesn’t kill the other (presumably wounded, but perhaps just inferior) one, which would be the simplistic expectation of Nature. It’s not that suddenly the dinosaur is filled with or consciously chooses the way of Grace, but that something like Grace occurs within Nature — which is admittedly perhaps a New-Age hokey way to express something that could be explained in a wholly naturalistic way, but such it is w/ Malick. As it is, he is not prioritizing one way over or at fundamental odds with the other, but rather situating them in direct relation to one another. Whether it is Grace that creates Nature, and thus has a kind of primordial preeminence, is a question that ultimately is held in abeyance in Malick’s films (even when we “see” the act of creation cinematically); the same with the question whether Nature & Grace should be collapsed together ontologically. Per the Job quote, we only know God and the idea of something transcending nature by way of the “foundations” of and in Nature. As it is with God, so it is with Grace.

  27. Ha! The Confessions was the second or third thing that occurred to me after leaving the theater, though during the film I was spontaneously reminded of “the pear incident” when the young Jack O’Brien smashes the window.

  28. @Brad: I like your account of the dinosaur mercy (no vae victis mentality here). Maybe humans have fallen away from the “natural grace” or the “graced nature” that is more primordial. I like that. I am still not entirely persuaded that Malick has gotten this across (if you need a scene with a dinosaur to make your point, this is a problem), but I do see that perhaps this is what he’s after.

  29. (if you need a scene with a dinosaur to make your point, this is a problem) — This made me laugh. If you have time, check out the conversation about the movie that I shared on the sidebar (here). I don’t normally like the give-and-take format on blogs, but these two did it very well while talking about the film.

  30. Fascinating discussion, here and in your previous posts. It’s a movie that begs for conversation, and is certainly worth the conversation it gets… — I posted a short reaction at my blog, but for what it’s worth in terms of the comments here, I didn’t pick up a christological reading aspect of the film at all; it felt very “Old Testament” to me actually in terms of its questions, images, impact. Genesis and Wisdom Literature. — I need to see it again…

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