I saw Tree of Life back when I still lived in Nottingham. It was, in fact, the last movie I watched at Broadway Cinema, by far my favorite cinema in the world. I went knowing too much about the film already because of all the attention it had received, not just by the usual film critics I read but also by the theological blogosphere as well. And so I put off going to see the film in part because so many Christians had prostrated themselves in acts of piety that were only outdone in terms of awkward intersubjective embarrassment by their attempts to squeeze the movie into some pre-fabricated theological fan-fiction they feel they must repeat ad nauseum lest they fall into unbelief. Because of this I found that working up the energy to go see the film was harder than any other film I’ve gone to see.
In order to go I had to, and I’m not kidding, perform phenomenological exercises. I went under the epoche, bracketing what had become my natural attitude regarding the film. A natural attitude I can accurately describe as pure contempt (I love the French word for contempt, méprise, which I think actually, for those who can catch my citation here, bears on Tree of Life). So I went and I watched the film. I think I can even say that I watched it “so hard”. But I found after watching it that I couldn’t yet say anything about it. That would require more routing out of this natural attitude and coming to terms with what any actual critique could be beyond my contempt for the Christian theologians who had conspired – yes, it was a conspiracy! – to ruin this film for me. I think, after nearly three months of waiting I finally can express my thoughts on this film. I’m going to present this as a series of posts, which, for those who may be offended by some of my clearly polemical statements, is a witness to the seriousness with which I am giving this film. Some of these posts may deal more with the Christian theological reading of the film than the film itself, but those will be in part a defence of the movie against Christian theological overdetermination. For those who haven’t seen the film there is clearly going to be spoilers.
For this post I want to focus on the film itself. A reflection on the film that brackets out the rest of the world and thinks only the immanence of the film (though one that is still immanent to the films it cites). And, with that bracketing in place, I could see that this was a truly great film. A film made by a great director. Wherein lies that greatness though? It certainly isn’t in the talents of the actors he marshals. It isn’t in the preoccupation with ponderous shots of trees. It certainly isn’t in the dinosaurs, or at least not in any obvious Hollywood sense. No, the greatness lies in the way he tells us a story we already know without ever telling us the story. The film is ostensibly about a family and it posits a kind of originary dualism at the heart of this family, of every family, for this is but the archetype for the American family which is of course the archetype for every family. This dualism isn’t new to cinema, even if it is presented in an archaic theological way. In the film it is either the way of nature or the way of grace, but that is simply the way of the father (discipline, work, merit – none of which is particularly natural in any obvious sense) or the way of the mother (play, fondness, warmth – which isn’t particularly unnatural). We know this story. From the get go, we know this story. It’s the story of our first alienation at the hands of our father. Of the warmth we feel for our mother who always stood between us and our fathers. We know this story even though it isn’t even true for many of us! Because of course mothers are not always saints and fathers are not always devils, and often they are together one or the other. But we still know this story.
We see the life of a family, then, navigating its own self-identity and its own reproduction (reproduction perhaps being the real site of this story, more so than grace or nature). We see that one of the children – who knows which and really it doesn’t matter because we know this story – has been clearly damaged by this conflict between nature/grace or father/mother. We know too that the family has experienced loss as one of the children is killed in Vietnam (though is this the way of nature or grace?). Again, we know this story.
And because we know this story Malick sees no reason that he has to spell it out for us. We’ve seen this in a thousand different films. And so the greatness of the film consists in part becasue Malick can strip that story to a series of affective shots. Because we can assume the story, a real assumption of the story rather than a filling in of the blanks which is more common in film anyway, but because we can assume the story we’re free to see the story in a new way. We see the immanence of family life. The slam of a screen door takes on a new dimension, a more naturalist dimension (naturalist in the sense of naturalist art, not scientific naturalism). We can experience the nostalgia of a street filled with children differently when we don’t know or care about their names or their personalities, only seeing their personhood as stupid, playful boys. The first experience of lust is expressed, perhaps naively, but still more directly in the excitement stirred by nothing more than women’s underwear. What in our adulthood we know is nothing, at least when it is off the woman.
All these elements can be called the non-didactic elements of the film. I’m borrowing this term from Badiou’s philosophy of film, though I suspect it isn’t native or particular to him, but it is a more accurate term, I think, for Malick’s film than the naturalism I used above. Its meaning is simple. Many films, perhaps even most of them, try to teach something. They have some moral purpose, even when it is a seemingly anti-moral purpose, there still teach something. They are trying to say something directly, or as directly as one can through a film, and this directness is what gives films their didactic character. A non-didactic film presents the truth of something directly, rather than the moral or anti-moral lesson. If it has a moral/anti-moral lesson this is always presented indirectly. An example of this kind of film would be Gomorrah or perhaps, in a more popular vein, Traffic. Clearly in the realm of television the best example is The Wire. And Malick’s film, in so far as its greatness lies in part in its non-presentation of a story we all know in order to speak the truth of such a story, is clearly non-didactic in this way.
But there is a fundamental tension underlying this non-didactic element and it has to do with those dinosaurs. For he doesn’t just use present a story we all know through the absence of the usual techniques, but he also places that story within a cosmic framework. In the midst of this story – remember its a story we all know and so a very banal story of the family – Malick suddenly jumps to the creation of the universe. Is it a theistic creation? Well, without breaking our epoche completely, I think the answer must be no even though so many Christians prostrate themselves before the film. It’s the Big Bang. It’s the evolution of things. There are clear religious overtones to it (even if we don’t know the name of the choral music playing over these scenes, we still experience it as choral music), but it accords perfectly well with Darwin’s final words in The Origin of Species where he talks about evolution witnessing to the grandeur of life and hints that this actually suggests a God that respects his creation, creating only law that guide it in its own self-development. But nonetheless there is still something didactic going on in placing this family within the story of the cosmos. Something that witnesses to a fundamental piety, the same piety that these Christian theologians latch upon to steady them as they prostrate themselves before the film. This piety is towards a kind of nostalgia. A kind of feeling that the family is at the origin of the life. Perhaps not the universe, but certainly of life. And it is this, all too direct communication, that undermines the non-didactic element of the film.
In my next post I’m going to look more at this element, exploring the nefarious influence of nuptial theology upon the film.