More Belated Thoughts on Malick’s Tree of Life: Malick’s Glorious Hermeneutics of the Family versus von Trier’s Gnostic Inglourious Basterds

This will be the final post from me regarding Tree of Life. The last post, perhaps because of more pressing matters being discussed on the blog, didn’t seem to stir up much discussion and I doubt this one will either. In part I think it is because of the polemical nature of these belated thoughts and because theologians rarely come out of the woodwork to answer to those who cry violence against them. And that is where I’m going to start, the question of violence, and the way in Tree of Life violence is always repressed, always pushed just out of view through the underlying hermeneutic discussed in the last post. And I will also have to respond to one of the reviews of Tree of Life that annoyed me the most and that made it a difficult decision to even go see the film.

The review by one-time author at AUFS Joshua Davis read a dichotomy into Tree of Life, I think wrongly but not without some evidence, and that dichotomy was stated this way: irony or worship. For Davis, as for many theological readings of the film, Malick’s was a film of great theological beauty, witnessing to the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Apparently there were a few hidden cues in the film for those, literally, with ears to hear for liturgical music rings out throughout the cosmic scenes. And this dichotomy would be in some sense fine if it wasn’t a demand implicitly given to Davis’ fellow audience members who are fans of Lars von Trier, who I guess is the villain for Davis, and who are purveyors of a culture of something he calls “hepcats”. It’s funny though, I know the theatre Davis was talking about, it’s located in Chicago at Clark and Diversey. It is the theatre that tends to play smaller art house films, but it’s hardly the centre for hipsters in Chicago, and I fear says more about the author than the denizens of this non-neighbourhood. But the part that truly bothered me was this setting up of Lars von Trier as the filmmaker of irony, which is, when compared with worship, evil. Whereas Malick is the director of light, the director of worship and good. But doesn’t this just turn Malick into an art house version of Thomas Kinkade? A kind of worship that we can perform precisely because all that light blinds us to the evil in the world? Blinds us and misdirects our attention so that when one cries out violence, the response is “without love life merely flashes by”. Well, sure, but the point is that in the midst of violence time also slows down. In the midst of pain, in the grip of the violence of depression, of a depression even brought on through too much pathos for the other, time can feel to drag on. There is no flash. And so this is a false choice, perhaps borne out of a false question, as Bergson would say. Irony or worship? No thanks.

Now Davis is not the only one to have somehow brought Malick and von Trier together. On twitter Brad also mentioned feeling like Melancholia was implicitly in dialogue with Tree of Life and film theorist Steven Shaviro sees a connection between Tree of Life and von Trier’s latest Melancholia, though he goes in the opposite direction claiming that von Trier’s vision offers a better response to the nihilism of the contemporary socius. While I found Davis’ review insulting at a personal level (some of my closest friends are well dressed and interesting and some might call them hipsters) as well as at a theoretical level, I don’t think the answer is to pitch a theologico-philosophical war between filmmakers. Rather, following a more radically immanent method, one that refuses an exchange between the identity of the films, I want to suggest that something could come from simply talking about both. Why must there be a choice? They may not be exchangeable with one another, but the Real will always outstrip a single film, a single thought.

What strikes me between the two films is the stark differences between the presentations of the violence of nature and the hermeneutic machinery at work in each that clearly differentiates them. For Malick the interplay of nature and grace always means that nature will always come to be meaningful. Life, surely situated within nature even if the how of this situatedness is underdetermined, and life will will not simply pass us by if we love, if we make it meaningful. But for von Trier, at least in his last two films Antichrist and Melancholia, nature is evil. I want to say more about von Trier than I will allow myself to say here, but von Trier presents in Antichrist a throughly philosophical argument that far exceeds the usual philosophies of nature we get. For nature isn’t simply cold, for as She explains, people are part of nature, and as both men and women are part of nature they too are evil. There is a stark gnosticism here. One all the more interesting because it is a gnosticism delivered by speaking women, not the men who try to push away their depression, their anger, in addition to the usual silencing of women intellectually. In von Trier the violence of nature can’t be explained away through telling a story of the family, through a kind of essentialized sexual difference. For sexual difference of this kind doesn’t determine nature at all, it doesn’t give it meaning, but is itself subject to the violence of nature itself. And so the answer that von Trier gives us is not the Beast rising from Lake Michigan with the Antichrist astride her and then ironically waving off destruction as passé and last year, but rather something more akin to Islamio-gnostic submission. (Here I recognise I am in danger of reading into von Trier a philosophy that he probably doesn’t know about, but let’s call it a creative schiz rather than an overdetermination of von Trier’s films.) How do we survive in this badly made world? Through a dissimulation from our true selves. The selves that, as Justine does in Melancholia, throws on a fake smile to help smooth our way through a ritual we are subject to but do not understand, all the while the true cultivation of ourselves is only unveiled in the blue moonlight of our nakedness. Bathing in our melancholia, preparing for the end of this world, preparing for the end of evil. Though here I would have to say more about the absolute difference between the end of Antichrist and Melancholia. In each case something like the Angel comes, as the Angel must always do, but the form of that coming is in each case an expression of two very different affects.

So this is what I have to say ultimately about Tree of Life. In Malick’s vision there is something glorious in nature and that comes through the family, through the relationship of nature to grace, consummated in the creation of a child. It is a beautiful story, but that beauty only lasts as long as that story of the family finds a way to put up with pain, with the violence present underlying the family itself. The story is there to perpetuate the anthropological machine and as such it doesn’t really demand we worship God, it demands we worship a World where the possibility of grace always lets us get up when the Father pushes us down. It exists only through the deferral of a kind of gnosis present in von Trier. There all of us, even the most high born who form the casts of his last two films, each of us is nothing but an inglorious basterd. There is nothing ironic about that. Rather, at the very least, it tries to direct our attention in a new way. To violence and so perhaps to salvation, but always to struggle. And in this way von Trier is at least honest. For all the glory of the film, for the praise rightly directed towards it, I’m not sure I can say the same for Malick.

19 thoughts on “More Belated Thoughts on Malick’s Tree of Life: Malick’s Glorious Hermeneutics of the Family versus von Trier’s Gnostic Inglourious Basterds

  1. Whatever your perception may be of how these posts were received, I found them incredibly provocative and enjoyable. If you’ve more to say, then say it. If not, thanks for the time you spent on these.

  2. I’m not disappointed. I haven’t really been writing these as pieces with a readership in mind, meaning I have implicitly left some things unsaid that would help explain some of my points better and communicate more clearly. I mean I completely leave unsaid a relationship between Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and von Trier here, which I could have weaved into my post on Inglourious Basterds, but instead it’s just signalled for the one or two who might be “in the know”. For me these has been almost like therapy in public, working through some of the emotions I have regarding the film and the response to the film in ways that are more productive, if not communicable, than just bitching to Adam in a bar. But I am happy you found them interesting at least.

  3. FWIW, I loved this series of posts. This last one really confirmed, and intensified, that feeling. You manage to say more about both ToI and Melancholia in these last few paragraphs than anything I’ve read anywhere else.

  4. For the sake of clarity, despite the fact I’ve been pretty defensive of ToL here & abroad, I very much agree that Melancholia is the better movie. Or, if not the better movie, it represents an aesthetic philosophy that I can stand behind. As I said in the comments of your previous post, I believe, this is due to the fact that the world of ToL is not itself conducive to creativity. There I wrote:

    I think what makes the film so divisive is Malick’s sense of Acceptance. Not necessarily faith, per se. But a kind of “giving-in” that is not ultimately creative, as surprising as that might be given his apparent aesthetic. It seems to me that for Malick, creation, as it were, is finished/complete. Or, if it is not finished, it is outside us — located somewhere amidst all the untold processes much larger than us. We may affect things, yes, but never effect them in any significant sense. And, for Malick, this is good — if nothing we should accept, certainly something he has.

    What sets ToL in dialogue with Melancholia is their respective senses of completion. Where in the former, you have (in the final instance) acceptance, in the latter you have (in the lived immanence of now) resignation to has always been. I’ve gone on at length elsewhere about the relation of this kind of melancholic resignation with creativity, but for now I want simply to flag that it is precisely Justine’s resignation to (not simply realization of — this seems more what is going on in the first act) doom/dread that leads to the one creative act she is not capable (or willing) of earlier in the film. Perhaps best not to say a ton about it, but suffice it to say in my viewing her final act is a “pure” act of creativity, utterly pointless but without pretense.

  5. I think the most telling moment in the “magic cave” construction is when the kid isn’t adequately scraping the branches and she takes it from him to do it herself. If she’s going to make an empty gesture, she’s going to do it properly! And that’s because there’s no further horizon for her — she’s not comforting him with the magic cave because she can’t think of anything else, she’s doing it because there literally is nothing else. Her response to Charlotte Gainsberg’s request to have a glass of wine on the veranda is perfect in this regard: “Why don’t we stand around the toilet?” As Brad and I have discussed in chat, it’s not said in a bitter or mean-spirited way.

    A testimony to how great the movie is may be the fact that I enjoyed it even though it was literally physically painful for me to watch due to the shaky and out of focus camera work. (I’ve had problems with motion sickness in movies since an ill-fated attempt to see The Blair Witch Project.) With about twenty minutes left, I checked the time to see if I should just bail out before I needed to rush out to throw up — I’m glad I decided to stay.

  6. that is where I’m going to start, the question of violence, and the way in Tree of Life violence is always repressed, always pushed just out of view through the underlying hermeneutic discussed in the last post.

    From that last post:

    … the whole consummation of “grace” and “nature” in the movie is the problem I had with it. Clearly Malick associates grace with the feminine and nature with the masculine … he does indeed suggest that, as Aquinas said, grace perfects nature … what this means is that the family becomes not just the telos but the very site for all meaning. … Only within the family, where the masculine and feminine meet, can we find any reason to live.

    If Malick intended this movie for (something like) the advocacy of nuptial theology, then his intent would have been better served had he come up with a more polemical vehicle. If he actually thought that viewers would likely come away from this movie with some realization that “the family, where the masculine and feminine meet,” is the only context within which we can “find any reason to live”, then the greatness which is this movie far exceeds the meagerness of its creator.

    From here:

    the world of ToL is not itself conducive to creativity. … It seems to me that for Malick, creation, as it were, is finished/complete. Or, if it is not finished, it is outside us … We may affect things, yes, but never effect them in any significant sense.

    Again, if anything like this is (part of) Malick’s message, then, fortunately, the movie and what can be gleaned from it turn out to be far different and grander than what Malick intended — at least based upon my interpretation and upon my experience.

    The movie juxtaposes grace and nature in a way that well captures a familiar misconception which holds that nature opposes – or is incompatible with – grace. However, although grace often seems absent from nature, this is not because nature and grace are necessarily conflictive.

    The movie does not unabashedly posit “family” as the only way by which meaning (or a reason to live) is to be had in lives; the movie does not even seem to suggest the family as any sort of salve. Family is central to the movie, because the family is supposed to be – is so often presumed to be – that context in which grace (an unconditional love) is expected to be most often or most steadfastly manifest within the world, which is to say within nature.

    But, as it turns out, what the family context ends up showing is that unconditional love is most often mere background; what the family context shows is that there are countless opportunities for bringing forward new manifestations of this background unconditional love as earlier such manifestations (and even failures) recede into a reconstituted background; what the family context shows is that there is an ever-present risk with love, that love can and often does fail to make its latest (attempt at) manifestation apparent or constructively contributive to the beloved. What the complexities, conflicts, and difficulties of the even the most ordinary of family contexts show is that there is a ceaseless need for each individual to become ever more creative in bringing forth new manifestations of love.

    Where creativity is essential, creation is not complete. There is nothing insignificant in any act that makes grace more manifest or attempts to do so.

    The family is the primary setting for The Tree of Life, but the issue is grace, a love not confined to or excluded from any particular context.

  7. Unlike so many of those Christian commentators who prostrated themselves before this film like the fleeing Israelites prostrated themselves before the grandeur and beauty of the golden calf, I am fine thinking that the greatness of the film exceeded the talent of the director. That seems true of many pieces of great art.

    And yes, he makes a rather banal point about nature and grace, which is a point that nuptial theology is well known for. And actually I think it far cleverer, perhaps something approaching honesty, to present that nuptial theology in a vehicle that was not polemical. But to say that the male-female relationship, the heteronormative notion of the family, is just the setting ignores the whole tenor of the cosmic narrative that story is told within. The penis-fish and the vagina-fish speak to this underlying ideology.

    I do love how offended so many Christians have been that this film didn’t have me falling on the ground praising Jesus. It’s profoundly satisfying.

  8. I have no idea whether Malick intended to promulgate nuptial theology. Frankly, Malick’s intentions are irrelevant even if he does mean to promote theological “creepiness”. Those intentions are irrelevant insofar as they fail to preclude other interpretations of what the movie presents. The previous point about the relationship between nature and grace is not a matter of banality; it is a point in conflict with common misconceptions which themselves have no need of or reliance upon nuptial theology.

    I do love how offended so many Christians have been that this film didn’t have me falling on the ground praising Jesus. It’s profoundly satisfying.

    I do not know whether the above remark is intended as a response to my previous comment; if the above remark is in response to my comment, then maybe that comment is just being used as a foil. Maybe it is being alleged that I am one of those offended Christians. If that is the allegation, then very much material to such a possibility and worthy of consideration is the matter of why my interpretation makes so little mention of either God or Jesus.

  9. Why is building a magic cave better than standing around the toilet (or the equivalent, sitting on the veranda with some nice booze)? I think there is a sense that it *is* better, although the difference is minimal – the cosmos doesn’t care either way, but…(but what?)

  10. I’d also like to thank you for these posts. Malick and von Trier are two of my favorite directors and as an (apparently) tone-deaf atheist who adores Malick’s films but never suspected that they would be embraced from a religious pov, I appreciate any analysis of them individually and doubly appreciate your approach here. _Antichrist_ is still one of the few movies I’ve found that has captured the eery transition one might endure from suspicion and skepticism to pessimism and a sort of resigned gnostic depression. A bit out of left field, but I’m making my way through _Nihil Unbound_ and wondering what a cinematic equivalent/correlate (!) to Brassier’s embrace of nihilism might be.

    I should also thank you for bringing up _Melancholia_ at all, as I had (for some reason) thought it came out in April and that I had missed it. Now I know I can catch a showing at the Landmark later this week!

  11. I suppose my question re: Melancholia is: what’s special about whittling? Why – given the film’s premises – ought one to despise the “ceremony” of the film’s first half any more or less than the “primitive” act of constructing a magic cave? It seems to me that one can’t have it that life on earth is evil, and then save this last thing, this last gesture: surely the cancellation of all human projects and values represented by Melancholia is total, irrecuperable.

    Somewhere along the line I think LvT’s constructing a version of “resolute being-towards-death”, which invests certain acts with authenticity, with existential heroism. He assigns this authenticity to the pre-modern, the non-rational, the feminine, the earthly and so on: to that which is aligned with “evil”, and doesn’t try to separate itself from its own evil nature. The non-evil – rationality especially – is inauthentic because it obscures or dissimulates the primary evil of creation: a kind of “feminine intuition” of that evil is then posited as a source of gnostic illumination. All of this makes a certain sort of sense (albeit one I find a bit noxious), but it’s not really compatible with nihilism as such – nihilism is rationalist, not pessimist, and utterly removed from the sort of Heideggerian sentiment LvT resorts to when he needs to ward off the threat of real meaninglessness.

  12. I think we need to place the carving of the magic cave between the other alternatives on offer: either the sentimental glass of wine on the terrace with a song, etc., or the sarcastic suggestion of gathering around the toilet. It’s neither delusional in the way of the sentimental and false option (which wants to pretend the end of the world is a beautiful sunset), nor is it being determined negatively by the sentimental option (as though the most important thing in this moment is not to be a sentimental idiot like the sister). It honestly expresses the fear and desire for defense that the impending disaster endengers, it enables them to undertake some kind of task or gesture of preparation, and yet its meaninglessness and uselessness also expresses the hopelessness of the situation.

  13. Maybe your reading of the film is overdetermined by thinking it somehow represents a death match between Heidegger and Brassier. Von Trier is not a nihilist, as such or otherwise. I remember reading your tweet commentary on Antichrist and noting your reading of his portrayal of women there. I honestly don’t get it. I don’t think his characters are ever so one-dimensional to be binaries of rational/irrational and so on.

  14. There are characters who believe, more or less, that the world around them is rationally comprehensible (male characters: doctors, psychotherapists, astronomers); they always turn out to be wrong. There are characters who believe that their irrational intuitions, prophetic fantasies, mad and/or evil impulses place them in contact with the true reality of things. They usually turn out to be right. Chaos reigns…

  15. To put it another way, the universe in Antichrist and Melancholia (and, less explicitly, in Breaking the Waves) is the creation of a mad and evil god. LvT himself, as auteur of these filmic worlds, is the mad and evil god in question. The intuitions his female characters have about the true nature of their reality are equivalent to the horrible realisation that they’re characters in a Lars von Trier movie. His male characters never catch on…

  16. I don’t think that’s right. There is no kind of “rationalist” in Breaking the Waves for example. So he just doesn’t break down sexual difference in the stray man way you suggest. Now I think you’re basically just talking about Antichrist and Melancholia, so I’ll just point out how I think this doesn’t work there either. In Antichrist the issue with the male is a kind of erastz-rationalism. One that isn’t one. The problem He is that he thinks he gets it, not that getting it ins’t possible, but that he does so through a cold method where he demands that She become better. It’s a critique of the practice of psychiatry and the attempt to control a power greater than yourself that you don’t recognize as such. In Melancholia we also don’t get this anti-rationalism. First, the husband character played by Jack Bauer isn’t a real scientist. He’s an amateur astronomer and he’s putting his trust in people who he thinks know better. But there are people who have run different models who are saying that Melancholia will hit us. It’s the difference between how science is communicated and how people can sometimes choose what they want to believe, rather than saying it can only come through gnosis. And the women in his films are never all the same. In Melancholia we have three very different women! Only one of them has a gnostic intuition of the evilness of the world.

    Your second comment is funny and maybe it is true that he enjoys being the evil God himself. But I don’t think that reflects poorly on the films.

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