Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Using Malick's "The Tree of Life"

Several years ago, Roberta Morris (a wonderful scholar in religion and aesthetics) and I wrote an article about films that we saw at the 2001 Toronto Intl. Film Festival called "Does Film Have a Religion?" In preparation for the article and a television show we were "pitching" to a religion and culture network in Toronto, we viewed the films through a religious lens and we consciously chose films that we thought lent themselves to that perspectivist approach. Certainly Terence Malick's recent film The Tree of Life would have been one of those films.

The point of the article as well as the proposed tv series wasn't to belabor scholarly points on religion or on film, but to have an intelligent discussion from our different perspectives, hers as a scholar and writer on religion and film coming from a Christian background and mine as a writer/critic on Jewish theatre and the arts; and to put these views up and against each other, in opposition and opposing.

Yet our differences didn't limit our views. Rather it enhanced and deepened our thinking because we not only didn't judge each other - to the best of our ability - but we put ourselves in the shoes of the "other" to see what they saw and tried that on for size. We exercised a perspectivist approach that didn't close us off to each other and in that way the experience was quite refreshing and sacred.

So in that spirit I write about Malick's film.

I came to this movie with some positive expectations. What I had read about it seemed interesting to me, as it had religious ideas (and we can discuss what that means), it used the Book of Job as a textual referent, and it used film as a conscious aesthetic choice for this expression.

I was disappointed.

Mostly my disappointment came from a lack of questioning and complexity that permeated the film. The movie begins with a statement from the mother's voice, that we are brought into the world with two choices about how to live our lives. One choice is to live by grace and the other is to live by nature. She says "the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow." If we choose to live by grace then all things are accepted. If we live by nature then we are never satisfied. The mother goes on to say, "No one who loves the way of grace comes to a bad end."

Then the tension of nature vs. grace is filmically depicted. The mother and father have to deal with the death of their son who dies in war, presumably the Vietnam War since the scenes are in the 50s and 60s, though this isn't made explicit.

Questions that could be addressed are hinted at but also left untouched. Why is there death? Why is there suffering? Is this embedded in the creation of the universe? Is this the product of nature? Is this part of the struggle and the aggression needed in order to survive? Do our core mythical, religious, and Biblical stories teach us how to deal with these existential and also with psychological crises - like in the story of the Garden of Eden, the story of Cain and Abel, the stories of Oedipus wanting to kill his father and have sex with his mother, the sacrificial offering of Isaac that nearly results in death by his father Abraham, and the stories of the unconditional love of Mary for Jesus.

Clearly, as I have been reminded, Malick is using his own background and perspective, his Christian reading of core Western myths to deal with these questions. That is what drew me to go see the film because these questions also fascinate me and move me deeply. I also think film is unique in its ability to deeply deal with existential and mythic subjects. Film is incisional that way, cutting deeply into our mental processes.

The visuals in fact are of intercutting, snatches of the past both cosmic and human, depictions of creation and the primeval soup juxtaposed with the birth of a child and the make-up of the family; the rivalry of dinosaurs with the rivalry of brothers -- all are interesting yet they started to take on a comic tone for me that I don't think was intended. I wondered when Malick was going to take on the hard stuff. When was he going to really deal with the tension of grace and nature? And when was he going to deal with sin, as St. Augustine writes about and its relation to grace and nature?

This isn't my tradition, but the belief of sin and desires as "original" is central to why evil exists, in Western beliefs. Yet Malick leaves this and focusses on the family dynamic of rivalry between brothers, between father and older son, and between father, mother and son. Once again this points symbolically at the trinity. The mother is the forgiving one and the one who shows love. The father (the Old Testament God?) is judgmental to the point of punishing his children for no real reason except that he is the authority who can't show mercy. He even threatens his wife when she challenges the way he is treating his son. Yet eventually all is forgiven and they move on.

But they are faced with injustices, like the way blacks are treated at best as second class citizens in Texas. The movie hints at class and racial prejudice but does nothing to point out its societal evil. It shows people who are suffering from poverty, alcoholism, hunger and other cruelties in the world yet leaves them behind in the narrative and the only evil we see afflict the central characters, is that their son dies in war - an unnecessary war, but that also is never dealt with. Also the location is Waco, Texas the location of the Branch Davidians, who broke away from the Seventh Day Adventists in 1955 and lived an existence believing in an imminent apocalypse until they were disbanded by FBI agents in 1993. Yet this is never mentioned in all of the films time travels. Why?

The ending of the film is a mix of beings that I assume are the souls of all humanity at the edge of a vast ocean walking aimlessly on the beach, all dressed in white. Perhaps this is heaven or the rapture after the apocalypse, but this too is left unexplained.

I find that the film is so deeply caught up in a mythic, mostly Christian symbolism, that it misses the issues of evil, cruelty and suffering in the world and ultimately sees these issues as being soothed over by grace -- accept and all will be forgiven. Christian music dominates, underscoring this and many requiems are played to invoke the final reckoning and God's grace.

But where is the moral outrage when the defenseless are killed in holocausts? Where is the anger at the universe for sending a mad man into a school and shooting indiscriminately and the need for a system of justice that demands gun control? Where is the belief that racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, misogyny and hatred of the outsider are wrong? And finally where is a God that created a universe or at the very least a human race that can be so violent and perpetrate so much bloodshed for whatever reason - religious fanaticism, totalitarianism, etc. I know that Malick wants to deal with the existential subject of life and death but the horrors of the 20th century don't give him that luxury if he is invoking the entire universe and God.

Even though it was absurdist I felt that A Serious Man was able to go further, through a sense of the particularity of one man's life, his family, and the moral situation he had to deal with as his life was falling apart. The Coen's also invoke The Book of Job and show how this one man loses everything, just like Job. They show in their quirky way that he is righteous and through the vacuousness of his suburban lifestyle -- devoid of a real sense of the deeply authentic -- show that in his own way Larry Gopnick is a good man seeking what is right. Yet no matter what, he is a schlemiel, a man who is always dumped on through no fault of his own. He is the little guy who shows the absurdity of life and yet he struggles to make meaning, which is where the humor comes from. And when the stakes are raised and he loses his wife to another man, he is close to losing his job, he takes a bribe, he has to help his brother leave the country because the brother is being accused of sodomy and solicitation, his son who is about to have a bar mitzvah is so nervous that he resorts to smoking pot, and then Larry is diagnosed with cancer -- all these things and more lead us to the moment when, like Gopnick, we want to scream at the universe and say "Enough."

The specificity of Gopnik's life, put up against profound questions about the meaning of life, give us a way in to really question meaning. As opposed to the seriousness of the themes of grace and nature that Malick references, the Coen's humorously bring up the problem of accident vs. fate and come out on the side of not knowing the answer. Ironically to me, the ponderous Tree of Life, is less deep than the humorously absurd Serious Man.

I am also wondering why the title The Tree of Life. There is little reference to this in the film and I invite comments on this. In Judaism the Tree of Life is two things. It is the Torah, which are the Five Books of Moses -- the core stories and practices of the Jewish people. The Tree of Life is also a mystical concept that the entire universe is built on. It is too much to write about here, but simply put it shows how the mythical primordial Tree (which originated in the Garden of Eden) is the channel for the Divine Flow from which emanates the source of all energy that permeates everything. Yet there has been a separation, according to the mystics and the Divine sparks of creation are spread in shards throughout the universe for us to redeem through prayer and deeds that heal the world or Tikkun Olam. Is this in Malick's film?

In A Serious Man at the movie's end, the tornado heads towards Larry Gopnick's son and his Jewish school. It is like the whirlwind in the Book of Job where God speaks to Job and says to him "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the universe? Tell me if you have knowledge." (Job 38) But in A Serious Man we are left to wonder if that knowledge exists. This whirlwind can destroy a school and children. Is there really meaning or are our lives an accident or are they ultimately beyond our comprehension and we don't know the final answer?

It reminds me of the story about the man who was given a job to stand on top of a tower outside of a small Jewish village (shtetl) in Europe. He was a watchman. But he wasn't there to warn about marauders or enemies. He was there to tell the town if the Messiah was coming. The town was afraid they were so remote, that they needed someone who could see a great distance and he would let them know that redemption was at hand.

So the watchman in the tower waited, days, weeks, months and even years. But the Messiah never came. One day a figure came into view and the watchman looked to see who he was. The figure turned out to be a peddler. The peddler saw the man on the watchtower and came over. He called up to him.

"You" he said, "What are you doing?"

The watchman looked down from the tower. "I'm waiting for the Messiah. My job is to stay here and wait, no matter how long. And when the Messiah comes, I'm to tell the people in the town way down the road." He pointed over down the road.

The peddler looked and thought about that for a minute and then he turned to the watchman and said,

"That's a funny thing. What kind of job is that? I'm sure it doesn't pay you much."

"That's true," answered the watchman, "But it sure is steady work."

We don't know the answers, though it would be comforting to know. But we do know that there is injustice, that there is inequality, that the rich take advantage of those have less power, and that there can be horrible cruelty. I don't think The Tree of Life got into that kind of complexity.