Simple Certainty and “The Tree of Life”

I went to see “The Tree of Life” again the other night. I had seen it up in Duluth a few weeks ago and, as a lifelong movie fan, someone who has seen literally thousands of movies and by Oscar time every year has seen all the Best Picture nominees and most of the foreign films, I sat in the theater afterward, with lights up and the end credits rolling stunned at the richness and density of the intellectual and emotional experience of the previous two hours and fourteen minutes. It was an experience similar to only a handful of films in lo these many years.

By most of the standard definitions, “The Tree of Life” isn’t a “movie” as we commonly think of such things. It is wholly unconventional, despite the conventional-seeming characters at its core. It makes essentially no attempt at escapism for escapism sake, at least not in the sense that you pay your $10 to spend time in a dark theater in the company of beautiful people saying clever things while having amazing adventures, after which you depart remembering virtually nothing other than that you didn’t think of your knucklehead boss, the VISA bill, that rattle under the car or why your spouse was sulking around the day before. Yet “the Tree of Life” is a thing, a flowing object, of true beauty, perhaps for being so appreciative of the beauties of both the natural and human-fabricated world.

Offered as a sensory exploration of the purpose of existence/life, it is profoundly religious, as all great art is, with none of the simple certainties and superficial pieties that have sapped organized religions of their credibility in the minds of everyone who respects the relentless, dispassionate accumulation of science-driven knowledge in human life.

Suspecting the Duluth moment was an aberration, a felicitous convergence of extraneous factors in my life projected by me into a film aspiring to something more than parent company stock price-boosting boffo blockbuster box office receipts, I was stunned again watching it in vivid digital at the Showplace Icon theaters in St. Louis Park. “The movies” (like so much of our organized religions) are a chronically underachieving, self-debasing art form, rarely aspiring to more than making a buck by reiterating the stock platitudes of pulp drama and comedy. Evil exists. If you persist, good will win out. Even the most wretched among us, morally or economically, can emerge “victorious” in the end. We’ve seen it all thousands of times.

“The Tree of Life” is a decades long project, assembled bit by bit before actual production, with actors (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain) in Texas in 2008, by 68 year-old Terrence Malick, one of the very rare American film directors who has no interest in the Hollywood celebrity mill and a lot of interest in vast number of ways film can inspire imagination, reflection and continued fascination with the endless facets of life in the universe. And this from a movie whose “story” is nothing more unusual than that of a decent, loving, normal middle-class family in small town America in the late 1950s.

As the obsessive fan I describe above, Malick is well-established in my Pantheon of film artists. Up there with Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Luis Bunuel and Stanley Kubrick. A similarly vivid memory, from a hot day in 1974, was leaving the State Theater in downtown Minneapolis after seeing Malick’s film, “Badlands”, loosely based on the Starkweather-Fugate crime spree of the late ’50s. At a much more tender age than now, I was convinced I had seen something different, richer and better than almost anything else calling itself “a movie”.

Just one of the qualities of “The Tree of Life” that impressed me was Malick’s continued growth as an artist. Film “art” is so much about the sequencing of compositions. Compositions of imagery based on observation and imagination, underlaid with natural sound, the spoken word and overlaid with music. Using all the technology available to a 21st century filmmaker — Steadicams, Hubble Space Telescope photography, CGI animation, digital sound and projection — it is tremendously reassuring to see that Malick has continued his growth through the decades.

Like Kubrick, who he has cited as a significant influence on his work, in terms of both meticulous attention to craft and audacity of concept, (a key criteria of art), Malick finds intellectual renewal and revitalization in the complexities of life. A summa cum laude philosophy student at Harvard, a Rhodes scholar and a teacher of philosophy at MIT, Malick finds it in a scientific examination of the origins of perceptions and values and the exploration of his and the audiences’ layers of consciousness. Layers that may … may … lead at least to acceptance of powers (biological, atavistic) greater than us, in lieu of the more commercial, but invariably futile promise of simple, certain understanding.

Point being, and this is where all this folds back to the familiar context of this blog, simplicity and certainty is a fraud. A salable fraud, to be … certain, as we see in the worst excesses of organized religion and demagogic political rhetoric, but a fraud none the less. Worse, the assertion of simple certainties has a dulling effect on popular imagination, effectively slowing and shutting off the curiosity that sees beauty and challenge in complexity and ambiguity.

“The Tree of Life” suggests a constant wavering of balance between the state of nature, our aeons-old biological instincts, and the state of grace, our recently acquired consciousness, capable of recognizing and responding to both beauty and death.

At a moment when vital footings of culture — government and finance — are on the verge of stagnation, largely because of a fear of the ever accelerating expansion of complexity in a world of unprecedented new knowledge and interconnectivity, the appeal and propagation of simple certainties seems very much like the dinosaur we see in one sequence of “The Tree of Life”. It comes upon a fellow member of the species injured, perhaps dying, in a shallow stream. Through it’s testing gestures it seems capable of the faintest spark of empathy, but it simply isn’t at the point of evolution, in the growth of the tree of life, to do anything other than observe another creature’s misfortune and go on about its predatory hunting.

Grace — the application of art on nature — is still millions of years in the future.

8 thoughts on “Simple Certainty and “The Tree of Life”

  1. Wow, a great take not only on a wonderful and sublime movie but on the state of “art” and politics and religiion, Brian. I saw it opening weekend and droves of people in the packed theater, who I guess were expecting a Brad Pitt “summer blockbuster” (as the movie was and is promoted and strange. that it is, since it’s not the usual feel-good popcorn summer blockbuster) walked out. (Actually, some of it was hard to sit through and I can understand the walkouts.) Other clergy friends who loved it tell me they saw people walking out too. It’s one of the two great films I’ve seen this year, the other being “Of Gods and Men,” which I recommend even to non-believers and which, amazingly, got great reviews in the secular press. I love it all the more because it’s so affirming of what Christianity is all about, or supposed to be, and a reminder that not all Christians are of the sort who see Rick Perry as the Messiah or think of all Catholic priests as pedophiles or suspect that Protestant ministers are out to pick pockets out of self interest. Both aforementioned films are works of sublime art and beauty and, from my vantage point as clergy, of course, powerful affirmations of God’s grace at work in a violent and broken world comprising broken people in need of God’s love, grace and tender mercies.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Reading Brian’s beautiful essay about Terrance Mallick and the intellect that informs his work I was reminded of a photography professor named Jerome Leibling who passed away not long ago. Renowned for his work as a social documentarian, Liebling was equally vital as a teacher. His comments following were not only profound to an aspiring artist but have a much wider implication as they may apply today to our civic life.

      In a 2006 interview with The Times, Mr. Liebling said his teaching life was much less about showing how to make pictures than about imparting to his students a deep suspicion of dogma and of the compromises that can lie beneath the surface of American culture. “I wanted them to see that there are no shortcuts,” he said. “It’s too easy if everything is soft, and you can just buy your way and live well. I kept asking: ‘Where is your work coming from? Why are you doing it? What is it you see?’ And after a while they started to really look.”

  2. Jim Leinfelder says:

    From the vaguely laudatory reviews I’ve read, I’m thinking a Buddhist would find this film less compelling that do folks who came up informed by a Judeo-Christian world view.

  3. You may be right, Jim, but I’m inclined to disagree. I’ve been in dialogue with enough Buddhists and people of the other major faith traditions to believe that anybody who likes serious art that raises serious questions about life and death and suffering and the search for meaning in it all would find The Tree of Life immensely compelling. Malick’s movies are always chock full of theology as well as philosophy, and it’s very obvious to me that he not only knows the Bible and the works of the great mystics and contemplative saints, but a lot of other Holy books and the thought of other enduring faith traditions, Eastern & Western both, as well. And more important, he actually gets it all–gets that at the end of the day it’s all a baffling mystery, but a magnificent mystery, which makes is to Holy and sacred and enduring. It was obvious from Mel Gibson’s “Passion” hack job and pornographic blood fest that he doesn’t get the God and faith thing at all, but we all know (forgive me Lord for saying this) what a hack job of a moral being Mel Gibson is in his twisted heart. Malick is, in his own right, a great theologian/philosopher as well as a genius of a filmmaker. And thanks again to Brian for honoring such a great film and spiritual filmmaker with such a spiritually mature review.

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