Just saw “The Tree of Life” by Terrence Malick for the second time, & it seems right & fitting to devote some space to this film. On this page I’ll offer links to reviews & add some comments of my own. If you haven’t seen it, you should before it leaves the theaters. You may hate it, & think it a pretentious load of crap reflecting a director’s ego the size of the planet, as some reviewers have. You may fall over yourself trying to find enough words of praise, hailing Malick for his daring & vision. But chances are good you won’t simply file this one away with the latest romantic comedy or action-adventure flick.
“Did you like it?” someone asked me. That’s the wrong question for a film like this. Think of your response to “The Passion of the Christ.” Like/dislike, enjoy/not enjoy are the wrong words, the wrong categories, for that film. It’s kind of like Mass. “Did you enjoy Mass today?” How do answer that question? It seems absurd to say, “Yeah, it was fun. I had a good time.” Or the reverse: “No, it could have been a lot more enjoyable.” A different way of thinking is required, one which is appropriate to the nature of the thing we are considering. Whatever your reactions to “The Tree of Life,” I think it requires something more. Yes, I did “like ” it, very much. But what that means requires more than a few passing comments.
Here are some comments on the film. First up is a response of sorts to 2 reviews I didn’t much like, for reasons I spell out. Below that you’ll find some scattered thoughts on Malick & a few other things, followed by several links to online reviews.
The first link is to the review from James Bowman. One reason I like his reviews (usually) is because he can be surly & crotchety, required characteristics if one is to be a movie critic. Go here:
The other review cited in the following comments is from the First Things blog. Go here for the review:
My impression is that Bowman wrote his review quickly & impatiently, as if he were bothered by having to waste his time with another Malick film (cf. his earlier reviews of “The Thin Red Line” & “The New World,” which sound a lot like his review of “The Tree of Life”). I wonder if his dislike of Malick led him to take shortcuts. When discussing the nature/grace voiceover, for instance, he quotes not the film itself, but the trailer for the film. This is significant, for the trailer goes: “There are two ways through life, the way of nature & the way of grace.” In the film, however, it goes: “The nuns taught us there are two ways through life. . . .” Bowman’s flippant response (“Really? It’s always seemed to me that most people follow both at different times”) should have been unnecessary, as the film actually demonstrates this very point. “Father. Mother,” Jack notes at one point. “Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” Later Jack paraphrases St. Paul’s famous lines in Romans 7: “I can’t do what I want. That which I do I hate.” Seems that there is a recognition here of the tensions inherent in a life pursuing grace, something Bowman missed. This is an important miss, as well, given the family drama that resides at the heart of the film’s (loose) narrative.
Related to this is Bowman’s too-quick dismissal of the claim that “no one who lives by the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” “Absurd,” he declares. I’d agree, if this claim were actually meant to be taken literally as a blanket statement. It’s not, however, & on this point Bowman is not alone in missing something important about “The Tree of Life.” Kevin Collins in his review in the First Things blog badly misses many things, perhaps most importantly the nature of “Christian art.” For Collins this seems to mean something that explicitly evangelizes, or is at least openly Christological. He chastises Malick for not making a film that is openly & clearly Christian, as if such a thing requires rather clear catechesis of some sort. He goes as far to say that Malick gives us an impersonal god & new age spiritualism. C’mon; isn’t this a wearisome bit of nonsense, that Catholics especially should be able to avoid? For goodness’ sake, read Maritain or St. Thomas; read the essays & letters of Flannery O’Connor. To both Collins & Bowman, who have different concerns but make similar misjudgments, I think an appropriate question is: Does the quote from Job at the outset of the film, & the nature of so many of the voiceovers, not suggest that the Old Testament wisdom literature is the appropriate context for evaluating Malick’s film? This tradition contains many lines like the one Bowman claims is absurd. Consider Psalm 1. The 1st 3 verses say:
1 Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 2 but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. 3 He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.
“Whatever he does prospers.” Whatever he does. Really? How many just men have taken a beating like Job? Any how many have watched the wicked prosper? The wisdom tradition is filled with contrast statements like this. Taken by themselves, as absolute statements of what is always the case, I’ll join Bowman & say “Absurd.” But they’re not taken by themselves. The Psalms alone contain any number of statements to the effect that the wicked prosper& the just are trampled underfoot & come to a bad end. “Bad end” must be taken in a particular way, however. The Church reads Psalm 1 as Christological; Christ is the just man who prospers. He’s also nailed to a cross. The fuller context of the wisdom writings includes the Gospels. Yet this doesn’t mean that an artist can’t treat wisdom themes apart from the fullness of Christian truth. Art is not theology. Here’s Maureen Mullarky on this topic:
“Art is an instrument thoroughly of this world; it is not revelation and has no theology. It is poorly suited to the spiritual burdens laid upon it. Artists themselves are not up to the task of defining or divining the Kingdom. In his small gem of a book The Responsibility of the Artist, Maritain defines the artist as ‘a man using Art.’ He is bound, like any other artisan, to the perfection of the work of his hands: ‘Art by itself tends to the good of the work, not to the good of man. The first responsibility of the artist is toward his work.’”
In other words, the artist is free to look at life in any number of ways. In a film, even one as ambitious & far-ranging as “The Tree of Life,” it’s silly to demand a catechetical lesson or a fully-worked out theology intended to please the theologians among us. It would be like criticizing the film “Amadeus” because Salieri has a childish, quid pro quo view of God & no one criticizes & corrects his theology. The artist takes people as they are, & tries to do justice to what Joseph Conrad called “felt life.” And the felt life of this film is life in Waco, Texas, with an ordinary family going to church, saying prayers, taking sacraments. Collins is unimpressed by all this, & criticizes the wishy-washy religiosity that the Catechism of the Catholic Church would surely correct if given a chance. So much for felt life, for attending to things like context. The Christian artist will artfully weave into the story or film elements that are consistent with the faith of the Church, but these will not always rest on the work’s surface. And hopefully he will be able to trust his audience to pay attention to things like setting, locality, etc. Utinam sit, apparently. For more on this, cf. the Blog page & my entries on Flannery O’Connor.
Salieri is an appropriate reference here, as Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) seems to think like him. His understanding of God is close to that of Job’s advisers & Salieri. He expects life, & God, to work on his terms. When his plant closes & he loses his job, he complains: “I never missed a day of work. I tithed.” This is a central strand in the film, of course, whose drama is set in motion by the death of Jack’s brother at age 19. Bad things happen to good people, even those who do their job well, who pay their taxes, who follow the way of grace. There is, as Job discovered, no “answer” to this. Malick treats this with the highest respect, & dramatizes the whole sweep of creation in order to frame the story of the O’Brien family. In other words, death & tragedy are brought into dialogue with creation, & the viewer is thus forced to ask difficult questions about how we understand ourselves as mortal creatures who inhabit a world dangling in the heavens. This follows the pattern of the Old Testament, in a way; the creation narratives took their final shape, we’re told, only after the tragedy of the Babylonian Exile. The experience of death, then, leads to the contemplation of origins. It is neither absurd nor pretentious to use images, narrative, & music to dramatize this pattern. Nor is it subChristian or new age-y. More to come on some of the other reviews. . .
Here’s a little something more on Malick & some of the reviews, along with a brief consideration of “The Tree of Life” as a “Christian film”:
There’s little doubt that Terrence Malick loves the Grand Gesture. If it’s 4th & 12, he’s going for it; bottom of the 9th, no outs, down by a run with a man on 1st, he’s not looking to advance the runner. He’s swinging for the fences. Remember Kevin Costner’s character in “Tin Cup,” & what he does at the 18th hole every round? That’s Malick. And God bless him for it. When “The New World” washed over me the first time I saw it, I knew that here was a filmmaker who didn’t care what the cool kids were saying about him, or what kind of movies they wanted to see. He was thinking Big, & trying to adapt his chosen medium to his large ambitions. Andrei Tarkovsky, the legendary Russian director, knew this approach well, & articulated it perhaps better than any other recent artist. This from Sculpting in Time:
By means of art man takes over reality through a subjective experience. In science man’s knowledge of the world makes its way up an endless staircase & is successively replaced by new knowledge, with one discovery often enough being disproved by the next for the sake of a particular objective truth. An artistic discovery occurs each time as a new & unique image of the world, a hieroglyph of absolute truth. It appears as a revelation, as a momentary, passionate wish to grasp intuitively & at a stroke all the laws of this world—its beauty & ugliness, its compassion & cruelty, its infinity & its limitations. The artist expresses these things by creating the image, sui generisdetector of the absolute. Through the image is sustained an awareness of the infinite: the eternal within the finite, the spiritual within matter, the limitless given form.
Forgive me if I take this as the best review yet of “The Tree of Life,” but it seems to capture the heart of the film, & without the histrionics present in so many of the reviews I’ve read. Certainly there are few who make, review, or watch films today who speak like this, at least without a cynical sneer curling their lip. Some of those latter folks spilled their sneers onto paper, with predictable results: “Massive pretensions—hubris—playing God—disingenuous posturing.” I hope Malick gets a kick out of those reviews. Perhaps they sting, & perhaps the expository demon within him, one which is lurking in the breast of many a great artist, is roaring its outrage. But I like to think that he appreciates that many of these reviewers who squawk their incomprehension are too busy reviewing several others films to fulfill their professional obligations to think twice about his film. I also like to think that Malick is a fan of Pixar, & recalls with fondness the words of that archcritic Anton Ego after his confidence was shattered by a culinary revelation:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new; an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking, is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core.
Change food to film, & you’re on to something. Not that critics can’t dislike a film by Terrence Malick, or that they all produce bits of tedious sameness as they move from film to film. I don’t envy the critic, & am grateful I don’t have to write a formal review of “The Tree of Life.” Having read over a dozen reviews in the last few days, I’m deeply impressed with many of the insights from reviewers, even those with whom I disagree or not named Tarkovsky.
Yes, I recommend the film. Five stars, two thumbs up, big smiley face, road sign saying “See this film,” whatever device we use to indicate approval, I bestow that. I still need to see the film again a few times to figure some things out, which is a plus; how many films have you seen that you can say, “I’ve seen it twice, it rocked me each time, & I gotta see it again”? What remains fuzzy to me is the ending. Much of the discussion among reviewer concerns whether or not it “works.” Heck, I’m not even sure what’s going on, so I’ll prescind from evaluating its success. But I don’t think it is a vision of the afterlife, a glimpse of heaven. It does appear to be a scene of reconciliation. Maybe, maybe not. I’d also like to pay much closer attention to the score. This is, after all, a Malick film, & he understands as well as anyone how integral music is to the tale being told.
This last point deserves some mention, as a number of reviewers seem to think they’re evaluating an essay or, worse, a homily, & glide too easily past incidentals like the music score. Thus they read the film in terms of a spiritualistic, new age soup with a feel-goody god hiding out in the clouds above, leaving everybody down below to do as they will. Did they really not listen to the music? Did they not think that the choice of the “Agnus Dei” from Berlioz’s “Requiem” near the very end of the film was important? Agnus Dei, qui tollit peccata mundi. . .: what might those words mean, I wonder? Perhaps the film could have been paused & a clip of the director inserted, announcing that what we have in this piece is. . . . Oh, never mind. The point is, a film is not an editorial, essay, manifesto, catechism, etc. The tools required to watch attentively are different from those needed to read St. Thomas. Flannery O’Connor had a lot to say about this, & had the hard experience of people with wooden literary sensibilities blustering their way through reviews of her novels & stories. Here’s what she said:
“We hear a great deal about humility being required to lower oneself, but it requires an equal humility and a real love of the truth to raise oneself and by hard labor to acquire higher standards. And this is certainly the obligation of the Catholic. It is his obligation in all the disciplines of life but most particularly in those on which he presumes to pass judgment. Ignorance is excusable when it is borne like a cross, but when it is wielded like an ax, and with moral indignation, then it becomes something else indeed. We reflect the Church in everything we do, and those who can see clearly that our judgment is false in matters of art cannot be blamed for suspecting our judgment in matters of religion.”
Again, I have little quarrel with those who do not like “The Tree of Life.” But they should be able to articulate why they dislike it without criticizing it for not being the kind of film they think is needed. Criticize the film that’s there, not one that Malick should have made. As the playwright always says, if a Message is what you want, use Western Union.
Here’s where the issue of whether or not “The Tree of Life” is a “religious” or “Christian” film comes up. Somewhere I read that this was the most Christian film since “The Passion of the Christ.” Of course, others (see my comments on the review in the First Things blog by a Mr. Collins) go the other way, looking for the God Who Is Not There. My friend Rodney Howsare had an interesting take on the film after we saw it a few weeks ago, suggesting that it might be seen as a kind of answer to the new atheists. Not that it is an explicitly Christian film, or engages in any kind of apologetics that cries out “Ah ha! Got you there, Richard Dawkins; answer that, you Godless reductionist.” No, an impressionistic collage of images, words, & music appeals to us differently than even a more straightforward narrative film, so due caution is necessary when bringing up Christianity & atheism here. What Howsare meant was something broader, something like what Flannery O’Connor meant when she wrote:
“. . . if the writer believes that our life is & will remain essentially mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself.”
If a Christian film is one that leads us to a deeper recognition that our lives can only be understood properly in the context of the creation & sustaining of our world by the God celebrated in Berlioz’s “Requiem,” then, yes, this qualifies as a Christian film. When a film, or any work of art, is able to pierce the surface of our lives by its portrayal of our love, longing, & loss, & yields an experience of mystery which invites us to contemplate not only creation but he who takes away the sins of the world, what other kind of film can it be? The very structure of “The Tree of Life” says more than any of its characters, & while the many voiceovers are important clues as to how we should understand the film, we shouldn’t make the mistake of taking these in isolation from the rest of the film. To the new atheist dogma that we inhabit a planet intended by no one in a universe lacking meaning, “The Tree of Life” does counter with the best of knockdown punches by portraying the truth the Psalmist first uttered so long ago, & continues to proclaim among us:
O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted 2 by the mouth of babes and infants, thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established; 4 what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him? 5 Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor. 6 Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea. 9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!
The heavens indeed are telling of the glory of God, & we can see & hear that glory in the lives of one, rather ordinary family in 1950’s Waco, Texas, as well as across our own street & in our own home. He who has ears to hear. . . .
Here are some links to reviews I found interesting:
Steven Greydanus: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/sdg-reviews-the-tree-of-life/
Richard Schickel. A nearly perfect example of a guy who likes his movies on the small-ish side: http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/the_tree_of_life_terrence_malick_syndrome_strikes_again_20110529/
James Martin, S.J.: http://www.americamagazine.org/blog/entry.cfm?blog_id=2&entry_id=4282
Jeffrey Overstreet, Part 1: http://imagejournal.org/page/blog/the-tree-of-life-part-1-did-you-like-it
Jeffrey Overstreet, Part 2: http://imagejournal.org/page/blog/the-tree-of-life-part-2-a-storm-of-poetry
Great link! All the music tracks from the film, in order:http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/archives/music_list_all_37_songs_features_in_terrence_malicks_the_tree_of_life/#