Abstract. With his movie, The Tree of Life,Terrence Malick escapes the confines of mere rationalism and the poverty of meager empiricism to remind of the enchantment that is always with and within the ordinariness of reality. Malick locates this enchantment in – or identifies it with – grace. It is not a grace which is distantly transcendent; it is not wholly other than or apart from physical reality. No matter how often it is unseen, it is not even a grace that hides; rather, it is an infusing grace. Precisely because this grace is not remote, Malick eschews the gross symbolism which too often leaves an excessive sense of distance and otherness, and, instead, Malick resorts – not to the indirectness of narrative, but – mostly to the naked juxtaposition of the very sorts of scenes which would often – too often – be ignored as being commonplace. As a result, just as the banal can be a root of evil, the commonplace often contains that grace which waits to be made ever more intensely manifest within our selves and, then, our world.
This past Saturday night I trekked the sixty or seventy miles into town to see Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life. I went without having read any reviews of the movie, and the only description I had seen was the synopsis which appeared when I went to check out the show times. That brief description read in part:
The Tree of Life is an impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick’s signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.
Aside from the fact that the family actually lives in Texas rather than the Midwest, the synopsis cannot really be said to be flat out wrong; it is just that the description does not come anywhere close to capturing the essence, the spirit of – frankly, the experience which is - this movie.
Of course, an experience is wholly subjective, and anything which is strongly subjective may well be a singular experience. One thing that led me immediately to consider the possibility – maybe the strong possibility – that my experience might not be widely – if at all - shared occurred right in the theater as soon as the movie ended. As the final credits rolled, I overheard the reactions of three gentleman sitting directly in front of me. One of them said, “I don’t know. That went right over my head.” Another wondered aloud whether they should ask their parish priest to see the movie so that he could tell them “what it was about.”
Especially the remark about the movie going over the one viewer’s head reveals something at least about contemporary expectations when it comes to story telling. The common expectation derives from the equally common notion that a story can succeed or please only if it makes sense, and this making sense depends on the story being ordered – being constructed - first and foremost (if not exclusively) for the ways of the intellect. And, in our time, the way of the intellect is extensively identified with (the hope for) a pure rationalism that supersedes or predominates passions, working, as it does, from the presumption that reasoning and passion are necessarily at odds.
Such an ordering is certainly appropriate for narrative simpliciter; however, when a meaningful effect, a dramatic effect – as distinguished from an impression upon the intellect - is the intent, the dispassion of ordered rationality in itself will always be drastically inadequate. This is not to say that drama and dramatic effect can ever succeed absent at least some rational appeal and sensibility; hence, it is absolutely appropriate – indeed, it is reasonable - that rational sensibility be sought and found in order that there may be an experience of the significance which lies beyond an anchoring in the simply rational.
However, the rational ordering found or imposed by the intellect must not be so extensive that it smothers, leaves no room for, or has no heart for the extra-rational dramatic effect. Marshall Fine’s review of The Tree of Life refers to a press note which sacrifices any hint of the dramatic for the sake of constructing a narrative:
(Jack’s) human struggles become part of the cosmos’ vast creative and destructive powers, as he begins to sense his connections to the dust of the stars, to the prehistoric creatures who once roamed the earth and to his ultimate destiny.
It may well be that press notes and synopses in general cannot help but fail to represent or even indicate the dramatic aspects or purposes of such a film as this. It might, nevertheless, be that a synopsis such as the one Fine cites manages to impart a sort of transcendent feeling for some people once they have seen the movie. However, as Marshall Fine says about that description in the press note he cites, “Really? See, I got none of that.”
The Tree of Life is most definitely concerned with connections, but they are not the connections of a mere cosmic, pantheistic, or historical oneness. Rather, as is made apparent very early in the movie in a voice over by Mrs. O’Brien (played by Jessica Chastain), the connection of ultimate interest is that between nature and grace.
In that voice over, the way of nature and the way of grace seem, at first blush, to be contrasted, as if they are incompatible and, therefore, unconnected and always and everywhere at odds. However, as conventional, familiar, or orthodox as this contrast seems, it is, in fact, a concoction born of an incomplete, an immature understanding which itself is a difficult to avoid consequence of the very nature of language and, hence, both narrative and explication.
Language – and probably the written word more so even than the conversational word – is a tool which is most efficient at depicting contrasts. That is why when the way of nature is identified with the self’s satisfaction of its own wants, nature comes across as being in the starkest possible contrast with the way of grace or love which, clearly, is not identical to the self’s satisfaction of its own wants.
This stark a contrast not only seems to establish an incompatibility – in this case, between nature and grace; the very starkness also suggests that complete understanding is had when the contrast is achieved, appreciated, and accepted. The sense of fullness in an understanding that comes from contrast is enhanced by another characteristic of language: the relative inefficiency of language at depicting the subtleties which mitigate or soften without denying or eliminating distinctions.
The efficiency of contrast depiction in conjunction with the relative inefficiency of language at mitigating or qualifying contrasts tends to foster impatience in intellect. And, despite the freneticness which is always part of impatience, a habit of such an impatience can easily arise out of the asymmetry evident between the efficiency of language at depicting stark contrast and its relative inefficiency at depicting subtleties of distinction. An habitual impatience will, more often than not, in turn produce sloth in the intellect as well as a dulling of the imagination.
This is one reason why it is important to realize that contrasts – such as that between nature and grace or the way of nature and the way of grace - are not always or only intended and employed to suggest that the contrast represents some attained completeness in understanding. Instead, a contrast can just as well be utilized in an attempt to stimulate at least considerations into the possibility that the matters being contrasted might not actually be as thoroughly distinct from each other as is suggested by the very fact of those matters having been named and, thereby, designated as being apart from each other.
Of course, the pursuit of this alternative use of contrast requires some patience. And, it is certainly possible with patience to overcome the asymmetry of efficiency in language that favors contrast in order to produce a more fully or more purely rational explication of the relationship between nature and grace or the way of nature and the way of grace. For instance, it could be pointed out that the apparent incompatibility between nature and grace results from a rhetorical ploy rather than from licit reasoning.
Nature and grace are clearly distinct matters, but not all distinct matters are incompatible. And, while it can be legitimate to generalize about the way of nature by defining it as the self’s satisfaction of its own wants, it is rationally illicit to regard this “way” and “nature” as identical or inseparable. In certain contexts, it may be generally accurate to characterize nature in terms of selves driven by satisfaction of their own wants, but, within such contexts, if there are ever any particular circumstances of nature in which selves seem not to be driven by self-satisfaction, then it is not the case that the way of nature is always or only or purely a matter of self-satisfaction. The way of nature may well be predominantly a matter of pure self-satisfaction, but, if grace, for instance, is ever discernible within nature, it is rationally illicit to assert an incompatibility between nature and grace and, frankly, even between the way of nature and the way of grace. The way of nature may be predominantly something other than the way of grace, but such a predominance does not render nature incompatible with grace; a predominance does not establish or assure an incompatibility.
In The Tree of Life, there is one scene of prehistory in which a dinosaur is lying atop some stones beside a stream. Another dinosaur appears, notices the one which is lying there, and comes up to it and considers the dinosaur that does not – or cannot – get up. Then, in one swift and aggressive motion, the dinosaur which had just crossed the stream presses one of its taloned feet on the other dinosaur’s head, but, rather than crush the recumbent animal’s head, the dinosaur removes its clawed foot, hesitates, and then moves on, before stopping briefly to take one more look at that dinosaur which, for whatever reason, cannot or does not get up. Is this an instance of mercy, of mercy in nature, the sort of mercy that can be expected of grace?
What are we to make of the story about two injured bald eagles at a rehabilitation facility? The first one found was a female; the second one, which was found approximately two months later, was a male, and there was no place to put the second eagle except into the flight cage with the female. The problem is that, when raptors are introduced to one another under such circumstances, there is commonly “an altercation”, sometimes a fight to the death.
However, in this case, when the male was introduced to the flight cage, something very unexpected happened:
“I put the male in the cage … and he was very frightened … [the female] spots him and she gets very quiet and she’s bobbing her head around trying to get a better look at him and all of a sudden he makes a call. … And as soon as [the female eagle] hears that … she gets so animated, she’s back and forth on the perch and … goes just out of her mind trying to get his attention. And then she’s going back and forth on the perch, she’s constantly calling to him.”
The female, after many attempts, taught the male how to hop up a series of steps to her perch. She actually jumped down and showed him what to do.
“Once he’s up on the perch, they’re touching each other. They’re standing so close to each other that their … wings are touching each other. … and I’m shocked there’s no fight. It doesn’t make any sense. The behavior is an absolute aberration.”
… a friend who has banded birds for 20-some years … said “that sounds like a mated pair, that sounds like [they had already been] a bonded pair [before each was injured].”
Are these a merely “bonded” pair? Or, is this an instance of love occurring within nature? Or is love, including love amongst humans, actually nothing but a mere bonding?
As has already been shown, we can use reasoning to question notions and counter assertions about the incompatibility of nature and grace. But, that ends up doing nothing more than highlight the incompleteness of understanding, and a purely rational and complete explication (if such a thing is possible) requires that many more matters be addressed, matters including what would be characteristics of grace (if there is such a thing as grace) as well as how or whether it would be possible for grace to be “discernible within nature”.
Yet, even if these and the many other relevant issues could be explicated completely and in a purely rational manner, would such a thing as grace actually be demonstrated? Indeed, could such a thing as grace be rationally demonstrated as something that is objectively real? For what is grace? Grace is (one form of) love, and the fact of the matter is that, so far as we know, love is most definitely the sort of thing that is never rationally and objectively established no matter how thoroughly it is explicated. This is because no matter how well it may ever be understood rationally, love is always a subjective matter of experience.
Since love is a matter of experience beyond the purely (and merely) rational, love can be and has been easily denied – in service to rationality, for the sake of preserving the supremacy of pure rationality - as either an illusion or as epiphenomenal to the physical processes that are said to be the actual constituents of reality.
Such eliminativist tactics need to deny or denigrate experience in order to preserve the purity and alleged supremacy of rationality, but such an experience as love need in no way deny or denigrate rationality (and rationality is not denigrated when accession to its ultimate supremacy is withheld). Although such an experience is a matter that is beyond the purely (and merely) rational, such a supra-rational experience arguably needs rationality at the very least because such an experience is properly regarded not as an end desired for itself but as the catalyst for making this thing that is experienced made yet more manifest.
In effect, such an experience is – or can be - another beginning, but this rejuvenating feature can just as well be found in the discursions of the more merely rational:
my father … never allowed us, my siblings and me, to be satisfied with what appeared to be a dialectical victory … or a success in explaining ourselves. ‘What else,’ he would say when we had assumed, exhausted, that an exposition or an argument was over. And if we replied: ‘Nothing. That’s it. Isn’t that enough?’, he would reply to our momentary wild despair: ‘Why, you haven’t even started yet. Go on. Quickly, hurry, keep thinking. Having an idea …
And, in the context of this discussion, it could just as well be said, “or having an experience” —
or identifying it, is something. But then again, once absorbed, it’s almost nothing: it’s like arriving at the first, most elementary level … But the really interesting and difficult thing, the thing that can prove both truly worthwhile and very hard work, is to continue: to continue thinking and to continue looking beyond what is purely necessary …’ 1
… indeed, to continue looking beyond what is purely – and merely – rational.
Love is always a subjective matter of experience. That experience can come either in the form of a giving to be received or in the form of the receiving of that which has been given, but there is nothing about this – or any other – experience that demands an abandonment of rationality. Accordingly, this suggests that language, even despite its cumbersomeness and even with the orderliness demanded for a rational sensibleness (such as is usually provided by a plot in movies), can communicate or effect a sharing of experience – even if this cannot be accomplished for all individuals at all times.
Then why is it that The Tree of Life “does not follow a traditional, linear narrative approach to storytelling”? Why is it that there “is no plot, in the sense that The King’s Speech has a plot”? And, why is it that “the story reveals itself, incompletely, in fits and starts”?
Experiences of love have been successfully communicated - even experientially shared - countless times. In some cases, for instance in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the experience of love is communicated in a way that penetratingly reveals not just the experience but something about the very nature of love, and this communication depends upon “a traditional, linear narrative”.
However, those experiences are commonly of the sort of love which occurs between two people, a preferential love2, and the love at the heart of The Tree of Life - that is to say grace - is a love which is inclusive of while also being beyond preference.
Moments of even preferential love are experienced “in fits and starts”, intensely at some times and not at others, and so, too, is it with grace – when and if a person experiences or is most acutely aware of it. Therefore, it is absolutely appropriate that The Tree of Life resort to and emphasize “fits and starts” rather than the “linear”, as it tries to impart an experience – and an awareness - of grace.
Furthermore, grace is supposed to be a much more widely infusive form of love than is preferential love. Therefore, an experience or awareness of grace is less dependent on an extensive linearity; accordingly, an experience or awareness of grace is to be expected to come – maybe initially – within mere snippets of what so often seem to be more commonplace occurrences or possibly even with (or as) the connections between linearly disjointed events. With such a grace – and the experience of this grace – as its core interest, it makes perfect sense that The Tree of Life be constructed largely as an agglomeration or montage of scenes, rather than a smoothly flowing stream of events with a clear chronology.
There are many, more specific details about the movie worthy of further discussion: the dramatic construction; the effect of intimacy imparted by the cinematography; the character of the father, his own personal history and the manner of his interaction with his sons, his eldest son in particular; and the fact that the father’s character is largely revealed according to the eldest son’s childhood perspective and memories. All of which means that this might just be the first of multiple essays here about The Tree of Life.
1Marías, Javier. Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear. New York: New Directions Books, 2005, pp. 278-279.
2 See, in particular, Kierkegaard’s The Works of Love.