Tuesday, May 31, 2011

'The Tree of Life', Surfaces, Truth, Job and God

The Tree of Life is largely -- if not wholly -- a film about surfaces, details and particularities, which points to no deeper or hidden 'truth' than that of its surface. In this sense, Malick's method is not only foreign to most modern filmmakers but antithetical to modernity itself. The ethos of modernity is largely reductionist. It attempts to abstract 'essences' out of surfaces and particularities; to 'solve' ambiguities, paradoxes and contradictions and distill the diverse specifics of the particular into self-evident truths. This is a futile exercise as the truth of Being is most fully contained in the surface, in the interrelatedness of all its aspects, in the form of the particular. Malick, it seems, understands this. Life -- Creation -- is a gift, with all of its contours, and you need to embrace the gift for what it is, in all of its particularity and specificity.

If you understand this, then Malick's extreme attention to detail in this film makes sense. With his subject being no less than Creation itself (with Man occupying a special place therein), the details need to be universal in nature. Malick achieves this universality-of-the-particular spectacularly. If there is any abstraction to be done by the audience, it is in abstracting from the details of this family's life to the lives of all humans, including that of the viewer. But because the particulars and details are so vivid, evocative and universal, Malick makes this an easy task for the audience. And in eschewing the inherent finitude of a typical three-act drama, Malick frees the particulars of the film from confinement to this narrative, allowing them to become the particulars that represent all particulars.

Since I've stated in my initial review that the film is propelled by a dialogue with God, some might ask "aren't you abstracting some deeper meaning or truth not present in the simple details of the surface of the film?" Not really. The dialogue with God is almost as explicit as any element of the film. Some of the questions that are posited as voiceovers are often addressed to 'you' rather than any specific person. This fact combined with the the fact that some of the voiceover questions and statements are seemingly addressed at other people -- such as 'mother', 'father' or 'son' -- might obscure the fact that the vast majority of the voiceovers only make sense as addresses to a personal God --or as contemplation before Him -- rather than toward human individuals or anthropomorphized entities, such as 'the universe', 'nature', 'fate', etc.

Just as important as the searching questions of the humans in the film (primarily Jack), is the fact that God is actually answering the questions posed. The answers from God, of course, come in the form of the events that occur in the film, the responses from the characters, the significance within the whole of the narrative, character's realizations and so forth. And all of God's responses in the film are somewhat colored by God's response to another group of interlocutors, Job and Elihu. A couple of verses from Job 38 open the film. In the verses God is speaking -- addressing Job whose friend Elihu had been speaking with him about God's wisdom -- and saying "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth?" The statement by God is not solely meant as a display of His own authority or of Job's insignificance to him (as many reviewers unfamiliar with Job, and reading the quote out of context, seem to take it to mean); on the contrary, Job was God's beloved follower.

The purpose of God's response to Job and indirectly to Job's friends, including Elihu -- who was ostensibly claiming that God, in his wisdom, allows people suffer to set them on the right path, and that suffering was evidence of unrepentant sin -- was to point out how little Elihu actually understands (due to his unfortunate condition of being finite and human), not only as a display of God's own might, knowledge and authority, but to point out that Elihu's (and Job's other friends) attempting to distill God's infinite wisdom to nice charts of debt and credit, punishment and reward, is futile and misguided. Which is not to necessarily contradict the councils of Elihu, or to show him to be speaking falsehoods, but to show that those councils are incomplete and that God's wisdom is ultimately inscrutable by finite beings.

The questioning done by Job, as well as the 'wisdom' of his friends, is echoed in the voiceovers of the characters in this film, also wondering why it is they suffer as they do.  To which God's reply always carries the same connotation and intonation of his reply to Elihu and Job: I'm in control; stop trying to reduce my ways to an economy that you can grasp; you're in no position to understand precisely how it is I toll out justice; accept the gift of life as it is, and rejoice in all of its particularity; love each other and show one another grace just as I have shown infinite love and grace in calling you forth from nothing to participate in Creation.

If you take the cues from the Bible quote and the rest of the narrative, all of this is present in the most surface, superficial reading of the film (superficial being a positive thing in this context, given what Malick is going for), so I'm delving no deeper than the surface. I'd argue that others are too quickly looking past the surface, if anything.

Of course, in another sense, what I've described here is necessarily an act of interpretation and distillation. My words certainly are not printed on the celluloid of the film itself. And The Tree of Life has much more to say than only that which I've vaguely approximated here (and it says it better and with much greater beauty). I would only urge you to appreciate, not necessarily the inexhaustible depth of the film, but rather its (seemingly) inexhaustible surface, which is in turn an approximation of God's inexhaustible gift, in all its glorious particularity.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Just wanted to know a bit more about the context of the film. Should I see it?

    You seem to be cut from the same piece of the existential universe. Grab on the "surface" and try to swim with the rest of us, why not?

    Do you truly have a better way to explain us all, or we all just fucked? It's all possible if you cling to the surface with your fabulous vocabulary.

    Try a dialogue.