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Malick's Microcosm: A Review of "Tree of Life"
The old New England Primer, used to educate schoolchildren in colonial America, started much the same way as that other foundational textbook, the Bible: "In Adam's Fall, We Sinned All."
The little sentence was assigned to the letter A, but it was a lot bigger than that.
There's plenty about colonial America I wouldn't want to replicate, but I kind of like this stark beginning to an education. It reminds me that children can handle the tricky stuff just as well as they handle the animals on the ark and Jesus telling the little children to come to him. Good storytellers know this: Pixar, for instance, starts their films with tragedy - something they inherited from Disney - and the fairy tales of old involve princesses trapped in towers and children being fattened up by witches.
Certainly children need affirmation. But kids aren't dumb. They know from a young age that they're not perfect, that the world is not perfect, and this line about the fall of man is a pretty good place to start: a longing for a lost Eden.
I began this article while sitting in a quiet city park, and in the hour since I started typing, a herd of elementary school children has stampeded into the park. They're obviously having an end-of-school-year celebration, and they're giddy. I'm watching them play with jump ropes and lob wiffle balls at each other. They've even got one of those giant multi-colored parachutes I remember loving as a child.
They scream and play and run. They also act like kids: there are cliques and bullies, cool kids surrounded by followers and some that are obviously loners. Watch a crowd of children for a while and you see everything you need to know about human nature.
Many critics who have struggled to describe Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life have called it a prayer. And it is a prayer, of the sort I haven't seen onscreen since the stunning Into Great Silence. Most of the words spoken in the film are in voiceover, and nearly all of them are directed at - well, at God, though he's rarely addressed by name. The prayers and complaints are prompted by a singular tragedy, but they loop around to something grand and great.
In the weeks since I saw the film, though, I've wondered if a better word than prayer might be lament. And not just a lament for a lost loved one, but for that lost Paradise - both the first Eden, as well as the one buried deep within our memories.
The most striking feature of The Tree of Life (and probably what won him the coveted Palme d'Or at Cannes) is how it tells the creation story. This is a fully sincere and appropriate place to use that now-ironic word: his recounting is epic, and it comes at the center of a narrative that starts and ends with individuals. There are symphonies and solar flares and visions of the beyond.
It's easy to get stuck on this visual beauty, which serves an important point in the narrative. There's more going on here, though. This is not merely cosmic; it's personal, and explicitly recalls the book of Job. God has had enough of Job's questioning of His character - or perhaps He's let him go on as a mercy. He comes to Job in a whirlwind and asks - in what also serves as the epigraph of the film - "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" (38:4) He recounts his strange, weird, wonderful creations, and concludes, "Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it." (40:2)
Job knows his place in the creation now and answers simply, "Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further." (40:4-5) When God continues, Job at last concludes that he cannot understand God's ways.
Yet in the film, as the creation sequence progresses, the voiceover turns this on its head. A bereaved mother turns God's words back to him: "Where were you?" she asks. Where had God gone when her son was in danger? And God is silent.
So yes, the film is about the whole world. But it's easy to be wowed by cosmic grandeur. What Malick accomplishes is more significant: The Tree of Life is not just about the creation of man; it's about the creation of a man, about what our beginning has to do with our ends. A boy is born to beautiful parents; he lives in a lovely home, discovers the world with delight, rejoices in the love of his lovely mother, spends his early childhood in the sun-kissed eternal summer that most of us remember so well.
[ALSO: Brett McCracken reviews "Meek's Cutoff"]
Then one day, he encounters temptation. And he falls. And his guilt turns him into a sullen, unhappy bully. His innocence is gone, and we know it won't return, even when he seeks and receives reconciliation with his father - a man whose fallenness haunts him as well - and his little brother, who he wantonly injures and who grants him forgiveness without guile.
In Adam's fall, we sinned all.
The vistas and beauty of Malick's creation story fill us with awe, make many of us believe in film as an art form again - and will likely spark not a few young minds to become astronomers and biologists. All worthy work.
But it is when he takes that grand story of creation and fall and stuffs it inside the life of a little boy that we start to understand. Each life re-enacts the first story. Each is created in beauty and falls in disgrace. We're each a microcosm of the whole story. And redemption is there, if we know how to lament what is lost.
What do you think of Alissa's assertions about childrens' innate awareness of the world's and their own fallenness? If you saw
Tree of Life
, what was your reaction to the film?
Nice piece Alissa. I felt similarly. In fact, for me, Malick's ability to connect the cosmic with the personal is what sets The Tree of Life apart from his other stuff. All of his films are interested in original sin, but the others tend to do a lot more noodling around.
Saw the movie over the weekend - I was a bit surprised that the theatre was completely full, a sold out showing.
First of all, I have to say it was visually one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen.
In addition to the theme of the Fall and Paradise Lost, the other huge theme was "nature" vs "grace". "Nature" in this context being the competitive, dog-eat-dog, survival-of-the-fittest aspect of our world - it is what our economy is based on. Grace being that nurturing forgiving lightness that is so often difficult to find in our world. Malick very clearly has the father in the story represent "Nature" and the mother represent "Grace". As a male in this culture there is great pressure to be that hard-driving, competitive, successful type-A person represented by the father in the movie (I'm sure that women also feel this pressure, but men have felt it longer in our culture - the movie is mainly set in the 50's when this was especially the case; I suspect this is why Malick set most of the movie during that time when you could easily differentiate the gender roles). I could certainly relate to the father's sense of failing in his career - that sense of failure that made him so hard on his sons and wife. Adam's curse was that his work would yield thorns and thistles - we still feel the effects.
Also throw in some Cain & Able sibling rivalry. The middle son who later died was portrayed as the father's favorite and the eldest son (Jack) was jealous. This jealousy seemed to be what drove Jack to his bad behavior.
Definitely see this moive. As Alissa points out, this movie is epic in it's scope touching on pretty much all the major Biblical themes: Creation, fall, redemption, sin, Grace.
Beautifully written review, Alissa. I haven't seen the movie yet, but the deep longing that it must portray (based on all I have heard about it) comes through in your piece, as well. I definitely want to see it, now.
john van sloten
Excellent piece Alissa. I can hardly wait to preach this film.
What intrigued me most was the the telling of final resurrection, still trying to figure out what it means, but the symbolism of the sunflowers and ocean, left me with a hope for that day.
Also, loved the Flannery O'Connor reference (or at least that's what I thought of), when dad is working under the car :)
I have been reading Michael Lerner's "Left Hand of God," which sets up a similar dichotomy to the nature/grace theme of the film. The Left Hand of God being the nurturing and generous side, the Right Hand of God being the powerful and avenging side.
In my opinion, what was so powerful about the imagery in the film was that it highlighted the fact that violence and destruction are part of the natural world. I would question whether the "Fall of Man" is really the main point of the film. Certainly, the loss of innocence is central, but I interpreted a more dualistic, almost Manichean theme. It reminded of William Blake's "The Tyger" wherein the speaker, from the perspective of experience rather than innocence, asks whether "He who made the Lamb made thee?"
In other words, did the same God who created beauty and joy also create destruction and violence? Is there a "Fall of Man" or a duality built into the world?
Anyway, it was the most beautiful film I have ever seen. The 20 minutes of evolution brought my to tears...to think that it took 14 billion years for each of us to be here and that we share atoms with the first reactions that brought our universe into being. It was interesting, before I realized that evolution was being shown, I thought the images were symbolizing the mother's stages of grief...the fire (anger) and the rushing water (despair).
I can't wait to see it again.
I appreciate your attentiveness to beauty and brokenness in the film and in life, Alissa. I learned a lot from your theological analysis of this particular piece of art. After reading this, I am going to see the movie this week. I particularly resonate with your last sentence: "And redemption is there, if we know how to lament what is lost." It fits well with the aim of the book of Job, which is to involve the readers in the dialogue between God and Job. The dialogue draws us in to the story so that Job’s cries of lament to God become ours. Thank you for opening our eyes to yet another way our culture is searching for ways to express their hurts and laments.
I totally agree, loved the film. I also think it has much to offer any individual who is processing tragedy. As a spiritual director, I believe it could be very helpful to anyone who feels stuck in unresolved grief and could be a great catalyst to a discussion of the problem of evil.
Dear Mrs Hembree,Once again your bulldog reareds have sent in another lot of amazing photos.They photo of Ellie and Alissa is just awesome they look pretty high up in the tree . Somehow I feel that the girls would have got a great view of the forrest from where they were sitting. Great reading girls!Also I just loved the photos Josa has sent in. He really has sent in some amazing photos of himself reading. I really love the photo of Josa reading, cooking with his friend from Star Wars! Great photos Josa and well done!Thank you for sharing this wonderful post I have really enjoyed looking at all the photos your wonderful Bulldog Readers have sent in.I do have a favourite but will let you know when you pick the winner.Happy reading everyone!From your pal,AA.
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