Arts & Culture

Terrence Malick, God, Etc.

Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” is the most religious film that will come out this year. It will also bore you to tears… Read More

By / July 6, 2011
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Susan Sontag, in her essay Against Interpretation, laments that most critics attempt to interpret Franz Kafka through an intellectual framework. Instead of interpretation, she asserts, we must let a Kafka story wash over ourselves. The same could be claimed for the Terrence Malick’s new film, the Tree of Life. The movie confounds interpretation by inviting emotional engagement through evocative images instead of a linear plot. A critique then demands an emotional response, and not an intellectual analysis.

The movie begins with a quote from the book of Job. Left alone and desolate from the ineffective comfort of his friends, God confronts Job from out of the whirlwind to ask, in poetic form, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation/while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

From there, the beginnings of a flame flickers and turns into snapshots of life as we hear a voiceover, in a hushed tone tell us:

There are two ways through life –

the way of nature and the way of grace.

You have to choose which one you follow.

Grace doesn’t try to please itself.

Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.

Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself.

Get others to please it too.

Likes to lord it over them.

To have its own way.

It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.

And love is smiling through all things.

In terms of a further plot, we catch snatches of information at best. A son of the family dies. The movie shuttles between a contemporary Jack O’Brien, played by Sean Penn, an architect adrift in a modern world of structured glass buildings, a world devoid of apparent meaning, and between a rural Texas in which the young Jack struggles with rage towards his father, his fear of death, a confusion evil, the beauty of the mundane, and the existence and distance of God. For Malick, a relationship to the Divine is inextricably bound up in human relationships, especially in familial relationships. An exploration of one realm, for example the influence of our parents, serves as an inherent exploration of our relationship to God and vice versa.

For generations, commentators have argued over the meaning of God’s answer to Job. God devises every form of torture for Job but answers Job’s cries of, “why” with a cryptic poem describing creation, not some redemptive philosophy. Many commentators believe that God’s answer to Job lay not in any specific idea, but in the experience of the enormity of existence, of the sublime. The infinity of creation horrifies with its ability to engender feelings of insignificance, but it also comforts with the expansiveness of God’s existence. Malick, taking the perspective of both God and man, recreates both the awesomeness of God’s rhetorical questions to Job with long scenes of wild waters and calm ice caps, and recreates the deep, inherent anger and pain in Job’s explicit questions to God: the questions of theodicy, of death, and of purpose, with pictures of the prosaic torture and beauty of a normal life. The film accomplishes these dual tasks despite its eschewing of traditional storytelling tools.

Though the movie makes no attempt to follow a linear plot, it still evokes a sense of narrative, a sense of the sweep of life, of the mundane and holy mixed together. It portrays emotions through images, through hushed internal conversation or prayers, or in the domestic dramas of everyday life, and through this the movies heightens our experience of every emotion and situation. The rage of a father hits harder, the frustration of a child cuts deeper, the fear reaches down further than we thought possible; the love moves us to tears. We cannot help it. We simply respond without thinking.

For example, famously, or notoriously, Malick presents over twenty straight minutes of Planet Earth type footage in an attempt to depict the moment of the Big Bang, through evolution, until the creation of the human being. Though this appears daunting, or boring, with an open mindset, those 20 minutes can act as a powerful path towards religious exploration even for the most skeptical, if only for just a minute.

Just think, what was the last piece of culture, of art, whether a book, a movie, or a TV show, that engaged in an earnest struggle with the essential questions of a religious or spiritual life? Today we view religion as having morphed into a personal preference, like a favorite TV show or band, instead of something we must confront. Americans believe in God more than any other country, but religion has been moved to the privatized world of whispers. This then, is a deeply religious movie, lacking dogmatism, which attempts to rectify this situation.

Yet Malick does not crave answers as to what comes before that recurring flicker of light, nor does he need to flesh out the answers of theodicy. Rather, he seems interested in evoking these questions, in letting us, even in the 21st century, confront these basic questions of why anything exists at all, of why there is something instead of nothing. He returns us to the essential poetry in life, the point in which our intellect hits an unanswerable question, the moment of mystery. In that sense, Malick crusades for the parts of life we avoid in a manner different from the simplistic zealots, or apologists. Malick cares not for ideology in life. For him, the actuality of life suffices.

More than evoking emotions, the movie mugs your emotions like Kafka’s stories. It pulls out visceral, basic, deep, hidden feelings without warning. The movie brilliantly draws out your intellect, an intellect now desperate to leave and/or explain this movie, an intellect using its regular tools of logic, of plot, of coherency, of rational transitions, all to little avail.

Both Malick and Kafka achieve this desired poetic effect, Kafka through of weighted words and Malick through images, words and images that bloom in your mind with associations, endless associations, as if certain core words were the most essential of our language.  We know these words for our age: self, happiness, family, wealth, actualization, passion, love, love, anxiety, and love. Kafka used words emptied of their holiness in his time: sacred, tradition, obligations, Law, God, ritual, which triggered religious feelings you knew rationally did not point to anything larger. He draws them right out of you and leaves you cold, with no answers. We receive no grace, just the tease of transcendence.

In that sense, Malick uses a similar technique but in an completely opposite manner, teasing the intellect and flooding the heart with a pastiche of images that provides actual glimpses of transcendence through the mundane, through anguish: hands rushing through grass, a boy drinking from a hose, a mother’s hug, a child’s embrace. Running in fields, flowing water, roiling water, angry waters, lapping waters, and earth, a child hand’s patting the earth, the earth dug up. A father’s hand on his infant’s feet, the bubble baths of children, boys fighting. The first intimations of sexual desire; the real pains of childhoods, all captured in this scattered poetic film.

One worries at his ability to succeed in this endeavor. The movie does not explain the relevance of religion but wrenches it out from deep within the viewer. It challenges the viewer to rise to an alternate plane of thought, one full of possible metaphysical meaning, but one still fraught with doubt and pain. It reasserts the relevance of religion, not as an institution, or as a moral need, or as philosophy, but as an essential aspect of human exploration.

But let’s get one thing straight, according to our current standards of entertainment, you will be bored by this movie. It will make you itch to leave, you will find yourself checking your phone often, but a part of you will feel something, something different than you’ve felt at a movie in a long time, something bordering on what some might call a religious emotion, while others might define it as an evolutionary adaptation, but whatever it is – it’s purely experiential. Maybe, then, the superficial boredom of the movie is healthy, as if we need a dose of boredom from time to time to take us off our perch of intellectualization.

Part of what frustrates the crowd is that the movie flaunts our expectations and demand we create new ones. It demands we participate in the movie, and not let the movie do all of the heavy lifting.  The best type of art expects sacrifice, whether time, serious attention, thoughtful analysis, or an ability to open ourselves up to an alternate method of seeing life. It won’t make it easy for us because it knows the more we take part in it, the more it will take part of us. In the end of Against Interpretation, Sontag calls for an erotic’s of art. Malick rises and meets that challenge. The next step belongs to us.