The Taser's Edge

The Tree of Life (2011; directed by Terrence Malick)

Disclaimer: What follows might be pretentious, but please don’t think the movie’s pretentious just because it actively resists being written about by me. Also, consider yourself warned.

First, watch this trailer in full-screen. Watch it twice if you wish.

Supposedly, Terrence Malick has been working on the ideas behind this film for decades, and the technology and time had finally come for it. The trailer is entirely accurate if you’ve seen the film, but it’s fairly misleading if you haven’t. For instance, you might think that  the plot is actually something substantial. In fact, nothing in this film is substantial in the sense that nothing can actually be grasped and held onto. If anything, it has the viewer.

Tree of Life is about a family of five and then four in Waco, Texas, and about one of those five growing up into a wounded adult. But it’s also a visual meditation about God and death, nature and grace, Creation, destruction, a time, Time, family, children, marriage, boys, good and evil. Yes, it’s also slow.

For this particular film, it seems better to talk about themes than plot, but the two themes I name aren’t exhaustive in any way. They’re just most interesting to me.

First, it is about art, everything, and life. (I wouldn’t always group those three together.) I’m certain that the film is meant to be, as much as film can be, an imitation of the experience of life. It resists every attempt to be described or cognitively understood, because that’s how life is. Empiricist and intellectual approaches to life always end up being reductionist, and there’s a sense in which, if you take those approaches alone, all that is wonderful will be missed.

Alongside those approaches must come the emotional. And beyond that, there is the experiential. Some things can only be experienced: they can’t be understood; they can’t be described; they can’t even be felt in the sense that we normally talk about our senses. If you want to “get” this film, see it once and struggle to make sense of it. See it a second time after you decide to give that up and just experience it.

Second, it is about the mundane and the extraordinary. Many contemporary films and much of contemporary literature seem to want us to believe that their characters and their characters’ experiences are totally individual. No one else could experience what they have experienced, therefore no one else can understand them, therefore no one else can empathize, therefore we’re all alone.

That, in fact, seems to be how the main character, Jack (played by Hunter McCracken as a kid and Sean Penn as an adult), experiences life.  He doesn’t get along well with his father (played by Brad Pitt), who, while he inarguably crosses verbal and physical lines with his wife and kids, is far from a monster. Surely Jack’s problems with his dad have their own character, but they are also the problems of every son and his father.

Or are they? In order to tell the story of this family, Malick shows the story of the birth of the universe, from the Big Bang to the most recent Ice Age. The juxtaposition of father/son dynamics with the Big Bang and the dinosaurs makes this particular father/son relationship into a unique experience and simultaneously makes the Big Bang and the dinosaurs into something totally mundane (“daily”) and ordinary. That is, the Big Bang and friction in a father/son relationship are equally mundane and equally extraordinary. It’s an awe-inspiring thought.

Worth Mentioning:

  • The interactions between the child actors are unbelievably real. Boys doing fun things, gross things, dumb things, dangerous things together. Boys figuring out what to do when they’re bored. My assumption is that no child actor is good enough to do that (although these are great) and that Malick (who is famous for the ludicrous amount of film that initially heads into the editing room) didn’t tell them what to do, but told them to become friends and to play, and then filmed it for days on end.

Two Comparisons:

  • The obvious comparison of recent years to me is The Fountain, Darren Aronofsky’s own film about life and everything, but I don’t think that there was anything mundane in the drama of that movie. Still, The Fountain is terribly underappreciated, and you really ought to watch it while you’re waiting for Tree of Life to come to, for instance, Florence, SC. It’s on Netflix Streaming.
  • The substantial comparison, however, is to 2001: A Space Odyssey. My pet theory is that Malick used dinosaurs instead of apes to elude the comparison, but the movies are most similar in that refusing-to-be-described, demanding-to-be-experienced, may-lull-you-into-a-coma sort of way. (For the record, I don’t know why I watched 2001 three or four times without giving up on finding something there, but the attempt paid off, and I don’t regret the time spent. Others might have the same experience with The Tree of Life.)

On first viewing and one night’s digestion, very good with the possibility that it’s great or even…MEGA-GREAT!!!(tm).


Weekly Reflection for 6/8/2009

Longtime readers remember that during my initial CPE unit last fall, I began posting my weekly reflections, sometimes with slight edits for a blog format. That is, I want my blog to be personal, but not ridiculously confessional, like some blogs are.  So ,without further ado:

This week when our group discussed the format for Pastoral Work Reports, I was struck by the new-to-me question regarding what Spiritual Assessment we would like to chart.  I quickly began thinking through how much my spiritual assessment says about me.  The list of things I almost always ask about: Family, Place, Religion, Non-family support.

Family: I am very close to my immediate family and to much of my extended.  I talk to family often on the phone (at least twice a month for my parents and siblings).  But I am far away, and I just noticed how much I am probably feeling it all the time.  The closest immediate family member is my sister, who lives in NYC, at least 8 hours away.  And in weighing whether or not to pursue this residency the single most important consideration was what it would do to the rare times (summer and Christmas) when my family is able to gather together.  I am also aware at this distance that, with Holly, I am creating my own family here in Durham.  This is my home.

This is not to say that asking about family is all about my own needs.  I think people are parts of systems, and family has a tremendous impact, even (and especially?) if someone has decided to remove themselves from their family, as some people I visit have.

Place: Upon reflection, I think I must ask about this because I am so aware of my place.  Again, 8 hours from the closest relative.  What’s more, as a child, place was very important because we moved around a lot.  “The Farm” referred to my mom’s family’s non-farmed land, and to the people who live there.  “Going home” meant leaving our home and traveling to see extended family.  For Holly and I, we “go home” to Illinois, and then “go home” to Durham from there.  When I ask patients about their homes, whether far or near, I am making the assumption that place is important to humankind as a species, whether we love to put down deep roots in one place, or whether we need frequent changes of place in order to feel whole.  I try not to assume much more than that, and I sometimes wonder if the question has a strong tendency to turn the conversation into a fact expedition rather than getting to emotional issues that patients and their families are experiencing.

Questions of religion, of course, are natural to chaplaincy.  Of all the important questions I ask, however, the question of what religion people belong to sometimes falls to the bottom of the list in importance.  Yes, it is important for charting a Spiritual Assessment, but to know whether a patient at Duke is Baptist (which all of them are) or Catholic (which a few of them are) or Jewish (which next to none of them are) tells me very little in the way of their actual spiritual wellbeing, or in terms of what their spirituality means to them, or in terms of the way that their time at the hospital is bringing change to their lives, spiritual and otherwise.  At some level, there is even great possible harm to this question.  If someone tells me they believe in the power of the cross or of healing prayer or of fellowship with other people, I have to choose not to over-identify with them.  I must consciously reject the natural tendency to project my own faith upon someone whose faith shares some similarity with mine.  It is easier said than done.

Finally, there are the questions of non-family support, including friends, co-workers, neighbors, people from religious communities, etc.  People live within all kinds of systems, and a patient’s quality of life is directly affected by how healthy or unhealthy, life-giving or destructive, those systems are.  Loneliness is rampant in the hospital, to the point that one almost hesitates to ask about support systems, for fear of exacerbating a patient’s loneliness.  But asking is important.  So I always do.