Wow. I’m not really sure what one is supposed to do after watching The Tree of Life. You can’t just go immediately back to the regularly scheduled programing of your daily life. So, first I went back to the “Creation” segment and rewatched it because it was so beautiful, so awe-inspiring. And now I’m at my PC writing this post and reading some reviews of the film and letting it all sink in.
This film was recommended to me by many people, though it had been clear to me from general buzz out in the internet that it’s the kind of film you either love or hate. Here’s a terrible article by an individual who completely missed the point of the film. But, if you want to know the criticisms, here they are: Twelve Good Reasons to Avoid Seeing The Tree of Life. On the other hand, if you want to delve into the beauty of the film and see a discussion of some answers to some questions posed in the film, you will truly enjoy this article: Your Guide to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Matt Zoller Seitz has a good handle on the film, and most importantly notes that The Tree of Life “is designed to elicit unique, personal responses in viewers, as unique and personal as what Malick is putting onscreen.”
In some ways, the film reminded me of LOST, especially in its final sequence. And this comment of Seitz’s resonates with ideas from LOST as well: “I suspect that a lot of the reviews of this movie are mistaking it for a puzzle that one can eventually solve, and that’s a mistake because it’s really not that kind of movie.” Something important to keep in mind. And if anyone went into the film not knowing what kind of movie it is, I can understand why they might have walked out.
Later in his article, Seitz quotes a beautiful portion of Roger Ebert’s article “A Prayer Beneath the Tree of Life“: “In the span of the universe, we inhabit an unimaginably small space and time, and yet we think we are so important. It is restful sometimes to pull back and change the scale, to be grateful that we have minds that can begin to understand who we are, and where are in the vastness.” I recommend reading Ebert’s full article. It really touches on the spirituality of the film. I enjoy this quote because it speaks to what it is about the “Creation” sequence that I am so drawn to. Throughout my life, I have been comforted when I step back, think of the scope of the universe, and see how small I am. It doesn’t make me feel insignificant. It just makes me feel alive, comfortably small, and somehow safe and protected. It also reminds me of the important things in life.
I like that the film can be interpreted in different ways and that Malick doesn’t set out to tell us the meaning of life. It doesn’t fit to one specific religion or tradition; it fits to them all. And that’s what any profound story – any mythology – can do. It speaks to human experience outside of time and space and definition and words. In fact, there’s very little dialogue in the film. A wise choice. I think of the Buddha’s words in Thich Nhat Hanh’s book Old Path White Clouds: “Words cannot describe reality. Only direct experience enables us to see the true face of reality.” Tree of Life certainly offers an experience. And, on the spirituality of the film, I also would like to add that, in my opinion, the big bang approach of the “Creation” sequence is not denying the existence of God / a god / gods / higher power, but in fact demonstrating it. But that’s just my opinion. It might mean something else to you.
One other important element the film clearly demonstrates is suffering, which can be hard to watch. Especially after the often whimsical images of the creation. The scenes where Pitt is mistreating his sons wrenched my heart. And it was supposed to. I’ll lean on my mythological roots here and offer a quote from Joseph Campbell that really explains why this needs to be in a film that is as much about the beauty of life as it is about the pain of it:
“The impact of this horror on a sensitive consciousness is terrific – this monster which life. Life is a horrendous presence, and you wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for that. The first function of a mythological order has been to reconcile consciousness to this fact” (Campbell, Pathways to Bliss, 3).
Life consists of suffering. Of course we don’t want it, but we have to accept it and live with it. Recognizing suffering was what motivated Siddhartha to renounce his palace life and become the Buddha. The quest to end suffering essentially is at the root of the entire Buddhist tradition, and, if you step back and think more about it, at the root of our existence. We seek pleasure, not pain.
“The idea of the Bodhisattva is the one who out of his realization of transcendence participates in the world the imitation of Christ is joyful participation in the sorrows of the world” (Campbell, The Hero’s Journey, 173).
Well, these are my initial, rather quickly written thoughts on the film. Daily life is pulling on me and I do have an appointment to get to, but I just had to share some thoughts on this truly profound and moving film. I leave you with yet a final quote from the great Joseph Campbell (who, if you haven’t noticed, influences all of my writing and academic ventures).
“All societies are evil, sorrowful, inequitable; and so they will always be. So if you want to help this world, what you will have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is” (Campbell, Myths to Live By 104).