As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

The Tree of Life

Posted by Hedwig on June 13, 2011

I’m always a bit amused at people who get angry because they thing someone has a “wrong” opinion of a movie – i.e. one that doesn’t line up with their own. It’s certainly possible to give an assessment of a movie that’s fundamentally mistaken, but our own subjective experience plays such an important part that the final verdict we offer says as much about ourselves as it does about the movie.

I am an atheist. Have been as long as I can remember – when I was six, only recently relocated to France, I swore to some older kids at school that I believed in God, but that was only because they were big and scary, and I had no idea who this “Dieu” character was anyway. My mother thought it was important for me to know the bible from a cultural standpoint, and I did like some of the stories, but I never connected with them, and they never seemed more or less true than, say, the Greek myths. I called myself agnostic for a long time, because it seemed arrogant to claim to know for sure, but at some point I decided that if believing in the existence of God was enough to call yourself a believer, believing in his absence was enough to call myself a atheist.

While I do have a problem with some aspects of organized religion, I don’t think all religion (or belief) is a bad thing. If people apply it only to themselves, and if it helps them derive some meaning or comfort or hope in the face of the fundamental meaninglessness of existence, who am I to begrudge them? Furthermore, religion has led to some of the most beautiful artworks made, whether in music or painting or literature, and I can appreciate it for that alone.

This is a pretty long introduction just to tell you that the religious parts of THE TREE OF LIFE, especially at the beginning and at the end, took me right out of the movie, and I don’t quite know why. It was the direct address to a mute God, in particular, that made me feel remote from the movie, like it was not meant for me, like I did not speak its language.

It’s a pity, because I so wanted to love this movie. I did love big chunks of it, was moved to tears at some moments (including the one depicted above), managed to let myself be carried along by the tide for long stretches at the time. Had the movie stopped about fifteen, twenty minutes earlier (in any case before the overly elegiac beach scene), we would have parted on much better terms.

This is because I loved the middle section of the movie. Yes, indeed, the more conventional part, the part that makes some other reviewers lament that Malick lost his nerve. Is it really that conventional, though? Think back – when was the last time you got the chance to see a boy (or three) grow up? That you saw such a naturalistic depiction of childhood, filled with wonder but without idealizing children themselves, showing them as they try out personas, realize their parents aren’t perfect, look for their place in the world? And to see at the same time the struggle parents go through: you want to teach children the right way to handle the world, but how do you do that when you haven’t really fully figured it out yourself, or when you’re finding out your own attitude isn’t ideal after all? How to you prevent them from making the same mistakes you made while letting them be their own person?

These are the questions that interest me. They’re not necessarily answerable, not any more than the question “why do bad things sometimes happen to good people” and “why are we here”. But to me the questions about how to be a parent, how to be a child, are many times more essential than the existential ones, and more pressing. The way the movie addresses those questions made me consider my parents’ motivation, made me contemplate again whether I want to have children myself or not.

I suppose that’s why I wrote two long paragraphs about my atheism to start this piece.  For someone who believes that after death there is nothing but a big, blessed emptiness, the question of why we are on earth (or of why people die when they do)  is ultimately meaningless. The question of how to make the best of the time we have here is much more important. In the movie’s defense, it grapples with both these topics, and I appreciated the long “birth of the universe” sequence (a decidedly un-creationist view of creation) for putting life in perspective. But the final scene takes those wonderfully fleshed out, real people and takes them into the realm of abstraction, where I cannot follow.

THE TREE OF LIFE is a grand, ambitious film. I can admire it for that alone, and I don’t share BF’s assessment that “a lot of pretty pictures do not a movie make” – I have no problem with Malick’s elliptic storytelling or his digressions. But for me – and I don’t know if this is due to my atheism or if it’s simply philistinism – the movie was ultimately not successful.

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2 Responses to “The Tree of Life”

  1. Kaj said

    Interesting. As a fellow atheist, I absolutely didn’t have that experience. Tonight I saw it for the third time, and while I first and foremost love the section from the “birth of the universe” to the first normal dramatic scene, a dinner with the actors that we watch for the rest of the movie, truly proof that you can tell a good story with just images and music instead of conventional drama and dialogue, I’m starting to like the finale more and more. And when they do ask direct questions of God and his not so nice ways, I don’t necessarily think the question itself speaks to me, but the hurt, loneliness and feelings of betrayal behind them does. I do feel that the more and detailed I try to interpret the movie, especially the more ‘poetic’ parts, the more the connection and the feel of it slips away, so I can’t really defend the last part of the film. I can say however that I really love the way how Malick combines those more abstract questions and ideas with the things you mention you loved into one big… whole.

  2. Shawn said

    I felt as though this movie empowered my atheism. The theme is that nature creates life, life creates Gods. The same way the children struggled as they discovered their parental “God” figures, were not perfect, cant protect them from harm (as the children witness their father fail to save a boys life after he drowned, very much in the vein of asking “why would a god let bad things happen”). The movie created a theme that clearly stated, “This is why gods are created/needed” and never once said “this is why god exists”.

    The ending at first did turn me off, but after reflecting upon the movie as a whole, I realized the entire movie was structured around an adult piecing together the memories of his childhood, after his father calls him to discuss the death-day of his younger brother. As we explore the memories of his childhood, the main character is seeking a connection to the love he felt at birth, and thence forth slowly drifted away from on the path to adulthood. The ending, which is shot to look like heaven, is actually the South Africa salt flat where life was first created on earth. Were exploring his memories and his conscious as he finally ends his struggles with pain of the past, and reconnects with the love that was always there.

    The other important consideration, is that this is a personal story from the filmmakers perspective. He never tries to label any of the deeper emotional themes beneath the surface with any version of gender, sexuality, and or religious beliefs. Its more so an examination of how no matter how different and varied everything may seem, its all connected to the same desire to survive the struggle of life.

    Well, that is the way I saw it, and well my 3 fellow atheists that saw it with me, shared your identical opinions. So, to each their own. I would encourage watching it again, at home, with a more open mind, the subject matter, warrants another viewing.

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