At one point during class this week,we started to discuss The Tree of Life. I asked if anyone else had seen it. Yes, one person said, and they were not impressed.
I recall last week reading a comment online from someone who spoke of two hours wasted. Ha,more than two hours come to think of it.
I was reminded of a comment made by Tzvetan Todorov. The quote addresses how some works are received with great enthusiasm during one cultural epoch,when that culture is willing to make a special effort to meet the work on its own terms. Without the special effort (corresponding to the beliefs etc of that group) the work falls flat on its face.
I found Todorov’s construct very useful to identify the peculiar phenomenon of Maurice Maeterlinck, a Nobel prize winning playwright,poet and author. After a period of comparative celebrity at the end of the 19th century, Maeterlinck’s star gradually went into eclipse. Given that symbolist poetry & drama require an imaginative effort from the audience, Maeterlinck’s current obscurity could be due to something as simple as a change in taste. Where the current cultural consensus is insufficient to support the weight of Maeterlinck’s prose, it must –to use Todorov’s colourful phrase—fall on its face.
And as a result I thought there’s a parallel between Maeterlinck and Tree of Life. In fact there are humongous similarities when I stop to think about it. There’s a moment in Act IV of Debussy’s opera Pelléas et Mélisande that always makes me cringe. Maeterlinck gives Arkel the following lines (which Debussy uses in his libretto): “If I were God, I would have pity on men’s hearts.” In French, that’s “Si j’étais Dieu, j’aurais pitié du cœur des hommes…” For much of the opera we are attempting to decode what’s inside, ergo the effort Todorov speaks of. Every now and then Maeterlinck forgets how brilliantly subtle he has been, and hits us over the head with the obvious. For those unwilling to make that effort, it’s simply an oddball of an opera, not worth the effort. For those of us who do drink the kool-aid, it’s entirely worth it. The last scene of this opera is the most perfect illustration of death –meaning the moment when a spirit leaves Earth– I have ever encountered. While I recommend that you listen to it, i will not post it because i think it loses some of its magic if one listens to it too frequently.
The Tree of Life strikes me as the same kind of deal. It must inevitably fall on its face if you’re unable or unwilling to make the various leaps that are required:
- To look at human life encompassing both spirituality and religion on the one hand, as well as planets, atoms, dinosaurs, and various other scientific phenomena. Are the unproven truths about the human heart incompatible with a belief in the theory of evolution?
- To see family life not just as a microcosm but the paradigm of life,redemption and value
- To read metaphors in their most connotative suggestive light: as omens and typology
At one moment in the film we’re somewhere in the deep dark past. This film, an epic of the human soul, spans eternity, so long as we’re willing to allow for such peculiarities. Troubled? chances are you tune out or give up. If you’re willing to make the leap, you stay with the film, and more importantly, you follow along with the film-maker, Terrence Malick.
We see a primeval creature lying on a river bed, and then moments later,a larger beast approaches,possibly contemplating that smaller beast as lunch or at the very least,as a creature it could easily kill. The bigger one looms above the smaller one,holding it down for a few moments. And then –hope this won’t spoil the movie for you—it lets the smaller one up. Whether this is compassion or serendipity,the smaller one is saved.
And throughout the film we arrive at that same point on the river (speaking of suggestive imagery). The same configuration of trees,light,landscape,recalls that earlier time. And have we really escaped that predicament,or aren’t we still looking back wondering what might be coming,possibly to kill us,or spare us?
As with Maeterlinck –particularly Pelléas et Mélisande—The Tree of Life can use language that is predictable. When you think of liturgy, there’s a great deal that’s said where we know exactly what will follow. The redundancy and lack of surprise in ritual leads to a kind of calmness, a communication where the person hearing the words knows what’s to come, and the meaning communicated is rarely new.
I am reminded of some of the other works with a spiritual or religious dimension. If one is not open to that kind of meaning,or in other words,if one has objections to that discursive pathway,then the desired outcome –of something sublime and beautiful—simply won’t happen.
I won’t talk about performances, whether Brad Pitt or Sean Penn (hm… i wonder if it’s an omen that both of their names have four letters? hm….) have done better work elsewhere. That’s not really my concern. If there is one thing i have been repeating over and over in my writing the past year –if anyone’s bothering to notice– it’s a fascination with the mechanics of stardom and the virtuosi who fascinate us. I am amazed at how skillfully actors conceal their tracks, how hard it is to see anyone acting in a good performance. But that’s not what this film is about.
The Tree of Life is a celebration, in the same way that a liturgy is a celebration. It commemorates life and invites you to breathe and feel and connect, both during its 149 minutes, and in the inevitable resonances it sets up for you after. The past few days I have been listening to the Berlioz Requiem while enjoying the feelings brought up by association.