(This piece was originally published at Bigother.com, August 1st, 2012)
It’s tempting to see the world of The Tree of Life as one where nobody shits. Granted, for all the beautiful moments, there are ugly ones too — the young brothers in the film see a crippled man, thirsty prisoners, the drowning of a child — but these feel like examples, like the Buddha’s Four Sights (what politicians would call ‘teachable moments’).
But teaching us what? By the time we’ve got to the ending, where the characters are reunited in the afterlife on a beach, the film has answered a family’s grief over their dead brother and son, RL, by pointing to The Creation on the one hand, and the promised End on the other — a cosmic Putting Things In Perspective.
The afterlife with your loved ones; voice-overs that say, ‘Love everyone!’; shots of angelic figures and natural beauty: the threat of kitsch never leaves this film. True, there’s a wonky kind of radicalism to be admired in making these days an earnest piece of religious art. And not everything that is earnest is kitsch.
But an earnest answer to suffering, an ending that gives you a triumphant vision of paradise?… In an early scene, RL’s grandmother tries to comfort his mother by saying things like “the pain will pass” and “life goes on.” It’s a testament to the struggle in Terrence Malick between the Artist and the Preacher that the film goes some way to answer those platitudes with its own.
You’re God’s answer to Job
The Tree of Life starts with Bible verses, Job 38: 4,7: “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?” This corresponds to and pre-empts what RL’s brother Jack says in voice-over: “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.”
In response, we get: the creation of the universe and the Earth, then the tree of life, starting with microbes and leading to dinosaurs. We get a close-knit if dysfunctional 50’s family unit: saintly mother, tough-loving father, three brothers and their childhood memories. Finally, we get the end of the universe and the dead assembled on a beach at dawn, waiting for the light.
More than context, the cosmic elements of the film try to show the beauty of existence / the connection of everything / how Nature compares against Grace. This is more than Job ever got. In fact, God in the Bible pretty much ducks Job’s complaints, answering his question with a long series of questions (“Where wast thou…?”). So why is The Tree of Life being more definitive?
It all depends on what level you take the reality of its various sequences. RL’s violent end (which is also exemplary) is the problem of evil that sums up the rest and, from a certain perspective, it remains a problem. Malick might have finally gotten round to filming his theodicy. Question is, does he really buy it?
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, in the midst of life we are in death, et cetera
Throughout The Tree of Life you’re being reminded of death. In the case of the start of the film, the connection’s not clear until the end: the beach setting of the afterlife links us back to the sound of the surf we heard over the opening shot (the weird glowing strand of light and/or smoke). Considering the film’s theme of creation and birth, the surf sounds also link us to the womb. In my beginning is my end.
The music performs a similar function. During the bereavement scenes, we hear, appropriately enough, John Tavener and Mother Thekla’s Funeral Canticle. But when the flashback flashes further back, to the dawn of time, we hear the Lacrimosa from Preisner’s Requiem for a Friend. The creation of the universe to funeral music; the words translated from Latin: “Ah! that day of tears and mourning!”
Not exactly the Book of Job’s ‘shouting for joy’. The music isn’t a bleed-over from the previous scenes, or just a motif to keep reminding us of RL’s death. Malick doesn’t make the most wry of films, so it’s not just an ironic counterpoint. What the music does do is show that the Creation sequence is, at the very least, functioning in a different way to the barrage of rhetorical questions and Arguments from Authority that God in the Bible gives Job (that divine ‘Yeah well’).
For The Tree of Life, the Creation was a tragedy as much as it was a miracle: existence means entropy. This is a shift from locating the tragedy in The Fall; human beings are still a way off when the Creation sequence begins. And if the Lacrimosa is anything to go by (then later the Domine Jesu Christe and Agnus Dei from Berlioz’s Requiem), we shouldn’t be taking anything else we see on screen as unambiguously affirmative.
Walking with Dinosaurs
Incredible the first animal that dreamt of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among all the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth. — ‘ Terra Nostra’, Carlos Fuentes
A lot has been made — a lot of fun has been had — with the scene in The Tree of Life where one dinosaur spares the life of another: perhaps the first act of mercy, and hence the first steps towards empathy, consciousness, love, grace; a sort of moral version of the bone-to-orbiting-nukes jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Less has been said about the plesiosaur on the beach, looking at the wound in its side: maybe the first time something knew it was going to die. Again, death; again, a beach.
You could argue that in either case we’re dealing with as banal and brute facts as the first fart for comic effect — there’s literally a first time for everything. So why be awed by those things that already lend themselves to grandeur?
But whether it’s the grand or the banal, any sense of awe there is comes from our point of view as the end results of those first things. One critic, referring to the film’s asteroid strike scene, wrote how she sat there thinking, “This happened.” Of course, it’s not so much that the recreations are accurate, as the way that they point to those things in our past that we never can experience but are sure had to have been.
Still, the problem remains: why even show the first time something was merciful, the first time something knew it was going to die, only to then show these things going extinct?
For such an allegedly Christian film, The Tree of Life has some relatively unorthodox ideas. Rather than mammals, let alone humans, being special — the originators and objects of grace — dinosaurs might have had souls too, had they not died out. Arthur C Clarke wrote that the descendants of the velociraptors could have been travelling the stars by now. What would they have been like? What else would they have shared with us? Where would they have stood on the film’s Nature-Grace axis? Had it not been for that asteroid, would the Son of God come as a dinosaur?
Mommy… I’m sorry I broke myself
The character of Mrs O’Brien seems less human than saint, an ideal for a certain kind of motherhood and a picture of Grace opposing or balancing her temperamental husband’s picture of Nature. Even when she gets pissed off with her son Jack, she does it gracefully.
Then there’s the way the film deals with her bereavement. In an early sequence, the film cuts from the O’Briens courting each other to a white-robed woman on a beach with a toddler, then shots of a tunnel, stairs, a gate — followed by Mrs O’Brien giving birth. We’ll see those white-robed women again at the end of the film, doing t’ai chi-like gestures and caresses with Mrs O’Brien, accompanied by more symbols for transition — doorways, ladders — and her whispering the last lines: “I give him to you. I give you my son.”
Hints of Abraham, this giving your son to death gladly; plus, the religious admonition that prolonged grief is in some way blasphemous. The sinister part of the theodicy: why keep bemoaning the death of your kid? Sunrise, sunset, he’s with the angels now. Is the film’s concept of the afterlife really so tasteless?
But there are two scenes with Mrs O’Brien that hold the key to her character, and hence to the ending of the film. First, she has a fight with her husband after he’s lashed out at Jack for talking back to him. When he’s pinning her arms, she doesn’t resign herself, she keeps struggling, quiet with anger — not saintly any more. Her sons are not present in the scene. Second, after finding out RL has died, she screams and cries, and when her priest tells her “He’s in God’s hands now,” she says back, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” And she’s still sullen while listening to the boys’ grandmother. Again, they are not in the scene.
Mrs O’Brien is idealised, but only in scenes that come from Jack’s memory — the idealisation is not the film’s. Chronologically, the last we see of her in the ‘real’ world, she has been left cold by the boys’ grandmother’s platitudes, which, though framed religiously, have more in common with secular condolences — “People pass along, nothing stays the same. You’ve still got the other two,” — and which only mention God to protest how “He sends flies to wounds that He should heal.” It might be this stoic, ‘realist’ viewpoint that’s failed to console Mrs O’Brien, but the film’s alternative to it, the viewpoint that tries to show something permanent behind the transient and love behind the suffering, consoles her only in scenes mediated by Jack. So if he idealises his mother, what else does he want to make himself believe?
Are the afterlife scenes in the film a true vision or a fantasy? The last line of the film, “I give you my son,” might just be what Jack wishes his mother could say. Instead of the tastelessness of the film making Mrs O’Brien consoled, you have the sad sight of another character, whether rightly or wrongly, wishing that she will be or could have been.
Remember and Let Go
The concept of the therapeutic afterlife is an old one, but increasingly the main one in popular culture. Take Lost. The show’s now infamous ‘slow-mo hugs in a floodlit church’ ending was also set in a sort of afterlife, and also accused of being a schmaltzy attempt to give its characters supernatural consolation.
However, there was another way the show tried to give consolation, and that was to its audience. By this reading, the show finale (called ‘The End’) was a metaphor for The End (of life, the world) and vice versa; which would give us the interesting situation of an art-house film, for all its shout-outs to theology and Tarkovsky, having an ending a touch less complex than that of a mystery TV serial…
Previously on Lost: the island is a cork that holds back and guards an energy source / magic light, but in doing so gives the island special powers: desires, guilts and fears are manifested Solaris style; time travel is possible — the usual. By the show’s final season, the characters are living out two timelines, one on the island, and one in a ‘Flash-Sideways’ Universe where they seem to have had their wish fulfilled of never having come to the island. But it turns out this timeline isn’t parallel but outside of space and time, a quasi-purgatory they’d unconsciously constructed after dying at the various different points in their lives when each one of them died. Its purpose is explained to the hero, Jack Shepherd by his father, Christian: to help them Remember and Let Go. That way the characters can, literally and figuratively, move on to the light.
The confidence of the mother when making her dubious claim to shush up the kid, followed quickly by her just shushing him.
But Remember and Let Go also work as imperatives, for both the audience and the characters. And these work in two ways, one more manipulative than the first.
The Remember side is summed up by the flashback-montage-heavy nature of the finale. Lost has its cake and eats it: when each character realises what the nature of their situation is, they have a pulse of nostalgic reverie, which conveniently takes the form of a Best Of clip montage, like the kind you’d get in the finale of your standard sitcom. An imperative that someone dying might want, and what any show coming to an end might want to give its fans: Remember the good times! See, wasn’t it a blast?
The problem comes when you think about ‘Let Go’. The second point of the Flash Sideways Universe is for the characters to realise, to convince one another, that this wish-fulfilment is not only unreal, but that the wish itself is wrong: they shouldn’t be regretting the island and what happened on it: despite all the manipulation and suffering, it was the most important part of their lives, and accepting that, convincing each other of that is what they’ll need to move on. And in the same way, the audience is being told that whatever happened on the island, i.e. the six seasons of the show, was all for the best: accept this, convince each other of this, and you’ll all be able to move on from your fandom.
The island in Lost is spiritually blackmailing the characters. The ending of Lost is making the audience a similarly dubious offer. It’s fitting the sequence ends with lots of cultish hugging and smiling followed by a fade to blank.
What if the ending then of The Tree of Life is as manipulative and schmaltzy as the ending of Lost? The TV show taking a shot at something sublime but ending up as a bit pretentious; the film struggling to find a balance between sermon and art and falling into kitsch. Because, in the end, you can’t aim for the sublime. It’s not only because both have main characters called Jack that The Tree of Life’s script notes could have come from the final episode of Lost:
Paradise is not a place here or there… Men and women embrace in the dawn, reunited at last… Jack has crossed over death’s threshold, gone beyond space and time… Eternity — that realm of pure and endless light — how shall we represent it?… A solitary island.
The problem with being charitable in your interpretations is that the things you want to be charitable towards sometimes just aren’t helping. Sure, it can be good to make things ambiguous, but the endings for both The Tree of Life and Lost aren’t ambiguous so much as conceptually muddled. You have to work at them if only to stop yourself from feeling had.
A.I. Artificial Intelligence demonstrates too how, as much as you can make yourself believe at a cerebral level that there’s ambiguity in a work, its execution can still fail you. And this problem is not just down to style, but to something more fundamental: the concept of the afterlife being used.
In the ending of A.I., the child robot / Pinocchio-surrogate David is dug up from ice thousands of years in the future, at the foot of an ancient funfair statue of the Blue Fairy, by robotic (or ‘mecha’) archaeologists. They switch him back on and after reading his memory, make his wish come true: to be a real boy and be loved by his mother: the afterlife as Oedipal wish-fulfilment.
Or is it another fantasy? It’s not certain that David’s been turned into a real boy or been reunited with his resurrected foster mother. The future mechas’ explanation for why David can only spend one day with her — ‘we created her from DNA but she won’t last because space-time’ — sounds a lot like a parental euphemism. Then there’s the shot of the future mechas looking down into David’s Perfect Day through a floating oval portal, not quite screen or window, suggesting the whole thing might be a simulation. (If it was actually happening in physical reality, surely they could just look.)
By this interpretation, A.I. doesn’t have a happy ending. Even our superior robot descendants will be quixotically obsessed with their origin like humans were. They’ll idealise the extinct humans, ones that haven’t exactly been shown in the best light: polluters, bullies, a mother abandoning her (robot) child, lynch mobs, decadent porn cities, mad scientists. Yet because of his connection to those humans, David will be seen by the future mechas as a holy relic: he who knew The Creators! And pitying him, they’ll put him out of his misery: ‘make him a real boy’ and mock up his mother loving him with consummate art and naturalness, before letting him go to ‘that place where dreams are made’ i.e. die.
Not a vastly better ending, but at least it’s not the typical Spielberg one. The enduring mystery of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood copping out so often: that he doesn’t need to suggests he wants to end his films exactly as he does. And, as he’s often grumpily pointing out, the ending of A.I. is “where Stanley would have taken the movie.”
But would he have done it quite like that? The Perfect Day ending of A.I. is still scored by John Williams at his most hotel-lounge-piano syrupy, rather than with something to reflect the fact that David is being made to believe something that isn’t true before being put down. (Redub the last scene of the film with such old Kubrick faves as György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki…) The ending of A.I. might be on some level unhappy, but Spielberg still doesn’t want you to leave the cinema feeling that.
Similarly, even if Jack O’Brien has, in some sense, fantasised the ending of The Tree of Life, the film doesn’t then bring us back down to a world that’s obviously being contrasted as the real one. In the American Dream soliloquy ending of 25th Hour, the father consoles his son with a wish so utopian they both know it won’t come true. Whereas in The Tree of Life, Jack smiles after his wish-fulfilment as if to say: Yes of course!
Compare this assurance to Malick’s The Thin Red Line, and what’s framed in voice-over by one of the soldiers, Pvt. Train: “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain… Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.” When a dying Japanese soldier talks at Pvt. Dale, who can’t understand him (and who is trying to ignore him, seeing as he’s about to pull his teeth out) the soundtrack is Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Later, Pvt. Witt, the character most likely to feel ‘something smiling through’, gets shot to death. At his grave, Sgt. Welsh asks, “Where’s your spark now?”
By the end, any consolation the surviving soldiers have found — not that they look that consoled, marching back to shore at the end — is countered by the sight of a war cemetery. Pvt. Train looks down at the ship’s wake as they leave the island, and his voice-over takes the form of a request, a prayer even: “Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”
The prayer is made — that’s it. It’s not obeyed or answered, not by what we’ve seen in the film just gone, and it’s not answered in the closing shots. The point of it, the reason it’s moving, is that it’s even being expressed (after all that). The soul addressed is the one of soulless conditions. That’s the key problem with The Tree of Life; it tries too hard to show us all things shining (‘to eff the ineffable’). Malick should have taken advice: Never go Full Religious.
For the world is more full of tears
Eschatology used to be in part about justice, if not in this world then the next. Hence the afterlife as the Perfect City (not just some kid’s Perfect Day). These days, our concepts of the afterlife are just about us as individuals, getting what we always wanted, having our dreams come true. A.I. at least suggests that such an afterlife would have to be artificial, that the wishes it fulfilled would necessarily be solipsistic (David’s real mother never did and never could love him). The afterlife in Lost is artificial, at least the first stage, and the wishes fulfilled there a distraction at worst, and at best a lesson to take before getting to the light. But getting to the light still comes with reuniting and working out your personal issues with your family and friends.
Writing about Dante’s Paradise, Robert Baird refers to modern takes on the afterlife such as The Lovely Bones and The Five People You Meet in Heaven: “For the same reasons that he looked to heaven for justice rather than therapy, Dante rejected this comforting view of literature. He wanted his poem to save your soul, not to salve it.” After all, are your dreams coming true what you actually need? What if you don’t want to spend eternity with your loved ones? And why be so certain that the world’s tears have been answered, are over at last? The Tree of Life might be about grief and death, but it still gives us a capital-B Beautiful view of things that’s not overly complicated: and this includes its take on the afterlife.
At the end of the film, Jack O’Brien is reunited in some form with his parents. Similarly reunited, Jack in Lost asks his father “Are you real?” to which his father says, “I hope so!” David’s mother at the end of A.I. isn’t real, just a simulation that’s been programmed to love him (like he’s a simulation programmed to love her): but at least she’s nice about it and not kept around long enough to raise too many questions.
This is the bind: we still want an afterlife recognisable as a human life, with human relations, but with everything patched up and issues put to bed; and since it’s more easily presentable and comprehensible this way, it’s also how our culture now tends to portray it. And yet at the same time, we want these portrayals to be magically free of human life’s complications. In the absence of a radical change to that life, we are left with what Nabokov once described in Despair:
Indeed, imagine yourself just dead — and suddenly wide awake in Paradise where, wreathed in smiles, your dear dead welcome you.
Now tell me, please, what guarantee do you possess that those beloved ghosts are genuine; that it is really your dear dead mother and not some pretty demon mystifying you, masked as your mother and impersonating her with consummate art and naturalness? There is the rub; there is the horror; the more so as the acting will go on and on, endlessly; never, never, never, never, never will your soul in that world be quite sure that the gentle spirits crowding about it are not fiends in disguise, and forever, and forever shall your soul remain in doubt.