Sunday, June 05, 2011

'The Tree of Life' as a Psalm of Lament

Terrence Malick's new film, The Tree of Life, is a strange thing of beauty. Nothing can really prepare you for what you see. In it, life is in the details. It's about nothing, yet everything (as well as nothingness and everythingness). It's not a story, but contains within it a million tiny stories. Like the picture/poster to the left illustrates, it's a film about new life, new creation, beginnings, taking steps, growing up. Walking through the chaos in the cosmos, so to speak. Yet, it's also about the lines and creases on the bottom of our feet. They get dirty, messy. They age. We age. From the groaning of creation (via God, evolution and nature) Malick whisks us away into a dark (but beautifully lit) world. Generational sin is there. Goodness is there. Grace is there.

The Tree of Life is like the perfect/ultimate 'Psalm of Lament' film. It captures, in so many ways, the pain, the screams, the disappointments in life (to the good and bad of us--which is all of us, at some point). No one is exempt. Everyone suffers. Some of us, suffer a hell of a lot more. Yet, like the Jewish and Egyptian Wisdom Literature traditions teach us (e.g., the Old Testament Writings), after the storm comes the sun. And Malick captures this beautiful sun(set) and sun(rise) over and over, again and again. Could Malick be suggesting something here? Something about this glowing sun over a suffering setting? Simply put, it seems to be a daily reminder to him (and to all of us) that pain is not eternal. Like the Psalms of Lament express, 'joy comes in the morning.' Heartache will not win out. Suffering will, eventually, end.

Yet, some endings (as the film's beginning reveals) are the hardest on those left behind. So how to cope? How to go on? How to survive? How to grow up with a conscience full of sorrow, regret, deep loss? And how, if ever, can you let it all go? Should you let it all go? Can you forget the painful past, even when riding the elevator up a glass-highrise tower at the age of 50?

In Buddhism, the writings talk about 'the way to the end of suffering.' In a strange, mystical sense, The Tree of Life tries to explore this way, this path, this journey through time--from birth to death. By the film's end, you'll feel as though you've re-lived your own life, too. And even if you don't feel so much for the characters, you see (by the film's end) that the characters you're watching are really fragments of yourself. Fragments of your past lives. Past selves. The ones you've been and lost through the sands of time. Those selves that can be found walking around in the desert searching for a place to call home.

The metaphor of the 'home' is a powerful one in The Tree of Life. It's where life is conceived, where joy swings, and where cruelty lurks. It's also one that (in the end) is lost. Abandoned. Gone. Never to return to again (at least, not in this life, not in this world). Why is that? Garden State talked about home being an 'imaginary place'. This is, according to that film, what defines a family: "a group of people that miss the same imaginary place." There are echoes of this understanding of home all throughout The Tree of Life. It's like a childhood portal where everything looks beautiful but feels tragic. The kind of tragic look that comes when you visit a place that no longer exists.

But that's not all this film is about. I think one of its biggest themes is wonder (a word that's even uttered a few times by its characters). Its the film's own understanding of awe. The way the film's wonder perceives nature and the evolution of humanity that surrounds it. This wonder feels alive, and new. It's like the film is seeing these images for the very first time. That freshness, that child-like-life angle of perception, is captivating. You start to imagine what a baby must be thinking when he/she enters the world (if he/she could cognitively describe what a messy array of images they're encountering, daily). Thus, being fascinated with images (arresting images) is also one of the film's many wonders. A wonder it's asking its viewers to take seriously. To think. To feel. And most important of all, to see. But not just 'to see', but to see, anew.

For how many times have we looked at a tree and seen only a tree? Just a tree? Sitting there on top of a stump spitting out leaves for us to rake up, pick up, clean up?

And how many times, conversely, have we looked at a tree and seen (and thought, and breathed in) the word, the image, the object that is, life? The tree as life-giving? As nature's expression of grace? As the tree of life?

Not often enough.

1 comment:

Christen said...

beautifully said. We met a few years ago through Holly and Nate - and I just discovered your thoughtful, well-written blog. Thanks for sharing.