Son of Man, on the Shore of Being

The final shot of The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, not counting the flicker of light that opens and closes the film, is a bridge spanning what looks like an immense body of water, reaching towards a blue green landscape, all set against a blue gray sky. The stability of the pillar on the near side and the majesty of the bridge itself are not at all out of place with the natural scene around it.

The shot of the bridge is representative of the entire film. Not only does it feature no actors, no lines, no words like a lot of the film, and not only does it appeal to the visual taste of the viewer in a purely cinematic sense, it also says something. It sounds bizarre to say that a screenshot in a film is supposed to say something (the screenshot is, after all the medium of film, much as words are to literature or shape is to sculpture). But so many films are solely focused on the actors saying their lines, propelling the plot forward, the screenshot takes backseat. (Although in action films, special effects let it sneak back in, but only in a supporting role.) Here, the screenshot takes center stage…so to speak.

What are we bridging? Well, at the very beginning of the film we are told (this time in a voiceover) that there are two kinds of lives. There is the natural life: selfish, focused on itself and perpetually unhappy; and there is the life of grace, which accepts that neither fortune nor misfortune are within its control, is focused on others, but can lead to happiness (I don’t want to say that it does, lest we introduce any guarantees that are not there).

But this is not a Woody Allen flick. We are not going to have a bunch of characters who exhibit various moral choices and see how those play out, as much as I like Woody Allen and those films. Malick’s problem is different. All of nature, the Universe, the Cosmos, everything outside of Man belongs to this first kind of life, it seems to me The Tree of Life is saying. The Universe is a strange and uncaring place. It is at once the place where we live, but the place that could wipe us out in a (cosmological) instant without batting an eye. God, if he’s out there, belongs to this world too. God is the God of the Universe, and our pleas that goodness be rewarded in kind, piety with righteousness, kindness with justice – fall on deaf ears.

However, there is a hitch in this metaphysics. (We’re not in an Albert Camus novel either, although I love those too.) As alien and hostile this whole world is to us, we are a tiny little budding leaf on a tree growing out of a ball of melted metal, and so part of that tree and that world. How come we even have this possibility of a life of grace, when the rest of the universe (including everything on the tree of life save us) belongs only to the life of nature?

Did I mention that Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are in the movie? Yeah, well, that’s another thing about the film: the main character – it’s not either of them. It’s the boy, the young Jack, son of Brad Pitt’s character, who grows into Sean Penn. (There is a long and proud tradition of directors to whom actors are what Orson Welles called ‘talking props,’ and Sean Penn and Jessica Chastain, both good actors in their own right elsewhere, fit neatly into that category here.) Young Jack, and of course, his brother. It’s odd to have him be the second lead, when he’s really not there. He dies at the very beginning of the film, only has a few words to say, and is largely a memory for Jack throughout.

As is boys’ wont, Jack belongs to the natural life. We watch him develop from cell structure to teenager. His behavior never quite crosses into wickedness, but he is full of mischief, in the way that a house pet will persist at something it was told not to do, or react to a perceived attack. We watch him continue down this path until we hear him whisper “I have lost them. How do I get them back?” Them is his family.

From there to where we meet Sean Penn, forty years on, is the long road of going towards the life of grace. We watch him walk with his wife through a desert landscape (where previously he was alone), walking through a doorframe made from wood and supported by rocks, on a terrain that resembles the Moon, and most significantly for me, we see him walk through a city plaza seeing the sky, birds and trees reflected in tall glass buildings. Which brings me back to the screenshots. The awesomeness of nature that is shown throughout most of the film yields more and more to man made structures towards the end. But they are shown in shots equally imposing and awe-inspiring as the previous natural phenomena. Although they are highly artificial, Malick sews them, like the bridge at the very end, seamlessly in the fabric of the Universe.

Paradoxically, as long as Man chooses the life of nature, he is cut of from it, demanding justice where there can be none; when he starts living the life grace, he is able to see himself as part and parcel of the Universe. Grace is the natural life of Man.

***

Clearly, this is a film that does not even pretend to appeal to wide audiences. Movie theaters must be feeling the heat from people who go into this one without knowing what they’re in for. Hence, a movie theater posted this warning.
(via Kafka on the Shore)

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