Friday, January 13, 2012

Always You Wrestle Inside Me: The Tree Of Life

The Tree Of Life testifies to the great potential of a writer also getting to direct their material and realize his complete vision as Terence Malik does in this extraordinarily deep film. What's so great about it? That finally, the abyss of silence is being tapped by film makers and being given a leading role in modern art.
The film opens with the quote from Job 38: 4, 7: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? . . When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? If this verse turns you off, then don't watch the film; if this verse inspires you, and you haven't seen it, watch it as soon as you can, but be prepared for an unorthodox film experience, because this is one of the most experimental (but still mainstream) films I have ever seen. And I mean "experimental" in the very best, theological sense: the images, the sounds and the conflicts all work to build a definite but intimate and real theology, a genuine encounter with God and each other, especially those who have hurt us.
The O'Brien family (part of it): Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien (Mother), Brad Pitt as Mr. O'Brien (Father) and Hunter McCracken as young Jack O'Brien (as his adult self he is played by Sean Penn). Jack has two younger brothers, R.L. and Steve, and R.L. dies when he is 19.
Many critics have had a difficult time "describing" the film, mostly labeling it (in positive and negative reviews alike) as "aesthetic." This is partly true, our spiritual state is mostly subjective, however, the film definitely climbs, like a vine, upon the sturdy framework of theology and the common teachings of Christianity. Mr. O'Brien (Father, Brad Pitt) clearly shows us the path of "nature" and the appetites; his desire is for wealth and recognition, to "be loved because his is a big man" and an important man and these desires create for him a disposition difficult (to say the least) for his sons to live with.
Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O'Brien (Mother). Her husband calls her naive.
The diametrical opposition to Mr. O'Brien is his wife, played by Jessica Chastain, who gives us the picture of a life of grace, a hard life, but a life that seeks to unite itself with God. A somewhat startling indication of this is when we see Mrs. O'Brien floating beneath a tree, being raised up and lifted, whirling around. Many critics have focused on this scene as a perfect example of why the film is "weird," yet it's perfectly in step with tradition: a heart not burdened by sin is "lifted up to God," and despite her grieving for her son (the middle child, R.L. dies when he is 19) she is still able to lift up her heart to God and accept what has happened even as she grieves and experiences intense pain.
Mr. O'Brien at the piano with his second son, R.L. out on the porch playing his guitar. There is an aspect of Brad Pitt's character that I noticed in several shots, and perhaps it's just me, but it seems that the most photographed man in the world was intentionally doing something to his lower lip in the film to alter his appearance in some scenes, especially profile shots. If it is not just my imagination, it was an effective means of illustrating how "unnatural" his words to his children are in the story because the lips are used in speech, and for the lip to be deformed means that his words are deformed, i.e., "Give your father a kiss," when he says it in the film, there is an aspect of the repugnant because it seems demanding and manipulative, not loving and familial.
Mr. O'Brien, on the other hand, wanted to be a musician, but denied himself that dream. What is so sad is, he didn't just deny himself that dream, but he thwarted God's plan for him. It is the desire of the heart by which God leads us to fulfill our destiny and the purpose for which we were created; the fulfilling of our heart's desire is the act of a Father's love for His child. That Mr. O'Brien denied God by denying his desire to become a musician, and denied the gift of music he was given, Mr. O'Brien, not having experienced the love of God the Father cannot give the genuine, full expression of his fatherly love to his three sons (he tries to, but because he didn't learn how to be a father from the Father, he fails at being a father).
Why does Mr. O'Brien grow cabbages? The Roman Emperor Diocletian also grew cabbages after his retirement from the last and bloodiest persecution of Christians in history. There is an important scene when Jack stands outside the fence shown in the picture above, and watches his father in his nice suit squatting in the garden and pulling out the rotted cabbage leaves from where the worms had eaten them; but the whole of each cabbage has been eaten by worms. Because the garden is a stable symbol for the soul (the Garden of Eden and the Garden of Olives, for example) the seeds which Mr. O'Brien has sown "has been eaten by the worm," a symbolic reference to hell and the book of Revelations.
Whereas the three boys see their father as a hypocrite, they all seem to adore their mother, Mrs. O'Brien, who adores them. It's not that the father is bad and the mother is good, but the nurturing love which a mother provides is craved by all of us, especially when it's a matter of the hard lessons of the Cross we must learn instead of the sweet consolations of the Spirit for which we long, which brings us to perhaps the most enigmatic part of the film.
Jack O'Brien becomes like his father despite Jack's hatred of him.
Jack enters the Kimball's house, a neighbor, after they have left; the front door is open so he goes in. He wanders around and then goes upstairs; opening the drawers, he finds jewelry, including a pearl bracelet, and he handles a brush and a hand-mirror, then takes out several dress slips, holding them up and laying them out on the bed, then he takes one of them and leaves the house. He runs down to the river and first puts the slip under a board, but as a boat whizzes by, he takes the slip and puts it in the water where it floats away downstream.
Why did he steal the slip and what does it mean?
Mother, Mrs. O'Brien, walking through a salt desert (the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, I think?). The reason this is an apt spiritual journey for one living in a state of grace is twofold: first, the rough ways have been made smooth, there is no hindrance to her walking her path of life (no rocks to divert her path or make her trip) and secondly, she has fulfilled Christ's command to be the "salt of the earth,": she has preserved in her heart all the teachings of the Lord to get her through her troubles, such as her son's death, but she has not preserved the grief and pain she has experienced in life (salt is a preservative and it's an apt parable for what our heart chooses to hold onto or let go of and how that effects our spiritual development). The overall bluish hue of the setting symbolizes wisdom.
It's not a mere device to show the wounds of Original Sin and how, if we are not actively living a life of grace we are digressing and those wounds are taking over more and more of our soul. Rather, it shows what we all do everyday: wish for someone else's life. The Kimball's house symbolizes their soul (as I have discussed many times, please see "House" in How To Eat Art) and Jack going into it illustrates for us Jack wanting to be a member of the Kimball household rather than his own (despite the fights he witnesses taking place there). That the front door is unlocked shows us how easy it is to do, to fantasize of being someone or something else than what we are. His going up the stairs, again, represents entering a higher plane of thought, so he's really deliberating on what it would be like to be, for example, as wealthy as they are. When Jack gets to the upstairs bedroom, what he does and doesn't do are the important characteristics to examine.
Jack as an adult (Sean Penn) with his wife. This scene is cut from the final film, however, when we first see Jack as an adult, he and his wife in their bedroom, it is obvious that they are drifting apart. Mrs. O'Brien, his wife, does something strange. She goes down the stairs of the very nice, expensive looking modern home, and she comes back in with a long, green vine. "I am the vine and you are the branches," Christ said, so for her to go out and bring it inside means she is stepping outside of their marriage (the house) and bringing in Christ (the vine). The house, as I noted, is very modern looking, like the area where Jack works: very industrialized and modern, clean straight lines and every compartmentalized. We are intentionally led into this "sterile" house so, when Jack walks through the wilderness (pictures below) we can see how, not only the lines, but the whole atmosphere creates the discourse between the industrialized and nature, between the artificially straight and clean and the beauty and mystery of the natural.
Jack doesn't have to steal anything.
He isn't doing this as a dare from a friend or anything like that; he picks up objects, such as a brush, but a brush isn't what he wants because a brush is an act of discipline (the hair illustrates a state of mind, that's why Mother O'Brien is always "combing" the boys' hair with her fingers, to remind them of her love for them); Jack picks up a pearl bracelet but puts it back, it doesn't seem to fit. Pearls are always a gem of wisdom, the fruit of contemplation ("Cast not your pearls before swine") and because these pearls are meant to be worn on the wrist, a symbol of strength, Jack doesn't want them, he doesn't want his strength to come from wisdom, like his dad, Jack wants power, money and influence.
Jack in the office; I believe this image, too, was cut from the final film, however, the mask to Jack's left is dropped into water; the social mask which not only keeps others from us, but keeps us from our true self, must be let down because it also keeps us from growing. That it is dropped in water refers, of course, to grace, and the cleansing which we receive when we have "given up our idols" and turned to the Lord "with our whole heart," not allowing any of it to be hidden beneath a mask protecting us.
So why does Jack take the slip?
The slip is the intimate clothing of a woman (a few scenes later, we see Mrs. O'Brien in her bedroom in her slip) and so it is Jack wanting the kind of consolation from God (the Holy Spirit) that God gives to the Kimballs because Jack's mother is the one who gives him the nurturing love he needs, wants and craves, but, as he hangs around his friends and increasingly does "bad things," (breaking windows with stones, for example) he wants to have what God has given to another, and rejects what God has given to him. So he takes the slip because he is revolting against how hard his father is being on him and wants more of his mother's love instead.
A room submerged in water; the door opens and Jack swims out of the room. It's not only his childhood memories, but that part of him that has stayed a child and refused to grow up; the part of him who has refused to go through the doorways where the Holy Spirit has tried to lead him on his way. In this scene, we have a perfect illustration of water as a destructive element: he would drown if he didn't get out, but throughout the film are also the examples of water as life-giving and the element of God's Grace, life to the soul.
Yet Jack instantly knows, running to the river, that he has betrayed himself (not only because he has committed a crime) but because he has tried to become someone else (entering into the Kimball home). He puts the slip, first under the board, because he's suffering for what he has done (the board is a piece of the Cross and the sufferings of Jesus Christ upon the Cross) so, because his "fantasies" of being like the Kimballs instead of his own family, he realizes that he has sinned, he has committed a spiritual crime against himself and, by putting it in the river, he abandons those fantasies but abandoning the fantasy isn't enough because, a little later, Jack repeats to his father something he heard when Mr. and Mrs. Kimball were fighting one night, that Mr. O'Brien can throw Jack out of the house at any time. So, Jack tries to repent of the spiritual envy he has committed in longing for the gifts that God has given to another, and sacrificed the gifts that God has given to him, but the wounds of his actions are still there in his soul.
Mr. O'Brien with his second son, R.L. who dies when he is 19. R.L. and Jack are close and one day, Jack holds a lamp and wants R.L. to stick the end of a wire into the socket of the lamp, then stick his finger. R.L. tells Jack, "I trust you," and he does it and nothing happens. Later, after Jack has stolen the slip, the two boys are playing in the woods and Jack tells R.L. to put his finger over the end of his loaded air gun; R.L. does it and Jack fires, seriously hurting R.L.'s finger. Trying to make up, it's only after Jack apologizes to R.L. that he can be forgiven, yet Jack refuses to forgive his father.
Jack, "playing" with his friends, throws stones through an old window, shattering the glass. This is important because it demonstrates for us exactly how that process of free will is involved in the "turning away" from God. The windows are, of course, self-reflection and the gift of meditation; because the Bible uses the imagery of rocks to denote "hardness of heart" and sin, then the rocks are the accumulation of sins which Jack commits that erodes his ability to meditate and pray (as he prays in the beginning but loses the ability to do throughout the film).
The spiritual desert the older Jack finds his soul in later in life. On the very edge of the right of this picture is a door frame; the door is especially a favorite device of the monk Thomas Merton, and James Finley's The Palace of Nowhere is a mystical summary of the writings of Merton which are highly applicable to The Tree of Life. This barren and rocky desert Jack realizes his soul is in differs from the salt "desert" his mother is in (pictured above) because the large rocks (pictured above) represent the sins of his life and how much work has to be done to make level the ground to prepare the Way for the Lord, but his entering through the doorway means that he has committed himself to doing just that.
Doorways, in the film, symbolize free will, because each time we make a decision, we enter into a new path, through a doorway that takes us some place. That is what the film is about, beginning to end, our free will, which is God's greatest gift to us, and we either use it to benefit us and bring us closer to Him, or we use it to hurt ourselves and distance ourselves from Him. Jack, by the end of the film, has finally realized that he has wasted his life and, following his father who, at the church, had lit a red prayer candle for a prayer request (red is the color of love, so we can guess that he was praying for his family, like the prayers before the family meals he said, asking for God to bless them); Jack, however, lights a blue candle; why?
One of the many spectacular nature shots of the film. One reviewer wrote of all the nature scenes that we see a mother grieving for the loss of her son (Mother O'Brien grieving for the death of R.L.) and it's not supposed to be a big deal because the cosmos is so big and large, her and her grief are insignificant; but that's not the message, that's not the message at all. The violence, for example, of the erupting volcano, reflects in nature the spiritual state within us when we are "erupting" and being torn apart by grief, misery, unhappiness and loneliness. The point is, the same modes of creation we see in nature, the same beauty and mystery, God also uses in our own, private, individual souls. Looking at nature should ease the pain we feel of being the only ones who suffer, or questioning why I am the only one suffering; the violence within us is expressed by the natural violence around us, comforting us to see how, despite the destruction that seems to be taking place, God will bring a greater good from it, inside and outside of us.
Blue is either the color of wisdom (as with Mother O'Brien above in the salt desert) or it is the color of depression. Since Jack has not lived as he should, in the Lord's presence, we can guess that it is his general state of depression which has led him to pray to God once more and has him cultivating a spirit of meditation and self-examination, leading him back to "the Father."
"That's where God lives."
I truly consider this film to be a masterpiece, because it communicates what is rarely (if ever) communicated in film: the pain and longing of the soul, God speaking to the soul in our deepest selves, without using words, but using Love instead, how we respond to that Love and how we turn against that Love, and then how we desperately seek out that Love long after we have abandoned it. I hope this will be a film influencing other film makers in its great talent for speaking directly to the heart in the language it knows best: silence and stillness. (Not to mention the great music, including a long-time favorite of mine, the Lacrimosa movement from Zbigniew Preisner's Requiem For My Friend).  The whole film is a prayer, and the numerous awards and honors it has received is very encouraging for the future of Hollywood.