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The Tree of Life (2011)


Overstreet
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If I have ever seen a Gnostic movie, this film is among the farthest from it.

If I have ever seen a film that is anti-community, this film is among the farthest from it.

And yet, Godawa levels these two accusations at it directly. Remarkable.

But I think his problems began before he saw the movie. I don't know what a "Gnostic, monastic" idea of God might be. To be a monk is not to be a gnostic, but to embody a particular kind of spiritual service for all humankind.

And for what it's worth - his argument that Malick's previous films demonstrate "self-absorbed pretention" is also the opposite of what I experience. Malick, more than any American filmmaker I know, is absorbed in something far greater than himself. He's absorbed in the glory of natural revelation, and in the conflict of sin and grace embodied in human behavior, in nature, in history, in mystery.

I totally agree with you. And just to add to that - Godawa complains about the ending specifically, but, at least on my first viewing, it seems to me that part of Jack's coming to faith is the memory of reconciliation and forgiveness between he and his brother/father. And it also seems significant to me that the ending - which shows Jack reunited (metaphorically, I presume) with his family and with other people - offers a sharp contrast to his "walking alone in the desert," an alienation which seemed to have started when he didn't want to be seen by his mother after his trespassing and thievery. No, the end of the film doesn't seem individualistic at all. Sure, by focusing on memory, it dramatizes the interior life, but it very clearly shows the affects of community on that interior life and how Jack's coming to faith is very much about his being reconciled not only horizontally, but also laterally (so to speak)...

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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Overstreet says:

If I have ever seen a Gnostic movie, this film is among the farthest from it.

Absolutely.

To be honest I kind of have a tough time grasping some of Gnostic thought. Mostly because some of

the early Gnosticism that I've read about was so nutty.

I think that the Tree of Life actually argues against at least one aspect of Gnosticism, which is the extreme dualism, being the thinking that the spiritual is

good and the natural is evil.

All of the beautiful scenes of nature seem to take care to depict God's love and care in the design of his creation. The majesty of the

galaxy, the wonderful beauty of bringing a living creature into the world.

If I was to place terms onto the film I would read Panentheism into it's understanding of the creation, being God in all things and all things in God. Which is

probably in some ways almost the opposite of Gnosticism.

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Brian Godawa, author of Hollywood Worldviews and the screenplay for To End All Wars:

a Gnostic monastic idea of God; we understand his fullness through humanity as well, in human connection and community. It is the point of the Incarnation, God and man.

Good heavens. I could not disagree with his assessment more than I do.

Good heavens, indeed. Godawa apparently doesn't know the first thing about monasticism, does he?

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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Someday I'm going to make it all the way through this thread and post my thoughts. Probably long after anyone cares. But yes, Godawa is off his rocker.

Nathaniel K. Carter

www.nkcarter.com

"Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books." - C.S. Lewis

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Finally had a chance to see this tonight; this was the first time it came to a theater within 50 miles of my house (happens fairly often, actually). Considering how long it took me, I was surprised by how much I didn't know about the story: that a child dies, how the creation tableau fits in, that the kid is really the star, that it ends in heaven (if that's where that was).

I wasn't sure if Sean Penn was grown-up Jack through the whole movie, but IMDB says so, so I guess it's true, and not worth spoiler-tagging. Right now, I have one smaller question and one bigger question. They've probably been covered in the thread already, but like Nicholas, I don't have the patience to wade through 600 posts at the moment.

Smaller question: which son died? I'm not sure it matters that much, since the other two kids weren't differentiated a whole lot. My assumption was that it's the middle child, since he's the one Jack was closest to. Did he die in the military, too? I wasn't sure about that either.

Bigger question: Was the answer to the meta-narrative "Why does God let his happen?" question repeated throughout the movie that it took all of the pain and tragedy we see in the movie to get everyone to the place where they could arrive on heaven beach? And, unless I'm remembering it wrong, weren't both young and grown-up Jack there? And and, why was everyone we saw on the beach at the age they were through most of the movie, and not the age when they died (assuming they did, of course)?

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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Smaller question: which son died? I'm not sure it matters that much, since the other two kids weren't differentiated a whole lot. My assumption was that it's the middle child, since he's the one Jack was closest to. Did he die in the military, too? I wasn't sure about that either.

I thought that it was the middle son. The film took care to show more of a connection between the older two kids, and also to show the father mistreating the middle son. The youngest just wasn't as prominent. These things certainly led me to identify with the middle son being the one.

I don't remember the film clarifying this for sure, or indicating how he died.

Edited by Attica
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Tyler wrote:

: Did he die in the military, too? I wasn't sure about that either.

I don't believe the film ever specifies the cause of the brother's death. In real life, Malick's brother committed suicide, so if you assume that that was the cause of death in the movie, too, it casts all the family reminiscences in a certain light.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Fwiw, I remain unconvinced that that was some sort of "afterlife" at the end of the film. Jack does not seem to have died. I take his initial desert wandering to be a metaphor for his lost state in the modern world he is presently inhabiting. His eventual wandering leads - as it coincides with his reminiscing - to his coming to faith, I think. His walking through an open door, walking up a ladder, reuniting with loved ones - all of this signals to me a metaphor for his reuniting with grace (after his "fall from grace" so to speak). After this montage, we see Jack smile - the masked disguise of disgrace has been disrobed - he has returned "home." And, in the last couple of shots - the sky reflected in the skyscraper, a large modern bridge depicted in such a way to show a great passage - we see signals of Grace not triumphant over nature, but grace reflected in nature: creation reconciled to its given nature.

I try to unpack this in my review over at C & PC.

http://www.christandpopculture.com/featured/nostalgia-for-the-absolute-in-terrence-malicks-the-tree-of-life/

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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Fwiw, I remain unconvinced that that was some sort of "afterlife" at the end of the film. Jack does not seem to have died. I take his initial desert wandering to be a metaphor for his lost state in the modern world he is presently inhabiting. His eventual wandering leads - as it coincides with his reminiscing - to his coming to faith, I think. His walking through an open door, walking up a ladder, reuniting with loved ones - all of this signals to me a metaphor for his reuniting with grace (after his "fall from grace" so to speak). After this montage, we see Jack smile - the masked disguise of disgrace has been disrobed - he has returned "home." And, in the last couple of shots - the sky reflected in the skyscraper, a large modern bridge depicted in such a way to show a great passage - we see signals of Grace not triumphant over nature, but grace reflected in nature: creation reconciled to its given nature.

I try to unpack this in my review over at C & PC.

http://www.christand...e-tree-of-life/

I saw this for the second time yesterday, and I wholeheartedly agree. I think it takes a lot of contortion to imagine that Jack is seeing heaven. After all, his father, at least, is still alive. We see him talking to him on the phone. Also, the first person we see him following into the mountains is himself as a boy, which also wouldn't make much sense if this was intended to be a vision of a present or future heaven.

Smaller question: which son died? I'm not sure it matters that much, since the other two kids weren't differentiated a whole lot. My assumption was that it's the middle child, since he's the one Jack was closest to. Did he die in the military, too? I wasn't sure about that either.

I thought that it was the middle son. The film took care to show more of a connection between the older two kids, and also to show the father mistreating the middle son. The youngest just wasn't as prominent. These things certainly led me to identify with the middle son being the one.

I don't remember the film clarifying this for sure, or indicating how he died.

I think it's obvious from the mother's look of joyous disbelief on being reunited with this particular son that it's the middle child that dies. Also, it's the middle child who walks away through the door (after/before?) the mother says that she's releasing the child to God. This latter image is another reason I don't think the "people milling around" image at the end is not heaven. Also, someone earlier said that one reason they believed that the closing image is heaven is that they didn't see anyone else from Jack's past other than his family. This isn't true: we see the burn victim kid and (I think) the woman whose nightgown he stole.

Edited by old wave
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My other thought was that people are mishandling the mother's frame: "the way of nature v. the way of grace". For one thing, I think it's a bit odd to say that Malick mislabeled "the way of nature", and that it should have been called "the way of will". While it's true that this might have made things a bit more obvious, I don't think it would have made it more accurate. Post-Eden, the "natural order of things" IS the way of will.

Secondly, I think it is a mistake to think that Malick takes the mother's frame completely credulously. After all, immediately after the mother claims that nothing bad can come to someone who follows the way of grace, we hear about the death of the middle brother. Since he, along with his mother, are avatars of the way of grace, this early death (especially if you take into consideration Malick's brother's own suicide) serves as a direct challenge to this view.

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Old Wave said:

I think it's obvious from the mother's look of joyous disbelief on being reunited with this particular son that it's the middle child that dies. Also, it's the middle child who walks away through the door (after/before?) the mother says that she's releasing the child to God. This latter image is another reason I don't think the "people milling around" image at the end is not heaven. Also, someone earlier said that one reason they believed that the closing image is heaven is that they didn't see anyone else from Jack's past other than his family. This isn't true: we see the burn victim kid and (I think) the woman whose nightgown he stole.

Edited by Attica
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I saw this for the second time yesterday, and I wholeheartedly agree. I think it takes a lot of contortion to imagine that Jack is seeing heaven. After all, his father, at least, is still alive. We see him talking to him on the phone. Also, the first person we see him following into the mountains is himself as a boy, which also wouldn't make much sense if this was intended to be a vision of a present or future heaven.

Yeah, it does make more sense this way, especially if you look at Sean Penn's character as an interior journey. That's what I wanted it to be, but I wasn't sure I was reading it right.

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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Old Wave said:

Post-Eden, the "natural order of things" IS the way of will.

Think so?

I dunno. I wonder if the natural order of things is to do the fathers will. Maybe when we are doing our will and not God's we are

walking outside of God's created order, or design and intent. After all Jesus said to pray that "thy will be done on earth as it

is in heaven". Could it be that this prayer has the intention of lining us up with the natural order of things.

Hopefully this comment isn't to off track from the Tree of Life discussion.

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Post-Eden, the "natural order of things" IS the way of will.

But does TREE OF LIFE leave room for an Eden?

I have a hard time seeing that the film makes room for a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of Eden.

It very well could make room for the mythological view of Eden, being that it seems to view humanity

as originally being created wonderful by God, yet existing in a fallen world.

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Post-Eden, the "natural order of things" IS the way of will.

But does TREE OF LIFE leave room for an Eden?

I have a hard time seeing that the film makes room for a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of Eden.

It very well could make room for the mythological view of Eden, being that it seems to view humanity

as originally being created wonderful by God, yet existing in a fallen world.

Yeah, it doesn't work as a literal Genesis creation story. With the way I interpreted that sequence-- that it was replaying God's response to Job in visual terms, and relating it to the son's death, especially the mother's reaction--it doesn't take God out of the picture. After all, God is the floating light thing that keeps showing up, right?

It's the side effects that save us.
--The National, "Graceless"
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Post-Eden, the "natural order of things" IS the way of will.

But does TREE OF LIFE leave room for an Eden?

I have a hard time seeing that the film makes room for a literal interpretation of the Genesis account of Eden.

It very well could make room for the mythological view of Eden, being that it seems to view humanity

as originally being created wonderful by God, yet existing in a fallen world.

Yeah, it doesn't work as a literal Genesis creation story. With the way I interpreted that sequence-- that it was replaying God's response to Job in visual terms, and relating it to the son's death, especially the mother's reaction--it doesn't take God out of the picture. After all, God is the floating light thing that keeps showing up, right?

Literal Eden or not, the film seems in step with the growing stance that Genesis 1 may not be literal, but still authoritative. Or that the historicity of Adam and Eve may be in question, but a Fall of sorts is very much still the point. And it seems that Eden is at work in the sense that Jack has lost Paradise - as the result of several instances we could point to, but the stealing of the undergarment and the obvious resulting guilt, and alienation from his mother afterward seem most significant.

What I found compelling about the evolutionary tone of the creation story was that there was a sense of God's cultivation involved, and that this seemed to mirror the microcosmic in the sense that the children were being cultivated by their parents - learning to walk, to read, and to talk. These two together signaled to me the idea that we are not created what we shall be - to exist is to be in a state of becoming.

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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old wave wrote:

: Post-Eden, the "natural order of things" IS the way of will.

Not in the way these terms have been used here. Post-Eden, our will has been corrupted and our ability to exercise it is frequently overwhelmed by natural forces over which we have little to no control. To act wilfully is to try to rise above the impersonal forces of nature; to act wilfully is, in its own way, to transcend nature, to be in a state of grace.

: After all, immediately after the mother claims that nothing bad can come to someone who follows the way of grace, we hear about the death of the middle brother. Since he, along with his mother, are avatars of the way of grace, this early death (especially if you take into consideration Malick's brother's own suicide) serves as a direct challenge to this view.

Is committing suicide what one does when one is an avatar of the way of grace?

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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But to speak to your point, then, isn't committing suicide the willful act against one's self? So I don't know that one's "acting willfully" is transcending "nature" into a state of grace.

I take human beings to be not just persons being affected by "nature" and "grace", but, rather, to be even constituted by nature and grace. What is to have a "sin nature" but to be one who has had a "fall from grace"? If we are creatures, then we are constituted by "gift" - or, there is a givenness about us. Thus, to reject grace is to reject one's Creator, or one's creatureliness. This is why to willfully go against this way of things is the will's suicidal act against itself. "Nature", in the film's vocabulary at least, seems to be "nature fallen from grace", but I don't take grace to be "grace without nature." It doesn't seem right to me to consider a disembodied grace in a Malick film! Rather, the end of the film - the last few images - seem to signal a reconciliation between nature and grace - not grace's triumph over nature.

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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It very well could make room for the mythological view of Eden, being that it seems to view humanity

as originally being created wonderful by God, yet existing in a fallen world.

Except I'm not sure that humanity ever seems to have genuinely fallen in THE TREE OF LIFE. There is a kind of disorder of the human state suggested here, but it never really suggests there was a time or period before such disorder (unless we're to believe in an idyllic childhood, and somehow Jack departs from the inherent proper state of mind through the influences of his parents). The narrative in the cosmic section is evolutionary history, a story of perpetual conflict, violence, and development, and within it, we never get a look at a pre-fall humanity. Indeed, despite the film's cosmic scope, there seems to be little consideration of the story of humanity itself, which strikes me as a major problem with the film.

Edited by Ryan H.
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But isn't the O'Briens' story the story of humanity to some degree, Ryan? I don't know that things are as fuzzy as you claim them to be - at least not as fuzzy as the things we're referencing - e.g. pre-Fall, original sin, historicity of Adam and Eve - are in themselves "fuzzy" to a degree. I find the whole film to be a meeting between the universal and the particular in an astounding way.

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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Nicholas wrote:

: But to speak to your point, then, isn't committing suicide the willful act against one's self? So I don't know that one's "acting willfully" is transcending "nature" into a state of grace.

Well, that depends on the reason why one commits suicide. And I would not, in fact, say that suicide is everywhere and always a wilful act; I would, in fact, say that suicide is often the outcome of a person being overwhelmed by the sorts of natural forces that I referred to earlier.

: . . . I don't take grace to be "grace without nature."

Don't you kind of have to, though, if you are going to imagine "nature" and "grace" as "two paths" rather than, say, one path with two lanes?

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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No, I don't think you have to. Again, how is the way of grace "disembodied" if it is persons who are living it? Furthermore, what is your interpretation of the last three shots? I don't take Malick to be a christo-platonist by any stretch of the imagination.

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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But isn't the O'Briens' story the story of humanity to some degree, Ryan?

Not in a satisfactory way, if you ask me. I've already remarked in this thread how the film's sense of redemption history seems deeply under-developed, not just because of the lack of a defined origin and end, but because the "how" of redemption is altogether pretty cloudy, too. But if I had to guess, the way the film connects Jack's life to the cosmic sequence seems to suggest that sin/disorder is really just an outgrowth of the natural flow-and-ebb of time, and that it eventually all comes out right in the end, not that sin/disorder is part of a grand catastrophe that introduced death and suffering to human experience, that it is a kind of penalty.

And it's interesting that Malick's 2007 script pretty much outright suggested something right along with that, too. He didn't really seem to believe in a fall, a cosmic catastrophe, per se (in describing the cosmic birth, he goes to great pains to point out that here, death gives birth to life, and when he shows the end of the cosmos at the end of the script dying and giving birth to infinite universes, he explains that the grand epiphany of the film is that all death, in the evolutionary narrative, is an intrinsic part of this eternally ongoing creation), just as he didn't seem to believe in unique human beings (he describes humanity as being part of an evolutionary continuum, and in the script, actually gives us a glimpse of humanity's evolutionary future). If the 2007 script describes Malick's current views, rather than believing that the human beings uniquely carred the imago Dei, it seems that Malick sees all of the universe as carrying the imago Dei, and we humans are just one of its many pieces.

I find the whole film to be a meeting between the universal and the particular in an astounding way.

I love the film when it's giving us the particular. I think it falls flat on its face when it goes after the universal.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Which is to say: I think reading the film's depiction of "nature" and "grace" as a matter/spirit dualism is a bad reading.

Interesting, Ryan. Without having access to this script you reference, I can't speak to it. All I can go by is the film itself. I see sin, guilt, grace, faith, reconciliation, and even Christ in the film. I can say that, for sure.

"What is inside is also outside." -Goethe via Merleau-Ponty, in conclusion to the latter's one extended rumination on film
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