: The modal imperative that Jack's memories "should" be more complicated seems to be more than a work of art, or a person's own reflections can bear.
Well, this is the tension inherent in a film that photographically captures objective reality while putting it together in a subjective manner. Are we supposed to believe that everything the camera SEES is purely subjective? I don't think so. I mean, it's not like all the voice-overs are Jack's; some of them belong to other figures, too. There is more than one perspective here, so it SHOULD be fairly safe to assume that the visuals overlap with these MULTIPLE perspectives in some INTER-subjective (if not quasi-objective) way. If, however, the visuals are NEVER anything more than the products of a single person's thoughtstream, then what are we to make of the voice-overs? Is there anything on offer here other than pure solipsism?
I'll have to think about this some more, but I'm not much of a Bazinian, and either way I think this film challenges the notion of a photographic record of objective reality in the way it "recreates" (digitally or otherwise) the origin of the world. What are we to think also of clearly "subjective memories" or images of the mother in her Snow White coffin or "levitating"?
: My impression is that, contrary to what other's have written, that I'm not sure we ever get anything outside of Jack's personally subjective memory; the creation of the world scenes, or his parents "thoughts" (I'm not satisfied with most of the commentary on the narration in this film, especially in light of the narration in his previous films) included seemed to me to be a part of his reflections on life. But I could be wrong.
Wow. I wrote my comment above before reading this paragraph. Well, like I say, if your hunch is correct, then the film is an exercise in pure solipsism and isn't worth all that much to me, really. The film -- like all relationships -- only has worth to the extent that it is about something more than what's going on in a single person's head. Films, ideally, should draw us out of ourselves and into some sort of Other, and ideally they should do this by example, by letting themselves be drawn into some sort of Other or by showing how their characters are drawn into each other's Otherness, or something like that. If, however, there is nothing onscreen here -- nothing -- other than figments of Jack's memory, projected onto the people in his life not unlike how the robot in A.I. Artificial Intelligence projects his own neuroses onto the mother of his fantasies, then this is anything but a transcendent film. It would be, in fact, a very sad and tragic film, no matter how faith-affirming some people make it out to be.
To come at this from another angle: I do not know how reconciled Jack can be to God (as some have interpreted the final scenes) if Jack is not in some way reconciled to the actual people in his life, and not just his conceptions of them. (The two greatest commandments, after all, point both ways: one of them points vertically to God, and the other points horizontally to our fellow human beings.) And I do not know how we, as an audience, can participate in this reconciliation unless the film shows us more than Jack's IDEA of these people.
I like this, and you're forcing me to modify my position because the reality is that I don't really think the film is solipsistic. I like your ethical point about film. I would say that we are always gesturing to the Other whenever we try to communicate, even to ourselves, even if the only tools we have are subjective. I guess the film is about how reconciliation is possible given our memories of people.
Side note: I agree with you that the ending of A.I. is terribly sad and tragic, but I don't quite think that TREE OF LIFE is equivalent, though it would be possible to make a similar film that is equally as sad. I'm drawn back to Tarkovsky's THE MIRROR and how he deals with both collective and personal memories (he inserts documentary footage rather than CGI creation scenes as a gesture to the the communal experience of memory). I'm also troubled by the notion that it's an either/or: either they are figments, solipsistic memories of his mother, or they are objective facts. We're never given enough of either mother or father to create a full portrait of them apart from Jack's POV, but funnily enough I think the father comes across better in some respects, or at least his "Otherness" is allowed to "interact" more with Jack in his memories. My suggestion is that part of it is that Jack needs to reconcile with his father (and God) more than he feels the need to do so with his mother, who as I've mentioned before he feels at peace with in so far as she was the only outlet of grace in his life.
Another way I'd want to approach thinking about this dilemma (since I'm the one who raised it
) is, instead of a subjective/objective dichotomy, we should think about rather "who is controlling the narrative?", not in a literal way (obviously Malick and his editors and crew are), but in the sense of a implied narrator. Not, "what's real and what's not?" but "who's consciousness is allowing us to glimpse these images and voiceovers, and what is the motivation for the choices?"