Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is either brilliant or dreadful. I refuse to decide.
For a long time I felt compelled by deep inner workings to love things completely or hate them. There were no shades of grey. If I was watching a film or listening to a new piece of music or a play then I would be rehearsing cut-throat defences of it or devestating annihilations of it for the foyer. It was us or them.
In psychological terms this is called defensive splitting. To make the world safe you have to separate it into all-good and all-bad. That done, you expend a lot of time making sure that everything is water-tight and there is no ambiguous leakage.
The British psychotherapist Donald Winnicott says that the mark of becoming adult is the ability to tolerate ambiguity.
So even as I was watching the movie with A. last night, I was conscious of those tendencies in my head. I had really wanted to see it and had rather pressganged him into the Screen on the Green to watch 9pm show. As it stretched on and on and the kaleidoscopic novelty of it slowly wore off, I could feel myself tipping from a very partisan, “I love this and am going to text all my spiritual friends to go see it”, to “this is pretentious tosh that could do with an hour edited out of it.”.
However, a two-hour movie, does at least give you time to ponder and move to a middle ground.
Malick made an indulgent but brave movie. It would be so easy to point out what’s wrong about it – the beach scene at the end? the endless shots of the mardy-faced teenager hating his father? (I think we got the message) the ten-thousand false endings? – but by the same token I am glad that something so pretentious and poetic makes it onto the screen out of America and that it gets the Cannes seal of approval.
I loved its lop-sidedness. A 30-minute visual meditation on the dizzying scales of cosmic time right in the first act? – that really doesn’t follow Disney plotification rules. And there were undoubtably beautiful images – perhaps too many.
One of the thoughts that flickered through my mind was that Tarkovsky is so much better at this because he has the confidence of his images. Where Malick nervously spoon-feeds a dozen beautiful fragments into our rather over-sugared craws – Tarkovsky will just give us one puzzling, simple thing that grows and grows and becomes cosmic. It’s almost like someone whispered into Malick’s ear over and over – “remember the MTV generation: too much is never enough”.
Which is a shame since Malick is definitely a beautiful cinematographer and the movie is brave in dealing with a massive theme. Job’s theme. Why do we suffer? Why does God take away a child from a parent? This theme runs through the film like a gratefully-grasped lifeline in almost drowning sea of possiblities. And yet the film tries to present a big answer. The answer being that in the cosmic scale of the Horse Head Nebula and the moons of Jupiter and the explosions of the galaxies, then the loss of one child is definitely a detail. But that details matter. As Alan Watts points out over and over, the tiniest details supports the whole. That mother’s scream of grief in the pinewoods is as necessary to the cosmos as the 20 billion megawatt explosion at the centre of a star dying. The universe is built out of insignificant details.
The big picture, however, is too big for us. Humans are not framed to really survive that amplitude of knowledge and accepting that limitation is part of the answer. Nebulae form. Blood flows. Job suffered. God is too big.
Even though Tree of Life fails – as it must – and sometime teeters on the ludicrous in its failing – I am grateful for the failure. Even as my split mind was tittering at the image of Brad Pitt and Sean Penn embracing in the beach heaven, another part was recognising exactly that scene – all my friends and family, dead and alive, on a beach – from ayahuasca visions that were so real and meaningful to me. So I am resting in ambiguity and feeling adult in my muddle.