With Malick I usually come away with few things, simple wonderings
about meaning and the desire to transcend. But there is something here
worth talking about, a wondering that I believe matters. It is about
the great lie upon which we have placed all our hopes and has fed us
only suffering. It includes god but goes beyond, way beyond.
Those of us in the West trace it back to Descartes, the foundation of
what we call our Enlightenment. The title of the 1641 book where he
tells us that we are because we think translates as “Meditations
touching the first philosophy in which the existence of God and the
distinction between the body and soul are demonstrated”. This alone
reveals it; a distinction between body and soul, that has produced a
culture that considers everything a commodity, that revolves around
pleasing the needs of one or the other. And about us perceiving things
as what we are in need of and by our ideas of them.
The imaginary conundrum of duality goes way back, it’s what the film
starts with. A distinction between the way of nature and the way of
grace, again body and soul. Implying there is no grace in the first and
that a way of grace cannot be found in what we readily observe around
us, in how the world simply presents itself to us (which includes our
body and what sensations appear in it – either considered impure or to
satiate), but needs to be separately thought by us. The nuns told us;
about a world devised from nothing in the creator’s own good time, and
us separately placed in it, even created in a separate day from the
rest of creation, to atone for an original sin.
This is the worldview we are born into. A world itself as punishment,
which we are called to subdue to our satisfaction. Modern science has
done little to improve it, only now we explain away in order to subdue
and have replaced one creation myth with another.
Now both ways created by Malick, so that we can see where the lie
begins. The creation of creation, from the Bing Bang onwards, rendered
with overblown Wagnerian crescendos like what Kubrick did 40 years ago.
Malick shows us here that mercy exists among the predators. And then us
separately born into creation. The first words uttered by the infant
are “it’s mine”, the first words uttered by the father a lesson to his
young son about the imaginary line that separates his garden from the
neighbor’s and never to cross it.
In the second half of the film we get a few codas on what destructive
illusions have evolved from these notions. How we should strive to
obtain and subdue until satisfied, and to admit otherwise is weakness.
And how the pursuit never satisfies the hunger, but only leads us to
imagine a lacking in what we already have. And how we desperately cling
to things, things felt as either ours or to be made ours, even as we
know that they will come to pass.
But at the absence of the fatherly authority, we see how the kids
become an aimless mob. And how the violence trickled inside the kid,
eventually poisons and erupts.
Over the course of all this, we get Malick’s tricly soliloquy that has
always been the easiest to attack. “Was I false to you?”, “forgive us”,
“where have you gone?”. It’s not my favourite aspect of his work, but I
truly believe he’s a feather-brained bard and deeply means it.
The movie is worth it then because it goes beyond the simple poetry and
shows the mechanisms that on the top level make these people wax
lyrical. In Red Line it was the war and men yanked from life to die in
it, here it’s a lot more complex in how it deals with lost innocence.
We see how these people are and then we go back and see how they
What visual splendor I will keep from the film is most of it images of
a sleepy suburbia, of quiet evenings out in porches. The rest is in the
finale. It’s not so much about closure that restores balance, but a
process of emptying out and letting go of what has poisoned the soul.
So that upon transcending the illusions of duality, remains only the
unbound sentience of the world giving itself back to us.
Pitt is terrific in this, in ways he hasn’t been before (compare to Ben
Button that strived for a similar somber effect). But what truly stands
out is the boy and the look of grief piling inside.
Malick tells us about his parents fighting inside of him, this is the
great war in nature. Who of the two to become, without betraying the
other? The one who loved harshly because he wanted his kids to have, or
the one who loved tenderly but did nothing to alleviate the suffering
in her own home.
So these are the two natures, as falsely taught to us by the ‘nuns’.
The father as embodiment of the “nature that only wants to please
itself”, but that nature is a false nature. Our false notion of a self
that expects to be pleased projecting itself upon the world. A tree
doesn’t please itself when it’s watered, it takes only what it must to
grow into what it has potential to be.
I think the film perfectly shows this as the baby discovers the world.
“It’s mine” is not something it was born with, but something learned. A
tree doesn’t learn to crave water, it already knows what it must reach
And the mother’s way of grace that stoically accepts, also false
because it accepts without complaint the injury of the innocent. The
mother allows by her passive stance both her children and her husband
to remain unhappy.
So, who to be eventually, as grown men who have lived so long with
grieves that are not ours?
Zen Buddhism hints at this and goes beyond, with its koan of koans (the
enigmatic phrase that doesn’t have an apparent answer yet demands one
by the initiate, meant to tie his tongues in silent meditation); Zen
Master Huìnéng asks, “Without thinking of good or evil, show me your
original face before your mother and father were born”.
Which is way of saying that we were here before we remember being here (literally), before the first memories
imprinted us with fatherly sins (“tell me something that I don’t
remember”, as one of the sons asks). So we were born
empty-to-be-filled, ‘capax’ in Latin meaning a void that anticipates
its fulfillment (like a mug that has the capacity for only-so-much).
We were just filled with the wrong things.
My first thought is—you should have posted this in one of the many existing threads on the film, so that your excellent post might add to the conversation, rather than exclude them by unnecessarily starting a new one.
It’s a pet peeve of long-time posters here, who’ve seen many great conversations rehashed or ignored because they’d been started to one degree or another already. Your thoughts warrant inclusion, but I’d recommend you abandon this thread, and paste your contribution into an existing Tree of Life thread where they belong.
This is meant with all due respect, with the maximum benefit for our forum in mind.
Point well taken. I’m relatively new here, and not familiar with the board etiquette. I will keep your advice in mind for the future.
Funny comment as I did not see any other threads but this one and I like it.g.
There are 19 threads for the ToL here on its Film page
That must be a record number of threads for a film.
Frankly,. I don’t see much actual discussion going on there upon which to contribute, unless I am navigating the page wrong and there’s a way to comment on reviews. I thought you meant here on the forum.
I don’t think it’s correct to say selfishness and the wish to please one’s self is a symptom of modern thinking. If anything mankind was even more selfish before modern technology, and the myth is that the flaws of human nature are a recent development. Man didn’t impose itself upon nature so much before the Enlightenment, but it was certainly not from lack of trying.
I didn’t see his selfishness as something learned, I saw it as a reflection of the nature he inherited from his father. He hates his father, contemplates dropping a car on him for his treatment of them, but does not because he realizes he has the same qualities. I believe the part at the beginning was intended to reflect human behavior in animals who existed millions of years before humans showed up.
Threads are at the bottom right under the heading “Forum”.
This thread Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life”, has 305 posts by 93 people and was active 4 days ago.