It’s tempting to see the world of The Tree of Life as one where nobody shits.[i] Granted, for all the beautiful moments, there are ugly ones too – the young brothers in the film see a crippled man, thirsty prisoners, the drowning of a child – but these feel like examples, like the Buddha’s Four Sights (what politicians would call ‘teachable moments’). [ii]
But teaching us what? By the time we’ve got to the ending, where the characters are reunited in the afterlife on a beach, the film has answered a family’s grief over their dead brother and son, RL, by pointing to The Creation on the one hand, and the promised End on the other – a cosmic Putting Things In Perspective.
The afterlife with your loved ones; voiceovers that say, ‘Love everyone!’; shots of angelic figures and natural beauty: the threat of kitsch never leaves this film. True, there’s a wonky kind of radicalism to be admired in making these days an earnest piece of religious art. And not everything that is earnest is kitsch. [iii]
But an earnest answer to suffering, an ending that gives you a triumphant vision of paradise?… In an early scene, RL’s grandmother tries to comfort his mother by saying things like “the pain will pass” and “life goes on.” It’s a testament to the struggle in Terrence Malick between the Artist and the Preacher that the film goes quite a way to answering those platitudes with some of its own.
You’re God’s answer to Job
The Tree of Life starts with Bible verses, Job 38: 4,7: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” This corresponds to and pre-empts what RL’s brother Jack says in voiceover: “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.”
In response, we get: the creation of the universe and the Earth, then the tree of life, starting with microbes and leading to dinosaurs.[iv] We get a close-knit if dysfunctional 50’s family unit: saintly mother, tough-loving father, three brothers and their childhood memories. Finally, we get the end of the universe and the dead assembled on a beach at dawn, waiting for the light.
More than context, the cosmic bookends of the film try to show the beauty of existence / the connection of everything / how Nature compares against Grace. This is more than Job got. In fact, God in the Bible pretty much ducks Job’s complaints, answering his question with a long series of questions (“Where wast thou…?”). So why is The Tree of Life being more definitive?
It depends on what level you take the reality of its various sequences. RL’s violent end (which is also exemplary) is the problem of evil that sums up the rest and, from a certain perspective, it remains a problem. Malick might have finally got round to filming his theodicy. Question is, does he really buy it?
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, in the midst of life we are in death, et cetera
Throughout The Tree of Life you’re being reminded of death. In the case of the very start of the film, the connection’s not clear until the end: the beach setting of the afterlife links us back to the sound of the surf we heard over the opening shot (the weird glowing strand of light/smoke). Considering the film’s theme of creation and birth, the surf sounds also link us to the womb. In my beginning is my end.
The music performs a similar function. During the bereavement scenes, we hear, appropriately enough, John Tavener and Mother Thekla’s Funeral Canticle. But when the flashback flashes further back, to the dawn of time, we hear the Lacrimosa from Preisner’s Requiem for a Friend. [v] The creation of the universe to funeral music; the words translated from Latin: “Ah! that day of tears and mourning!”
Not exactly the Book of Job’s ‘shouting for joy’. The music isn’t a bleed-over from the previous scenes, or just a motif to keep reminding us of RL’s death. Malick doesn’t make the most wry of films, so it’s not simply ironic counterpoint. What the music does do is show that the Creation sequence is, at the least, functioning in a different way to the barrage of rhetorical questions and Arguments from Authority that God gives Job (that divine ‘Yeah well’).
For The Tree of Life, the Creation was a tragedy as much as it was a miracle: existence means entropy. This is a shift from locating that tragedy in The Fall; humans are still a way off when the Creation sequence begins. And if the Lacrimosa is anything to go by (then later the Domine Jesu Christe and Agnus Dei from Berlioz’s Requiem), we shouldn’t be taking anything else we see on screen as unambiguously affirmative.[vi]
Walking with Dinosaurs
“Incredible the first animal that dreamt of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among all the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.”
Terra Nostra, Carlos Fuentes
A lot’s been made – a lot of fun has been had – with the scene in The Tree of Life where one dinosaur spares the life of another: potentially the first act of mercy, and hence the first steps towards consciousness, love, grace; a sort of moral version of the bone-to-orbiting-nukes jump-cut in 2001: A Space Odyssey.[vii]
Less has been said about the plesiosaur on the beach, looking at the wound in its side: maybe the first time something knew it was going to die. Again, death, again, a beach.[viii]
You could argue that in either case we’re dealing with as banal and brute facts as the first fart for comic effect – there’s literally a first time for everything. So why be awed by the things that already lend themselves to grandeur?
But whether it’s the grand or the banal, any sense of awe that there is comes from our point of view as the end results of those first things. One critic, referring to the film’s asteroid strike scene, wrote about thinking, “This happened.” Of course, it’s not so much that the recreations are accurate, as that they point to those things in our past that we never can experience but know had to have been.
Still, the problem remains: why even show the first time something was merciful, the first time something knew it was going to die, only to then show these things going extinct?
For such an allegedly Christian film, The Tree of Life has some relatively unorthodox ideas. Rather than mammals, let alone humans, being special – the originators and objects of grace – dinosaurs might have had souls too, had they not died out. Arthur C Clarke wrote that the descendants of the velociraptors could have been travelling the stars by now. What would they have been like? What else would they have shared with us? Where would they have stood on the film’s Nature-Grace axis? Had it not been for that asteroid, would the Son of God come as a dinosaur?
Mommy… I’m sorry I broke myself
The character of Mrs O’Brien seems less human than saint, an ideal for a certain kind of motherhood and the image of Grace opposing or balancing her temperamental husband’s image of Nature. Even when she gets pissed off with her son Jack, she does it gracefully.
Then there’s the way the film deals with her bereavement. In an early sequence, the film cuts from the O’Briens courting each other to a white-robed woman on a beach with a toddler, then shots of a tunnel, a stair, a gate – followed by Mrs O’Brien giving birth. We’ll see those white-robed women again at the end of the film, doing t’ai chi-like gestures / caresses with Mrs O’Brien, accompanied by more symbols for transition – doorways, ladders – and her whispering the last lines: “I give him to you. I give you my son.”
Hints of Abraham, this giving your son to death gladly; plus, the religious admonition that prolonged grief is in some way blasphemous. The sinister part of the theodicy: why keep bemoaning the death of your kid? Sunrise, sunset, he’s with the angels now. Is the film’s concept of the afterlife really so tasteless?[ix]
But there are two scenes with Mrs O’Brien that hold the key to her character, and hence to the ending of the film. First, she has a fight with her husband after he’s lashed out at Jack for talking back at him. When he’s pinning her arms, she doesn’t resign herself, she keeps struggling against him, quiet with anger – not saintly any more. Her sons are not present in the scene. Second, after finding out RL has died, she screams and cries, and when her priest tells her “He’s in God’s hands now,” she says back, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” And she’s still sullen while listening to the boys’ grandmother. Again, they are not in the scene.
Mrs O’Brien is idealised, but only in scenes that comes from Jack’s memory – the idealisation is not the film’s. Chronologically, the last we see of her in the ‘real’ world, she has been left cold by the boys’ grandmother’s platitudes, which, though framed religiously, have more in common with secular condolences – “People pass along, nothing stays the same. You’ve still got the other two.” – and which only mention God to protest how: “He sends flies to wounds that He should heal.” It might be this stoic ‘realist’ viewpoint that’s failed to console Mrs O’Brien, but the film’s alternative to it, the viewpoint that tries to show something permanent behind the transient, and love behind the suffering, consoles her only in scenes mediated by Jack. If he idealises his mother, what else does he want to make himself believe?
Are the afterlife scenes in the film a true vision or a fantasy? The last line of the film “I give you my son” is maybe just what Jack wishes his mother could say. So instead of the tastelessness of the film making Mrs O’Brien consoled, you have the sad sight of another character wishing, whether rightly or wrongly, that she will be or could have been.
Remember and Let Go
The concept of the therapeutic afterlife is an old one, but increasingly the main one in popular culture. Take Lost. The show’s now infamous ‘slow motion hugs in a floodlit church’ ending was also set in a sort of afterlife, and also accused of being a schmaltzy attempt to give its characters supernatural consolation.
However, there was another way that the show tried to give consolation, and that was to its audience. By this reading, the show finale (called ‘The End’) was a metaphor for The End (of life, the world) and vice versa; which would give us the interesting situation of an arthouse film, for all its shout-outs to theology and Tarkovsky, having an ending that was a touch less complex than that of a mystery TV serial…
Previously on Lost: the island is a cork that holds back and guards an energy source / magic light, giving the island its special powers: desires and fears are manifested Solaris style; time travel is possible – the usual.[x] By the final season, the characters are living out two timelines, one on the island, and one in a ‘Flash-Sideways’ Universe where they seem to have had their wish fulfilled of never having come to the island. But it turns out this timeline isn’t parallel but outside of space and time, a quasi-purgatory they’d unconsciously made after dying at the various different points when everyone died.[xi] Its purpose is explained to the hero, Jack Shepherd by his father, Christian: to help them Remember and Let Go. That way the characters can, literally and figuratively, move on to the light.
The confidence of the mother when making her dubious claim to shush up the kid, followed quickly by just shushing him.
But Remember and Let Go also work as imperatives, for both the audience and the characters. And these work in two ways, one more manipulative than the first.
The Remember side is summed up by the flashback-montage-heavy nature of the finale. Lost has its cake and eats it: when each character realises what the nature of their situation is, they have a pulse of nostalgic reverie, which conveniently takes the form of a Best Of clip montage, like one you’d get in the finale of your standard sitcom.[xii] This is an imperative that someone dying might want, and what any show coming to an end might want to give its fans: Remember the good times! See, wasn’t it a blast?
The problem comes when you think about Let Go. The second point of the Flash Sideways Universe is for the characters to realise, convince one another, that this wish-fulfilment is not only unreal, but that the wish itself is wrong: they shouldn’t be regretting the island and what happened there: despite all the manipulation and suffering, it was the most important part of their lives, and accepting that, convincing each other of that is what they’ll need to move on. In the same way, the audience is being told that whatever happened on the island, i.e. the six seasons of the show, was all for the best: accept this, convince each other of this, and you’ll all be able to move on from your fandom.
The island in Lost is spiritually blackmailing the characters. The ending of Lost is making the audience a similarly problematic offer.[xiii] It’s fitting the sequence ends with lots of cultish hugging and smiling followed by a fade to blank.
What if the ending then of The Tree of Life is as manipulative and schmaltzy as the ending of Lost? The TV show making a shot at something sublime but ending up as a bit pretentious; the film struggling to find a balance between sermon and art and falling into kitsch. Because, in the end, you can’t aim for the sublime.[xiv] It’s not only because both have main characters called Jack that The Tree of Life’s script notes could have come from the final script of Lost:
Paradise is not a place here or there… Men and women embrace in the dawn, reunited at last… Jack has crossed over death’s threshold, gone beyond space and time… Eternity – that realm of pure and endless light – how shall we represent it?… A solitary island.
The problem with being charitable in your interpretations is that the things you want to be charitable towards sometimes just aren’t helping. Sure, it’s good to make things ambiguous, but both the endings for The Tree of Life and Lost aren’t ambiguous so much as conceptually muddled. You have to work at them if only to stop yourself from feeling had.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence shows how, as much as you can make yourself believe at a cerebral level that there’s ambiguity in a work, its execution still fails you. And this problem is not just down to style, but to something more fundamental: the concept of the afterlife being used.
In the ending of A.I., the child robot / Pinocchio-surrogate David is dug up from ice thousands of years in the future, at the foot of an ancient funfair statue of the Blue Fairy, by robotic (or ‘mecha’) archaeologists. They switch him back on and after reading his memory, make his wish come true: to be a real boy and be loved by his mother:the afterlife as wish-fulfilment.
Or is it another fantasy? It’s not certain that David’s been turned into a real boy or been reunited with his resurrected foster mother. The future mechas’ explanation for why David can only spend one day with her – ‘we created her from DNA but she won’t last because space-time’ – sounds a lot like a parental euphemism. Then there’s the shot of the future mechas looking down into David’s Perfect Day through a floating oval portal, not quite screen or window, suggesting the whole thing might be a simulation (if it was really happening in physical reality, surely they could just look).
With this interpretation, A.I. doesn’t have a happy ending. Even our superior robot descendants will be quixotically obsessed with creators like humans were. They’ll idealise the extinct humans, ones that haven’t been shown in the best light: polluters, bullies, a mother abandoning her (robot) child, lynch mobs, decadent porn cities, mad scientists. Yet because of his connection to those humans, David will be seen by the future mechas as a holy relic: he who knew The Creators! And pitying him, they’ll put him out of his misery: ‘make him a real boy’ and mock up his mother loving him with consummate art and naturalness, before letting him go to ‘that place where dreams are made’; i.e. die.
Not a vastly better ending, but at least it’s not the typical Spielberg one. The enduring mystery of one of the most powerful men in Hollywood copping out so often: that he doesn’t need to[xv], suggests he wants to end his films exactly as he does.[xvi] And, as he’s often grumpily pointing out, the ending of A.I. is “where Stanley would have taken the movie.”
But would he have done it quite like that? The Perfect Day ending of A.I. is still scored by John Williams at his most hotel-lobby-piano syrupy, rather than something to reflect that David is being made to believe something that isn’t true before being put down. (Imagine the last scene of the film to such old Kubrick faves as György Ligeti and Krzysztof Penderecki) The ending of A.I. might be unhappy, but Spielberg still doesn’t want you to leave the cinema feeling that.
Similarly, even if Jack O’Brien has, in some sense, fantasised the ending of The Tree of Life, the film doesn’t then bring us back down to a world that’s obviously being contrasted as the real one. In the American Dream soliloquy ending of 25th Hour, the father consoles his son with a wish so utopian they both know it won’t come true. While in The Tree of Life, Jack smiles after his wish-fulfilment as if to say: Yes of course![xvii]
Compare this assurance to The Thin Red Line, and what’s framed in voiceover by one of the soldiers, Pvt. Train: “One man looks at a dying bird and thinks there’s nothing but unanswered pain… Another man sees that same bird, feels the glory, feels something smiling through it.”When a dying Japanese soldier talks at Pvt. Dale, who can’t understand him (and who is trying to ignore him, seeing as he’s about to pull his teeth out) the soundtrack is Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. Later, Pvt. Witt, the character most likely to feel ‘something smiling through’, gets shot to death[xviii]. At his grave, Sgt. Welsh asks, “Where’s your spark now?”
By the end, any consolation the surviving soldiers have found – not that they look that consoled, marching back to shore at the end – is countered by the sight of a war cemetery. Pvt. Train looks down at the ship’s wake as they leave the island, and his voiceover takes the form of a request, a prayer even: “Oh, my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”
The prayer is made – that’s it. It’s not obeyed or answered, not by what we’ve seen in the film just gone and it’s not answered in the closing shots. The point of it, the reason it’s moving, is that it’s even being expressed (after all that). The soul addressed is the one of soulless conditions. That’s one of the key problems with The Tree of Life; it tries too hard to show us all things shining (‘to eff the ineffable’). Malick should have taken advice: Never go Full Religious.
For the world is more full of tears
Eschatology used to be partly about justice, if not in this world then the next. Hence the afterlife as the Perfect City (not just some kid’s Perfect Day). These days, concepts of the afterlife are just about us as individuals, getting what we always wanted, having our dreams come true. A.I. at least suggests that such an afterlife would have to be artificial, that the wishes it fulfilled would necessarily be solipsistic (David’s real mother never did and never could love him). The afterlife in Lost is artificial, at least the first stage, and the wishes fulfilled there a distraction at worst, and at best a lesson to take before getting to the light. But getting to the light still comes with reuniting and working out your issues with your family and friends.
Writing about Dante’s Paradise, Robert Baird refers to modern takes on the afterlife such as The Lovely Bones and The Five People You Meet in Heaven: “For the same reasons that he looked to heaven for justice rather than therapy, Dante rejected this comforting view of literature. He wanted his poem to save your soul, not to salve it.”[xix] After all, is your dreams coming true what you actually need? What if someone doesn’t wantto spend eternity with their loved ones? And why be so certain the tears have been answered, are over at last? The Tree of Life might be about grief and death, but it still gives us a capital-B-Beautiful view that’s not overly complicated: and this includes its take on the afterlife.
At the end of the film, Jack O’Brien is reunited with his parents. Similarly reunited, Jack in Lost asks his father “Are you real?” to which his father says, “I hope so!” David’s mother at the end of A.I. isn’t real, just a simulation that’s been programmed to love him (like he’s a simulation programmed to love her): but at least she’s nice about it and not around long enough to raise questions.
This is the bind: we still want an afterlife recognisable as a human life, with human relations, but with everything patched up and issues put to bed; and since it’s more easily presentable and comprehensible this way, it’s also how our culture now tends to portray it. And yet at the same time, we want these portrayals to be magically free of human life’s complications. In the absence of a radical change to that life, we’re left with what Nabokov once described in Despair:
Indeed, imagine yourself just dead – and suddenly wide awake in Paradise where, wreathed in smiles, your dear dead welcome you.
Now tell me, please, what guarantee do you possess that those beloved ghosts are genuine; that it is really your dear dead mother and not some pretty demon mystifying you, masked as your mother and impersonating her with consummate art and naturalness? There is the rub; there is the horror; the more so as the acting will go on and on, endlessly; never, never, never, never, never will your soul in that world be quite sure that the gentle spirits crowding about it are not fiends in disguise, and forever, and forever shall your soul remain in doubt.
[i] This isn’t facetious: shit here as in the complicated, grubby, psychic trivia of life, what Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet called ‘the snot of subjectivity’.
[ii] The film, to be fair, is in large part a flashback of one of the brothers, Jack O’Brien: the themes / devices of reminiscence, nostalgia, etc. give leeway for why things are shown without context, as a series of unhappy and happy moments.
[iii] Reports from the film’s premiere at Cannes described some of the audience as laughing. They laughed too in cinemas in London. The English especially like to see themselves as doing a sort of democratic service by laughing at pomposity. There has to be an element in it, though, of nervous laughter. Not because anyone’s particularly or secretly unnerved by the film’s Big Questions. But because being earnest is, in and of itself, found embarrassing, gauche. This isn’t some cynical 21st century take (‘enthusiasm is vulgarity’ – The Book of Disquiet again, 80-100 years ago) but if we’re defining kitsch as camp absent self-awareness, then laughing at The Tree of Life is like laughing at someone who not only does not get the joke but cannot get it.
[iv] The Creation sequence doesn’t go further than the extinction of the dinosaurs. Their story is its own creation, ascent, and apocalypse. The film might be more interested in cycles, as opposed to just linear Christian teleology, than you’d think.
[vi] Karl Barth’s line about Mozart – ‘the Yes rings out louder than the ever-present No’ – could apply to Malick at his best. The core problem of The Tree of Life: yes, the Yes might be ambiguous, but where is the No?
[vii] Morally precocious dinosaurs? Not as daft or anthropomorphic as you’d think. Emotions in animals are sometimes described as physiological preparedness for certain behaviours (e.g. fear is the physiological preparedness to run); so moral emotions developed from those states of physiological preparedness that helped manage animals’ social interaction; mating, rearing young, competing, cooperating.). See Robin Allott, ‘Objective Morality’ in Journal of Social & Biological Structures (1991)
[viii] Prehistoric beaches, like the far future neo-crustacean ones at the end of H G Wells’ The Time Machine, combine both lateness and earliness – the deep past and the deep future, both empty of people – one ancient from our point of view but recent to itself, the other recent from our point of view but ancient to itself.
[ix] The script doesn’t help, with the eschatological stages titled things like The Great Tribulation and The New Earth, like a nicer version of the Left Behind series. On the other hand, it does sketch in sequences missing from the finished film: cycles of alien life, planets, ‘biological decadence’, even the multiverse…
[x] Lost is conveniently vague, but by the end the island is at the very least where our world meets somewhere else: the Afterlife (it’s talked of both in terms of heaven and hell); the Godhead (it’s the source of the divine spark in us all); some timeless Omega Point (“there is no ‘now’ here.’”)
[xii] With Lost though, it actually is a reverie, an electromagnetically powered illusory pre-afterlife. Which, admittedly, you don’t get in most sitcom finales.
[xiii] The thing about Lost is that when its season finales worked, they did so through using pulpy devices like cliffhangers and twists in transcendent ways. The end of Season 3, in which you realise what you’re seeing is not a flashback to the past but the characters at some unspecified point in the future, is one of the great proleptic reveals. Disorientating, haunting, and most of all expanding: it added a new dimension, structurally and thematically, to what had been a show running out of steam: a predicament to build to, and one that, by standard TV conventions, you’d not have expected to see till the finale (as in, you’d expect a show about people stranded on an island to end with them getting (or failing to get) off said island).
[xiv] You can’t reach Nirvana by trying to reach Nirvana.
[xv] Or at least not need as much as others, seeing as even bankable directors need to persuade the finance guys, and Spielberg may well have his own inner compulsions to answer to…
[xvi] Minority Report was apparently originally going to have ended with what would have been a nice minor Brazil-ian sting: a title card appearing over the floaty shot of the island safe haven of the freed precogs that tells us, pointedly, how in the next year, there was a spike in murder cases. Another rumour was that the film was going to have ended as it did, but with organ music playing over the credits, giving credence to the theory that the bounty of happy endings – name cleared, slaves freed, convicts pardoned, villain killed, dead kid replaced by a brand new one – is all in John Anderton’s haloed head while he’s serenaded with organ music by the prison warden.
[xvii] One of Ivan’s last thoughts in The Death of Ivan Ilych is, depending on the translation, ‘What bliss!’ or ‘What joy!’. Even here, where you don’t even see what he’s seeing in the end, what might come after, there’s still a tricky balance: ‘bliss’ is too abstract and ineffable, has too much modern association with narcotics, luxury, exaggerated by overuse to the point that driving without traffic is bliss. But ‘joy’, being mildly archaic now (when’s the last time you said something was ‘such a joy’?) has something to it. Paradoxically, its relative earthiness makes it seem more appropriate to getting at the transcendent.
[xviii] Another good example of how Malick can be artfully ambiguous. When Witt dies, we hear the gunshot, then see sunlight through leaves, then Witt swimming underwater with Melanesian kids – another cheesy afterlife vision? But note that the swimming ends with a white flash-frame and another, albeit muffled, gunshot (another one or the same?)… Taken this way, the swimming is just Witt’s final thoughts, interrupted.
[xix] Robert Baird, ‘Paradise Lost: Why doesn’t anyone read Dante’s Paradiso?’ www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2007/12/paradise_lost.html
Mazin Saleem is a writer based in London. His fiction has appeared in InPrint and The May Anthologies. He blogs at www.maybethatsthepoint.tumblr.com. He too is working on a novel.