“The Ending as Wish-Fulfilment in The Tree of Life, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, and Lost,” by Mazin Saleem

 

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?

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“Is Your Villain Appropriate?”—Examining Character Construction in Different Media

"Phyrexian Ironfoot" (2006). Artwork by Stephan Martiniere. Copyright Wizards of the Coast.

Every Monday, I read Mark Rosewater’s weekly column “Making Magic,” partly because I have a casual interest in the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (I once played it, and some of my friends still play it), but mainly because Rosewater routinely offers great insights into aesthetics and game design. (He’s also a strong writer who regularly experiments with his column’s form.)

In an article published a few weeks back, Rosewater outlines why he thinks one of Magic’s villains, the Phyrexians, are that game’s best. As is typical with Rosewater, it boils down to a design principle—in this case, how the game operates narratively:

As a story-telling venue, Magic is best when it is telling what I call environmental stories. That is, the best thing Magic can show off creatively is an environment. The genre of a trading card game requires that you show lots of creatures and places and objects. This does a good job of showing off a diverse environment.

The Weatherlight Saga [a series of much older sets] was an attempt for us to tell a plot driven story through card sets. What we learned from that is that it’s very hard when we can’t control the order that players see the cards to convey traditional plotting. […] What Magic is good at is telling stories about changes that happen on an environmental level. This way the changes aren’t seen on a single card but a wide swath of cards. When we tell a story in another medium, we will tell a story that plays to that medium’s strength. Card sets, though, have to tell stories that can be told through card sets.

One of the reasons that I believe the Phyrexians make a perfect villain is that they attack on an environmental level. Take Scars of Mirrodin [one of the game’s most recent sets] as an example. The attack of the Phyrexians isn’t something seen on a single card but on many, many cards […]. My contention is that Magic’s best villain is one that works in the kind of stories that Magic (the card sets) can tell.

In a basic sense, Rosewater is advocating that an author tell a story appropriate to his or her medium—age-old advice. But let’s look beyond that simple rule of thumb: What does it mean for a story to be appropriate? And what are the consequences for characters?

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Schrödinger’s Laura

I had a stray thought recently about Otto Preminger’s classic 1944 noir Laura (1944), based on Vera Caspary’s 1943 novel of the same name. The film’s first half revolves around the murder of the title character, although of course it’s more complicated than that. And I’d like to argue that it’s slightly more complicated than even that, owing to a quality that’s perhaps inherent in plot itself.

(This contains spoilers—although, as we shall see, they may not spoil much of anything…)

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