Friday, June 17, 2011

The Tree of Life and Art as Experience

“Art leaves us with insights, epiphanies, a climate of elation in which it is easier to breathe in the perennial problems, more possible to live with them according to our individual lights.” “Film as art, and in art as a form of humanism; in a spiritual aristocracy dedicated to the priorities of searching penetrancy and uncompromising effort to express the ineffable.” John Simon, Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films.  

“Interpretation takes the sensory experience of the work of art for granted, and proceeds from there. This cannot be taken for granted, now. Think of the sheer multiplication of works of art available to every one of us, superadded to the conflicting tastes and odors and sights of the urban environment that bombard our senses. Ours is a culture based on excess, on overproduction; the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience. All the conditions of modern life - its material plenitude, its sheer crowdedness - conjoin to dull our sensory faculties. And it is in the light of the condition of our senses, our capacities (rather than those of another age), that the task of the critic must be assessed. What is important now is to recover our senses. We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more…In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” - Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation.

 “For in the immediate world, everything is to be discerned, for him who can discern it, and centrally and simply, without either dissection into science or digestion into art, but with the whole of consciousness, seeking to perceive it as it stands: so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.” – James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Father, Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.

Someday we'll fall down and weep. And we'll understand it all, all things.

– Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Susan Sontag, in her essay Against Interpretation, laments the fact that most critics attempt to interpret Kafka through an intellectual framework, be that Freudian, feminist, religious, mystical, or existential. None, though, simply experience Kafka’s stories. Instead, they try to use their intellectual faculties to uncover hidden secrets, hidden prophecies forecasting doom, or the path to redemption, when instead of interpreting they should simply let a Kafka story wash over them. Art, she contends, began in its purest form as part of rituals, as experiential in nature. But, with the advent of the more intellectual societies, art began its long history with interpretation.

The same could be claimed for the Terrence Malick’s new film, the Tree of Life. In fact, in some unexpected way Malick’s films use many Kafkaesque styles, though with clearly different content. The movie confounds interpretation, similar to Kafka, by inviting emotional engagement instead. It’s hard then to talk about the film, to critique it, to even offer a synopsis (Take a look at the Wikipedia page; the attempted summary is bafflingly spare, and childish. Try to find another summary in a different review. They will all differ in important ways. Again, like Kafka.) What then can we hope to gain from a discussion of this movie? As Sontag points out, we can instead focus on the style, on how Malick creates his experience, which also allows us to highlight the genius of this movie.
The movie begins with a quote from the book of Job. After all of his friends fail to comfort Job for the evil that has befallen him, Job, left alone and desolate, is confronted by God who emerges out of the whirlwind to ask, in poetic form, "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?"

For generations commentators, of all religious or not religious stripes have argued over the meaning of God’s answer, or what kind of answer this is at all. God clearly does not directly answer Job, or validate any theory of theodicy. God takes away everything a man could have, besides his life, plagues him with pain, shame, and embarrassment, and answers his cries of why with a cryptic poem describing creation, and sublime images of nature. One on level then, it appears that this movie attempts to recreate the Job’s question, or God’s answer in some manner.
In the movie, a boy drowns while playing with his friends, and a brother dies of unknown causes.

In a sense, Malick, magically, presents the sublime experience of God’s answer to Job from out of the whirlwind. By now, famously, or notoriously, Malick presents over 20 straight minutes of planet earth type footage in an attempt to depict the moment of the big bang, through evolution, until the creation of the human being. To some, twenty minutes, of planet earth with no commentary, with just music in the background sounds as much fun as a surgical procedure, to others though, it can be as powerful if not more of a path towards feeling awe at the immensity of existence. Many commentators believe that God’s answer to Job lay not in a specific intellectual idea, but in the experience of the enormity of existence, of the sublime, of something daunting, and horrific, and terrifying because of how small it makes you feel at the same time that it offers comfort that something larger than you exists:

16 - Hast thou entered into the springs of the sea? or hast thou walked in the search of the depth?
17 - Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?
18 - Hast thou perceived the breadth of the earth? declare if thou knowest it all.
19 - Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof,
            - Book of Job, Chapter 38.

From there, the beginnings of what looks like a flame flickers and turns into images of life, as we hear a voiceover, in a hushed tone that tells us:
The nuns taught us there is two ways through life –
the way of nature and the way of grace.
You have to choose which one you follow.
Grace doesn't try to please itself.
Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.
 Accepts insults and injuries.
Nature only wants to please itself.
Get others to please it too.
Likes to lord it over them.
To have its own way.
It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.
And love is smiling through all things.
The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

Can you remember the last time a movie began with a poem, a poem written specifically for the movie, not a quoted poem?
What is the last piece of culture, of art, whether a book, a movie, a TV show, that engages in an earnest struggle with the essential questions of religious, and spiritual life. We take it for granted that either religion is obsolete, or so private as to not warrant discussion, that religion morphs into a personal preference like a favorite TV show or band instead of something we choose or think through. Americans believe in God more than any other country, but religion has been moved to the privatized world of whispers. Though Malick offers no new theology or answers, he lets experience the timeless nature of these questions.

This is a deeply religious movie, but not in the sense of the passion of Christ, it is not dogmatic in the least bit, even if it grounds itself in a Christian family, or uses Christian symbols. It doesn’t provide answers, it doesn’t attempt to, but it provides a spectrum of different experiences in an attempt to grapple with the mystery of existence, of why anything exists at all, of why there is something instead of nothing.

Guide us, to the end of time – Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life.

Let’s get one thing straight. According to our current standards of entertainment you will be bored by this movie, it will make you itch to leave, you will find yourself checking your phone often, but a part of you will feel something, something different than you’ve felt at a movie in a long time, something bordering on what some might call a religious emotion while others might define it as the sublime, but whatever it is it’s purely experiential.
But somehow, this time around, the boredom felt healthy, as if we need a dose boredom from time to time to take us off our perch of intellectualization.
So much of our sense of enjoyment depends on our expectations. If you come to a poem expecting car crashes and explosions you will be bored and disappointed.
Part of what frustrates the crowd is that the movie flaunts our expectations and demand we create new ones. It demands we participate in the movie, and not simply sit passively and let the movie do all of the heavy lifting.  The best type of art demands some sacrifice on our part, whether serious time commitment, serious attention, serious attempts at analysis, or serious ability to open ourselves up to an alternate view, an alternate method of seeing, of experiencing. It wont make it easy for us because it knows that the more effort we put in the more we will get from the piece. The more we take part in it, the more it will take part of us.
Look. All of this is preferential, and can come off as highly pretentious, and doesnt necessarily matter in the larger scheme of things, but it is exhilarating to see the avant garde - to see what movies can do – Avatar, let's call it out, was not a good movie, in terms of content, at least.  Stylistically it was gorgeous, it was the next step in the technology of cinematography blah blah blah, but as a story, everyone knew it was derivative, lame, and downright boring for the most part, but even when genius fails you can still sense the genius of it all, and make no mistake, Cameron, in his own niche is a genius, a visionary, though a weak writer and storyteller. Malick, though, can write and see.

Though the movie makes no attempt to follow a linear plot, it still evokes a sense of narrative, a sense of the sweep of life, of the mundane and holy mixed together. It portrays emotions through images, or small snippets of hushed internal conversation or prayers, and in the domestic dramas of everyday life, and through this the movies heightens our experience of every emotion and situation. The rage of a father hits harder, the frustration of a child harsher, the fear reaches down further than we thought possible, the love moves us to tears. We cannot help it. We simply respond without thinking.
Because if you realize, when you try to intellectually explain the movie, when you expand on its theme, you realize these themes are well worn, some might say unoriginal, in terms of content, it’s hard to say Malick shines with creativity. Malick does not seem interested in giving answers to the questions of existence, of explaining necessarily, what comes before that recurring flicker of light, or fleshing out the answers of theodicy. Rather, he seems interested in evoking these questions, in letting us, even in the postmodern 21st century experiences these basic questions, sublime feelings, and elemental connections in life.
Even disregarding the specific content, which you cant actually do, but for explanation sake let’s run with it, Malick’s techniques push the medium forward into what movies can accomplish. Instead of simply telling stories, he shows that movies can serve as wordless poetry, as imagistic poetry in which flashes of images, and snippets of conversations cohere to create something poetically transcendent. In that sense, its goals and means are poetic in nature.
The movie mugs your emotions, in a good way. It pulls out visceral feels, basic, though not necessary animalistic, more elemental, or just call the deep, or hidden, yes, hidden, hidden feelings without warning, without earning it, it shoves you into the realm of experience at the same time that it challenges your intellect to make sense of it. It brilliantly draws out your intellect, an intellect now desperate to leave and/or figure out this movie, an intellect using its regular tools of logic, of expectations of plot, of coherency, of rational transitions, of excitement.
Even the artsy films we go to, even the Banksy movie that messes with out minds, it does so in an intellectualized manner, in the manner of the postmodern writers who, contrary to Malick, uses their genius to draw out your intellect, not your emotions, or your heart, or you experiential side. Postmodern books thrive on teasing the intellectual side, on forcing them the reader to notice that hey, I, the author, am a person just like you, these characters came from my head, then I put to paper with pen, mostly so I could make money, at the same time they try to tease you with a human story. They tease your heart, while satiating the intellect, with well-drawn characters that get the carpet pulled out from under them. The 4th wall shattered, perpetually, until even our avant garde learned that people need the illusion, even if we say we dont, we do, we really do. In some ways this draws us to memoirs. In memoirs we need not worry about betraying our intellect, as much. In memoirs we dont expect a real fourth wall, we can trust you, and hence, while satifsying the intellect we can past the guards of cynicism and apathy into your hearts, the same basic heart and desires everyone else has. To be loved by something larger than yourself. Even an atheist can recognize that feeling, that desire, even Freud recognized its existence. He explained it differently, he explained this oceanic effect as some long for a reunion with a mother, which is fine, neither are provable, but Freud at least recognized that oceanic feeling, that basic universal need, exists, that it pulls, that we cannot easily neglect it.


It is not necessary that you leave the house. Remain at your table and listen. Do not even listen, only wait. Do not even wait, be wholly still and alone. The world will present itself to you for its unmasking, it can do no other, in ecstasy it will writhe at your feet.
The experience of life consists of the experience which the spirit has of itself in matter and as matter, in mind and as mind, in emotion, as emotion, etc.
We are separated from God on two sides; the Fall separates us from Him, the Tree of Life separates Him from us.

We are sinful not only because we have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, but also because we have not yet eaten of the Tree of Life. The state in which we are is sinful, irrespective of guilt.
 - Franz Kafka

In an unexpected manner Malick makes use of Kafkaesque techniques. Kafka invites mountains of interpretations and analysis because his stories are so elusive, so cryptic, and yet so emotionally engaging. They tease you with the impression of meaning, of deep meaning, but provide no outlet for one coherent interpretation. One of his ingenious techniques to accomplish this effect was his use of weighted words, word that bloom in your mind with associations, endless associations, as if certain core words were the most essential of our language, the word most often thought about, or used - we know these words to for our age, self, happiness, family, wealth, actualization, passion, love, love, love, anxiety - the words that define a generation, but imagine living in an older generation, a generation of a tradition lost, and writing modern stories with an old language, a thought-dead language: sacred, tradition, obligations, Law, God, ritual etc, which trigger experiences you knew rationally did not point to anything larger, to something better, but experiences that feel that way regardless. He draws them right out of you and leaves you cold, with nowhere to go intellectually, we receive no grace, just the tease of transcendence.
In that sense, Malick uses a similar technique but in an completely opposite manner, teasing the intellect and flooding the heart with a pastiche of images, hands through grass, drinking from a hose, a mother's hug, a child's, running in fields, flowing water, roiling water, angry waters, lapping waters, and earth, a child hand's patting the earth, the earth dug up, associations of death, of a father's hand on his infants feet, on boys taking a babble bath, of boys fighting, peer pressuring, doing stupid, but endearing things, tormented things, the real pains of childhoods captured in movie form.
The stuff of poetics, of universal images that perfectly capture a moment, though go unnoticed by most.
 One worries at his ability to succeed in this. 

Movies as religious exploration, as a poetic encapsulation of the entirety of life through a pastiche of images, snatches of whispered conversations, prayers, and mutterings of the soul, and movies as experiential in nature, as a conduit into the sublime in life.
This great evil. Where does it come from? How'd it steal into the world? What seed, what root did it grow from? Who's doing this? Who's killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might've known. Does our ruin benefit the earth? Does it help the grass to grow, the sun to shine? Is this darkness in you, too? Have you passed to this night?
Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? 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 only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.
            - Terrence Malick.

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