Tuesday, September 13, 2011

"The Tree of Life"

I went to the lovely State Theatre last night to see "The Tree of Life". You've very likely heard of it. The trailer alone sparked conversations of greatness and (perhaps also including) various academy awards.

When asked, "What is about?" the only appropriate answer is: "Everything."

Therefore, I will  be addressing this post as a guide to help you either see it for the first time or to help in thinking through it.

I have no idea if I am "correct" in any of this. If that kind of art frustrates you, then I wouldn't recommend it. If you are excited about a piece of beauty that will take multiple viewings and lots of arguing to do it justice, then this is a must see.

Things that helped me see:

C.S. Lewis's Idea of Joy/Senshut
There are moments of divine sight given early in life that are so piercing and joyful that they remain for the remainder. All we find beautiful is a harkening back to those early moments. Perhaps they were not so wonderful if we look at them years later; but they were leaping off points. The repeated, quick, overemphasized images--window, tree, floating white curtains, a young girl walking, brotherly play, water/swimming, grass, clouds/sky, Brahms, red hair, flashlights, ocean/sand-- are what act as the signals to the young protagonist. "How did I know you before I knew your name?" he asks. One gets the sense that he never articulates those words to himself but are rather words to express a spiritual, unknown question. And these moments of beauty are the painful, longing triggers to try and find what the feelings are from.

Lewis calls these experience "joy" or "senschut". For him, it was physical joy and pain from things like a small rock garden his brother made, records of opera, a fantasy novel by George MacDonald. I think many of the repeated images are acting as this.

There is a repeated voice over of "Follow me." Follow those things. Follow joy. We all know what Lewis found as its source.

Confessions of St. Augustine
Jack's statement: "Mother and Father, you wrestle inside me" is just one place where I sense the story of Augustine coming through. Perhaps this is just because his narrative of dissolute youth, a faith filled mother, and journey to belief is one that has been retold in many forms. Conversion does not always vary in its structure so much as in the details. The moment when Jack steals the night gown from the neighbor also reminded me of when Augustine stole pears, though the guilt for Jack comes in much sooner. He says to his mother, "Don't look at me" and later accuses her of letting the father "walk all over you." It is a trying relationship for them both. Perhaps I'm reading to much into this association... but the chance for Augustine to be an influence is there.


Exposure to "Time" as a concept and limited view / ie Eternity
Time is disregarded for significant portions of this film. Time is not the organizational idea but eternity. This means that all time is not in a line but in a plane stretching eternally in everydirection. Time is a lens placed on humanity at the beginning of the world. Outside of time, however, all moments are interacting with eachother. We get to see the invisible interaction/visions through one man's eyes. Be patient. It will not make "sense" like you want it to. It will make your mind stretch to see the world outside of the lens you were born with. There are small moments that seem like eternity in this film and there are passing things that are shown for what they are.

The Magician's Nephew/Genesis
Music is key. I want to discuss with a musician and hear what they "saw" in the movie. But even I, ignorant as I am in music history, could tell. The music is both an influencer of events and a dominant force, greater even than the images. This is particularly tied to the sound of water ("and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters" Genesis 1) and to the pslam where the "morning stars sing".  Lewis also used this idea in his Narnia books: the world was sung by Aslan into existence and it seems that the world in "The Tree of Life" is a well.

Poetic Rather Than Linear Structure
Poetry has historically used linear structure to tell narrative (ex Odyssey and Illiad, etc). There is also poetry that exists to communicate is in the barest form possible moments, and uses these to explore/discover ideas and beauty. These do not typically use a beginning/middle/end structure.

"The Tree of Life" is more about the moment by moment images and less about the beginning/middle/end structure. It is about image after image and sound and music and light. It is not a code but there is meaning. If you are more intuitive, that will aid you in this.

However, like most good pieces of anything, there is a definitive creation/fall/redemption/restoriation structure going on. It just doesn't look like you're used to seeing.

The Bible (esp. Psalms and Job)
You can't escape the Bible in this film, especially the Old Testament poetry. The first moments of the film are the texts from the final chapters of Job, the ones where God asks Job, "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?" This film is, in a sense, telling the story of a Job: the one with great faith who must grieve that what God has taken away. The repeated phrase "Where are you?" begins as one of faith, hope and expectation; it moves into grief and doubt; then is restored to hope in the final sequence of the film.

Creational Understanding of the World
There is not a sense of the world making itself in this movie. Perhaps there is and I'm reading into it. I would argue however that nature is used as a conduit/manifestation of divinity and not a manifestation of itself. The image of the stars exploding out into the universe combined with the music at that moment stands out in my mind. We are dealing with spirit as well as the seen world.

Intense Love of Trees
If you think trees are awesome, then you will appreciate the recurring metaphor of trees.

Shalom/Restoration
The final sequence in this film, though questionable in its theology, does strongly imply a belief in the restoration of all things. Peace and wholeness is what each character is looking for; how does one find it in death? In a family that comes apart on the inside? I look for places of restoration in many narratives but there are few who make such a blunt leap to it as this one does. The command, "Follow me", finds its answer in a place of waiting for some final moment. We get to see healing and then the final blow that ends time and the world. What happens then we are left to imagine.

Ultimate Associative Leap
"The Tree of Life" and "Till We Have Faces". Especially the second part of that book.

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