Emptying out, in search of the true face: Tree of Life (2011)
With Malick I usually come away with a few things, simple wonderings about meaning and the desire to transcend. But there is something here worth talking about that I believe matters, above and beyond both the scope and the beauty of the film. It is about the great lie upon which we have placed our hopes and has fed us only suffering.
Those of us in the West can trace it back to Descartes, among the foundations 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”. Imagine the yawning gap with the natural world we are born into; we posit as proof that we are because we think, not because we simply are. This alone reveals it; a distinction between body and soul (and how the concept of god is born from this, in a mind that regards itself as separate from its vessel), 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 in terms of what we are in need of and by our ideas of them.
The imaginary conundrum of duality goes way back in history, 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 as something 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 as a result. 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 in the film 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. Meanwhile 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 fatherly guidance, we see how the kids become an aimless mob. The violence trickled inside the boy, eventually poisons and erupts.
Over the course of all this, we get Malick’s treacly 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 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 these illusions of duality, of “mine” and “other”, 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’, one as cautionary warning, the other to aspire to. The father as embodiment of the “nature that only wants to please itself”, but that nature is only our false notion of a self, an ego that expects to be pleased. 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.
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 herself 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 tongue 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”.
Something to meditate upon.