Last week our parish invited a special speaker to give talks about Art and the Christian faith. In one talk he went through various categories, calling out examples he liked as especially powerful and well done. I made notes of some names that were unfamiliar to me, to check out later. He also mention a movie I remembered hearing about a few years ago but had not seen.
Since it’s release in 2011, The Tree of Life, written and directed by Terence Malick, has slowly gained respect and kudos. It was not a great success at the time but since then has been voted onto lists of the “100 best films of all time” and “one thousand movies to see before you die.” It is not a plainly Christian film, but draws much from the viewpoint and structure of the book of Job in the Old Testament.
It begins with a quote of God’s response to Job:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?… when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4, 7)
The movie’s end is just as “disappointing” as Job. Malick resorts to a symbolic wrap-up that seems to indicate all is finally well with the broken and distraught characters in his story. But that very retreat to symbolism leaves the painful questions raised during the story unanswered, at least in the language in which the questions were posed. This may be why the film has come to be seen as “deep.” Critics can walk away, thinking, “Deep questions!” while ignoring a lack of answers provided for those questions because the vision is so beautiful. (The film got the Oscar for Best Cinematography and Malick won for Best Director.)
Bishop Robert Barron does an insightful film analysis that suggests the answer to all these questions is beyond us. Reaching for it is like Adam and Eve reaching for an ability to know Good and Evil apart from God’s direction, and thus having the Tree of Life put out of their reach. (Genesis 3:22-23)
Some of my irritation may be inherent in the necessarily required “change of language” that usually accompanies any foray into art. It is not typically the case that one can speak art’s language, much less understand what it is saying back, trying to use the language and templates of other disciplines. Meanings are expressed in new symbols. Art will seem obscure, if not pointless, if one doesn’t let it speak in its “native tongue.”
Melanie and I watched the extended “director’s version” of The Tree of Life which runs three hours. She got up to go do other things several times during the film and I thought she was bored with the glacial pace of the story. It was worse.
Regardless of the issue of learning a given artwork’s particular language, I think The Tree of Life has the same problem Stephen Spielberg faced when he went back to release an extended version of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In the original version of that sci-fi hit, we see Richard Dreyfuss happily being led on board the flying saucer to go visit the alien worlds. The end.
In the expanded version, Spielberg had the money to create more special effects and show us the inside of the flying saucer. Dreyfuss is all wide-eyed before they take off. It was not impressive or an improvement. The peek inside was not satisfying to viewer curiosity. By the end of the movie we wanted to know much more about these friendly little aliens than what the dashboard of their car looked like. And there was no way to satisfy that curiosity with pictures or dialogue or narration or anything the film format could provide for our minds to process.
As I pondered this, a Bible verse flashed into my mind that I had been misunderstanding for years without realizing it.
“No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him….” (I Corinthians 2:9)
I had always taken that as a statement about the limits to what our natural minds could understand when it came to supernatural realities. Now I looked it up to see if that was all it said.
No! There was that reference to the heart as well as the mind! Paul was using a Jewish idiom not found in Isaiah 64:4, but which spoke of the human experience of perceiving information. He was saying there are things God has planned that we cannot comprehend with our intellects or our feelings.
Malick embodies those two viewpoint channels in the father and mother of the family in his movie. They are hurt, confused, troubled by the “normal” events of life unfolding around them. These things cannot be controlled by either knowledge or feelings. Their children (especially the oldest son) also get scarred along the way, collecting their own hurts and dissatisfactions. The only resolution, hinted vaguely at the end, is seeing the oldest son (now grown) dropping to his knees and kissing the bare feet of a figure who comes up to him in the surreal “after life” scene.
It is impossible, at the normal story-telling plot level, to be satisfied with this. In real life, Christians will end up with a transcendent level of understanding that is impossible, at present, for us to grasp. Tears and questions will fade away. But for the story-teller or movie-making artist now, there’s a problem. Nagging questions are still on the table.
As a story-telling problem, I think Sydney Pollack (director) and Judith Rascoe (screenwriter) found a better, more candid, resolution in the 1990 drama Havana. The film was not too successful. Still, I have found few as stunning as this one in dramatizing the distance of contrasting philosophical points of view and how they complicate things.
In the days just before Fidel Castro took over ruling the island of Cuba, a gambler comes to Havana simply looking for one last big poker game that would enable him to retire on his winnings. He crosses paths with a beautiful woman whose husband is participating in Castro’s effort to overthrow the Cuban dictator Batista.
The woman is an idealist intent of delivering her people from a corrupt ruler. (Ironic, I know. But let the story tellers go with it for the moment.) The gambler is a hard headed calculator of odds, looking for whatever winning edge will immediately benefit him. Dreamy ideals can’t be calculated. He has no interest in them. But the woman is beautiful. He can’t forget her even though he can’t understand what drives her.
The movies has several wonderful encounters between them where their philosophically mismatched views of “how life works” are explored. I have admired the script for years for the way their seemingly casual conversations deftly sketch these conflicts of viewpoints.
I have also been amused at the irony of seeing a conflict I know in Christian-vs.-secular debates played out here as an apologia for a deadly Communist revolution. I admire what Judith Rascoe accomplished in outlining such a philosophical contrast of viewpoints while suspecting she would be mortified to know I was rereading the socialist vision in terms of a spiritual one.
But the point I wanted to make by bringing up this film was how the film makers brought their conflict to a “satisfactory,” if melancholy, end. The Castro revolution has succeeded. One last time the woman meets with the gambler. She finally recognizes a huge risk and sacrifice he made to protect her. The gambler takes the final flight out of the island after realizing the woman he loves is determined to stay there with her revolutionary comrades.
In the final scene, three years later, he drives up to a beach in Key West. He looks out across the waters toward the island. He voices his hopes. And they are expressed in his old, odds-calculating way of thinking.
“It’s not that I expect her. But I watch the entrance. You never know whose gonna walk in. Somebody blown off course…
“This is hurricane country.”
Strictly in story telling terms, satisfying the human head and heart and their questions, that gives back something in their own language. It’s not a bad artistic achievement, even if it bites off a bit less than an exposition from God on His plans for Creation.