A couple of months ago I attended a panel discussion in New York on The Tree of Life and spirituality. It was an interesting group of speakers, even though it sounded a bit like the first line of a joke – there was a minister, a Buddhist, a humanist, an atheist, and a film producer. Fox Searchlight has graciously made some clips of various speakers available from this panel and from a similar one held in L.A. around this same time. I’ve included some clips, as well as my own thoughts, below.
The New York panel was a bit too big for the discussion to really get in-depth, but it did go off in a fascinating direction pretty early on when David Silverman, the president of American Atheists, described The Tree of Life, mainly on the evidence of its ending, as “a Christian film.” Needless to say, he had some issues with this (though he did say that he mostly liked the film up until that point). Here’s a brief clip of Silverman discussing the subject:
Some further thoughts were offered by Nicholas Vreeland, the director of the Tibet Center (and one of the more fascinating people you'll come across), who did see Christian overtones in these final scenes as well.
Interestingly, though, also at the Los Angeles panel, Sister Rose Pacette, a nun and Catholic film blogger, saw the ending as being more metaphorical than anything else.
So, what to make of all this...
To the question of whether The Tree of Life is a Christian film, I guess the answer partly depends on what we mean by that adjective. Yes, Malick is a Christian, and as far as I can tell a fairly devout one, so his film is obviously informed to some extent by his own belief system. But if we are to focus on the film's final scenes, we should really ask ourselves how literally we're supposed to take them.
Or, let me ask it this way: Is what Malick is doing here all that different from what Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey? If we take 2001 literally, then it’s all about aliens coming to the Solar System, placing giant rectangles here, on the Moon, and off in a suburb of Jupiter, and then using those to make us smarter and stronger -- a nice thought, perhaps, but also a severely limiting (and kind of dorky) one. And yet 2001 is so much more than that bizarre premise would allow. The film works best when it hovers between narrative, poetry, and metaphor.
The same could be said for The Tree of Life. True, Kubrick’s film starts off in a scientific register, while Malick’s starts off in a spiritual one. But both films end, really, with an attempt to combine science, abstraction, and the spirit. What Kubrick called The Infinite, Malick calls Eternity.
Which is to say: I’m actually not sure that that final scene is meant to be Heaven. One draft of the script (which is, admittedly, different from the finished film) calls this place “The Shore of Eternity” and makes the point that “all who have ever lived” will come here. I’m no expert on eschatology, but that seems to me to be a different state of affairs than the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of Heaven (to the extent that there is a traditional one), which is usually not reserved for everybody. Or maybe Malick is just more of a Gregory of Nyssa man than he's been letting on.
Here’s how the script addresses the Shore of Eternity:
This is the end of the voyage of life. The music sings: all came from love, to love all shall return.
Jack has crossed over death’s threshold, gone beyond space and time, to some greater life which includes death within it.
…The plain and ordinary has become a door to the infinite. He lives in that which neither comes into being nor passes away.
It’s also worth pointing out that this isn’t really the final stop on the itinerary (though it is, “the end”). The characters move from this shore into “Eternity” itself, which the script doesn’t really describe, instead lyrically speculating on how the film might portray it:
Eternity – that realm of pure and endless light – how shall we represent it? A ladder leading up into a tree. Sparks flying up from a fire. A bridge. A kiss. A solitary island.
A single image might serve better than several combined. The whole creation in the figure of a tree. The smallest leaf communicates with the lowest root, all parts feeding on the same sap, breathing in the same air and sunlight, drawing the same life up from the darkness of the earth below.
Malick seems to be trying to create something that can mean different things to different people. You can choose to view these scenes of Eternity as merely a metaphor, as this movie’s “They are all equal now” moment. Or you can choose to view this as a specifically religious vision of Grace (and I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t signposts to support that view; I wrote in my initial review of the woman in the robe who seems to be hovering on the edge of many of these final frames, guiding the characters). Or you can just embrace the unformed nature of these moments, the glancing uncertainty of its imagery (Are these characters old, are they children, are they adults? If this is the ultimate consummation with the divine, then where are the trees, the grass, and all those other things that previously symbolized our oneness with creation?), and accept it as a rumination on the idea that death is merely a part of life, and perhaps a hesitant but earnest longing for something greater that will make life and the world whole again.
That final description comes closest to my view, I think. And, let’s not forget, the film is open-ended: After this vision of Eternity, we’re back in the city, back in the elevator, back with Sean Penn’s Jack, who sees the world anew. Or, as the script’s beautiful final lines put it:
And still the vision is not the journey. The real journey has yet to begin.
Will he give himself to this new life? Does he dare?
A stranger, smiling.
- At the Violet Hour: A First Stab at The Tree of Life
- When Smart Writers Say Not-So-Smart Things
- Two (More) Tree of Life Things