Saturday, July 30, 2011

Shall We Gather at the River: How "Christian" is The Tree of Life?

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.

"Behind it, like a lost child, trails a remnant of the earth."

 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.

A threshold.

A star.

- 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


  1. I saw the ending as the instinctual return to life's origins. Life began in the shallow seas and perhaps we all feel this in our DNA when we go to the sea, stare at it, wonder at what it contains, feel the awe. As an atheist I'm a little annoyed when other atheists "feel uncomfortable" when anything verging on Christian brushes up against them. It's a symptom of how everything has become political. I think Malick made a Christian film but one that recognizes Christianity as but one way of experiencing "The whole God Thing" which is not unique to Christianity but instead the ineffable thing all religious and spiritual practices seek.

  2. Indeed, and one of the things Malick seems intent on doing is trying to take that political angle out of questions of spirituality and eternity -- something that certainly comes into play in The Thin Red Line and The New World.

    What strikes me as odd is the notion that someone who is not religious cannot accept a religious reading of the film, or must reject those parts of the film that seems to border on the religious.

    To paraphrase what I said above: I do not believe aliens were responsible for prehistoric man's ability to use tools. Nevertheless, I can accept 2001 as a profound work of art that speaks to the innermost depths of my soul. I see no incompatibility between those two statements. Because the operative word is not "aliens," but "art."

  3. Silverman seems a little too intent on saying that this heaven is a "Christian" heaven, but I don't think "faith in Jesus Christ" is an issue ever addressed, to say nothing of faith (he's also a little too intent on the "objective," when this film is about subjectivity, and few things are more subjective than the colors of one's religion). His reaction is very understandable, however, and representative of why I'm weary of recommending the picture to my own friends (most of whom are also atheists). It's not faith I see at the end, but wonder and awe, the intelligent design being in our own perception reflecting on what we're encountering.

  4. Silverman seems like an interesting guy, but perhaps somewhat literal-minded. I guess his response might be what I'd expect from a professional atheist -- that is to say, a public advocate for atheism. I dunno. I prefer the kind of atheism that can still make and appreciate movies like THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW and THE HAWKS AND THE SPARROWS.

    I've had little problem recommending THE TREE OF LIFE to atheist friends, most of whom seem to like it. I thought my religious friends would like it more, but they get more hung up on the whole no-plot/what-on-earth-am-I-watching-here thing.

  5. Question: If TREE OF LIFE can be considered a Christian movie because Malick is a Christian, then can THIN RED LINE and THE NEW WORLD also be considered Christian movies? They do also deal with spiritual themes after all.

  6. Hi, Hi Dr. Nick: That's a really interesting question. I guess I wouldn't classify TTRL and TNW as Christian films, though they obviously do have spiritual content. TNW specifically has an animist quality -- if it reflects any specific spiritual belief, it is probably that of the Native American characters in the film.

    So I guess with TOL the case is more that the characters are Christian, the filmmaker is Christian, and the film delves rather heavily into spiritual and sometimes overtly religious themes. That said, as I try to say in the piece, I'm not really sure the movie is all that Christian to begin with. It's more Universalist.

  7. Is there a transcript or full video available of the panel discussion you mention in your article?

  8. I never saw a film less Christian. And probably the president of American Atheists is more Christian than Malick.
    R.L.: “Tell us a story from before we can remember”
    Mother: “I went for a ride in a plane once. It was a graduation present.”

    "Once when I was young
    I went for a ride on a plane
    And I stopped believing.
    For where else can Heaven be
    If not on the tops of clouds?
    A kingdom that vast,
    Cannot be invisible.
    Angels are not cruel enough to hide.
    Where did the castle made of clouds
    And miracles go?
    Was it ever even there?"

    ("Ashley"=T.R., 2006)

    There were two porcelain angels in the dead son’s room, by the window. In the architect’s dream, we see something against the sky that I would called the “disappeared house”. It could also be properly named the “castle made of clouds”. It even has something in the front that resembles a drawbridge. Holly and Kit go on the plane as prisoners. And what is Badlands’ last shot? The tops of the clouds.

    Malick is only true in cinema. But you have to be methodic to understand about what Tree of Life he is talking about. And you must think like a kid. Do you like games? He does:

    "Grey, my friend, is every theory
    And green is Life’s golden tree."

    Leave the grey theories if you want to understand why Brad Pitt promised in the trailer: “Someday you will fall down and weep. You will understand it all. All things.”

    Look carefully to that shore of eternity.
    There is a bit of every movie Malick did: the mountains (Badlands), an indian man (The New World), the beach filmed from a low angle, R.L. entering the water with mother and a “tree” (The Thin Red Line), the beach pavilion (Days of Heaven). There must be an inspiration in Fellini’s 8½ famous end.

    “Brother, mother – it was they who led me to your door”.
    What is RL? The River of Life. (You read the script: "a river – living, flowing – the pure waters of the river life rushing down from a mountain peak.")
    What is "mother"? Cinema.

    "Long have I loved you and for my own delight
    Would call you mother, give you an artless song,
    You, of all towns in our country
    The loveliest that ever I saw.

    As the forest bird crosses the peaks in flight,
    Over the river shimmering past your floats
    Airy and strong the bridge,
    Humming with sounds of traffic and people.

    Once, as if it were sent by gods, enchantment
    Seized me as I was passing over the bridge
    And the distance with its allure
    Shone into the mountainscape.

    And that strong youth, the river, was rushing on down
    To the plain, sorrowing-glad, like the heart that overflows
    With beauty and hurls itself,
    To die of love, into the floods of time.
    (Holderlin, Heidelberg, the poem that inspired the film)

    Some thoughts about this here:

  9. The end is not "a different state of affairs than the traditional Judeo-Christian concept of Heaven" because “all who have ever lived,” gathered together in the finale, appear not to be souls or spirits, but corporeal bodies awakened from a great sleep. One need not be an "expert on eschatology" to see how closely this corresponds to "the resurrection of the dead."

    PBS aired a very insightful segment about Malick and THE TREE OF LIFE on "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly," admitting in the copy for the program that "Terrence Malick's new movie is a meditation on traditional Christian questions about evil, suffering, grace, and beauty":

  10. I came across a link to your blog today, and after poking around, reading this post as well as seeing your high praise for "The Grey," I am most certainly bookmarking you. Cheers!