The Tree of Life

“If I can prevent just one person from watching this, it’ll have been worth suffering through it.” Thus begins a review of The Tree of Life by Kevin A Ranson, alias Grim D Reaper; unfortunately one which I didn’t read in time.

Published on Blogger, Saturday March 17th,  2012

“If I can prevent just one person from watching this, it’ll have been worth suffering through it.” Thus begins a review of The Tree of Life by Kevin A Ranson, alias Grim D Reaper; unfortunately one which I didn’t read in time. I can’t blame Paula, from whose House of Toast I heard about the film. She describes it “as impressively beautiful as many have said, but ultimately annoying”. You need more from a film than impressive beauty. You need it to deliver the catharsis adequate to the emotional anguish it’s put you through for more than two hours. The more pretentious the work of art, the progressively less willing is one’s suspension of unbelief. The portentous music and images constantly create expectation of a poignant tragedy of universal significance. By the time it suddenly finished, I think in a field of sunflowers, or perhaps Sean Penn in a suit and tie, wandering an Arizona desert, I was merely being polite to the film and all who sailed in it, praying for no more than merciful release.

As a kind of irrelevant leitmotif, we get bucketfuls of nature-fractal imagery—raging seas, hot lava, writhing clouds—which I take to represent the seven days of Creation, with highly-strung choirs to match. Any moment now, I thought, we’ll reach Satan’s rebellion from God. That’s possibly because I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to read Paradise Lost, after a visit on March 1st to Milton’s Cottage, when I allowed myself to be seduced into the idea by Eddie the Curator, a man of superlative charm, erudition and marketing skills. The Americans love Milton far more than we (English) do, he said. They come over in droves. I think the English are right. Let us honour Milton, but stay short of reading Paradise Lost, just as we may acknowledge the critical acclaim given to director Terrence Malick, short of actually spending time watching his film.

“Ultimately annoying,” says Paula. Let me clarify and say it was annoying all the way through, but most of all it was retrospectively annoying. What was all that pain for? I had planned to write a post entitled “Why Paradise Lost?” but ended up saying to myself “Why write a post about it?” So I bury those plans in this one, and cover the two overblown visions in one review.

As other critics have noted there isn’t a narrative, exactly. It’s more of a tableau in its creator’s head, made into celluloid. There is a father, a mother and three boys. The eldest is Jack, the most beloved of the three angels in heaven, and the one who will rebel against the boss of a suffocatingly-close nuclear family in the nineteen-fifties: Brad Pitt as the All-Father. In his emphasis on high achievement, I couldn’t help but think of the Kennedys. To me, his character had a look of the late President and like him had been in the Navy during the war, not to mention the good old Irish name—O’Brien. (Well, begorrah! It’s St Patrick’s Day as I write.) But never mind that. As soon as I saw the way he treated his sons, especially the eldest, I said to myself “A righteous man—they’re the worst.” He had a wonderful look of smug religiosity, which as the film went on made me wish that Jack would shoot him in the head. I wasn’t far off there. In one scene, Father’s lying under his car doing some repairs, while it’s precariously supported by a jack attached to the rear bumper. The boy Jack saw the possibilities two seconds after I did, saw how easily the support could be kicked away. Both of us, sadly, had been too high-mindedly brought up to give it more serious consideration.

What interested me in the first place was probably the same thing which interested Paula: an alleged dichotomy between Nature and Grace, as in the following voice-overs from the mother:

“The nuns taught us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”

“The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”

“Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”

“Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

Like all the other voice-overs, like most of the scenes, they are inconsequential pieces of confetti tossed in the air as generalised religious sentiment: a tossed grenade of indiscriminate guilt-laying. I shall resist the temptation to discuss Nature and Grace here & merely endorse Paula’s own words on the topic. The film doesn’t cover it anyway, being engrossed in an all-embracing emotional blackmail which only violence could stem. Jack wants to kill his father—psychoanalytically one supposes—but can’t. So the boy grows up and turns into Sean Penn, a bewildered neurotic given to wandering in metaphorical deserts—or perhaps real ones, who knows.

Here I return to the reviewer Kevin A Ranson, whose advice (“don’t watch it”) I had not received in time. He concludes that it is not the worst film of all time but his least recommended, a view which he explains thus: “. . .this film was made by one person specifically for one person and can only be the product of much soul-searching and intense introspection. It should be viewed by that one person and only by that person, sitting alone in the middle of an empty theater like a widower watching old home movies and reminiscing of days gone by.” I conclude that it’s a cinematic autobiography of which the author/director should be justly proud, so long as he doesn’t foist it on us. For the emotional blackmail foisted on Jack by his father (and more subtly by the mother) is now foisted on the viewer, suggesting that the father’s dream has come true: he has sowed a seed of righteousness in his son the film director, who has brought forth an hundredfold, to preach to us from an Hollywood mountaintop.

“Milton, thou shouldst be living at this hour!” said Wordsworth. Indeed. The author of Paradise Lost and the author of The Tree of Life could meet, like Joseph when he went up to meet Israel his father: “and he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while”; for they have a lot in common.

Selected Comments

Bryan said… So you’re saying I shouldn’t see it? I’m a little leery of the Grim Reaper (not the incarnation of death, but rather the movie reviewer —there’s some “Pure Vincent” for you. He called The Thin Read Line, a movie I’m rather fond of (and which was also made by Malick), “…one of the most meaningless, wasteful films I’ve ever reviewed…”However, I trust your judgment quite a bit more than I trust the Reaper’s. Still, I might have to throw caution to the wind and watch the movie anyway, against both of your advices[?] (at the reasonable price of a one-dollar DVD rental, of course. I’m not a complete madman.) I think you’ve perked my curiosity despite yourself.

P.S.: I also bought a copy of Paradise Lost with the best of intentions, but I haven’t ever gotten around to reading it either.

That should be The Thin RED Line, not The Thin READ Line which is probably about eye-strain and miniature font sizes. (I’ll spare you the indignity of crediting your spirit with that joke.)

Vincent said… Good – that you’ll probably watch it anyhow. It will be an experience unlike any other, I promise. Though I have not seen the thin red line.

Paula said… Huzzah, Vincent. You’ve fleshed out the substance of the annoyance beautifully. The Penn-in-the-desert and the “afterlife’s-a-beach” scenes (fade to primordial fire) were definitely cringeworthy.

darev2005 said… The problem with some artists is that they think it’s a natural law that we should all share and love their art the way they do. Unfortunately, this is not always so. I’ve read Milton and found him to be extremely boring. I’d have been happy if Paradise Lost had stayed lost.

Susan said… I’ve enjoyed a couple of Terrence Malick’s films, particularly The New World and The Thin Red Line but I didn’t like this one either. I found his faux 2001 God images, his defiant randomness in shot selection and editing (wiping characters out of the movie), his Music Appreciation class classical music soundtrack, the very definition of shallow and pretentious. It was like watching a protracted Pepsi commercial leading up to the ending where the generations come together on the beach and you’re waiting for them all to erupt in song and dance. I’m not even going to mention the dinosaurs (oops, sorry). You’ve covered some of my main complaints very well.

Bryan said… Good Lord, this movie sounds like an absolute disaster on an epic scale. Now I’m going to have to watch it.

Darev2005 said… I think the most abominable movie I ever watched was “Battlefield Earth”. I liked the book and have read it several times. But I was so mad when I saw that movie I couldn’t hardly see straight. Wanted to drive to Hollywood and punch John Travolta in the face. Was it worse than that?

John Myste said… A very wise man once said: The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven. It seems odd, the whole concept of a mind being a place, in this case, a place for the mind, but it is largely true. Wretched men stand beside happy ones, sharing the same outward condition. Another very wise man once said: Wagner’s music is better than it sounds This is how I see Paradise Lost, which I cannot read. Many classics are very good in lore and painful in experience. The same wise man referenced above said something like “a classic is something everyone praises and does not read.” I agree with this. I think classics are often worthy of praise and at once worthy to sit on the shelf, a literary rumor we have all heard and are glad to have encountered, but are also content to avoid as a personal acquaintance. As you may remember, Mark Twain is my favorite writer. He wrote volumes and read volumes, but he did not read most classics. He famously reviewed Paradise Lost in a speech: “I don’t believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and you don’t want to. That’s something that you just want to take on trust. It’s a classic, just as Professor Winchester says, and it meets his definition of a classic—something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Once upon a time, I picked up Paradise Lost, excited to finally read it. I have never been more pleased than when I put it back on the shelf, unread. I purchased my copy from a library book fair. It was a bit tattered, probably checked out many times; probably never read. I will not watch Tree of Life because I simply could not tolerate Paradise Lost.






5 thoughts on “The Tree of Life”

  1. As you know everything leads me back to William Blake who had the intellect to read ‘Paradise Lost’ as a child. Having less intellect I use Blake’s illustrations to Paradise Lost to acquaint me with what Milton was saying. The ‘Tree of Life’ may use similar techniques to those used by Milton and Blake to cover territory which can’t be visited in the material world.
    I wrote this for my blog about Illustration One:
    John Milton wrote 12 books in his epic Paradise Lost. For these 12 books Blake make 12 illustrations. Since Blake could cover only the highlights of Milton’s poem in 12 pictures, he choose the most dramatic and revealing scenes as subjects for his illustrations. Milton’s narrative does not move in a straight line from beginning to end of his poem since it is dealing with the interaction of time and eternity. Only in the final scene when Adam and Eve were led from the Garden of Eden did the earth as the habitation of man become real. At that point the limits of time and space became the milieu in which humanity was confined.


  2. Thanks Ellie. The spirit of the post is to excuse ourselves for not finding time or motivation to read Paradise Lost. For most people, I suspect, the same attitude applies to Blake. Reverence accorded to genius is coupled with “non-tolerance”, as John Myste puts it above, of all but a small fraction of Blake’s work.

    Both are too profound for most of us, requiring a labour of love that few can muster. So we gather to forgive ourselves for being philistines


  3. Here is a quote from Roger R. Easson:
    “In chemistry the verb ‘sublime’ means that a substance may pass from solid to gas without passing into the intermediate liquid state. So too is Blake using the word. Sublime allegory is poetry that speaks to the intellectual powers without penetrating the intermediate stage of the corporeal understanding. It is poetry that is, quite literally, beyond reason. Consequently, it is best suited for dethroning reason within the reader who does not understand that the dominance of reason in his own mind prevents his entering the life of eternity.”
    If we are not giants ourselves, we can aspire to stand on the shoulders of giants.


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