Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Poverty of Philosophy

Film: “Tree of Life” – Terrence Malick, 2011

Malick is one of these American film auteurs that is somewhat of a hidden legend, like JD Salinger or Marlene Dietrich. His first film, ‘Badlands,’ was a re-creation of the Charlie Starkweather mass murder spree in Kansas in the late 1950s, starring Martin Sheen and Sissie Spacek as young actors. The film is one of the great American movies. Malick followed with ‘Days of Heaven,’’The Thin Red Line’ and a few others that degraded in quality from his first.

Nevertheless, many critics and film-goers eagerly awaited Malick’s new film, “Tree of Life.” It won the Palm D’Or in Cannes, and film reviewers have written turgid, confusing descriptions of this film that make it out to be some cross between the Bible, ‘Texasville’ and ‘Solaris.’

Well, it’s really a very simple film. The film, based partly on Malick’s own childhood in Waco, Texas, is a meditation on the death of a son and brother. It essentially poses the problem of death / evil, and asks ‘God’ why this happened to such a young, innocent person. The two forces of the film are ‘grace’ and nature. Nature took the son, and now the parents (one in particular) and the brothers (one in particular) search for ‘grace’ to accept the death. In the process we see nature in all its ferocious beauty and power through time; and childhood in all its rosy hues and memories – and crises. In that childhood, the father, played by Brad Pitt (yes, that Brad Pitt) is a dictatorial parent, who eventually apologizes for his behavior (achieving ‘grace’ himself). And in the end, the film also ‘accepts’ the death of the son and brother. As the magic mother says, and I paraphrase, “I give him to you” while two angel-like women hover around her.

So, evidently, two forces of evil in the world – ‘human nature’ and death – are overcome by love and acceptance.

History plays a minor role in this film. The father and one son attempt careers – the son, played as an older man by Sean Penn (yes, that Sean Penn) succeeds, while the father eventually fails. At the end, the family is evicted from their Eden-like house in Waco due to his job loss. The children play in DDT fumes. The father and brothers visit black folks grilling food, which reminds you that 1950s Waco was segregated. Scenes of corporate American board-rooms remind you how life goes on now. But history is relegated to the sidelines. History is ignored, actually. And since no one lives in a time ‘outside history,’ this is a calculated deception. Even the father’s authoritarian style is actually straight out of the 50s.

History is irrelevant to the main thrust of the film, which is the images. And the images stand in for the beauty of life. Images of evolving ‘outer space,’ underwater life, volcanic eruptions, dinosaurs on beaches and along rivers, desert formations, star fields, cloud patterns and volcanic plains are interspersed with the gauzy, impressionistic family story evolving in Waco. Malick succeeds in evoking childhood quite well. The film is beautiful in a somewhat labored way, and it reminds every viewer that what we see, hear, smell, feel and touch every day are wonderful delights that should never be forgotten; moments that we should actually immerse ourselves in. For they may never return.

But as a philosophic film it fails. The massed classical choirs accompanying the evolving universe should be a tip off. Quotes from the Book of Job, phrases of ‘Why, God”, “Amens’ and southern Texas religiosity bathe the film throughout. The philosophic answer is actually a Christian message, diluted as it is. “God” is forgiven. His natural world is beautiful. Say “Grace.” Amen. As if the death of this boy was part of God’s ‘plan’ in the first place; as if God was actually involved in a specific drowning or death in Vietnam. This is a reactionary fantasy. So this film rates as a ‘deep thinker’ film for bourgeois critics, but when you look at what it is saying, there is much less than meets the eye. Sort of like the ‘meaning’ of the obelisk in “2001-A Space Odyssey.” Nada.

Current debates among film critics over ‘low’ versus ‘high’ culture (with this film in the “high” culture category…) ignore the fact that some so-called low culture is actually more progressive and emancipating than some so-called ‘high culture.’ Which, given the a-political bent of most film critics, is a completely confusing dialectic to them.

And I saw it in Uptown,
Red Frog, 6/11/2011

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