I watched The Tree of Life last night for the third time. It is an awful movie. It is a wonderfully profound film. It takes effort and attention, but I think like most things, the more it hurts, the more it means.
The thing that frustrates so many about this film (and my favorite thing about it) is the lack of hierarchy. It doesn’t make for a clear narrative, but it does present itself as a worthy myth. Every living thing shown in the film is given the same beautification and focus, from frog to human to dinosaur to tree to blade of grass to cosmos. There are no “its,” but only “thous,” each living thing made a character in typical Malick form, everything embedded with the same majesty and grace of life. The main character is not Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Jessica Chastain’s loving mother or the kids; the focus of the film is life itself, understood and contemplated through the lens of one family and the life that leads up to and surrounds them. The perspective of the film zooms way, way out, and forces anyone paying close attention to contemplate some difficult to face questions: “If I have been alive this long, how long have I not been alive?” and “What is the difference between this life and that life?” and “How did that glint of life originate?” and “What binds families together, and what binds all life together?”
Life begets life, but also destroys other life. Everything eats and gets eaten. We all have bellies and appetites of some sort. Everything we do hurts something or someone, and this is one of the many paradoxes of what it means to be alive. One of the most crushing memories I have from being young is realizing that I could do things that could hurt people in a way that I could never see. It’s devastating to realize you have that effect, that a person can unknowingly produce a wake of suffering, but it also suggests that life can simultaneously produce a tide of unintended joy. And from this comes one of the most painful, prideful, and necessary things: the child must stray from the parents, must attempt to shake their influence off and test its limits; to venture out from their parents’ world one step further every day and establish a bit more of their own. We are given life, but we must come into one of our own construction. This means eventually sloughing off part of the influence of the ones who brought us here, and these are the most touching of all the scenes in the film. Our lives are filled with these deep, meaningful contradictions: we may love our fathers and hate their influence; we may love our mothers, but hate how their misgivings manifest in our bones. We may abandon our siblings and miss them. And still, we are bonded. We miss and yearn, stretch and reach to other life.
And it’s in this way the Tree of Life focuses itself on the codependency of life, the lack of hierarchy, the length of lineage, and the long spiral of time. Life thrives on paradox, because there is no way to reason with it. It simply is, like this film, a magnified dream. I suppose that is the point. “He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows.” And it’s through artful testaments like this film that we begin to see the roots of life so eloquently explained by Chief Seattle in a letter:
“This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”
Through this, we are “all things shining,” kissed by the spark of life that has traveled down the long, dark corridor to greet us where we live.