East-coasters on the theology of ‘The Tree of Life’

Posted by · 1:17 pm · June 30th, 2011

Last week you’ll recall we covered the west coast leg of “Insights, Inspirations and Impact,” a philosophical and religious panel discussion of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” Fox Searchlight has made a few clips from the New York leg available and I thought I’d post those up for further digestion. So…SPOILERS.

First you’ll hear from David Silverman, president of American Atheists (and a perspective I was bummed we didn’t get in Los Angeles). He takes umbrage with what he perceives as a “Christian ending” (deeming the setting “heaven,” as many have, which I don’t think is so cut and dry). He also makes the mistake of thinking a Job analogy is inherently religious. I would call it inherently human. (A Buddhist later offered the counter-point that he didn’t view the film as wholly Christian given its depiction of evolution.)

Second you’ll hear from George Lavoo of The School of Visual Arts, who makes the shrewd point that, in the landscape of filmmaking engineered toward a very specific reaction, “The Tree of Life” is the rare film that eschews manipulation.

Check out both clips after the jump.

[Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures]

→ 21 Comments Tags: , , , | Filed in: Daily

21 responses so far

  • 1 6-30-2011 at 1:24 pm

    Will said...

    I’m loving all of this. So thankful we have directors like Terrence Malick whose work is worth so much intelligent discourse.

  • 2 6-30-2011 at 3:15 pm

    Rashad said...

    The Catholic Church accepts evolution so that point alone isn’t something that separates religion vs just being spiritual. I don’t see how anyone can see the film as anything but religious. Aside from the direct quote from Job, the entire film is about them questioning God for taking their son, and them coming to terms with it. (Which looking back on it, kind of makes a lot of the middle seem inconsequential.)

  • 3 6-30-2011 at 3:29 pm

    PaulDMC said...

    What I took away from this is that neither the president of Atheists nor random people from The School of Visual Arts can speak very well in public.

  • 4 6-30-2011 at 4:01 pm

    tony rock said...

    It’s funny how everything is always this or that. A film can depict evolution and still be religious/spiritual.

  • 5 6-30-2011 at 4:34 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    tony: Indeed, but I think the film is a bit more universalist than others want to have it be.

  • 6 6-30-2011 at 5:07 pm

    Joseph Sciortino said...

    Atheist activists are usually annoying. And I’m an atheist.

  • 7 6-30-2011 at 5:26 pm

    GH said...

    ToL is spiritual, not religious. It isn’t having Jesus coming through the clouds. since the family is christian, that is just the frame they see it in. If it was a christian movie I wouldn’t have bothered with it.

  • 8 6-30-2011 at 6:02 pm

    Rashad said...

    So God (not a god) is spiritual but Jesus is religious?

    “If it was a christian movie I wouldn’t have bothered with it.”
    That’s a very shortsighted view.

  • 9 6-30-2011 at 6:03 pm

    Bill_the_Bear said...

    GH, quoting from the Bible in the dialogue and voice-overs makes the film religions and not just spiritual. You don’t need Jesus to have a Christian film.

    And…we’re not seeing this through the viewpoint of the family; we’re seeing it through the viewpoint of the film maker himself.

    The religious aspects of TTOL were what ruined it for me.

  • 10 6-30-2011 at 6:41 pm

    Speaking English said...

    The film is pantheistic. If you don’t see this, you’re looking at the film from a very, very narrow-minded point of view.

  • 11 6-30-2011 at 6:43 pm

    Speaking English said...

    By which I mean its version of “god” is simply one that is embodied by all of nature and life itself, rather than the traditional Christian interpretation. Spiritual.

  • 12 6-30-2011 at 8:49 pm

    Raj Himself said...

    Being in Australia I only just saw the film so am a bit behind in the conversation; this has certainly already been discussed better than I am about to offer up.

    The film is all from Old Jack’s perspective, his memories, his imaginings, his subjective (as Pitt mentioned in the film). I doubt Jack is literally thinking what we see, but that Malick is interpreting it and relaying as only he can. Our thoughts are complex, fast-moving and contradictory, only poets can articulate them in words and images. I think this also applies in The Thin Red Line – the soldiers aren’t speaking their narration, it is Malick articulating their thoughts.

    Jack was raised strict christian, therefore christian imagery and inner prayer is wholly ingrained in him despite his likely attempts to rebel against his family. He is also clearly an intelligent modern man, who would struggle to reconcile his ingrained christian beliefs with the hard evidence of modern science. This results in contradictory christian prayer and imagery in juxtaposition with evolution and the cosmos.

    So Jack would see his family in an afterlife that is reminiscent of a christian heaven, but it is also a very real world landscape – being an architect Jack would likely hold reverence for the beauty in the structure of nature, hence his wanderings through Attenborough scenery.

    Anyways, enough rambling. Am I on the right path?

  • 13 7-01-2011 at 7:13 am

    Will said...

    I really like all of what you said, Raj. I like that a lot actually.

  • 14 7-01-2011 at 7:16 am

    Adam said...

    Speaking English–

    You’re half right. Pantheism is the belief that God and the universe (nature) are synonymous, right? I think the film does a pretty good job of not putting God in a box. To say the film “is” pantheistic without acknowledging the spiritual attributes that Malick presents would be just as narrow minded as someone who would deny the representation of God as nature, as you say. It’s both.

    The version of God that Malick presents is extremely complex IMO. But then again, I probably view God as quite a bit more complex than others in my particular faith, so that’s possibly just my own projection of the film based on my beliefs. Funny how that works.

  • 15 7-01-2011 at 9:10 am

    Lev Lewis said...

    Raj Himself: Absolutely.

  • 16 7-01-2011 at 9:28 am

    Fei said...

    As an atheist, a very staunch and sometimes strident one, I was concerned about Christian themes in this movie. Although there is no way to confirm from publicly available information, there’s no indication that Malick ever left Christianity. The Christian elements here are just barely strong enough to suggest that he’s still working from that perspective.

    But that said, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed at the lack of overt Christian themes in the movie. Most of the obvious stuff merely reflects the POV of the protagonist, who was raised as a Christian. The subtler bits are not necessarily specifically Christian; they reflect a very universal and human exploration of spirituality and spiritual crisis. I consider The Tree of Life to be a deeply spiritual movie that non-believers can enjoy, even as I struggle to define precisely what “spirituality” means as someone who finds the concept of a spirit or soul to be utterly nonsensical.

    The idea that the afterlife sequence represents the Christian heaven is silly. First of all, based on the way that the movie is structured, that sequence does not seem to be a literal vision of heaven but rather a wish fulfillment fantasy in the mind of the old Jack. It’s his way of making peace with the maddening mysteries of existence. Second of all, everyone has a different idea of what heaven is like, so there isn’t one thing that clearly represents the Christian heaven. Finally, what’s in the movie is surprisingly minimalistic and elemental, not at all a portrayal of the infinite bliss and being in the presence of God that describes the vast majority of Christians’ ideas about heaven.

    In all respects apart from the Christianity of the characters themselves, there is no deity present at all in Malick’s depiction of the universe here.

    Adam: Pantheism is basically a romanticized version of atheism. People who make a point of calling themselves pantheists do so partly because they don’t like the negative connotations of the “atheist” label. Many (probably most) self-described atheists would profess agreement with the pantheist view, including Richard Dawkins (who affirmed as much in The God Delusion), but think that there’s nothing particularly special about pantheism to warrant adopting it as a label instead of atheism.

    Pantheists may, more or less, say that they believe “God” and nature to be synonymous, but the notion is ridiculous. One of the fundamental problems in discussions about God is that what is meant by “God” or “god” varies too much to be considered a single universally understood concept. But at the bare minimum, a deity is an intelligent, sentient being with incredible power. To say that “God is nature” or “God is energy” or “God is the universe” or “God is the laws of physics” makes the god concept essentially meaningless. It also makes God superfluous. What’s the point in using the word Y as a name for X if simply using X would communicate the same information and avoid misunderstandings? The reasons why they do it include lacking the courage to let go of the god concept entirely, as well as a desire to associate the positive connotations and social benefits of the god concept with their fundamentally atheistic views.

    I don’t think that the version of God in Malick’s movie is complex. In fact, I don’t see how God exists in the movie at all, apart from the minds of the characters. So yes, you are projecting your own beliefs into the movie. Have you ever asked yourself why you have this belief in an entity that you call “God,” and why you believe that he must be complex? I encourage you to watch this humorous video as food for thought: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IVbnciQYMiM

  • 17 7-01-2011 at 12:45 pm

    DukeD said...

    I’d have to completely disagree with David Silverman’s thoughts on the ending. I’m an atheist and I understood that a lot of the film had its Christian themes but I think the whole thing really transcended any religious meaning and was more spiritual/philosophical if anything. As for the ending, it is in no way a literal depiction of heaven. It is merely the end culmination of the memories Jack has just gone through, and more an idea that ‘heaven’ or what ever you may think about an afterlife or the place where your loved ones ultimately end is within your hearts/mind, hence why jack sees them not as they were when they died but how he best remembered them. As an atheist I believe my family lives on within my memory and love, and I think that is what we see. Though with that said I can see how people interrupt it differently than others because it is certainly open for interpretation, but I will say that for him to let the Christian themes to effect how much he liked the film is a bit odd. You can be an atheist and respect/appreciate something you believe is overtly Christian.

  • 18 7-01-2011 at 5:15 pm

    Adam said...

    Fei: wow, now that you mention it, I have never once in my 26 years of existence asked myself why I believe in God! Should have done that a long time ago. That video really explains it all. Thanks for the totally not condescending comment though (rolls eyes).

    Seriously though, I was willing to admit that my viewpoint probably shapes my interpretation of a film which is clearly open to several interpretations anyway, yet you insist that it has to be a certain way and won’t admit that your own beliefs might affect your interpretation.

    Whether or not God exists in the movie is obviously one of those things that is open to interpretation. I believe that he is, and I’ll tell you why: first and foremost, he is represented allegorically through Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, the former being an Old Testament fire and brimstone view of God, and the latter having the all-loving, all-sacrificing qualities depicted in the New Testament. Second, I believe that there’s a spiritual element of the cosmos sequence. Consistent with the theme of grace vs. nature, some of the portions of the cosmos sequence have operatic music playing, suggesting a power present beyond the elements themselves, while others are simply the elements themselves, silent, without any music.

    Third (and give me a minute to lead up to my point here), one of the themes I drew from the film is human insignificance, highlighted at the beginning with the verse from Job and then Mrs. O’Brien calling out to God, “who are you to us?” after the death of their child. Now, you can take the Job passage one of two ways: you can either read it, look at the cosmos sequence and conclude that God doesn’t really intend to bother with humans, as we are quite insignificant in the scope of the vastness of the universe; or, second, after watching Jack’s character go through life with an array of both happiness and inner struggle, you can conclude that Malick intended the cosmos sequence to highlight a similar complexity that exists in the human soul. They have similar traits because of their common source. I sort of take this as the human inability to understand how deeply we are connected to an unfathomable cosmic plan. I think this is all quite beautiful and lyrical, but that’s just me.

    And once again, these are just things I personally gleaned from the film–good art should invoke different reactions from the viewer, though, so if anyone disagrees than whatev :)

  • 19 7-02-2011 at 10:09 am

    whatafy said...

    This movie is not for everyone, definitely.

  • 20 7-03-2011 at 9:36 pm

    ez6 said...

    I know I’m late to the party here, but I just saw the film tonight and wanted to comment on the observation Kris and others have made that perhaps its most enduring message is of human smallness. While I absolutely see that as a major takeaway, I found it to be only half of another of Malick’s contradictions. Though the imagery of the universe’s creation certainly renders the O’Briens insignificant, its juxtaposition with the death of the middle son and the mother’s ultimate release of her grief almost magnifies the drama of their lives to a cosmic order. It’s a simultaneous process of shrinking and expanding the family’s role by embedding it within the fabric of the world around them. Anybody else interpret the film to have this duality?