Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard are astute observers of contemporary cinema. Recently they conducted a lengthy conversation about the five films that make up Terrence Malick’s body of work as a writer and director. Their conversation can be viewed beginning at
The Bellamy and Howard discussion contains insightful observations and stimulating thoughts about Malick’s films. So it is curious that, when these two critics approach Malick’s most recent work, they are reduced to hysteria.
In commenting on The Tree of LifeBellamy and Howard fall over each other in their rush to pour scorn on the concluding vision of Malick’s film.
According to Howard, it is so bad that it “very nearly extinguished the good feelings I had about the hour leading up to this nauseatingly new agey coda.”
It is, Bellamy complains, “disappointing in and of itself, it also undercuts the awesomeness of what comes before it, threatening to obliterate the impact of some of Malick’s finest work.” It is, he goes on, “cheesy, cliched and feeble… it’s a buzzkill.”
On and on they go hyperventilating in their attempts to outdo one another in their castigation of a portion of the film whose point they evidently entirely missed. It is curious that two critics who have a clear admiration for Malick’s work should not stop for one second of self-examination. How could they not wonder if perhaps, just perhaps, Malick might be up to something they had missed?
What could possibly motivate a thoughtful critic to accuse Terrence Malick of resorting to a visual sensibility that is “lame and cliched, an unthinking regurgitation of the most turgic form of religious imagery”?
You would think the preceding four brilliant Malick films, not to mention the obviously luminous moments that even Bellamy and Howard are able to see in The Tree of Life, would give them pause to wonder and engage perhaps in a tiny bit of self-doubt. Such a tirade of distaste seems to be the reaction of people who feel betrayed by someone they have admired.
What is Malick’s terrible betrayal?
At the end of The Tree of Life Malick offers a transcendent vision. It is not a “crushingly obvious vision of heaven” as Howard suggests, nor a vision of “heaven off earth” in Bellamy’s words.
Malick’s portrayal of crowds gathering on ocean shores is a symbolic vision of eternity. While the concept of eternity is often connected to the idea of “heaven”, they are not synonymous.
Eternity is an ineffable state of being that Malick wants us to understand is dawning within Jack O’Brien’s awakening consciousness. It is a reality that transcends all temporal states. It is not a location in the “sweet by and by,” nor merely a final reward for “good” people. It is an inner experience that exists beyond time and interpenetrates the material realm.
At the end of his film, Malick strives to show that the strands and influences of Jack O’Brien’s life are woven together in one unitive whole within this other dimension of consciousness. Jack is connected to all the people he has encountered in his life. He is linked even to people he has never met. Eternity is populated by all beings, known and unknown. Humanity and all of creation form one integral whole in this parallel universe.
Malick is struggling to symbolically represent the fact that a new awareness has begun to dawn in the depths of O’Brien’s soul. His inner journey, confronting the grief and pain of his past, has led him to see that all of life is held in the light. All the disparate elements of his being and of the whole of creation finally come together in a unity of love, and reconciliation. If the imagery seems contrived or even cliched, it is only because these are the images Malick imagines conjured inside Jack O’Brien. They are the visions captured in the imagination of a good 1950′s Sunday School trained child. But they point, none the less, to a deeper reality that is in fact real.
This state is not defined by happy emotions, or satisfying psychological catharsis. It offers no tidy intellectual answers to the painful conundrum of human suffering. But, it also refuses to walk away from the glory of life with a skeptical question mark and a non-committal intellectual shrug of the shoulders.
As much as Bellamy and Howard may want it to, The Tree of Life does not end with the O’Brien family driving away from their home after Mr. O’Brien has lost his job. There is more to life than suffering, loss, doubt, pain, and regret. It is this “more than” dimension to existence that is most challenging to portray in any art form and most upsetting to those whose view of existence is confined to the physical realm.
The terrible transgression Malick has committed in The Tree of Life is that he has acknowledged overtly on screen that he sees another dimension to life beyond the physical, psychological, material dimension.
How could Bellamy and Howard have missed the clues along the way?
Did they not stop to wonder about:
- the title of the film. The tree of life appears in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of the Bible. It appears again at the end where it grows on either side of the river, a “tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 22:2)
- the Lumina image of Thomas Wilfred that emerges at the beginning, and then at least three times throughout the film, evoking an ethereal presence that haunts the movie
- the image of sunflowers which turn their faces towards the sun at the beginning and end of the film
- images in church of baptism, confirmation, and Sunday worship
- a chair that mysteriously moves out from the table under its own power in the O’Brien’s kitchen
- Mrs. O’Brien suddenly floating up from the ground and hovering in mid-air after Jack has prayed
- Mrs. O’Brien giving a cup of water to a convict (an image that refers to Matthew 25:37 and also occurs in The New World)
- the stained glass window depiction of Jesus awaiting crucifixion that fills the movie screen just as the preacher asks, “Is there nothing which is deathless? Nothing which does not pass away?”
- Jack’s quote from Romans 7:15 “What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate” in which the original texts points to forces that transcend human will
- Mrs. O’Brien alluding to I Corinthians 13 in a statement that might well serve as the thesis statement for the entire film, “Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
- then of course there’s the music, the spectacular stirring devotional music that accompanies so much of the film – the Agnus Dei of Berlioz, The Funeral Canticle written by John Taevener, and, as the final credits roll, a piano playing the overtly Christian resurrection hymn “Welcome Happy Morning”
These are a few of the hints that Malick is up to something more than making pretty pictures, narrating compelling stories, or peddling in profound unanswerable questions. If the viewer is unable to perceive these pointers to the transcendence that breathe through all of Malick’s films, the viewer will be unlikely to suddenly open to this reality at the end of The Tree of Life.
Mr. Malick inhabits an enchanted universe. There are more dimensions to existence than can be contained by the human intellect or perceived by the physical senses with which we are accustomed to navigate through life.
It may make the sophisticated modernist intellectual uneasy, but Malick boldly declares in The Tree of Life that he perceives a dimension to reality that transcends the physical, time-bound dimension with which we are most familiar. Like Jack O’Brien, Malick has stepped through the doorway of faith into a world haunted by divinity.
The source of the beauty Malick so powerfully portrays is that love that in her son’s mind is embodied in his mother. This love is the force that brought all existence into being. It is the power of life that has existed since the beginning of time and holds all of existence in tenderness and mercy.
Malick is so daring as to suggest that this power of grace may even have been present in the actions of a dinosaur whose gentle touch of a wounded beast is reflected when young Jack puts his hand on the shoulder of a boy who bears the scars of a house fire. Mercy is present throughout the universe. When our consciousness expands, we become aware of a bridge that crosses the great gulf extending from the visible to the invisible. The varied realms of life are united into one whole reality in which healing is possible and love is known as the eternal power of creation.
It is no doubt a reflection of the tight little materialist world occupied by so many sophisticated western intellectuals that Malick’s film has stirred such controversy. It is a sad choice to join Mr. O’Brien in the one dimensional universe he has inhabited and “miss the glory” that Malick sees so clearly in all of life.