william steig drawing

June 3, 2011
Kartina Richardson

The Tree of Life

motherhood

I became aware of my mortality before we had a dining room table. I don’t recall the exact age, I only know the arrangement of furniture, and the dining room then was just an empty space to play in. I can tell you that I was five or six and no older than that. Six however is a world apart from five when you’ve only existed on earth for that many years. And this must have had something to do with it; the realization of how long I had existed. To realize your existence is to also become suddenly aware of how long you have not existed. Of course I had not existed for billions of years before my birth, but that’s too much time to handle, so my brain measures things the way it can. It makes do. I measure time against my parents, my mother most exactly, so for five years I had existed, but for twenty seven years before my mother gave birth to me, I did not exist.

I don’t remember what ushered this revelation in. I had not lost a friend, family member, or pet, but for days afterwards, I refused to go to bed. Every night I hunched inconsolable, sobbing on my mother’s lap repeating, as though a thing could be done, “I don’t want to die.” I pictured very clearly, the ground, the soil, and myself alone in it. To this day I have a very difficult time going to bed. Going to sleep is exactly like dying. This doesn’t make the prospect of death any less terrifying, but sleep all the more so.

But it is sleep however, that I eventually succumb to. There, waiting for me, is a dream that inevitably has something to do with being a kid.

If I were made to take stock of the things I think about most, my childhood would be number one. We seem to be intrigued by the number of times a man thinks about sex in a day, but I wonder how many times in that same day an adult thinks about their childhood. I suspect for most people that number is 987,098,567. Childhood is in everything. In observing the tiny red mites on the front steps, or hearing the buzzing of Cicadas. In brushing your teeth and seeing your father’s freckles in the mirror, or standing over the stove like a flamingo the way your mother did when she cooked.

Few of us can deny the exhausting truth of these words:

“Mother. Father. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

A truth that releases a waterfall of emotion. It is this energy that propels us through The Tree of Life. A voluptuous, bulging energy shaped and encouraged by sweeping camera movement, ultra wide lenses, lyrical blocking, the safe-harbor of Jessica Chastain’s face, and the vacillation in Hunter McCracken’s. These combine to create scenes that perfectly capture the rapturous feelings of childhood. Sensations evoked when light & dark entwine, and our instinctual knowledge that these things are the same. The gut feeling of seeing a boy’s head ravaged by some scalp disease, or a man having a seizure, is almost indistinguishable from the pleasure of stealing a woman’s silk nightgown. A dead dog on the side of the road shares worlds with the first glimpse of your mother’s vulva. The feelings aren’t similar because they are forbidden topics. Violence is also taboo, but the threat of real-life violence does not thrill. No, sex and death excite because they represent the edges: the two gateways beyond which is unknown. Even to grown-ups.

It’s hard to remember the utter powerlessness that defines childhood. When you are miserable, there is no escape.

When you are happy, you have little control over how long you can continue your happy activity.

There is nothing you can do. Nothing. You will be sad, or you will be happy, but rarely will it be in your control.

If however, you stand at one edge or the other, there is always the prospect of falling in. To go and keep on going. This, wrapped deep inside, past any religious fear, or physical pleasure, is the real thrill they share. Helpless in a world of definites and rules, sex & death represent an overwhelmingly seductive infinity. There is no end to anything. There is no answer to any question. Past these gates, everything is boundless.

The in-between world however, is a very structured place.

There is mother.

There is father.

There are sons.

Father is hard, mother is soft. The world celebrates the masculine, while emotions, nature, fluidity, and intuition are diminished. This is a dynamic Malick fights against in both subject matter and structure. He hails the feminine, and I suspect that criticisms of the film, perhaps being of the opposite mindset, are uncomfortable with, maybe even resent this hyper-feminine style. As extremely white and male as The Tree of Life is, it is also very much a slap in the face of White American Masculinity.

And since White Maledom is what we measure the worth of everything against, since it is our deeply ingrained default point of view, it is easy to dismiss that which strays as being pretentious. Even a movie explicitly about a White American boy, can be difficult to accept if it strays too far from the standard form, standard being, of course, white male.

But like all his characters, Malick is a white man trying to escape the confines of white maledom because for all the earth-controlling privileges it awards, to be white and male is not only to be in a prison, but to be the prison itself. This could be eye-rolling inducing; the last person we need to have sympathy for is a White American Man, but through his films, particularly through The Tree of Life’s form, Malick encourages us to rebel against the confines of this deadly default. He knows what many have yet to realize: whiteness and maleness destroy us all.

In the face of nature and the cosmos, human life is at once ridiculous and adorable in its absurdity. We are very much like mice. Mice dressed in suits and hard soled shoes. It isn’t necessary of course. Mice don’t need hard soled shoes, and so because it’s a step away from believing in the inherent simplicity of it all, it is unfortunate.

But,

Isn’t a mouse wearing a suit also a beautifully earnest thing? The suited mouse is trying to make sense of it the way he can.

James Baldwin said “I dislike anyone who is earnest about anything,” and I believe this sentiment is shared by many. I very often feel a similar repulsion, and one scene in particular both provoked and calmed this judgement.

The beginning of the film includes a fantastically long montage detailing the creation of life on Earth. From the pre-planet space particle level, all the way to the evolution of dinosaurs.

Yes, dinosaurs.

Lulled deep into a trance by images like this:

And this:

I was not expecting this:

When I did however see what I saw, two things happened in quick succession. I immediately rolled my eyes, eager to pounce on this ridiculous CGI inclusion, and then I immediately calmed down.

The dinosaur wasn’t doing anything crazy.

It wasn’t a clever girl.

It was just there. And it stayed chewing calmly for a few moments. A moment long enough for me to relax, and I was suddenly taken by a feeling of great tenderness and calm. I don’t completely understand why I felt this, but the inclusion of these CGI dinosaurs struck me as an particularly affectionate and loving decision.

Terrence Malick believes in his audiences, and has faith that we also can believe.

It’s the feeling of your mother brushing the hair off your forehead as she tells you a bedtime story. You protest because she’s changed a part of the usual tale, or it’s not the way you want it to be, but smiling, she says “Shhh shhh. Just listen.”



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21 Comments

  1. Weeping. One of the most beautiful things I have EVER read. Mind blowing.

    Thanks!

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  2. God DAMN that’s good writing, girl! Kudos on ya. XOXoxoXOX

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  3. Well, I’ll be. No sooner than I feel good about your having reinforced my belief that I don’t have to see yet another paean to White Maledom, the likes of which I have resisted and railed against for more than three-quarters of a century, you convince me with your good writing self that maybe I need to see Tree of Life and “Listen, Just Listen.” So, I’ll try hard to get around and see this film totally prepared to enjoy the dinosaur, “eye-roll” not withstanding.

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  4. samuelrafuse

    Oh my gosh I am going to cry just reading this.
    Malick is extraordinary, I’m trying really hard to track down a copy of BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN. Hopefully this one comes to theatres near me as most not-blockbusters don’t. You capture his themes in such a completely unexpected and true way. So gooooood!

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  5. I thought a lot about the “whiteness” of this film’s emotional struggle. Leave it to you to address it so eloquently and generously.

    Your last line answers several generations of smug intellectual, cosmopolitan cynicism about storytelling– a paradoxical obsession with cleverness and complexity on one hand; with conforming to commercial formal expectations on the other.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SNMYmMDGZZ0

    You are a gentle genius, Ms. Richardson.

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    • Max Oblivion

      Boone, I haven’t seen the film yet so I suppose I’m premature to be asking this question but here it is anyway. What is the “whiteness of this film’s emotional struggle”? You’ve thought about it a lot so I’m hoping you can explain.

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      • Max, the emotional struggle I refer to is mainly the tension surrounding the young boy, Jack, when he encounters people outside of his white, middle-class, suburban bubble. He briefly confronts the “whiteness” of his life–the relative comfort and privilege (but also burden, fear and shame) he wasn’t so conscious of otherwise.

        But “Tree of Life” is much bigger than that. Its concerns are so vast that its consideration of what Kartina calls “white maledom” is just one more beautiful stream of perception in Malick’s immense waterway. [Cue orchestra.]

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        • Max Oblivion

          I haven’t studied Malick or his films as Ms. Richardson has so I can’t say whether or not he is “a white man trying to escape the confines of white maledom”. I only became aware of Ms. Richardson last week so I don’t know if she always views the world and film through the prism of race. Does the statement “whiteness and maleness destroy us all” reflect Malick’s perspective or Ms. Richardson’s projections? I will have to read more of the reviewer’s works and learn more about Malick to answer those questions. Above all, I’ll have to see the film.

          Boone, do you believe that a person with light colored skin has reason to feel a special burden or experience a special fear or shame?

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  6. Absolutely inspiring and moving… beautiful.

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    • This is a film I would like to see again. I must admit that I have a certain bias, as I am syimathetpc to the Christian worldview, but that’s not discounting many existential and agnostic perceptions I often entertain.The Pavolovian reference you make is what I think makes this movie so fascinating (to me), wherein Christian themes often evoke (for better or worse) very passionate feelings, on one side or another.What I think Malick has done with this movie is present the mysterious and unexplainable elements of birth, death, and pain (among other things) which are usually inspected through (at best) Humanism, but are often taken for granted by most media sources. Perhaps Malick was seeking to evoke the turbulence caused by Christian themes, but I hardly saw it as propaganda. If anything, it seems to me like he presented a lot of the paradoxes that exist within Christianity, often seen as a form of hypocrisy. But I’d be hard pressed to find -any- system of belief that doesn’t come with its paradoxes. As a matter of fact, contradictions are usually the most fertile ground for enlightenment and/or learning. It doesn’t seem like Malick was giving an exposition, but rather, asking questions. The answers are our own.

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  7. Max Oblivion

    What is a White American Male?

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  8. Wow, this was really touching to me. It reminded me about my childhood fear that we would all end up as nothing when it’s all over, as well as how simple it was back then. Every time I read about this film, I want to see it even more, and I cannot wait till it comes out in my town.

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  9. The world celebrates the masculine, while emotions, nature, fluidity, and intuition are diminished.

    Malick often portrays nature as overbearing, ruthless, indifferent, while also beautiful and awe inspiring.

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  10. Your eloquence and way with words is stunning.

    This is a film I know I will see and feel and think about, and I have sensed this before reading a single word about the movie. Yet here I am reading about the movie…sort of…not really…

    Reading your words is reading movement and moments. What a gift of prose and thought that, without taking anything away from my experience of it, you manage to draw me into this film, through your experiences and mine and the director’s, all of which neither one of us knows for sure (how wonderful).

    The only actual scene I now know is that there is a dinosaur. And that that is the sole addition to what I know of the film makes me laugh.

    What you say about childhood resonates deeply. How many times a day do we think about childhood? How do I do it all the time and not even notice it? — It’s just natural to what I do. It seems if I start to wonder about this thinking, eventually there is doubt about the whys and each should and veracity of memory (hmm… if these is truly such a thing). So I’ll simply carry on. Experience.

    Thank you for this lovely piece.

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  11. Holy Cinema.

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  12. I appreciate your thoughts, as I landed on this page after googling “tree of life whiteness.”

    But what really got me was that this film was supposed to about the universal themes of life and death, and yet, for all of it’s vast inter-galactic/pre-historical moments, humanity is still only represented by a wealthy, white, suburban, mostly-male nuclear family–a tiny minority of human life on this planet.

    I do like the nuance of your points: “As extremely white and male as The Tree of Life is, it is also very much a slap in the face of White American Masculinity.” AND “This could be eye-rolling inducing; the last person we need to have sympathy for is a White American Man, but through his films, particularly through The Tree of Life’s form, Malick encourages us to rebel against the confines of this deadly default. He knows what many have yet to realize: whiteness and maleness destroy us all.”

    But the “us all” are nowhere to be found in this 2 hour and 18 mediation on life, god, death and family. People of color show up in a total of about 1-2 seconds in the entire film.

    Therefore, while yes, it does expose the futility of maleness through the father’s parenting of his boys, I’m not sure it exposes the futility of whiteness because according to the universe of this film, there isn’t really anything else.

    I was one of the people who called it pretentious. I just really felt that it was during the overly-dramatic Christian score accompanying a shot of the Milky Way as an epic context for suburban struggles. I guess I’m just tired of films attempting to tease out some aspect of human nature while examining only christian white hetero families, men in particular. I understand that whiteness and maleness plague everyone, and that they do need to be interrogated at the source (white men.) But there is still an empathic limitation reinforced by continuing to use them as our protagonists, further reinforcing white men as our culture’s default perspective. (And I’m not sure how much of a counterpoint the mother offered, other than a conventional nurturing feminity that still fits into the patriarchal structure?)

    Your assertion that those who call it pretentious don’t resonate with the “hyper-feminine” style and structure of it is interesting to me, though. Because while most of my criticisms of the film are through a racial lens, perhaps I’m missing the feminine (emotional/intuitive/poetic?) structure of the film challenging patriarchal masculinity? That is something I’d be interested in hearing more about.

    I do wish the dinosaurs had shown up with everyone on the beach at the end. :)

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    • Max Oblivion

      Lucas, has it ever occurred to you that you are an unadulterated racist and sexist? I suspect it hasn’t. I’m going to see Tree of Life tomorrow. I hope I enjoy it as much as Kartina did.

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      • Max Oblivion

        I saw TOL a couple of days ago and I’d say it was money and time well spent. Some at the showing didn’t share my appreciation for the film and walked out at various points. One poor fellow shuffled past me muttering about the waste of both time and money. Isn’t it amazing how what seems like a work of art to one is just another pretentious piece of crap to another. Isn’t it grand to watch a film in a theater full of obtuse or preoccupied cretins?

        As usual, Malick has created a film that’s wonderful to look at and thought provoking. I guess it’s true that film like life is essentially a rorschach blot. We see what we want to see, or perhaps are able to see. I didn’t see the race and gender elements that others here have focused on, but what do I know, I’m just an unsympathetic white man trying to overcome the limitations of my race and gender.

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  13. My reaction to the film was actually somewhat like Lucas’ – but I appreciate the points on childhood (especially, among other points made) in this post. Came from Feminema. Glad to discover this site!

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  14. Katrina,

    This is a beautiful post not just in the words, but in how you wrote it. A good film review is not a shortened retelling of what you’ll see on the screen, but the emotions and thoughts you will experience while seeing it. The best film reviews make you want to see a movie. This has done that for me. Thank you.

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  15. Am I the only one who finds this essay extremely offensive? Not to mention it barley discusses the actual film. Instead we are not only subjected to an essays worth of your childhood memories/fears (as if I care: I came here to hear about the film), but then we are subjected to an essay on recognizing the evilness of the white male?! Substitute any other race for white and you would be bombarded with accusations of insensitivity and racism.

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