June 3, 2011
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.
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.
Lulled deep into a trance by images like 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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