Saturday, June 25, 2011

There are Two Ways Through Life, the Way of Grace and the Way of MONSTERS

Since returning from Milan, I've seen two movies. The first was Super 8, a J.J. Abrams-directed coming-of-age/monster-movie that plays like something Steven Spielberg might have made 20 years ago. It takes place in the seventies and centers on a group of kids who witness a massive train accident while filming a homemade zombie movie. The train accident, however, is less of an accident than it originally appears, and the kids find themselves in the middle of a government cover-up involving some violent, otherworldly cargo.

It isn't the kind of movie that warrants deep analysis, but it's a lot of fun. The way the kids interact with each other is hilarious and—if my memory of Junior High serves me well—pretty accurate. Something about the movie made me feel nostalgic, too. As a kid I used to watch similar stuff and it made me think that someday—maybe when I was close to being a teenager—I, too, would ride all over town on my bike, crawl in and out of my friends' second-story windows at night, and find myself confronting bizarre, dangerous, and mysterious phenomena. None of that ever happened, but Super 8 made me remember what it felt like when I was young enough to think that it could. It was a fun feeling.

The second movie was The Tree of Life. It's not in wide release yet, but I saw it at a little theater in Providence with Jenni. I'd been curious about it ever since I saw the trailer last month. If you haven't seen it (or if you haven't seen the version with the voiceover), watch it.

Usually when people hear about a movie the first question they ask is “what's it about?” The thing is, you can't ask that question about The Tree of Life because The Tree of Life is about everything. Many will (and have) accused the film of being pretentious. I understand this sort of movie is not everyone's cup of tea, but I find it sad that so many are quick to disregard it as some form of snobbery. The Tree of Life is clearly the work of someone who thinks often and deeply about the mysteries of life: Where did we come from? Is there a God? If so, what is God like? Does God think about me? If so, what does He think? Why is life so difficult? How much control do we have over our lives? Will we be judged? What happens when we die? Will we ever see those we've lost again? Surely snobs aren't the only ones who think about these things.

Still, as I said - it's not for everyone. The questions are for everyone, but the film's method of asking them is not. There is no linear story - no unfolding plot line. The director, Terrence Malick, is credited with writing the script but I doubt there was much of a script at all. The film is more of a visual poem than a story, and the subject of that poem is a family (The O'Brien's) in suburban America. The date is never specified, but I assume the majority of what we see takes places in the 1950s. The family has three children, and much of what we see involves the oldest child's coming-of-age. The father (Brad Pitt) is severe. The mother (Jessica Chastain) is his graceful foil. The former stresses the necessity of competition and achievement, the latter the necessity of love and kindness.  

Early in the film we realize that one of the children dies at 19. This effects the family deeply - especially the oldest brother, Jack, who's adult-version is played by Sean Penn. The adult Jack wonders if the universe is indifferent to his loss. 

Does the film answer Jack's question? Sort of. There is an extended sequence early on that depicts the birth of the cosmos and the formation of life. We see jellyfish. We see dinosaurs. In one scene, a larger, faster dinosaur comes across an injured, smaller dinosaur. The larger dinosaur stares at the smaller one, and in that moment every empathetic soul in the audience thinks the same thing: please don't hurt it. The tension rises as the larger dinosaur carelessly places its foot on the smaller dinosaur's head. We hold our breath in suspense, but then the larger dinosaur lifts his foot and walks away. The smaller dinosaur is spared, and the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Why did the larger dinosaur walk away? Was it because he felt a sense of empathy just as we, the audience, did? If so, where does this feeling of empathy come from? Does nature alone - filled with competition and violence - really provide a sufficient explanation, or is empathy something that transcends nature? "There are two ways through life," Mrs. O'Brien says, "the way of nature, and the way of grace." And yet, if there really is something beyond nature - i.e., a God who values empathy and compassion - then why does that entity allow so much pain and suffering? The audience feels empathy for the weak dinosaur. Perhaps even the stronger dinosaur feels empathy for the weaker dinosaur. But did God, the supposed source of all empathy, feel empathy for any of the dinosaurs when He allowed their extinction? It's no accident that the scene with the two dinosaurs is followed by an asteroid colliding with earth. The message? The universe seems indifferent. And yet we, a product of the universe, are not. How can this be?

So Jack's brother is just one life in a chain that has existed for billions of years. A chain that includes mass extinction and copious suffering. Why should Jack think anything or anyone "out there" cares about his loss? And yet, the film doesn't answer Jack's question the way we might expect. In spite of what the nature sequences seem to imply, the film never forgets the fact that our sense of moral rightness - the grace and compassion that people like Mrs. O'Brien embody - defies a purely natural explanation. In the end, the film sides with the spiritual: someone does care. We just don't understand. Not yet at least. 

In a time when Hollywood often places its characters in life or death situations but never thinks to have them utter a word to their Maker, it is remarkable that many of the voiceovers in The Tree of Life are prayers. Not simply liturgical recitations or casual petitions, but real conversation with God. Who are you? Jack wonders. After a child in the neighborhood dies, he asks, How can I be good, if you're not? And in a moment that sent a chill down my spine, Jack echoes one of my most familiar prayers: Help me to see things the way you see them. 

Also worth mentioning is the way the film portrays Jack's temptation to rebel, hurt, and destroy. There are several moments where he appears to do destructive things simply because they are destructive. Like the Apostle Paul, Penn's voiceover asks: Why do I do the things I hate? Yes, why? The film suggests that having a severe father doesn't help, but it knows the answer isn't that simple. After all, severe fathers were once children, too. After seeing the police apprehend some criminals, one of the boys asks, "Mama, can it happen to anyone?" I don't remember if we hear Mrs. O'Brien answer, but I think the film leans toward yes. Everyone has the power to disregard the way of grace. Many do.

The director also gets extra points in my book for being a fan of Dostoevsky. Mrs. O'Brien quotes Father Zossima in The Brothers Karamazov when she says, "love every leaf, every ray of God's light." The line is taken from the following passage:
Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.
Sounds like good advice. 

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