The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life Fox Searchlight Pictures

What can this mean? "Disclosure, Dasein, and the Divine in Terrence Malick's 'The Tree of Life.'"? What is the piece's writer, Ryan Poll, trying to say about this 2011 movie, which Criterion released on DVD and Blu-Ray in September? The writer feels that there's something deep in this work, something that the ordinary moviegoer needs to properly appreciate. It is not a Hollywood film; its story is all chopped up and the viewer's challenge is to bring the pieces together. The moviegoer is not permitted to sleep on this work. They must participate in the creative process. This, we are told, is a noble thing. But once you've made the effort to put it all together, you do not find, as Poll claims, "a common metaphor for the interconnectedness of all beings." No. There is none of that. Instead, it feels like three films that have been inexplicably slammed together.

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One film concerns the cosmic (the natural). Another is a long domestic drama (the diurnal). And the third presents some dusty metaphysics about the afterlife (the supernatural). Each section has little to nothing to do with the others. They are independent narrative blocks. The first only narrates, rather crudely, as it hardly improves on the creation and dinosaur sequences in Disney's 1940 animated film Fantasia (the universe's birth, expansion, distillation into galaxies, and, of course, one of its oddities—life). The last block tells us that many humans have this feeling that there's more to life than just life. The second, and best block of The Tree of Life, convincingly narrates the disaster Eden of the political type who now votes and supports Donald Trump. We can call film two The Bad Father. It's about what is now popularly called "toxic masculinity." But that's not what makes The Bad Father interesting.

The bad father, played by Brad Pitt, has two feelings that he cannot resolve. It is his frustration at this failure that becomes toxic. He wants to at once to believe in America and, to use an antiquated expression, the "natural rights of man;" and yet, he sees all around him a society that does not distribute wealth fairly. The first feeling is expressed in my favorite scene in this and the other blocks of The Tree of Life. The father shows his eldest son, Jack (Hunter McCracken), where exactly his property ends and the neighbor's begins. He points to the line with a stick. But there is no line, just grass. The boy must mentally visualize property because it is not in the world as nature, but in the mind as culture. This scene points, deliberately or not, directly to John Locke's Second Treatise on Government. What most do not know is that this late-17th century text defined and engineered, socially speaking, what has ultimately become our mainstream understanding of property rights and the moral claims of labor. (Locke's short book is the root, weirdly enough, of socialism, which began its long political journey as Ricardian socialism, which owes everything to Locke.) Many believe property popped out of nature, but it instead popped out of Locke's head and times.

The second scene involves another neighbor's house. The bad father tells his eldest son that it is a better house than theirs because the owner did not work for it, but instead inherited it. And so we have at once a belief in property as natural, and a conflicting awareness of class differences and inequality as cultural. The two will not, like matter and anti-matter, annihilate each other. Something remains. The tension is never resolved. Indeed, near the end of the movie, the father is downgraded to a lower social position that will only intensify his internal frustration. Who is to blame for this painful state of things? Why is American society so unfair?

In the film's world, one of the sons becomes a rich architect and the other a corpse that shows up in Vietnam. Both conclusions expose the director's rudimentary romanticism (pure Byron here). But in the real world, this bad father would have transferred his bad feelings to his sons and likely established their political views. The bad sons of the bad white father would end up voting for Trump when the time came.

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Now, for the disconnected blocks of The Tree of Life. They can first be blamed on the inadequacies of the director's philosophy, which is third-rate or, put more kindly, old fashioned. A first-rate philosophy (or one that's up on things) would never separate the cosmic, the domestic, and the religious so bluntly. It would instead dissolve the blocks and weave a universe-wide fabric. What I mean by this is that there is no higher or lower states of being, but instead the cosmic, the religious, and the cultural emerging from a vast and spatially and temporally continuous plane (or plasma) of pure experience. (And, yes, here I'm referring to a philosophy initiated by William James, improved by Alfred North Whitehead, and, at present, deepened by the findings of Lynn Margulis, and theories of Isabelle Stengers, Steven Shaviro, and John Dupré, to name a few.)

Time and god and culture can only emerge from this plane/plasma of experience. It comes first, it comes last. There is no god before it, no heaven after it. It is only it. The rest is, to use Whitehead's words, "nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness." Indeed, if there are other universes out there, which seems likely (though this is almost impossible to prove, but can be suggested anthropically), then there must be many, many universes that have no idea of god. Like all things in this universe, god could never be a thing but a process that emerges from and remains entirely inside of a universe that has, as British cosmologist Martin Rees famously stated, six numbers (or values—as I prefer to call them).

These values appear to be accidental. A roll of the cosmic dice, as it were. Change any one of them, and you can, by the laws of physics, still have a universe come into existence but it will behave differently, or, put another way, have a different plane/plasma of experience. Slightly, ever so slightly, alter this value—say that which relates to the force of gravity—and the universe is stillborn. It will have no stars. It will just be dark and dust and gas. No galaxies, and certainly nothing as complicated (or as heavy) as life, which needs the reactors in stars to fuse the lower elements into the higher ones that make our bodies and thoughts possible.


God cannot come into existence in a universe without stars. And, yes, this is a secular or Spinozist god. Not your average Christian one. A processual philosophy would not have resulted in a film with big blocks slammed so monstrously together, but organically arising as events in (and never above or below) all there is. There are ways to make a movie out of this kind of philosophy, but let's leave that discussion for another post (or, if you wait long enough, one of the ways can be seen in my film Thin Skin, which is now in post-production).
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A still from upcoming movie Thin Skin.