Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Critical Engagement with "Tree of Life"

There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie. (Jonathan Franzen, Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts," NYTimes 5/28)

In a sharp and often moving criticism of social networks, Jonathan Franzen sets "liking" against "loving." Whereas to like something sets us apart from the liked (or disliked) object, love demands the opening of one's life to another. Love is about cohabitation, and not just in the sense of splitting the rent. It's about a metaphoric (and sometimes not metaphoric) sharing of the same bodily, mental, and emotional space. To put it in the words of the only *actually* moving wedding homily I've ever heard, it helps us salve the loneliness inherent in the human condition. And it does this by attempting to come as close as possible to shared consciousness with another person--regardless of whether one believes this idea is nutty (at best) or impossible (at worst).

But the kind of criticism that has emerged in the wake of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life has exposed a complication of Franzen's argument. Simply to like or dislike a film embodies the laziest sort of critical response available to a writer. I was taught this in high school. An English teacher instructed me never to write "I like this book" in an essay. He told me that merely liking something is uninteresting, and that asking what I think something means would always constitute a more worthwhile form of engagement. But critiques about Tree of Life often ignore the lesson of this observation about good writing, and instead go to the extreme to defend or attack the movie, along with Malick, contemporary filmmaking, and, in some cases God.

That is, we don't need to like or dislike the film. But neither do we need to address what it means.

We need to love it or hate it.

Critics seem to think that where complex, frustrating, resistant objects like Tree of Life are concerned, liking or disliking is not enough. This may be the real consequence of the Facebook like button (and maybe even of Internet-based criticism in general): that we come to view love and hatred simply as hyperbolic manifestations of liking and disliking. It's an old problem with a new face. The difference between liking and loving is reduced to a question of degree, and is not recognized as one that depends on different kinds of emotional investment and personal openness. I dislike reading articles that trumpet Malick's towering cinematic achievements as much as I dislike reading articles that pillory his bombastic confrontation with God. And I dislike them both for the same reason. They lack curiosity, and often exhibit what seems like a fear of confronting the work itself.

Which is a shame because, above all, the film itself exhibits persistent curiosity about the nature of our connection to one another. It strives to portray the interior lives of individuals as woven together by a shared cosmic origin story whose realization on the screen is in many moments as visually arresting as advertised. What binds us together is our childhood desire to understand our origins; our relative abandonment of dreams about God and the cosmic order as adults; and the shocking return of these existentially motivated questions in moments where the reality of our own death suddenly sweeps into view.

In essence, the film suggests that we can draw solace from the notion that our interior lives are all characterized by the same unanswerable questions--the same unknowable God. "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?" God asks from the Book of Job--the framing epigraph for the movie. And the answer seems to be, defiantly: we weren't. And our digital reconstructions of the Big Bang, even 4.7999 billion years of evolution later, pale in comparison to the actuality of those events. But at least we're all thinking about it. And in Tree of Life, the juxtaposition of our imagination's projections of the divine with the space of the ordinary helps remind us of our weird cosmic relationship to one another. In the film's vernacular, we're all here by virtue of the same divine grace or the same natural cause

In other words, I don't know if I liked Tree of Life. But setting aside outrage and euphoria, this is, at its core, a film about love. About its grand and microscopic scales. About the remediation of loneliness in our consideration of the divine and in our relationships with one another. About the way we are together, and in our simple desire to one day hold the people that we have lost.

In this it deserves something more than a thumbs up or down.

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