Two Films for Different Parts of the Brain

16 July 2011 2 Comments

If you want a yin-yang, run-the-spectrum experience, try seeing the following two films in the same week, as I did: Transformers (Dark of the Moon) and The Tree of Life. My thirteen-year-old grand nephew was in town and the latest film adaption of what started as a toy was exactly his cup of tea. (He afterward pronounced it the best film he has ever seen). A few days later, a reflective neighbor organized a trip that included my son and me to see Terrence Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life.

I recommend Transformers for those who want a work out for the limbic part of their brains, especially the parts associated with flight versus fight and the startle reflex. There is almost nothing to reflect on in this film. It has no ideas and only the most primitive emotions. The closest one gets to a thought is the yellow autobot (sorry, I’m not a devotee and forget the names) saying to the human something like “You may lose faith in us, but never lose faith in yourselves.” I think even Oprah might gag a bit on this use of her favorite cliché.

All of which is NOT to say “don’t see the movie” (it’s a movie, not a film); it’s simply to say it is best seen through the eyes of a thirteen year old boy. Way cool, apparently.

Now put on your running shoes and sprint for three light years in the other direction and you get to The Tree of Life. This film is ALL reflection and complex emotion—and almost no action—at least for those who define action as a string of startling events. There is actually a great amount of action in the film, but it all takes place between the ears—those of the characters and of the audience. A film for an old English prof (especially one who grew up in the 1950’s, not many miles from the Texas setting of the film, and, yes, who played in the white clouds of DDT poison behind the spraying truck, just like the kids in the film. Malick absolutely nails growing up in the 1950s.)

I won’t even begin to try unraveling a film that purposely evades neat explanations (it has a Virginia Woolf-type sensitivity to the interplay of finely nuanced emotional states within and between characters), but am interested in its strategy for approaching spiritual, even Christian, topics in a secular age often hostile—in the art world especially—to anything smacking of religion.

Malick is both direct and indirect at the same time. Too direct for some, I am sure. And too indirect for others. He begins with a verse from Job, has voice-overs of characters speaking to (and arguing with) God, makes the central family explicitly Christian in a way that is neither condescending or eye-rolling, and affirms very directly that if the universe and our lives are not about love, we are much to be pitied.

On the other hand, much of the spiritual significance of the film is carried purely visually. There are repeated still photos of great nebulae and the seeming creation of the world, and dazzling photos of the natural world we live on, and even wordless forays into our prehistoric past. The film abounds in symbols and symbolism but, as with all of our richest symbols, their meanings are suggestive rather than explicit—and open to a variety of interpretations.

I think the film is a must see for any artist of faith looking for strategies for talking about ultimate things to our contemporary culture. Be wise as serpents, harmless as doves, unashamed of the gospel, but speaking it in parables that people both do and do not understand.

(Comments on either film welcomed.)



  • David Shepley said:

    Pam and I caught Tree of Life over a month ago. While the uptown theater’s seats could have provide some additional cushioning to protect one’s softer side, we did enjoy the film.

    We appreciated the “greyness” of the film. It is so rare to attend a movie these days where the message (usually simple and contrived) isn’t in your face. I liked how the movie provided space for which the viewer to think, dwell and appreciate different dimensions and aspects of the film.

    At times I felt the movie caused a feeling of emptyness/nothingness that seemed to be a bit forced – but I do align with a film that can illuminate one of life’s essences…that Life is Hard.

    I thought the “silent” acting was exceptional – especially by the wife/mom who’s facial reaction captured enough for her not to speak very much.

    Pam and I had traveled to Austin, Tx a few days before we saw the film and we thought it was neat that Barton Spring and the Austin bats made an appearance – both of which we experienced.

    Where did you grow up in Texas Dan?


  • admin said:

    Yes, silence is as much a part of art and acting as speech. I lived in the Panhandle: Sweetwater, Lubbock, and a tiny town named Wheeler. I used Google Earth to find my house in Wheeler (a parsonage) and found that it is currently boarded up. A bit sad.

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.