May 14, 2012

“The Tree of Life”, Kierkegaard, and Christology

My Christ and Pop Culture comrade Nick Olson has written an in-depth essay for Filmwell on The Tree of Life and its relationship to, and inspiration from, Kierkegaard.

After first viewing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, I attempted to draw some connections in the film between Job, the Creation sequence, and “the two ways through life” through a Kierkegaardian lens focused on human beings’ essential givenness… Admittedly, it was with some diffidence that I employed Søren Kierkegaard in my review of the film; though I thought its Christian themes were clearly mediated through a visual framework constituted by an existential vocabulary (namely, through Jack’s memories of, and search to recover, “home”), I was basing the Kierkegaard connection on Malick’s academic pursuits. It’s often cited that he studied Kierkegaard in school (though Martin Heidegger is more often cited), and Malick is also said to have written a screenplay adapting Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer—the most Kierkegaardian American novel we have, and set in the mid-twentieth century, too.

At the time, my hesitance stemmed from what I thought was the relative tenuousness of the connection; it’s not exactly considered a shrewd critical move to draw attention to a director’s personal interests when commenting on his or her film. Admittedly, then, I was both relieved and intrigued when a friend alerted me to a more direct connection between Tree and the Danish philosopher. In a scene that seems both a thematic microcosm of the film as a whole and right at its center, a preacher is giving a sermon on Job, and part of the sermon, as it turns out, is taken directly from Kierkegaard’s 1843 Upbuilding Discourse, “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Took Away; Blessed be the Name of the Lord.” Given that the Discourse is concerned with Job’s agonizing plight and, yet, his maintenance of gratitude, it seems to me that the Upbuilding Discourse, while by no means disrobing the film of its mystery or multiple layers of influence and theme, provides us with a compelling entry point to consider Tree afresh from a holistic perspective.

This part is especially good:

Part of what makes Tree so wonderful for me is in its rendering of the intimate relation between the universal and the particular. And while the cosmic imagery is important on this point, I more have in mind the O’Brien family. They are particular enough to be interesting, and yet they are universal enough that we see ourselves and others in them. First names are either not mentioned or rarely named. The small town in Texas is the ‘50’s, but not too identified with a particular time and place. The central protagonist’s name is “Jack”—a generic name in its own right. Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien are primarily referred to as “father” and “mother.” Jack speaks of needing to reconnect with his “brother.” In short, part of the wonderfully divergent responses to Malick’s film has to do with our being invited to bring the particularity of our own experiences to the universal outlines presented in the film. In a sense, Jack’s faith crisis becomes recognizably your plight that is filled with your (past and potential) memories and choices. The film can be a functional invitation for you, its viewer, to find your feet firmly on Love’s ground.