Some experiences you pass over in silence.
On the one hand, it seems like laziness. I had a teacher who sternly told us that if you can’t talk about a subject, you don’t understand it. You can fall back on that position – it’s too big for words; language can’t capture that. And that is often the refuge of the inarticulate or the lazy, or the person who’s reluctant to think. Thinking’s hard work, after all.
But there are other occasions when talk does seem to cheapen a thing. You have the experience. Then you describe it. In the telling, the experience tends to become the telling of it. As you relate it, you unwittingly smooth out the rough edges, buff up the funny parts, exaggerate some of the events to make it more dramatic. Then what you described becomes its own description.
Or, there’s events that call for ecstatic speech. Anything less seems unworthy. Often, the most ecstatic experiences tend to be expressed in clichés, or words so worn they’ve lost their denotative meaning. I love you. I love you so much. It was so wonderful. Between the emotion and its expression lies a gap so vast, it shames the speaker.
Even poets have a hard time with the ecstatic or the holy or rendering awe. Shakespeare, certainly G.M. Hopkins. D. H. Lawrence. Whitman sometimes, but he tried for it so often that those great inventories of his don’t always work. Or the poets get cunning and try to suggest the emotion indirectly – “tell the truth, but tell it slant,” Miss Dickinson said, and so we should.
The Tree of Life is an ecstatic film. If that makes you roll your eyes, or sigh, or cringe, I can understand. But you would miss a profound experience. It’s hard to write about, though, and I don’t want to diminish my initial experience of the film. A lot of it lies beyond what you can, or should, reasonably reduce to language. In that way, it’s like great music, intrinsically beyond language.
Someone, I forget who, said that the only real criticism of a poem should be another poem. I’d say that’s true for this film as well.
And this one seems oddly personal, as if Terence Malick had somehow drilled into my own memory and imagination. My mother, like the mother does in the film, has red hair and blue eyes, and was once slim and pretty in the ethereal way redheads can be. My father took the same brutal approach to childrearing, with similar effects. The aluminum tumblers on the table, the Toscanini albums, the Converse sneakers/jeans/home-sewn shirts are all relics of my childhood, too, even though the setting’s maybe 15 or even 20 years earlier. Things change slowly in flyover country.
Beyond the specifics, the fascination with space, infinity, time, the soul, and, finally, wrestling with the problem of suffering and of the existence of a god preoccupied me almost as much as sex did when I was a teenager. It didn’t make me good company. But it does make me receptive to a move like this, that takes for a launching point the Book of Job. Job, after all, is the only honest book in the Bible.
So I’m reluctant to break the spell of the movie and discuss, oh, the inheritance of Transcendentalism, the possibly Cabbalistic significance of the Tree, or the use of natural light or how the voice over works.
I’d just like as many people as possible to see it.