Tree of Life Revisited

I recently moved from Sydney to State College, Pennsylvania – home of the Nittany Lions, JoePa and student partying (especially when someone gets assassinated). The town is picturesque, with manicured lawns, flowering pears and leafy lindens, squirrels and jackrabbits, and svelte co-eds jogging along the sidewalk at all hours. New to ‘small town America’ the streets, homes and people evoked Hollywood images from Leave it to Beaver, Stand By Me, and on the more depressed edges, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?
In my first week here I was fortunate to be able to re-watch Tree of Life at the State Theatre. Located on the main street (College Ave) the State Theatre is an elegant, yet understated theatre built in 1938 that continues to show new release, art house, and classic films. Tickets are $8.50, wine is $7 – next time I think I’ll go dry.
Watching Tree of Life, a very American perspective on the human condition, from the fringe of ‘the heartland’ further added to the satisfaction of revisiting Malick’s enigmatic film. Like the screening at the Sydney Film Festival, some viewers were frustrated enough to leave, while others continually looked at the glow of their smartphones – presumably looking at the time, or perhaps trying to find a review that provides some meat to the skeletal gestures and subtle whispers.
I would not claim to have a certain interpretation of this film or suggest the meaning, but on second viewing a few scenes and themes struck me:
Both physical structures featured (family home(s), church, office space, and city scape) and the occupation of Jack (Sean Penn) as an architecture echoed the act of divine creation. Importantly, the interaction between the natural and created, or environment and world, served to underscore humanities imitation of the divine and desire to control, order and design.
The will to control, both the environment and world is evidenced by Mr O’Brien’s (Brad Pitt) fastidious concern over property boundaries, garden maintenance and the front lawn. These concerns are deeper than mere aesthetics but represent the character of the person and their place in the world among others – the first audible dialogue is Mr O’Brien telling Jack where the boundary between their yard and Spencer’s yard lies.
A specific example of O’Brien’s will to control is in an early scene where Mrs O’Brien is publically grieving with her friends and Mr O’Brien insists that ‘we are alright’ while simultaneous choking the garden hose in order to halt the flow of water.  Whether this is an expression of control over himself, his wife or his world I am unsure. However, the limit or superficiality of O’Brien’s control is highlighted by his inability to revive the boy at the swimming pool. The power over life and death is beyond O’Brien’s grasp.
Love & Death
Immediately following Jack’s first experience of death is his first experience of romantic love or attraction. However, this is soon skewed into something illicit when his object of desire shifts from his young peer to the neighbor’s wife, breaking into her house and stealing her underwear.
Wisdom of Job’s Friends
An obvious point is the parallels the narrative shares with Job. However, without reading too much into each scene, the ‘wisdom’ or comfort offered Mrs O’Brien after her son’s death reflects the cheap sentiment or simple comfort offered to Job. This is particularly pointed when the Priest says, presumably after the funeral, “he is in God’s hands now”, to which Mrs O’Brien responds “he was always in God’s hands”, highlighting the emptiness of the Priest’s words. 
For an insightful discussion on the philosophical influences on Malick and themes in his films, this interview with Robert Sinnerbrink on the Philosopher’s Zone is very good. 

Obama and Springsteen on Solidarity, Love and Justice

Bruce Springsteen’s 2002 album, The Rising, reflects on the impact of the 9/11 attacks on the New York city landscape, national consciousness, and the lives of ordinary people performing sacrificial acts.

The album in its entirety provides an important window into the emotion and sense of solidarity felt among New Yorkers (and the rest of the world with America) in the days following the attacks. In a similar vein President Obama’s speech announcing the assassination of Osama Bin Laden recalls the solidarity of the time.

On September 11, 2001, in our time of grief, the American people came together. We offered our neighbors a hand, and we offered the wounded our blood. We reaffirmed our ties to each other, and our love of community and country. On that day, no matter where we came from, what God we prayed to, or what race or ethnicity we were, we were united as one American family.

Amplifying this solidarity and sacrifice is Springsteen’s song “Into the Fire”. Drawing heavily on 1 Corinthians 13 “Into the Fire” entwines the sacrificial heroism of the fire fighters with the redemptive love of Christ. In a repeated refrain Springsteen sings of the fire fighter leaving loved ones, as ‘love and beauty called you someplace higher, somewhere up the stairs, into the fire.’ Through sacrificial love the darkness of the terrorist act is overcome. Springsteen underscores the sacrificial act with ‘you gave your love to me, lay your young body down.’

The hope placed in the fire fighter’s sacrifice is that it will transform grief, anger and hate. That death and hate will give birth to life and love. The chorus cites the three ‘theological virtues’ of faith, hope and love, proclaiming: ‘May your strength give us strength, may your faith give us faith, may your hope give us hope, may your love give us love.’

However, listening to this song post-5/2 the sentiment of “Into the Fire” and incantation of these ‘virtues’ undergoes a hollowing transformation. Rather than demonstrating faith, hope or love – the non-virtue of Springsteen’s quartet was expressed.

Rather than the solidarity, sacrifice and love of “Into the Fire” it is Springsteen’s “Empty Sky” that most resonates in President Obama’s speech and the assassination of Bin Laden.

Evoking the grief and pain felt at the time President Obama describes the horror of the plane’s tearing into the towers yet acknowledges ‘that the worst images are those that were unseen to the world. The empty seat at the dinner table.’ Taking a pained and angered turn from “Into the Fire” Springsteen brought the ‘unseen’ emptiness to view in “Empty Sky”.

From the perspective of someone suffering the loss of a loved one Springsteen gives voice to the hurt and fury: ‘Just an empty impression in the bed where you use to be. I want a kiss from your lips I want an eye for an eye. I woke up this morning to an empty sky.’ The sacrificial love of the fire-fighter/Christ figure is transfigured into Old Testament rage wanting ‘an eye for an eye’.

Having staged two wars and an unknown number of extralegal raids, attacks and assassinations it appears that the US could not and did not follow ‘love and beauty…someplace higher’, but rather the desire of an eye for an eye has dictated the response from 9/12 through to the present.