Monday, July 25, 2011

The Tree of Life

I went to see The Tree of Life last night. It was, I admit, with a degree of trepidation. For one thing, some aspects of the film (which I'm sure must be at least partly autobiographical by Terrence Malick) seemed a little close to my own life (actually, as things turned out, that wasn't disturbing at all). For another thing, the film had been met with derision, laughter and catcalls at Cannes, and with silent awe in other less jaded spaces. Neither boded too well, but - the film just sounded interesting.... and that matters. Arouse and hold intelligent interest. That's our business.

Much of the controversy concerns the film's Christian content. And it is Christian, no doubt about it. Christianity has had a bit of a bad press recently, thanks to the lunatics on the American Evangelical right and the bigots who've been elected at the last two Papal elections - but there is actually still a profound and important theologically capable and intellectually credible element in Christianity, of which the current Archbishop of Canterbury is a part. It's the faith in which I grew up, and to which I remain attracted, even loyal. So to see it explored in a film which doesn't reduce morality to simple binaries is a great pleasure.

What's more, Malick's film brings a spiritual awareness to contemporary living in surprising, unsettling ways. The central character, looking back from a middle-aged perspective on his childhood, does not overcome the past through time and contemplation, but rather becomes all the more acutely aware of its immediacy, the weight it places upon him, as he contrasts his own insignificance with the scale of the cosmos and the workings of history. Context on the grandest scale meets psychological realism. It's very easy for us to avoid the spiritual in our contemporary lives, but if we do so in art then we are actually denying what validates it. That's why I like to work with non-western traditions, where the spiritual is still explicit in performance, and with music, which simply wouldn't exist without the spiritual dimension. And bravo to Terrence Malick for attempting such a challenge in the most westernised and realism-bound medium of them all.

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