The Tree of Life: Suffering, Memory and God

July 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  Job 38:4,7

These are the verses that open Terrence Malick’s newest film, The Tree of Life, and I thought it fitting to open my reflection on the film with these same verses. These verses are but a small fragment of God’s response to Job when Job inquires as to why he, a righteous man, is suffering. This is the same question that Malick, through his characters, is posing as The Tree of Life hurtles along its unconventional, disjointed narrative. These spiritual questions coupled with the fractured narrative allow Malick to reach a place where he seems to make some conclusions about the nature of God and the world we inhabit and illuminate these conclusions as only a director with the touch of Malick could do.

The main focus of the film is Jack, whose older iteration (Sean Penn) is experiencing somewhat of a crisis in his life as he works in the big city, surrounded by glass and mortar, a sharp contrast from his childhood days in suburban Waco, Texas. This crisis seems to have been set off by the memory of his younger brother who died earlier in life, the circumstances of which Malick never makes clear. The film flits back and forth in Jack’s memory, occasionally dipping into dream states, as he relives the days of his youth in Texas. We see the younger Jack being born and growing up, eventually reaching a kind of stasis around age 12 or 13, where he is played splendidly by Hunter McCracken. The majority of the film takes place at this time, as Jack struggles to become a man, misunderstood and confused by his father (Brad Pitt) and shown grace and faith from his mother (Jessica Chastain).

What sets the film off is the memory of Jack’s brother and his death, a monumental event in the family’s history, one that leaves Jack’s mother devastated. In this state she asks many questions of God, which lead into the film’s most challenging section as Malick shows us the foundations of the world being laid  which directly hearkens back to the film’s opening verses. It is in the background of this magnificent visual and aural display that we must ask ourselves where the suffering of this one family comes into play in the universe. Why does or should God care, if, in fact, there is a God? And if He does care, who are we to ask Him questions when He set in motion the entire universe in all its glory and splendor? But we do ask questions, and we continue to struggle with death and suffering, and Malick struggles along with us.

There is a key scene midway through the film as the family attends church and the priest is giving a sermon about the book of Job, telling the people that suffering will come to them in this life because God doesn’t necessarily protect us from hardship. I saw the film twice and I’m still not sure if his words ring hollow at the sorrow we’ve witnessed or if they make perfect sense compared with the glory we saw at the beginning of the universe. I think Malick wants to make us aware of the suffering so we can see the glory after we have passed through the storm. His films all contain some element of this, whether it is the graphic battles of The Thin Red Line juxtaposed with peaceful sunsets and forest creatures or the raging fire of Days of Heaven combined with the majestic fields of grain. If there was no glory, then suffering wouldn’t matter and without the certainty of things being ravaged and claimed by death the glory might not shine as brightly as it does. Or perhaps it is the hope that one day the glory we see will be allowed to go unchecked by death and suffering that drives Malick’s reluctant, mournful acceptance of suffering in this present time.

One balm for this sorrow, at least in the film, is the presence of memory to bring us back to the happy and sorrowful times of our past. The majority of the film is seen through Jack’s memory, detailing important events in his childhood, skipping from moment to moment with no seeming order or narrative. For some this may be a distraction, but this is exactly what memory is; it is fragments strewn across our minds, something we have very little actual control over, as we remember the good and the bad with equal alacrity. In the specific memories that Malick exploits in the film, many of them probably his own, there is a certain sense of universality, at least in the emotions drawn out by the events. Many times I was surprised as I was caught by a wave of emotion brought on by a specific scene that had no direct correlation to any time in my past but I recognized the emotion that it brought forth.

Memory and the emotions associated with it seem to help older Jack arrive at some peace as the film comes to a close. With a typical Malick deftness, Jack has begun to reconcile the way of the world and the harsh competition of his father and nature with the way of grace and love shown by his mother and also through the glory of nature. The closing shots of the film can only reinforce this thought, but I would not want to spoil them for anyone. Malick certainly knows how to close his films.

So where does suffering and memory leave us in terms of God? Who is God? What is He like? It seems that Malick is content to leave us with more questions than answers when it comes to determining the nature of God. There are moments that leave us astounded at their beauty, and Jack’s mother is clearly a model of living in grace and love that is favored by Malick, as he has shown us in other films. Suffering is something that does not undermine God, but just seems to be part and parcel of the world and nature. In Malick’s world there is both glory and death, pleasure and pain, beauty and ugliness; it’s up to us to love and show grace as we search for the glory.

All Eternals Deck

May 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

From the opening notes of Damn These Vampires to the closing lines of Liza Forever Minnelli, All Eternals Deck is a upward journey through the dark places of the human psyche and condition into a place of a certain contentment, touching on matters of utmost importance often veiled in cryptic phraseology. Like many of The Mountain Goats previous releases, All Eternals Deck continues to touch on the deepest failures and fears of human life, but manages to push through these tribulations toward a genuine awareness that although this world is still marred by pain and sorrow, beauty and healing can be found. In this way, All Eternals Deck reminds me of The Sunset Tree in its ability to address deeply personal matters in such a way that the listener can experience their own emotions in the obliquely worded lyrics of John Darnielle. This time around the music matches the songs and is quite worthy in its own right unlike the majority of The Mountain Goat’s last album, The Life of the World to Come, which suffered from similar sounding music and poor pacing.

Our journey begins with the mournful piano of Damn These Vampires, a slow burning meditation about vampires. As Darnielle sings in the chorus, “Crawl ’til dawn/On my hands and knees/God damn these vampires/For what they’ve done to me,” one can’t help but wonder what these vampires represent. Is Darnielle musing on on the general state of mankind, drawn in by dark and mysterious things until it is too late to escape? Or do the vampires represent the past, unshakable memories that haunt and wound?  Whatever the case may be, Damn These Vampires sets up the brooding and questioning nature of the rest of the album, where allusions, references and metaphors abound and it is up to the listener to untangle them and make sense of Darnielle’s lyrics.

These metaphysical concerns and references keep coming up throughout the album, and with them it seems as if Darnielle is attempting to answer or at least consider some larger questions of life. The album’s third track, Estate Sale Sign, is full of religious imagery and lyrics mentioning memory, while the music draws the song along at a quick clip, not giving us the luxury of really being able to catch the meaning. Lines like, “Worked hard to build this altar…the sacrificial stains all spreading out and and soaking through,” and, “Stock shots, stupid stock shots…set up like unloved icons gathering dust up on the wall/from films no one remembers,” draw our attention to the recurring theme of memory, the past and forgetfulness that Darnielle seems particularly occupied with on this album. Age of Kings, whose musical backdrop is pristine, featuring some beautiful string arrangements, picks up this theme of memory again, as Darnielle sings of a past relationship. The last verse is gut-wrenching, “Small chambers sinking ’til they vanish/Wolves in the hallway gaining ground/Reach down to the moment when I should have said something true/Shadows and their sources now stealing away with you.” 

After the moody The Autopsy Garland urges its recipient to remember certain places and times, Beautiful Gas Mask takes over the listener’s ear drums. The refrain commands us to “Never sleep, remember to breathe deep,” trying to make us calm and alert at the same time as we try to stay together in the face of nameless shadows and an eventual reckoning with someone or something. High Hawk Season asks us how we will be remembered, “Who will rise and who will sing?/Who’s going to stand his ground and who’s going to blink?”  There is almost a sense of paranoia in Darnielle’s voice as he sings, “Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake,” as if the world is coming to an end or that this may be the only chance we have to truly live, taking advantage of every day.

Prowl Great Cain deals with the curse that bad memories can bring, and I can’t help but wonder if this song is mining the same autobiographical territory as The Sunset Tree in Darnielle handling the memory of his abusive father. As the song draws near its close and Darnielle wails, “Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me/And other times the sickness howls and I despair of any remedy,” I am reminded of the scars of the past that haunt all of us. The very next song, Sourdoire Valley Song, highlights another facet of memory, the bittersweet nature of leaving things behind that once held such joy. In a few words, the song’s chorus beautifully sums up having to leave behind memories and the past as we move forward, “And then the grass grows to cover up the fire pit and the forge/Half a world away from the Olduvai Gorge.”

It is with Outer Scorpion Squadron that the album begins to take a turn to the positive. In this soft, touching ballad, Darnielle sings of conjuring up ghosts of the past, learning to live with them and eventually putting them behind you. He seems to suggest that once you own your past and the many terrible, painful things that make up a part of it you can begin to make steps toward healing, and with the final three songs of the album, this healing begins to manifest itself. For Charles Bronson encourages a certain Stoicism toward the past, advising to concentrate on good things and try to live as if the past has no hold on you or your current state. I think many pass through this stage on their way to realizing that true healing never comes in this manner.

Healing comes in the awareness of our own failure to ever escape the past and its damage, and this is what Never Quite Free masterfully shows. On this Earth, the closest we may come to true freedom is this deep and difficult realization that our past makes us who we are and we have to learn to live with it and the way it has shaped us. The most cathartic song on the album by far, I can identify with Darnielle as he almost whispers the verses, and the second one especially hits home, “It’s okay to find the faith to saunter forward/There’s no fear of shadows spreading where you stand/And you’ll breathe easier just knowing the worst is all behind you/And the waves that tossed the raft all night have set you on dry land.” Now, maybe the worst isn’t behind me, but I know that the struggles and wounds of the past and present have shaped me and will continue to do so as long as I live. In order to move toward healing, we have to acknowledge our flawed and damaged state or we may forever remain entrapped by our pain and our suffering, not understanding that everyone has their own skeletons in their closets: we are no different.

All Eternals Deck is a challenging, but rewarding album. For those who want a straightforward message in their music, this is not the album for them, but for those who invest careful attention it will reveal a deeper message, spoken through metaphor and imagery. By wrestling with his past in an open and vulnerable way, Darnielle encourages us to take a second look at our own past and how we can find healing in our circumstances, a topic he frequently sings about. I can’t recommend this album enough.

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