Experiencing “The Tree of Life” as a father

At times, I think it’s all too tempting to approach The Tree of Life as a primarily esoteric or philosophical exercise. Of course, Terrence Malick doesn’t do much to dissuade that sort of approach, thanks to his existential dialog, non-linear narrative, and abstract-yet-beautiful scenery. As a result, it’s easy to approach Malick’s movie as if it’s the epitome of the ivory tower, i.e., something to appreciate and contemplate from a remote and respectful distance, to pontificate and philosophize over because it’s, you know, ART.

That was not my experience watching The Tree of Life, though I expected it to be so. Put simply, I was not prepared for how much the film would destroy me as a father. Perhaps “destroy” is too strong a word, but the anger and frustration that I had expressed towards my oldest son earlier in the week was still fresh in my mind as I sat there in the theatre — anger that I saw magnified and enlarged on the screen before me. And suffice to say, I was left a little shaken. The first thing I wanted to do when the movie was over was rush home and hug my children.

So much of The Tree of Life is about how parents, and fathers in particular, shape their children, and how their children observe and see them, and how that affects them later in life. My oldest son is still quite young, but how have I shaped him already? What sort of world have I been preparing him for, a world marked by the way of nature or a world exemplified by grace (to use the film’s core dichotomy)? What values, good or bad, have I already planted within his little soul? Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, what will be his earliest memories of me? How will I loom in his subconscious? Which of his own character flaws and strengths will he trace back to me?

These questions came rushing at me during and after the screening, so much so that when I ran into some friends in the lobby who were there to see the screening after mine, I found it hard to talk without getting choked up. Suffice to say, The Tree of Life was not merely a “philosophical” experience for me, though it certainly had plenty to philosophize about. Rather, it was primarily a searing, deeply emotional experience that struck at the core of my father-ness, and for that alone, I am quite thankful to Malick for the film.

  • http://twitter.com/beingbrad Brad Sorensen

    totally.  me too, exactly.

  • Marc, Sr.

    This aspect of the film was also one of the major impacts on me. Although for me, it mainly caused me to reflect on my father and my childhood.

  • Trevor Logan

    I agree completely. Unfortunately much of philosophy has been hijacked by competitions of smartness. Philosophy (and art), though, in its purest form is essentially a re-enchantment of the everyday. I have two boys myself and I must constantly remind myself of what is before me and the responsibility to simply be present — to be there. Yet I am always so distracted away from them and become angry with them when they distract my distractedness. We bring these new worlds into existence when we have children and then feel impinged upon when they treat us like we are responsible for their existence! Its as if every look they give us cries, “look, here I am, teach me how to be (it is, after all, your fault that I exist)”, but we renege in anger or sheer indifference. As the 20th century’s greatest philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said: “The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of there simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something because it is always before one’s eyes.) Malick’s film reminded me that being a father is often the simple (but really hard, too) work of paying attention to what is always before one’s eyes. Thanks for your insights.

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