The Tree of Life and The Limits of Psychoanalysis

[I posted this on 7/11, but I went back and added to / revised the last seven paragraphs on 7/12 because I wasn’t entirely happy with where I ended things. Like I said, I was trying to make last call at the bar!]

I’ve been racking my brain over Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Not because I couldn’t comprehend the basic plot and demanded a refund. Instead, I’ve been trying to find a suitable response to my friends and to critics who’ve leveled some justifiable concerns against the film. One friend was infuriated with the film’s depiction of women, describing Jessica Chastain’s maternal figure as a character who did little more than prance around the yard and care for her children. Another friend found the staging of Sean Penn’s struggles with his upbringing little more than a “vulgar” reading of Freud’s psychoanalytic work. These buddies also hated the dinosaurs, but I’d rather focus on these particular concerns and tease out why I still like (but don’t love unconditionally) The Tree of Life.

As I said, I had found myself unable to respond to these concerns in a way that I was comfortable with, to the extent that I began seriously questioning why I liked The Tree of Life so much after my initial viewing:

-I did see it around Father’s Day: was I overwhelmed by connections I found between my own formerly-tumultuous relationship with my father? (don’t worry: he never asked me to punch him in the face)

-Was I too defensive about the film because of my affection for its depiction of three brothers and my own concerns, as one of three sons, over how I’d cope with the tragic loss of one of them? (don’t worry: my brothers are still alive)

-Was I sick of thinking about the larger socio-cultural implications of narrative strategies and conventions and second-guessing my own critical faculties, to the extent that I eagerly embraced The Tree of Life, warts (moss?) and all? (don’t worry: I’m still just as pretentious as you probably think I am)

So many self-absorbed rhetorical questions to choose from! (don’t worry: I’ve got to wrap this up so I can make last call at the bar)

In any case, I stammered through some weak counters to my friends while they trashed the film and I kept my wounded pride to myself, mainly because I like my friends and I didn’t want to be That Friend: you know, the one who will not Drop It until you Let Them Win. So I dropped it…until I figured out a way to win and to publish my Winning Perspective on the Internet. Well, not really.

I’m tempted to side with my friends, especially on the charge of the way The Tree of Life might be said to subscribe to a “vulgar” Freudian cosmology. Michael Warner, in his fantastic Publics and Counterpublicsdiscusses the twentieth-century “cultural phenomenon” of psychoanalysis, an important if not overwhelming context that clearly persists in the twenty-first century, given Malick’s film and the positive grades it has received from many critics and audiences. Warner is interested in the limits of psychoanalysis “in its ability to deal with issues of public and private”:

Most psychoanalytic analyses of gender and sexuality focus on intrasubjective dynamics and familial relations, generalizing from these to abstract levels of culture such as the Symbolic and the law of the father. In doing so, they methodically embed the equation of gender and sexuality with the realm of the family and the individual — blocking from view the mediation of publics and the multiple social, historical and political frames of privacy. (54-55)

Sound familiar? It might if you’ve seen The Tree of Life. In many ways, the film dramatizes these tendencies at an almost operatic level. Sean Penn’s character is preoccupied with recollections of his parents, especially his father. His mother appears at the end of the film bathed in white light. Familial relations are given the utmost precedent and are abstracted to the point at which they encapsulate the birth of the universe and some of the earliest forms of life on this planet.

Are there attempts to demonstrate the “mediation” of the public and some of the “frames” laid out by Warner? It might be worth acknowledging the moments where the film resists the universalizing of its central family and Penn’s experiences. For example, I found the moment where young Jack looks curiously at some black children interesting because of the way Malick presents us with some of these children staring back at Jack. Difference — in the sense that we see worlds divided by class and racial lines  —  seems stressed in this scene, to the extent that I find it difficult to argue that Malick is setting up the O’Brien family as an everyfamily. Here there seems to be an acknowledgment of the limits of a cosmology based solely on one’s limited set of lived experiences. Then again, this is a lot to tease out of a very brief scene. Additionally, other viewers might find this particular scene to be a staging of the Other as an unknown, exotic, or even primitive perspective, one that is less subtle than uncomplicated and old-fashioned in the worst possible ways.

There is another (again, very brief) moment in The Tree of Life that tempts me toward a reading of the film as a demonstration of the impact and influence of psychoanalysis rather than an outright endorsement or naturalization of its organizing principles. Such a reading might insist on clearly demarcating moments where the perspective of the camera / Malick deviates from the point of view of the characters who populate its / his constructed gaze.

This scene takes place in the middle of the film: Jack’s father (Brad Pitt) has taken the boys out for dinner without his wife. The camera and Jack pay attention to the father’s interactions with a waitress: he is crudely demanded attention be paid to his stature as a paying customer. The way he teases out his payment / tip stresses the image of him as a man trying to will success and prosperity out of the performance of a comfortable middle class existence, and it also emphasizes the realities this performance can’t overcompensate for: in other words, the father lingers at paying because he knows how much he needs that money. Such a moment might be used as another acknowledgment of  the film’s interest in the influence of public spaces on identity politics (Jack’s encounter with the black children at the meat market could be read this way as well), although again, a successful sympathetic reading along these lines would need to extend greatly beyond these initial observations.

The scene offers one more tantalizing (to me, at least) clue that Malick is staging rather than condoning the psychological journey taken by Jack in his film. While young Jack and most of the audience are paying attention to the way this scene continues to build a less-than-sympathetic image of his father, the father is busy discussing the concepts of subjectivity and objectivity with his half-attentive sons. The subject matter is striking and unusual: Jack’s father fancies himself an intellectual, but it is an odd topic for dinner conversation all the same. In any event, it lets subjectivity in through the back door, in a sense, as the film, given the title (among other elements) seems to endorse if not dramatically stage an equation of its characters’ ideas and emotions with naturalized traits. I’m suggesting this might be a careful if not playful (an odd adjective to use, given how somber and heavy-handed much of this film is) moment where Malick is acknowledging his own presence behind the camera, a reminder of the constructed, highly subjective nature of his cinematic world.

I don’t think this post successfully resolves or does away with the concerns raised by my friends and other negative assessments of The Tree of Life. But I did want to suggest a sympathetic reading of the film that at least acknowledged these concerns. Is Malick’s film a description or an enactment of the sway of psychoanalysis on modern culture, or is it merely a pompous and heavy-handed product of this dominant cultural lens? And if you subscribe to the latter view, is there a way to account for some of the “wrinkles” in the curtain I’ve discussed here? It’s fun to throw the burden of proof at someone else, isn’t it? On the other hand, simply saying the film maps out the influence of psychoanalysis doesn’t necessarily mean that it has anything all that interesting to say about said influence, and I think this is where some of my friends landed in their assessment of the film. In any case, I wanted to articulate some of the reservations that presently prevent me from outright dismissing The Tree of Life on these grounds.

One initial reaction to the film that still hasn’t left me is the feeling that the world as it is depicted in The Tree of Life is a very fragile and terrifying place. The Edenic quality of the O’Briens and their suburban existence may be vibrant in color and light, but it is also a frightening and unhappy place to live. Jack is clearly damaged and drained by his experiences, and the reading I’m staging of the film here suggests that Malick finds the organizing intellectual, religious, and philosophical perspectives to be presences that have shaped Jack’s ideas of the world and his memories of his family for the worse, not the better. He does seem to find peace by the film’s end in a source that some of us may roll our eyes at — the immaculate, comforting, maternal figure bathed in healing white light — and the problem with presenting such an image in a (literally) overwhelmingly positive light is that it can validate the persistence of these so-called feminine traits.

Many of us may be angry or disappointed in The Tree of Life because of the way it seems to condone so many (sadly not that old-fashioned) ways of thinking, especially when we encounter them in an oppressive socio-cultural atmosphere that wishes to continue the alignment of church and state, of conventional gender dynamics, of normal and “deviant” sexual behavior.  Malick, in staging the domineering influence of organizing principles based on psychoanalysis and religious symbology, may have made them seem a little too alluring and comforting.

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