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This is the blog of Joseph Nevard. For more information about the purpose of the blog and its author see 'A note on the title'.

Genesis or abiogenesis? Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Terrence Malick’s latest film, The Tree of Life, has, like all his recent films, divided critics. In fact many of the reviews are divided against themselves with writers unable to decide whether the film is a masterpiece or a folly. Of course, reviewers who are normally sent to pass judgement on movies about polymorphic robots or child wizards are hardly equipped to write about art. It is rather like sending a pop critic from the NME to review a new opera by Harrison Birtwhistle.

The tree of life which appeared in On the Origin of Species

An appreciation of the film must start with the title which has two clear references. The first is the biological concept of the tree of life, the family tree of all living things derived from the Darwinian theory of evolution. The second is religious and refers to the tree of life found in the Garden of Eden and, according to the second chapter of Genesis, capable of granting immortality to those who eat from it. Similar myths are found in many religious traditions around the world and trees clearly have an archetypal ‘super-symbolic’ significance. These two meanings are emphasised by the film’s insistence on a dichotomy between nature (cruel, competitive and tending toward death) and grace (selfless, loving and tending toward immortality). The film is prefaced, however, by an epigraph from the Book of Job. As it is soon revealed that the main thrust of the film is the effect on a family of the death of one of its members the film can also be viewed (like Job) as an attempt at theodicy.

The film begins with the arrival of a telegram bearing news of the death of the second of the O’Brien’s sons at the age of nineteen. The grief of the parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) is depicted along with the alienation of the elder brother, Jack (Sean Penn), still struggling to come to terms with his sorrow on what may be the anniversary of the tragic event. At this point the film seems largely concerned with geometry. Jack, an architect, is seen in aggressively angular modern buildings, all triangles and right angles. This is contrasted with the chaotic geometry of nature, rock formations, waves, etc, the kind of geometry which mathematics still struggles to describe. Indeed the curves and irregularities of Penn’s face look increasingly out of place in the rows of triangles he may himself have designed.

This sequence of mourning leads into the most (in)famous part of the film. As the soprano from Zbigniew Priesner’s Requiem repeatedly sings the word ‘lacrimosa’ (tearful) we are taken on a cosmic journey from the beginning of the universe to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The key to this seems to me that repeated ‘lacrimosa’. What are tears compared to the vast expanse of time and space? Or is the universe itself tearful? In a version of the anthropic principle we can see grief, resulting as it does from love, as investing meaning in the whole of creation. Psalm 148 says “Praise ye him [God], sun and moon: praise him, all ye stars of light” (verse 3, King James). Perhaps this sequence suggests that the stars should also join in mourning the death of a nineteen year old man. It is this sequence which has prompted comparisons to Stanley Kubrick but the similarity is, I think, rather superficial. Malick is unique and if this film is to be compared to anything it is perhaps closer to Tarkovsky’s Mirror than 2001.

When we return we find Jack watching a tree being replanted in the centre of the office complex. This is certainly not a ‘tree of life’, cut off as it is from the rest of nature with no chance of reproducing. The image sends him into a reminiscence of his childhood which will make up the bulk of the film. It is at this point that one first thinks of Proust. The evocative nature of the following scenes and the fact that they are not an objective flashback but a subjective series of reminiscences reinforces a reading of the film as a Proustian exercise which may be important later.

This long, central section of the film begins with Jack’s birth. There follows a depiction of ‘toddlerhood’ which is the best, if not the only, cinematic attempt to capture the world of a young child which I have seen. In fact, the only similar thing I can think of is the opening of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Much of the effect is achieved by the simple, but surprisingly rarely used, technique of shooting at the child’s eye-level. We see the world as an alien, Brobdingnagian place and the adults in it as giants and, in the case of the father, rather remote.

It is at this point that I must confess to a personal interest. As Jack grows up there is a montage set to Smetana (‘Vltava’ from Ma Vlast). This happens to be a piece which I have known since childhood and is perhaps the most evocative piece from the whole repertoire for me personally. Combined with the fact that I am, like Jack, the oldest of three brothers this meant that the film seemed to speak to me directly and to be about my own childhood. From hearing other people’s reactions, however, it seems that this is a common experience. Many people have written or spoken of the intense connection that the film made with their own memories of growing up so it seems that the credit for this does belong to Malick and not to a musical coincidence. (I do not know if there is a gender divide here. The film is so much about boyhood that it might not have the same effect on women.) This might be the place to comment that Malick, like Kubrick and Tarkovsky and almost all truly great film-makers has an unerring ear for music. The use of Bach, Brahms, Mahler and others in this film is worth the ticket price alone.

As Jack grows into a mildly delinquent boy we see the development of his relationship with his sensitive, musical (and doomed) brother and with his parents. The father starts out as a man disappointed at his failure to succeed as a musician (due, we assume, to World War II) and increasingly embittered by his failure to make a fortune as an inventor. Meanwhile, he is strict and patriarchal at home, attempting to teach his sons the hard, Darwinian virtues (in the terms of the film, the way of ‘nature’) he believes are necessary to succeed in  the world. Malick is an American film-maker so the American Dream is never far from his concerns. While the father fails, Jack will go on to succeed but, it appears, finds success meaningless. Despite a few outbursts of violence the father is not abusive. He is probably fairly average by the standards of the time and Brad Pitt maintains a thread of decency throughout his portrayal. After one outburst in which he effectively chases his family from the dining room he sits back down to continue eating in a gesture of nonchalance but Pitt’s hands show that the character is as terrified by what he has done as anyone else. This is a portrait of a man trapped by a masculinity which is in conflict with his role as a parent and consequently forced to act in bad faith. Indeed this struggle between his role as ‘man of the house’ and carer for his children is perhaps the most moving element of the film. There have been few men on screen so much in need of feminism. He does finally achieve a moment of grace when he sees that his sons are the great achievement of his life and that he does not want or need anything else.

The mother represents the way of ‘grace’ and her portrayal as a kind of angel, in touch with nature and the ‘spiritual’ has been much criticised. She is very much the kind of post-war ‘housewife’ that Betty Friedan set out to liberate and one might see her devotion to religion as an attempt to find meaning in a life that condemns her to domestic imprisonment, despite her university education. As Jack grows more like his father his idealisation of his mother becomes more problematic, especially once his sexuality begins to emerge. He adores her as helplessly as Proust’s narrator but also scorns her apparent weakness and inability to stand up to either her husband or her children. The complicated feelings of Jack are never really resolved and this section ends when the family are forced to move away for the sake of the father’s job. The scenes in which they leave the empty house are a climax to the whole section and provide an ending to what is a largely narrative-free series of vignettes.

The final section returns to the adult Jack and largely consists of a strange scene in which he is reunited with his family on a beach. This may be meant to evoke an afterlife and the ocean can certainly be used to represent eternity. If, however, we follow a reading of the film as Proustian and so concerned with memory, we might see this as something like the ending of Le Temps Retrouvé. (The scene reminded me of Raúl Ruiz’s adaptation.) Jack has discovered that the solution to the problem of grief is memory. His brother lives on as long as he remembers him. Memory allows us to regain time and, in some sense, conquer death. Shortly after the scene with the dinosaurs we see one of the boys claiming to have discovered a dinosaur bone in a field. Despite their extinction dinosaurs survive as fossils (and indeed their DNA survives in the birds descended from them) which are metaphorically the memories of the earth. We leave traces behind us and the most important traces are in the minds of those who loved us. Perhaps here there is a synthesis between ‘grace’ and ‘nature’, love and fossilisation. Darwinian evolution is not only about the struggle for existence but equally importantly about inheritance. After all, as Dawkins has argued, organisms are only machines that are used by genes to ensure their own immortality. This seems to me to be a more interesting reading than simply seeing the promise of an afterlife as the solution to the problem of evil.

I should add that the film is beautifully shot and the childhood scenes have the quality of evoking the senses of touch and smell which only the greatest film-makers are able to achieve. One’s memories of the film are often strikingly tactile. The performances of the children are simply stunning. There is no acting visible here, only observed behaviour. In one scene Jack defiantly stands up to his father but his words are half-mumbled and he leans away as if preparing to run. We see the huge psychological effort needed to make even this rather feeble gesture of independence. If I have a criticism of Malick it is that, despite his reputation for being obscure and ‘difficult’, I often find him too literal. It was not really necessary for the young Jack to explain that he had become more like his father than his mother as we had spent the last hour watching precisely that process. I hope that a shot near the end of a mask sinking in the sea was not supposed to be as clumsily symbolic as it seemed. But these are quibbles. The Tree of Life is the best American art film since There Will Be Blood.

Toffs, chavs and bourgeois scum.

This is a bit of a rant and deals in lazy generalisations and crude stereotypes. Pointing this out won’t prove that you’re clever, just that you can read.

Julian Fellowes has recently received publicity for his claim that discrimination against posh people constitutes a ‘hate crime’. The rich, powerful and well-born deserve protection from casual ‘classist’ comments made on television. When posh people are regularly subject to violent attacks in the street on the basis of their accents then he might have a point but trying to equate the mild resentment of ordinary people against a class which has raped, plundered and profiteered for centuries with the persecution of homosexuals, ethnic minorities and women (by that very class) is offensive not only to common sense but also to basic decency.

The nightmarish James Delingpole defended this position with the argument that we should not discriminate against posh people because they are basically better than us. It is for this reason that we should be thankful that Cameron and his schoolboy chums have returned to their rightful place on top in order to continue the historic mission of their class: robbing from the poor to line their own pockets. Supposedly they are better than us because they have better schools but this is a bit of a myth. The public school system does not inculcate critical thought, open-mindedness or self-examination. Instead places like Eton concentrate on exam success and self-presentation. The products of public schools are not, in my experience, notable for intelligence, only for appearing intelligent. They have an absolute confidence which allows them to speak on any subject as though they were expert despite having no knowledge of it whatsoever. This is why ‘Boy’ George Osborne is able to be Chancellor despite having no discernible understanding of basic economics. This also explains why, of all teenagers, posh teenagers are the most annoying. They are at a stage where they have learnt to hold in contempt anyone ‘beneath’ them in the social hierarchy (i.e. you and me) but not yet mastered the charm which allows their parents to convince the unwary that this contempt is in fact a great favour and privilege. Noblesse oblige.

The recent sickening display of forelock-tugging servility by the deferent masses and the sycophantic mass media in relation to the posh celebrity wedding hardly suggested a country which is finally turning against its historic exploiters. Rather it seemed to all true democrats and egalitarians a depressing reminder of how far we are from realising the ideals of the Levellers or even the Chartists. The referendum result which followed reinforced the impression of an electorate suffering from Stockholm syndrome. So as the former members of the Bullingdon club strip this country of its assets the problem is surely not that people hate the upper class but that they don’t hate them enough.

Meanwhile the rat-like, waste of a genome James Delingpole, erstwhile opponent of discriminatory language, also appeared in print to defend the use of the word ‘chav’. His argument was that it was simply a modern version of ‘oik’, i.e. posh people always treated the proletariat like sub-humans so why stop now? According to the BBC the ‘chav’ stereotype ‘has been reinforced by “grotesque” sketches about chavs written by public school educated comedians like David Walliams and Matt Lucas. A 2006 survey by YouGov suggested 70% of TV industry professionals believed that Vicky Pollard was an accurate reflection of white working class youth.’ This of course reinforces the view that people who work in television are deserving of far fouler language than I am prepared to use here. It has become increasingly the case that the working class are allowed on television only to be mocked and derided by the middle class. Those television professionals are representative too of the kind of people who run gossip magazines and write for the tabloid press: privately educated white boys who only have a job because their daddies gave them a leg up who wouldn’t last five seconds on a council estate but think they’re ‘street’ because they take cocaine and once met Dizzee Rascal.

Oddly many of the people who will use the word ‘chav’ to demean the less fortunate will then idealise the ‘white working class’ when attempting to justifying their racist views on immigration. But middle class hypocrisy is surely as old as civilisation. Much of the ‘chav’ stereotype is based on ‘anti-social behaviour’ of the kind which nice, bourgeois people don’t like: vandalism, petty theft, drug-dealing. (I have never understood why actions which were already criminal were rebranded as ‘anti-social’.) There is also the suspicion of benefit fraud which costs us literally less than one per cent of the money being spent to renew Trident.

In fact that popular middle class pursuit, tax evasion, costs us fifteen times as much as benefit fraud. Isn’t the really anti-social behaviour that of those who, affording private education and healthcare, refuse to pay their share to provide education and healthcare to the less fortunate? The comfortable middle class benefit disproportionately from state spending yet consistently vote against anyone who suggests they should have to foot the bill. Meanwhile they cheat on school entrance applications, complain every time they get caught committing driving offences (or claim that their partner was driving that day), allow their dogs to terrorise children (‘he’s just being friendly’) and generally treat the law as though it were something which applied only to other people. This is truly anti-social behaviour because it erodes the social contract and makes the notion of civilised life meaningless.

It is not so long ago that John Major claimed that we lived in a classless society and Tony Blair claimed that Britain was a meritocracy. It seems to me that the fact that they were lying is the reason for a renewed interest in class. If this is a meritocracy then the only reason poor people exist is because they deserve to be poor. As the myth of the classless society becomes increasingly untenable those who forgot Marx will be surprised by reality. Inequality has increased over the last few decades and Britain is far more hierarchical now than it was in the post-war decades. No reasonable person can view this society as anything other than immoral and unjust.

There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning. (Warren Buffet)

It might be time for a counter-offensive.

Is the West best?

Niall Ferguson’s recent Channel Four series ‘Civilization: Is the West History?‘ has caused considerable comment, partly due to his cringe-inducing ‘killer apps’ conceit and partly because he is known for his right-wing views and unfashionable defence of colonialism. As a few people have asked for my views on the series I thought I would write this response.

The series is made in the Channel Four house style (i.e. by people who still think that time-lapse shots of urban traffic are exciting, three decades after Koyaanisqatsi) with irritatingly repetitive editing and a self-consciously ‘controversial’ presenter. In fact Ferguson’s unappealing on-screen persona seems to be essentially a Jeremy Clarkson impression, although his Scottish accent occasionally slips through. He is constrained by the nature of television to focus each episode, not only on one of his ‘apps’ (which are what a normal person would call an innovation or idea) but also on one geographic area and one period of time. For instance, the rise of western science is seen in relation to the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the increasing influence of Islamic orthodoxy through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Although some of these juxtapositions are revealing the sometimes artificial structure makes his thesis appear more simplistic than it is.

A painting from the Chinese age of exploration.

Or it would, if one could work out what his thesis actually is. On one level he seems to be attempting to answer an important question and one which needs to be understood by anyone attempting to understand the modern world or trying to change it, namely, what are the causes of the most noticeable fact about human history up to this point, the dominance of the globe by Western culture and civilisation? Ferguson’s answer is to identify six factors (competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the work ethic) which he feels are responsible. This, however, is not an answer to why “the West is best” but rather how the West became dominant. The obviousness of this list is made apparent in an opening scene where a classroom of bored teenagers come up with most of the list for him. The really interesting thing would be to investigate why these things appeared in Europe and not elsewhere. Aside from the odd muttering about “conservative Confucianism” he does not really offer any explanation.

Luckily though, the question has been addressed by, for instance, Jared Diamond. In Guns, Germs and Steel he argues that the basic factor in Western dominance was geography. In the fifteenth century China entered an age of exploration, sending huge ships on voyages of discovery as far as East Africa. This abruptly ended at the whim of an Emperor and within a few years Europeans began their own exploration. As Diamond and Ferguson argue, the difference was competition. European nations were in constant competition with each other particularly, at this point, for spices (the arrival in Anatolia of the Turks had effectively cut Europe off from the east) and no European leader had the power to prevent Europeans building ships. Thus, in this case, the fragmentation of Europe gave it an advantage over the unified and integrated China. Having identified competition as the prime factor Ferguson ends his investigation. Diamond, however, goes on to suggest that the reason behind this is simply one of topography. Europe is a fiddly place with many islands, peninsulas, mountain ranges and other natural barriers (think of the Swiss, hiding for centuries behind their mountains). Europe is thus difficult to unify politically and likely to give rise to small independent states (please remember that most of the Roman Empire was outside what we would now call Europe, most of Germany and eastern Europe always remained unconquered). China, on the other hand, has a relatively uniform coastline and accessible interior and has thus been unified for millennia. This is why the whim of a Chinese Emperor could lose his country the chance to establish world dominance. (It seems reasonable to assume that the Chinese were only a few years away from ‘discovering’ America. How’s that for a counter-factual?)

Having failed to really examine the root causes of Western dominance Ferguson does show the ways in which it is being challenged by ‘the rest’, principally China. In one of his more interesting conceits he tells the story of the Cold War by focussing on jeans. Denim became a symbol of American freedom and as such was highly valued behind the Iron Curtain. The popularity of these blue trousers becomes for Ferguson an index of the spread and success of consumerist civilisation. An irony which he does not point out is that to the Greeks and Romans trousers were considered to symbolize barbarianism, favoured as they were by the tribes beyond their borders. Now that China manufactures clothing on a massive scale, jeans can no longer be seen as intrinsically American but rather a global uniform. Similarly, other aspects of Western achievement have been appropriated in other parts of the world, reducing the West’s monopoly on power and wealth. In this sense then Ferguson seems to be offering a revision of Fukuyama’s famous ‘End of History’ thesis. While the Western capitalist model has triumphed this does not necessarily mean that the West will maintain its position. In fact, the very success of the West means that nations like India and China will be able to catch up.

It would seem to follow from this that there is little for the West to fear. If its values have spread so efficiently then a dominant China will pose little threat to the European way of life because it is only by adopting this way of life that China can succeed. Ferguson seems to differ. For reasons which he fails to explain he seems to believe that continued Western dominance is imperative. He argues that the decline of the West is a result of complacency and an undervaluing of its own achievements. It could certainly be argued that scientific progress is under greater threat in the West, from religious fundamentalism on one side and the pseudo-science of alternative ‘medicine’ on the other, than elsewhere in the world. India certainly seems to be preparing to become a leading scientific nation. One might also consider the difference in voter turnout between Western democracies and the relatively young democracies of the non-Western world. The central theme is one of decadence and this is why Ferguson repeatedly harks back to the fall of Rome (although he never actually discusses Roman civilisation). This decadence, however, is undoubtedly a result of the very success of consumerist capitalism which he sees as so civilising. Though aware of this problem Ferguson can only suggest that people save more and run up less debts. This is a very responsible suggestion but one which runs counter to the needs of the corporations and financial institutions whose greed is the fuel of consumerism. Essentially, as the last few years have shown, Ferguson’s ideal of civilisation is untenable.

One virtue of the series is that it covers world history. Television in Britain seems to reflect the National Curriculum in concentrating almost solely on the Tudors and World War II (both periods offering great opportunities for national pride). In bringing to the screen the stories of, for example, French and German colonialism and Simon Bolivar Ferguson has done a service to viewers. It is a shame, therefore, that these things are seen through such a biased prism. He fails to see anything to condemn in Britain’s nineteenth century role as drug-pushers to the Chinese and hypocritical defence of this as ‘free trade’. In discussing the ‘development gap’ between North and South America he fails to note that US foreign policy has been directly aimed at stifling democracy in the south. His discussion of the Ottoman court invokes all the clichés of Orientalism and he describes, for example, Turkish armies as ‘hordes’. None of this is very surprising in a series from Channel Four who seem to consistently confuse pointless controversialism with freethinking. Having said all this, I lost any respect for him halfway through the first episode when he wrongly attributed Shakespeare’s phrase “this sceptre’d isle” to Henry V. He cannot be much of an expert on Western civilisation if he is so ignorant of its greatest achievement.