Stuart Kendall is the author of several books, including The Ends of Art and Design, a work that examines the role of experience-events in the post-subjective world, and Georges Bataille, a critical biography of that influential author. Stuart also edited and contributed to Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. Stuart has produced and published numerous translations, including works by Bataille, Guy Debord, Paul Éluard, and Maurice Blanchot. His latest translation is a telling of Gilgamesh, one that casts the ancient epic poem in modernist poetry. Stuart has taught at several universities and colleges, including Boston University and the California College of the Arts, where he is currently Chair of Critical Studies. Stuart was kind enough to talk to me about Gilgamesh—and Malick—over a series of emails. You can read more about Stuart’s work at his website. Gilgamesh is available now from Contra Mundum Press.
Biblioklept: Why Gilgamesh?
Stuart Kendall: Gilgamesh is the oldest extended tale that has come down to us and it speaks to us from a pivotal moment in the history of human experience. It is also a particularly rich text, as rich in its depths, ranging back in time prior to its composition, as it is in its reach, remaining relevant to our own drama. Gilgamesh dates to the Bronze Age but the roots of the story, the bones of it, reflect notions about human experience that may stretch back beyond the Neolithic era to the Paleolithic. The text, to my understanding, contains layer upon layer of cultural renewal and reinterpretation. These layers of renewal are reflected in the extended life of the text beyond Gilgamesh into the related texts of the ancient world, like the Hebrew scriptures, and beyond those writings into the fundamental attitudes and ideas of Western civilization, many of which have been profoundly wrongheaded, to put the matter lightly.
From another angle, in part due to the age of the text, Gilgamesh reaches beyond relevance to Western civilization into world religious history through motifs related to shamanism, a practice that many historians of religion suggest may be at the origin of every religious tradition.
Finally, Gilgamesh is perhaps first and foremost a document of ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Iraq. It is a text that can be traced into and through the fundamentally Judaic traditions of both Christianity and Islam. Our lifetimes have been scarred by the clash of these related worlds. An encounter with Gilgamesh cannot heal the breach caused by the tragic hubris and shortsightedness of some American politicians but it certainly can serve as one part of an on-going discussion about commonalities and differences in human experience bound as we are by time and place.
I hope it is clear that I don’t think that Gilgamesh contains a positive record of something that we share, some universally valid message. Rather I view it as a product of a specific time and place, a distinct product of the process of history. But as such we can see the deeper past through it, trace our traditions to it, and measure ourselves against it in, I think, valuable ways.
Biblioklept: What motivated the project?
ST: This project was conceived in the classroom. I had been teaching Gilgamesh for a number of years, always to great interest, but also without finding a translation that both accurately and accessibly represented the text. Though there are a number of translations of Gilgamesh, they generally fall into two categories that I refer to as scholarly and popular. The scholarly translations are awkward to read since they assiduously and accurately represent areas of the text which are uncertain, either through the material decay of cuneiform tablets or through our failure to fully understanding the meaning of ancient terms. These translations also typically segregate different versions of the story — Sumerian, Akkadian, etc. — in different sections of a book, forcing a reader to flip back and forth to compare the different versions. While this is obviously the most accurate way to present the material, it is not the most expressive way to do so and students and I think other general readers often struggle with it. On the other hand, the more accessible translations of the text, like those by Herbert Mason, David Ferry or Stephen Mitchell, are often misleading, particularly in regard to the theology of the text. These translations, or versions more rightly, are also often too fluid. They emphasize the narrative flow of the story over the poetic or expressive devices at work within it and thereby offer a satisfying, but false, sense of continuity to the materials, as if it were a novel. They are if anything too accessible.
Semester after semester, I saw students respond positively to the text but always only up to a certain limit, depending upon the specific translation I assigned. Eventually I decided that I should do my own version, following a middle path between the scholarly and popular translations. About four years ago I began working on it, testing my draft in the classroom along the way. I’ve also had some friends who have tested the translation in their classes. While I don’t think that the task of translation can ever be finished, I do think that this Gilgamesh is ready for readers.
Biblioklept: Translation seems like such a daunting task . . . how did you approach and execute it?
SK: The translation process for this project was of necessity very different from the process developed through my other translations. At this point I’ve translated ten or so books directly from French to English — rather diverse books by Bataille, Char, Blanchot, Eluard, Baudrillard, and Debord, among others — as well as a large number of articles and shorter pieces. By diverse I mean that these writings have included essays, poems, lectures, letters, notes, and aphorisms across a wide range of fields from belles lettres,broadly speaking, to visual studies, cultural criticism, philosophy, and theology, all generally rooted in an avant-garde orientation to cultural change. The diversity of these texts is thus disciplinary, formal, and stylistic, as well as presenting challenging thoughts. I emphasize this diversity because it is part of what attracted me to Gilgamesh, since Gilgamesh is a text which itself includes a wide range of contents: psychological, philosophical, and religious. One of my main goals was to reveal some of this diversity in the work: this is after all a book in which gods speak. We live in a time in which the gods are silent. Entering into an alternate theological imagination presents an enormous challenge for readers, and, as a translator, I hope that I have done what I could to be helpful toward this end.
In terms of actual process, since I am not an Assyriologist by training or profession, I have had to rely upon the rigorous scholarship of leaders in the field, Andrew George foremost among them, for the core content of the work. George’s two-volume The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic (published by Oxford) is the current standard edition of the ancient Gilgamesh materials. But there are a number of other scholarly translations of the work, in whole and in part, in its various ancient versions, that have been instructive, particularly by marking points of contrast. Beyond those materials, specifically tied to Gilgamesh there are histories of the period, cultural, religious and otherwise. And beyond that, a number of far more wide-ranging works within what I would call the history of consciousness, often of psychoanalytical inspiration — Weston La Barre’s The Ghost Dance, Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body, Eshleman’s Juniper Fuse — books that frame human experience in the most intricate yet capacious way, have been helpful.
Comparing all of the available scholarly translations of Gilgamesh, across all of the ancient versions of the text, including the stories that migrated beyond Gilgamesh proper, like the flood story in the Hebrew Bible, allowed me to develop a basic ur-text from which to develop my version. As suggested above, the distinctions between the scholarly translations were often more instructive than the points of agreement between them. Where scholarly consensus exists, I tend to follow it. Where the scholars disagree, I fall back on my readings in history and the history of consciousness for guideposts in my interpretation.
Once I had developed the basic text, I worked with it, inspired by the formal language of twentieth century American poetry, particularly the modernist language of Pound and Williams and the postmodern projective and open verse of Olson, Duncan, Eshleman and others. The point was to carry the experience of Gilgamesh into the language of our century without compromising that experience or that language by making either one overly familiar.
I think it is important to emphasize the fact that my method was essentially the same as that of other translators who have produced popular versions of the text, like David Ferry and Stephen Mitchell, neither of whom are Assyriologists by training. I hope that readers find my Gilgamesh to be more rigorous than those versions and more imaginative than the scholarly translation.
Biblioklept: I’ve read various translations of Gilgamesh—all prose—at different times in my life, and I’ve always appreciated it as an adventure story with a mythological scope. I still remember the first time I read Gilgamesh; I was in the 10th grade and the relationship between Enkidu and Gilgamesh struck me as fascinating and strange (and seemed overtly homoerotic too, of course).
One of my favorite moments in your new translation is the first meeting of the pair, when Enkidu interrupts Gilgamesh’s lord’s rights to ravish a new bride in Uruk. The scene is energetic, violent, and sexual; it’s almost figuratively a wedding, or a replacement for Gilgamesh’s taking of the bride—it even ends in a kiss.
The depiction of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s relationship is clearly important to how the narrative illustrates human consciousness. Why does their friendship (and rivalry, and love) continue to fascinate (and perhaps inform) readers?
SK: Undoubtedly some of the fascination follows from the enigmatic nature of the relationship, particularly for modern readers. The relationship is familiar, since we all have friends, but also ambiguous. Why are these two characters friends? What is the nature of their friendship? In the earliest extant versions of the tale, the two aren’t friends. Enkidu is Gilgamesh’s servant. In later versions of the story, and in the Standard Version, they are friends. The change can be explained in part as a means of lending additional drama to Enkidu’s death and also, thereafter, Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality. It is one thing for your servant to die and another for your closest friend to die. The bond between the two is obscure. They are in many ways opposites. I see them as complementary characters, Enkidu being as close to the animals as Gilgamesh is to the gods, Enkidu from the wild, Gilgamesh from the city, etc. Together they form a kind of complete composite of human experience, like two sides of one character. William Blake’s notion, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, that opposition is true friendship, certainly applies to Gilgamesh and Enkidu. The larger symbolic affiliations – Enkidu with the animals, Gilgamesh with the gods – are significant in almost all of their encounters both with one another and with the other characters in the major episodes in the narrative, like Humbaba and Ishtar.
The potentially homoerotic element of their relationship is of course highly contentious. For some readers, such a notion is very appealing. For others, it is repellent. I myself am reluctant to project contemporary social or sexual norms into the ancient text. There are countries in the world today where men kiss men or women kiss women without sexual connotation. Something has been lost in our contemporary discourse of physical experience and human relationship if we must treat or imagine every physical relationship as being of one kind. On this point, characters do have sex in the book. Gilgamesh clearly has sex with the young brides of Uruk and Enkidu has sex with Shamhat. But Enkidu and Gilgamesh don’t have sex. I think we go too far if we speculate as to whether or not the authors of the ancient text what readers to imagine the relationship to be sexual. The two characters are however obviously very close friends whose bond makes us reflect on the proximity of opposites and the role of opposition in friendship as well as illustrating issues in the fundamental duality of human character.
Biblioklept: How might Gilgamesh challenge contemporary readers’ attitudes and beliefs about human consciousness?
SK: Gilgamesh challenges contemporary readers in a number of ways. It challenges Jewish and Christian readers with an alternate, and very different, version of the flood story from the Hebrew Bible. It also challenges Christian readers with an alternate version of life after death. The Christian notion of heaven is entirely absent from Gilgamesh. In its place, one finds a pagan notion of a barren world of shades, where priests and kings are powerless and food and drink are tasteless. This vision — conveyed in a dream, or rather a nightmare — is not a vision of Hell or of some other kind of eternal punishment. It isn’t pleasant at all, but it isn’t torture. It is more like non-life and that is the horror of it. The pleasures and the pains of earthly life are absent after death and that is a terrifying notion. Gilgamesh, in other words, gives us a worldview that fears death as the loss of this world and that vision goes against the dogma that this world is in some way fallen, that our true reward is to be found in some alternate reality called heaven. There are many similarly challenging themes and motifs throughout the book.
In part notions like these are so deeply disturbing because they cut to the core of our perspective on reality. As part of a thoroughly pagan text, Gilgamesh consistently encounters gods in the things and people around him. But he also fears some of those same things as much as he savors others. The text provides rich details about objects and animals. It shows people looking at and enjoying other people. It is a book of sensual celebration as much as it is a journey into despair and the two are related, as I suggested just now: death is to be feared because life is so very full.
As a drama of consciousness, then, Gilgamesh is a strange book. It is intensely physical in the sense of describing things in the world, in the same moment as it is highly symbolic. The characters are themselves symbolic and they travel through a symbolic landscape. They are recognizably human, though, and the tale is so moving, I think, because of the drama of consciousness grappling with these different registers of experience. Put a little differently, it is not hard to see that the characters are anything but fixed. They undergo changes large and small and they suffer those changes. Here I am thinking in particular of the journey to kill Humbaba, the protector of the forest. On each night of the journey, Enkidu performs a kind of shaman ritual, preparing a bed for Gilgamesh. And each night Gilgamesh has a new nightmare which Enkidu, again as a shaman, interprets for him. The immediate effect upon the reader is to elevate our foreboding about their journey to confront Humbaba. But in another way the repeated nightmares – and these aren’t the only ones in the book – testify to the porousness of consciousness within the world. The characters’ moods alternate between dream, denial and delirium through the book. For heroes, they spend a great deal of time in abject fear of the animate cosmos.
This is a startling portrait for scientifically minded contemporary readers, confident in a stable view of subjects and objects in the world. Gilgamesh shakes that confidence.
Pierre Klossowski once remarked that consciousness is never absolute. Our mind, in other words, isn’t like a light that is either on or off. It is more like a light on a dimmer switch subject to the fluctuations of an unexpected power surge. Gilgamesh is, in some ways, a guide to living with and through altered states of consciousness.
Biblioklept: I’ve read your essay on Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, a favorite film of mine. In the essay, you discuss the film’s disruptive, destabilizing properties. Aspects of your analysis seem equally applicable to Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life, a film that deeply divided audiences.
In your previous answer, you discuss how Gilgamesh potentially threatens to destabilize the reader’s sense of a world anchored in fixed, absolute meaning. Do Malick’s films operate in the same way? Why was The Tree of Life such an affront to so many people’s sense of narrative propriety?
SK: I’m glad you brought this up. Malick’s films are deeply fascinating to me and, yes, I do see a certain continuity of concern, if not necessarily technique, between Malick’s films and Gilgamesh. The continuity of concern between these two types of cultural production is what attracts me to both of them, though obviously they are world’s apart.
In the essay on Malick’s Days of Heaven that you mention, “The Tragic Indiscernability of Days of Heaven,” I attempted to show that Malick’s film style, particularly in that film, might be compared to Greek tragedy in a formal way, since both Malick’s film and Greek tragedy overdetermine language and images with religious, political, and philosophical meaning. They do so not to integrate those different types of meaning but rather to demonstrate the extent to which these different types of meaning might be incompatible with one another. The viewer is put in the awkward position of having to choose between different registers of meaning, essentially different interpretations of the object, sometimes moment by moment, or viewing by viewing. There’s that remark from Kierkegaard, that what looks like politics and imagines itself to be political will one day unmask itself as a religious movement. But in the case of Days of Heaven and tragedy, what looks like politics one day, might look more like religion the next, since it is both simultaneously and therefore also unstable.
I don’t believe one can make the same kind of claims about The Tree of Life however. The Tree of Life is a very demanding film, in part because it asks theological questions in visual terms. In a way, the film might be the direct contrary of Days of Heaven. While Days of Heaven is saturated with meaning, overdetermined, The Tree of Life is underdetermined. The viewer must constantly ask whether its images are in fact evidence of the existence of god or not. Are they, in other words, meaningful, or not. For a believer, The Tree of Life is challenging because it does not correspond to common visions of faith, even though many believers do I think recognize self-organizing systems — like a flock of birds in flight — as evidence for the existence of their god.
But The Tree of Life is challenging at the most basic level as well. In the first part of the film, the viewer is given very little narrative information. We see the parents being told that their child has died but it is far from explicit: the mother, played by Jessica Chastain, reads a telegram to herself and reacts to it. The father, played by Brad Pitt, is told over the phone while standing near an airplane. He can barely hear the call; we certainly can’t. In order to construct the narrative, the viewer has to look very deeply into the film. And once the meaning is clear, it still isn’t clear, since the entire film explores the problem of meaning in this way. There is a lot more to say about this film, obviously, particularly about the final section of the film.
Returning to Gilgamesh, I think it is important to observe that Gilgamesh is very different from both of these films even though it does share many of the same concerns. For one thing, rather than being the work of a single author — or even cultural group — Gilgamesh, I think, is best understood as a palimpsest of materials aggregated by several ancient cultures over fifteen hundred to two thousand years. Roughly contemporary works with a similar ambition include Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Pound’s Cantos, and Olson’s Maximus Poems. In film, Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinéma offers some similarities; it is certainly a visual palimpsest, even though it only spans the 100 year history of cinema. All of these works as well are distinct from Gilgamesh because they are the products of individual authors, though Pound, Olson, and Godard all do incorporate many different types of “found” materials. As a palimpsest, Gilgamesh is far more heterogeneous than most readers, I think, give it credit for being. The tale offers several different responses to the problem of death, for example, at different points, each without referencing the others. Another example can be seen in the three different methods of obtaining immortality shoved together at the end, none of which reference the others or suggest that the series might not continue indefinitely.
The point I’m trying to make here is that Malick’s films are highly crafted, whether overdetermined or underdetermined. They are built in such a way as to give their viewer a fairly specific task. Gilgamesh, on the other hand, is overdetermined in a completely different way, in part due to the historical circumstances of its collation, composition being perhaps too strong a word for it. The challenge for readers of Gilgamesh is to get into the perspective or perspectives that originated the narratives it contains. It is much closer to the perspective expressed by Kierkegaard in the quote I referenced above. A good example of this is the encounter with Ishtar. Ishtar is the goddess of fertility, love, and war, essentially a nature goddess, and she is the patroness of the city where Gilgamesh is king. In the story, she offers herself to Gilgamesh in marriage, promising fecundity for the city. In one ancient worldview, it is the function of the king to “marry” the goddess of nature and thereby ensure the abundance of the land and safety of the people. Gilgamesh however has different ideas. He does not trust Ishtar — and how can you trust nature? Instead, he forms a community with his male companion, Enkidu. The two of them fight Ishtar together and, successful in their conquest, have a feast. The story is clear as a story. The allegory is clear as an allegory (that has been catastrophic for our civilization). But the conflict between the two historical perspectives — sacred marriage vs. community of men — is masked by the successful integration of the text.
Where Malick uses instability and overdetermination to create an aesthetic object that raises questions or creates problems for his viewer, Gilgamesh, as an object, uses integration as a mask for heterogeneous cultural and historical materials. The reader of Gilgamesh has to do the work of peeling the layers of the text apart (without hope of finding a stable, original, core meaning). That in mind, the casual reader of Gilgamesh might not realize how very complex and multi-layered it really is, whereas the complexity of Malick’s films is self-evident. Put differently, it is easy to see why Gilgamesh is quite popular among casual readers and Malick off-putting to casual viewers.
Biblioklept: Do you have another translation project on the horizon? What are you writing now?
SK: I’ve been working on some translations of René Char’s later poetry, some of which is forthcoming in Plume among other places. I’m also finishing a short book on Andy Goldsworthy and another, on Georges Bataille, Gregory Bateson, sustainability and the sacred. Both of these later projects fall under the general heading of the ecological imagination.
Biblioklept: Can you elaborate on “the ecological imagination”?
SK: I’ve been using the phrase ecological imagination as a way of evoking the history of our human awareness of and interaction with our environment. Ecology is environment or habitat, but more generally also the situation or system that supports life. I emphasize imagination here rather than “thought” because the notion of thought too quickly enters into the history of rationality or even ideas, whereas imagination retains a strong connection with the imaginary, which can include the untrue. As Nietzsche insists, untruth is often a necessary part of life. Gilgamesh is part of this ecological imagination project as well, an early panel reflecting our disconnection from nature, whereas the more contemporary panels — on Goldsworthy, Bataille and Bateson — are concerned with recent attempts to reestablish some kind of physical connection to our world.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
SK: I stole a copy of Shelley’s complete poetry, an Oxford edition paperback, from a public library when I was a teenager. At the time, the book seemed essential to me. The edition itself is undistinguished and, frankly, a minor annoyance to me now. I don’t enjoy reading it but I also don’t enjoy Shelley enough to replace it with a better edition. On a few other occasions I’ve walked away with a cheap paperback or two, though never from a bookstore. Books have nevertheless been my abiding passion in life, the only material possessions that really excite me.
I saw The Tree of Life four times in the theater this year. Few things made me happier than those experiences of sitting and soaking up that movie. Conversely, few things this year were as frustrating and draining as all the conversations I inevitably found myself in after the movie, where some asshole put me on the spot, demanding that, since I loved it, I was supposed to explain it to him or even somehow make him not hate it, or at least justify myself, as though I am a paid museum tour guide who must explain the importance of the Mona Lisa at the drop of a hat. But because I’m a sucker, and easily convinced to talk, I almost always took the bait and would stand there, in whatever bar or party and spend far longer than said asshole had really intended, earnestly trying to convey my personal enjoyment of this movie. It was all pretty useless in retrospect. I guess I can’t always know everyone’s intentions, but I’ll guess nine of ten times it was more like a worthless political discussion, as though someone walked up to me and said “I’ve voted Democrat for ten years, convince me to vote Republican in the next ten minutes.”
I’m winding up to something here.
So basically I saw the movie four times and talked about it for god knows how long, thought about it for at least twice that length, and I honestly do think I have come across a few things: call them “ideas” or “perspectives” that I actually think can help make the movie more enjoyable, or possibly more coherent, or something.
At the risk of sounds incredibly defensive (can you tell I’ve been in yelling matches about this already?) I will preface all of this by saying that obviously it is only my opinion. Terrence Malick has done us all a huge favor by completely staying out of the conversation about this or any of his films. I think this is a favor because it allows me to have my opinions without there being any definitive source out there to contradict it. The movie is only what is up there on screen and all my thoughts about it are basically derived only by the amount of time spent actually watching it. So I do not intend to speak for Terry or presume to know what he would say if I could ask him to verify all of my ideas or whatever. You get the point.
And there will be spoilers . . . I guess. Can you actually spoil this movie? Does anyone give a shit at this point? There are dinosaurs—oops! Sorry. Spoiled that Big Surprise. Anyhow, yeah I will be talking about key details from the plot, so be prepared for that.
The quickest, easiest thing I can tell you I learned about The Tree of Life by watching as many times as I did is that there is a simpler more coherent synopsis one could give the film that would sort of situate the story in a different way for most viewers. Just as a reference this is the official synopsis (from Apple trailers):
From Terrence Malick, the acclaimed director of such classic films as Badlands, Days of Heaven and The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life is the impressionistic story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick’s signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.
This sounds fine and all, if a little intimidating. If you saw the movie I imagine you saw all of that stuff in there. It was certainly “impressionistic” enough and I agree that Brad Pitt played the father. But in terms of setting up the viewer for the “story” I’m not sure this is as fast as it could be and it’s certainly not going to fend off any accusations of “pretension.”
Instead, try this one out:
“On the anniversary of his brother’s tragic death a man goes about his day flooded with memories of his childhood and thoughts about mortality and the afterlife.”
The images and characters in The Tree of Life exist simultaneously as both literal and symbolic elements in a complex narrative, and I’m not saying that the movie should be boiled down to something as simple as my one-sentence summary above—only that it can be. And that for all the people that so excessively badgered me about this movie “Not having a story,” here it is:
Jack (Sean Penn) wakes up. It’s a shitty day, the shittiest day of his whole year, every year: it’s the day his brother died (substitute this for: the day they found out he died, or for his brother’s birthday. The movie is obviously unclear and any of them could work). It’s been nearly twenty years since that tragic death but it hasn’t gotten any easier. His wife knows what day it is too and even though they’ve been having their problems recently, she can tell she should back off today and give him his space. So they spend that morning sort of avoiding each other, neither sure what to say and eventually Jack sits down to do the only overtly emotional action he ever brings himself to do on this day: he lights a candle in memory.
So he heads to work that morning with the weight of all this on his mind; it’s his own personal 9/11, the biggest single event that helped shaped his life. He loved his brother but their relationship was complicated. And Jack has a good memory. As the oldest of three boys Jack can remember what it was like to be the the sole recipient of his mother’s love. He experiences flashes of the conflicting happiness and subsequent jealousy after the birth of his first brother, and now, as an adult man with his own life and his own problems and his own job, that memory makes him feel like an asshole.
He’s an architect at a major firm in Dallas and they just landed a big city contract to redesign the public transportation system or something and Jack is in charge of the whole thing. In fact, he’s got a lot of important meetings coming up and plenty to think about that doesn’t involve reliving the past. Because who wants to be dealing with fifty years of history when you’ve got work to do? Never mind your coworkers rattling on about their problems and the general chaos of the office, with so much going on it’s a wonder he can get anything done.
A little while later he’s about to head into an important meeting when his phone rings. If all the rest of it weren’t enough now here’s this: The Call. The one he gets every year on this day, the Low Point: His Father. The guy is pushing 80 at this point, living in that huge house there on the coast with plenty of money from the patents he eventually sold, eating at the country club with the rest of his pompous old friends but on this one day you’d think he was a monk wearing burlap and whipping himself. What does he get out of this? Every year he calls and every he says the same line,
“Do you know what day this is?”
“Yeah dad I know what day this is.”
“He was a good boy.”
“Yeah dad he was great.”
“Playing Bach on the guitar when he was eight years old, don’t see that everyday.”
“No I guess not.”
And on and on and on . . . why can’t he just focus on the good things he’s had in life? The guy has had a long career, a beautiful loving wife, and hell, it’s like he doesn’t have two sons still living! Christ, look at me? Am I not good enough? Look at everything I’ve done in life, everything I’ve accomplished, and yet if I had died at 19 would he mourn this much for me?
But in the meantime he has a meeting with the senior partners. He’s trying to be polite with his dad, and sensitive to the man’s pain but business is business. So he cuts him a little short.
“Dad I really want to talk to you but I really have to go.”
“Oh I see this isn’t important to you.”
“No dad it is, but I’ve got to go in a meeting right now.”
The secretary walks up to him and tells him that they are all waiting for him inside.
“Listen dad I gotta go.”
And there, he hangs up on him and goes into the meeting. Of course his mind is elsewhere. Like usual, talking to his dad has brought out all the worst thoughts in him. Even though in his daily life Jack tends to affect a calm, peaceful demeanor, talking to his father brings up some of the darker thoughts in his mind. He remembers all the pain and confusion of his childhood, the soaring emotions and chaos and frustration, the simultaneous guilt and innocence that everybody must feel at that age, right? I’m not alone right? I’m not the only one who thought about killing his father, I’m not the only one who hurt his brother on purpose, I’m not the only one who said horrible things to his mother, or who stole, or who lied . . .
So Jack sleepwalks through the rest of the day. He’s on autopilot, but for the most part his coworkers can’t even tell. Jack’s good at this; he’s had practice being a human. He’s learned to control the volatile emotions of his youth, the reactionary side of him; the side he associates with his father has been muted in his adulthood and he chooses every day to try to be more like his mother, to keep things to himself and attempt to be kind to people. Which is why for all his anger and frustration, as much as he doesn’t want to go there again, he calls his dad back and apologizes for his earlier behavior. He sucks it all up and takes a little more of the old man’s trademark passive-aggressive bullshit. “This guy never changes” Jack thinks to himself. But despite everything Jack loves his father and knows that in his own stubborn way his father loves him. So they say this to one another over the phone, they reconcile for now, as they’ve done so many times before, son forgiving father, father forgiving son.
And with what’s left of his day Jack thinks about all of this: about forgiveness, about redemption, about pain and suffering. About how he isn’t even unique in any of this, how he can spend his entire day completely consumed in himself and his own pain—but isn’t he just one person? Doesn’t everybody have this same experience every day in some way? Sure, this may be the anniversary of his brother’s death, but what significant day is it to any one of the other six billion people on this earth?
The entire planet had to be formed and every living organism had to evolve and change and grow over millions and millions of years to create the perfect set of circumstances that would put Jack in this very moment—but that’s true of everybody, any body. And somewhere in all of this there’s hope.
And just like that, it’s six o’clock. Where did all the time go? Jack steps out into the world again, in the middle the swirling chaos of life and is amazed by everything that can happen in a day, even if it’s all internal—and is there really any difference between the internal world and the external one anyway?
* * *
Wow, what a non-story that was. I can’t believe those characters were so one-dimensional. Sean Penn’s inclusion in the movie really was pointless, wasn’t it? Wouldn’t you rather have had his role cut out entirely? None of those images really fit together in any meaningful way did they? I mean each taken on its own may be pretty and all, but I for one would prefer it if the film coalesced into something more grounded and specific. Like I said before, I like stories in my movies, I don’t want just a random sequence of images.
Okay, obviously I am being a sarcastic asshole in that paragraph. But if you happened to be one of the people who said one of those sentences to me I hope that looking at the film through the perspective I outlined might aid you in getting over some of your issues.
Of course that is assuming you even want to get over your issues. Maybe you would rather persist in using this beautiful film as a punching bag for the rest of your life. I guess I can’t stop you there. But if you want to argue with me and tell me that my version of the movie is not what was up on-screen when you saw it, I will tell you that I didn’t see this version of the The Tree of Life the first time I saw it either. I didn’t quite see my version of it the second time, but by the time I finished it for the fourth time I swear to goodness that the “story” I told you above is exactly the “story” I saw and still do see in this film. And unlike some bullshit Christopher Nolan DVD special feature that “unlocks all the secrets of the film” I have no “objective” source to tell me I’m right or wrong—mine is only an interpretation, but I think it’s one that the film can support and certainly one that answers a lot of the criticism.
As a film-goer, I am more than happy to watch a random sequence of beautiful images (seeing Baraka projected in 70mm remains a favorite viewing experience for me). When I saw The Tree of Life the first time I was absolutely ecstatic with my experience and needed nothing more from the movie than what I got. It is no exaggeration to say that I could have watched a two-hour version of the creation of the universe section, with no dialogue or characters and still have been happy and moved. I don’t give two shits if there is a “story” in The Tree of Life. Which is partly why my early arguments about the film were so fruitless, imagine this conversation over and over:
Them: Why did you love the movie?
Me: Because it was beautiful.
Them: But it had no story.
Me: Maybe you’e right but I didn’t need one.
Them: But if it doesn’t have a story, then it must be a bad movie.
Me: I disagree with you. I thought it was great.
Them: Well I disagree with you because I hated it.
And because of these arguments, I was more surprised than anybody when I found my version of the “story.” It was something that occurred naturally, and I guess I want to stress again that I still think the movie supports layers of meaning, but when I think about the movie now it is almost entirely in these terms. The film doesn’t even seem abstract to me at this point. It’s kind of like Mulholland Dr. in that way, (although I think David Lynch did that film specifically as a mystery to be solved) where, once I figured out how the film works, I never quite see it as the random, crazy, seemingly unconnected series of scenes it appeared to be upon first viewing, (even though in the case of Mulholland Dr. as well, I was totally fine with that).
In some way I kind of resent that it all comes together so easily. I kind of like an endless montage of beautiful images with no story, (although hell even Koyannisqatsi and Baraka seem to each have a thesis; it’s not like the director grabbed clips with his eyes closed). There is a larger, more complex discussion to be had here about the human brain and pattern recognition and our basic, innate desire for Order instead of Chaos and how our brains will basically create order, even where there seems to be none, just basically so that we don’t go crazy.
Which when you think about it is sort of what my version of The Tree of Life is all about anyway. It’s just a day in the life of this one guy, and his desperately trying to come to terms with the chaos of his mind, to give it a structure and an emotional arc, some kind of resolution, if only to just get through it all.
And I do think we all do this. I think every day of our lives is more like The Tree of Life than it is to The Dark Knight. When your life appears to you as a fragmented mess of images and memories and music and sadness and glory and guilt and love, you just deal with it—what the hell else are you going to do? Like Jack, you get through your day and move on. But when you are confronted with that same chaos in the form of a movie, you have the freedom to just throw it away, toss it out of hand and never think twice about it. But allow me to suggest in all humility that there is more to enjoy in The Tree of Life in subsequent viewings. Maybe you can find a different story than I did. Maybe even a better one.
If you’re a fan of Terrence Malick, you may know how hard it is to come across interviews with the director. In the interview, Malick talks in some depth about making his moving début Badlands. Kudos to All Things Shining for unearthing a rare 1974 interview from Filmmakers Newsletter. (Chain of Twitter thanks: @NekoCase, @kurt_loder, @Coudal).
Mute the video. Thomas Wilfred’s Opus 161 played the divine light (?) in Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life.
Terrence Malick’s beautiful, moving new film The Tree of Life explores humanity’s need to find metaphysical, spiritual, or psychological solace in a physical, natural, phenomenal world whose God remains silent, if not absent. The film begins by quoting the Book of Job: “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?” The line is God’s rejoinder to Job’s despair, a non-answer that recalls God’s response to Moses in Exodus when Moses asks his name and he replies: “I am that I am.” God is tautological; there is no analogy, no metaphoricity for God. Similarly, as in Job, it is not for us to understand God’s creation; rather, we are part of its mystery, and part of that mystery is to find meaning against a Darwinian backdrop. Malick’s project in The Tree of Life is to find meaning—but not explanation—through the beauty, grace, and the glory of nature, even as the film acknowledges the violence, injustice, and inconstancy of the natural world, a world that will never directly answer existential questioning.
The film begins with the O’Briens learning that one of their three sons has died. He is only nineteen years old, and the grief of his early death overwhelms his parents; it also casts an ever-present existential gloom over his brother Jack, who will become the ersatz protagonist of the film. Jack (portrayed as an adult by Sean Penn) is an architect in a big city. On a day that seems particularly freighted with significance—perhaps his brother’s birthday or deathday—he is unable to communicate with his wife or colleagues. Through Malick’s trademark interior-monologue whispers, Jack questions God again and again, trying to find meaning in his brother’s death.
In what may or may not be a daydream of Jack’s, the film then undertakes representing the creation of the universe, the expansion of galaxies, the formation of our own planet, and the subsequent life that evolves there. The segment is breathtaking, overwhelming, and worth the price of admission alone. In one shot, a giant dinosaur lies beached; the camera pans to reveal his side bloodied and bitten. The film then cuts to a shot of hammerhead sharks swarming in the deep. This Darwinian depiction is echoed and then contrasted in another shot, as one dinosaur finds another, of a different species, dying on a riverbed. The first dinosaur places his foot over the second’s neck, but then chooses not to kill the dying dinosaur, who struggles for life. There are perhaps two attitudes here toward life, one which is essentially a Nietzschean will-to-power, and the other Jesusian, an impulse born of empathy, identification, and ultimately radical love.
These contrasting ideals are embodied in Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, and showcased in the next segment of the film, which is likely part of Jack’s memory, or maybe more accurately the idea of Jack’s memory. In a rushing flow of images and music, Malick captures the deep beauty, excitement, and confusion of early life. The episode might find a literary analogy in the early chapters of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which also attempts to show what early consciousness might be like. Malick’s syntax is typically Malickian, yet it fits its subject better here than it did in The New World or The Thin Red Line. The life of the young family is overwhelming in its natural beauty; however, the context of one of the boy’s impending death begins to throw shadows over the beauty. Thus we have the central apparent philosophical problem of the phenomenal world—what does it mean to die? This question in turn entails another—what does it mean to live?
For Mr. O’Brien, life is a Darwinian contest: “You can’t be too good,” he admonishes his boys. He keeps an ever-present stern hand around the back of Jack’s neck. The gesture is deeply ambiguous: it is at once a loving father’s guiding hand and at the same time a choking, killing noose. Mr. O’Brien dreams of becoming a big man, a successful man, a wealthy man. He is strict with the children, and instructs them toward a philosophy of self-reliance that is more Nietzsche than Thoreau. In contrast, Mrs. O’Brien takes a loving, playful, relaxed approach to her children (and life in general). She evokes something of a nature spirit, an earth mother able to recognize the beauty and glory in each transient moment. Where Mr. O’Brien grieves the could-have-been and pines for the will-be, Mrs. O’Brien finds meaning in the evanescent inconstancy of life.
These contrasting views come to a head as Jack approaches puberty. The film slides into an understated Oedipal drama. After a friend of the boys drowns, Jack wonders why he should be good if God isn’t. The Oedipal drama is thus capitulated not just at Jack’s parents, but at Jack’s internalization of a God-figure, which he dallies with rejecting, or at least defying. He becomes cruel at times to his brothers. He assaults an animal. He breaks windows. He sneaks into a neighbor’s house and (implicitly) masturbates over a piece of lingerie, after which shame and anger drives him to flee. In a painful, short scene, he acknowledges that he’s changed, that he can no longer talk to his mother. Jack pines for his lost innocence (“Why can’t I be like them again?” he asks God, presumably referring to his younger brothers), realizing that his isolation and loneliness is part of a larger existential dilemma.
Malick here complicates the earlier innocent joy of his film, acknowledging and dramatizing the deeply ambiguous, confusing, and painful realities of growing up. At the same time, The Tree of Life does not exactly grow dark during these scenes: Malick works to show the beauty of the natural world, of each moment in life, even as those moments are profoundly complicated by morality and personal perspective. Malick’s portrayal of the O’Brien family’s life in Waco, Texas in the late ’50s is rich, detailed, and intricately nuanced. It is real, and much of the credit must be given to the naturalistic performances of the boys (which elide all surfaces of “performance” as such), as well as outstanding turns by Jessica Chastain as Mrs. O’Brien and Brad Pitt as Mr. O’Brien. The real star of the film though might be the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, who deserves great praise for bringing vibrant life to Malick’s vision.
I have already over-summarized here, when what I really mean to say is: Go see The Tree of Life. Go see it in a theater. It’s beautiful. I will summarize no further, and only add that the film concludes with a metaphysical vision that testifies memory’s ability to give meaning to both life and death. The Tree of Life ultimately suggests that we should love our lives, love our families, and do our best to love existence despite life’s difficulty and inconstancy, despite an apparently indifferent God who will never respond directly to our questions. The film does not attempt then to deflect the grief or explain it away or even to understand it, but rather to show us that suffering is part of grace and glory, and that there could be no grace and glory without suffering. Like Frank Capra’s masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life, which it strongly recalls, The Tree of Life is able to deliver such an apparently simple—and potentially facile—message in a way that genuinely communicates the underlying complexity of such a message. Our lot in life is always Job’s lot; we are always on the path to or from grief—and yet this grief is deserved and appropriate precisely because life is glorious in the first place. Very highly recommended.
This is pretty cool (and you get to see scenes from the movie again!)—
In his new book, How to Stop Living and Start Worrying, Simon Critchley talks about death in Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line (you can read Critchley’s earlier essay “Calm — On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line” here)—
So, the hero of The Thin Red Line is this character Witt. And we meet him for the first time on the beach meditating about his mother’s death, imagining that he could meet death with the same calm that his mother seemed to meet it. We then get this romantic flashback: it’s somewhere in the Midwest; he’s touching his mother’s hand; then the hand is pulled away and she’s gone. That’s the fantasy of the authentic death. And Witt, according to Malick, fulfills the fantasy: approaching death with calm — this is Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza. Interestingly, when I was looking at the sources — he’s very faithful to Jim Jones’s novel The Thin Red Line — he inserts the word ‘calm’ into the passage, it’ s not there in the novel. It might or might not be an allusion to Heidegger, where Heidegger, where Heidegger talks about anxiety as an anxiety towards death as an experience of calm, or peace: the German is Ruhe. This is a Romantic ideas of death. For Heidegger, if human beings are authentic they’re heading towards death; if they’re inauthentic they experience demise, which means that we just pass out of existence. But only animals and plants perish, and that just seems to be ridiculous. Human beings perish all the time, can perish, and there are examples like in Kafka’s Trial where one dies like a dog. Human beings die in all sorts of ways, in a permanent vegetative state or whatever.
Here’s director Terrence Malick in his uncredited role in Badlands—
Story behind the appearance, from this 2009 interview—
Malick also tells us that “Badlands” features his one and only appearance as an actor. “This actor was supposed to show up at 9:30 in the morning for a small scene. We waited, the hours passed, and he didn’t show up. In the end we couldn’t afford to keep waiting, so I put on the cowboy’s hat and performed the part myself.”
“I prefer working behind the camera,” he added with a smile.