As the final days of the calendar year wane to a close, efforts are made by anybody with Internet access to summarize and rank 2011’s products of popular culture. Two titles that have shown up repeatedly on end-of-year movie lists are Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. While one was a summer release and the other a quite limited fall release, both these films in several ways have occupied conversations about film throughout the year: Malick’s film was highly anticipated not only because it was a new entry by a notoriously un-prolific director, but was staged as his magnum opus, and Von Trier’s film was anticipated not only because it was a Von Trier film, but was the follow-up to one of the most contentious and challenging films released thus far in this 21st century. In May, both films drew headlines after their Cannes premieres: Tree of Life for getting booed before taking home the top award, and Melancholia because of the utter shock of a career provocateur acting provocatively at a press conference.
Having just recently seen Melancholia and in reflecting back on Tree of Life, I noticed that these two films interact as two piercing sides of the same vast coin which make them, perhaps more than any other roundly acclaimed and contentiously fought-over pair of films this year, speak to each other about the worth of human existence in a way that renders them inseparable.
Tree of Life
Tree of Life memorably frames its narrative about growing up in Waco, Texas during the postwar years with a gorgeous montage depicting the creation of the universe. As somebody who, like Malick, grew up in a religious household in Waco, the notion of a deliberate cosmic design leading one purposely to a life they’ve been destined to live rang more personally more immediate for me than it may have for some viewers who didn’t bounce in their seats when they caught Brad Pitt’s patriarch reading a mid-century version of their hometown newspaper.
One thing I found particularly remarkable about Tree of Life (which, for the record, I found to be the most uneven of Malick’s impressive oeuvre) was his way of capturing the subjectivity of childhood. His camera rarely looks down at children from an adult’s privileged purview, but meets children on their level from infancy to adolescence. Trees are bigger. Adults are more daunting and authoritative. The universe is an expansive, exciting mystery waiting to be figured out as your knowledge grows with each new experience. During childhood, your family and your neighborhood are the center of the universe. While there remains an expanding world around you waiting to be found, the delimited perspective that you’re locked into during your first decade-and-a-half-or-so of life is one that seems logical, coherent, and linear, especially when your major (sole) access to a grander universal understanding outside of your own household is through Western religion.
However, framing what is essentially an autobiography within a story of the universe’s creation risks essentialism. I identified rather strongly with Tree of Life’s fragmented and lyrical story of boyhood because I am a white male who grew up in a religious context in the same exact hometown of the film’s director. However, this is hardly the only experience of human adolescence that is worth a glance within the long history of the universe. A sense of arbitrary particularism arises when the viewer ponders why it’s this story that the history of the universe leads to. I do not mean to suggest that I think Malick is stating that the specific boyhood experience depicted is the essential experience of adolescence, nor am I suggesting that as viewers we only strictly identify with characters whose histories most strongly resemble our own, but beyond the stance of the author here working from what he knows, there arises no thread connecting one component of the story (the universe) to another (“boyhood”).
While I think Tree of Life is a beautiful film throughout, could the creation sequence not been directly attached to any story of childhood? Particularism aside, Tree of Life has stayed with me months after seeing it because of its remarkable ability to capture a sense of the universe as logical and whole in the broadest and narrowest of ways.
Melancholia, however, provides an atheist counterpoint to the intelligent-design logic informing Tree of Life’s spiritualism. If Tree of Life is about the universe’s graceful narrative leading to the emergence of the shared emotional life of the developed human being, Melancholia is about universal indifference to the arbitrary and happenstance of the fact of human existence. The same question emerges during Melancholia as does Tree of Life: why, when telling a story about an event involving the entirety of the human race, does this film focus specifically on these people? Like Tree of Life, Melancholia does not pose a clear answer to this question, but in doing so in a story of the destruction of the earth rather than its long historical creation, Melancholia by contrast doesn’t assume that that narrative humanity has arrived at is inherently, or at all, meaningful.
That the film takes place at a wedding – a human invented, culturally particular, and historically variant ritual – permits an exploration of the value carefully placed on and conditioned through such events, in opposition to their assumed “inherent” value (Kirsten Dunst’s Justine doesn’t act how she’s “supposed to” act as a bride, suggesting rituals such as these are a performance for all involved). Thus, we experience the world’s end with “these people” and not somebody else because their lives and experiences are just as vacant of essential (as opposed to applied) meaning as anybody else’s. In other words, who else would we see that would make any more sense?
Melancholia also brings children into its narrative, but not childhood logic and subjectivity. The film’s frank dystopian realism (in attitude, not form) is a result of its unrelentingly adult outlook on life. There are no more mysteries to be found for the lives of these characters. The drama of the wedding demonstrates a dearth of romanticism, the constancy of compromise, and the elusiveness of contentment. And this story of the end of the world is hardly conclusive. Unlike the celestial beach reunion that closes Tree of Life’s cycle of mourning, the end of human life as depicted in Melancholia does not entail closure, as shown by Justine’s father’s abandonment of her after the wedding. Leo, the film’s sole child character, is shielded from this adult world, sleeping while the adults’ awkward party continues and indulging in blissful ignorance (the kind of which only pancakes can offer) one morning while his mom uncovers a terrifying truth.
The impression of absence connoted by a cut to black before credits has never been more powerful and, oddly enough, meaningful than in this movie about the profound indifference of the universe. Melancholia addresses one of humanity’s guiding fears, the notion that conscious life itself is a small and significant aberration in the grand scheme-lessness of things, and the film greets this notion (surprisingly, for Von Trier) with grace, ease, and patience. Tree of Life sees human life as a flawed, but meaningful and purposeful, part of the succession in a grand story whose scope we may never know or understand, but in which we play an important role. Both of these films are beautiful and ambitious, and elegantly address concepts which would, under anybody else’s direction, lay far beyond the scope of a typical narrative film. Rarely have two diametrically opposed understandings of the world produced comparably compelling pieces of art in the same year.