The Tree of Life is Far

Experiencing awe may have all sorts of tonic effects, including a better sense of perspective on time and priorities, more patience and charity toward others, and generally more satisfaction with life. … Those who were primed to feel awe—those volunteers also saw time as much more expansive, less constricted. They felt free of time’s pressure. … Those who felt they had more available time were less impatient; they were more willing to volunteer their time to help others; and they were less materialistic. (more)

The Tree of Life is up for Best Picture and Best Director Oscars tonight. Though it has only 0.6%, 1.3% chances of winning, it is a great illustration of the ties between far mode, awe, and spirituality. I’ll need spoilers to explain – you are warned.

The movie starts with a specific emotionally devastating death, and then offers viewers an escape from that intolerable nearness with awe-inspiring sights that invoke vast space and time scales. These sights tend to contain a small number of types of objects, and only a few surfaces, each with mild texture. The sounds also tend toward low detail, evoking longer time scales.

The movie gradually shifts back to scenes that remember a childhood, but now seen with an idealizing moralizing color, trying to sum up a whole life. There’s a mostly perfect mom, and a mostly villain dad. Sometimes words are said that aren’t specific to a scene, but seem to make a general point, often speaking as if in prayer. These words tend to the metaphorical – they rarely have much precision or make much analytical sense. For example, the clearest distinction offered is between nature (bad) and grace (good), yet the very title of the movie rejects that distinction.

People describe the movie as spiritual, uplifting, and awe-inspiring. This all fits with our understanding of near vs. far thinking. Far mode is evoked by large space and time scales, smooth textures, small numbers of types, high level goals, moralizing, metaphor, and positive mood. And all these things evoke each other. A vivid near death is about the most negative and intense thing we can experience, and we naturally want to escape that. As the quotes above suggests, “awe” is a positive experience of far/big things. In far mode we can experience awe, and gain comfort. It seems to me that if our experience is awesome and comforting enough, we feel we have “transcended” our usual concerns, and we call that experience “spiritual.” And if we don’t understand the source of this feeling, we call it “mysterious.” 😉

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  • Matt

    I only made it through an hour of that film, and unfortunately, I think it was the wrong half. Maybe I’m just not intelligent enough but I can’t understand how a movie like this is praised. I was always taught as a writer that you should edit out anything that’s not necessary. I mean the first two parts of the story are exactly as Robin describes them above, a tragic death and then a switch to far mode. The filmmaker could have easily gotten that point across in a third (or less) of the time. The first two parts of this film felt like two really long run-on sentences.

    But I guess, if you want to make a movie to be considered for an Oscar it has to be painful to watch on some level.

    Also, I felt the soundtrack was distracting, especially from the tragedy of the parent’s loss.

    • Matt:

      LOL – I have not seen the movie, but I love your description/explanation.

    • Thomas

      To be fair, in spite of its Best Pic nom, I really don’t think The Tree of Life is what some would describe as “Oscar-bait” – that is to say, I don’t think it’s a film “made to be considered for an Oscar.” In fact, it’s quite rare that films this audacious, divisive, and personal get nominated for major Oscars (rather than “painful,” the main traits of the average Oscar-nominated film seem to be “safe” and “middlebrow.”) This is the very personal vision of a very idiosyncratic filmmaker (one who is responsible for three of the greatest films ever made, this one not included,) and any “painful” bits are the results of his own indulgence and not the effects of his attempts to make it an “Oscar film.” Like a lot of very personal artistic statements, viewers seem pretty evenly split between seeing it as an self-indulgent mess and those seeing it as a towering masterpiece.

      As for why it’s praised – I personally disagree with almost all of your criticisms of the the film, which is only evidence of the incredibly divisive nature of the film (I saw it with four other people – two of us loved it, one of us mostly liked it, and two of us hated it.) I would never describe the film as “painful” – it was mostly an incredibly pleasant, emotionally evocative, thought-provoking experience for me – but obviously other people have had very different experiences.

      I had some problems with the film conceptually (I don’t think the different sections of the film ever feel completely integrated, though that was less of a problem for me than it was for others.) It also just sort of seems to fizzle out in the last thirty minutes. But I love the style of it, and I love the “rhythm” it creates. I personally found it deeply resonant – I’ve rarely found myself as emotionally involved in a film as I did with this one from the first few minutes on.

      I had no problem with the length of the first three segments. I feel they are essential to the,rhythm of the film, and the film would have been much less effective if, say, the “creation” sequence had only been ten minutes long. It’s true that there’s not much new information conveyed after the first five minutes of that scene, but the experience of watching it – followed, as it is, by the much more “grounded” childhood sequences – is something else (and I mean that in a good way.)

      I also think the film had some of the best use of classical music this side of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Few films have such a well-integrated score.

  • A weird film.

  • Anonymoose

    It’s weird, not sure I’d consider it good, but it certainly is original…

  • FredR

    I know this sounds weird, but I thought the scenes of childhood had an impressive immediacy.

  • richard silliker

    ‘I’ll need spoilers to explain.”

    Spoilers? Could you give me your definition?

  • If you haven’t seen it already, you might be interested in the psychological research on the emotion of awe. E.g. Keltner & Haidt (2003):

    We propose that two features form the heart of prototypical cases of awe: vastness, and accommodation. Vastness refers to anything that is experienced as being much larger than the self, or the self’s ordinary level of experience or frame of reference. Vastness is often a matter of simply physical size, but it can also involve social size such as fame, authority, or prestige. Signs of vastness such as loud sounds or shaking ground, and symbolic markers of vast size such as a lavish office can also trigger the sense that one is in the presence of something vast. In most cases vastness and power are highly correlated, so we could have chosen to focus on power, but we have chosen the more perceptually oriented term “vastness” to capture the many aesthetic cases of awe in which power does not seem to be at work.

    Accommodation refers to the Piagetian process of adjusting mental structures that cannot assimilate a new experience (Piaget & Inhelder, 1966/1969). The concept of accommodation brings together many insights about awe, such as that it involves confusion (St. Paul) and obscurity (Burke), and that it is heightened in times of crisis, when extant traditions and knowledge structures do not suffice (Weber). We propose that prototypical awe involves a challenge to or negation of mental structures when they fail to make sense of an experience of something vast. Such experiences can be disorienting or even frightening, as in the cases of Arjuna and St. Paul, since they make the self feel small, powerless, and confused. They also often involve feelings of enlightenment, and even rebirth, when mental structures expand to accomodate truths never before known. We stress that awe involves a need for accomodation, which may or may not be satisfied. The success of one’s attempts at accomodation may partially explain why awe can be both terrifying (when one fails to understand) and enlightening (when one succeeds).

  • David E

    Possibly the most ambitious film ever made and about 85% successful.

  • The far parts, which were originally intended for an Imax science movie, are boring, the up close and personal remembrances of growing up in Waco, Texas in the 1950s are superb.

  • The movie is based on the Garden of Eden and the Book of Job — a blessed, talented family living in a paradise is cast out and, after the storyline ends, a series of Job-like tragedies befall the younger brothers. (This is more or less of the Malick family.) Why?

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