Tree of Life II

A substantive discussion of one of the most interesting videos the church has ever made is taking place over at T&S. Just as interesting is the fact that the church media people seem to have employed Terrence Malick.


  1. I think it’s ace that the church media people are paying attention to non-kitsch pop culture. These are improving days for Mormon art.

    Given that T&S is discussing the omission of Heavenly Mother, I will add a different theological point:

    I love the way this film mirrors my experience of being a dad. That is how I feel about my family and I thank God every day that I have been given this wonderful life.

    However, it doesn’t seem to be able to transcend Mormonism’s middle class theology. The Plan of Salvation works beautifully in a world where striving brings its just rewards and parents can realistically expect that their efforts can make their families happy here and in the hereafter. That is not the case for the millions of children currently starving or being abused and who can justifiably cry, “where are you, dad?”

    The thing I love about Mallick’s Tree of Life is that it doesn’t ignore the Fall and theodicy. Still, for a four minute video, I am probably being churlish.

  2. Definitely a very correlated kind of experience in both of them. I really enjoyed the movie Tree of Life, my husband type said that it was kind of like a movie length poem, and he really doesn’t like poetry that much. The discussion over at T&S is interesting, absence of a mother presence in the spot and in our theology, I don’t really have any conclusions but it is interesting think about.

  3. The aesthetic here, so obviously derivative of Mallick, is incredibly effective (and affective), but also underscores not just how American middle class our notion of a human-to-(male)-divine continuum is, but how 1950s-nostalgic that vision remains.

  4. Perhaps. And there is certainly an argument to be made (and is being made) about this being just a video on fatherhood. It’s beautiful. It’s moving. It’s poignant. It’s going to get a LOT of shares on social media because it is so moving and beautiful.

    Maybe it was by design— it IS a video on fatherhood— but my life, my experience, my world, is invisible in this piece. This is lovely if you have an intact marriage, if you’re not a single parent struggling to make ends meet, if you’re not a poor child living on the street or if you’re not a million other things besides middle-class western.

    The part I found particularly painful was how notable the *presence* of the female is- who makes the home so nice for those beautiful children? Who tends the flowers in the boxes beside the porch? Who cans that food in the pantry? Who makes sure those darling babies have folded clean clothes in the morning? Who puts the strawberries out for hungry little hands? She is everywhere. And yet she is nowhere. She wouldn’t even have to have been part of the narrative- just show her as part of the lives of that family. Children don’t get up, eat and play in a vacuum left after dad leaves for work.

    As an aside, I really really really hope this is the production value we’ll see in a new temple film.

  5. Great review, Ronan. The middle class context is not just an issue from a theological standpoint, though I am grateful that you pointed this out — it is something that is truly very troubling. But my observation has also been that basing virtually the whole program of the Church on the lifestyle of people in the American suburbs in the second half of the twentieth century has created a number of intractable problems for Mormons trying their hardest to implement “the whole program of the Church” in densely urban areas or developing countries where members have much lower incomes and for whom the lifestyle of late twentieth century American suburbs is extremely foreign.

  6. I should say mid-twentieth century American suburbs, actually, as Brad is exactly right in his comment above about the 1950s timeframe in which our view is fixed.

  7. It’s not even the actual 1950’s. It’s a mythic age where the worst problems were gum chewing (not segregation), where the commies were the unambiguous bad guys (not the Red-Baiters), and where Mr. and Mrs. Cleaver slept in separate beds (they must have pushed them together for Wally and the Beav). It is bizarre that we are, occasionally, operating in a culture determined by a hazy nostalghia for a time that never was. At least if it was the eighties that we were trying to recreate, I’d get to run around in a fur speedo and vest like Thundarr.

  8. I thought Tree of Life was dull, pretentious twaddle. Besides that I don’t have anything substantive to add to this discussion :)

  9. Casey:

  10. The part I found particularly painful was how notable the *presence* of the female is- who makes the home so nice for those beautiful children? Who tends the flowers in the boxes beside the porch? Who cans that food in the pantry? Who makes sure those darling babies have folded clean clothes in the morning? Who puts the strawberries out for hungry little hands? She is everywhere. And yet she is nowhere.

    Beautifully put, Tracy.

  11. Nice, RJH.

    Brad #3, spot on.

  12. Researcher says:

    John C., It’s the glossy, happy culture of the Mormon Mommy Blog, a place where women spend their lives decorating and redecorating their homes and making baked goods while wearing 1950s dresses and aprons, where all the children are rosy-cheeked 2-6 year olds, where the husbands follow a manly profession that somehow (oddly) provides enough money for the family of 4-6 people to enjoy a perfect pseudo-1950s suburban existence. It’s a kind of alternate universe.

  13. Sorry Brad, can’t agree on everything I guess. I disliked Thin Red Line too so Malick just isn’t for me. For what it’s worth, I felt Life of Pi explored similar themes much more effectively, but that’s neither here nor there on what this thread is actually about.

  14. wow, a ToL heretic on this very blog

  15. Casey,
    Do you like Radiohead?

  16. Nice point, RJH. Absolutely true. And yet I will confess that this hits some of my own sweet spots, including the vague sort of non-theological approach to God. I was cringing with the pullaway there that we’d get a dude in a white beard, totally imaginable in Mormon culture.

    This is also the first Mormon video I’ve seen that I’ve thought I might share with a non-member.

  17. Ryan Mullen says:

    I used this video in a YM lesson yesterday. We explored the expectations, goals and duration of several types of relationships (Grandson-Grandpa, Employee-Boss, Student-Teacher, etc.) and compared that to a Son-Father relationship. We discussed that the Son-Father relationship has some similarities to other relationships (e.g., a Coach expects his Athlete to improve thru practice similar to how a Father might expect that of his Son), but there are of course differences. Similarly, there is not a 1:1 mapping from Earthly Son-Earthly Father to Heavenly Son-Heavenly Father.

    I know my own Son-Father relationships have shaped my expectations of God – both how my father is like God, but also how he’s not. I guess the upshot is I can enjoy and learn from this video without expecting God to come from the 1950s.

  18. Be careful, Casey! You can answer one question wrong, but not two.

  19. RJH: Casually. I like Radiohead on a rough bell curve: For each of their first seven albums (haven’t properly listened to King of Limbs), my feelings are, respectively, meh, like, really like, love, like, kinda like, meh.

    But I will happily disparage Tree of Life until the day I die or change my mind. What can I say? I’m a sucker for characters and narrative and ToL didn’t really try for either. This, incidentally, comes on the heels of my bashing Les Mis on that recent post. Any other beloved movies I can insult just to make sure I’ve properly alienated everyone? More like CasaBLAHnca, amirite? (just kidding, I will brook no criticism of that film).

  20. there’s no accounting for taste

  21. next thing you’ll be telling us that you admire Liz Lemon Swindle (or Jon McNaughton) paintings

  22. Raiders of the Lost Ark = the perfect movie, yes or no?

  23. Wait a sec, Casey. Did you just compare (hating on) Tree of Life to (hating on) Les Mis? Who let this person in?!?

  24. haha, you don’t want to sink Casey in the comments thread to a single blog post, do you?

  25. Casey, tell me how you feel about crackers. Triscuits or Wheat Thins?

  26. oh man

  27. Hahaha threadjack complete! You’ve all fallen for my master plan.

    (rips off latex mask, revealing Ralph Hancock. Throws down a smoke bomb and disappears, cackling, into the night)

  28. Dudes. I think Casey just won.

  29. Rachel E O says:

    #4 Tracy:

    As an aside, I really really really hope this is the production value we’ll see in a new temple film.

    My thoughts exactly. Ever since first watching Malick’s Tree of Life, I have longed for a new temple video with some of the beauty captured in his film. Though I personally love the abstraction that Casey derides :P — and I think it would be awesome if they did a poetic reinterpretation of the temple video along those lines — I also understand the importance of ritual text, and I would willingly forgo such a reinterpretation if only it meant getting some of that beautiful cosmos-and-nature imagery included… In fact, I pray for it every time I am sitting in an endowment session.

    The planets scene at the end of this father video is very encouraging in this regard. I’ve heard a bit of buzz among church media people about the possibility of a new temple video. Specifically, I heard one Church videographer working on the I’m a Mormon campaign ask another Church media person who was higher up on the totem pole and deeper inside the machinery, and the latter basically gave a noncommittal nonresponse. Which made me at least hopeful. :) Of course, I have no idea if a new temple video is in the works or going to materialize any time soon, and I can’t imagine the sort of scrutiny that project would undergo. But this video is a promising sign.

  30. Rachel E O says:

    *By way of clarification, in my little anecdote above, Church media person #1 (the videographer, who I think was actually a consultant, not employed full-time by the church, but has been involved in a lot of LDS movies) asked Church media person #2 (the higher-up) if a temple video project was in the works. (Not requesting that they do one per se.) And the latter basically didn’t really say either way. Which made me wonder if it’s at least under discussion. But I mention this with the caveat that this is all firmly in the realm of hopeful speculation and rumor. :)

  31. The arc of this thread is long but it bends towards triscuits.


  33. European Saint says:

    Despite the somewhat bizarro, 10-minute dinosaur/cosmos section, I loved the Tree of Life film. I felt like it succeeded in conveying our subvocalized (hat tip: Orson Scott Card) longings/love for those closest to us.

  34. The creation sequence was a highlight of the film and central to its themes. The creation of the universe/world parallel to the creation of an individual through his experiences. The creation of the world depicted in response to the grieving mother’s question “God, where were you?” Answer: I was in the beginning. I created the universe and the world for you. The answer is not inconsistent with how the author of the Book of Job depicts God’s interactions: Now you are living in it, subject to chaos and nature the same as everything else. Will you choose the way of nature or the way of grace?

    Of course, the beautiful thing about this approach is that, despite the above interpretation that I supply as a religious believer (and, specifically, as a Mormon), a non-believer can watch the film and find a different answer to the mother’s prayer. Or rather, a non-answer.

    But overall, although I think that a conscious choice was made by the director to position the story on the knife’s edge between belief and non-belief, between a narrative affirming the existence of God and a narrative depicting humans subjected to the vicissitudes of nature without a real God in the equation, I think that the narrative in the big picture supports the believing view. In fact, it informed my faith and opened my mind to new ways of looking at faith and our communion with God and fellow humans.

    And, of course, you have the biographical sketches of mother and father in the film, both of which inform the creation of the central individual. Very powerfully done, in my opinion.

    Contrary to Casey’s critique, I loved the abstract approach — but then again I also love impressionist painting so an impressionistic biography of one man and his creation story rings true to me.

    Also, from an aesthetic and spiritual perspective, I loved the interplay of angels throughout the narrative. This called Brian Kershisnik’s work to mind.

  35. Each time I saw the movie in the cinema, people got up and left during the creation sequence. So I realize that people have very different views about how great it was and how it contributed to the overall narrative (though they left and never came back so their decision that it was rubbish was a little premature, in my view). I considered them Philistines for a while but then relented and admitted that there is no accounting for taste. To each his or her own.

  36. The dinosaur scene is actually absolutely centrial to the entire film.

  37. Lovely work. I have not read the T&S blog, but my first thought while watching the youtube was the focus on the father and the complete domestication of the mother. This is particularly interesting to me now because I’m teaching LDS lit and we just finished _Added Upon_ (which has frequent mentions of a Mother in Heaven) and _When Souls Had Wings_, which includes “Hymn of the Pearl”–or a portion of it, which also speaks of a king and A QUEEN who send their son on a quest and then as “parents” welcome him back.

  38. I’m not a huge fan of ToL, but I liked this video. If all of Malik’s films were 4 mins, I’d be his biggest fan.

    One hack that would make this video even better: Turn off the voiceover. The imagery is evocative enough that it doesn’t need narration.

  39. Rachel E O says:

    As for the aesthetics of this Mormon Messages (MM) video itself, while I certainly agree that it’s channeling Malick, and I *LOVE* the video itself and I would love to see the Church do more stuff like this, including a video on Motherhood — I also think that it doesn’t quite do justice to Malick’s work to draw this direct comparison. This is not a criticism of the Church’s work on this project; I really do think it’s beautiful… it’s just… not… Malick… (I write this as an unabashed devotee of Tree of Life, which in my bold opinion is the greatest movie ever made [*that I have seen]. :)

    Most significantly, Malick’s visual aesthetics are inextricable from his auditory ones. And while the quiet, husky tone of the father’s voice in this MM video carries some echoes of Malick’s work, as does the minimalist/repetitive score, in other respects, the auditory aspects of the video depart significantly therefrom.

    First, while the minimalist/repetitive music in the MM video parallels Malick in some ways (especially Malick’s The New World), as the former proceeds, it increasingly competes with the video’s narration in intensity and volume. As far as I can remember, Malick rarely overlays his narration and score in such a direct way. Rather, the score becomes part of the narration. It is an extension thereof. And in such a seamless, compelling way. The score in this MM video is nice, but a bit intrusive for my personal tastes (but of course, as john f. (20) points out, tastes are what they are).

    But more than the score, there is the unrelenting narration in the MM video. After the opening scene of the MM video concludes at 0:17, there is basically steady narration throughout. As a result, the viewer is forced to focus on the words being said, rather than the beauty of the visuals being displayed — which are indeed beautiful. Other audio features are also drowned out by the narration (and the score). The chink of the wheelline sprinkler at the beginning was one of the most affective moments of the entire video for me (admittedly because I grew up in that world, on a farm in southeast Idaho) — and indeed, it made me think of my father in a way that nothing else in the video did. And yet it stands out largely because it is unique within the soundtrack. Yes, there are the occasional sounds of the children’s voices, the phone ringing, etc., but they are almost lost in the narration and the score. Plus, after a while, the narration gets a little bit, well, Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves… (I’ll be the first to say I love Dances with Wolves, but KC’s monotone ain’t the reason.)

    I understand that the priority here is the message (after all, this is a “Mormon Message”). And the lyrics on paper would make lovely poetry. But in the context of an aesthetic audiovisual project, this ceaseless narration is very limiting. So much of what is narrated could have instead been shown visually, supported by a subtle audio track. For example, instead of narrating, “my phone rings, I only hear breathing, I smile, my wife’s phone is now missing” — a moving image — why not just show those scenes, and let the sound of the phone ringing and the child breathing communicate the simple beauty of that image?

    In contrast, the Tree of Life trailer linked to above has *zero* narration. You even see lips moving, but you don’t hear what they are saying. And while the movie itself does have spoken word, it is rare, and when it does occur, it is always filled with pauses, breaths, humility, questions. (The New World exhibits a similar aesthetic quality). In Malick’s work, those moments of pregnant “silence” communicate the message.

    On a related note, and in response to #33 above, I felt as uncomfortable as the next guy the first time watching Tree of Life (a movie which I basically came into not knowing what to expect), when I realized that that creation-of-the-earth segment wasn’t ending anytime soon… But in retrospect, and after watching it again, IMO ToL wouldn’t be half the movie that it is without that segment — with the pre-creation portion set as it is to Zbigniew Preisner’s surpassingly existential Lacrimosa, and then with the early earth scenes set to nothing but the bubbling of the magma and the rush of the waves and the rumbling of the thunderclouds — and now and again, the poignant, unobtrusive whisperings of the mother. The Mother…

    After a browser refresh, I see now that john f.’s comment (34) has already addressed some of these issues, so I’ll just add my testimony to his by noting that, for me personally, Tree of Life echoed and informed some of my soul’s deepest understandings of LDS theology regarding sin and spirituality, creation and cosmology, and the masculine-feminine complementary of the Divine.

  40. Hmmm. Leaving aside Tree of Life, isn’t there something just a little too precious about the narration in this church film? I’m a liittle leery of the manipulative nature of breathy narration talking about “tummies” and “jammies” over images of little kids and treehouses and wheatfields. This isn’t just American suburbia, folks, it’s American rural. Suburbia looks nothing like this, even in the 1950s. I mean, there’s not even any neighboring houses anywhere in view. Who lives in this setting? The number of people who recognize the visuals as having something to do with their existence has got to be miniscule.

    And I’m sorry but I also have to suggest that anyone who says they “do it all for them” (talking about their children) is engaging in a bit of self delusion at best. You don’t do it all for them. You are doing at least some of it for you, and there’s nothing wrong in admitting that. These deeply idealistic and unrealistic views of life are in danger of making us appear hopelessly out of touch with what most people recognize as reality. This film makes me think, not so much of Tree of Life as those “It’s Morning in America” ads that Reagan used to get elected in the 80s. Like those ads, this seems a bit too much like propaganda.

  41. Word, MCQ.

  42. Rachel E O says:

    Haha, MCQ (40). I grew up in that world (as I noted in comment 39 above). So maybe that’s why I found it effective. :)

    I get your point, and that of those made above about 1950s suburbia etc. etc. (Sidenote: Could I get a dollar for every time someone on BCC complains about Church gender roles being too stuck in 1950s suburbia? Because that would be awesome.)

    But honestly, why does this have to be a video for the everyman? Why can’t it just be what it is? It’s lovely. It’s emotive. It’s praising the nobility of fatherhood, an undervalued and scarce resource in our society. They have to choose some setting, so why is this one more problematic than another? Sure, it’s got a fair dose of rural nostalgia. But nostalgia can be powerful if done right, and I think it is in this case.

    On a related note, can I give a little shout-out to the fact that this is a family of six, but the dude says “SMALL” home? That is cool. Thank the Lord they didn’t depict the family in some cookie cutter Suburbia McMansion.

  43. “They have to choose some setting, so why is this one more problematic than another?”

    That would be a great argument if they chose any other setting with any regularity.

  44. Rachel E O says:

    Maybe that’s true… but I sort of wonder if you’re not exhibiting a bit of a confirmation bias here. From what I have observed, it seems that the Church media people like to go out of their way to highlight people in diverse circumstances. Diversity–in terms of life experience, marital status [including divorce, etc.], income, race, what have you–is if anything over-represented in the “I’m a Mormon” videos. I am not as familiar with the Mormon Messages videos, but I would be surprised if that is not at least to some degree the case there as well.

  45. Rachel E O says:

    Aside: After all this talking about Tree of Life, I decided I need to just get my own copy so I can watch it whenever I get a hankering. While doing so, I noticed the inverted bell curve evident in the Amazon reviews. As with Triscuits and Wheat Thins, this movie is quite the polarizing subject. :)

  46. Rachel E O says:
  47. The setting is perfectly acceptable. They’re not suggesting the Mormon ideal is rural living. The point of the video is the relationship between a father (and if you have charity, a parent) & child and God & us. That relationship. How parental love translates into a greater understanding of our divine parents. Avoiding showing the busy city living or lined-up houses and neighbors in suburban living they’re able to focus on the relationship of the family. It’s not a video about culture, skin color or income level. Obviously, familial relationships are varied, but can we not let something with a specific message exist without complaining that it doesn’t encompass every message?

  48. As to setting, here’s hoping that the media department sets themselves a challenge for the next instalment — a reprise of this only set in the slums of Mumbai or Dakar. Instead of sleeping in jammies and playing all day (except for naptime), the children will slave in some form of labor for 12 hours a day together with their mother (perhaps rolling cigarettes or preparing certain details on textile products) while the father is away from dawn until dusk working one or two manual labor jobs to make ends meet.

    Now don’t get me wrong, I personally think that the life portrayed in the current film is more comfortable, more enjoyable, more blessed etc. than that of those born into different circumstances. But the question is whether members of the Church outside of the Mormon Corridor will be able to recognize themselves in this spot. Its depiction of the material well being of the family might even provoke resentment among Latter-day Saints eeking out a bare existence in situations of poverty all around the world (including right in the United States). We can all wish that our lives looked so aesthetically wonderful and blessed as that depicted in this video but I am worried that it could alienate those of us who see it and are forced to ask why that family is so blessed and they are not.

  49. Rachel, buy the Amazon Prime instant version. Then you can watch it in HD from anywhere.

  50. And as to my #48, which I wrote apparently while Rusty was writing # 47, I hope that my comment will not be taken as denying what Rusty says in # 47. I agree with that. Let’s not do away with this one. Let’s just see if, in a reprise, it works out as well in a setting that is being experienced by a larger number of the world’s inhabitants.

  51. “but my life, my experience, my world, is invisible in this piece.”

    I’m a father and I feel this,too, Tracy. My children’s early years were often lovely, and often treacherous and devastating for me. No amount of praying made them less devastating.

    On preferring Life of Pi to ToL. Give me a break. But there are bonus points given for using the word “twaddle.”

    Amen to MCQ. It’s that whole “selflessness” thing that is becoming such a distraction for people. As if we didn’t have enough to live up to, now we are not even allowed to have a self.

  52. Rachel E O says:

    #48 FTW.

  53. I’m hearing some of the push-back on the push-back (from more than just here) asking why we can’t just allow an admittedly beautiful piece on fatherhood to just be. That’s a totally legitimate question. And on one hand, I’m entirely sympathetic. This is miles above the standard Mormon message, in both quality and beauty. It truly is.

    So I’ve spent a fair amount of time pondering just why it feels like a thorn in my heart, despite its incredible beauty. You can have a story about fatherhood. It’s wonderful. We all want to have and benefit from having a good father, to varying degrees of success. But this story is more than that- it’s an allegory and extrapolation of the world this father created being in similitude of the creation of the Father. This father is marveling in the glory of creation- it’s beautiful. How can we marvel at the glory of creation while leaving out the other half of the needed whole for creation to occur? Because of this larger theme being played out in the video– the inference to divine creation, to exaltation– (not just earthy fatherhood) this is painful in two possible ways:

    Either a bonded pair is not needed for exaltation and our theology and doctrine has it wrong, or women really do not matter. Both are terribly painful to imagine.

  54. I don’t know Tracy. I think there’s room for a third option. Possibly. I know its heresy in normative circles though. But yes, I believe in the bonded pair. I think without that, for most, it would be terrible to think of eternity. Just watching the end of Green Mile again made me wonder.

  55. And you know, Wheat Thins. If they’re not your number one, the ghost of Evans will haunt you. And if they are, the ghost of Bosworth will spite you.

  56. Can’t we have both Wheat Thins and Triscuits? I do, right now. And can’t we have videos that extoll the virtues of both fathers and mothers at the same time?

    “Either a bonded pair is not needed for exaltation and our theology and doctrine has it wrong, or women really do not matter. Both are terribly painful to imagine.”

    Tracy I agree that’s what the video seems to imply. I don’t think it’s intentional, but it’s there. And really, why? Why do we need a video that focuses on the divine nature of fathers without mentioning mothers? Is there some reason for that I’m missing? Can’t we talk about both mothers and fathers together and how both are in the image of deity?

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