Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is one of the greatest films ever made.

Posted on by Pastabagel and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

And if you walked out, I hate to break it to you, but you’re closed-minded. And that’s what this post is about. It’s not a review of the film (that’s coming later). Rather, this is a review of the rather large class of people who walked out of it.*

First, an endorsement. Go see this. Now. In the theater. You will need to see it at least twice.**

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruq-MP0pdzY&hd=1

There is not a single aspect of the art of film-making on which this film does not excel. If you are even slightly educated, meaning that you are willing to accept the idea that you do not know absolutely everything about everything, then I urge you to see this film because you will love it.

But let’s talk about the people who walked out of it.* Apparently there are a lot of these people, between 5-10% at many screenings after the films opening.

I’ve taken an informal and largely anecdotal survey of blog posts, tweets an the like, and I believe I can offer a reasonable, educated guess about who walked out.

Atheists. And not the old-school European philosopher/American pragmatist kind of atheists who have a lot of novel and interesting things to say about the intersection of religion, psychology and culture, but the “New Atheist” kind. The kind of atheist that can be identified from their Facebook account, and that write snarky blogs mocking the religious and who generally wear their atheism on their sleeve as a badge of honor and a kind of identity.

To understand how I came to this conclusion, a few words must be said about the content of that first 30 minutes. I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free, but consider this your warning.

Malick opens the film with a quote from the Book of Job, followed by a protracted heart-wrenching scene of a family’s despair and metaphysical anguish. With a final desperate cry, this scene transitions to another protracted fugue comprised of astronomical images of stellar formation, volcanic eruptions, and primordial fire set against operatic and choral music.

This is during this fugue that people walk out. They do so because in following the first scene with this one, Malick has set the context of his artwork so baldly, so explicitly, and so unambiguously in the deepest of metaphysical questions, it is impossible to maintain the superficial atheist posture in the face of them.

I’ll summarize that first 30 minutes by saying it asks the question “When, in our darkest moments, we cry out, what are we crying out to?”.

The people who walked out assumed from the stellar creation montage that the answer would begin with God but probably not end there. What these atheists want to believe is not only that there is no God, but that anyone who does believe in God is either crazy or an irrational fool.

New atheism is really more about a belief about believers than a conviction about the non-existence of God. “If you still believe in God you are either crazy or stupid.” It’s a binary proposition. And this proposition is such a bedrock principle of this new movement (not all atheism mind you) that to suggest any other possibility or perspective is a threat.

Malick is a believer, and is neither crazy nor a fool. And that suggests that his answer to the question is going to be a lot more involved than simply “God.” So the best thing to do is to run away from him as fast as possible before he says anything else.

They walked out because the could sense that bedrock principle of their oft-professed atheism would be threatened by the rest of the film. But Tree of Life constitutes evidence about belief. It is after all a single data point comprised of one man’s idea of belief. So walking out constitutes a rejection of the evidence. This is because during that fugue, one gets the idea that Malick’s idea of faith is much more sublime, much more insidious than simply “God is out there watching.” This data point doesn’t fit the New Atheism model.

The film makes the argument that belief is as much about real things as anything metaphysical: our mother, the universe, the sun, the earth, the animals, our childhood homes, our memories of these things, our and our re-imagining of them in dreams, and daydreams. We cry out to the things in our life that to us are ever-present, immutable, but always living.

These are all real things and their power to us and over us is equally real and equally profound. But to acknowledge even this much is to acknowledge the existence of the profound, and once you’ve done that, you’ve gone quite a ways out on that limb. For the atheist who has come by his identity and his certainty in non-existence through pedantic arguments and pop-atheism “proofs”, rather than a serious engagement with the profound in their own lives, such an acknowledgement sets their identity on dangerous ground.

Better to walk out. Better to not hear him out. Better to not hear the question asked.

Because there’s always the risk that you’ll accidentally answer it.


* I’m not talking about the people who were so moved to tears by the first 30 minutes they couldn’t bear the thought of another 2 hours. To those people, I would encourage that they try to watch it again.

** You will need to go a second time, because I assure you, the first time you see this, you will forget that someone actually sat down and scripted everything you see. Once you remember that, and realize the care with which Malick chose every single image you see, every word of dialogue you hear, and every juxtaposition of the two, you’ll want to go back and study the film more carefully.
 

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64 Responses to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is one of the greatest films ever made.

  1. Wilbur_Whateley says:

    One of the things kind of bugged me at first about this film was the way the narration the start opposed the way of grace and the way of nature; I was sure that Malick wouldn’t denigrate nature, just look at how the Thin Red Line obsesses over nature amongst the destructiveness of man to see why I’d have this problem. But as the film went on and was filled with gorgeous shots of people looking up into nature I decided that the relationship between grace and nature is far more complex than a simple opposition.

    I only saw it less than 48 hours ago and am going to need time and repeated viewings (still, it took years to truly love the Thin Red Line so I knew it’d be work). Only other current impressions: Jessica Chastain was wonderful and Brad Pitt should retire because I can’t see him ever coming close to a performance this wonderful again.

  2. posterZero says:

    While it’s a clever analysis, I don’t think a disproportionate amount of atheists walked out–and even if they did, I doubt it was on account of their atheism. This movie is boring if not approached from a specific way, and if you weren’t willing/didn’t have the capacity to approach it this way, (I was one of the latter, hence the vague naming of this approach “specific way”.) the movie dragged on.

    In general movie characters are seen as movie characters, and not vehicles for argument. Audiences can stand a theme that runs counter their own beliefs, e.g. movies that glorify war like Black Hawk Down or movies that show war in a bad light like Grave of the Fireflies. What makes someone walk out is boredom with no promise of it ever ceasing.

  3. flailingjunk says:

    There is no god.

    I am as sure of that as I am that there is no such thing as a square circle, but the trailer looks interesting so I will probably check it out. The only concern I have at this point is that there are a lot of children in the trailer and thought they generally appear to be treated very well there is something about it that gives me a feeling that they might treated badly at some point. I think it might be the omnipresence of children in the trailer and pastabagle’s description of anguish and darkness in the movie. Anyway…

    Is there any significantly bad treatment of the children in this movie?

    • Or says:

      Brad Pitt’s style of parenting wouldn’t be accepted among readers of The Atlantic today, but for the time period in which the movie is set, he’s merely got a temper. Oedipal struggle abounds.

      • flailingjunk says:

        Does he hit him?

        • Or says:

          I honestly can’t remember. But even when he causes no real harm, the feeling is powerful enough that he might as well have. There’s a scene between him and his wife (after he lashes out at the kids, but I think they dodge him) that’s unsettling, and if he were just a tiny bit rougher I might call it abuse. Malick does a terrific job balancing the intensity of everybody’s presence in physical confrontations so you’re no more attuned to one character’s feelings than another.

  4. zozo says:

    Occam’s razor: Have you considered that people walked out because the film was really, really boring?

    Full disclosure: I haven’t watched this film. But that’s because I’ve tried to watch other Terrence Malick films and have sworn off of them.

    But, in the closest analogy I can find, I did turn off the Thin Red Line after about an hour because I couldn’t take it any more. Not because it was too profound or too challenging to my atheism, but because it was really fucking boring.

    But if this vehicle lets you make whatever digs you need to make against new atheists, knock yourself out. I’m sure your point is more interesting than the movie.

  5. VocabularyOfWar says:

    Thought provoking post Pastabagel.

    Admittedly, I had a few of the thoughts you mentioned and felt physically uncomfortable during a large part of the film. But if you can go to a movie that actually gives you those kinds of deep-seated feelings, then you are either experiencing something quite brilliant or absolute drivel, and it’s worth it to stay in either case. After thinking about this movie for a few weeks and seeing it again, I have to conclude that it is the former even though I didn’t walk out of the theater with the glazed-over euphoria of seeing trucks and planes turn into robots and fight a war of good and evil (more later).

    Pastabagel has explained his point quite well, and I agree with most of it. I think a good proportion of new-atheists are offended by the overt religious messages and couldn’t rectify them with their “look at me world I saw Penn & Teller’s ‘Bullshit’ and read a book by Dawkins and I think you are all crazy even though you are attempting to approach real meaning, but be sure to notice me being different while I claim to be open in my closed-mindedness” lifestyle. I doubt they actually left the theater for this reason though. Another proportion might have been bored as posterZero suggests (cute, kind-hearted dinosaurs notwithstanding). This point deserves more attention because I think it is important (and likely a very large source of real, in theater walk outs). But I think there’s at least one other group, the “please for the love of God stop beating me to death with overwrought religious quotations, dialogue, symbolism, and metaphors” group.

    On the beat-you-over-the-head-with-symbolism front: take for example when, as a young child, Jack is playing with a toy wooden boat with wooden animals in it and he angers and throws them and mommy is none too pleased about it. Mix 1 part Genesis with 1 part existential angst add in a 1 in a million redhead mommy and shake well. You can’t misinterpret it. Or at least I don’t think you can. I felt like the film was intentionally spoon-feeding me these messages and it might have been more meaningful without the spoon.

    No more spoilers. Though if you think toddler Jack capsizing toy Noah’s toy boat and murdering his wooden animals on a lawn in Waco, Texas is a spoiler in this film…

    Now back to the boredom. The problem here is people going to the theater after seeing Ebert give The Tree of Life and Horrible Bosses and Cars 2 all “two thumbs up” and expecting to be entertained. Not all films are Michael Bay explosion fests or Judd Apatow chickflicks marketed as brofests. Not all films have continuous action or drama or comedy, but you would be forgiven if you saw Ebert’s two thumbs skyward for this and Horrible Bosses and thought The Tree of Life would. It’s simply a problem of what the majority of us are conditioned to think the medium of film is for. Unless you knew what to expect going into The Tree of Life you would be bored out of your mind, too.

    In fact I’m willing to bet that, despite Pastabagel’s unscientific survey of the internets, more people walked out because of confusion and bordom than anything else. I very much doubt that all of the rabble-rousing new atheists actually walked out because they hated the message and didn’t want to hear it. Behind their computer screens they might say they walked out because of the perceived religious whackamole. But they didn’t. It takes the supremely bored much less time to quit and leave than somebody who has a vested interest in actively hating the message being presented. In fact, I think it’s more likely that Pastabagel’s new-atheist heros watched the whole thing and hated it and kept trying to prove to themselves that they were smarter than the movie. Then they went home, realized they couldn’t, because that’s not the point and then got on the computer and said they walked out because Malick is a hack and a religious nutter. Or alternatively, they really walked out because they were bored and then decided that wasn’t interesting enough to fit their self image and constructed the standard atheist barrier to religiosity to cope with the boredom.

    Pastabagel, I’m sure your experience must have been different, but nobody walked out either time I saw the movie within the first hour. It took until 5 minutes after the dinosaurs for a group to leave in both screenings I was at. And for another group until Sean Penn gets more face time and walks around in the desert in his exquisitely tailored suit. What seems more likely? That their atheistic souls were bubbling over and frothing with a thousand pointed Hitchens quotes only at two of the most bizarre points in the film? Or that the absurdity within the boredom of not seeing Megan Fox’s sideboob while a dam explodes at the same time as trying to pick the last stuck Junior Mint off of the inside corner of the carton?

    • cat says:

      I’m sure you’re right.

      Why would a “new atheist” pay for a ticket to go to see a film they knew offended their non-religious sensibilities, then waste the money by walking out?

      The correct response would be simply not to go to the film in the first place.

      However, if you go to a film expecting to be entertained by car chases and robots exploding near boobs, but instead are bored, you might well walk out.

  6. Minerva says:

    Fantastic trailer. (While trailers are supposed to be fantastic, few are.)

    This is doesn’t seem like any of the usual Brad Pitt films and may be a reason why many walked out. Will definitely check it out.

    Try Antonia’s Line.

  7. thecobrasnose says:

    Terrence Malick has a sensibility that doesn’t suit everybody–maybe even most. I had to learn this after my failed campaign to convince everybody I knew that The Thin Red Line was a life changing masterpiece. But Tree of Life really does set people off. My boss, a brilliant man, made a point of pronouncing it the absolutely worst thing he had ever paid money to see. A co-worker (there were a bunch of us together having a chat) piped up to say wild horses couldn’t drag her to see it, and had an enormous smirk on her face when she said it. Now, I like and admire both of these people tremendously, but they are precisely the style of atheists Pastabagel described above. So while ToL is not for everybody (because Malick is not for everybody), experience gives credence to PB’s point.

    On another matter, I find it odd how controversial Brad Pitt’s character is. He’s not ideal, but then he’s presented through the eyes of an antagonistic and oedipal son. How imperfect is a father permitted to be in pop culture these days before he is judged as harshly as this one was?

    • mwigdahl says:

      On another matter, I find it odd how controversial Brad Pitt’s character is. He’s not ideal, but then he’s presented through the eyes of an antagonistic and oedipal son. How imperfect is a father permitted to be in pop culture these days before he is judged as harshly as this one was?

      That depends. Was he portrayed as a powerful and/or effective force in his family’s life? Then he’d better damn well be perfect. The typical sad-sack media Dad is allowed — nay, encouraged — to fuck up six ways from Sunday as long as he mostly stays out of the way of Mom and the kids.

      • thecobrasnose says:

        You may have put your finger on it. I thought the dad was clearly a well meaning figure who tried to socialize his kids and protect and provide for his wife. The image of him working on the family car brought a lump to my throat. Malick was fair minded enough to show both how his character could inhibit familial joy (which busts out when he goes on a trip) but also curb savage tendencies (which bust out when he goes on a trip).

  8. Snare says:

    I think Pastabagel doesn’t have a good grasp on the “New Atheist”. While his comments reflect a very small (but admittedly) vocal portion of Atheists, he has missed a few key distinctions that have lead him to his fairly absurd opinion that people are walking out BECAUSE of their atheism.

    My proof is in this quote from PB;

    “a conviction about the non-existence of God. “If you still believe in God you are either crazy or stupid.” ”

    Atheism for the vast majority of atheists, even the aggressive ones, is about there being no evidence for the existence of a God. Not a conviction that there isn’t one. Even Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett all say to varying degrees that ‘one cannot be certain’. So try modifying the above statement to “If you think you know with any certainty exactly which of the plethora of available gods, or collective of gods, you are either crazy or stupid, there is equally no evidence of any” – most atheists don’t have any arguments/problems with deists, the type of people who say “I reckon there is something out there but i don’t know what.”

    Another problem with your understanding of “the new atheism” is that you presume that atheists don’t simply have a different relationship with the profound, as opposed to having no relationship at all. If you really read much of the atheist blogosphere you’d know how many of them are science nuts and space junkies with a subtle but ever present deference to their own insignificance in the cosmos. One can Marvel at the magnitude and wonder of things without invoking a creator.

    Any atheists who walked out on account of their atheism – did not – they more likely walked out on account of the way their epistemological arrogance reacted to the film. Which is interesting, in that it is a Christian person’s epistemological arrogance leads them to think that their relationship with ‘the profound’ as you call it, or God, is more accurate than a Muslim’s – and hence allows them to think they ‘get’ a movie like tree of life more than others.

    While it is true that there are some atheists who staunchly belief there is no god. Most opinions can be better summed up with the line about god……”I don’t know, and neither do you, so get out of everybody’s face with your guess”.

    • Pastabagel says:

      “Atheism for the vast majority of atheists, even the aggressive ones, is about there being no evidence for the existence of a God. Not a conviction that there isn’t one. Even Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett all say to varying degrees that ‘one cannot be certain’.”

      Those guys are the old-school types I was specifically excluding from my characterization. They are not New Atheism. This is new atheism.

      • vprime says:

        You’re secretly Dinesh D’Souza, aren’t you?

      • Valerick80 says:

        Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett are all listed as examples of “New Atheists” in the Wikipedia article on same. Do you care to elaborate why you believe the Wikipedia article is in error and that these men are in fact “old-school” types and not new atheists?

        • Fifi says:

          Valerick80 is quite correct, the 4 horsemen of atheism are not only considered “New Atheists” (not “traditional atheists”) but also the key figures in “New Atheism”. It’s an interesting confusion you’ve got going on that seems a bit more fueled by your own liking of this movie (and/or perhaps a prejudice against the Skepchick blog). What you seem to think is a dispute/discussion between “traditional atheists” and “New Atheists” is actually a dispute/discussion within the “New Atheist” movement about social orthodoxy and cultural bias.

        • Pastabagel says:

          I never even read the wikipedia article, but I think I defined my terms clearly enough that they exclude at the very least Dawkins and Dennett (never read the other two). Though now that I know the term “New Atheist” has a formal definition, I’ll avoid using it in the future.

          • Valerick80 says:

            How can you possibly claim to speak on the motivations of atheists when you have no idea what New Atheism is? That would be like if I claimed to know how theists behave while never having heard of Christianity. I would be shocked at the arrogance of it all if I weren’t on the internet.

            And why would you capitalize the spelling of it if you didn’t think it had any kind of formal definition?

          • Fifi says:

            Your entire piece is based on the fact you believe that the film is awesome (you state it as a fact, not as a personal opinion) and that you believe anyone who walked out or didn’t is a certain kind of atheist you don’t like and must be close minded if they don’t agree with you. Confirmation biases ahoy! Kind of sounds like…a belief about non-believers! ;-)

    • Pastabagel says:

      I’m confused by this line:

      Which is interesting, in that it is a Christian person’s epistemological arrogance leads them to think that their relationship with ‘the profound’ as you call it, or God, is more accurate than a Muslim’s – and hence allows them to think they ‘get’ a movie like tree of life more than others.

      You make a lot of fine points, but this one I don’t get. Who is the ‘Christian person’ you are talking about? The filmmaker?

      • TheDevastator says:

        I can take a stab at this, even if it means we’re now three or four layers of hypotheticals deep (here’s what I think Snare thinks about what a certain type of Christian thinks…) But there’s an idea here which is worth exploring.

        In the opening post, you said,
        I’ll summarize that first 30 minutes by saying it asks the question ‘When, in our darkest moments, we cry out, what are we crying out to?’

        And go on to argue that New Atheists walk out of the theater because they don’t like confronting that question. What Snare is saying is, the people who have that kind of personality, but are Christians, stay in the theater because that question does not make them uncomfortable. The reason it doesn’t make them uncomfortable is that they think they know the answer already: it’s God, and in particular, their God (not the Muslim God). Nothing new here, I’m all set.

        So, the enlightened reaction to the first 30 minutes would be awe and questioning. A shallow atheist and a shallow Christian would make the same core mistake, which is to refuse to really engage, but the actual reactions would be opposite: keep watching vs. walk out.

        • Pastabagel says:

          You are absolutely right, and they get their own rude awakening later on, but that wasn’t what I was writing about in this particular post.

          • TheDevastator says:

            Ah-HA! What do you think you were trying to pull anyway, writing a post where you argue against one particular thing? Any reasonable person would have logically inferred that you approve of all other things. Thank God I was here.*

            *You never can tell on the Internet, so I am hereby letting you know that the above is indeed tongue-in-cheek. Also, I want to say thanks for letting us know about the movie. I was dimly aware of it before, but now I will see it as soon as I can.

      • anon says:

        The filmmaker would have other reasons to think he ‘got’ his own movie. Snare is talking about nonspecific Christian viewers.

    • Or says:

      “Even Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett all say to varying degrees that ‘one cannot be certain’.”

      Sure, Dawkins, Hitchens et al. probably have a better grasp of epistemological nuance than most of their fans. The angry atheists I know will bring up their rage over the Problem of Evil about an hour before you can first successfully steer the conversation toward a recognition of the need for intellectual humility. You can flip through a book to find a rational defense when you’re cornered, but still have a sort of atheism that’s largely seated in emotional and identity issues.

    • pageantry says:

      Back when I was arguing with atheists on a BBS in the 90′s, I remember we used to differentiate between capital-A Atheists (who actively believe THERE IS NO GOD) and lower-case atheists (pronounced “ah-theists”? you’ll notice it caught like brushfire) who believe there is no current evidence to prove a God. A helpful shorthand.

      If only everyone on the planet were exactly like me.

  9. flurie says:

    This post reminds me a lot of Tree of Life: it’s heavy-handed, handwringy, and dreadfully boring.

  10. mmwm says:

    I haven’t seen it (don’t think it’s showing anywhere nearby) but the trailer, and especially your comments, lead me to feel it’s like “What the Bleep” combined with a hackneyed storyline about the importance of “family.” I didn’t walk out of “What the Bleep” but wish I had. (I’m not an atheist.)

  11. rafaelmadeira says:

    This analysis of the supposed people who walked out of the movie is as “profound” as these people’s experience of the movie.

  12. CubaLibre says:

    Actually, I disagree with this post because I didn’t find anything in the movie particularly religious. Profound, of course; but religion doesn’t have a lock on profundity. I mean, the audience-frustrating interlude you refer to is a gorgeous, painstakingly-rendered vision of the scientific origin and development of the universe. My reaction upon seeing it was that it should be shown in Imax in science museums – any person interested in the Saganesque wide-eyed wonder presented by the cosmos should have found that the most thrilling segment of the movie, not the most frustrating.

    As for religion, the only time it makes an explicit appearance in the movie seems to be in order to show how parochial and unfulfilling it is, how completely inadequate it is to the task of ameliorating the depths of human misery or negotiation the heights of human ecstasy. The kid treats the place like a joke as soon as his conservative father has left the room. I didn’t see anything in the movie that would anger even the most superficial of the “New Atheists” (full disclosure: I am an atheist).

  13. vprime says:

    Where can I access the survey data you used to determine that it was mainly atheists who walked out of this movie?

    • cakef says:

      Thank you. I consider myself an atheist, though I am not a new one. I’ve been like this for years. I thought the movie was flawed, but was very beautiful and thought provoking. I’m glad I saw it and never once considered walking out. Pastabagel doesn’t know why people walked of the theater. He suspects that certain thin-skinned atheists did and presents his supposition as fact. Since we’re making things up here, I’ll join in. Perhaps people walked out because they expected a Brad Pitt Hollywood movie and instead got an arty film with a non-traditional narrative structure and a long wordless beginning. I think people who believe in God are mistaken, but they’re not crazy and dumb. Many are smarter and saner than I am. This movie helped me understand the believer’s worldview better. This “Atheists can’t take a spiritual message” approach is not helpful. The movie was a beautiful vision of the director’s point of view just as The Passion of the Christ was for Mel Gibson. Both films helped me understand the depth of the director’s beliefs.

  14. antoinebugleboy says:

    “What these atheists want to believe is not only that there is no God, but that anyone who does believe in God is either crazy or an irrational fool.”

    Let’s try a little Mad-Libs style substitution: What Pastabagel wants to believe is not only that Terrence Malick is God, but that anyone who does not believe Terrence Malick is God is either crazy or an irrational fool.

  15. Kayode says:

    I definitely want to go see this movie now.

    However you are saying that the problem with these people is that they are afraid of the profound? Or are you saying that dealing with the profound (whatever that is in their lives) will mean that they would have to deal with questions that they rather not deal with?

    This reminds of one of TLP’s post about Americans not having actual opinions but reactions to opinions.

  16. Fifi says:

    So, I figured it might be worthwhile to see what kind opinions atheists who’d bothered seeing the movie actually. For what it’s worth, here’s the opinion of the president of the American Atheists (who did sit through the movie) but he’s not claiming to speak for all atheists and doesn’t hesitate to say that some atheists have a different opinion of the movie.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQ-CiBofXDA

    Personally I’ll wait until when/if I’ve seen the movie to form an opinion about it. Though, from what I’ve read and heard about it (from people who liked the movie) seems much more likely that the people who walk out just aren’t into dealing with non-linear narrative structures and expected more of a the traditional linear (and often simplistic) narrative of a Hollywood movie because of the stars attached. It’s a less controversial take on it, sure, but it seems more plausible to me from the reviews I’ve seen/heard than what you’re proposing.

  17. Fifi says:

    I must say, putting up signs in movie theaters that warn people that the film may be controversial seems like a rather obvious marketing gimmick to me and an attempt to generate controversy for publicity purposes more than anything else (and perhaps is also a way to deal with the apparently large numbers of people who just thought the movie sucked because it wasn’t to their taste and was boring).

  18. nick says:

    Where’s a lumberjack when you need one?

  19. flailingjunk says:

    I was interested in the characters and the story but some asshole cut in a CGI demo reel at random and they forgot to wright dialogue for about 90% of the scenes.

  20. Simbera says:

    I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t comment on how I would react to it, as an atheist. Nor can I make any comment on what I think the film is saying.

    But I will say this: this presentation of strident atheists as having built their identity around it like religious people do, of having faith (ie being unwilling to view the film’s “evidence” for fear it’d change their mind) like religious people do, reeks of Agnostic Arrogance. IE the kind of people who build their identities around being the moderate; who love to be the “calming” voice of “rationality”, who will suggest that neither strident atheists nor religious extremists have the right idea so we must all be in the middle; who sincerely believe that the middle ground is always the best, simply by virtue of being in the middle.

    I also take issue with your characterisation of new atheists as being shallow and unconcerned with the profound and numinous, but I see someone else has already brought that up and you’ve dealt with it, so yeah.

    • Pastabagel says:

      Again, let me explain. Somebody like Dawkins is not at all shallows or unconcerned with the profound. Dawkins is an intellectual giant. The people who read Dawkins and uncritically accept and parrot what he says? Not so much.

      • Fifi says:

        pastabagel – That’s rather ironic really since you linked to the Skepchick blog as an example of the kind of “New Atheists” you don’t like (strident Dawkins’ fans who don’t think critically or for themselves) when some of the blog writers there just called Dawkins on being an uncritical about his own (probably enculturated) beliefs that contribute to his own identity. So, they’re not uncritical followers of Dawkins though they may share some of the same concerns as him when it comes to religion, science and society.

        So….let me get this sorted out…Dawkins (who is a strident atheist) is okay but the people who write Skepchick aren’t because they’re slavish Dawkins’ fans (even though they’ve actually shown they’re not)? You seem to have constructed a rather unwieldy atheist bogeyman (with all kinds of extra limbs and multiple heads) in your mind that is somehow responsible for the fact that not everyone loves a movie you find really, really meaningful…as if your personal experience of the film is somehow invalidated if every last person doesn’t believe in its brilliance, depth and spiritual/religious narrative just like you do. You are aware that the movie in question is a work of fiction that isn’t pretending to be fact (from what I can tell)?

        Anyway, you seem pretty unfamiliar with atheism and who’s who in terms of public figures so maybe this is an opportunity to deepen your understanding and knowledge. I, personally, find it interesting that you elevate Dawkins (though you don’t seem to have read The God Delusion) while denigrating Skepchick since, from what I’ve read of from both you and both other sources, you actually seem to have more in common philosophically with the Skepchick take on things. This leads me to wonder what exactly led to your choice of Skepchick as an example of your idiosyncratic label of “New Atheist” bogeymen/women (are you just following TLP, for instance, or are you looking for blog hits, or was it just looking for anyone to stand in for your internal bogeyman and it was sheer intellectual laziness?)

  21. Fifi says:

    The question becomes, pastabagel, why did you feel the need to defend your own liking of the movie in this way? Why do you need to believe that any person who walked out of the film is a believer in a model of New Atheism that you’ve constructed (your imaginings of what a “New Atheist” is that explicitly exclude the very people generally considered the prime examples/promoters of New Atheism)? I’m curious, since this site often focuses on deconstructing media, do you think there’s a Christian subtext to the movie or do you see it as being “mystical” without being religious (or as something else)? In your original post you seem to be indicating the latter but I may have misunderstood so please correct me if I have.

    • Pastabagel says:

      I don’t need to defend my liking of the film, and I’ll explain why I liked it in detail in an upcoming post. In fact, the film is so exceptional, I believe it shifts the burden to those who didn’t like it to explain why.

      What drove me to investigate why people walked out was nothing more than bafflement that anyone would walk out. But when I looked into it, I came all of the things I mentioned.

      Is there a Christian subtext? Sort of, mostly in the beginning, but after that, not so much. It is much more about making sense of death and attempting to uncover the meaning of life through the unreliable detritus of memory than about God. I left the theater convinced that Malick must be a strong Catholic (I’m not catholic or strong anything religious, nor do I believe there is a God) but aside for a few images scattered in the film, I can’t say that the film is in any way overtly Catholic or Christian. During the film that quote that popped into my head during the astronomical images was from Carl Sagan (atheist): “We have begun at least to wonder about our origins — star stuff contemplating the stars.” So you can take Sagan’s view, or you can take the Catholic’s “dust to dust, ashes unto ashes.” Malick makes the point that no matter where you start and what path you take, you end up facing the same unanswerable questions, and you face them alone.

      God is not in the film anywhere. Characters are heard praying, but only as little, and nothing is heard back. It isn’t a Christian film.

      Let me explain the distinction between the leading lights of new atheism and the rank and file I’m talking about in my post–I can’t imagine Dawkins or Dennet or any of the other intellectuals walking out of this film, simply because it is too great of a work of art. Dawkins certainly wouldn’t advocate reducing the Pieta to rubble because he doesn’t believe in God.

      You could be the most strident atheist, and yet you have to marvel at Malick’s skill as a director, i.e. through the sequencing of images over time and underneath dialogue in sympathetic and contrasting ways. As an aside, I do not recall a film that communicates so realistically the nature and resolution of the Oedipal conflict as this film.

      I did not go into this film expecting to like it this much (I didn’t really expect anything), I merely went expecting something different. I wasn’t expecting something on the level of 2001 namely because I haven’t seen anything come close to that in all the years since.

      • Fifi says:

        “I don’t need to defend my liking of the film, and I’ll explain why I liked it in detail in an upcoming post. In fact, the film is so exceptional, I believe it shifts the burden to those who didn’t like it to explain why.”

        Er, but your whole post was a defense of liking the movie and you resorted to erecting strawmen to knock down in defense of your belief that the film is “exceptional”. You still can’t concede that perhaps some people just found it boring and unexceptional for their own personal reasons (just like you find it exceptional for your own personal reasons). Apparently this movie touched you very deeply and has a great personal resonance for you. For some other people looking to see a movie with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, it was highly disappointing (some people who know their own taste, decided to walk out at the beginning). Sorry, your subjectivity doesn’t trump anyone else’s. It may well be brilliant and revolutionary on a formal level but that’s a different discussion than “I thought this movie was brilliant and anyone who doesn’t is a close minded bigot atheist”. Clearly the religious/spiritual component is pretty important to you since you focused on “atheism” as the reason people walked out of the movie. (And then targeted the Skepchick blog as an example of these horrible “New Atheist” bogeymen even though they didn’t even comment on the movie.)

        “Let me explain the distinction between the leading lights of new atheism and the rank and file I’m talking about in my post–I can’t imagine Dawkins or Dennet or any of the other intellectuals walking out of this film, simply because it is too great of a work of art. Dawkins certainly wouldn’t advocate reducing the Pieta to rubble because he doesn’t believe in God.”

        The problem is you’re basing things on what you imagine. I think you’ve pretty much made it clear you’re in no position to “explain the distinction between the leading lights of new atheism and the rank and file” as if you’re an authority. And, just because you can’t imagine “intellectuals” not like the film (now there’s a whole bag of identity based biases!) doesn’t mean that there aren’t intellectuals who don’t like the film. Can you see the identity-bias loop you’re creating…”The film was a revelation to me, I think it’s brilliant BECAUSE I am a brilliant intellectual and identify with the narrative BECAUSE I am brilliant and ‘get it’, therefore anyone who didn’t like the start and walked out must be some kind of stupid, non-intellectual ‘New Atheist’ because the movie’s all about religion for me”. YOU’RE the one that made it all about the religious content of the movie and presumed this was what turned people off without even considering that, hey, lots of people like linear narrative structures in their Hollywood movies. Occam’s Razor and all that.

        So what if there did happen to be a Christian themed narrative or there’s one underpinning the family narrative? Clearly, in your own mind, the religious aspect is important to you since you’ve chosen to believe that it’s the only reason anyone could not want to watch the whole movie (and have totally avoided addressing the reports and suggestions that some people just found the formal structure not to their liking and may well have even been Christians).

        Pastabagel, I don’t take issue with your liking the movie or even thinking it’s the most brilliant thing YOU’VE seen since 2001 – that’s a subjective belief. This subjective belief and emotional and intellectual identification with the movie is quite different than defending the movie on formal grounds as a great work of art. The after-the-fact back pedaling defense of the strawman you’ve erected, and attempt to redefine “New Atheism” to serve your own purposes, only magnifies the fact that you’ve erected a strawman that is now on fire (and busy burning down the premise of your argument).

        It seems that one of the features of the intellectual atheists you seem to admire (and align yourself with here) is that they’re willing to recognize and admit when they’ve erected a strawman or intellectually unsound argument. (Though Dawkins has provided evidence that, so far and in some cases, he’s not actually capable of doing this…but, hey, he’s human like the rest of us. Some of us just expect a bit better from people educated in science – particularly those who come down hard on other people’s confirmation biases – when it comes to understanding and addressing confirmation biases.)

        Also, I don’t know what your google bias is like but I didn’t actually find many atheists even bothering to discuss the movie when I googled (so obviously my google bias is different, I found a fair amount of discussion of the Christian content by Christians though). The one atheist I did find was the head of American Atheists – who are hardcore enough they’ve made a fuss about Christmas lights on public buildings – and the guy watched the whole film and didn’t mind it even though he recognized a Christian subtext.

        You know, it’s okay to like a movie for subjective reasons EVEN IF there’s a Christian subtext (note, I said “if” – I’m not making an assertion about this movie). You are aware that your experience of the movie as a personal revelation is subjective and doesn’t mean that everyone will have the same experience for all kinds of reasons (already grappled with Oedipal issues, death, they’re not you, etc)? That’s just fine but your approach in this instance is verging on evangelical (I had a revelation, you WILL have one too if you’re not a stupid poopoo head, close minded atheist who won’t sit through the whole movie because if you did you’d be a convert/agree with me). You know, in light of the strawmen you’ve constructed, accusing others of being uncritical fanboys (well, mainly fangirls going by your original post) seems a bit like a projection here since you’re clearly a fan of the director and went to the movie with the expectation it would be brilliant. Cool if you’re a fan of his style and content but that doesn’t make anyone who isn’t a fan somehow lesser than you or invalidate their subjective taste in art and entertainment. You are also aware that it’s possible to recognize something has formal merit but still not find it to one’s own subjective liking?

        • Fifi says:

          “In fact, the film is so exceptional, I believe it shifts the burden to those who didn’t like it to explain why.”

          You may believe this but that doesn’t make it so! Particularly when you’re making assertions based on no evidence (“I liked it and had a personal revelation” isn’t evidence, it an anecdote about your subjective perspective and nobody is arguing you didn’t like the movie). If you want to be rational about it, you’re the one making the extraordinary claim that the film is the best thing evar (not subjectively but objectively) so the burden to prove this assertion/belief falls on you since you’re the one making the claim.

          And to say you didn’t have a bias towards the movie when you went to see it doesn’t really make sense since you claimed that you were already a fan of his other work. YOU didn’t enter the movie without a bias, whether you recognize that or not. You seem to be both biased towards liking the movie/director and against anyone who doesn’t share your enthusiasm, taste and/or beliefs.

  22. zozo says:

    Shorter version: “This movie was the awesomest movie ever. If you disagree with me, you must be a closed-minded “new” (not “New,” but a mindless follower of “New”) atheist. There’s no other way someone could dislike this most incredible work of ART.”

  23. zozo says:

    And I guess the most interesting part of all of this is the pre-emptive defensiveness. The whole point of this post is not “Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is one of the greatest films ever made,” but rather, “And if you walked out, I hate to break it to you, but you’re closed-minded.”

    Why make a whole essay about why people who disagree with your assessment of the film are closed-minded “new” atheists? Isn’t it enough to describe why you like the film without assiging pejorative qualities to people who could potentially disagree with you? What is the motivation for so aggressively defending one’s assumed identity, with its various affiliations and markers? I think TLP might have a term for that.

  24. Sfon says:

    I got two messages from this:

    1. Pastabagel thought something was high art. Assumed that not liking it can only result from being flawed. “They must not be good enough for it.” is a normal but immature response.

    2. Pastabagel dislikes New Atheists. Sweeping generalizations with a narrative that seems pulled out of the air are presented. He doesn’t seem to care if it was atheists or not, for that reason or not, but only that he needs it to be. When it was pointed out in the comments that not all New Atheists are that way, he tries to say it doesn’t matter because not all are enlightened and so the enlightened ones don’t count.

    If what you are trying to say is that you’ve dealt with a number of atheists who are obnoxious about it and are sick of it, that is easy to sympathize with. The dishonest tone that sounds somewhat like political/atheist/religious fanatics with unsupported narratives and sweeping, slippery generalizations? Not so sympathetic.

  25. Fifi says:

    Oh, and as a geeky aside since pastabagel compared the movie to 2001, apparently it’s the same person doing special fx for this movie as for 2001.

  26. pageantry says:

    I waited to read this point until tonight because I typically respect what you have to say and I didn’t want to color my perception of the movie. That said, I don’t think people walked out because they were atheists. I think they walked out because someone close to them had similarly died.

    The “tree of life” is a traditional Jewish image. If you knew one thing about the movie walking in (which is all I knew) you probably picked up that the movie touched on deep existential themes. I doubt any dogmatic atheist would have been there in the first place, just waiting to get offended out of his $14 (plus popcorn.)

  27. mkdaremo says:

    I think you should write a self-analysis based on the following statement: “If you are even slightly educated, meaning that you are willing to accept the idea that you do not know absolutely everything about everything, then I urge you to see this film because you will love it.”

    Hint: it will not be awesome. ;D

    It’s okay, ur kinda okay anyway (geez, i finally made an account here just to say that?)

  28. Orangebookbag says:

    Pastabagel, the “New Atheists” (if there are any still around) are REALLY gonna hate To The Wonder

  29. dsense says:

    “pedantic arguments and pop-atheism “proofs””?

    The many ways in which this assertion can be exponentially twisted back onto theistic reasoning boggles my mind.

    I am a huge fan of Malick. Being an atheist, I still find his movies extremely pleasing and enjoyable despite his spiritual leanings. I find it hard to believe that the people you single out leaving theaters can really be proven to be atheists, let alone justify this as a bad thing if true. So what if they dislike Malick’s vision? Your criticism of New Atheism in this article is obscure and strange. It’s practically boils down to a whiny complaint of an anti-worldview thrown in out of nowhere, when I was hoping for at least a competent review of this great movie. What a crappy article.

    • dsense says:

      Then again, after reading ALL the comments, Pastabagel seems alright. He just made a few booboos and he seems open minded enough to learn and grow. Are you PastaBagel? Have you made your peace with New Atheim yet? Have you learned about what it is, what it is not, and how it is defined before you write about them again?

      Anyways, I guess any Dawk fan is fine by me. Lets all have a laugh:

      What does an orca whale and a Tupperware container have in common?

      ANSWER: they both like a nice tight seal.

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