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.**
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.