Confronting the Unexplainable
How The Tree of Life and A Ghost Story pushed me into an existential drift.
In my cinematography class last week, I decided to screen two films within three days of each other. The first was the Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick, and the second was A Ghost Story, directed by David Lowery. The night after watching both of these films in a immersive theater setting, I found myself sitting on my deck for over an hour doing... nothing.
In this day and age, millennials like myself do not sit and do nothing. If we are waiting in line for something we play candy crush, when we have a still moment alone at the house we turn on Modern Family, and at a down moment at work we scroll through your sisters Instagram feed. So this moment, this night, of sitting and doing nothing, was rare to say the least, but I had no choice in the matter. I was something my mind forced me to do.
I sat there I reflected that night, alone, in the quiet. What was I reflecting on exactly? Even as I sit here and write this I have trouble putting words to it.
You could say I found myself unable to avoid mediating on the weight of two brilliant films, asking questions I rarely ask... like "what does all of this mean? Why am I doing this thing that I call life in the way I am doing it? Where will I go after I die?".
These are questions that we are all trained not to ask. I have met so many people who have no desire to think or talk about existential questions. They shut down the conversation completely, that is, barring one major exception... After they experience the death of a loved one or a personal tragedy. At that moment, people are thrust into facing the thoughts we want to ignore.
We approach these issues emotionally raw, which cannot help but influence our thinking on the subject. None of us are ever objective with answers of faith, meaning, and afterlife... but after personal tragedy we are even more biased than usual.
I have seen this play out several times with friends and family: tragedy strikes, existential questions are confronted through tears and shouting, and then the pain begins to slowly subside and the questions are not asked again and we all go back to the rat race of life.
I say "we" in the last few paragraphs because I am human just like the people I have seen go through this process, but my avoidance of big questions are avoided for very different reasons.
I grew up in church where we passed out pamphlets written around the larger life questions. They had headlines like "Where will you go when you die?". From my earliest memory, the church had all the answers. One of which was: "There's a heaven and hell where each of us will go when we die based on our belief in Jesus as the Son of God". Questioning this is not allowed and if you have further questions, answers are provided in bullet points from a Sunday School projector.
I had a friend reference this the other day. He was older and grew up under the rigorous beliefs of Evangelicalism... He said whenever he finds himself asking questions about his beliefs, he silences them because "it is not the good Christian thing to do to ask questions. That's where faith comes in."
This stuck with me, bothered me, irritated me to my very core.
I did not sign up for a faith where I cannot ask questions. I was taught that God was all-knowing and big enough to answer anything I brought him... so if I have very real doubts about hell or have difficult questions I want answered about homosexuality, I will go to my God and ask Him, unafraid of the answers.
This is a glimpse to where my mind has been at this past year. But like everyone, I put these questions aside because I have a class to teach, a church to attend, a job to work, and a family to love. I would still be putting these thoughts aside too... if it wasn't for two movies stopping me in my tracks, forcing these questions to the forefront of my mind.
Haven't seen the movies? Want to know what I'm talking about? Watch this clip from the first one called A Ghost Story:
This film is a phenomenally simple, beautiful, haunting meditation on time. It shows the meaningless of everything we do in the context of the millions of years and people around us. This monologue expresses those themes explicitly.
While words are used in the monologue, the majority of the themes are addressed visually, as a ghost experiences the fleeting passage of time around him and begs the questions: Why are we doing anything we are doing? Why are we worried or striving or creating or loving when is all doesn't matter in the end in the face of time?
Now compare that clip with this moment from The Tree of Life below:
This film is equally meditative and even more abstract in its imagery. After the screening, several students in my class told me they had no clue what they watched or if they liked or hated the movie. I had a similar reaction when I first viewed it... but the themes and the images stuck with me and this is now one of my favorite films ever made.
It shows the vastness of time like A Ghost Story, but provides one more vital question: How can a meaningless world have any place for the confounding life-giving concept of grace?
The Tree of Life is a comparison between this grace and the nature that surrounds it. Nature makes sense. Everyone agrees that this is part of existing. Survival of the fittest. Evolution. Nature says look out for oneself. Gets ahead in life by any means necessary. Nobody questions nature.
Why does that need to be there? What piece of us says to give ourselves up to help someone else or to forgive someone when they don't deserve it? That is not survival of the fittest. It does not fit anywhere in evolution, yet it's been here since the dinosaurs and before, from when the first volcano erupted and its lava was quenched by the ocean or the first sunflower bloomed. All of the world reflects this unexplainable truth.
Upon first viewing it seems like A Ghost Story ignores this unexplainable element, but it addresses its own underlying mystery to our existence. Playing to the word "ghost" in its title, the film shows the unexplainable bumps in the night, flickering light bulbs, and moments you feel like someone else is in the room when you are actually alone.
Because of these moments, A Ghost Story does not in itself put forth the fatalistic view it seems to promote. When Casey Affleck's character dies fifteen minutes into the movie, true fatalism says that's the end, roll credits, it's over. Yet by the very presence of the ghost, it says there is more. Even in the monologue scene, right after he stops speaking a light flickers because the ghost is in attendance.
See, a truly fatalistic view leaves no room for art, for stories, for anything of meaning. The only reason any of us should have any drive to make movies is because we believe there is something more.
That grace. That beauty. Those small miracles. We need films that bring the larger questions to light, not so that they all can be answered but because the inquiries themselves denote the need for something more the known world to be explained.