Weekly Double Feature: Tree Of Life and A Serious Man
I know I’ve been calling this feature a weekly, but if it is I must be living on a ten-day week. In any event: Passover and Easter are just around the corner, so I thought this week would be a good one to look at a pair of recent cinematic meditations on religious themes, both jumping off from the same book from the biblical canon: the Book of Job.
* * *
Before I can get into the movies, I need to talk a bit about the book.
Job is a complicated, surprising and, I think, often misunderstood book. It is classified as a work of theodicy – that is, a work that grapples with the problem of evil given the posited existence of an omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent deity. But I think this is a fundamental misconception. The book is not a work of theodicy – it’s a rejection of theodicy. It doesn’t answer the question of why bad things happen to good people; it says that this is the wrong question.
The only people in the Book of Job who attempt to provide a theodicy are Job’s comforters. They think they understand the way the world works. The good are rewarded and the sinful are punished. If Job is suffering, he must have done something to deserve it. If he refuses to acknowledge this fact, that’s arrogance, which is more proof that they are right and he deserves his suffering.
By contrast, the Book of Job itself opens with a scene that should be considered blasphemous. God tells Satan, who’s been busy walking the earth like Caine in Kung Fu, to consider his servant Job. Satan considers him, but isn’t impressed: yes, he’s good, but that’s because God has been good to him. So Satan and God make a kind of bet: God lets Satan punish Job, as a test, to see if Job will keep his faith in adversity.
Now, I say this should be blasphemous, because at no point does God suggest that there is some value to Job, or to God, or to anybody in Job’s suffering. Satan is God’s prosecuting attorney. God thinks Job is deserving of favor; Satan’s job is to prove that he isn’t. In order to give Satan his fair chance, God is willing to visit wholly undeserved punishment on Job. But there is no larger purpose. The only purpose of the test, so far as we can tell, is to find out the result of the test.
It’s useful, I think, to imagine the Book of Job beginning with an argument between, say, Zeus and Hera. We have no expectation, reading stories about Zeus, that he will be portrayed as primarily concerned with our welfare. The Greek gods were jealous, petty, capricious, vain. But they are also powerful, and noble. If they made a bet about a mortal, and put him through numerous trials, just to see if he could overcome them, that would make perfect sense. They wouldn’t worry about whether they were being fair. They would be giving the mortal a chance, by passing the test, to earn their favor, and thereby become a hero – because that’s what a hero is: someone who passes these kinds of arbitrary trials.
In the Greek value system, the worship of gods who behave in this fashion makes perfect sense. The Greek gods were not worshiped because they were good, or because they loved us. They were worshiped because they were powerful. In the Israelite framework, though, and in the subsequent Jewish and Christian traditions that spring from it, this is inadequate. In monotheism, the character of God determines the character of reality itself. A monotheist who worships God simply because He is powerful is, effectively, worshiping power itself, in a kind of spiritual fascism.
This, then, is the question that the Book of Job asks: not why bad things happen to good people, but rather given that bad things happen to good people, how should we relate to God – why, and how, should He be worshiped?
* * *
Job, the character, goes through a series of stages over the course of the book. First, he holds to his faith even as he loses everything. His wife advises that he kill himself (“curse God and die”) rather than continue to endure; he rejects her advice. But eventually, it is too much for him, and he cries out to God, demanding an explanation. He doesn’t accuse God of injustice. He accuses him of not explaining His justice adequately so that Job can understand it, and know why he is suffering.
Visited by three comforters, Job is told over and over that he must have done something, and that he should repent to be forgiven. His refusal is interpreted as arrogance, but he doesn’t care. He has searched his soul. He doesn’t see how he deserves the punishment he is given.
And then, God Himself speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, and says, basically: who do you think you are? What aspect of My creation do you actually comprehend? From the daily miracles of mundane natural phenomena to exotic monsters like Leviathan and Behemoth (“the beginning of the ways of God”), God takes Job on a tour of creation, and says, basically, I did all that, and you’re asking me to justify how I treated you?
And Job repents. But it doesn’t end there. God tells Job’s comforters that Job was righteous, and they were sinful for telling Job that he did something wrong to merit his suffering. And then God gives Job a new family, new wealth, etc. His earthy favor is restored.
How is this an answer to Job’s question? How is it an answer to what I think is the Book of Job’s question? As an answer to Job’s question, it’s a non-sequitur. Job asks: how is my suffering just? God replies: why are you asking me that? Look at the splendor of my creation! In other words: that’s the wrong question. The Book of Job is asking: if worshiping God doesn’t prevent suffering, and if God’s justice cannot be comprehended, then why worship God? And why follow His commands?
* * *
“A Serious Man” and “The Tree of Life” each grapple with this question, in very different ways. Both movies are deeply personal projects, and both have their roots in – and are, in part, efforts to capture on film – the filmmakers’ childhoods. One comes from a very Jewish, but irreligious, sensibility; the other comes from a very philosophically-oriented Christian perspective. “A Serious Man” is comic, satiric, angry; “The Tree of Life” is elegiac, melancholy, yearning. But the distinction that, it seems to me, provides the scaffolding for all the other differences between these two films is that they are meditating on different parts of the Book of Job.
“A Serious Man” opens with a bizarre Jewish folktale: a man brings home a stranger, a famous rabbi. But the famous rabbi, says the man’s wife, is dead. So who is this? Maybe it’s a dybbuk? Maybe the guy didn’t really die? Maybe – well, the wife isn’t going to wait to figure out what “maybe,” she stabs the old man in the stomach, and he stumbles out of their house, laughing.
I say it’s a bizarre folktale, because the resort to fatal violence feels more Coen than authentically shtetlich; there are hassidic stories that contain outrageous violence, but not, so far as I have encountered, intimate violence perpetrated by a Jew. But this, in itself, is significant. The resort to violence is the assertion of control, of oneself as an actor in history. The story reads, to me, as an inversion of the Job opening. Both husband and wife agree that their guest has come to them from God – that is to say: things don’t just happen; they happen for a reason. But is the guest a blessing or a curse? Are they being rewarded, or punished? The wife, sticking a knife into the old man, answers: if I don’t know which it is, I don’t want it. Clearly, the only thing to do with such a woman is go with her to America.
But, though you can take the Jew out of the shtetl, you can’t take the shtetl out of the Jew, and the rest of the movie focuses on Larry, the Job figure. He’s been suffering, silently for some time: a stale marriage, a brother with an endlessly draining cyst, kids who don’t respect him. But things are about to get worse. His wife is leaving him for another man – the magnificently oleaginous Sy Abelman – and, right when his job is at risk, he’s being bribed, blackmailed or both by a student who wants him to give him an (in Larry’s opinion) undeserved passing grade. What will Larry do now?
Larry, passive sufferer that he is, does, basically, nothing. He seeks the advice of three comforters, who are, again, parodies of Job’s comforters. The first, the junior rabbi, comforts with a parody of the voice from the whirlwind’s tour of the wonders of creation as the “answer” to Job’s search for a just explanation for his sufferings. In the Book of Job, God says: look at Leviathan! That’s what creation is all about! The junior rabbi says: look at the parking lot! That’s what . . . yeah.
The second, senior rabbi, parodies kabbalistic theodicy, in which creation is interpenetrated with mystic “shards” of the divine that we have to ferret out and “repair” – hence the search for coded messages in events. In this case, the coded message is literal: a Jewish dentist finds a Hebrew message, “save me,” miraculously carved into the teeth of a non-Jewish patient. But the meaning of the message is, merely, that there are messages – the message itself has no meaning for the recipient who does not even consider the possibility that (duh) the non-Jewish man with the teeth needs saving (nor does the rabbi, who gets the funniest line in the movie, in answer to Larry’s question, “What happened to the goy?” – “The goy? Who cares?”).
And the third, emeritus rabbi, an ancient sage, cannot make time to even speak to him. Small comfort from these three – and, implicitly, from the tradition as it has come down to us from Sinai to the suburbs of Minneapolis.
The message, over and over, is that we aren’t getting the message. Sy dies, suddenly – is that justice being visited upon him for breaking up Larry’s marriage? But when the bored, hot housewife next door comes on to Larry, is that a temptation to sin – or to live a little? At the end of the movie, Larry gives in to temptation, and changes the grade of the blackmailing student. And then . . . he gets a call from his doctor. A serious call. Punishment? Coincidence? Is there meaning in the message, or is the meaning merely that there appears to be a message?
And then comes a whirlwind. But no voice.
* * *
“The Tree of Life,” meanwhile, is all about that voice. The movie is plainly a meditation on Job. It opens with a quote from Job, contains an extended sequence in a church in which the pastor preaches on the Book of Job, and both the mother and the older brother of the boy who dies explicitly echo Job’s questions as they try to understand, where is God when unjust things happen?
But the film is suffused, almost smothered, by Terrence Malick’s version of the answer from the whirlwind, his depiction of the wonder of creation. From repeated shots of the towering trees of 1960s Waco to abstract compositions of light and water to extended sequences depicting the creation of the world and the evolution of life, Malick’s film wants to show us what the whirlwind told Job: creation is unfathomably grand, terrifying, and wonderful. There’s even a shot of a sea monster! This material infuriated many reviewers, who wanted a narrower focus on the lost paradise of Waco, but what infuriated them is the heart of the movie. If this material feels irrelevant to the story, well, isn’t the voice from the whirlwind on the surface pretty irrelevant to Job’s questions? Job is suffering, and God says: look at the parking lot! This is an answer? No, it isn’t an answer – it’s an attempt to change Job’s perspective. So, too, Malick with our expectations of how a story of a man’s life gets resolved.
(Apropos of trees, I note that the Coen brothers had to digitally remove the trees from their 1960s Minneapolis suburb – because back in the 1960s the trees that now tower over the post-war houses were only saplings. I wonder whether Waco was actually leafier, or whether Malick wished to remember it that way.)
The Coen brothers’ protagonist, Larry, is a physicist, who believes in the comprehensibility of mathematics and, by extension, the world that can be described mathematically. Malick’s protagonist, Jack, is similarly inclined. He grows up to be an architect, and lives in a world of sharp lines and glass planes, a grid rather than a branching tree. But while Larry’s embrace of physics is a form of faith – Job’s false faith at the start of the Book, the faith that good is rewarded and evil punished, and that therefore God’s ways can be understood – Jack’s resort to the grid is a denial of faith. Jack’s questioning of God’s justice begins when he is still young. He chafes against his father’s authoritarian parenting – his father thereby serving as a kind of stand-in for God, as is a longstanding patriarchal tradition – but he also observes the injustice of his heavenly father long before his own brother dies, when a boy drowns in a swimming pool. He wonders: why be good? God isn’t.
And then his own brother dies, and, we presume (because we don’t ever see this portion of his life), Jack experiences a kind of survivor guilt. He is the one who rebelled. He is the one who should have been struck down. One senses that he turns to the grid not to reassure himself that God’s ways are comprehensible, but to ensure that his own ways remain on the straight and narrow. He doesn’t want anybody else to turn up dead. But of course, as he wanders the halls and rides the elevators of his crystal palace, all he can think about is his lost brother. In rejecting the messy world of God’s creation, he has, in a way, rejected life, and this leaves him with nothing but the life that was taken from him.
“The Tree of Life” builds to a somewhat oblique moment of resolution that echoes the idea of a general bodily resurrection without actually committing to the reality of same. Amid images of the destruction of the world (as will eventually happen, when the sun burns through most of its fuel and swells to giant size), we get images of people wandering on a beach, including both the adult Jack and his childhood self, and his parents, and his dead brother. And we get Jack’s mother offering her dead son’s soul to God. He took His gift back when He willed, but now – after she herself has died? or while she is still alive? or is this Jack’s vision of what he wishes his mother had done? – she is ready to give it back of her own free will.
One of the best things about the vision of creation in “The Tree of Life” is the embrace of the fact of destruction, not only in that final sequence but in the early dinosaur sequence, which ends with an asteroid hitting the earth, wiping out much of creation. More than the brief appearance of the aquatic dinosaur “Leviathan,” this, it seems to me, is Malick’s version of the voice from the whirlwind’s assertion of the primacy of destructive monsters in God’s creation. It is not merely that the gift of life must be returned, and at a time of God’s choosing. God is willing to visit destruction upon His creation on a scale that, from a narrative perspective, cannot be meaningfully comprehended. The walk on the beach can, it seems to me, be interpreted as a dodge that makes this comprehensible – a dodge that The Book of Job declines to take. (There is no reference, in Job, either to a resurrection or an afterlife.) I prefer to believe that Malick didn’t intend an overtly theological interpretation, that this beach exists in man’s mind, not God’s, that the significance is Jack’s mother’s ability, in this imagined space, to fully reconcile herself to her son’s being taken, and therefore for Jack to reconcile himself to his survival, his continued participation in branching, forking life, rather than what I have to call the fantasy that, in the end, Job doesn’t just get a new family, he gets his old family back. Because he doesn’t. We don’t.
* * *
“The Tree of Life” is a snapshot of the moment when Job hears the voice out of the whirlwind. Jack has “kept it together” for years, decades, but for whatever reason today the defenses have broken down, and he is face to face with questions he has buried since he was a young man. (As the festival musaf liturgy says: “in the face of our sins were we exiled from our land,” which I take to mean: now, conscious of our exile, unable to make expiation through the Temple, we cannot escape a confrontation with our sins.) And he – we – see God’s answer: look at the dinosaurs! I made them, they lived, and thrived, and then I took them all away, and you never even knew them. And somehow Jack sees: yes, You will take them all, You will take us all, to where I do not know, but if I remember that, perhaps I can accept that taking my brother was just . . . taking back what was Yours. And I can make that a gift to you.
“A Serious Man” stops just before this point. The whirlwind comes – and the movie stops. This seems like an ending that endorses Larry’s moral confusion – even the whirlwind doesn’t mean anything – but, notwithstanding the Coen brothers’ evident lack of interest in piety, I question that. The filmmakers’ anger at Larry, at the smallness both of his seriousness and of his sins, and, by extension, at the entire middle-class insular Jewish culture in which they were reared, burns forth from the screen. The whirlwind doesn’t speak – the idea that the “wonders of creation” constitute some kind of answer to Larry (or Job) is simply mocked. But they did not make this movie arbitrarily. They made it for a reason. This perspective, this anger, is itself a version of God’s answer out of the whirlwind, and a meaningful one, as surely as Malick’s film is, and the Coen brothers, in abusing poor Larry so mercilessly, are playing the part of God in the story. They want to shake him out of who he is, into something, well, more like what they are, what Larry’s son, presumably, grew up to be.
God, after all, is trying to say something to Job, both out of the whirlwind and in the “restoration” of Job’s fortunes that closes the book. What sticks out, to me, is the extravagant praise of the monsters. God, like my hypothetical Zeus, wants Job to be a hero of some sort, the kind of hero that a monotheist could respect. The aged rabbi, who makes no time for Larry, makes time for his son, the filmmakers’ stand-in, to give him back his confiscated transistor. And he quotes to him from the film’s ubiquitous Jefferson Airplane song: “When the truth is found to be lies and all the hope within you dies, then what? … Be a good boy.” And Job himself, when he is “restored” to fortune, continues to be a good boy: lives rightly, makes the proper sacrifices, etc. But he is changed, in some measure, and the sign is that he names his daughters, something we do not know that he attended to with his first family; and he names them things like Perfume and Eye-Shadow. These are his own beautiful monsters, and the significance, I think, is that Job now sees himself as a participant in creation, with the desire to impress God with his contribution thereto.
Which is what each of these movies is, in a different way: an offering to God. And each is more pleasing, I think, than what either would be if either director had striven merely to be a good boy.