I read something today that went like this: “Humans are participants among other participants, not godlike entities upon which everything else depends and which bring everything else into existence.” I think this about sums up the general thesis of the film Tree of Life, upon which I am still obsessing. The film starts with a woman learning of the death of her son, what then follows is her praying to God that she dies so that she can be with her dead son. The film then takes you on a magnificent visionary journey through the creating of the universe starting at the big bang and then back again to the lives of the family in West Texas. What we are immersed in before we learn about the lives of the humans in Texas, is just how small we really are. I could not help but walk away from the film feeling that all of my worries and fears and hopes and dreams are really nothing that I am just part of a giant universe, and it’s really my place as a human to just live and live humbly and simply.
I recall a summer in 1987, when I was in South Dakota and I saw a pool of turtles, the pool had so many turtles in it that they were all crawling over each other trying their best to get scarps of veggies that tourist bought to feed them. The colors, green and yellow shells and bits of carrots floating in between the bodies of the turtles, the water dark with algae growing on the sides and the bottom, the light glistening off the water and the turtle backs.
Yugen: subtly profound grace, not obvious;
These types of experiences like Tree of Life are about subtly profound grace, experiences that cannot be describes with words. To experience a profound mysterious sense of the universe, we have felt it, had the experience where we understand, but yet we lack the ability to fully articulate that experience. The beauty of Yugen at this high level in Tree of Life is how it works from the obvious to the subtle, giving us the banal, while at the same time overloading us with what we cannot begin to comprehend. The size and age of the universe is something our minds cannot comprehend, yet we can comprehend the slamming of a door, the anger at a family member, or can we? Yugen penetrates through the limitations of self, sparks off bits of transcendence, but not quite enough to fully comprehend the mystery the grace the subtle. What we find when we experience this grace we begin to grasp Yugen is what Malick does in Tree of Life so effortlessly, he gives us the profound tranquil loneliness, the realization that death can appear at any moment and grace. Yugen is at the essence of Malick’s throughout the film, pushing the characters to moments of death and pain, and constantly reinforcing the loneliness that is in Malick’s work the heart of his ontology.
Yugen is a Chinese word broken up Yu and Gen both relate to dyeing something black, but the word evolved to mean something profound, so deeply profound that we cannot comprehend. The word was transmitted to the Japanese and was a key element in Japanese No plays. Western culture lacks a true translation of this word, which is why I believe that Malick’s Tree of Life has been referred to as “sucking balls”. Western culture does not have a vocabulary to really understand what the film does ( not attempt, DOES). Rarely do you see a film that impacts an audience in such a deep in moving way as Tree of Life does, throughout the film you can hear people crying and reacting to the film.
“Humans are participants among other participants, not godlike entities upon which everything else depends and which bring everything else into existence.”