sunlit leaves

sunlit leaves

A week or two ago my wife and I went to see The Tree of Life. It’s a beautiful movie that has gotten mixed reviews. It’s not plotted like a typical movie; it’s more like watching a sonnet sequence–a string of beautiful lyrics that may add up to a story but which also end up covering a lot of ground that isn’t directly related to the story. Which is frustrating to a lot of viewers, including me.
A lot of the movie is devoted to putting everyday life–the water from a sprinkler, the light sifting through the leaves of a spiraling live oak, a baby learning to talk–in a cosmic, even a transcendent context. There are these long, long sequences that look like something from a planetarium movie–supernovas, volcanoes, jellyfish–that are somehow fascinating and stultifying at the same time. Then spang up against it are these scenes of small-town Americana. Eventually you realize that the light of a supernova is the same as the light of a Fourth of July sparkler, and that both are lit with the light inextinguishable.

The Tree of Life is devoted to beauty in ways that I have never seen in a movie. Its purpose seems to be to train the viewer’s eye to see how much beauty there is in the mundane world we live in. It seems to have worked on me. I keep witnessing scenes that I’ve witnessed a thousand times before and seeing the beauty in them as if for the first time. My kids swinging together on the swing set struck me as so marvelous the other day that I just sat in the car and watched them as if they were a couple of deer crossing the road. The people in the neighborhood Kroger were so beautiful, I wondered if I had gone to the wrong grocery store. It was grace at work, I believe.

This romance of the everyday made me think of a passage from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, with which I will leave you:

[W]e all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales — because they find them romantic.

And a little further down…

The test of all happiness is gratitude…Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?

This is a beautiful world we live in–fallen, yes, but lovely when we only pay attention.

  • Fellow Traveler
    1:47 PM, 11 July 2011

    ToL strikes me as very similar to _How Green Was My Valley_ in a lot of ways. The difference, from all that I have gathered without seeing the film, is that _How Green_ is much better.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      2:02 PM, 11 July 2011

      I haven’t seen How Green Is My Valley, FT, but you’d be in a better position to pass judgment if you had actually seen Tree of Life.

      • Fellow Traveler
        2:10 PM, 11 July 2011

        I examined quite a few very in-depth reviews. I will readily acknowledge that it is indeed breathtaking cinematography. But, having seen _How Green Was My Valley_, I think it’s pretty clear that there is no contest. But hey, maybe one day you’ll watch _How Green_, and I’ll watch _ToL_. Deal? 😉

        • sally apokedak
          12:29 AM, 13 July 2011

          You are too funny, Traveler. 
          I have to agree that How Green Is My Valley is a very good film. It was heartbreaking, too, though. I wanted to slap some sense into the minister. 

          • Fellow Traveler
            1:25 AM, 13 July 2011

            Yes, it was, which is why it’s not my all-time favorite film. I mean…


            he never marries the girl he loves! He tells her he can’t bring himself to because he doesn’t have the means to support her. So she’s apparently just going to live a lonely, sad life alone, with most of her family dead and the man she loves having “escaped” the town. Hel-LO!

            I guess I’m just a sucker for happy endings.

  • Drew
    1:59 PM, 11 July 2011

    Yesterday the kids and I watched “Microcosmos,” a French documentary focusing on insects and other little critters running around at our feet. There are probably two spoken lines in the whole film — the rest is a visual feast, beautifully photographed (a scene of two snails in the throes of whatever passes for passion among snails, with an operatic aria on the soundtrack, is stunningly blush-worthy and you want to avert your eyes). It’s an amazing encounter with the intricacy of a world that we barely notice, and one cannot help but contemplate the Creator who set all this in motion for his good pleasure. 
    The movie finished, and I went for a short walk around the yard in the last golden light of evening. I could not stop looking — at everything.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      2:03 PM, 11 July 2011

      I love Microcosmos, Drew. You’re exactly right about it.

  • Mikebates
    3:09 PM, 11 July 2011

    The Chesterton quotes are underlined in my copy. I still view stories as magical and I wander around in my own head searching for old and new ones. That is the best reason I come here, thanks again!

  • Anonymous
    8:33 PM, 12 July 2011

    Thanks for this post.  To turn the diamond to catch the light from a slightly different angle, yes, the world is fallen, but it is still “good” (Genesis 1). What’s more, its redemption has begun as the dust of the earth is now seated on the throne of heaven, which gives us all the more reason to enjoy the world that God Himself enjoys. 
    And in a similar vein, you might really enjoy N.D. Wilson’s book, _Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl_ (of which a documentary was made and recently released).  While apologetic in nature, it does so from the kind of perspective you’re articulating in this post, making it a refreshing and engaging read.

    • Jess
      4:55 PM, 13 July 2011

      Funny, I just started reading Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl yesterday. It’s GOOD.

  • sally apokedak
    12:38 AM, 13 July 2011

    As I read the bit about the wonder little children have it reminded me of the first time my son woke up on a winter’s night and saw darkness. All summer it had been light. I remember him going up to the window with such a surprised look on his face. He was about ten months old. He stared out at the dark for a long time, and I realized there was much he didn’t know about the world because he’d never seen and there was much I didn’t know because I’d stop taking the time to look.  

    • Loren Warnemuende
      2:45 AM, 13 July 2011

      What a great example! It’s true–my kids are constantly helping me see and re-see things. 

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