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.