Archive for 2011 October

Tree of Life: Does God love us in an abusive way?

I provoke, but really, that is the question that burns beneath the beautiful surfaces of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

I say this as an agnostic, as one who dislikes theology and theologians, but as one who (like many other critics) finds that this movie "touches me so much I can barely stand it."  

The story opens with a title card displaying a quote from God. Job, a devout believer, has lost everything — his family, his fortune, and his health — and asks, in so many words: Oh Lord, why me?

In reply, the God of the Old Testament demands to know what right Job has to question him in any way.

"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" 

It's a harsh response, but from God's perspective, a truthful one. (And to underline the point, Malick in the film takes the time to tell us the story of Job again, this time in a sermon. He has a minister in Waco Texas in the 1950's reminds his parishioners, including the family in the movie, of how instead of peace and kindness, God can "send flies to wounds.") Of how cruel God can be. 

The human drama begins on a related note. The graceful, kind mother in the story, played by the ethereal Jessica Chastain, speaks in voice-over. As she speaks, we see her go from being a child, wrapped safely in the loving arms of her father, to being with the father of her sons:  

There are two ways through life. The way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one to follow.

Grace doesn't try to please itself. It accepts being slighted, being forgotten. It accepts insults and injuries.

Nature wants to please itself, and for others to please it too. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. When love is smiling through everything.  

As discussed in a previous post, it seems that this voice-over in the mother's voice is actually not what she is thinking, but what her oldest son Jack thinks that she believes. And yes, it does seem she believes in grace, and her husband believes in a Darwinian nature. 

This sounds overly complex, no doubt, but in the context of the story it makes perfect sense. Jack, the oldest son, takes after his father, a stern controlling man, and not their mother, who loves them unconditonally. Jack grows up to be successful, but as he thinks back on the character, masterfully portrayed by Brad Pitt, he recalls a man who demands that his sons call him "Father," not "dad."

He thinks of how his dad tormented him, and how he in turn tormented his younger brother, a sensitive boy who takes after his mother, who refuses to fight — either his brother or his father — and who dies at age 19, of unknown causes, for no good reason.

Jack wonders if God the Father is as cruel as his own father, and his own self. 

As the story develops, and as we see characters enveloped by trees countless times, we may well if nature is opposed to grace, or connected to it. (Jack's pain, and his mother's beliefs, may or may not be the director's.)

But there's little doubt but that this question of the cruelty of God is what Jack is wondering about, when he lights a candle in his grimly modern apartment in honor of his brother, and begins to think back on his father, his anger, his brother's death, and his own regrets.   

We see it in the empty expression of Sean Pean, who is Jack as a grown man, successful, unhappily married, and alone. We see him yearning for the kindness and grace of his mother, and for forgiveness for them all. And as he looks back, questioning himself as much as his father, we see the harsh treatment meted out by his father paralleled by the harsh fate that struck down his younger brother.

How did she bear it? he wonders, thinking about the pain his mother felt over the loss of his younger brother. And as he mulls this, her words (in voice-over, in the past) begin to change: How did I lose you? (Is she speaking to God or his younger brother? Or to both? It's unclear.)

Who are we to you? Where are you? she asks God, the being she once trusted. The being she once believed lived in the sky, and pointed to in the clouds, assuring her infant son of his presence.    

Universes of pixels have been spent on discussions of the twenty-minute genesis of life sequence in this film, which is as overwhelming as anything seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Many a complaint has been heard, that nothing in the drama of the not-especially-happy O'Brien family of Waco, Tex., in the l950's, deserves such grandeur. But that misses the point, the connection between the God the father to us all, and the father in this story, the father to Jack. 

How can we love a father who is so cruel to us, and who insists on the goodness of his cruelty? 


It's an enormous question, brilliantly dramatized (if left unanswered, in the end). 

But what sticks with me are the last words of the mother, of the way of grace: 

You can only be happy if you love. Unless you love, your life will flash by. 


Full Story » Comments (2)

How freelance writers survive: by shovel and hoe, w/chickens

Anyway they can:

My turn with spade and hoe started a few years ago when I found myself divorced and flat broke. My livelihood as a freelance writer went out the window when the economy tanked. I literally could afford beans, the dried kind, which I’d thought were for school art projects or teaching elementary math. And I didn’t know how to cook.

Luckily, my late father had hammered into me that grit was more important than talent. So, when I couldn’t afford fancy food — never mind paraben-free shampoo — for my babies, I figured, if peasants in 11th-century Sicily did all this, how hard could it be?        

Susan Gregory Thomas's line about the peasants is a little condescending, I think. Doubt it was easy to survive as a peasant in 11th-century Sicily.  

Still, I still admire her grit. May need some of that practicality myself. 


Apparently Thomas is not just a good gardener, but also a stylish one. Admire that. 


Full Story » Comments (2)

Revkin unbound: Another successful satellite launch

Andrew Revkin, the leading climate reporter of our time, turns out not to have just a phenomenal (and huge) blog, the justly famous Dot Earth on the New York Times, but also a more informal and visual tumblr,, with which yours truly has fallen instantly in love. 

From that tumblr, here's a terrific pic of the successful launch of an exciting new satellite with a very dull name, the National Preparatory Project. 

Scientific American and report:

NEP sat launch

"NPP — which stands for National polar-orbiting operational environmental satellite system Preparatory Project — is the first probe ever designed to collect data for both short-term weather forecasting and long-term climate monitoring, researchers have said.

The spacecraft will measure more than 30 climate variables from its perch 512 miles (824 kilometers) above the Earth. Scientists will also use NPP to monitor natural disasters, such as volcanic eruptions, wildfires and floods.

NPP will also test out technologies for an even more advanced line of Earth-observing satellites, known as the Joint Polar Satellite System, which should start coming online in 2016 or 2017.

"We look forward to many, many years of great advancements of science and improvements of forecasts from the NPP mission," said Michael Freilich, director of NASA's Earth Science Division. "The measurements from NPP will be affecting everyone in this nation, and indeed perhaps in the world."

Full Story » Comment (1)

Out walking with my father: Of course I remember

A new poem from Adam Zagajewski is always an occasion, and this one, blessedly, Threepenny Review put up for all to see: 

Out Walking with My Father
Grunwald Square, Gliwice

My father remembers next to nothing. With slight exceptions.
Do you remember fixing transmitters for the Home Army?
Of course I remember. Were you afraid?
I don’t remember. Was Mother afraid? I don’t know.
The garden on Piaskowa Street? Sure.
The scent of linden blossoms? No.
Do you remember Mr. Romer? Sometimes.
Skiing on Czantoria Mountain? I guess not.
Do you remember infinity? No, I don’t.
But I’ll see it soon. (He could say that.)

—Adam Zagajewski
(translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh)



Full Story »

Romney flip-flops on climate: Will Limbaugh approve?

Yesterday Mitt Romney changed his views on climate change. In a talk in Pittsburg, he declared:

My view is that we don’t know what’s causing climate change on this planet. And the idea of spending trillions and trillions of dollars to try to reduce CO2 emissions is not the right course for us.

In June in New Hamphire, he took a completely different position:

I don’t speak for the scientific community, of course, but I believe the world’s getting warmer. I can’t prove that, but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that. I don’t know how much our contribution is to that, because I know that there have been periods of greater heat and warmth in the past but I believe we contribute to that. And so I think it’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may well be significant contributors to the climate change and the global warming that you’re seeing.

After Romney took his original position, he was praised by moderates, including Al Gore, and slammed by right-wing commentators, notably Rush Limbaugh, who said he could wave his nomination "bye bye."

This appears to be Romney's second flip-flip this week, the previous being his doubts about unpopular anti-union measures in Ohio, and then rushing to declare he backs same 110%.

But no matter. "America's most opportunisitic politician," in the words of conservative Ross Douthat, is also the "inevitable" nominee, so time for him to toe the right-wing line.  Be interesting to see if Limbaugh and his fellow flamethrowers are satisfied by his sudden obeisance.

h/t: ThinkProgress Green 

Full Story »

Tennessee Williams tells a story about Truman Capote

From Dotson Rader's great, great Tennessee: Cry of the Heart, 1985

Rader writes: Tennessee went on to talk about the one time Truman came to Key West. 

"It was two years ago. he had flown to Key West from Mexico, where he was to stay with Mrs. [Lee] Radiwill but left in a hurry because the mosquitoes were terrible. So he came to Key West from the Yucatan. He had never been on the island before, and I suspect that he never will be there again. He was robbed the first night, losing all his credit cards, his address book, and about two thousand dollars. He said that he wasn't in his hotel room when the robbery occured, but the police found no evidence of forced entry. I think he was cleaned out by some street boy he invited home for a private session!"

Tennesseeandtruman"Truman came to Key West because he sold excerpts of his book [Answered Prayers] to Esquire, he made one of the conditions of the contract that the editor of the magazine [Don Erickson] had to fly to Key West to pick up the manuscript. He did that because Hemingway used to make Arnold [Gingrich, the editor/found of Esquire] came to Key West to edit his stories before they were published. Truman was not about to get one thing less thatn Hemingway." 

"One night Truman, Jimmy Kirkwood, and a friend of Truman's, I, and some other men went to dinner. His friend was very drunk. The restaurant was full of tourists in double-knit suits, and since it was quite late, most of them were as tipsy as Truman's boyfriend. Some distance away, at a round table, sat three couples. Truman noticed them staring at us, and he said, "Watch out! They'll be coming over for autographs!" And a few minutes later, one of the women at the table got up and came over, carrying a menu. She asked Truman to autograph the menu. He did. She left, and a few minutes later her husband came to our table and glared at Truman.

"Are you Truman Capote?" And Truman said, "I was this morning!" And the man unzipped his pants, and pulled out his cock. He said, holding it in the palm of his hand, "Can you put your signature on this? And Truman looked down at the cock, and up again, and he said. "I don't know about my signature. But I can initial it!" 

Full Story »

Climate change skeptic turns on deniers: some details

Eugene Robinson wraps up the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project results in an op-ed for the Washington Post: 

[Richard] Muller found that skeptics are wrong when they claim that a “heat island” effect from urbanization is skewing average temperature readings; monitoring instruments in rural areas show rapid warming, too. He found that skeptics are wrong to base their arguments on the fact that records from some sites seem to indicate a cooling trend, since records from at least twice as many sites clearly indicate warming. And he found that skeptics are wrong to accuse climate scientists of cherry-picking the data, since the readings that are often omitted — because they are judged unreliable — show the same warming trend.

Kevin Drum digs a little deeper, and mentions (as no newspaper story has) the BEST figure for global warming by century, and for the last ten years: 

"The earth is indeed getting warmer. Global average land temperatures have risen 0.91 degrees Celsius over the past 50 years. This is "on the high end of the existing range of reconstructions."

"The rate of increase on land is accelerating. Warming for the entire 20th century clocks in at 0.73 degrees C per century. But over the most recent 40 years, the globe has warmed>at a rate of 2.76 degrees C per century."

Warming has not abated since 1998. "The rise in average temperature over the period 1998-2010 is 2.84 degrees C per century."

Warming is accelerating, in other words, contrary to the blind optimism of the deniers. 


Maybe what we're seeing here is a rift opening between climate change skeptics (who still can be persuaded with data) and deniers such as Anthony Watts (whose minds are forever closed). 

Full Story »

Reconciling religion and evolution: The Tree of life

From an unpretentious and persuasive visual essay on the most debated movie of the year, The Tree of Life, by Matt Zoller Seitz

There is this central notion in all of Malick’s films that every individual person is just one tiny part of nature. Not too much more important in the larger scheme of things than an insect, or a blade of grass. It’s really not all that radical to state, but it’s one American audiences seem to have trouble accepting, because it’s anathema to the way we are told we should live our lives. And in this [evolution] sequence Terence Malick has done something quite remarkable, which is that he has reconciled religion and evolution. He has reconciled religion and science. 

That’s from the first part of the essay, which Seitz put together with a film editor collaborator. In the second part, which is much more beautiful, because it features the mother in the film, the most beautiful of its characters by about a country mile, he gets specific:

When we hear the mother speaking in voice-over, I think we’re hearing Jack’s projection of her internal voice, her overwhellming goodness, her unselfishness, her sunbeam warmth. Look at how she dotes on her infant child in this moment near the opening of the movie. She’s Mother Earth, much as “The Tree of Life” itself is Mother Earth. 


“The Tree of Life” is the most debated movie of the year, because critics love it, by a 40-2 margin, and ordinary people often detest it.

Full Story » Comments (2)

What makes Americans unhappy?

It's not just the recession, as this fascinating graphic — based on a Gallup poll of "subjective well-being" taken daily — shows, based on a statistical resampling of results by Princeton economist Angus Deaton

Here's the logic, from Ezra Klein's great WonkBlog

There are some big changes that seem to make sense: a big drop following the collapse of Lehman and the financial crisis. But the bigger trend seems to be perplexing. Overall happiness seems to have risen substantially since the beginning of 2009 — at levels even higher than before the current crisis — even though the recession and economic slump would have presumably taken a big toll on the American psyche.

Deaton puzzled over this shift himself and concluded the rise in happiness actually had to do with the very questions that Gallup was asking. In the lead-up to the 2008 election, Gallup posed the questions about political preferences first, asking whether the poll participants planned to vote, whether they approved of the sitting president, whether the country was headed in the right direction, and so forth. When those questions were dropped in early 2009, reported happiness immediately spiked. According to Deaton’s analysis, the very act of thinking about politics makes Americans feel less happy and satisfied with their lives — an effect that’s almost as big as being unemployed. 

Deaton concludes: 

“People appear to dislike politics and politicians so much that prompting them to think about them has a very large downward effect on their assessment of their own lives,” he writes. “The effect of asking the political questions on well-being is only a little less than the effect of someone becoming unemployed, so that to get the same effect on average well-being, three-quarters of the population would have to lose their jobs.”

I feel I've never understood the fabled "independent voter" so well. They keep their distance from politics not because they don't care, arguably, but because they don't want to be depressed. 

But what I don't understand: If this is true, why the popularity of political commentators such as Jon Steward, Stephen Colbert, and Rush Limbaugh? With those guys, it's pretty much all politics all the time. 

Full Story »

The not-in-denial drinker: Dwight Macdonald

Asked once why he drank so much, critic and editor Dwight Macdonald replied:

"I'm an alcoholic, Goddammit it!" 

From a really terrific NYTimes Book Review piece on a new collection of Macdonald's acerbic criticism, Dwight Macdonald's War on Mediocrity, last Sunday. Few reviews are so entertaining, but then, few critics (or writers, for that matter) threw off as many mental sparks as Macdonald. 

Dwight Macdonald

From Jack Shafer, formerly of Slate

Full Story »