The Tree of Life

To enjoy a tale of Eternity in the context of time, you have to let go of your attachment to narrative.  Much of the heavily advertised new movie The Tree of Life struck me as a fun romp through a new age of computer graphics, something like the abstract expressionism of Fantasia on steroids.

from Walt Disney's 1940 "Fantasia"

Paul Dukas' music for this story from Fantasia was based on Goethe's 1797 poem Der Zauberlehrling. This is NOT abstract expressionism.

Cinema is a medium that handles such things well, certainly better than the stage (even with multimedia) and probably better than novels do, since the breathtaking panorama, with a breathtaking or at least regulated pace, is part of how it works. (I think poetry can achieve similar effects.) There actually is a story to Tree of Life, and it’s an old one about grief and love, how we hurt each other without meaning to and how we slowly learn to forgive, especially to forgive ourselves. We stick with narratives everybody already knows precisely because they awaken or answer something in us that longs for their mythic power. Once you let go of the story and let the artist take you where he will, you can gently come back to it with a new sense of satisfaction.

I’ve begun to realize this last point in my own writing, which has often run afoul of the slowness with which I plot. Recently I did an assignment for a playwrighting group that required me to update one of Aesop’s fables. I picked “The Fox and the Hedgehog,” in which a fox, exhausted from swimming across a river, is quickly covered with biting flies but too tired even to brush them away. Along comes a (seemingly) friendly hedgehog, who offers to help by snuggling up to the fox with his own prickly body. The fox, quite properly, declines the offer.

I turned this old tale into a story of a newly successful political candidate (the fox) who is confronted on the eve of her election by a young campaign volunteer who claims to have slept with her when she was drunk. While a victory celebration awaits her, she is forced to hear him out as he offers to get rid of all the sycophants, office-seekers, and petitioners. That’s how it began. I wasn’t sure whether the hedgehog was real or a projection of the fox’s memory and imagination, so in the first draft I had him disappear in a puff of smoke at the end. My readers instantly assumed he was the devil, which has now set me off in what I find a very interesting direction.

Let me just say two things about it: first, it wouldn’t be the devil but his emissary, Mephistopheles. Second, it led me to read Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, whose thesis is that voters make decisions emotionally, not rationally, and that whereas Democrats generally put forward rational arguments for their policies and candidates, Republicans generally have mastered emotional language–and hence have been more successful across recent decades.

I’ll keep you posted.

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