The Tree of Life: An Astrological Movie Review
It's not hard to understand why so many people couldn't stand "The Tree of Life." The film is about the inevitable, redemptive course of evolution toward higher states of love and understanding. The sense that something is "inevitable" arouses the fighter in a good many people. After all, not everything is inevitable. If I told you it is inevitable that you will come to the dark side of the force; if I said, "It's your destiny," like Darth Vader talking to Luke, you would be right to say, "That is not my fate. I see good in you father." So let's not mistake inevitable love and redemption for the desire to corrupt and control others. The tree of life is about seeing the glory in where we come from and where we are going. Both are inevitable in the sense that life and love do not require consolations.
The film begins with the whisper of the Big Bang. An image of light in the darkness. A paradox and beauty. The film then centers on the story of a middle class, Waco Texas, white working family. In the opening scenes the family receives news that one of their boys, age 19, has been killed in the War. The family questions the "necessity" of death by reflecting on passages from the book of Job. Time starts moving around. We see Sean Penn, one of the deceased's brothers, in a busy downtown metropolis filled with glass and light. The mood of the shots conveys the message: the progress of time from the earlier 20th century to the end of the millennium has been beautiful and tragic. There is a sense of progress and a sense of loss and shame. Sean Penn looks at new building designs with a colleague. The camera looks down on them.
The story returns to the past perfect, the place of home and memories and innocence, the place of birth and growing up. We start with the birth of Sean Penn, the oldest brother. The camera and the music and the acting begin to weave the story of life developing for the family. We see the newness of the baby, we see the terrible twos, we see the jealousy of another brother arriving taking mom's attention away from us. We see the development of brotherly love and play in backyards at sunset between the boys. We see Brad Pitt's character, the father, trying to teach the boys discipline; at first they listen attentively, later they resent their father's rigidity and fights break out between the boys and their father at the dinner table. When the father goes on vacation the boys holler and whoop for joy. They start chasing their mother around the house with a lizard. At first it's all fun and freedom. But then as life without father stabilizes (we learn that he is overseas on business), the eldest boy starts getting into trouble (breaking windows and hurting small animals) and he develops a sexual attraction to his mother. He steals her nightgown and then, filled with guilt and shame, discards her nightgown in the river (a symbol of feminine healing).
When the father returns there is an unsettled sense of normalcy. Next we will need a masculine healing. The father soon finds out that he no longer has a job and his only option will be to move his family. He is humbled; he shares honestly and admits his flaws to his oldest boy. His oldest boy is eager to forgive. He says, "I'm more like you than her." The father does not placate the boy, but shares affection with him anyway.
The second storyline deals with evolution in the cosmos and on planet earth. We see the fire of life; the bang. We see the creation of matter, stars, planets, galaxies. Then we see cells colliding and the most primitive of chemical interactions. We see something like fetal life showing up deep in the ocean, in the womb of the planet, the waters. We see plants and fish and the emergence of a variety of animals. The scenes are filled with mystery and beauty and the divinity of "chance", another name for miracle. Eventually we see life emerging from the waters, chased out by attacking sharks. It's a parable -- if we stay in one place for too long we get stuck. In an evolutionary sense, predators are part of this message.
Next we see dinosaurs. A pack of raptors has left a sick or dying one behind in the river (feminine symbolism--the seat of a new life about to happen). A solo dinosaur finds the dying raptor and puts its claws on the raptor's head as if to crush the life out of it. Its claw grip turns into an ease of passage gesture for the dying raptor. The compassionate dinosaur does not reflect on the death of the raptor and continues up the river. Next we see human beings. The message is clear; evolution happens. What is evolution moving toward? Does it have a plot, purpose, or end, or is it all just random and infinite?
The last shots are of the family leaving the town they came from; they are afraid, feeling the loss of home, but filled with hope. It's a picture of not just the American dream we've learned to hate but the American dream that our ancestors believed in when they moved here. That the American dream would involve both imperialism and compassion seems as inevitable as the fact that a pack of raptors would simply leave behind a dying family member while a stranger would show love. The point is that Americans do not feel at home here in the USA , so that most of our drama revolves around trying to create stable family and tribal life. We Americans feel as though we are on borrowed or stolen property. And of course to some extent we are!
The tribes and families that lived here prior to our arrival probably dealt irreconcilable differences just as we do. They probably suspected us before they knew the best in us. They probably wanted their homes to themselves and struggled with the idea of ownership. And some tried to kill us. Of course we acted out our insecurities to a fault, we dominated, we slaughtered, and we "advanced." But war, no matter who is involved on which side, implicates everyone in violence and death. At the end of the film, the family is displaced although marching forward, and we see shots of the earth being consumed by the Sun as it grows into a supernova before it dies -- it's the apocalypse as nothing more than the process of life evolving.
The film doesn't take anything away from the dilemmas of tyranny, suffering, and the question, "why?" But it doesn't get lost in the question; it moves forward to "more life" and "more love." The film is a response to the question "why do bad things happen?" The scale is set high and wide so that the question is more than answered; it's observed. It's filmed. It's photographed. It's sung. It's beautiful.
The last shots shows Sean Penn back in the postmodern sky scraper city. He looks lost and passionate. We see him stumbling through doorways in the desert, the clear symbolism of ages and stages being cleared. We see many people entering through many different doorways, some through water, some through the earth, some carrying fiery candles, and some flowing in the wind. All of the people of all of the ages congregate on a beach where a tree of life grows. Heaven. The last shot of the film is of a man-made suspension bridge over the ocean at sunrise. It's paradox again; it's an invitation to keep going with confidence and love in our hearts. It's a statement about what a long and sometimes painful, sad journey it's been. And there are graceful birds flying in the air.
Being an astrologer I couldn't help but read my practice into the movie. In most shots, whenever the boys and their father are working out masculine issues we see the sun. When we think about the inevitable progress of light and love we see the sun. For the shots where the boys and their mother are working through feminine issues we see water, earth, and the moon. We see the past and the healing of the past. We see no need for progress, only the now, only how good it is right here.
The basic evolutionary astrological paradigm works the same way. The sun is the place in our chart that we are growing into. As if the Soul were a plant; the sun sign/house placement in our chart shows where and how we will be pulled upward on our path, toward higher evolutionary states. The moon is the watering that needs to happen so that the planet does not dry out and break. The moon in our charts represents the past, what is familiar, how we feel at home, and what nourishes us. The plant grows up and out of itself because of the lubrication of the feminine spirit: the element of water. The film alternates between the primary lunar, cancer, the mother, and the primary solar, Leo, the father.
The communication between the two principles in our chart is Mercury, the planetary ruler of Gemini (the brothers). The brothers in this film serve as a conduit for deeper levels of evolution to be reached by mother and father. We might well think of the Crosby-Stills-Nash song, "Teach, your parents well, their children's hell, will slowly go by!" And parents, "Feed them on your dreams, the one they pick, the one you know by." Mercury in our chart is the reflective/recursive nature of consciousness as more of itself is perpetuated. It dictates how we learn, communicate, and process evolutionary information.
We see Venus and Mars in the push and pull of the feminine/masculine atmospheres, another yin/yang set. But it gets really interesting when the outer planets come into play. We see boundaries expand with Jupiter, the freedom of the children's playtime. We see the encounter with boundaries, the father teaching how to balance play with work. We see the chirotic fear that change can irreparably damage, the boy's fear that he is doomed because of his bad behavior. We see the destabilization of the old boundaries, Uranus, the family leaving their home. We see the Neptunian state that follows, hope, potential, dreams, bliss, the oneness of life when there is hope. The family is moving but they are hoping for the best. And finally, we see Pluto, the suspension bridges that says, even with these last shots of heaven, let us close with the call to continue building bridges.
Many people would probably criticize astrology and this movie on the same grounds: progress is an illusion of the ego, the idea of enlightenment or heaven or an eternal resting place is wishful thinking, a projection of the ego. In fact, this criticism is correct. If we live without the lunar and the perfect present now, then we will not grow higher. A plant without water dies fast.
On the other hand, it is equally fair to say that many people who made this criticism are perhaps lazy and simply not doing the work of learning to live in their sun position. I believe that what made this film so incredibly challenging for many people is the idea that they are not doing something they need to be doing. In astrology we just call this the sun. It rises in the morning and we go to the work of being human. When the shadow rises in humanity it is because work is not being done. Real work. Not the work of pride or vanity. The work of love. It takes work to move with the force of life which is love. The fire of life is pure and hot and straight up. We can take as many breaks as we'd like to from the work; but breaks break us. Life lives us. On pace, the moon and the feminine should not be mistaken for a break. The lunar principle in astrology is the perfect reflection of the past. "Perfect" being the key word. The moon reflects the light of the sun to us in the dark hours. We integrate the work because we are not working to destroy time and space or transcend it; we are working to perfect it. We receive lunar nourishment and breaks because we honor form and we honor time and space. The divine honoring of the past is Cancer. It is the soothing of the plant and of the soul as it breaks up and out of its own fibers. The old is incorporated into the new. God is not without compassion even though life is stronger than our bodies and our forms.
The last thing for audiences to remember is that this march of "progress" is not represented by a single straight line. The film's last image of the suspension bridge, and the truth of any astrologer worth their practice, is that bridges are being built and networking is being accomplished. More of us together. More understanding. More connection and less division. More of who we are, which is the light of God. The path is straight and narrow, but the goal is interconnection not the damnation of the past.
The ultimate act of idolatry is to see truth and covet it desirously, unable to accept it into our existence, that we make the devil out of it instead. Was The Tree of Life, or is astrology, the ultimate answer? The answer to what? The question why? The question why is to be observed not answered. The question why is answered by living more life. It was just a movie and astrology is just astrology. Onward.
But to hate the film? The sign of revolutionary art is often polarization. Uranus. Love it or hate it, this film was not the glossy dreamscape of Avatar. It was not packed with redemptive tribal warfare, conquering the evil empire, and 3d goggles for all of us in our air conditioned American theaters. Neptune, the film and the channeling of art, has entered Pisces. We are going to see some films this decade that take us to totally new places and ask all the old questions in fantastically new ways. The Tree of Life, in my estimation, is the single best rebuttal that could have been made to the film Avatar (even though it was obviously not meant to be one) and the beginning of a conversation, a process, and an evolution of big screen movies.