Revolutionary Road and The Tree of Life

I can’t help but put Revolutionary Road (2008) into conversation with The Tree of Life (2011).

Even though the Revolutionary Road screenplay by Justin Haythe was based on the 1961 novel of the same name by Richard Yates, and feels like a stage drama, while The Tree of Life was the result of Malick editing footage together from his indulgent filming process, combined with other photography techniques and effects, I don’t think that we have to look into the origins of these movies in order to see what they can say to each other.

The Tree of Life brings a mid-century vividness to the book of Job. Revolutionary Road is more Qoheleth if anything, but both of these stories are pulled together by the death of a child and a move to the city.

In TTOL Sean Penn’s character Jack carries the memory of his brother R.L., even after he has completely relocated from the suburbs of his childhood to the city where he works as an architect.

But recalling the scale of time in this film, where the cosmological origins and natural history of Earth are weaved in between the story of a family, we recognize that with the passing of time, and a relocation of dwelling, Jack is not the only one transformed. The entire world has continued to evolve. And even the life of R.L. does too.

You can even say The Tree of Life is an adaptation after all, adapting the book of Job, in a way that was uniquely early-21st-century and even conspicuous because of the way it leaves certain ways of finding meaning intact: family. In this film, you have many glimpses into the father, mother, and son’s interior thoughts. It suggests that behind all the questioning, learning, suffering, and love, the experience of life is deeply shared and unitary.

Revolutionary Road is another kind of story. In which characters entirely miss each other even though their interiority is dialed up to a maximum. You can really follow the ecstatic, erratic logic of every argument and every consolation. The movie is so character driven then the characters become little localized plots.

I’m haunted when I read that

In the October 1999 issue of the Boston Review, Yates was quoted on his central theme: “If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.” (Wiki)

But as I said, something more happens in Revolutionary Road than a renegotiation of the inner/outer, alone/shared boundaries and the oedipalized attachments to family and domestic life.

There is a scene where Frank and April share breakfast and she asks about his new job, and he briefly explains what he’ll be doing: selling computers. It takes your breath away when you understand that April is the kind of person who can see possibilities before they’ve been understood.

APRIL: Oh, I see. At least I think I see. yes. It’s really kind of… interesting, isn’t it?
FRANK: Well, I don’t know… yes, I guess it is kind of interesting in a way.
APRIL: You should value what you do, Frank. You’re obviously good at it.

In this scene, April can recognize the novelty, and many consequences, that flow from Frank’s access to an ‘outside,’ and I think her deep sadness is that they are unable to share something remarkable. She wholeheartedly tries to share this remarkable insight, but can only find ways to speak to Frank that console his temperament and comfort his vulnerable ego.

My point is a double articulation: the tragedy of two people searching for ways to love each other, and the indifference of the computer to their own personal drama, which has its own development running parallel to them, because no matter what they do or don’t do: the world and the neighborhood will transform.

Just like The Tree of Life suspends the suburbs between the urban jungle and the planetary natural history, you can find odd references to transmutation in Revolutionary Road too.

There is a scene when April runs into the forest.

FRANK: April, listen.
APRIL: Stay away from me. Can’t I even get away from you in the fucking woods?
FRANK: April, listen, I didn’t mean that. Honestly; I didn’t mean what I said…
APRIL: Are you still talking? Isn’t there any way to stop your talking? I need to think. Can’t you see that? I NEED TO THINK!
FRANK: Please come back to the house. What’re you doing out here, April…
APRIL: Do you want me to scream again, Frank? Because I will, I mean it!
FRANK: …Okay…

There is something recognizable about needing to be in another space, completely alone, in order to recollect one’s attention.

But also, when the lines of flight to any escape are being cut off, a person starts reaching for any means necessary. And as this scene plays out in the trees, you catch something unspeakably animal about each of their helplessness. They don’t know what to do anymore, but they recognize they are both at a loss, and Frank walks away exhausted and confused.

It’s this scene in the woods, the possibility of nature reframing our attachments, that seems to remind me of the way the book of Job works. And The Tree of Life as a filmgoing experience has also featured this becoming-animal, becoming-nature, to great effect. And as I’m fond of thinking about: cinema and computers are natural too.

When I reach for conceptual words like ‘reframing’ it sounds like I mean nature has some special animistic secret we should be listening to. I’m not sure it’s that simple, but I know that when you’re experiencing it you don’t usually do a lot of conceptual analysis.

That’s why Michael Shannon as John in Revolutionary Road is one of my favorite performances of all time.

I would almost hate to have seen John show up in the neighborhood from The Tree of Life and to have had dinner with that family.

John is a mathematician who has undergone EST and often described as “not well” throughout the film. When they meet, John takes a walk in the forest with Frank and April and hears about their decision to move to Paris and share the remarkable secret of an extraordinary life.

JOHN: So what do a couple of people like you have to run away from?
FRANK: We’re not running.
JOHN: So what’s in paris?
APRIL: A different way of life.
FRANK: Maybe we are running. Running from the hopeless emptiness of the whole life here. Right?
JOHN: The hopeless emptiness… Now you’ve said it. Plenty of people are on to the emptiness but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness. Wow.

I am getting chills.

John helps me understand what Job, and Qoheleth, and the woods, and even Nietzsche can do for me when I’m watching and comparing movies. Consider this. John has become proficient enough at analysis to see the emptiness of attachment, and instead of knowing how to integrate it, he falls into a kind of pathological misanthropy.

John is nihilism porn. But I choose to make it instructive or at least interesting.

To me, it means that when I am dealing with an attachment problem, I don’t have to become attached to either Tree of Life eternalism or Revolutionary Road nihilism, even though theses examples and their archetypes can help me to clarify a different approach.

Revolutionary Road is newly on Netflix (and n.b., it is intense) but if you can only catch one scene…

I cannot even begin to touch on how Revolutionary Road can speak to Titanic too, by which I mean, both an entertainment machine and an industrial machine, and by which I mean, both the boat and the movie.

But “making connections” is something John was able to do to no good end. John helps me because I can see that 1) being clever isn’t necessarily all that hard and 2) it’s not necessarily a solution.

The Tree of Life, and Job, help me too because the reason you’re suffering is not because you were wrong about something. And you might be wrong about something.

At every turn of these stories, attachments show up differently. Perhaps the beauty of Tree of Life is then the entire cosmos can fit into the love you share and the ways you nurture well-being in someone else. Perhaps the vividness in Revolutionary Road is how love and nurture show up between many tiny missed connections and divided attention and impulsive actions. But no matter how powerfully John shocks the room with his bitter nihilism, this is not the only way to treat people powerfully.

“Well he’s not wrong,” someone says laconically.

But it’s only one kind of power, like Elihu, able to see past the petty attachments and rationalizations of people, but who is unable to know God the way Job does. Tricky tricky business.

The dance night scene was another favorite from Revolutionary Road.

SHEP: You just… wanted out, huh?
APRIL: I wanted in. I just… I just wanted us to live again. For years I thought we shared a secret…that we would be wonderful in the world. I didn’t exactly know how, but just the possibility… kept me hoping. How pathetic is that? So stupid. To put all your hopes in a promise that was never made? See, Frank knows…he knows what he wants. He’s found his place. He’s just fine. Married, two kids. It should be enough. It is for him. He’s right; we were never special or destined or anything at all.

April, it seems to me, has discovered the wonder of thought that has nowhere to go.

She is able to see what thing are and what they are capable of becoming, and that ability becomes a kind of stage 4.5 in Chapman / Kegan terminology. (See also this great LesserWrong post, ‘Kegan and Cultivating Compassion‘ I came across today).

I think having a notion of possibility, of vivid, fluid, remarkable access to something special is a valuable practice. But expecting it to happen all at once, in one providential moment, or in the span of a full-length feature (or Netflix binge, or hike in the woods, or…) is what holds us back.

We need attachments in order to form habits and a kind of groundedness, but we need to know how to negotiate attachments one way or another. I think of Frank telling April about the computer. One way or another, things are changing, and it has nothing to do with us.

What we choose to do together in light of that chaos, complexity, and complication, is the simplicity of love,  even if we find that love to be essentially distributed in the end.