06 June 2011

Ideas of Reference

Wikipedia says: "Ideas of reference and delusions of reference involve people having a belief or perception that irrelevant, unrelated or innocuous phenomena in the world refer to them directly or have special personal significance: 'the notion that everything one perceives in the world relates to one's own destiny'." It can often be a sign of paranoia or schizophrenia.

This is not the case when one experiences a great work of art. Nor is it the case when there are objective points of reference. Seeing Terence Malick's "The Tree of Life" had a powerful emotional affect upon me. It sent me into that space where everything is related, everything is connected, everything is about me. That space where creation happens. As a rational human being—I have a graduate degree in Philosophy and a Law degree—that can elicit panic, but the film is so beautiful, it brings, instead, a feeling of ecstasy.

Let me explain: According to the credits, much of the movie was filmed in a place called Smithville, Texas. I lived for three of the first six years of my life in a town called Kirbyville, TX, some 250 miles from Smithville, which is a dead ringer for the town in the movie. The main street, the slant-in parking, the long straight residential streets, the trees, the green. My time there was not far removed from the time of the film, and my age not far from that of the boys. My first elementary school was architecturally identical to the one in "The Tree of Life." My father was the pastor of the church in K'ville; Jack O'Brien's is the organist. Like Jack, I ran across the tops of the pews when people weren't there. I roamed the town in a pack of my young peers—it was safe to do, even at that young age. I threw rocks through shed windows. I had my first little girlfriend there. Our family left precipitously, packing up in the family car and moving to North Carolina, for reasons that were obscure to me then.

On this score, I would like to point out one tiny factual error in the film: In the scene where a child drowns in the swimming hole—again, not unlike the pool where I learned to swim—we see boys and girls swimming together. This didn't happen in that time and in that place. Swim days were segregated: boys had to play in the gym or on the playground on the days when girls swam at the pool and vice versa. Other details were shockingly accurate. And that's the point.

Unlike Jack, the in-breaking of conscience—the obtaining of a knowledge of what's right and wrong, the specific choice to do the wrong thing (again and again), and the regret for having so chosen—which is the central trope of the film (the bridge [of the last frame] between the two world) for him, came for me some years after my sojourn in Texas. Notwithstanding, I felt like Malick's movie was about me. I felt it could've been made just for me.

Of course, my rational mind knows better, but that's the way I feel after having seen it.

As a writer, I connected with the film as well. Often I find myself wandering aimlessly along the shores of mute memory—like Jack—trying to make some sense of who I am and what it all means. The novel I'm currently working on begins with a present day narrator who has just received a death sentence from his doctor. He, too, calls up isolated instances from the past… blah, blah, blah…to try and make sense…blah, blah, blah. In my piece, however, the hero opts for one last coup to try to sum it all up, to create meaning, as it were. To go out with some style. In other words, the form of the novel I'm struggling to write takes much the same form as Malick's movie—except he's a tremendous artist, with all the pageantry and music and imagery of the film medium available to him. Oh yeah, and Sean Penn and Brad Pitt, too.

These points of confluence—call it serendipity—I do not believe, constitute ideas of reference in the DSM sense. ["I'm not crazy!"] It has to do, rather, with the universality of Malick's art—its essential humanity. It touched me profoundly, but I also think it can and will touch others equally as profoundly. The fact that it has parallels—if not intersections—with my own life only served to heighten the personal/emotional nature of my response.

You've seen my 'objective' take on the film in yesterday's post. This is my more subjective take. My personal connection.

Did I mention that the soundtrack music is transporting?


Jack Crow said...

I will go to see this, on the weight of your last two posts.

Jim H. said...

I'd be interested to hear what you think.