“Hit me”: Jay, Wally, and “The Tree of Life”

Last week I did something I haven’t done in two years and probably won’t do again for two more: I went to see a movie without Caroline.  (Basically, if I’m going to ask her to take a bullet/ put both boys to bed it usually has to be for something that I can’t do just as easily two months later on Netflix.)

The flick was “The Tree of Life,” which is only the fifth movie the legendary director Terrence Malick has made in the last 38 years, and which has been hyped in some quarters as just about the greatest artistic achievement in the history of film.  I went to see it partly for the hype, partly because my cinephile pal Andrew told me he’d disown me if I didn’t, but even more because “Tree of Life” concerns a topic that I think about a lot these days.

Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, a strict, hard-driving dad in a small Texas town in the 1950s.  He wants his two sons to be tough—to grow up to have the grit to bend the world to their desires—and he’s especially demanding of his oldest son, Jack.  He hounds Jack into performing menial tasks, like weeding the lawn or closing the screen door gently, with scrupulous perfection.  And in the most widely replayed scene from the movie he challenges Jack to prove his mettle by punching him in the face.  “Hit me, hit me,” he says, slapping his chin.  When Jack can’t bring himself to do it, his father bats him humiliatingly to the ground.

Not surprisingly, Jack grows to hate his father.  As a young child he’s able to bear his father’s will, but as he grows into adolescence he comes to resent his domination.  In one ominous scene an emerging Jack stands over his father as he lies on the ground fixing a car.  We hear him think, “Please kill him. Let him die.”

I saw the movie with two friends and we all agreed that we’ve never seen a movie capture the sensations and perspectives of childhood better than “Tree of Life” does.  But we also had our separate reasons for sitting rapt for two hours. One friend said afterwards that Brad Pitt’s character had had him thinking about his childhood growing up with a stern Lebanese-immigrant father who’d once told him and his younger brother, when they were still in elementary school, “After your mother and I are dead you’ll only have each other.”

For my part, I spent the entire movie thinking about Jay.

I haven’t figured out yet how strong a presence I want to be in his life.  Two nights ago Jay had a tantrum in the living room just before bed.  After ten minutes of failed coaxing I hoisted him, kicking and screaming, off to bed.  On the short walk to his room he cried out, “Noooo Daaady, noooo,” in a voice that would have made you think I was making him watch as, one at a time, I set his toys on fire.

Even as I was carrying Jay off to bed I was thinking about how intense an experience this must be for him.  Here he was, being forced to do the one thing in the world he least wanted to do, by this overwhelming force of a person called his Dad with whom, once he gets a good grip on you, it’s all over.  It’s a necessary role sometimes when you’re raising a toddler, but it’s not one I’m completely comfortable with.

Well before Jay was born, before Caroline and I even knew the sex of the child we’d have, there was a part of me that hoped we’d have a girl.  A girl, I thought, would mean a simple relationship: I’d tell her how pretty she was, be a little overprotective when she was a teenager, and walk her down the aisle when she was an adult, grinning the whole way.

But a son is a more complicated thing.  Jay will be taking a lot of his cues about how—and how not—to live his life from me, and I don’t have complete confidence that either a) I’ll give him the right cues; or b) that he’ll know how to read them. I know there will come a day when he gets around to judging me and the job I did raising him.  I can only hope that by that point I’ll have taught him at least what it means to be compassionate.

At the same time, I like that there’s no sidestepping what it means to be a father.  There is a part of my personality that prefers to sit back rather than act under conditions of uncertainty—to do nothing instead of taking the chance that I’ll do the wrong thing.  But when it comes to raising a child there’s no sitting back, no waiting until later to figure it out.  Every day Jay wakes up and Caroline and I go live again, whether or not we know our lines.

Under these conditions the best I can think to do is be aware of how big an impact my actions have on Jay and Wally, and to think and reflect and try and get better each day at being a dad, while at same time keeping in mind that one day they might make a movie about me.