Jack O’Brien’s Secular and Sacred Journeys in The Tree of Life

Here’s another essay from last semester that I’d like to share with you. The assignment prompt from my Sacred Journeys class: analyze a film that answers the question, is there such thing as a secular sacred journey?


Two Journeys Through Life

The Tree of Life (2011) was writer-director Terrence Malick’s fifth film in his forty-year career. The film follows Jack as he grows up with his two brothers and parents in Texas during the 1950s. A former Harvard philosophy student, Malick’s first titles achieved a cult following for their breathtaking cinematography, enigmatic voice-over, and philosophic musings. Though filmgoers knew to expect a unique viewing experience from Malick’s latest, no one was quite prepared for the polarized response. More words were spilled analyzing The Tree of Life than on any other release last year. 95875[r5].pdfSome viewers despised the film so much that the theaters put up signs effectively warning, “Caution: art film. No refunds.” Those who hated the movie had trouble deciphering its nonlinear, impressionistic narrative. Other audience members declared the movie a masterpiece; Roger Ebert placed it on his list of the ten greatest films of all time. For these viewers, the film is a wellspring for dissection and appreciation. Despite its unconventional story, a recent revisit reveals just how structured Jack’s movement through adolescence really is. On the surface, The Tree of Life is about Jack coming to terms with the discovery of suffering and the loss of his innocence. This is his secular journey. On a deeper level, his journey is framed by the statement that one must choose to live according to the way of nature, or by the way of grace. This spiritual dogma drives Jack’s internal sacred journey. Accordingly, The Tree of Life illustrates a template for the secular sacred journey.
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Birthright Israel Photos

All images Copyright 2013 Justin Wiemer.

Some photos I took during my BU Hillel Birthright trip:

Sydney, Day 37

June 28th

I can’t believe it’s been a little more than a month since my last post. (It actually means that I’ve been busy!) I was recently reminded that we only have 9 business days left of our internship. Work has been amazing. I divide my time between research and design. The research isn’t bad at all: When the company makes a pitch book, they need relevant imagery to populate the pages. The creative director and producers quickly realized that I knew the software that they use on a day-to-day basis (After Effects). As a result, I’m their first intern who has contributed to their portfolio of high-profile motion graphics. I don’t know what I can say specifically, but the videos I helped with are for sport TV stations and reality TV shows.

My Australian Cinema class is awesome too! I’ll post a list of the films I’ve seen soon.

Even though work and class have taken up most of my time during the week, I still have the weekends to get out. I’ve been to Bondi, Bronte Beach, Taronga Zoo, The Rocks, Circular Quay, and importantly, the grocery store. I also took a tour of the Sydney Opera House. We got to see some of the numerous stages in the complex, as well as the orchestra rehearsing.

My cousin Avital and I are in the process of planning an epic trip at the end of July. Stay tuned!

Vivid Sydney

Bronte Beach

Taronga Zoo

Museum of Contemporary Art Australia

Sydney, Day 1-3

May 22-25th

Wow. What a crazy last few days. I won’t go over it, but you can see by my schedule that we have been busy getting oriented to life at BU Sydney.

Most of my time has consisted of unpacking, finding kosher food, finding internet, sorting out my Shavous plans, meeting TONS of people, exploring the neighborhood, working out the internship, and just enjoying being here. The dorm is great and the staff are awesome too.

I will be interning at zspace, a commercial production company close by. I had the interview today (Friday) and it is going to be an amazing experience. They have everything I love about a work environment.

Getting ready for Shavous…

Schedule Page 1


Schedule Page 2

Sydney, Day 0.5

May 21st

I went to bed at 2 am on Sunday night (the 20th). I wanted to sleep earlier, but I knew it was a problem that I could barely move my suitcase. It is huge; it weighs 30lbs without any clothes in it.Airlines charge exorbitant fees for oversize bags. Something had to be done, so I stuffed what I could into a large garbage bag until it could reasonably move again.

At 4:30 I woke up to start my journey from Boston to Australia. I was accompanied by backpack, large suitcase, small box, and garbage bag.

Since no one was crazy enough to be awake and driving at 5 am, the taxi ride went quickly.

The first leg of the trip was a flight from Boston to LA. Wow. I don’t envy all the BU students who have to make that flight frequently. I finished watching Rebel without a Cause and watched The Lineup (1958). Not sure why I knew about that last one. Aside from being directed by Don Siegel and set in San Francisco, I don’t know why it was notable.

Immediately after landing in LA, myself and two other BU students on the Sydney program found each other. Jesse, Alex, and I faced a 12 hour layover! It didn’t take too long to decide we’d rather spend that time at the beach rather than the airport. While we were getting bus directions to Santa Monica, we met a Taiwanese Masters student on her way to Costa Rica to present her paper about the merchandizing industry surrounding Korean TV shows. She joined us. Her first taste of LA was a guy on the bus harassing her for a dollar – in front of transit police! Welcome to the USA.

The group got some lunch and we decided to eat on the beach. The walk was annoying; at this point, I was still carrying the backpack and garbage bag of clothes everywhere. Maybe 45 pounds.

Jesse had never been west of the Mississippi and took the opportunity to swim in the ocean:

Jesse wearing seaweed

Jesse has been henceforth nicknamed “Otter.”

Santa Monica pier was right near where we were eating. Alex spotted the roller coaster and we were off:

Alex can’t wait to ride the coaster.

Andrew used his iPhone to figure out that Venice Beach was nearby. And by nearby I mean a mile or so along the coast. Of course that didn’t stop us. We picked up our bags and went on our way. It didn’t take too long for the traveling to catch up to us:

Fun in the Sun

Between Santa Monica and Venice Beach.

While everyone napped, the Taiwanese student and I spoke about her research, TV, and consumer behavior.


Venice Beach was crazy. Definitely hippieville. There were lots of street venders selling things of quality (art) and junk (pre-made panhandler signs). There were many storefronts of weed doctors offering to give you a $40 “checkup.” Their neon green scrubs made them seem so much more legit. One highlight was watching a drunk bum fight unfold in front of us. It got pretty serious.

Looking down Venice Beach.

Hippie Jews?

It was time to get back to the airport, so we took the bus back from Venice Beach. Everyone who came was sporting great tans/sunburns.

At LAX we met up with other BU Sydney students. We quickly became known as “Those-Guys-That-Left-The-Airport-Awesome-Why-Didn’t-We-Think-Of-That?” There, I met even more students interested in film.

Ginseng in LAX

Something special from Wisconsin? What?

Waiting for takeoff.

I am proud of myself for stepping outside of my comfort zone and just saying “yes.” I had an amazing 12 hours that I will never regret. Despite the slight sunburn.

UPDATE: Two days in and the Beach Group is still fast friends.


The plane ride was pretty nice. The aircraft was two stories and the BU students occupied a lot of seats. I sat next to a great guy – a likeminded BU film student. Aside from talking to him, I watched We Need to Talk About Kevin, Carnage, and A Dangerous Method on the awesome in-flight entertainment catalog. The one bummer was that the airline did not have a kosher dinner for me – DESPITE having confirmed numerous times with the travel agency. A special thanks to the woman next to me who gave me her extra chips and fresh fruit.

15 hours later we landed in Sydney, boarded the bus, and were on our way…

Sydney, Day 0

Lots of people have asked me to blog my trip, so here goes…

Less than 12 hours to go before my journey begins. Over the next two months, I will be studying abroad in Sydney through the BU Summer Internship Program. Even though most of my time will be spent interning for credit, I look forward to taking Australian Cinema. This course will further my love and appreciation for this body of work.

The Aussie films I have already seen:

  • Broken Hill
  • The Black Balloon
  • Gallipoli
  • Samson and Delilah
  • Animal Kingdom
  • The Tracker
  • Romulus, My Father
  • Kenny
  • Proof
  • Rabbit-Proof Fence
  • Strictly Ballroom
  • Moulin Rouge!
  • Australia

I will post about Sydney, the study abroad experience, and of course, Australian film.


See you on the other side,

Packing in Boston

Packing up in Boston, Day 0

Essay on Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” and the Monster Movie Genre

I was extremely happy with how a recent paper of mine turned out. I wrote about Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 The Host, film genre conventions, and how The Host could be modified so that it is no longer recognizable as a Monster Movie. The essay can be viewed below – solely for the purposes of academic discussion.

The [awesome] prompt:

Genre films — like westerns, melodramas, horror films, etc. – draw on implicit conventions specific to genres in order to leave viewers emotionally and/or artistically satisfied while watching the film and when it ends. There are implicit conventions about what sorts of closure is appropriate to a genre, about motivations of the characters, about the kinds of emotions it is appropriate for viewers to feel, etc. Think of a standard western or a standard thriller. There are also visual conventions : think of the noir images or of the realist visual conventions of The Bicycle Thief or Chop Shop.

Although these conventions are important to identifying a film as belonging to a particular genre, they can also be violated for artistic and emotional effect. A good example of the violation of a thriller convention is Psycho. But it seems like they can’t be violated too much or they will no longer belong to the genre and/or be unsatisfying!

Using The Host (monster movie)…as an example, construct a thesis with two parts.

1. What are the important identifying elements of the genre of the film you’ve chosen? Emotions? Visual elements? Auditory elements? Character motivations? The ending? A combination of these elements or something else? Why is this/are these the most important identifying element(s) of the genre?

2. If you had the power to change the film, is there an element that you could change just a little bit that would result in it no longer being identifiable as a film in that genre? Justify this with reference to part 1) of your answer. Does this provide an argument for why the elements you identified in 1) are essential to the genre to which the film belongs?

Think philosophically and creatively!

568KB, .pdf

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