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The Variety of Movie Experience

The Tree of Life

a film directed by Terrence Malick
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Merie Wallace/Twentieth Century Fox
Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain in Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life

In his last book William James wrote:

One need only shut oneself in a closet and begin to think of the fact of one’s being there, of one’s queer bodily shape in the darkness (a thing to make children scream at, as Stevenson says), of one’s fantastic character and all, to have the wonder steal over the detail as much as over the general fact of being, and to see that it is only familiarity that blunts it. Not only that anything should be, but that this very thing should be, is mysterious! Philosophy stares, but brings no reasoned solution, for from nothing to being there is no logical bridge.

Probably no one is currently contemplating a movie version of Some Problems of Philosophy, but Terrence Malick is the rare contemporary filmmaker I can imagine being drawn to the idea—not because he studied with Stanley Cavell at Harvard and has published a translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons, but because in all his five films and most especially the latest, The Tree of Life, he seems determined to turn narrative movies into vehicles for posing unanswerable metaphysical questions, not in words but in the quite distinct language of cinema.

In the same way that William James applies the tensile force of his logical prose toward the evocation of an imperceptible bridge beyond logic that must, somehow, be there, Malick has continued to muster the resources of film toward embodying what cannot actually be embodied. He wants to make film do what it is least able to do. Not content with showing how the world looks, he wants to show how it is experienced from the inside, even if that inside story can only be suggested through the cunning deployment of “this very thing”: this door closing, this muttered banality, this drowned body floating in a swimming pool, this wounded dinosaur, this erupting volcano, this suburban backyard, this face averted to avoid looking at another face. What he hopes to arrive at through the splicing together of such elements is something as unresolved as the stares of James’s philosophers: a suite of widescreen open questions.

The dialogue track of The Tree of Life swarms with questions, right from the start. The drifting, pleading voice-overs that provide the ground bass of The Tree of Life are not far in spirit from James’s list of “various obscure, abstract, and universal questions which the sciences and life in general suggest but do not solve,” any one of which might provide a convenient point of entry to a viewing of Malick’s film:

What are “thoughts,” and what are “things”? and how are they connected?… Is there a common stuff out of which all facts are made?… Which is the most real kind of reality? What binds all things into one universe?

The film’s portentous epigraph is the grandest question of all, God’s challenge to Job—“Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”—the ultimate instance of answering a question with a question. Malick has never shied from grandiosity, and in The Tree of Life more than ever before he risks the humorless and overblown. Into what might in other hands have been the small-scale, melancholy tale—too elliptical even to be called a tale—of the not unusually eventful childhood of a boy in Texas, his two brothers, and his father and mother, he has managed to incorporate the creation of the universe, the origins of life on earth, the age of dinosaurs, and the prospect of future dissolution, with musical accompaniment by the powerful tonalities of Berlioz’s Requiem Mass. But he has made an audacious and magnificent film.

The extreme variations of scale are no afterthought in Malick’s scheme. To show the world in a grain of sand he must first establish what the world is. So he will walk us through the stages and conditions and outer boundaries of human existence, provide a basic introduction to annihilating and fecundating cosmic forces, move freely back and forth in time for lingering glances at birth and death and family and memory as if they were only marginally familiar phenomena, as if no one had ever done any of this before, in a movie at least—and indeed who ever did in quite this head-on fashion? He manages to make childhood (and The Tree of Life is beyond anything else a movie descriptive of childhood) seem a somewhat neglected condition, deserving of reexamination. He is continually trying out different ways of representing acts of perception: the perspective of a child looking up at the adult world, or looking down from some hidden perch, the abrupt rhythm of a child looking quickly at some terrifying outburst of adult anger and then looking away, the sheared-off gaps in editing that can mark a moment as a fresh eternity disconnected from what preceded it.

Malick has always shown an exact sense of what still remained to be put on a screen. He is steeped in the work of cinematic antecedents without ever seeming imitative; perhaps only a director with such a formidable awareness of formal limits could apply himself so deliberately to dissolving or transcending them. His first film, Badlands (1973), a fictionalized version of Charlie Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate’s 1950s midwestern murder rampage, was a blast of stylistic rigor in an era trending more toward laid-back improvisation, each frame executed with painterly precision, a near-solemn exactness strangely at odds with the randomness of the protagonists’ crime spree.

With its aura of road movie nihilism, Badlands could just about fit in with other movies of its decade; its successor, Days of Heaven (1978), coming along after Easy Rider had given way to Jaws, seemed to be feeling its way toward an entirely different decade, and not just because of its period setting. The two films were very different in effect: Badlands bright and razor-sharp and profoundly opaque, a perverse marriage of the murderous and childlike; Days of Heaven, set on a farm in the Texas Panhandle, summoning up with a sort of biblical (or at least Dreiserian) splendor and gravity a pre–World War I world of unrelenting harshness and emotional isolation, complete with a plague of locusts.

Perhaps the clue was those locusts: both prophetic figures of devastation and actual creatures, pursuing their lives in intimate close-up within the 70-millimeter frame. To fold the human world into its ecosystem was to imagine a different kind of movie, keyed to different rhythms than the “beats” and “motivations” and “precipitating acts” that had by now become the industrially applied norm. The triangle drama that constituted the storyline of Days of Heaven had the rudimentary quality of an early Eugene O’Neill one-acter, stripped even of O’Neill’s dialogue. How much did one really care if Richard Gere stabbed Sam Shepard over Brooke Adams? It was a serviceable center, finally just one of the multiplicity of things going on in the world that Malick mapped with light and framing and jarring juxtaposition, with animals and landscape and weather, and with a narration disconnected just slightly enough from the images to suggest the huge gap between words and things, between inner thought and outward event.

There are moments in Days of Heaven when he seems to want not simply to pay homage to F.W. Murnau and other silent masters but to become them—not to remake their movies but to make the movies they might have fleetingly imagined, movies with the associative and digressive freedom of a long poem, too immense or open-ended for the market to bear. The long sequence near the end in which three fugitives escape downriver on a raft, the fleeting torchlit scenes of life on shore conjuring a world of danger and weird beauty, seemed to incarnate Malick’s own desire to make the screen itself a medium for escape into some further space, a fluid dimension of his own imagining. In retrospect his films seem like places that one enters rather than stories that one watches.

Malick’s reputation would be secure if he had stopped making movies after Badlands and Days of Heaven, and for twenty years he did just that, for reasons not as yet fully chronicled. (Malick has rarely given interviews and is often described in the press as “famously reclusive” or the like.) In The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005) he seemed to pick up where he left off, treating vast historical subjects (the Guadalcanal campaign and the settling of Jamestown) in a way that subordinated narrative to a swirl of subjective experience. The narrations that had featured strongly in his first two films now broadened out into a chorus of alternating inner voices almost in the manner of O’Neill’s Strange Interlude, jettisoning the sharp characterization of the earlier voice-overs for a more trancelike and disembodied tone.

The natural world now more than ever competed with human actors for screen presence. Tight framing gave way to a more exploratory approach, with the camera constantly in motion finding out unexpected pathways, moving among swamps and foliage with desperate freedom. Hyperactive editing found multiple ways to divide scenes into component fragments, to mix up the particles of the world into fresh combinations, to distend or collapse the sense of duration as needed. (Malick’s attention to editing accounts to some extent for the long gaps between his films; The Tree of Life was three years in the cutting room.) These were not movies that lent themselves to being absorbed in a single viewing. The first encounter was more like an occasion to get a rough sense of structure.

As many have noted, none of Malick’s earlier films got nearer to the present than the 1950s. In The Tree of Life he has belatedly—he is now in his late sixties—made contact with the contemporary world, which as represented here by the corporate towers of Houston, Texas, seems more a harbinger of some space colony from which all traces of natural ecosystems have been definitively expunged. The towers are the habitat of Sean Penn as an architect seemingly ill at ease in his world. The movie itself can be taken as his memory drama, hinging on the death of a younger brother at nineteen; the whole film might be a poem of deep grief diffused over a lifetime.

The remembered eruption of that grief—the faces of the parents as they get the news—is conveyed in sharp disjunctive fragments that give way to Fiona Shaw, as the boy’s maternal grandmother, comforting her daughter with a litany of every hackneyed phrase—“life goes on,” “you will get over this”—inevitable at such times. The delivery of these catchphrases is too heartfelt to be satirical, but they are strung together a bit too systematically to feel naturalistic. As in all that follows, the effect is of seeing a memory staged, indelible in the realism of its details but edited and compressed over time, the relevant bits run together and the dross filtered out: the world as processed by the mind, with finally only the bright bits magnetized by emotion remaining to flash against darkness.

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