The Variety of Movie Experience

The Tree of Life

a film directed by Terrence Malick
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…

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