Seeing Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life was in a sense a return, because I had my film debut about ten years ago prior in the same lower east side New York City neighborhood where I wound up seeing Tree of Life this past week. Since both Malick and I seem to be inspired by a similar vision of film, and since both of us tol-002
(apparently) trace much of that back to Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni, it was almost as if I was watching an extension of Antonioni – as if Malick’s film was indeed another branch of an ever-growing tree.  While I’m not sure if Malick has ever seen my own Antonioni-inspired Clouds,  I found it striking that we came to similar conclusions about life and the expression of life through art, albeit via completely different paths.

As such, seeing Tree of Life was deeply personal and made me feel somewhat vindicated about the artistic choices in my own work – whether that be in film or the criticism thereof. With Tree of Life, Malick is expressing very much what I propose as an alternative direction in film style in an essay titled Peace As Style, where I discuss Antonioni as being the precursor to such a style.

In but one example, Malick effectively uses the ambiguity of sound and then later unveils the source of that sound in a kind of slow reveal that links the sound to a particular feeling or motif in such a way that he evokes mystery and awe, not the hyperventilating stimulation so often the norm today in film. Antonioni was extremely effective at the clever use of ambiguity to create a sense of mystery, and Malick, apparently inspired by Antonioni’s Zabriski Point, uses wind chimes to allude to the mystery of sex to which the young boy (played by Hunter McCracken) is slowly being revealed and later shamefully tries to rid himself by throwing the nightgown in the river. Once the source of the sound is seen (the wind chimes), and the boy steals the night-gown from his fantasy woman’s house, we don’t hear the sound again.

[As a side note, the nightgown scene has prompted more internet searches than any other I know of for this film, and apparently evokes deep, unresolved emotions. Suffice it to say many people are captured by the mystery of the scene and don’t understand the boy’s subsequent reaction. To me, he is clearly ashamed of creating a sexual fetish of the nightgown. He tries to hide the gown at first, then washes it down the river — an attempt to dissolve his guilt and shame into an overwhelming nature that washes away all sins and purifies his conscience as a result. I believe the scene essentially depicts the boy’s baptism into sexually-aware manhood.  As such, the nightgown evolves from a fetish to a sacred baptismal shroud.]

Ambiguity, used sparingly by most filmmakers today, becomes the central stylistic choice in Malick’s Tree of Life.  While most directors and producers are so afraid to alienate or offend an audience who, according to conventional wisdom, can only take things if spelled out literally, Malick assumes his audience is intelligent, and can follow his meandering, poetic connections.

Another example of the effective use of sound is the peaceful and alluring sound the ocean, which bookends the film – beginning with the ‘spirit image’ the beach scene at the end, where the various characters meet to reconcile in a timeless, meditative state. All of this stuff is so counter to the normal fodder we are fed on television and film that it is extremely gratifying to find the critical response to Tree of Life to be so favorable, although the film apparently did receive some booing at its Cannes premiere (as did Antonioni with some of his films). The film did win the top prize at Cannes, which also helped assuage the critics. My challenge to Fox Searchlight is to go as wide as possible with this film; they might be surprised by the outcome, particularly among a Christian audience.

Tree of Life is built on the use of motifs, used brilliantly with sound and source slowly revealed, cyclic re-occurrence, the grand scale of time being interleaved with the present moment. Malick’s particular approach, at least in this film, is more akin to music than the Hollywood style that traces its roots back to D. W. Griffith, kinetic editing and The Great Train Robbery. Instead, Malick seems to draw his inspiration from the Bible, surrealists (Bunuel and Dali), Italian neo-realist filmmakers (Fellini and Antonioni), existential science fiction films (Tarkovsky and Kubrick) and the literature of William Faulkner and James Joyce. Tree of Life is a grand amalgam of sometimes contradictory influences, including an effusive orchestration from Smetana’s The Moldau, and yet reaching beyond these influences even while honoring their undeniable presence.

It is a testament to the encyclopedic scope of the film, one can find various critics not only responding in completely different ways, but referring to completely different sets of (assumed) influences that Malick brought to his film.  As such, the film is a Rorschach test of sorts, and one can take from it multiple readings, which I’m sure is Malick’s intent, and shows how powerful his multi-layered ambiguity can be as a storytelling device.

To turn to the thematic elements of Tree of Life, I have written in the SolPix webzine and blog about the need for a more ‘humanistic’ media and film and even elaborated further to use the term ‘spiritual humanism.’ Malick’s film is, I would say, a spiritually humanistic film for several reasons. First, he deals with the subject of the origins and nature of violence and compassion and their relationship to human choice. Second, he seeks a balance between nature and mankind’s desire to control nature. Third, he sees reconciliation as the answer to questions of meaning and happiness. Finally, he sees something binding all these threads, or branches, of life together (even an extra-human aspect): love. And this love compels the tree to grow ever outward from its branches. From a biblical perspective, the tree is also a source of knowledge. But the overall energy and essence that drives this movement of life is a love that Malick sees shimmering through the light of his images and characters, of nature, of far-flung galaxies, of the extra-dimensional ‘non-physical’ – in short,  the entirety of life itself.

While it is generally uncomfortable to discuss an extra-human love in a culture where our obligatory ‘love you’s’ are generally restricted to our close familial ties, if we are to believe Malick, the force of love is quite large and behind everything we see in the natural world and beyond. Call this force ‘God’ or whatever name you will, it is tangible as long as we make it so. It is this existential choice to, in essence, choose and create an alternative to a cold universe, that takes Mr. Malick beyond Antonioni, who generally only saw despair in his landscapes, and very little hope. From a philosophical perspective, this probably puts Malick closer to the Christian existentialism of Kierkegaard and further from the absurdism and alienation of Camus, who would find better company with Antonioni.

In terms of compassion, it is apparent that Malick sees compassion as one choice among many. This is why the dinosaur scene was so pivotal and important. He is showing us that there is a primal, non-rational (or proto-rational) choice involved in treating others compassionately; that this choice in a sense comes from beyond us, yet does nonetheless express itself in daily human decisions. It is the same choice Mr. Obrien’s children make when deciding not to hit their father (played in a tour de force performance by Brad Pitt), even as he chides them to do so while he teaches them to box and defend themselves.

As for nature, the imposition of the (male) architecture over the (feminine) natural world is, apparently, the wider tragedy of human existence to date, and a theme clearly traceable to Antonioni’s early works.  It is the exploration of this ‘architectural’ theme that makes Sean Penn’s scenes so important (some critics have suggested they should have been cut). It is the dwarfing of the natural landscape when compared to mankind’s architected space – seen through the modern scenes – through which something is lost. This pattern happens as one chooses the path of ‘nature’ (in the negative sense of the will to dominate) over ‘grace’, according to the preamble of the film. The grown son (moodily played by Sean Penn)  finds himself dwarfed by his own creation, but he is unhappy because there is no love in his architecture, only utility. He longs for the love of the natural world and of his mother (delicately played by Jessica Chastain) for which he has destroyed in an egoistic attempt at control as he attempts to overcome the (perceived) failings of his father.

Thus the decidedly ‘male’ perspective finds its limits; for on a grander, larger scale, it is mystery – one might say the feminine – still reigns supreme. We cannot ‘know’ reality by the rational mind, just as the natural world cannot ultimately be ‘tamed’ by architecture and science. In truth, we live by grace, or the force of will, depending on your perspective and your choice. But clearly the individual will cannot control the larger, herculean forces of nature. We could, for example, be wiped out in an instant by an errant asteroid. And even if we controlled all the asteroids, some other, larger calamity would rear its head. Thus the great winds of time and space, of galaxies and stars, which provide the context for mankind’s ‘will’ – a will that in an attempt to impose itself on nature does so only with a certain folly and arrogance, for nature is, and always has been, the wider context through which we live. Any attempt to control nature in the broadest sense is futile, and if some semblance of this does happen only occurs through the mastery achieved through the reconciling power of love — a process Malick refers to as ‘grace.’

Further, Malick seems to argue that love is the natural evolutionary path for humanity. Mankind, stubborn to prove otherwise, continually tries to control through his will (and the proxy servants of science and technology) what cannot ultimately be controlled, but rather must be surrendered to and accepted in order to find peace. Without this surrendering there is only conflict, only suffering. So it is the binding nature of love and reconciliation, as seen at the end of the film as the characters reconcile in timelessness on the beach, returning to the ocean from which they arose – it is here that Malick beckons us toward a path that is separate from the contentiousness of domination and control and toward a more ‘New Testament’ vision of acceptance, surrender and compassion, and it is through that path that Malick asserts we will find happiness. And again, we are compelled in this direction by the life force itself.

As a bit of personal background, Malick had just released Days of Heaven when I was in film school in the early eighties. At that time I was studying European film, with a focus on Antonioni.  Zabriski Point, Blow Up, The Passenger – all of these films by Antonioni were fresh on my mind. It was nearly twenty years later (in 1998) before Malick would return to film, and nearly twenty years later (in 2000) before I would return to film after a long stint on a different career path outside of film and the arts. Now, decades after the French and American New Wave, Malick returns to re-assert the power of those film artists who apparently impacted many of us so deeply, and pay homage to the artistic territory they staked out — to extend the branches of the tree they and his life represent. Malick, as a cinophile and philosophy teacher of a certain age, was certainly impressed in his youth by many of the same directors I was: Kubrick, Antonioni, Godard, Fellini, and so on. It was these (mostly) Europeans, who also had such an impact on the likes of Francis Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who molded my own opinions about the potential for film and film language, and, moreover, how to create a uniquely American aesthetic that nonetheless pays homage to these great European masters who offered us an alternative to the studio film and style. Malick continues that tradition with Tree of Life. It’s not that all films must conform and be like Tree of Life, but certainly our cultural palette must and should include many more films of a similar aesthetic.

Malick, who began his career in the early seventies (with Badlands) at roughly the same time as Martin Scorsese, became in a sense our lost master. Again, after Days of Heaven he wasn’t seen again for 20 years. Thankfully, he has returned to us in full glory. This is a glory that he himself would eschew; for the glory he sees is not so much in himself as an artist, but as a vessel of the beauty of life that he sees around him, and a translator and messenger to us of that beauty. While many of our most financially successful filmmakers are more architects than artists – technicians under the employ and influence of more utilitarian forces – Mr. Malick is an artist and a teacher, and, miraculously, one now allowed to express himself in a fairly unrestricted way. Malick may have given us more if he had the chance, but fortunately what we wind up with is his best, for that is what he seems to demand of himself.

We may look back on Mr. Malick’s recent work and see it as the beginning of a re-invigorated American art cinema. Suffice it to say that Mr. Malick sees the world through a different, more compassionate lens than the (currently) dominant forces in society and in film. He is leading us toward a new sensibility, and we should follow.


Don Thompson is a producer/filmmaker and essayist. You can visit nextPix here.