“The objective,” wrote William Carlos Williams of the work of the artist, “is not to copy nature and never was, but to imitate nature, which involved active invention, the active work of the imagination.” For Williams, this work results in “a new thing, unlike anything else in nature, a thing advanced and apart from it.”
All things in nature were created according to laws that are beyond the limits of our understanding. For that reason, the “new things” that we hold in the highest esteem do not explain themselves, any more than space or time or a stone or a tree does. Williams’s poetry, Bach’s compositions, and films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Shoah, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life do not reassure or comfort us. Rather, they bring us closer to the essential shock of the unanswerable question that is the object of Korean Zen contemplation: What is this?
I think that for Malick the imitation of nature is intensified and purified to such a degree that it becomes a devotional act. We are accustomed to describing works of art we like as “personal” and ones we don’t care for as “impersonal,” but that gets us only halfway there. “I try to get myself out of it as much as possible,” Manny Farber once told me of his painting process, “so that the object itself takes on a kind of religious awe.” In other words, the committed artist’s engagement with his or her material runs so deep that it can only begin with the personal and then arrive at another plane, the mysteriously impersonal and unnameable. In all of Malick’s films, and most powerfully in 2011’s The Tree of Life, everything is allowed to speak: the wind . . . the lighting of a candle . . . a meteor crashing to earth . . . a newborn baby’s moving arms and legs . . . a parched front lawn . . . the body of a drowned boy . . . a father’s sudden self-reckoning . . . the beginning of life and the end of time. Each image speaks the awe-inspiring mystery of its own existence, and radiates and resounds in harmony with the question: What is this?
“Malick creates working environments for his actors and then constructions in the editing room that are meant to replace the very ideas of text and performance with pure behavior.”
“Every distinct instant in this film feels like it’s been caught or plucked from ongoing life.”
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