The Tree of Life: Let the Wind Speak

The Tree of Life: Let the Wind Speak

On Film / Essays — Sep 13, 2018

“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.

Terrence Malick’s cinema takes place within a spatial and temporal framework that has the elasticity of human consciousness and moves to its pulse—we are on the Texas panhandle early in the twentieth century (Days of Heaven, 1978), or on Guadalcanal during World War II (The Thin Red Line, 1998), or in an unnamed Texas suburb in the 1950s (The Tree of Life)—but we always understand the geographical locations to be points within the greater universe, and the moments to exist within eternity. It can be difficult or impossible to know how much time has passed between scenes, or even between shots. With every cut, the world is reborn and seen anew. The only other narrative filmmaker with whom Malick might be compared in this sense is Jean-Luc Godard, but Godard’s angle of vision is purely existential, while Malick’s is profoundly spiritual. 

In fact, comparing Malick with other filmmakers is a difficult task. His attraction to immense physical spaces might be likened to that of David Lean, but in all other respects these two artists are worlds apart, particularly on the question of acting. Lean timed his actors’ exchanges to the millisecond during lengthy rehearsals of precisely worded texts, whereas 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. Robert Bresson and Roberto Rossellini were kindred spiritual artists, but their respective aesthetics of austerity are quite distant from the grandeur of Malick’s perspective. That grandeur and awe put Malick quite close to Stanley Kubrick, but while the vast spaces and silences of Kubrick’s films are momentarily comical and finally terrifying and shudder-inducing, in Malick’s work the terror is always tinged with thanksgiving and a sense of wonder that one might call childlike. Perhaps more useful comparisons can be found outside of cinema: in Herman Melville’s Mardi, Moby-Dick, or Clarel; in Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass; or in Gustav Mahler’s symphonies—all works that allow their very forms to be determined by the gravitational pull and sway of consciousness itself.

The Tree of Life is at once the culmination of Malick’s development as an artist and the beginning of a new phase in his filmmaking. Right from the start, his films were made from a cosmic perspective, which is why his debut, Badlands, inspired by the notorious teen killers Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, felt like nothing else around it in 1973. In that film, we are offered a double vision of every event, seen on two contrasting scales: actions, and the vast unknowable spaces in which they occur; human affairs, and the world of animals, plants, deserts, and mountains; a personal sense of innocence, and the terrible damage of destruction. 

In Days of Heaven, the story of a love triangle gone tragically wrong on a Texas farm, there is a greater focus on human passions and endeavors—we become involved in the terrible calculation made by Richard Gere’s itinerant farmhand, already on the run from the law, when he encourages his lover (played by Brooke Adams) to give in to the advances of Sam Shepard’s wealthy and terminally ill farmer. Yet throughout the film, Malick constantly reorients the attention of both his audience and his characters toward the greater force and wonder of light, vaulting skies over immense spaces, and the consuming destruction of fire. The sense of irony in Badlands, embodied in a line of narration spoken by Sissy Spacek’s Holly in the middle of her boyfriend’s killing spree—“What’s the man I’ll marry going to look like? What’s he doing right this minute?”—has disappeared. Here, the narration spoken by Linda Manz, as Gere’s younger sister, offers a less severe and more poignant illustration of the gulf between individual understanding and the greater mysteries of existence.

In The Thin Red Line, released in 1998, twenty years after Days of Heaven, contrasts in scale and behavior have ceased to make themselves felt as structural elements, and are simply lived and breathed by Malick and his characters. As viewers, we are placed within the infinite, as a condition not of this particular film but of life itself. An AWOL soldier playing with a Melanesian child, the protracted taking of Guadalcanal, the shadow suddenly cast by a cloud passing between the sun and two fallen soldiers in tall grass, an officer observing Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn” . . . we seem to alight on every moment and action as if we were a hummingbird or an insect. Or perhaps as if we were not anything in particular but all things existing, known and unknown. 

Malick’s cinema from The Thin Red Line on has been on a parallel trajectory, in a certain sense, with that of mainstream filmmaking, with the ever-increasing mobility of the camera and a movement toward the abandonment of temporal and behavioral continuity. Terms like shot and composition have become increasingly difficult to apply. But in the majority of films, big and small, these developments have been a matter of fashion, expedience, or some combination thereof, not to mention a naive faith in the power of technology to actually make the movie for you. In Malick’s post-1998 films, the choices of unmoored camera and spatial and temporal discontinuity are a matter of artistic and spiritual practice. 

These choices also affect the question of character. Like Badlands and Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line is narrated, but now by multiple voices. We alight on this officer ruminating on his years of subservience to his superiors, and this soldier remembering his beloved wife back home, and this soldier in a state of weightless elation over the fact that he has just killed another man. The counterpoint between what we see on-screen and what we hear from the interior voices of Spacek’s and Manz’s characters, each speaking from a private but touchingly skewed sense of destiny, gives way in The Thin Red Line to something altogether different and quite unprecedented: immediate expressions of spiritual contact with the world. These spontaneous outpourings are sometimes filled with awe, sometimes with terror, sometimes composed, and sometimes desperate. 

Despite the fact that it was partly shot on 65 mm film, The New World (2005), a reimagining of the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, is even more mobile than The Thin Red Line. The voice-over is split between the three central characters—Colin Farrell’s Smith, Q’orianka Kilcher’s Pocahontas, and Christian Bale’s John Rolfe—but one might say that the natural world of lightning flashes and birdsong and water flowing over stones and forest enclosures is the center of the film, the undeniable force, the great and constant presence with which Pocahontas and her native brothers and sisters harmonize, but which the settlers try to conquer at their own peril: the settlers’ constructed fort feels like an obscenity and the Court of St. James’s like an exquisitely handmade child’s toy. This was Malick’s first film with Emmanuel Lubezki, the Mexican cinematographer who has single-handedly turned the cinema screen into a kaleidoscopic, gravity-free field of wonders. Every encounter seems to happen in motion, and all distinctions between “scenes,” “sequences,” “interludes,” and instants are gone. Each of these developments is now central to Malick’s practice.

In the years that Malick was away from cinema after Days of Heaven, one heard about various projects. There was a script called The English Speaker about Freud, Josef Breuer, and the patient Anna O. There was a stage adapt­ation of Sansho the Bailiff. There was a poten­tial adaptation of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. And there was a project called The Tree of Life. At a certain point, someone reported that the film would be shot in India with Mel Gibson. Then, years later, it was Sean Penn. There would be special effects involved. It would be autobiographical. And, we later learned, it would begin at the very beginning of time. 

And then, finally, in 2011, there was the film itself. I remember the day I walked into the cinema, the anticipation I felt and the expectations we all held. They were met and almost instantly surpassed. The Tree of Life was, and still is, for me and for many others, one of the great, shattering events in the cinema. And seven years later, it has only become more powerful.

What is the story of The Tree of Life? Is it the story of a cultured Texas family in the fifties, told in flashback? Is it a story of conflict between a traditionally domineering father and a radiant and compassionate mother? Is it the story of the world and human consciousness as exemplified by this midcentury American family? Or is it the story of one second in one day in the existence of a lost man who works in a glass office tower, in which his own life and by extension all of life flashes before his eyes? It’s all of these things, but to enumerate them doesn’t begin to do justice to the experience of actually watching this film. 

“Every distinct instant in this film feels like it’s been caught or plucked from ongoing life.

The beginning of your life, the beginning of all life, the beginning of this moment, and the end of the solar system . . . in the blink of an eye. Remembering, inventing, creating, ending, destroying all . . . in one heartbeat. The infinite scale, the scale on which we all began to think when we were young, both counterpoints and reinforces the precious intimate details of the specific lives in question. And all of this is caught within the pulsing flow of the film, a convergence of the fluidity Lubezki achieves and the fugue form that Malick arrived at in the editing room, reinforced by the constant flow of music, from John Tavener’s “Funeral Canticle” to Bedřich Smetana’s “Vltava” to David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir to Respighi to Berlioz to Mahler himself. Every distinct instant in this film feels like it’s been caught or plucked from ongoing life: family battles around the kitchen and the noisy slamming of the screen door; a son summoning admiration for an endlessly needy father as the father plays Bach on a church organ; the perfectly sun-browned lawn of the early-twentieth-century house on the quiet street surrounded by similar wooden houses (another key collaborator, from the start of Malick’s career: production designer Jack Fisk, one of the geniuses of American cinema); the lovely, shining face of an old man who appears just once, to say one thing (“We’ll see you in five years”); the collective boredom of boys with nothing to do on a summer day quietly devolving into mindlessly competitive games of destruction; cans kicked down empty streets at twilight; forbidden acts followed by self-recrimination; visions of the beloved, terrorized but self-possessed mother floating in the trees, and entombed in glass like Snow White; the first life-form; the last light of the universe . . . 

This rush of instants, sensations, states of being, and miracles—miracles of birth and growth, miracles of light, miracles of forgiveness—is unified by an energy field created by two powerful forces: grace and memory. Grace has been an abiding constant in Malick’s work from The Thin Red Line on. It is the sudden arrival of clarity for men who admit defeat in their battles to master themselves and their world, and it is the quiet force of outwardly dutiful but inwardly courageous women with a steadfast belief in compassion and love. Like The Thin Red Line and The New World before it, The Tree of Life is a war film. The war is between a mother and a father over the souls of their sons, and while no blood is shed and the war is fought across dinner tables and patches of grass, it is no less emotionally violent than the wars of the previous films. And the tension builds, skillfully and powerfully, almost without our noticing it, amid all the movement and light and incident and emotion, to two sudden abandonments of pride and vanity and declarations of affection—the first made brother to brother and the second father to son. These are remarkable scenes, both arriving as if by chance, just as in life, when the horror of embarrassment or shame is dissolved and transformed into a surge of love. 

Those scenes are informed, as is everything else in this film, by the power of memory. This is a first in Malick’s work. Even for someone with no knowledge of certain key details of the director’s personal life, details that I suspect he prefers had never been shared, the very sense of remembered detail is embedded in The Tree of Life. It’s one thing to recreate the visual details of a midfifties schoolyard filled with children running and playing—that’s production design. It’s another thing to transmit the liberating, Brueghelesque energy of recess in a contained setting. This is the world from a child’s perspective, in which first encounters with the deformed and the debased or with the mystery of death are met with dazed wonder, occasions for inner, troubled curiosity (“Can it happen to anybody?” . . . “You let a boy die—why should I be good?”). We hear the voices of all three young brothers, but events are unfolding through the perspective of an adult (Sean Penn) not simply remembering but summoning the very being of his younger self, Hunter McCracken’s Jack. We are seeing, and feeling, through his perspective—the worry shown in his brow when he hides in shame from his mother’s gaze; his stifled anger at his father, caught in his stiffened shoulders; the weight he feels as he reenacts his father’s show of taunting and dismissing others. This is more than just a great child character: this is a fusion of an artist’s remembered emotions and states of being with a child’s actual live-wire sensitivity and energy. I don’t know exactly how Malick’s scenes read on the page, but every performance—Brad Pitt’s as the father, Jessica Chastain’s as the mother, and McCracken’s, Laramie Eppler’s, and Tye Sheridan’s as their children—is grounded in a living dynamic that feels both elemental and sense- and memory-specific. As someone who also grew up in middle-class midcentury America, I can simply attest to the rightness of the details: the power-affirming condescension of father to sons, masked as joviality (“And what did you do today, my fine feathered friend?”); the silent, shared liberation of mother and sons when the father leaves for a business trip; Jack’s unforgettable bearing before his father as he watches him play the organ, a mixture of spontaneous admiration and worry that he’s not showing enough of it, embarrassment over his father’s solemnity, pride, and fear that he may not ever do anything as impressive. There is often an ephemeral and even an abstract relationship between actors and their environments in Malick’s previous films (and in the films that have followed, all of which feel like direct outgrowths of the contemporary scenes in this film with Penn), and in that sense The Tree of Life stands alone. Pitt, Chastain, and McCracken are the heart of the film, and they are each heartbreaking in distinct ways: Chastain’s presence is like a sustained harmonic tone, over which Pitt sounds dramatic progressions and refrains, finally penetrated and quietly altered by McCracken’s simple, quavering song.

Is it correct, or helpful, to define The Tree of Life as a Christian film? I would prefer to say that it exemplifies and is animated and illuminated by grace, with a decidedly Christian tint. I referred above to the differences between men and women in Malick’s later films: women (Kilcher in The New World, Chastain in The Tree of Life, Olga Kurylenko and Rachel McAdams in 2012’s To the Wonder) quietly embody grace, while men fight and stumble their way through and suddenly find themselves possessed and driven by grace (Elias Koteas defying Nick Nolte’s order in The Thin Red Line, Bale’s change of spiritual direction in 2015’s Knight of Cups, and most of all McCracken and Pitt).

One of the very last images of The Tree of Life is a bridge—the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connects Brooklyn to Staten Island, to be exact. At first glance, it seems like an almost random choice. But how else to close a film that encompasses an imagining of the beginning and the end of time, the reconciliation of the past with the present, and above all the courage to stand before a brother or a son and allow pride to give way to love? How else could it end but with a structure built to join here with there, and me with you?