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Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? Where has he gone? No one can tell! (Part the Second)

March 15, 2012

In yesterday’s episode, we took a gander at the much-discussed “dinosaur scene” from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which I believe is the riskiest, the most important, and the most memorable scene in the movie, as well as the most confounding and the most frankly ridiculous.  I started to argue that the scene is less important for its content—which is not difficult to interpret—than for its function, which is harder to figure out, and not by accident.  That’s where I’d like to pick up today.

The crucial thing to catch here, I think, is that the dinosaur scene is risky because it represents a major intentional rupture in the narrative.  In order to talk about how this scene works (as opposed to what it means, a topic that we kicked around yesterday) I’d like to reach into the Russian-formalist toolbox for a second.  In a 1925 essay, the critic Boris Tomashevsky famously describes how any story can be broken down into a bunch of component parts—bits of information that convey to the reader the events of the tale, and explain when, where, why, and how they transpire—and he calls the narrative function of each of these bits a motif.  He goes on to divide motifs into two types, which he calls bound and free: bound motifs are crucial to the plot—if one gets left out, the story will stop making sense—while free motifs aren’t.  Bound motifs carry us through the narrative, and make it intelligible AS a narrative, while free motifs require us to do some interpretation to figure out why they made the final cut.  The most common rationale for including a free motif is what might problematically be called “realism”: a bunch of the party descriptions and dialogue in The Great Gatsby, for example, do little to advance the story, but they sure give us a clear sense of the glib and venal milieu in which the book’s action takes place; not dissimilarly, rice paddies and water buffalo don’t figure into the plot of Rambo, but if we don’t see a few of them, then we’re not going to buy that Stallone is really grunting his way through Southeast Asia.  And so forth.

I am reasonably sure that my understanding of the O’Brien family history was not clarified by the experience of watching a dinosaur get its head stomped on; thus I think we can safely call the dinosaur scene—along with the whole creation-of-the-world sequence in which it appears—free rather than bound.  However, neither would I say that this sequence does anything to convince me of the reality or plausibility of what I’m watching; on the contrary, it completely derails my reception of the family drama that’s ostensibly what the film is about, just as I’m starting to get a grip on it.  Within the creation sequence, the dinosaur scene represents the moment of maximum narrative dislocation, the moment at which Malick’s dude-how-did-we-wind-up-in-the-planetarium detour really turns a corner: suddenly we’re in a free motif that contains bound motifs—i.e. 1) the parasaurs are feeding, 2) one among them is sick and immobile, 3) the healthy ones sense danger and flee in terror, 4) the predator appears, 5) the predator recognizes the sick parasaur as easy prey, 6) the predator pounces on it, 7) etc.  The creation sequence that preceded this scene was intelligible as a really, really digressive depiction of the adult Jack’s attempt to understand his own life’s smallness in the cosmos and to grasp the expanse of time that preceded his existence, yadda yadda yadda, but the dinosaurs are something else: the film has suddenly gone from asking me to understand and care about a kid growing up in Central Texas to asking me to watch an end-of-2001-style spacescape to now asking me to understand and care about a couple of large toothy lizards that died out 65 million years ago.  W—as the kids say—TF?

It’s all good, though: our boy Tomashevsky’s got our back.  His essay posits yet another function of free motifs, one which he broadly defines as “artistic.”  (Go ahead, roll your eyes.)  Artistic motifs perform all kinds of awesome, non-plot-related functions; very often these have to do with anticipating and getting in front of the audience’s familiarity with other, similar stories.  (And I do suspect that there’s a certain amount of this afoot in Tree; more to the point, I’m convinced that the references to Tarkovsky and Kubrick that A D Jameson and Jeremy M. Davies think they detect in the film really are there—q.v. their insightful, entertaining, fairly exasperated dialogue on the subject at Big Other, which is rewarding enough that I’m willing to excuse their location of Waco in the Texas panhandle.*)  But Tomashevsky makes particular mention of a different strategy, one he calls ostranenie, a term generally translated as “defamiliarization,” or “estrangement,” or “making-strange.”  The concept doesn’t originate with him; it pops up here and there pretty much throughout the history of art criticism, from Aristotle on, but the sense in which he’s using it was first and most emphatically formulated by Viktor Shklovsky in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique” (I’ll quote from the Lemon & Reis translation):

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.

Got that?  From a formalist perspective, Malick’s nutty space-time-dinosaur detour is one of the features that qualifies Tree as an honest-to-god (so to speak) Work Of Art—not although but precisely because it disrupts the orderly progression of the film’s narrative.  Shklovsky’s implication is that although art (in his sense) and story coexist more or less peacefully in just about every narrative work you can think of, they’re actually at cross-purposes: narrative is about motion, while art is about stasis; narrative wants our attention directed to what has happened and is going to happen, while art wants us focused on what’s happening (or not happening).  Every work of narrative art seeks its own particular balance between the headlong rush of plot and the obstructing drag of ostranenie—a balance that has important resonance with Horace’s classic prescription that literature should fuse the instructive with the agreeable.

But what exactly might Malick be aiming to slow down our perceptions of?  The narrative operations of the film itself, maybe—but surely not just that.  (A film that wants to make us aware of its own storytelling machinery tends to look more like Rashōmon or Breathless or The Long Goodbye or Memento or Mulholland Drive—and less like NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos.)  If the formalists maintain that the task of art is to induce us to look at our familiar surroundings with renewed alertness and attentiveness—“[A]rt exists that one may recover the sensation of life,” Shklovsky writes in another famous passage; “it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony”—and if this is indeed more or less what Malick’s up to with his digressions in Tree, then is his ultimate goal in the creation-of-the-world sequence to make the universe seem, um, universey?

To an extent, yeah, sure, I think it kind of is.  I mean, try imagining a different director—John Ford, Peter Weir, Zhang Yimou, Bertolucci, Spielberg, just about anybody—making a movie about Jack O’Brien’s recollections of his childhood.  When the adult Jack considers his place in the universe, virtually any other director would show us Jack thinking.  It’d probably be done via montage: a solitary Jack looking pensive and glum, maybe flipping through a family Bible and/or an old physics textbook while an orchestra mopes extradiegetically in the audio.  These directors would do this primarily in service to the film’s plot: for the story to work—to properly set up the climax and the dénouement—the audience needs to understand Jack’s frame of mind so his motives are clear and his behavior is intelligible.  Malick totally inverts these priorities: instead of showing us that Jack is thinking, he shows us what Jack thinks; he presents Jack’s thoughts to us not as ideas nor as motives but as an experience.

It’s significant too that the film’s elaborate depiction of what’s going on in the adult Jack’s head does NOT encourage us to understand or to sympathize with his dramatic circumstances: since the film almost always has us looking through his mind’s eye, we’re never really permitted to put any distance between ourselves and his point of view.  One of the weird, paradoxical-at-first-blush aspects of narrative is the fact that our emotional investment is diminished if a storyteller places us too close to a central character’s subjectivity: if we’re always seeing through that person’s eyes and feeling through his or her body, we’ll probably find ourselves totally immersed in each scene, but we won’t have enough macro-level perspective to keep tabs on who’s who and what’s at stake.  If, on the other hand, we’re given an occasional glimpse of the character’s situation from an objective and impersonal distance, or through the eyes of others, we’ll be better able to orient ourselves, and we’ll begin to feel as if we have adequate vantage to form opinions; this in turn will lead us to grant our sympathy to the central character and our investment to the story.  Makes sense, right?

(Okay, since I already mentioned Memento, I’m just gonna go ahead and cite it as an example of this phenomenon: Leonard, the protagonist, suffers from anterograde amnesia—he “can’t make new memories”—and the film imposes a roughly analogous condition on its audience by presenting most of its scenes in reverse chronological order, so we’re never sure what preceded a particular event; consequently we spend the whole movie pretty much trapped in Leonard’s point of view.  Although we’re with him for just about every frame, we never feel entirely at ease in his company—and indeed the film’s major themes and final resolution absolutely depend on maintaining this distance.  Complaints—of which there are many—that Memento is cold or overly fastidious strike me as somewhat akin to complaints that Saw is gory, or that Murder She Wrote is repetitive: um, you think?  Leonard’s anterograde amnesia isn’t just a storytelling gimmick meant to conceal information from the audience; it’s also a fissure that the film uses to reveal limits to the basic human capacity to handle information, along with our apparent readiness to ignore and reinterpret facts that conflict with our favored personal narratives.  Against a dominant tendency in the storytelling arts to depict characters with coherent identities who move steadily toward epiphany and self-actualization, Memento—in keeping with film noir tradition—argues pretty forcefully that our most cherished notions of individual selfhood may not be significantly less contrived than the most fatuous output of Tinseltown: not by chance, then, does the movie come off as a little frosty.)

The classic nuts-and-bolts treatment of how this kind of narrative distancing functions may be the one that appears in The Art of Fiction by John Gardner; he calls it “psychic distance.”  (You’ll find a pretty good summary here.)  Gardner’s talking about fictional prose, obviously, but the grammar of film is strongly analogous to what he describes; in fact he even resorts to cinematic metaphors—close-ups, establishing shots, etc.—to make his points.  If we look at The Tree of Life with this kind of calculation in mind, I think evidence once again suggests that Malick hasn’t blocked our sympathy for the adult Jack out of carelessness or perversity.  Although there are, for example, a ton of close-up shots all over Tree, I don’t recall many of them being of Sean Penn’s face; we typically view him from a distance (and often from above and/or behind), or he’s offscreen entirely.  In other words, Malick seems to intentionally avoid showing us the adult Jack from the midrange perspective that Gardner identifies as most apt to put us at ease and draw us in.  Malick’s aim seems to be to induce us to experience the contents of the film directly, for ourselves, rather than filtering them through the perspective of the main character.  Simply put, he wants us to feel like the film is happening to us, not to Jack.

Tree’s abundant voiceovers—probably the second-most-ridiculed aspect of the film—work in a similar way, in that their rhetoric exhibits even more pronounced constraint: they’re resolutely non-narrative, even anti-literary, leaning heavily on one-syllable words and consisting either of aggrieved questions (“Lord, why?  Where were you?  Did you know what happened?  Do you care?”) or imperative-mood prescriptions and bald assertions devoid of any argument.  (“Help each other.  Love everyone.  Every leaf.  Every ray of light.  Forgive.”)  The voiceovers take pains to offer the audience very little to analyze or interpret.  They’re so simple—so untextured and atomized—that it’s almost difficult to imagine them being written out at all: they have the character of phrases and fragments that might drift through our heads while we’re going about our daily business, preoccupied by some lingering trouble that we don’t have the time or the inclination to really sit down and work through.  (Jameson’s and Davies’ conversation includes a useful comparison of the voiceovers from The Tree of Life and Malick’s highly-regarded Days of Heaven from 1978 that casts the difference in almost excruciating relief.)

At some level, all or most serious films aspire to give their audiences something to think about; Tree, I believe, emphatically does not.  Instead, it seems to want to show us thought, to make thought visible to us, to provide us with a critical vantage on it by impeding our capacity to engage in it, to make us aware of it by taking us outside it.  But Terry, why?  What are you getting at?  Do you know how irritating this is?  Do you care?

At this point I suspect it may be helpful to take a very quick backward glance at some of Malick’s earlier films, which are largely free from the complicating specters of overt autobiography and orthodox religion.  (If you can’t get enough of this stuff and are looking for a more rigorous backward glance at the Malick oeuvre, I highly recommend this piece, by Jon Baskin at The Point.)  Here I say “I suspect” because I can’t claim a ton of authority to present this survey: I have seen just four of Malick’s five feature-length films: Ialong with just about everybody else—skipped The New World from 2005, and I haven’t seen his undisputed masterpiece Days of Heaven since I was a kid.  (I believe I was home sick from school at the time, suffering an acute case of whatever the opposite of ADHD is.)

Based on what I HAVE seen, though, I feel confident in asserting that Malick has always been—and seems increasingly to be—really, really comfortable monkeywrenching the narrative progression of his films with what the audience might regard as, like, scenery: his camera will linger on amber waves of grain or dust billowing behind a distant farm truck for longer than seems necessary, or appropriate, or functional; he’ll cut away from dialogue that seems as if it could be, y’know, important in order to follow a flock of birds as it takes wing.  There seems to be a tension in these films between foreground (i.e. the story and the characters) and background (i.e. the setting and the various free motifs that emerge from it), and a constant tendency for the latter to supersede the former.  The most overt example of this is in Days of Heaven, when a quirky shot of a couple of grasshoppers hanging out on a head of cabbage quickly escalates into what becomes the film’s tragic climax.

After Days, Malick somewhat notoriously took a twenty-year vacation from directing.  Since dude is pretty much a straight-up recluse, we don’t know why this is.  The standard Wonder Boys version of events is that he got bogged down in an unfilmable project about the origins of life in the universe (ring any bells?), had a few bad meetings in post-Star-Wars Hollywood, and decamped to Paris, where he set about becoming really mysterious and interesting as his film-world legend grew.  The awesome thing about reclusive artists is that people like me have carte blanche to come up with theories about their rationales for doing and not doing things, and that is exactly what I’m going to do now.

As great a movie as Days of Heaven is, if Malick’s goal in it is indeed to depict the world of human concerns and entanglements being overwhelmed by the inhuman, natural world, then it fails.  To be more precise, it succeeds within the fictional world of the film—nature does indeed wreck the aspirations of Sam Shepard’s farmer, and dooms the scheme of Richard Gere’s conniving fugitive—but outside that fictional world, from the perspective of the audience, invented human systems of ordering still reign supreme, particularly the system we know as narrative: the clean mechanics of Malick’s pared-down storyline would probably earn him an approving fist-bump from Sophocles.  As gorgeous and enigmatic as Days is, it’s still a spectacle, engrossing but not quite immersive: something we watch happen, but not something that happens to us.  I have a strong suspicion—and what are you gonna do, call Terry up and prove me wrong?—that Malick came away from Days of Heaven with a pretty specific next-time-I’ll list, and I’ll bet that eliminating narrative armature was riding pretty high on that list.

Twenty years and a whole lot of sitting in cafés later, Malick was back in the saddle with The Thin Red Line, an adaption of the James Jones World War II novel costarring something like thirty percent of the bankable male actors in the Anglophone world, with the performances of an additional twenty percent left on the cutting-room floor.  (Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman, Mickey Rourke, Martin Sheen, and a ton of other dudes were all apparently in this thing at some point; Adrien Brody—who has expressed something akin to fury at having what was essentially a lead role edited down to a few minutes of screen time—can probably be forgiven for being upset at losing his star turn to a bunch of tropical birds and a marine crocodile.)  Line was the first Malick film I saw in a theater, and also the first one that left me wondering just what the hell the deal is with this guy: the cast list certainly led the unsuspecting filmgoer to anticipate something like A Bridge Too Far, or at any rate something less reliant on lingering shots of wind-purled island grasses.

Yet for all the actorly firepower in Line, fourteen years later I hardly recall any of the performances.  What I remember, of course, are the not-infrequent moments when the film breaks away from the war and the soldiers entirely, into what looks like an IMAX documentary about flora and fauna in the Solomon Islands.  (This tendency is paralleled by the habit of the film’s central character—played by Jesus-to-be Jim Caviezel—of going AWOL to hang out with natives and wander beatifically in the woods.)  In other words, I remember the film’s narrative less than the disruption of the narrative, the foreground less than the background.  I don’t recall enjoying these natural-world reveries—I recall being fairly irritated by them, and by Caviezel’s semi-stoned performance and goofy voiceover—but they’re what has stayed with me.

And this, I believe, is mostly because Malick never really permits a narrative arc to take shape in the film.  The emergence of such an arc would almost certainly supersede Line’s evocations of the natural world in the audience’s memories, because that’s how our brains are trained to work.  The full sensory rush of lived experience—while no doubt way cool—isn’t particularly useful to us: it’s too much data to store and to process, and therefore our tendency is always to look for “the takeaway,” to identify the braided strands of cause and effect that explain why things happen the way they happen, so we can internalize the rules and forget the specifics.  The human capacity to do this is probably one of the big factors that accounts for our near-total dominance of the planet we inhabit; it’s also precisely the tendency to which Viktor Shklovsky says art should make opposition its first order of business.  The swarming locusts in Days of Heaven may evoke the terror of the sublime in viewers while they’re sitting in the theater (or at least make them take a hard look in the popcorn bucket to make sure it’s, y’know, just popcorn in there) but by the time they’re wandering the parking lot trying to find their cars, their brains have classified the swarm as a plot point, an event that brings about the film’s resolution—and maybe as a literary device, a symbol and/or a Biblical allusion—but not as a whirring, squirming, wheat-stalk-munching thing. 

In The Thin Red Line, Malick takes pains not to trap himself like that again.  Images of the natural world are prominent, but the film never justifies their presence by giving them any plot function.  Furthermore, the events of the plot aren’t linked to each other by clear causal chains: much of what happens just kind of happens, analogously to the steady series of trees and vines and birds and reptiles and Guadalcanal topography that Malick places before us, all of it ultimately declining to mean anything aside from itself.  Thus the film ends up with the texture of a mosaic, or maybe a cubist painting: something lacking any illusory depth, a patchwork in which all the component elements—plot and setting, human and nature, fiction and documentary—are arranged without reference to an obvious hierarchy.  This equanimous perspective is reinforced by the first words we hear in the film, in Caviezel’s moony voiceover, words which serve as a thesis statement for Line rather more reliably than Mrs. O’Brien’s nature/grace passage does for Tree:

What is this war in the heart of nature?  Why does nature vie with itself, the land contend with the sea?

This is very likely an unattributed and grammar-shifted paraphrase of Heraclitus’s Fragment 80, written around the end of the 6th Century BCE: war is all around us, strife is justice, and all things come into being and pass away through strife.  The baldly-stated point here, obviously, is that viewers are NOT encouraged to interpret The Thin Red Line as a depiction of unspoiled nature being violated by human war, since humans and their wars are part of nature, too.

Many viewers interpret Line that way anyway, of course; many more don’t really bother to interpret it at all.  While any number of naysayers have complained that the film is slow-paced and dull—at least by war-movie standards—or that its structure is too loose, or that its themes aren’t clearly articulated, just about everybody offers grudging or enraptured praise for its visual richness, or lushness, or gorgeousness.  These words all indicate surplus: the implication being that the film contains more images than the narrative requires or can justify.  Not too many folks, however, seem to get around to asking what the significance of these surplus images is, or why Malick shot them in the first place, or why they made his final cut when Viggo Mortensen didn’t.  Although everybody remarks on them, pretty much everybody also seems comfortable regarding them as merely ornamental, or maybe just as instances of lazy synecdoche illustrating the aforementioned ostensible man-versus-nature conflict.  Although I would bet that Malick is more satisfied with the structure of Line and its balance of elements than he is with those of Days, I would also guess that the propensity of his audience to regard Line’s narrative-derailing images of the nonhuman natural world as nothing more than B-roll footage that Malick lacked the self-control to omit might persist as a source of frustration to him, one he has finally had an opportunity to address in The Tree of Life.  “If I cut away to the Big Bang and a CGI plesiosaur,” I like to imagine Malick thinking, “ain’t nobody gonna say I did it on a freaking whim.”

None of this quite gets at the why question, however—at least not in a way that’s totally convincing to me.  At this point we’ve talked about how Tree works, and what the artistic aim of deploying such filmic techniques might be, but I still feel as though we’re skating across the surface of what’s really going on.  Tomorrow, in Part Three (of three, thank god!) I’d like to try to get past Malick’s methods to talk about the values that may have given rise to them, and also to see just how much I retained from the Intro to Western Philosophy course I took from Dr. Chuck Salman back in like 1992.  Stay tuned, true believers!

*RETRACTION: As attentive link-clickers have no doubt already discerned, I owe Adam Jameson and Jeremy Davies an apology . . . I carelessly read The Tree of Life for Days of Heaven in their Big Other dialogue and mistook a reference to the latter as a reference to the former.  (Not sure how I managed that, as there are certainly plenty of trees in . . . what’s it called?  Oh yeah: The Tree [ahem] of Life.)  Their handle on Lone Star State geography should remain unbesmirched.

This of course raises grave doubts about my own capacity to carefully read and gloss complex material BUT I’M GOING TO DO IT ANYWAY!  See you in [checks watch] twelve hours!!!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2012 10:46 am

    Days of Heaven was totally set in the Texas Panhandle. It’s even mentioned in a line of dialogue (“Should make you the richest man in the Panhandle”).

    (And, of course, it was filmed in Alberta, Canada. Movie magic!)


  2. March 15, 2012 6:55 pm

    Crap! That was some careless-ass reading on my part; my apologies. See retraction above!

    Thanks for setting me straight, and thanks as always for stopping by!

  3. March 16, 2012 1:19 pm

    I’m here to keep you honest. :)

  4. March 16, 2012 1:22 pm

    The point is, over time, there have been more and more trees in Malick’s films.


  1. Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? Where has he gone? No one can tell! (Part the First) « New Strategies for Invisibility
  2. Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? Where has he gone? No one can tell! (Part the Third) « New Strategies for Invisibility

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