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

March 16, 2012

In the last couple of posts, I’ve been trying to figure out just what the holy hell is going on in Terrence Malick’s recent The Tree of Life.  In this third and final post, I’d like to consider a possible set of explanations as to why the film works the way it works and looks the way it looks.

I’m gonna try to land this Spruce Goose with one last bit of Terrence Malick biographical trivia, the discovery of which felt for me like one of those moments when you’re playing expert-level Windows Minesweeper and you click on a square that’s adjacent to no mines and suddenly a huge swath of empty space opens up in front of you and you’re like: dude, I got this.

Am I the only person in the world who didn’t know (at least prior to starting this post) that Malick was a philosopher before he became a filmmaker?  I’m talking here about a rather different degree of scholarship than, say, Mick Jagger’s early studies at the London School of Economics, or even David Duchovny’s unfinished Ph.D. in English Lit: Malick studied with Stanley Cavell at Harvard, with Gilbert Ryle at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and he taught philosophy at MIT for a while.  To borrow a line from an academic in a different field, I believe this has some significance for our Tree of Life problem.

Based on available evidence, the philosopher with whom Malick seems to have the strongest affiliation is Martin Heidegger.  Malick’s undergrad honors thesis with Cavell centered on Heidegger, at one point he evidently traveled to Germany and met Heidegger, and Heidegger was the major focus of his MIT course; additionally, in 1969, Malick published a fairly distinguished translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (as The Essence of Reasons).  I think it’s safe to say that these days Heidegger is understood to be the 800-pound gorilla of what’s commonly called “continental philosophy”: he was a major influence on Sartre’s formulation of existentialism (though he thought Sartre misread him), the term “deconstruction” (now common parlance, albeit with degraded specificity of meaning) arose as an attempt to capture his use of the German word Destruktion, and I suspect but cannot confirm that he’s at least an indirect inspiration (or supplier of unattributed talking points) for contemporary cultural trends like the Slow Food movement, “simple living,” and Portlandiastyle hyperconscious consumerism.  Back in ’69, however, Heidegger was still pretty esoteric stuff, at least in the analytic and Anglophone circles where Malick made his academic rounds.  The point here is that as a young philosopher, Malick was 1) serious, 2) reasonably distinguished, and 3) on or slightly ahead of one of the cutting edges of his profession.

For several reasons, I’m not going to attempt any kind of serious examination of Heideggerian themes in Malick’s filmography here.  First, this whole triparate thing is closing in on 8000 words, a length I normally like to reserve for assessing the works of mononymic pop stars.  Second, my knowledge of Heidegger is limited to a couple of his late essays—“The Question Concerning Technology” and “Building Dwelling Thinking”—that I read as an undergrad like twenty years ago.  Third, Heidegger is not so much a can as a forty-gallon drum of worms: any mention of him probably ought to arrive trailing asterisks the size of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, with the biggest one representing his committed Nazi Party membership in the 1930s.  Finally, there is the risk of making too much of this comparison: calling Malick a Heideggerian filmmaker stands to interpose Heidegger between us and our experience of the films, such that we stop seeing them in their own right.  That said, I haven’t observed a ton of evidence—outside of academic publishing, maybe—that Malick’s critics have herded him into some Heideggerian corral; it seems to me that making too little of his background in philosophy, rather than too much, is the more pressing danger.  So at the risk of RADICALLY oversimplifying—hell, I’m not even gonna risk it; I’m just gonna do it—let’s take a quick swing at this.

Heidegger’s basic deal is an attempt to recover an apprehension of the world that’s firmly rooted in our experience of it.  Sounds pretty straightforward, right?  Well, it ain’t: according to Heidegger, Western philosophy since Plato—which pretty much means Western philosophy in its entirety—has basically amounted to a turn away from the direct experience of the world, in favor of imaginary perspectives, separated from time and space and specific circumstance, from which the world can be viewed, described, ordered, classified, and so forth.  (Cogito-ergo-sum-style thought experiments are rooted in such imaginary perspectives; so are the methods of the experimental sciences.)  Much of Heidegger’s project consists of an attempt to dismantle everything that preceded him, or at least to make the fundamental assumptions on which it’s all based visible and open to question.

When it comes to understanding Heidegger, it’s tempting to think that those of us who don’t really have any solid grasp on the history of Western philosophy might actually be better off—because, hey, we’re junking all that stuff anyway, right?—but again, no dice: over the past 2500 or so years, the errors of perspective and conception that he seeks to defuse have been encoded so deeply in our everyday language and habits of thought as to become entirely transparent to us.  Thus our experience is “always already” enmeshed in preconceptions and circumstances that we have no real means of extricating ourselves from, since we can’t reliably be aware of them at all.  Heidegger recommends that we instead try approaching key questions about existence by means of literary or poetic language that preserves (or restores) some of the mystery inherent to being—a prescription that lands him in the same neck of the woods as our friends the Russian formalists, something I am hardly the first to note.

Although it casts an impressively wide and deep net, Heidegger’s thought is pretty much billeted in the haunted vessel of German Romanticism: when the chips are down and he’s stuck in a tough rhetorical corner, he tends to reach for his Hölderlin or Rilke.  Much like the fictional O’Brien family—but, we probably ought to note, unlike the real-life Malicks—Heidegger’s people were observant Catholics: Heidegger began his schooling with a concentration in theology and an intent to enter the priesthood.  Although this plan didn’t pan out—he renounced the faith in 1919—he maintained a career-long antipathy toward humanism, rooted in his suspicion of anthropocentric conceptions of the universe.  He ends up with a philosophy that places being itself at the center of the world (think being in the sense of the state or quality of having existence and you’re on the right track) and he suggests that our job as thinking and perceiving subjects should be to remain open to being in all its sublime authenticity.  This gentle and attentive openness to the world has resonance with the Taoist concept of wu wei (at some point Heidegger evidently attempted to translate the Tao Te Ching into German), and it also bears a passing (but significant for our purposes) resemblance to the concept of grace that Malick distilled from Thomas à Kempis.

When the internet told me that Malick did time as a Heidegger scholar before he started slumming as an award-winning motion-picture auteur, the first thing that popped into my head—not, y’know, word-for-word, obviously—was a section of “Building Dwelling Thinking,” a briefish and kind of trippy Heidegger essay from 1951 (the translation is by Albert Hofstadter):

Mortals dwell in that they save the earth [. . .].  Saving does not only snatch something from a danger.  To save really means to set something free into its own presencing.  To save the earth is more than to exploit it or even wear it out.  Saving the earth does not master the earth and does not subjugate it, which is merely one step from spoliation.

Mortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky.  They leave to the sun and the moon their journey, to the stars their courses, to the seasons their blessing and their inclemency; they do not turn night into day nor day into a harassed unrest.

Mortals dwell in that they await the divinities as divinities.  In hope they hold up to the divinities what is unhoped for.  They wait for intimations of their coming and do not mistake the signs of their absence.  They do not make their gods for themselves and do not worship idols.  In the very depth of misfortune they wait for the weal that has been withdrawn.

Mortals dwell in that they initiate their own nature—their being capable of death as death—into the use and practice of this capacity, so that there may be a good death.  To initiate mortals into the nature of death in no way means to make death, as empty Nothing, the goal.  Nor does it mean to darken dwelling by blindly staring toward the end.

Out of context, this passage is pretty perplexing; in context, it’s . . . still pretty perplexing.  If you can kind of roll along with Heidegger’s idiosyncratic use of certain terms—words like “mortals,” “dwell,” “earth,” “sky,” “divinities,” “save,” and “danger,” among others, all accrue very particular implications in his writing—this excerpt gives you a pretty good sense of the attitude toward existence that he says we should cultivate, i.e. one of engaged and mindful humility.  The passage reminds me of several things in Malick, most notably the developing outlooks of several of his films’ central characters (all of whom also serve as offscreen narrators): Sissy Spacek’s Holly in Badlands, Linda Manz’s Linda in Days of Heaven, and especially Caviezel’s Private Witt in The Thin Red Line.  (John Baskin’s essay in The Point, which I linked to in my last post, does a great job of analyzing all these characters.)  I think of Witt particularly with reference to the last paragraph in the block quote above: both of his ultimate fate, and of his statement early in the film about an appropriate attitude toward one’s own death.

I remember my mother, when she was dyin’.  Looked all shrunk up and gray.  I asked her if she was afraid.  She just shook her head.  I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her.  I couldn’t find nothin’ beautiful or uplifting about her goin’ back to God.  I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it.

I wondered how it’d be when I died, what it’d be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw.  I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same calm.  ’Cause that’s where it’s hidden: the immortality I hadn’t seen.

Maintaining a particular attitude toward death is a consideration in The Tree of Life, as well—the movie does, after all, conclude with the peculiar extratemporal-O’Brien-family-reunion-at-the-Bonneville-Salt-Flats “afterlife” sequence—but it’s really the third paragraph of the Heidegger excerpt above that seems applicable to Tree.  The attitude that Heidegger recommends dwelling mortals adopt toward the divinities seems to rhyme with that prescribed by the Book of Job, a quotation from which (Verses 38:4 & 38:7) serves as the film’s epigraph: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  If the big question posed by the adult Jack in The Tree of Life is: How do I make sense of a universe in which my gentle and decent brother dies at nineteen and I, jerk that I am, go on pointlessly living? then the film’s answer, like God’s to Job, is: You don’t, dude.  It’s not the place of the human subject to make such inquiries of the universe—not, according to Heidegger, because the universe will put you in your place with a bolt of lightning, nor even because such questions can’t really be answered, but because any answers you find will actually blind you to other truths and lead you further into error.  Although the universe may appear stable, it’s actually a constantly-shifting balance of opposing forces—a concept that Heidegger derives from the same fragment of Heraclitus that Malick more or less quotes in The Thin Red Line—and any truth you pin down concerning particular circumstances or beings is apt not to remain true relative to other circumstances or beings.

This is a major concern for Heidegger: the better able we are to master the world and to get it to disclose its secrets according to our will, the more screwed-up we become, alienated from the mysterious and self-disclosing aspects of existence, and therefore alienated from ourselves.  Heidegger isn’t a Luddite, opposed to technological advancement, but he does worry that our increasing dominance of our surroundings changes us: it inclines us to organize and classify the world solely as a collection of resources at our disposal, and then to perceive the world only in those terms, rather than as its unmediated, unclassified self.  We are so utterly surrounded by and entangled in systems and processes designed to exploit available assets that it requires a kind of breakthrough—and/or a breakdown of systems and technologies—to encounter the world as the world.

This is a major concern in The Tree of Life, as well, though that may not be immediately apparent.  It is, after all, exactly this kind of breakthrough that the predatory Ornithomimus experiences on the Cretaceous riverbank: rather than viewing the things of the world in purely functional terms—categorized as food and not-food—for a moment it seems to stop and consider the trapped parasaur as a being, both like it and unlike it.  The predator seems to do this without any circumstantial prompting.  Malick’s implication seems to be that as organisms have become more complex and more sophisticated—better able to dominate and organize their environments—they’ve become more and more estranged from the capacity to slow down and look, to see the world’s phenomena in anything other than functional terms, and therefore less given to this kind of fleeting openness.

Not for nothing, then, does Malick depict Jack O’Brien’s father as an aeronautical engineer, pursuing a career in America’s post-WWII golden era of aerospace.  (Malick’s own father, in case you were wondering, was a petroleum geologist.)  Mr. O’Brien—restless, ambitious, covetous, never satisfied (“It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” he tells his sons)—evokes the tunnel-visioned, results-oriented, technological will-to-power that Heidegger warns against, and that Malick connects with what Thomas à Kempis calls “nature.”  Viewed in this light, the young Jack’s cruel “experiment” of launching a frog on a bottle-rocket represents a grotesque parody of his father’s technical aspirations.  It’s also a more-or-less intentional blasphemy: “That’s where God lives!” Mrs. O’Brien tells her sons at one point, gesturing skyward.  We should note too that the heavenly trajectory of young Jack’s frog-bearing firecracker is recapitulated by the upright BB gun with which he later shoots R.L.’s fingertip.  The injury to R.L.’s finger resonates in turn with a brief scene in which R.L. places his small hand over a flashlight’s beam to see the shadows of veins and arteries there—a branching pattern that we might call, with a little metaphorical license, a tree of life.

And I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to associate the artificial light that passes through R.L.’s hand with the light that passes through a camera lens to record images on film, the light that passes through a projector to strike a movie-theater screen: a light that reveals.  It’s a little easier to buy the notion that filmmaking might in some ways qualify as a continuation of Malick’s philosophical project when we consider that this is pretty much where Heidegger’s own project concluded: i.e. in approximate prescriptive accord with Viktor Shklovsky, with the idea that art represents the best way to reconnect ourselves with the unmediated textures of the world in which we make our home.

If this is indeed a legit way to characterize Malick’s career, it’s also worth mentioning that the approach he has chosen risks some pitfalls.  If, for instance, technology is the major force that alienates us from the world, it seems significant that film is an extremely technology-intensive artistic medium, certainly far more so than the poetry that Heidegger treasures.  And in fact examples abound of films that were wrecked by their makers’ access to technology, wrecked because making the movie became secondary to using the technology.  (The criminally odious Star Wars prequels are the test case here; I’d argue that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films are already aging poorly because of their tech-heaviness; even something as ostensibly high-minded and serious as Saving Private Ryan—which suffers badly in a head-to-head with The Thin Red Line from the same year—is hastened toward inauthenticity by a bottomless visual-effects budget.  Jaws, by contrast, remains a great film precisely because its technology consistently failed during production.)

I get the strong impression that Malick knows this, and has consciously adopted strategies to steer clear of this peril: while his dinosaurs are crafted from state-of-the-art CGI, he hired the legendary Douglas Trumbull to do the outer-space bits in his creation-of-the-world sequence; Trumbull is probably best known for doing effects for Stanley Kubrick on 2001, and returned to those working methods (which involve such high-art, low-tech approaches as filming clouds of milk and dye in a side-lit tank of water) for Tree.  It’s also worth noting that Tree’s image of maximum mystery—the auroralike curtains of light that open and close the film—wasn’t made or commissioned by Malick at all: it’s simply footage of Opus 161 by Thomas Wilfred, a work of light-art from the mid-1960s.  If art is our best bet for refreshing our encounters with the world, then I suppose it makes sense that Malick’s most overt evocation of the unmediated infinite should arrive in the form of a fairly modest work of studio art by an eccentric Danish immigrant, produced roughly contemporaneously with most of the the events depicted in his film.

Just for the sake of tying up a loose end, it’s also worth mentioning that film tends to rely heavily on another technology that Malick has adopted strategies for keeping in check—a technology that’s very old, and hardly exclusive to film, and so fundamental that it’s typically only visible to us through its absence.  I’m talking, of course, about narrative itself.  I’ve already gone on at length about how Malick deliberately breaks narrative momentum in his films, so I won’t belabor that here, except to note the interesting tension in Malick’s work between film as a narrative medium for invention (let me tell you a story) and film as a documentary medium for recording (I was here, and these things were here, and I saw these things).  These opposed-but-overlaid conceptions of the function of film as a medium run parallel to Heidegger’s famous conception of the two realms of being: what he called the earth (the nonhuman world of objects and forces) and what he called the world (the world of human activity, with every tangible object and force classified according to its purpose or significance).  The intersection of these two ways of encountering the world is—for Heidegger, and perhaps for Malick too—where we encounter our own authentic humanity.

So I think Malick’s got a pretty good handle on the intrinsically technological nature of film.  My quibble—I MUST have a quibble!—is that I’m less convinced that he has a handle on the intrinsically collaborative nature of film.  Jameson and Davies make a good point that Days of Heaven is just about everybody’s favorite Malick film, and that this probably has something to do with the input of Malick’s collaborators and the fertile milieu in which the film took shape; the fact that it’s a more compromised product than Malick’s more recent efforts actually works more to the film’s benefit than its detriment, at least in terms of connecting with and engaging viewers.  (It’s not that Days is a more crowd-pleasing movie, necessarily, but rather that it admits a certain degree of rhetorical sophistication that Malick keeps out of his later films—intentionally, I’m guessing.)

My aim in bringing this up is not to criticize Malick for hitting what he aims at just because I’d prefer he picked a different target; I think it’s worth considering the implications of.  At the very beginning of this series of posts, I described The Tree of Life as “personal, even private,” and now that I’ve dragged you through some quick-and-dirty Russian formalism and my plagiarize-this-at-your-own-risk survey of Heidegger, I’d like to clarify what I meant by that.  I think this film would still feel personal and private if it lacked a single autobiographical reference: I think this feeling comes not (just) from its presentation of character but from its conception of character, specifically a suspicion of or antipathy toward the midrange psychic distance I talked about in the last post.  Virtually all—maybe just plain ALL—of The Tree of Life is presented from inside the adult Jack’s head, from a psychic distance of zero.  (There’s a reason for all that low-angled handheld camerawork.)  As such, we not only never feel like we have a complete understanding of Jack, we also never feel as if we know or understand any of the other characters (i.e. his parents, his brothers, his own younger self).  We never feel as if Jack has an understanding of these characters, either; nor do any of those characters seem to understand each other.  The film does, I believe, succeed in inducing us, the audience, to think about the things (i.e. our own births, childhoods, families, hopes, loves, aspirations, and eventual deaths in a vast and ancient universe) that the adult Jack thinks about, and to do so in the same way that he thinks about them, which is pretty impressive.  But I also believe the film wants me to believe—or at least assumes—that trying to achieve a sympathetic understanding of how other people might confront these same questions is either impossible or ought to be avoided.  And I don’t have a super-good feeling about that.

Let’s go back to Heidegger one last time.  One of the big knocks on Heidegger—and given the dude’s repellent careerist adventures in National Socialism, the contest is really for second place here—is that while he presents a sweeping and kind of mind-blowing account of the relation of the human subject to being, he is conspicuously unwilling or unable to say much of anything about the relation of the human subject to other human subjects.  Maybe I should say that he’s unwilling to say anything positive: his early writings are full of references to society as a force that clouds the consciousness of the human subject with received notions that encourage conformity and mediocrity and alienate it from its own authentic experience of being.  The gear that Heidegger idled in—as I mentioned above and will now repeat—was German Romanticism; its fetishism of intuitive individual genius is pretty much always playing in the background when he’s holding forth.  (It sounds a lot like a late Beethoven quartet, of course.)  As a result of this orientation, the atmosphere that Heidegger evokes is always kind of cool and awestruck and mist-shrouded and mysterious, and it is for damn sure a fun place to take an intellectual vacation.  But it doesn’t take very long before the environs start to feel a little like a theme park, before the mist starts to look like production design (is that a fog machine behind that boulder?), and before at least some of the mystery starts to feel like it might be mystification instead.

I feel like Malick may also be susceptible to this.  I’m intrigued by reports that Sean Penn has expressed some dissatisfaction with Tree, saying that the finished product didn’t entirely do the screenplay justice, and that the film might have been better served by a “more conventional narrative;” I’m tempted to think that by “more conventional narrative” he might mean “characters having actual conversations with one another.”  (This could be taken as another instance of Adrien-Brody-style um-where-did-my-performance-go? sour grapes, but I get the impression that Penn really gets Malick; evidently he helped him edit The Thin Red Line.)  This is, of course, pretty much the same conclusion that Mitchell arrives at (rather more efficiently than I have) at The Discreet Bourgeois with his comparison of Tree to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: if Malick’s assumption is that you can’t really present a vivid and complete evocation of an inhabited world if you complicate it by depicting the complexities of human society, then Yellow Ribbon would sure seem to be a strong argument to the contrary.

An effective comedy constitutes a positive rejoinder to a movie presented from a Heideggerian perspective; an effective film noir—like Memento, mentioned parenthetically in the last post—presents a more cautionary critique.  Heidegger’s whole project, ostensibly, is a deconstruction of all the initial assumptions of Western philosophy, but it seems to me that he gives the idea of individual consciousness a free pass.  Yeah, sure, he provides an extensive account of how the individual human subject gets all manner of screwed up by listening to the prattle of its friends and neighbors—but the fact that his account of the operations of mass culture is so strongly negative indicates that he’s imagining something pure at the heart of subjectivity, something that could be brought to the surface if the complications of living amidst others could only be stripped away.  Heidegger doesn’t seem to consider that those complications might actually constitute the human subject.  He’s also very weird about emotions: the “divinities” that he mentions in the passage quoted above are best understood not as invisible quasi-animist forces, but rather as overriding moods or atmospheres that arise from somewhere outside the perceiving subject to determine the character of an experience.  That’s kind of nuts; one suspects that Heidegger has to locate these moods outside the self, because his idea of human consciousness can’t admit the unconscious or the irrational without inventing a mysterious inhuman external power to naturalize and legitimate it.

I should end by noting that many, many people have made attempts to draw lines between Heidegger’s philosophical project and its attendant view of the world—i.e. his extremely rich account of lived experience, his complete disinterest in ethics and politics, his extremely accommodating account of individual selfhood—and his deplorable conduct during the Nazi era.  Some of those lines look pretty straight and pretty short to me.

Am I here to tell you that any work of art that’s coming from his general direction is ethically suspect, or that The Tree of Life is a piece of fascist propaganda?  Hell no.  I’m only suggesting that it’s worth spending a little time (and, apparently, a few thousand words) considering what The Tree of Life is—and is not—saying to us, and what it is and is not able to say, given its initial assumptions.  There are evidently keys in which Terrence Malick cannot or chooses not to sing; I think part of enjoying his performance probably ought to consist of being mindful of certain pitches that we never hear.

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!!!

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

March 14, 2012

For a while now, the estimable Mitchell Brown has had a great post up at The Discrete Bourgeois that contrasts Terence Malick’s depiction of time and of place in the recent and much-argued-about The Tree of Life with—dig this—John Ford’s depiction of approximately same in his She Wore a Yellow Ribbon from 1949.  Both Mitchell’s post and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—which I hadn’t seen until he screened it for us back in November—are very much worth your time.

I’m pretty sure The Tree of Life is, too—and that hedged “pretty sure” is basically what Mitchell’s post is about: Malick’s film is easy to admire (visually stunning, etc.) but not so easy to love, or to feel satisfied by.  Although it’s remarkable for its inventiveness, as well as for both the vastness and the specificity of its ambitions, the film ultimately feels very personal, even private, in its perspective and its rhetoric (whether it actually is or not) in a way that’s distancing for its audience.  Its successes come at the expense of engaging us on certain levels.

In his post, Mitchell does a great job of describing how John Ford goes about telling a story of similarly sweeping scope to Malick’s in such an adroit and hospitable way that his audience is barely aware of his ambitions until the theater lights have come back up.  I don’t really have much to add to Mitchell’s reading of Ford; what I’d like to do here is come at this comparison from the other direction: to talk about how The Tree of Life does and doesn’t work, and about what Malick’s filmmaking choices earn him and cost him.

In the course of arranging my thoughts on this subject, it’s become painfully clear to me that there’s just no good way to hammer this stuff out in a single post.  Thus I hereby present what I project to be Part One of a short series.  My aim—in order to avoid marooning poor Terrence Malick in New Strategies limbo with Cairo the Anti-Terror Dog and the eleven-year-old children from The Birds—is to present these posts on successive days.  We’ll see how that plays out.  Place your bets!

Okay.  What The Tree of Life sets out to do, to my way of thinking, is to depict—with maximal mimetic precision and minimal concession to narrative clarity—the response of an individual consciousness to a range of existential questions.  More specifically it’s about the efforts of the film’s protagonist, in light of his brother’s untimely death, to make sense of his life, and of the universe, and to figure out what the former and the latter have to do with each other, if anything.  The film works in approximately the opposite way that most serious dramatic films work: these films generally depict a few significant events and the reactions of a group of characters to them, and then leave it up to the audience to infer what’s going on in the characters’ heads and hearts.  Tree, on the other hand, doesn’t much care about telling us a story, but DOES want to show us exactly what its protagonist is thinking and feeling.  (One almost imagines Malick starting with a truism about film—that it can show images, but has to induce its audience to infer ideas and emotions—and then setting out to disprove it.)

As Mitchell correctly notes, many of The Tree of Life’s admirers tend to come across as dismissive of efforts to “figure out” the film, or to pin down its meaning.  The consensus among these folks seems to be that there’s really not that much to figure: Malick’s movie may be unconventional, but it’s also basically straightforward and sincere.  These fans are apt to reassure us that any puzzlement we may feel isn’t due to philistinism on our part; it merely comes from the fact that most of the standard interpretive stuff we’re accustomed to doing with “serious” movies has pretty much been done for us in this case.  What the film has to tell us, it clearly states; it doesn’t claim to have any better answers to big questions than its befuddled characters do.  Even the nuts-and-bolts content that ISN’T made clear in Tree—content that seems to have been deliberately elided or withheld, such as the precise chronology of depicted events, or some of the characters’ biographical particulars, or the precise ratio of fantasy to reality in what we’re shown—isn’t necessarily rewarding for us to puzzle through: knowing the circumstances of the brother’s death, for instance, wouldn’t exactly make us more receptive to our encounters with dinosaurs and nebulae and stuff.  If the film’s earnestness and directness leave it open to charges of self-indulgent sentimentality, well, then it’s redeemed by its sheer beauty and its evocative strangeness.  And that’s pretty much all you needed to know to fill out your Oscar ballot.

Or so go the usual pro-Tree arguments, at any rate.  Until I began working on this—initially it was just supposed to be a comment on Mitchell’s post—I was pretty much coming from the same place: I saw Tree, I basically liked it, and I felt like I, y’know, got it or whatever.  I was aware of a bunch of divergent opinions on the film—at Cannes it was famously both jeered and awarded the Palme d’Or—but I figured that all the back-and-forth basically boiled down to viewers’ varying appetites for metaphysical earnestness: if you’re cool with it, then you thought Tree was one of the best movies of the year; if you’re not, then you didn’t.  The case against the film that corresponds to the pro argument set forth above was crystallized for me by an urbane middle-aged couple who sat in front of us at the theater in Evanston where K and I saw Tree: sometime round about the eighth reel, during one of Sean Penn’s plaintive voiceovers, the gentleman leaned over to his companion and audibly muttered the words “Jesus freak.”  Shortly thereafter the couple walked out.  (I should mention for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the folkways of Chicagoland that Evanston is the kind of town where comments like “Jesus freak” are indeed intelligible as heckling.)

Although—just to be clear—the not-infrequent protestations made by certain persons of faith about their perceived oppression by the forces of secularism kind of make me want to shoot something with a gun, I still think it’s possible—possible—that we arugula-eating, pew-eschewing, art-film-watching liberal elites have gotten a little bit lazy in our viewing habits.  It could be that we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing “serious” film directors use religiosity as a quick signifier—of rooted steadiness at best, of cruel bigotry at worst, of a disinclination to doubt in any case—that when a film makes a clear sympathetic effort to convey the complex and conflicted worldviews of religious characters, our assumption tends to be that the filmmaker must share that worldview.  The protagonist of The Tree of Life grows up in an observant Catholic family in small-town Texas; as an adult he works as an architect in the city, and although he doesn’t seem overtly religious, his voiceover—which is addressed to a supreme otherworldly power—makes it apparent that he still tries to make sense of the world through the lens of faith: even if his belief in God has been shaken, his faith is his only framework for asking the questions that trouble him.  Although Terrence Malick is famously reticent regarding his private life, most watchers of Tree will know that he too was raised in Central Texas in the 1950s, and many will also know that he too lost a younger brother at an early age; therefore we can hardly help but view Tree as near-autobiography, and to conclude that the perspective from which the film’s protagonist views the world is very close to Malick’s own.

I am not sure that that’s the case.  (At minimum, I strongly suspect that Malick is not a Jesus freak.)  With the benefit of Google and a few months’ hindsight, I have become convinced that I—along with many others—was a little too quick to make up my mind about The Tree of Life.  Whether they lionize it as a heart-on-its-sleeve address to the infinite, or they write it off as self-involved reverie, I think the majority of opinions I’ve heard or read about the film don’t credit it with the complexity it actually possesses, and don’t really take into account the full measure of its weirdness.  Since I’ve only seen the movie once—and since I am frankly not in a huge hurry to sit through it again—I can’t claim to be able to accomplish that full measure-taking here.  But I AM going to take a crack at arguing that, sincere though it may indeed be, it possesses more moving parts than might initially be apparent.

We might as well start with the dinosaurs.  In Tree’s most-talked-about (and certainly most-ridiculed) scene, we see what Wikipedia informs me is a young Parasaurolophus being set upon by a predatory Ornithomimus on a riverbank.  (You can watch the scene here, courtesy of the New York Times.)  The young parasaur is injured or sick; it huddles helplessly on the ground while its fellows flee the premises.  The predator scampers over in a very Jurassic-Park-velociraptory way, stomps on the parasaur’s crested head, and is clearly ready to start noshing.  Then it stops.  It lifts its foot, as if to get a better look at the parasaur’s face; the parasaur raises its head, and the predator smooshes it down again—more gently this time, as if only concerned with maintaining its control over the situation.  The predator lifts its foot again; the parasaur remains still, and the predator’s foot comes down a third time: just a tap, a touch that seems curious, exploratory, and almost—not quite—affectionate.  Unless I’m mistaken, the predator brushes a clawed toe along the parasaur’s distinctive crest, as if suddenly wondering: Just what the hell ARE these things I’ve been eating?  Then it departs across the river, leaving the young parasaur unharmed.

Am I a total dweeb for being moved by this scene?  Maybe it’s partly that NPR has been awash lately in stories of animals that exhibit capacities for cooperation and caring that seem to match (or exceed) those of humans—rats will rescue each other! Tom Brokaw concludes a long interview with a portentous story about elk!—but thinking about the scene now, I find I’m MORE affected than I was when I actually watched it.

For those who haven’t seen Tree, it may be helpful to describe—and for those who have, it may be helpful to recall—the context in which Malick presents the dinosaur scene: it appears in the midst of a condensed history of, um, everything, starting with the Big Bang and passing (briskly by cosmological standards, unhurriedly by cinematic ones) through the formation of the solar system and the earth, the appearance of increasingly complex organisms, and their migration from the oceans onto the land.  (This sequence is introduced by the voiced-over interrogatory of the film’s protagonist, Jack O’Brien, played as an adult by Sean Penn and as a child by Hunter McCracken.  As grown-up Jack’s ruminations on his brother’s death lead him to imagine the vastness of time and space, Malick shows us time and space—or shows us Jack’s imaginings of them, at any rate.)  Even during the dramatic events of the dinosaur scene, there are strong reminders that this episode is only a flicker in a sequence—let’s not call it a story—with a beginning and an end that vanish into infinity: the dinosaurs’ encounter, we notice, is underlain by the constant sound of the river beside them, and the earth beneath them is covered by stones that have been worn conspicuously smooth by that river.  After the dinosaur scene ends, the next thing we’re shown is an asteroid striking the earth, presumably dropping the curtain of extinction on the two players we just finished watching, along with the rest of their kind.

To my way of thinking, the peculiar encounter between the Parasaurolophus and the Ornithomimus is—and kind of HAS to be—the most important scene in The Tree of Life: the key (well, certainly a key) to everything else that Malick shows us.  But what are we, as viewers, supposed to do with it, exactly?

We should note that what’s confounding about the scene isn’t that it’s all that difficult to interpret.  Most viewers will pick up pretty quickly on the fact that what we’ve just witnessed contradicts—or at least complicates—a certain declaration that has been quoted by many if not most reviewers of Tree, and that I recall as the first major assertion we hear made in the film:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace.  You have to choose which one you’ll follow.  Grace doesn’t try to please itself.  Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked.  Accepts insults and injuries.  Nature only wants to please itself.  Get others to please it too.  Likes to lord it over them.  To have its own way.  It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it.  And love is smiling through all things.  The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

We hear this spoken in the voice of Jack’s mother; much of it, come to find out, is an unattributed paraphrase of Book 3, Chapter 54 of The Imitation of Life by Thomas à Kempis—which makes it a quotation (Mrs. O’Brien) of a quotation (“the nuns”) of a quotation (Thomas) filtered in turn through the adult Jack’s recollections.  Thus the film is interposing something like five reportative layers between us and the content of the statement, a fact that many incautious commenters have tended not to pick up on.

To be sure, the nature/grace dichotomy is handy for charting how Jack understands his parents’ personalities—i.e. Brad Pitt’s stern Mr. O’Brien = nature while Jessica Chastain’s gentle Mrs. O’Brien = grace—as well as the internal tensions that make Jack who he is.  (The validity of this interpretive schema seems to be at least semi-confirmed by the adult Jack’s late-in-the-film voiceover: “Mother.  Father.  Always you wrestle inside me.  Always you will.”)  But the dinosaur scene serves up a pretty clear signal that the nuns’ assertion is at least somewhat out of whack: you’d have to work pretty hard to find a critter that’s a purer product of nature, redder in tooth and claw, and less, y’know, christlike than a predatory bipedal dinosaur, and yet the film presents us with the spectacle of just such a beast acting against what we have to assume are its best interests when it mercifully passes up an easy meal.  (Unless of course the helpless parasaur is totally infected with like listeria or something—in which case, clever girl!—but I don’t think that’s the most fruitful reading of the scene.)

The dinosaurs’ encounter indicates that manifestations of what the nuns call “grace” are present in nature, pretty much right from the starting whistle.  In fact, Tree seems to suggest that the kind of jerk-ass behavior that the nuns—in imitation of Thomas’s Imitation—ascribe to “nature” may be uniquely human, or at least arise from particularly human existential circumstances.  Another interpretive connection that most viewers will make pretty quickly: the predatory dinosaur’s apparently motiveless sparing of its prey is mirrored (and inverted) by the scene late in the film in which the young Jack convinces his younger brother R.L.—the guitarist brother whose death at age nineteen is presented as the film’s central problem—to place his fingertip over the barrel of a skyward-aimed BB gun; young Jack then pulls the trigger.  As instances of wanton cruelty go, this is a pretty good one; the scene also reinforces the family schema that’s developing along the nature/grace axis: mild, artistic R.L. is clearly his mother’s child, while Jack, to his own chagrin, takes after his dad.  (“I’m as bad as you are,” the young Jack says to his father at one point; “I’m more like you than her.”  See also his blunt, effective paraphrase of Romans 7:15 slightly earlier in the film: “What I want to do, I can’t do.  I do what I hate.”)  And of course the association of the doomed R.L. with his mother and with what the nuns call “grace” serves to further erode the validity of the passage quoted above, particularly its closing statement that “no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.”  The failure of this statement to be true is, in a nutshell, what the film is about; the context in which the assertion is made—the problematic opposition of nature and grace—is the key to how the film works.

So the dinosaurs, like I said, aren’t difficult to interpret.  What really provokes all the strong reactions to the scene—the eye-rolling, the snickering, the irritation, the bafflement—is that they’re difficult to justify.  Years and years of narrative works that genuflect to Aristotelian unities have trained us to expect that stories will limit themselves to depicting only as many times and places as are absolutely necessary; The Tree of Life doesn’t so much throw these unities out the window as shoot them from a cannon.  (During the creation-of-the-world sequence, I couldn’t help thinking of that old Bloom County strip where Bill the Cat has come back from the dead and all the tearful celebrations are captured in a soaring and widening crane shot that ends up showing the entire earth from orbit: “TOO WIDE!  And too damned silly!”)

By broad unscientific consensus, the dinosaur scene is the most memorable one in the film—it’s the one everybody wants to talk about around the water-cooler—and this is surely not an accident.  (I mean, I doubt very much that Malick has been complaining to his therapist about how he made a beautiful movie about faith and family but all anybody wants to talk about is the bit set in the Late Cretaceous; I’m pretty sure dude knew what he was doing.)  The dinosaurs are memorable precisely because they’re so flummoxing: they represent the riskiest moment in the film, the moment at which Malick lays out his cards and more or less demands to know whether the audience is with him or not.

That’s probably enough for today’s installment; we’ll return to the terrible lizards—and what they’re doing in this movie—tomorrow.  Don’t touch that dial!