Light Years: Kent Jones on The Tree of Life
By Kent Jones on 12.15.2011
“All that is is light,” for reasons that should be obvious to anyone who has seen even one of his films, Stan Brakhage returned often to this quotation from Johannes Scotus Eriugena, the 9th-century Neoplatonist. Brakhage found Eriugena’s maxim in Ezra Pound’s Cantos, in the first Pisan Canto (LXXIV) as “all things that are are lights,” and in LXXXVII, the third poem in the “Rock-Drill” section, in which Eriugena’s original “Omnia quae sunt, lumina sunt” is given an even blunter translation: “All things are lights.” Pound was looking for directives, observations, and formulations whose power lay in their simplicity, direct emanations from the “radiant world . . . of moving energies.”
Two centuries after his death, Eriugena was judged a heretic because of his equations of God with creation and humanity with divinity. To Eriugena, God is not an omnipotent Father, but an unknowable, uncategorizable, and transcendent “non-being” that mysteriously arrives at a process of “self-creation”—in a word, illumination. Every being and thing is a “theophany,” a divine manifestation, “all things low lamps shedding diffuse divinity” as Hugh Kenner put it. Evil is not known by God because, properly speaking, God cannot “know” anything. It is strictly a human affair, the result of beings blinded to their essentially divine nature by fantasies rooted in and empowered by the contingencies of life in the material world. Metaphorically speaking, these are the people who have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge; as opposed to those who live “a blessed life” of “eternal peace in contemplation of the truth, which is properly called deification.” In Christopher Bamford’s words, “this is the full realization of the Word-born fruit of the Incarnation, the Word himself.” Which is to say, Jesus, who, as Eriugena reminded us, is “the fruit of the Tree of Life.”
I am not suggesting that the work of a 9th-century Irish dialectician offers a skeleton key to Terrence Malick’s new film. However, it seems obvious that Malick is unfashionably conversant with early philosophers like Eriugena, Grosseteste, St. Augustine, and St. Paul, who wrote to the Ephesians that “whatsoever doth make manifest is light.” His intense interest in origins—of violence, of the universe itself—has made his last three films anomalous in modern film culture. It is also what has made him such a revered figure to some, such a suspect one to others. Speculations about the origins of life on earth and correctives to the course of human history are, at the moment, automatically tagged as “grandiose,” holdovers from a pre-Marxian age when the concerns of great men were fixed on the Ideal and the Ultimate as opposed to the Contingent and the Here and Now—in this sense, Pound’s life story has become a cautionary tale. How we got here, how it is that this world once was not and will one day no longer be—these questions are now reckoned so immense as to be unseemly, asked only by religious fanatics or essentialist philosophy professors who believe that we are nothing more than shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave.
I detect a strain of embarrassment in some of the more hostile reactions to The Tree of Life. Structurally speaking, Malick’s film is a transformative vision that happens in the blink of an eye to a middle-aged man named Jack, played by Sean Penn. Its syntax is set to the rhythm of unceasing revelation and unified by a grand consistency of forms (across the span of the film, we are prompted to recognize the same spindly tentacles in a ball of primal energy, in a waving undersea plant, in a dinosaur’s tale, in the branches of trees blowing in the wind, in human hands and fingers) and pathways (ascents, via glass elevators and up flights of stairs, toward discovery, reckoning, transcendence). Temporal continuity is shattered and the “protagonist” is virtually everyone who steps before the camera. In other words, Malick really is making an attempt—or to put it in punitive blogspeak, “presuming”— to tell the story of us all.
At the moment, indeterminacy is all the rage. Films in which something might or might not have happened, in which immanence or transcendence are hinted at or glimpsed within a rush of contingencies but never fully defined, are routinely valorized. This trust in suspension, which is obviously derived from a well-founded suspicion of belief-based controls, results in a countervailing distrust of art that erects its spiritual parameters as nakedly as Malick does here. Keep it in a suspended state or keep it modest—otherwise, we have a problem. Thus the inevitable complaint that The Tree of Life is a pretty good movie about a family in the Fifties made top-heavy with dinosaurs; or, in Richard Schickel’s case, a piece of claptrap that hardly merits your consideration.
On a far more serious and subtle level, J. Hoberman included a thought-provoking pan in his Cannes coverage, in which he described the film as “emotionally remote,” and made an interesting reference to what he experienced as Malick’s misplaced “cosmic” notion of the family. I think this is to see The Tree of Life from the wrong end of the telescope. To claim that Malick conceived a film about a family— his family—and then pitched the action at a cosmic level seems to me an inversion of his process and a denial of what makes it so emotionally and spiritually potent. As has been noted, this is the first time Malick has filmed modernity, which he visualizes as a grid of harsh angles, straight lines, glass boxes, and vertical conveyances, as if humanity no longer trusted itself and felt compelled to restrict its own movements (thematically speaking, it’s a continuation of that first shocking appearance of the fully constructed fort in The New World). The evasive body language between Jack and his wife, choreographed within and perhaps brought into being by the pathways in their own glass box; the learned impersonality of the workplace, where emotional dilemmas are confessed in terse whispers; the self-limiting geometries of modern urban planning: by Malick’s lights, they’re all manifestations of the same error, neurotic fixations resulting from a misplaced emphasis on the transitory, too much nourishment from the wrong tree. The Tree of Life has been referred to as a “religious film,” which I take to mean a Christian film, but that implies an adherence to religious doctrine that just isn’t there. One could say that it exists at a crossroad between Eriugena’s vision of life on earth, specifically the part that got him posthumously condemned as a heretical pantheist, and pre-orthodox Buddhism—this is not a work fixated on the afterlife, but, like The Thin Red Line and The New World, on the “glory” of this life. But Malick is an artist, not a theologian or a philosopher, and certainly not a proselytizer. To speak only in such terms is to deny the film its immediacy and urgency. The Tree of Life is not a frozen visualization of a pre-digested idea or belief, but a quest set in dynamic motion by a restless aesthetic intelligence.
On one level, the film is an act of recovery spurred by prolonged mourning for a younger brother (we don’t witness his death at 19, but we find ourselves searching for its early causes). Jack is summoned by an unnamed and unseen presence (“How did you come to me?”) that thrusts him into an imagination of our collective beginning—the formation of the planet, the emergence of prehistoric life, the ice age, and Jack’s birth, which stands for the dawn of all human life. I presume that the serious groaning at the Cannes press screening began somewhere during this passionately crafted interval, whose abstract continuity does bear a marked resemblance to 2001’s Stargate sequence. I found it no less awe-inspiring.
It is fairly common, and just, to bring up Emerson in discussions of Malick’s last three films. Hoberman and the Wonderfully Witty Anthony Lane referred to him in their reviews; I invoked him when I wrote about The New World. Once again, reading Emerson does not explain the films, but there seems little doubt that he’s been foundational for Malick. One could claim a relationship between the Emerson of “Circles” and the film’s fluid shifts of scale: “The eye is the first circle, the horizon that it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is endlessly repeated.” This might just serve as an apt summation of the film’s signature action of dilation and contraction, optically, formally, and thematically. But it was “History” that came to mind after my first viewing. “If the whole of history is in one man, it is all to be explained from individual experience. There is a relation between the hours of our life and the centuries of time. As the air I breathe is drawn from the great repositories of nature, as the light on my book is yielded by a star a hundred millions of miles distant, as the poise of my body depends on the equilibrium of centrifugal and centripetal forces, so the hours should be instructed by the ages, and the ages explained by the hours. Of the universal mind each individual man is one more incarnation.”
When I was young, everything seemed to happen under the aspect of eternity. The scuttling of ants over the asphalt transpired in epochs, and the leaves that fell from the trees and the crocuses that pushed through the snow were signs of all the endings and beginnings since the dawn of time, brought to life for us in our books about dinosaurs and readings from Genesis in church. We were enormous and we were infinitesimal, we were isolated and we were connected to every stone and pathway, and to each other. How far away was the sun? How many seconds had I been alive? How heavy a burden would I carry for stealing a dollar from a girl’s purse? We felt history before we knew it, and we each gradually discovered our shame, our self-consciousness, our pride, and our defenses. I’ve never seen a film that has entered this territory and stayed so steadfastly devoted to charting its topography. The creation movement, far from an appendage, is a crucial aspect of that topography, or perhaps the celestial dome that covers it. The young Jack (Hunter McCracken) standing in his best suit, watching his father (Brad Pitt) play the organ: the father making a show of demonstrating the value of practice and hard work but in actual fact trying to elicit silent admiration from his son; the son, all eyes and ears and restless limbs, trying to stifle his energies and summon up what he imagines to be the correct posture of admiration and respectful silence, and betraying genuine awe as his father makes his way through the grand intricacies of Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue.” It’s only one in a bounty of moments that are hair-raisingly sharp on multiple levels (mood, posture, power balance, the relationship between people and environment), covered by a hypersensitive, mobile camera eye that wants to be everywhere at once, placed within a progression that is not narrative but developmental (cognitively, emotionally, spiritually), and shadowed by the immensity of the universe, which endows each moment with an immediacy that stays true to the terrifying absolutes of childhood in an earlier era. Whether or not The Tree of Life will mean as much to someone who did not grow up as a male in a postwar American Christian household is, I suppose, open for debate. But I can’t imagine a more vivid evocation.
In The New World, the actors were obviously asked to be “genuine,” and Malick wound up with a motley collection of behaviors (“My character, he’s a fuckin’ osprey,” Colin Farrell told Christopher Plummer. “That’s how he sees me”). In The Tree of Life, they are asked to do something specific, and their director’s preferred method for achieving his ends, as always, is infinite patience, giving them time to find their own just relationship to an emotion or interaction. Moviegoers have grown used to dinner-table explosions from domineering fathers enabled by quiescent mothers, but the emotional dynamics of this film’s outburst are extremely subtle. Pitt’s father is a rarity in movies, a Southern aesthetepatriarch with a touch of Van Cliburn about him, whose fragile sense of self is dependent on the constant love and respect of his family at all times. “And what were you up to today, my fine feathered friend?” he asks the largely silent middle son (Tye Sheridan) between stern corrections and sarcastic taunts. The improbability of this stab at urbane repartee, meant to diffuse the air of emotional oppression, is perhaps most insulting of all. From over in the corner, the fragile youngest son (Laramie Eppler) speaks spontaneously in a soft voice: “Be quiet.” Pitt’s amazement at his sons’ disarming honesty is one of the film’s refrains, and his “What did you say?” is less a matter of anger than stunned hurt. When the father unleashes his fury, it’s not about destruction but containment, pushing the boy into a room, blotting out the rejection, then sitting down to finish his meal in shame.
Hoberman takes issue with the passage in which Jack and his brothers encounter a collection of misshapen outsiders, cripples, and convicts during a visit to town, and Lane sees a militant chasteness in the episode where Jack steals a piece of lingerie from a comely neighbor’s bedroom and then lets it flow down the river before he can be found out. I don’t understand these complaints. This is a film of first encounters and reaction formations in the passage from innocence to experience. “Can it happen to anybody?” asks the young Jack in heartbreaking voiceover as he and his brothers watch handcuffed men being herded into a police van. “Nobody ever talks about it.” It’s not the film that’s classifying alcoholics, criminals, and the disabled under “abnormal,” but the wide-open mind of a midcentury child. As for Lane’s “observation” (fishing expedition is more like it), I’m glad that he had such an uncomplicated boyhood. What makes the episode so potent is the violent shifting of psychic gears from the compulsion to test boundaries, prompting another walk up another flight of stairs and the eureka moment of finding the forbidden object in the top dresser drawer, to abject terror under the all-seeing eye of God—a desperate run to the riverbank, stuffing the slip under a log and then sending it floating down the river, then the slow walk home and the guilty approach to a mother who must know. How could she not?
Bombastic? grandiose? when the film is working at its peak level, which is about 90 percent of the time, it is both an ecstatic inventory of wonders and a symphony of unending transformation, in which the short-circuiting of control triggers surrender, curiosity blooms into destruction, and—movingly—cruelty gives way to grace. The movie does not come at us in isolated shots but in bursts of attentively covered emotion and energy, and one recalls instants that feel like they’ve been seized from one’s own memory: a playground scene that expands to a shapely and excitingly colored Brueghel-esque vision; ferocious boys hurtling their way through tall grasses on their bikes; a first trembling foray into flirtation, a play of glances and aversions; the house and the yard as the heart of the world, and the street as the boundary of beyond. For obvious reasons, Kubrick’s name has been invoked in more than a few reviews, but if there’s another artist shadowing The Tree of Life, it’s Mahler, the opening passage of whose 1st Symphony is heard during the creation movement and under the frenzied discovery of a drowned boy at a public pool (“You let a boy die,” whispers Jack in voiceover. “Why should I be good?”). Both artists work to create a final form that sits on the edge of chaos, so abundant and varied in scintillations and spiraling pathways that it feels vast in the memory. The occasional repetition of certain motifs seems less like a failing than necessary overspill.
Throughout The Tree of Life, Malick incorporates otherworldly visions, many of which (a house underwater, the mother hovering in midair under the tree in the yard, or encased in a glass coffin in the woods like Snow White) are moving poetic amplifications or crystallizations. He also returns regularly to the middle-aged Jack walking through a cracked desert landscape at the end of time. The fulfillment of his vision is a meeting with his younger self and his family as they were during his boyhood, surrounded by angels and other families reconciled with their own loved ones, culminating in the mother commending her lost son to eternity. Thematically speaking, it makes perfect sense, but in comparison to the super-specificity of what we’ve just experienced, the actions of the dazed individuals are disappointingly vague—we already know this imagery from Close Encounters or the now forgotten French film Les Revenants. It’s fitting but not altogether satisfactory: like the closing passage of In the Mood for Love, another memory film, it works, but that’s about all. I think that at some point, the pull of recreation led Malick a little bit astray from his original conception. The peaceful acceptance of a terrible loss is overshadowed by the realization that the ways of grace (the mother) and nature (the father), evoked in the film’s first voiceover, are not opposed but dialectically conjoined. Somewhere along the line, I think that this became a movie about a man seeing his father in full, and forgiving him without sentimentalizing him. That is its secret center. If the final passage is slightly disappointing, try to recall how many movies you’ve seen that are large enough to have a secret center.
The Tree of Life doesn’t move forward but pulses, like a massive organism, and its beginning and end point are the same: a ball of primal energy in the blackness, ready to generate more theophanies. Unlike Brakhage, Malick is not venturing into the universe hidden within the folds of perception. But like Vermeer, Turner, and Godard, both are revelators, reminding us, frame by frame, that all that is is light.