The Tree of Life
Expanding the Finitude and the Attitude
Perhaps we cannot help but admire a film if it searches out the epiphanic even if it fails to work its epiphany upon us. Four recent films that seem interested in the epiphanic dimension through a certain cosmic ambition are The Tree of Life, The Turin Horse, Enter the Void and Melancholia. But it is to the former that we will choose to concentrate. Where the cathartic response common to many a film is often readily apparent even if we are not moved by the work itself, the epiphanic demands that we understand, however inarticulately, the film and that we are affected by it. In Terrence Malick's Tree of Life he seeks a response that cannot fit with catharsis, and yet many people who watch the film are asking for exactly that. It was even an angle sought by one of its actors. As Sean Penn proposed in an interview in Le Figaro, "I didn't at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which the most magnificent one that I've ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, losing its beauty and its impact." This would be an Aristotelian sense of catharsis, "Tragedy through pity and fear effects a purgation of such emotions." The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms adds, "so, in a sense, the tragedy, having aroused powerful feelings in the spectator, has also a therapeutic effect; after the storm and climax there comes a sense of release from tension, of calm."
Now when we talk about understanding here, we neither mean comprehending the notion of epiphany in its religious sense, nor clearly grasping the aesthetic or philosophical intentions of the filmmaker, except as no more than a first step, and there is no reason why anyone who respond deeply to the film needs to know anything about Catholic epiphanies, nor Malick's work more generally. While catharsis can be understood by most because of its empirical dimension (its arcing of character, its carefully deployed use of music to indicate the appropriate emotional response, actions that are psychologically appropriate), the epiphanic demands a metaphysical response, a response that incorporates a dimension of the abstract, and that the filmmaker might hope will meet the abstract within oneself: our own metaphysical dimension. This seems unnecessary for much that passes for cathartic filmmaking; it works not with the edge of oneself but much closer to the centre, utilising narrative convention to achieve this emotional release. To make sense of the difference between the cathartic and the epiphanic, imagine how The Tree of Life would be told to achieve the requisite cathartic effect. The story would be contained by the fifties setting, and the relationship between the father and mother and the kids more clearly focused and more clearly dramatised, and the causes and effects uninterrupted by the abstract, by the references to the beginning of creation, and the framing story of Sean Penn as one of the grown-up brothers looking back on his childhood.
The contained story would be the cathartic story; but Malick tells instead an epiphanic tale and demands layers of interruptive meaning, whether that happens to be images of the big bang or dinosaurs, the director bursts the boundaries of his story as if seeking transcendental feeling. Obviously, this is the sort of big claim that often leads to the type of remarks telling us the filmmaker has overreached themselves, that their work is overblown or pretentious, but we don't want to make any judgements here. Instead, we want to assume Malick's purpose has been to seek transcendental feeling: and thus to create the terms by which the film can be accepted or rejected, but on something resembling its own premise. This article is not a hymn to the film's affective success, but a brief attempt to explore and explain epiphany in film.
Vital to the film's intentions seems to be the groping towards a story that cannot be told by utilising a tale that can be. From The Great Santini to This Boy's Life, children bullied by an oppressive father is a narrative so common as to be hackneyed, but we might be reminded of a couple of phrases in Malick films that seem to want to allude to higher case existence. "What is this war at the heart of nature?" a voice-over informs us in The Thin Red Line. "We have half angel; half devil in us", the voice-over says in Days of Heaven. It is towards the abstract question of violence that Malick is drawn, but not because he wants to ask philosophical questions, per se; more that he wants to ask deep ones. Deep is a loaded word, but we use it in the context of the feeling that lies within a feeling, the epiphanic response that sits inside the cathartic one, the response that doesn't want so much a local feeling but a spiritual release. A good way of making sense of this differentiation is to look at the death of two boys in the film. One is the brother's death at the beginning; the other a youngster at the swimming pool. While the brother's death permeates the film it isn't dramatised within it. We get the parents' (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) reactions, but not the details of his demise. With the boy at the pool his death is dramatised as Mr O'Brien (Pitt) tries to resuscitate him, but it as though the former is deliberately under-dramatised but echoingly felt; while the latter is dramatically enacted but emotionally metaphorical. Though the former death takes place chronologically much later than the latter, in the film's plot the latter death takes place much later, and so we see it not for what it is but for what it encapsulates in the broader scheme of human emotion. Now if Malick were looking for a cathartic pay off, surely it would be better to have the boy's death early in the film and the brother's much later. This would allow for a twofold release: one feels for the boy, but later one feels much more for the brother. The boy's death though is contained however by our knowledge of the brother's: it seems strangely spectral: a dramatised scene with a ghostly dimension, anticipating events to come that the characters are unaware of, but where the audience is fully cognizant.
However, this is merely one of many moments where the film escapes the cathartic and searches out the deep feeling to the detriment of ready emotion, and maybe Malick has always been suspicious of local emotion because it is in danger of dislocating us from a feeling far beyond the situation, as if happiness resides in the widest possible encompassing of feeling. In a rare interview he gave in Rome, he talked of various Italian films he loved, and the words that kept coming up were "innocence", "gladness" and "happiness". But what might this gladness, this happiness be, and how might it link up with innocence? In The Fallible Man, Paul Ricoeur, differentiates between pleasure and happiness, noting that "just as the world is the horizon of the thing, happiness is the horizon from every point of view. The world is not the horizon from every point of view but is only the counterpart of one kind of finitude and one kind of attitude." Most films stay within the one kind of finitude and attitude, yet Malick's work seems to seek a happiness beyond point of view, beyond a contained perspective towards a perspective beyond the world. As Fergus Daly puts it in an article in Film West magzine incorporating The Thin Red Line, "the problem that Malick sets himself in The Thin Red Line is: how, in order to understand life and death from a point-of-view other than an anthropocentric one, can I avoid this hierarchical metaphysics, how can I put the camera on the side of the Whole, how can I achieve the point-of-view of the cosmos on itself?"
This problem of the local and cosmic is usually graded, so that a film can register shifts in significance as long as the narrative finds the appropriate means to segue from one to the other. A film like Contact generally 'works' because the story predicates itself on a subject that narratively justifies certain cosmic questions being asked as Jodie Foster's character monitors extra-terrestrial life, but Malick's leap into the depths of the Cosmos come from no more than a directorial authority freeing itself from immediate narrative constraint. Malick offers an extreme example of what Christian Metz has called non-diegetic inserts. Often utilized by Eisenstein in his twenties films, it is a means by which the director can comment on the film without commenting through the story. If the cosmic elements in Contact are contained; Malick's are excessive as the film shifts from a story about a boy growing up to scenes including the beginning of time and the presence of dinosaurs. Yet it's as if Malick seeks a leap of faith through a leap in time. If Eisenstein would cut away from the workers being massacred to a bull being slaughtered in Strike, he expected us to go with the non-diegetic element through a socio-political righteousness. This is of course cinematic simile, where the workers are being slaughtered like animals, but while this is easy to achieve in literature, it is more troublesome in film. In prose we have words on a page somehow accepting their provisional meaning. Think of a phrase like Verlaine's "Hope glimmers like a wisp of straw in the cowshed." It can work in print but imagine trying to film it. Malick is a filmmaker who would be interested in such a task.
It is a line that Milan Kundera quotes in a mini chapter from Testaments Betrayed called 'Metaphor as Phenomenological Definition'. Here he talks of Kafka, saying, "the idea that Kafka disliked metaphors should be corrected; he did dislike metaphors of a certain kind, but he is one of the great creators of the sort of metaphor I call existential or phenomenological." Verlaine's metaphors or of one kind; Kafka's another. As Kundera goes on to explain the sort of metaphors that so fascinated Kafka, so we may realize that such metaphorical use of language also fits into metaphorical use in film language. "Kafka's metaphorical imagination was no less rich than Verlaine's or Rilke', but it was not lyrical." Kundera quotes a passage from The Castle that he calls a sentence-metaphor. "She was seeking something and he was seeking something, maddened, grimacing, heads thrusting into each other's chests as they sought,and their embraces and tossing bodies did not make them forget but rather reminded them of the necessity to seek, as dogs desperately at the ground they pawed at each other's bodies..." This is very different from Verlaine, yet could work much more easily within a filmic context where we have characters rolling around on the floor like a couple of cats, or a fight where the characters fight like bulls. Film can easily absorb such similes into the form: film can be contained by the phenomenological and existential.
But the lyrical metaphor is very hard to film, and is often contained by the cutaway: shots to trees, or birds flying off, of animals grazing in fields. Indeed, it was often this type of imagery Malick utilized in Badlands and Days of Heaven, but it is as though he wanted to keep expanding film's capacity for lyrical metaphor and so the non-diegetic inserts became more and more ambitious. While many brilliant filmmakers stay well within the existential and phenomenological metaphor and simile as they accept film's capacity to work as a medium of the existential and phenomenological, Malick is trying to find a metaphorical language that can capture the Being of beings, and would seem increasingly to require a lyrical mode in which to do so.
One takes the idea of the Being of beings from Stanley Cavell, who tries to make sense of Malick's early films in The World Viewed, and who quotes Heidegger in relation to the director's work. "The first service man can render is to give thought to the Being of beings...the word [being] says: presence of what is present." When Cavell says of Days of Heaven, that Malick offers an exhilarating confidence in film and nature's capacity to reveal Being: "...I think one feels that one has never quite seen the scene of human existence - call it the arena (or days) and heaven - quite realized this way on film before." Would Malick claim it requires increasingly lyrical metaphors to do this, and has his project in more recent work (The Thin Red Line, The New World and The Tree of Life) been to keep giving more and more space to 'heaven' and less and less to earth? Hence the increase in lyricism, the attempt to move ever further into the non-diegetic insert. When Cavell says Malick has found cinematic terms within which to couch his meditations on the Being of beings, we may wonder how that is achieved, and how it approaches the epiphanic.
But before returning to the epiphanic and to the film, perhaps it useful to mention Dante's different levels of interpretation: the literal, the allegorical, the moral and the spiritual, with Dante believing the latter to be the highest level of meaning. There is in many filmmakers' work a reaching for the spiritual, but often it is contained by the other levels of meaning: as the literal meaning allows for the allegorical, and the allegorical for the moral, and the moral for the spiritual. This is what we meant earlier about films earning their spiritual dimension. Yet perhaps for a filmmaker like Malick there is a danger in such deliberate hierarchy: does the spiritual become a minor element next to the others? It might be the highest achievement, but it is also the least dramatically essential. Malick constantly risks here this essential dramaturgy for the spiritual essence, as though echoing Ricoeur at the end of Fallible Man, as if trying to find a means with which to ask similar questions from a dramatically aloof position. "Can we, then, isolate this representation of the primordial from the description of evil through which the primordial was perceived? Yes, but only in an imaginary mode. The imagination of innocence is nothing but the representation of a human life that would realize all its fundamental possibilities without any discrepancy between its primordial destination and its historical manifestation." Obviously, we are taking Ricoeur out of context here, but what interests us is this idea, in cinematic form, of isolating the primordial and placing it within an imaginary mode that would be a film like The Tree of Life. As Ricoeur talks of the problem of innocence and evil, so is it not the theme that Malick constantly returns to as he refuses them as dichotomies, so grounded in narrative cinema that we can so often and so easily talk of goodies and baddies, but reconstitutes the question primordially as the question of evil and innocence?
It is important here to see the father Mr O'Brien (Brad Pitt) not as a goodie or baddie, but neither as a 'complex' character, or an anti-hero: two entirely honourable ways of escaping hero and villain cliches. However, if one thinks of how characters are presented as complex or anti-heroic it often rests on their behaviour. Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Piecesis an anti-hero who condescends towards his working-class girlfriend one minute; defends her against snobbery the next. In Shampoo, George really does love his ex-girflfriend but also can't help sleeping with other women. These are anti-heroes and consequently complex characters. Where the villain would always condescend to his girlfriend, and not care if he slept with other women, and the hero always treat his girlfriend well and never cheat, the anti-hero contains within him both the good and the bad, creating psychological complexity. In The Tree of Life Malick is interested instead in metaphysical complexity, so the back story to Pitt's character isn't in a psychologically troublesome childhood, but a metaphysical place of origin: Malick presents the big bang as an explosion, as a violent act of creation. It is into this world that we all come, and this is the war at the heart of nature Malick's work so often comments upon.
An anti-heroic action would be more inclined to situate the anti-heroism psychologically, and that is exactly what many great films do as they explore a character through his present, his milieu or his immediate and personal back story. Dupea in Five Easy Pieces is a character from a perfectionist family who wrestles with that perfectionism, sometimes conforming to it and sometimes escaping from it but always in conflict with that family upbringing, and his attempt at creating a new life no matter how restrictive that also happens to be. His heroism lies in his pursuit of freedom; his 'villainy' in how he hurts people in that process. In a film like Ulzana's Raid, the anti-heroism is decidedly situational as Burt Lancaster's experienced scout MacIntosh is a man capable of harshness, aware that the Indians he is up against are no less so. He isn't a villainous racist; more a realist given the situation. With McIntosh and Dupea we oscillate between liking and disliking their behaviour.
There is of course oscillation towards Mr O'Brien in The Tree of Life as well, but if the alibi in Dupea's case is psychologically familial, and situationally specific in McIntosh's, then Malick seems to be saying that O'Brien's is primordial: the big bang his own back story, the way another film might offer an abused childhood. O'Brien is less an anti-hero than cosmically conflicted, a curious term with which to describe a character and hardly an alibi that would stand up in a court of law. But he is someone whose interest in classical music, his scepticism over his wife's innocent approach to life, and his own search for viable family values, are contained by a higher need he can't quite comprehend. Even though O'Brien is the most conventionally educated of all Malick's leading characters, this comprehension cannot be located in education; but perhaps 'education' in its broadest sense can offer shafts of insight into the sort of ontological condition Ricoeur invokes. As Malick opens his film on the dichotomies between a world of nature and a world of God, a world of aggression and a world of innocence, so it is art that can allow us to hypothesise this dichotomy, as if it is no accident that the two great themes of art are love and violence, and few filmmakers more than Malick presents them in so undiluted a manner. If we think back to our thoughts on the anti-hero, do they not come down to love versus hate, affection versus violence? When in Five Easy Pieces, Dupea insults someone, or starts a fight, our sympathies weaken, and when he offers affection our sympathies strengthen. In Ulzana's Raid one accepts McIntosh's brutality only if it is contained by a greater compassion. Part of the realism of each film rests in this calibration of feeling.
Now as we've proposed, Malick oscillates, but he doesn't really calibrate: he doesn't quite contain characters within realist situations where our sympathies can move between the two places of sympathy and antipathy based on the events presented to us. When in Badlands, the father kills the dog, or Martin Sheen's character shoots someone running away, or even when he kills the father, there is a gap between oscillation and calibration. For example, if the father were killed immediately after so cruelly and casually killing his daughter's dog, then Malick would have created a justifiable reason both emotionally and morally as to why we accept the father's demise. Often in film two wrongs do make a right as a character who acts cruelly can be taken out by a character acting violently against that act of cruelty. This is calibrated violence, where any oscillation one feels towards the character is contained by the purposeful rectitude of the action. However, when the father loses his temper in The Tree of Life, when the soldiers kill in The Thin Red Line, or even when Richard Gere kills the landowner in Days of Heaven, it creates oscillation without calibration. Yet this wouldn't be enough to make Malick distinctive, since even anti-heroes often oscillate with minimal calibration. In The French Connection Popeye is sometimes more brutal than the situation demands; Bickle in Taxi Driver may slay the pimps, but is he really doing it for the young girl he saves or to release deeper frustrations?
In Malick's work the gap is greater because he seems less interested in the sociological and the psychological than the ontological: he wants to ask the questions of innocence and evil on a canvas so broad that the characters serve as matchstick men. These are small figures in a large universe, just as Stanley Kubrick's are. But if Kubrick possesses an entomologist's eye, Malick observes less disdainfully, less mockingly. If Kubrick sees the world with a cruel gaze; Malick looks for the sort of wonder evident of course in the Transcendalists. As Emerson says in Selected Writings, "Let a man learn to look for the permanent in the mutable and fleeting; let him learn to bear the disappearance of things he was wont to reverence, without losing his reverence; let him learn that he is here not to work, but to be worked upon." How to reflect this feeling in film form? Malick does so by working from a position of what we might call relativist innocence, where any action is always contained by a greater perspective than the one presented. When we see the father getting angry in The Tree of Life, when we see the O'Briens' reaction to their son's death, when in Days of Heaven we see the dying locusts, or in The Thin Red Line nature damaged by the war surrounding it, Malick asks for cosmic contextualization. It echoes Emerson's claim: "The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into reality..."
If Malick's film succeeds or fails, it does so from the height of ambition - from the spiritual demands that Dante called the anagogical, and what Joyce would call the epiphanic, the former an interpretive term; the latter more obviously an emotionally achieved response. Some might claim they wished Malick had concentrated on the smaller story, on the family and their troubles. But that would be to ask for a cathartic film, and for Malick to offer such a work would be to give grief not shallowness but, as Emerson couches it, false depth. Whether one has an epiphanic feeling, a sense of oceanic infinitude, watching The Tree of Life, that is one thing. But to reduce it to something else and insist that this reduction would have arrived at a greater achievement would be to miss the point of Malick's oeuvre, and also undermine the further reaches of the epiphanic, the anagogical on film.
© Tony McKibbin