Yesterday, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life was released in theaters, and audiences in NYC and LA got to experience its curious beauty for the first time (viewers elsewhere in the country will be getting the film in coming weeks). Click here for my review of the film for Christianity Today, or here for a commentary piece I wrote on Terrence Malick's themes/philosophy, for the June 2011 print issue of CT.
The Tree of Life, like Terrence Malick's other 4 films, is rich with layers of beauty and meaning, but its also stubbornly ambiguous at times and potentially maddening. It's not a film you can fully "get" on a first or second viewing, if at all, but that's not to say that it doesn't have intense and immediate pleasures and gifts to offer, if one is willing to receive.
Below, and over at Relevant, I've offered a few tips for those willing to give Tree of Life a try. These are themes and ideas to keep in mind when approaching his admittedly unconventional, sometimes elusive films.
Remember Eden. Each of Malick’s films contains imagery of some sort of Eden, of Paradise found and Paradise lost. Whether a hidden treehouse hideout (Badlands), an idyllic farm life amidst glistening wheat fields (Days of Heaven), or a Thoreau-esque residency in the primal forests and tropics (The Thin Red Line and The New World), each Malick film beautifully portrays a blissful period of utopian living, followed by the loss of it—usually on account of sin. Malick’s films evocatively capture Edenic visions of perfection and natural beauty, and then, in their lack, a visceral groaning for renewal and reconciliation. The films are haunted by memories, reveries, vestiges of a more perfect, unified creation, and each film leaves a lingering feeling that redemption is still—somehow, somewhere—within reach. In The Thin Red Line, Private Witt (Jim Caviezel) articulates a common sentiment of existential pondering in Malick’s films: “This great evil. Where does it come from? … Who's doin' this? Who's killin' us? Robbing us of life and light. Mockin' us with the sight of what we might've known.”
Become a child again. Innocence is a big theme in Malick’s films. His protagonists are frequently children, or at least “child-like” in their points of view. In Badlands, Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen play outlaws on the run, living a Tom Sawyer-type adventure, as innocently and whimsically as is possible for a murder spree aside. Days of Heaven and The New World both prominently feature the perspectives of innocent young girls, curiously exploring and experiencing the good, bad and ugly in the world around them. But the most significant child-like perspective in Malick’s films is Malick himself. The director’s gaze is thoroughly investigative, observational, awestruck and curious about creation, discovering wonder all around. Writing about The Tree of Life in the Village Voice, Nick Pinkerton quotes C.S. Lewis to describe Malick’s “childish” approach:
“Malick shows the wisdom of C.S. Lewis’s An Experiment in Criticism: 'If we are to use the words ‘childish’ and ‘infantile’ as terms of disapproval, we must make sure that they refer only to those characteristics of childhood which we become better and happier by outgrowing,' Lewis wrote. 'Who in his sense would not keep, if he could, that tireless curiosity, that intensity of imagination, that facility of suspending disbelief, that unspoiled appetite, that readiness to wonder, to pity and to admire?' It is because the 67-year-old director can get so much of that onscreen, and much more besides, that he’s one of the few American filmmakers operating on the multiplex scale who makes movies feel like undiscovered country.”
Don't be afraid to see "Christian themes." Finding “Christ figures” and “redemptive themes” in the movies can be overdone and convoluted, but if ever there were films where it was appropriate and natural, it would be Malick’s films. The director grew up Episcopalian and his films are full of biblical imagery, language and Christian motifs. God is constantly being questioned, searched out, relied upon in his films—whether visually through upward glances at the sun and sky, or through voiced inquiries (“Who are you to us?” “What was it you were showing me?” “Lord, turn not away thy face …”). Baptismal imagery is prevalent (at least two of his films contain literal baptism scenes), as are scenes of prayer, liturgical music and references to specific Bible passages and characters (Adam/Eve, Job, Cain/Abel, Ruth, the Book of Revelation). Though Christ is rarely, if ever, mentioned by name, Malick’s films are deeply influenced by Judeo-Christian conceptions of God and the biblical narrative. The Tree of Life, for example, is one gigantic whistle-stop tour through existence, taking us from Genesis to Revelation, reflecting on the nature of God all along the way. As Roger Ebert says of Life: “It’s a form of a prayer.”
Let it roll over you. Though Malick’s films are quite philosophical and vocally metaphysical (voiceover questions about God, evil, death, love are ubiquitous), they should not be processed in the way one would read a term paper. This is not to say they shouldn’t be thought about, analyzed or deconstructed after the fact (because certainly his complicated films invite all manner of critical response and worthy engagement). It’s just to say that, in the midst of experiencing the films, it’s best to receive them with eyes and ears wide open rather than trying to figure them out in the moment. Heavily influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (Malick studied philosophy at Harvard, Oxford and MIT before he made his first film), Malick wants his films to be experienced viscerally before they are understood cognitively. The J.D. Salinger-esque director doesn’t do interviews or comment on his films, but in a rare 2005 screening of The New World in his hometown of Bartlesville, Okla., Malick fielded a few questions and suggested to the audience that the best way to view his film was to “just get into it; let it roll over you. It’s more of an experience film. I leave you to fend for yourself.”