The rev­o­lu­tion­ary road less trav­elled

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

ONE Jan­uary evening in 1890, Parisian writer Ed­mond de Gon­court found him­self din­ing with Princess Mathilde, Napoleon’s el­derly niece. Speak­ing of lit­er­ary mat­ters, she in­gen­u­ously asked him: ‘‘ Why do you al­ways want to break new ground?’’ Gon­court, whose ear for so­ci­ety gos­sip was matched only by the acute­ness of his crit­i­cal in­tel­li­gence, replied that lit­er­a­ture was in a con­stant state of re­newal and ren­o­va­tion, and that only those at the van­guard of change lived on.

The di­arist made his point by cit­ing Racine — a play­wright as canon­i­cally cen­tral to his cul­ture as Shake­speare is to ours — who, he said, was hissed and booed by the ad­mir­ers of an older school of French theatre when his rel­a­tively un­adorned and sim­ple works were first staged. ‘‘ That Racine whom crit­ics use to at­tack mod­ern drama­tists,’’ he con­cluded, ‘‘ was just as much a rev­o­lu­tion­ary in his own time as cer­tain au­thors are to­day.’’

Gon­court was likely think­ing of Zola, Flaubert and Mau­pas­sant in his time: names whose con­tem­po­rary res­o­nance prove his in­stinct true. But it was an­other artist at work in a dif­fer­ent medium who sprang to mind most re­cently, with news that Ter­rence Mal­ick’s new film The Tree of Life had met with boos at its world pre­miere at Cannes, only days be­fore it won the fes­ti­val’s high­est prize, the Palme d’Or.

Hav­ing now seen the film at its first Aus­tralian screen­ing dur­ing the Syd­ney Film Fes­ti­val, I can ap­pre­ci­ate the per­plex­ity and the adu­la­tion. And I only hope my crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties are a patch on the French­man’s when I de­scribe the Amer­i­can di­rec­tor’s new movie, only his fifth in four decades, as a mas­ter­piece that will en­dure for as long as peo­ple watch films; that, and a rev­o­lu­tion­ary work un­like any­thing in our cin­ema, present or past.

Be­cause The Tree of Life is not a film as we un­der­stand film to be. It is not dif­fer­ent in de­gree but in kind. The cul­mi­nate achieve­ment of an in­di­vid­ual who be­came a film­maker al­most by ac­ci­dent — a man who has been will­ing to mys­tify and chal­lenge his au­di­ences, even fall silent for decades at a time — the work marks a re­ca­pit­u­la­tion of Mal­ick’s inim­itable world view and a star­tling ad­vance on it.

Those who have seen Mal­ick’s ear­lier films will be fa­mil­iar with his ap­proach: sto­ries, whether lyri­cal or epic in con­cep­tion, un­fold sub­ject to con­stant in­ter­rup­tion by the nat­u­ral world. Im­ages and sounds of run­ning wa­ter, sway­ing trees shot from be­neath, fields of long grass an­i­mated by wind as well as count­less an­i­mals, es­pe­cially birds, op­er­ate in ex­quis­ite coun­ter­point to the no­ble, mean, wicked or sim­ply point­less hu­man ex­ploits of the nar­ra­tive.

This doc­u­men­tary sub­lime does not de­tract from our en­gage­ment with the hu­man story so much as ground it in a vaster can­vas. What makes Mal­ick’s 1973 de­but crime drama Bad­lands so dis­turb­ing is that the beauty of the nat­u­ral world serves as an in­dif­fer­ent cho­rus to Kit and Holly’s mid­west­ern mur­der spree. The wildlife and land­scape of South Dakota, drawn straight from the nov­els of Willa Cather, bear wit­ness to the ab­sence of our no­tions of jus­tice or law from na­ture. Be­neath those end­less skies we suf­fer a kind of moral ago­ra­pho­bia.

That 1998’s The Thin Red Line is the great­est war movie yet made is a re­sult not of its gory verisimil­i­tude or its com­pas­sion for the fallen. Rather, it is the sense that the ground of battle — the gor­geous trop­i­cal riot and ex­cess of Guadal­canal in the Solomon Is­lands (in re­al­ity, Queens­land’s Dain­tree) — is equally con­tent to ab­sorb the blood of Amer­i­cans or Ja­panese troops. Here na­ture binds all men to­gether in the same way that fate and des­tiny do in Homer’s Iliad (a text con­sciously quoted in Mal­ick’s film). The film’s epi­graph could eas­ily come from Moby-Dick’s Ish­mael: ‘‘ I feel that the God­head is bro­ken up like the bread at the Sup­per, and that we are the pieces. Hence this in­fi­nite fra­ter­nity of feel­ing.’’

In many re­spects, The Tree of Life con­tin­ues this tra­di­tion. De­spite its bib­li­cal al­lu­sions (the film opens with a line from Job and much of the clas­si­cal mu­sic on the sound­track, from the Berlioz Re­quiem to Brahms’s motet Warum, lends a re­li­gious in­flec­tion to events), it pro­ceeds in cel­e­bra­tion of the sec­u­lar here-and-now of the nat­u­ral world: this time in and around Waco, Texas, in the post-war decades (not co­in­ci­den­tally the time and place of Mal­ick’s child­hood and youth) and in an un­named Amer­i­can city of the present day, all metal, glass and tyran­ni­cal per­pen­dic­u­lars. Its story, of a mid­dle-class Amer­i­can fam­ily torn apart by the sui­cide of a gen­tle, beloved younger son, blends au­to­bi­og­ra­phy with el­e­ments rem­i­nis­cent of film critic James Agee’s sole novel, A Death in the Fam­ily.

Yet what be­gins as a sad and ten­der hymn to Amer­ica’s sub­ur­ban in­no­cence soon swerves from its nar­ra­tive. Within mo­ments the screen dark­ens, plung­ing us into a se­quence that does noth­ing less than nar­rate the his­tory of the uni­verse from the big bang to the 21st cen­tury us­ing im­ages and sounds of as­ton­ish­ing beauty. Only in Stan­ley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has sim­i­lar in­tel­lec­tual so­phis­ti­ca­tion been mar­ried to such fan­tas­tic im­agery (in­deed Mal­ick used Dou­glas Trum­ball, the re­spected spe­cial ef­fects su­per­vi­sor for that ear­lier film, on The Tree of Life). Here the vis­ual splen­dour of con­tem­po­rary film — a tech­ni­cal achieve­ment usu­ally re­served for big-bud­get spec­ta­cle — is bent to ultimate ques­tions: the ori­gins of life and its mean­ing for us, here, now.

The film never re­cov­ers from this magnificent ex­plo­sion. Even when we re­turn to the small-scale do­mes­tic joys and tragedies at its heart, the nar­ra­tive glows with its back­ground ra­di­a­tion. Chronol­ogy moves in re­cur­sive swoops; sur­real dream­scapes min­gle with scenes of per­fectly ren­dered his­tor­i­cal re­al­ism; and char­ac­ters’ voices are mainly quar­an­tined to voiceovers in which gnomic ques­tions about be­ing and self­hood are whis­pered above the ac­tion. There is plenty to an­noy those wed­ded to tra­di­tional cin­e­matic reg­is­ters.

In its for­mal am­bi­tion, length (al­most three hours) and its meta­phys­i­cal quest­ing, The Tree of Life most closely re­calls an ear­lier school of Amer­i­can vi­sion­ar­ies: Her­man Melville, of course, whose own mas­ter­piece con­tained sim­i­lar ex­trav­a­gances; Walt Whit­man, who sang in un­em­bar­rassed ec­stasy of the flawed great­ness of his nation; and above all of Henry David Thoreau, whose vast Jour­nals could be para­phrased with a sin­gle line: ‘‘ It’s not what you look at that mat­ters, it’s what you see.’’

Like the back­woods Tran­scen­den­tal­ist, Mal­ick is some­thing of a para­dox: a suc­cess­ful di­rec­tor for whom Hol­ly­wood’s trap­pings are anath­ema, and a home-grown au­teur who re­jects the in­grained ide­olo­gies and col­lec­tive habits that bar­na­cle Amer­i­can cin­ema. But to see him as only a film­maker is to mis­un­der­stand him.

Mal­ick is best con­sid­ered a poet of ideas who has cho­sen to use sound, im­age, word: a thinker, then, for whom cin­ema is phi­los­o­phy pur­sued by other means.

To call Mal­ick a philoso­pher is not to en­no­ble some turgid cer­e­bra­tion with pretty pic­tures at­tached. He stud­ied un­der Stan­ley Cavell at Har­vard, then headed to Ox­ford as a Rhodes scholar, where his doc­toral the­sis on Kierkegaard, Hei­deg­ger and Wittgen­stein was left in­com­plete fol­low­ing an ar­gu­ment with his tu­tor, the or­di­nary lan­guage philoso­pher Gil­bert Ryle. I’m hard-pressed to think of an­other film­maker of note who has, like Mal­ick, trans­lated Hei­deg­ger from the Ger­man for pub­li­ca­tion.

It is this last thinker who looms largest over Mal­ick’s oeu­vre. Hei­deg­ger sought to re­new west­ern phi­los­o­phy by re­turn­ing to the roots of its thought. He looked to the Greeks of clas­si­cal an­tiq­uity: their con­cepts, cat­e­gories, and par­tic­u­larly their words. He con­sid­ered meta­physics — the study of the na­ture of be­ing and the world — to be triv­i­alised, mined out. So he sought to ren­o­vate lan­guage in such a way that its ‘‘ pri­mal words’’ might un­lock truths that had been missed the first time around.

These on­to­log­i­cal in­ves­ti­ga­tions re­quired a lan­guage of baf­fling ob­scu­rity, how­ever. The clar­ity he sought re­ceded, as though lan­guage was it­self a bar­rier to get­ting at the truth of what it is to be. Mal­ick (who met the philoso­pher briefly) has laboured un­der no sim­i­lar dif­fi­culty. His films are not merely vis­ual il­lus­tra­tions of philo­soph­i­cal ideas. They are ideas them­selves en­acted in a purer lan­guage: a gram­mar of sound, im­age and light.

In 2005’s The New World, a magnificent re­vis­it­ing of the story of John Smith and Poc­a­hon­tas, the pair’s courtship in 17th cen­tury Vir­ginia takes place with­out the ben­e­fit of shared lan­guage. And yet Mal­ick al­lows ges­ture, touch, play, and ex­am­ples from the nat­u­ral world to stand in for that lack. His films are proof that there is elo­quence out­side of speech, that sig­nif­i­cance may un­furl in the most or­di­nary ob­jects.

The in­evitable com­plaints about The Tree of Life — its too-rad­i­cal con­cep­tion of char­ac­ter and story, its re­fusal to stand ex­plic­itly for any­thing be­yond its own beauty — fall away when we con­sider the philo­soph­i­cal im­pulse be­hind them. Mal­ick’s ge­nius does not lie in do­ing the things that film does bet­ter than other film­mak­ers. It lies in­stead in ex­pand­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what film can do.

To re­turn us to an orig­i­nal, un­medi­ated ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the very ‘‘ this­ness’’, or quid­dity, of the world through which we move is a virtue whose im­por­tance only in­creases when we pon­der the de­struc­tion that has fol­lowed our fail­ures to do so in the past. Ge­ordie Wil­liamson is chief lit­er­ary critic of The Aus­tralian.

Ter­rence Mal­ick in Paris last month, at work on his

new movie, The Burial

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