The revolutionary road less travelled
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