Tree of Life, Terrence Malick

Disclosure, Dasein, and the Divine in Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’

For Terrence Malick, “challenge” is a progressive verb. Tree of Life is a prayer that challenges us to see and think beyond all normative paradigms.

The Tree of Life
Terrence Malick
11 September 2018 (US)

The tree of life is a common metaphor for the interconnectedness of all beings. While this metaphor is a familiar framework for ecological thinking—all regions, systems, and species are interwoven and inseparable—the tree of life is also a provocative paradigm for thinking about creativity. The Tree of Life is also both the name of Terrence Malick’s 2011 masterpiece and an apt descriptor for his creative process, as evident by The Criterion Collection’s 2018 release.

The Criterion’s release offers audiences new ways to appreciate and understand Malick’s most ambitious, important, and idea-rich movie. Included in the Criterion Collection, in conjunction with the 135-minute theatrical release, is a new version of the movie that includes 50 minutes of additional footage. This expanded The Tree of Life isn’t simply a longer version of the original film nor one that is deemed “definitive”. Rather, as Criterion technical director Lee Kline explains, Malick created a new “version”, a new film. In other words, Malick rejects the hierarchical logic that informs so many collector’s editions in which the newer (and typically longer) version is deemed superior to its theatrical predecessor. The 2018 Criterion release contains two versions of The Tree of Life and neither is posited as superior to the other. Instead, they are parallel explorations of similar narratives.

Offering viewers two different, parallel versions of The Tree of Life coheres with the logic introduced in the 2011 version of the movie, which exceeds all genre conventions and pushes beyond Hollywood thinking. The Tree of Life explores how our lives are part of something bigger than what we recognize and narrate as “our story”. As the film foregrounds, there is no singular story; there are multiple stories. And for each story, there is not just one version but multiple versions.

But some stories carry more weight than others. In many ways, The Tree of Life is Malick’s most personal film. The movie centers—or so it seems— on Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), a middle-aged architect in an unidentified urban landscape, reflecting on his youth in 1950s-era, small-town Texas, the same geography and period in which Malick was raised.

At middle age, Jack is lost and alienated, wandering through a world of high finance and concentrated capital. The trees that represent the interconnectedness of all things are replaced by artificial trees: skyscrapers of metal and glass. Jack wanders through and around these symbols of modernity’s alienation, disconnected and divorced from his mother’s words of wisdom that begin the film: the necessity to live with grace and to see the beauty in all things. Jack is alienated from the philosophy that all things are radically connected, the minute and the grand; the personal and the impersonal; the profane and the sacred; the human and non-human; terra cognita and terra incognita. In many ways, Jack is a perfect capitalist subject: wealthy, successful, urbanized. But in Malick’s treatment, Jack is presented as existentially sick.

From this state of alienation, the dominant condition of modernity, Jack reflects on his youth, his family, and his experienced tragedies. Jack’s life parallels Malick’s in many mays. Like Malick, Jack is one of three boys growing up in ’50s, small-town Texas, and like Malick, one of Jack’s brothers dies tragically young.

At the heart of The Tree of Life is the profound grief of a life cut short and how such loss reverberates—and fails to reverberate—across various timeframes and timescales. In one of the film’s early sequences, Jack’s mother, played by Jessica Chastain, receives a telegraph that informs her oldest son has been killed. With the arrival of this devastating letter, disclosing the random, horrific event that shatters the O’Brien family, Malick does something radical. He goes back in time. Way back in time.

If we initially read The Tree of Life as a memory movie about Jack reflecting on his past, this genre classification soon fails as the movie explores timescales that exceed Jack’s personal memory. In one of the film’s most surprising sequences, almost immediately after Jack’s mother receives the telegraph, The Tree of Life moves away from the shattered family at the narrative’s ostensible center and instead, reflects on the mysteries and awesomeness of being.

In a near 18-minute sequence, Malick uses an impressionistic aesthetic to show the creation of life and the awesomeness of evolution. Rather than stay centered on the O’Brien family as they struggle with their grief and loss, the movie instead, leaps back years, centuries, millennia.

US-made movies, in their dominant form, are narratives. The Tree of Life is challenging to so many audiences because it is both a narrative and an anti-narrative. The story of the O’Brien family becomes interrupted by an extended sequence that may initially seem “out of place” and unrelated. Why do we move from a specific family in mid-century America to an extended, patient representation of galaxies, solar systems, and the vastness of space? Why must we sit through slow sequences of planet Earth prior to human life? Why must we see the emergence of life from single-cell organisms to more complex life-forms developing in oceans, in the air, and on land? What does evolution have to do with the O’Brien family and the tragic death of a singular life?

But perhaps these are the wrong questions. Perhaps better questions are: Why have we created a culture where a movie that philosophically meditates about being and time is deemed an “art-house movie” at best or “boring” at worst? What does it mean that we don’t have a culture that encourages and cultivates us to think about what it means to exist? About the meaning, mystery, and miracle of being? About why things are the way they are? About our place in the world? About why we are here?

In the dominant logic of the culture industry, this extended sequence about the birth and evolution of life on Earth would be deemed irrelevant to the “main story”. This sequence would be understood as its own entity, classified as a “documentary”, and placed in a cultural silo such as the Discovery channel. But the genius of The Tree of Life is that Malick—true to his title’s metaphor —refuses such genre distinctions, which can be understood another form of alienation.

The Tree of Life critiques and seeks to escape the dominant condition of alienation, which helps explain why so many critics recognize the movie as deeply spiritual. In his essay included in the Criterion Collection, Kent Jones suggests that The Tree of Life can be understood as a “Christian film”. However, rather than reading it through any fixed dogma, I agree with Roger Ebert’s ecstatic review (also included in the Criterion Collection) who calls The Tree of Life a “prayer”. Ebert writes, “Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, [. . .] hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life”. However, he continues, “[s]ome few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer ‘to’ anyone or anything, but prayer ‘about’ everyone and everything.” Prayer is an orientation towards the world, one that recognizes the world’s vastness, interconnectedness, and mysteries that exceed our myopic conceptions and limited grasp. (The insight that movies are prayers is wonderfully explored in Josh Larsen’s Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, 2018).

The Tree of Life is a prayer that is deeply personal—rooted in Malick’s own life— and impersonal —about the vastness and multiplicity of the world that exceeds us. Moreover, it’s a prayer that challenges us to see and think beyond all normative paradigms.

The Tree of Life opens with an epigraph from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth… When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38: 4,7). Job, a righteous man who experiences myriad tragedies and unceasing suffering, challenges God and asks why evil flourishes in the world, to which God responds with a speech about how myopic and limited human knowledge and understanding is. God’s rhetorical question, which opens the movie, serves as a reminder that humans don’t know all things and don’t know all stories, including, as suggested by The Tree of Life, our own stories. Although the film begins with a quote from the Book of Job and although early on we are offered a dichotomy between living through “grace” and living through “nature”, all such formulas and paradigms fail to frame the movie’s richness.

The Tree of Life dissolves our familiar categories for organizing the world, including such seemingly foundational categories as “beginning”, “middle”, and “end”. In fact, the movie makes “time” into a mysterious process. As Kent Jones observes: “It can be difficult or impossible to know how much time has passed between scenes, or even between shots. With every cut, the world is born anew”. The typical markers and metrics for measuring and assessing time are negated. Instead, Malick asks us to consider and contemplate the myriad wonders of the world as it unfolds in ways that exceeds our comfortable, familiar categories. Malick’s aesthetic, not coincidentally, parallels the work of Martin Heidegger.

Initially, Malick was going to be a philosopher. As an undergraduate at Harvard, Malick was a philosophy student with a particular interest in and passion for the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. Under the guidance of professors, including Stanley L. Cavell, Malick graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a Rhodes Rhodes Scholarship. After graduating, Malick went to Oxford University with the intention of writing a dissertation on Heidegger. In the mid-’60s, Malick even traveled to Germany to meet Heidegger, then living in isolation in the Black Forest, and Malick translated Heidegger into English, translating Vom Wesen des Grundes into The Essence of Reasons (1969). However, Malick’s attempt to earn a graduate degree proved futile. At the time, Oxford was strictly devoted to analytical philosophy and no one was willing to support a project centered on Heidegger specifically, let alone on Continental philosophy more generally. After leaving Oxford in disappointment, Malick was briefly a philosophy lecturer at MIT.

(A quick word on Heidegger’s horrific politics. While it may be difficult to divorce Heidegger’s philosophy and politics, I follow progressive thinkers who insist that such is possible and generative, such as Mariana Ortega, who productively places Heidegger in dialogue with Latina, feminist philosophers in In-Between; Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Multiplicity, and the Self, 2016).

In their essay, “Terrence Malick’s Heideggerian Cinema” (2003), Marc Furstenau and Leslie MacAvoy suggest that Malick “transformed [. . .] his knowledge of Heidegger into cinematic terms“. To call Malick’s aesthetics “Heideggerian” may be too schematic and reductive, but the influence of Heidegger is clear. Intrinsic to being human, according to Heidegger, is the ability to ask questions about being, about the mysteries and meaning of being. For Heidegger, we are predisposed to be philosophers, to both be intimately a part of the world and simultaneously, and paradoxically, to be distant from the world with our questioning. What is key, though, is our orientation towards the world. Rather than place our selves as the center of all relations and reduce the rest of the world to resources whose sole purpose is for human exploitation and use, what makes us fully human is to see and engage with the richness and awesomeness of being in all its multiplicity. According to Heidegger, we must learn the art of patience and allow the world to disclose itself, a disclosure that cannot be forced by human will.

Malick’s’ aesthetics practices this philosophy. In contrast to typical Hollywood directors who position themselves as Ahab figures who seek to control all aspects of their environment, Malick allows the environment to be, waiting for and open to surprises and the unexpected. Brad Pitt, who plays the patriarch of the O’Brien family, described the production process of The Tree of Life as antithetical to the Hollywood model: “A movie set is very chaotic. There [are] hundreds of people; there [are] generators and trucks. And this was a completely different experience — we had none of that. [. . .] There were no [camera] lights … there were no generators and the camera was all hand-held so it was a very free-form, low-key experience“.

Malick’s camera—and here we must praise the brilliant Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—rarely stays still, swooping and swerving in frequently unexpected directions, disclosing the multiplicity of stories in the world and the formal impossibility of a camera—or any technology—to capture and represent the world’s multiplicity. In The Tree of Life, the camera is constantly in motion, struggling to keep up the characters at the “center” of the film, and moreover, continuously curious about the wonders and mysteries surrounding these central characters. Rather than stay centered on the O’Brien family, the camera frequently swerves away or cuts away to the natural world, a world that exceeds human categories and paradigms.

For Heidegger, humans are Dasein (German for “being there”): beings-in-the-world, inextricable from the world. However, we have created cultures that remove us from the ecological world and places us into artificial worlds of alienation. According to Heidegger, this is mostly due to modern technology. In contrast to previous technologies which allow us to engage with the world in respectful, symbiotic ways, modern technology enframes the world as a thing for us to use and exploit at our will. Modern technology frames the world so that we become the artificial center and the surrounding world into objects and things that can be used and exploited without thought, concern, or even, for the vast majority of humans, direct engagement.

In contrast to peasants who had to work with the Earth and respect the Earth, modern technology has created something entirely new. In his influential essay, “The Question Concerning Technology” (1954), Heidegger writes, “Agriculture is now the mechanized food industry. Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy, which can be unleashed either for destructive or peaceful purposes“. Heidegger, at mid-century, is critiquing the modern food system, modern air conditioning, and a becoming nuclear world.

In a society defined by and devoted to modern technologies, we are no longer beings-in-the-world (what Heidegger calls Dasein), but alienated from the world, and ultimately, from ourselves. Modern technology enframes the world as distant and alienated from us, and our modern social media artificially places us at the center of the world, and artificially inflates—and more often deflates—our artificial ego.

We no longer see the surrounding world as teeming with various, mysterious, beings-in-the-world. Trees are no longer beings-in-the-world. Rather, they are reduced to objects whose only value is for human use and consumption.

It is important to emphasize that Heidegger is not critiquing all technologies. To this point, Malick uses the technology of digital cameras to make us see trees, flowers, birds, clouds. Seeing the natural world, the multiplicity of beings-in-the-world, is part of our story. It is essential to our Dasein.

At the film’s end—in both versions—we see middle-age Jack wander into what appears to be the afterlife. Jack wanders into a wide clearing in which he encounters and embraces people from his past, including his mother, his father, and his brother (Laramie Eppler), whose life ended tragically short. Rather than think of this field as the afterlife, though, I think it’s more productive to think of this space as a “clearing”, a conceptual/physical space that Heidegger claims is necessary for Being to disclose itself. This clearing is not an ending. It’s a pause pregnant with mysteries and possibilities, a clearing where Being can disclose itself beyond normative human paradigms.

For Heidegger, “challenge” is a pejorative verb. Humans challenge the Earth and the environment to myopic and destructive ends. But for Malick, “challenge” is a progressive verb. Malick’s cinema is challenging, and we need that challenge.