The naturalistic conventions of moviemaking are so second-nature to us that we often readily forget that they weren’t always so. Just watching a Jimmy Stewart picture from the 1950s will easily cure us of that notion. But even directors in our own day occasionally try to subvert those conventions to show us something bigger than those conventions will allow. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Tree of Life, directed by Terrence Malick.
When I first saw The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), I didn’t recognize Malick’s name. While he had a handful of films to his credit, I didn’t seek out either film for their director. I think I simply stumbled on the first, perhaps as my third or fourth choice at the local Blockbuster Video. I more intently watched the second film to see how it portrayed its subject, Captain John Smith, since I had just completed a book project that abridged and annotated his journals of exploits in colonial Virginia.
So, when I approached Malick’s 2011 film, I had some sense of the director’s art. I knew he made serious films, and this latest one had been written up by Christians whose opinions I respected. It seemed to warrant a closer look.
The film I experienced, however, was not at all what I was prepared to encounter. For more than half the film, I resisted its images and voiceover. But it was apparent that this director was up to something different, and so I tried to remain open to what he wanted to show me.
That’s when a bit of learning hit me: If you approach the film as a conventional movie, then you’re bound to be disappointed. It’s thin on plot, character development, and other storytelling conventions you expect from a two-hour movie.
But if you approach it without those expectations, as something different or experimental, this film has great beauty to offer. One critic called it “a tone poem.” I liken it to a ballet (or opera), where the set design, music, choreography, and succession of signs and gestures (not all of which are meaningful) combine to produce a dazzling effect. The kind of ballet would be more akin to Swan Lake than Cirque du Soleil.
(Operative idea here: E. D. Hirsch argued in his book Validity in Interpretation that we cannot rightly judge a work of art until we know its genre and the conventions that go along with it.)
The soundtrack is phenomenal, perhaps one of its most approachable aspects (being drawn from familiar classical composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Gustav Mahler, Gustav Holst, Hector Berlioz, Henryk Górecki, and John Tavener). More so than in other films, it serves as the foundation, or the context, for the visual images we see. I wouldn’t at all be surprised to learn that the soundtrack was largely chosen before Malick shot any of the scenes.
I think the analogy here holds up because one of the most common comparisons in reviews has been to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which featured orchestral music by such composers as Richard Strauss (Also Sprach Zarathustra), Johann Strauss (The Blue Danube Waltz), György Ligeti (various), and Aram Khatchaturian (Gayane Ballet Suite).
The other tangible parallel is the convergence of the scientific (or physical) with the spiritual. In both Malick and Kubrick, we see scenes from evolution, from our prehistoric past. There is no hand of God or suggestion of such. But nearly every present-day scene is imbued with mystery, wonder, and beauty, which all seems pointless if not somehow placed there as a signpost to something beyond itself.
In this Malick is both more explicit and (curiously) more allusive. The film begins with a quotation from the Book of Job. Later, we hear parts of a sermon on Job’s sufferings. Characters ask questions in the voice-over such as “Who are we to you?” the ‘you’ here clearly meaning God. So, in part, there’s an ongoing conversation with God, one that has been going on for centuries (but conspicuously missing from Kubrick’s film). In the end, we are asked to take sides. As the mother sets out in the first few minutes of the Malick film, will we follow “the way of nature” or the “way of grace”?
I don’t know how else Malick could have asked these questions without breaking with some conventions of the form. In the hands of a preacher or a theologian, the choice he poses would seem dogmatic or self-serving. In the hands of a scientist, meaningless. Malick’s question, and his chosen monumental frame, places us, the viewer, beyond the subjectivity of human reference and into a divine realm, where an ultimate question makes a claim on us as we ponder the majestic view.