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Contemplating the Whirlwind
The Luminous Architecture of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

The recently released, 2011 Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life is nothing short of an ambitious cosmic epic and a hymn to life in which we recall the life of a small town family, from innocence to lostness, through the fractured memories of suffering and the life of the universe. The film stars Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain, and is Malick’s second collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Y Tu Mamá También, Ali, The New World, Children of Men).

In an age when the most common uses of movies include sightseeing, adventure, and entertainment, the American filmmaker Terrence Malick offers us an invitation to probe time, space, and the mysteries of human existence. Defying cinematic formulas of convention and consumption, Malick has managed to build a grand cathedral to the ineffable mysteries of the human quest for divine answers. With all the ambition of the great master builders of old, Malick creates a living edifice designed with a geometry of life and love. Hewed from blocks of living duration, mortared with light and adorned with Fibonacci’s energy, The Tree of Life is much more than simply a ‘movie,’ it is that rare event in the life of an art form that extends the possibilities of its own craft. Malick has reintroduced the dynamic possibilities of a cinema of time to American moviegoers.

By privileging what French philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls “aberrant movement” and the “crystal-image” Malick reveals the primacy of time over action or movement, and duration as the inextricable relationship between past and present. This involves the rejection of cinema that only seeks to represent human being in the world for the sake of mass consumption and the maximizing of profit margins. And like the predictable containers of commodity exchange that line the nation’s highways, this cinema of representation does damage to our understanding of what it means to be human bodies in the world. But, like great architecture, Malick’s cinema of time forces us to be present to our bodies in relation to the past, the future and even eternity.

Malick, however, doesn’t seek to recreate the wheel. He only demands faithfulness to the energies of life, living, and the mysteries hidden in plain sight. To paraphrase Emily Dickenson, art is a house that seeks to be haunted, but nature is a haunted house. Owing as much in form to the great cathedral at Chartres as to Proust, Bresson or later Wittgenstein, Tree’s deceptively simple tale is as ancient as the oldest book of the Bible. The film begins by citing a section of Job 38, which is an extended exchange between Job, who has experienced the indifference of nature’s wrath, and God, whose goodness and glory are in question:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”

Let the viewer be clear, says Malick from the outset, we are about to enter a Job-like story and the mysteries of the whirlwind we shall now contemplate. It is a story that has been told thousands of times and should be told thousands more; what is the meaning of life, love, and suffering in the grand scheme of God’s creation? Malick provides no answers, only choices.

Solvitur ambulando, wrote St. Augustine. “It is solved by walking,” and the paths in life’s journey are never more apparent than in the simple wisdom: we can follow the way of Nature or the way of Grace. We are bid to choose love, for nature is violent and indifferent to beauty and pain. The way of nature closes us off to the glory and sees no wisdom in grace.

The characters, however, don’t tell us what paths they choose or what they are feeling. There is no three-act structure, no monologues, and no simple representations of love, anger, or desire. The film is without homage or a self-referential awareness of its own movieness. There is no care of anticipating the audience’s boredom by offering easily digestible answers or predictable cuts. Malick throws us into a living, complex, and true lifeworld.

Through the crystalline structure of memory we enter into and experience the scenes of human living with all its passionate evanescing in the scope of creation’s grand symphony. There is very little in the way of an organic logic of action—the grammar of classical cinema—to help the audience grasp meaning. Dialogue, too, is minimal. This leaves us only with a Bressonian interplay of world and contemplation. Indeed, there is no ‘voice,’ only voices mingled and tangled like the bone and flesh of this familial journey. Malick’s ‘voice over’ structure—though I am hesitant to call it that since traditional voice over is customarily expository—functions as a canticle that rises up out of the everydayness to probe the whirlwind for answers. Camera and voices rise up to seek the light of life.

In Tree, Malick’s now legendary backlight is revealed to be much more than aesthetic whimsy. It is rather a fundamental principle of a much more complex architectural plan. I am reminded of Vldamir Lossky’s meditation on the divine light:

“This light or effulgence can be defined as the visible quality of the divinity, of the energies or grace in which God makes Himself known. It is not a reality of the intellectual order…Nor is it a reality of the sensible order. This light is a light which fills at the same time both intellect and senses, revealing itself to the whole man, and not only to one of his faculties.”

The light bears witness to every scene. Its resplendent majesty illuminates and adorns ordinary matter. Its glory bids us to follow.

The loss of the family’s second child at the beginning of the film, then, is a rupture in the fabric of time and space. It is a void in reality that threatens to swallow all who held him dear. And so, as with Dante, the artist dares to take us into the mysteries of the whirlwind. In an instant we plunge into the foundations of time. We witness the pillars of creation set into their foundations as filaments of light and gas spill into the nothingness of finitude. Stars are born and die in fantastic glory. Untold beauty and savage ferocity characterize this grand cathedral. It is in faithfully contemplating the particularities of the universe, all that once was and all that will be, and being forced to face the longing for what could be, and should be, that we are able to glimpse the mysterium tremendum of a reality greater than our own.

After his own mythic 20-year absence, and now in the process of editing a very different kind of contemporary love story, what we might characterize as Malick’s post-exilic ‘trilogy’ seems complete. In The Thin Red Line (1998) we confronted the struggle at the heart of nature and faced sehnsucht, longing, as the “lack”: “If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack; a glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.”

Like the Song of Solomon, The New World (2005) is a hymnal to overcoming our alienation from the glory in the form of a love story:

“Mother, where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Show me your face. Give me a sign. We rise...we rise. Afraid of myself. A god, he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? Oh, to be given to you. You to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two no more. One. One. I am...I am.”

In all three films, the ‘main’ characters are forced to gaze into the void; all of them emerge with a peace that surpasses all cognitive understanding. They are granted a corporeal peace that penetrates the very structure of reality. But their peace is not ours, and it is not offered up to us as a commodity to be purchased with a soda and popcorn. There is no return-shot that will allow us to package and comprehend what we see. We are only beckoned to enter a unique architectural wonder and experience, often without comprehension, the complex movement and beats that lead from alienation to the shores of the mysterium whose glory surrounds. Indeed, sitting in Malick’s grand cathedral we begin to understand that, despite nature’s apparent indifference, if we turn our faces to the light and behold the glory, God speaks from the whirlwind. What will we do?


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