Is he in heaven? Is he in hell? Where has he gone? No one can tell! (Part the Third)
In the last couple of posts, I’ve been trying to figure out just what the holy hell is going on in Terrence Malick’s recent The Tree of Life. In this third and final post, I’d like to consider a possible set of explanations as to why the film works the way it works and looks the way it looks.
I’m gonna try to land this Spruce Goose with one last bit of Terrence Malick biographical trivia, the discovery of which felt for me like one of those moments when you’re playing expert-level Windows Minesweeper and you click on a square that’s adjacent to no mines and suddenly a huge swath of empty space opens up in front of you and you’re like: dude, I got this.
Am I the only person in the world who didn’t know (at least prior to starting this post) that Malick was a philosopher before he became a filmmaker? I’m talking here about a rather different degree of scholarship than, say, Mick Jagger’s early studies at the London School of Economics, or even David Duchovny’s unfinished Ph.D. in English Lit: Malick studied with Stanley Cavell at Harvard, with Gilbert Ryle at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and he taught philosophy at MIT for a while. To borrow a line from an academic in a different field, I believe this has some significance for our Tree of Life problem.
Based on available evidence, the philosopher with whom Malick seems to have the strongest affiliation is Martin Heidegger. Malick’s undergrad honors thesis with Cavell centered on Heidegger, at one point he evidently traveled to Germany and met Heidegger, and Heidegger was the major focus of his MIT course; additionally, in 1969, Malick published a fairly distinguished translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (as The Essence of Reasons). I think it’s safe to say that these days Heidegger is understood to be the 800-pound gorilla of what’s commonly called “continental philosophy”: he was a major influence on Sartre’s formulation of existentialism (though he thought Sartre misread him), the term “deconstruction” (now common parlance, albeit with degraded specificity of meaning) arose as an attempt to capture his use of the German word Destruktion, and I suspect but cannot confirm that he’s at least an indirect inspiration (or supplier of unattributed talking points) for contemporary cultural trends like the Slow Food movement, “simple living,” and Portlandia-style hyperconscious consumerism. Back in ’69, however, Heidegger was still pretty esoteric stuff, at least in the analytic and Anglophone circles where Malick made his academic rounds. The point here is that as a young philosopher, Malick was 1) serious, 2) reasonably distinguished, and 3) on or slightly ahead of one of the cutting edges of his profession.
For several reasons, I’m not going to attempt any kind of serious examination of Heideggerian themes in Malick’s filmography here. First, this whole triparate thing is closing in on 8000 words, a length I normally like to reserve for assessing the works of mononymic pop stars. Second, my knowledge of Heidegger is limited to a couple of his late essays—“The Question Concerning Technology” and “Building Dwelling Thinking”—that I read as an undergrad like twenty years ago. Third, Heidegger is not so much a can as a forty-gallon drum of worms: any mention of him probably ought to arrive trailing asterisks the size of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons, with the biggest one representing his committed Nazi Party membership in the 1930s. Finally, there is the risk of making too much of this comparison: calling Malick a Heideggerian filmmaker stands to interpose Heidegger between us and our experience of the films, such that we stop seeing them in their own right. That said, I haven’t observed a ton of evidence—outside of academic publishing, maybe—that Malick’s critics have herded him into some Heideggerian corral; it seems to me that making too little of his background in philosophy, rather than too much, is the more pressing danger. So at the risk of RADICALLY oversimplifying—hell, I’m not even gonna risk it; I’m just gonna do it—let’s take a quick swing at this.
Heidegger’s basic deal is an attempt to recover an apprehension of the world that’s firmly rooted in our experience of it. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Well, it ain’t: according to Heidegger, Western philosophy since Plato—which pretty much means Western philosophy in its entirety—has basically amounted to a turn away from the direct experience of the world, in favor of imaginary perspectives, separated from time and space and specific circumstance, from which the world can be viewed, described, ordered, classified, and so forth. (Cogito-ergo-sum-style thought experiments are rooted in such imaginary perspectives; so are the methods of the experimental sciences.) Much of Heidegger’s project consists of an attempt to dismantle everything that preceded him, or at least to make the fundamental assumptions on which it’s all based visible and open to question.
When it comes to understanding Heidegger, it’s tempting to think that those of us who don’t really have any solid grasp on the history of Western philosophy might actually be better off—because, hey, we’re junking all that stuff anyway, right?—but again, no dice: over the past 2500 or so years, the errors of perspective and conception that he seeks to defuse have been encoded so deeply in our everyday language and habits of thought as to become entirely transparent to us. Thus our experience is “always already” enmeshed in preconceptions and circumstances that we have no real means of extricating ourselves from, since we can’t reliably be aware of them at all. Heidegger recommends that we instead try approaching key questions about existence by means of literary or poetic language that preserves (or restores) some of the mystery inherent to being—a prescription that lands him in the same neck of the woods as our friends the Russian formalists, something I am hardly the first to note.
Although it casts an impressively wide and deep net, Heidegger’s thought is pretty much billeted in the haunted vessel of German Romanticism: when the chips are down and he’s stuck in a tough rhetorical corner, he tends to reach for his Hölderlin or Rilke. Much like the fictional O’Brien family—but, we probably ought to note, unlike the real-life Malicks—Heidegger’s people were observant Catholics: Heidegger began his schooling with a concentration in theology and an intent to enter the priesthood. Although this plan didn’t pan out—he renounced the faith in 1919—he maintained a career-long antipathy toward humanism, rooted in his suspicion of anthropocentric conceptions of the universe. He ends up with a philosophy that places being itself at the center of the world (think being in the sense of the state or quality of having existence and you’re on the right track) and he suggests that our job as thinking and perceiving subjects should be to remain open to being in all its sublime authenticity. This gentle and attentive openness to the world has resonance with the Taoist concept of wu wei (at some point Heidegger evidently attempted to translate the Tao Te Ching into German), and it also bears a passing (but significant for our purposes) resemblance to the concept of grace that Malick distilled from Thomas à Kempis.
When the internet told me that Malick did time as a Heidegger scholar before he started slumming as an award-winning motion-picture auteur, the first thing that popped into my head—not, y’know, word-for-word, obviously—was a section of “Building Dwelling Thinking,” a briefish and kind of trippy Heidegger essay from 1951 (the translation is by Albert Hofstadter):
Mortals dwell in that they save the earth [. . .]. Saving does not only snatch something from a danger. To save really means to set something free into its own presencing. To save the earth is more than to exploit it or even wear it out. Saving the earth does not master the earth and does not subjugate it, which is merely one step from spoliation.
Mortals dwell in that they receive the sky as sky. They leave to the sun and the moon their journey, to the stars their courses, to the seasons their blessing and their inclemency; they do not turn night into day nor day into a harassed unrest.
Mortals dwell in that they await the divinities as divinities. In hope they hold up to the divinities what is unhoped for. They wait for intimations of their coming and do not mistake the signs of their absence. They do not make their gods for themselves and do not worship idols. In the very depth of misfortune they wait for the weal that has been withdrawn.
Mortals dwell in that they initiate their own nature—their being capable of death as death—into the use and practice of this capacity, so that there may be a good death. To initiate mortals into the nature of death in no way means to make death, as empty Nothing, the goal. Nor does it mean to darken dwelling by blindly staring toward the end.
Out of context, this passage is pretty perplexing; in context, it’s . . . still pretty perplexing. If you can kind of roll along with Heidegger’s idiosyncratic use of certain terms—words like “mortals,” “dwell,” “earth,” “sky,” “divinities,” “save,” and “danger,” among others, all accrue very particular implications in his writing—this excerpt gives you a pretty good sense of the attitude toward existence that he says we should cultivate, i.e. one of engaged and mindful humility. The passage reminds me of several things in Malick, most notably the developing outlooks of several of his films’ central characters (all of whom also serve as offscreen narrators): Sissy Spacek’s Holly in Badlands, Linda Manz’s Linda in Days of Heaven, and especially Caviezel’s Private Witt in The Thin Red Line. (John Baskin’s essay in The Point, which I linked to in my last post, does a great job of analyzing all these characters.) I think of Witt particularly with reference to the last paragraph in the block quote above: both of his ultimate fate, and of his statement early in the film about an appropriate attitude toward one’s own death.
I remember my mother, when she was dyin’. Looked all shrunk up and gray. I asked her if she was afraid. She just shook her head. I was afraid to touch the death I seen in her. I couldn’t find nothin’ beautiful or uplifting about her goin’ back to God. I heard people talk about immortality, but I ain’t seen it.
I wondered how it’d be when I died, what it’d be like to know this breath now was the last one you was ever gonna draw. I just hope I can meet it the same way she did, with the same calm. ’Cause that’s where it’s hidden: the immortality I hadn’t seen.
Maintaining a particular attitude toward death is a consideration in The Tree of Life, as well—the movie does, after all, conclude with the peculiar extratemporal-O’Brien-family-reunion-at-the-Bonneville-Salt-Flats “afterlife” sequence—but it’s really the third paragraph of the Heidegger excerpt above that seems applicable to Tree. The attitude that Heidegger recommends dwelling mortals adopt toward the divinities seems to rhyme with that prescribed by the Book of Job, a quotation from which (Verses 38:4 & 38:7) serves as the film’s epigraph: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” If the big question posed by the adult Jack in The Tree of Life is: How do I make sense of a universe in which my gentle and decent brother dies at nineteen and I, jerk that I am, go on pointlessly living? then the film’s answer, like God’s to Job, is: You don’t, dude. It’s not the place of the human subject to make such inquiries of the universe—not, according to Heidegger, because the universe will put you in your place with a bolt of lightning, nor even because such questions can’t really be answered, but because any answers you find will actually blind you to other truths and lead you further into error. Although the universe may appear stable, it’s actually a constantly-shifting balance of opposing forces—a concept that Heidegger derives from the same fragment of Heraclitus that Malick more or less quotes in The Thin Red Line—and any truth you pin down concerning particular circumstances or beings is apt not to remain true relative to other circumstances or beings.
This is a major concern for Heidegger: the better able we are to master the world and to get it to disclose its secrets according to our will, the more screwed-up we become, alienated from the mysterious and self-disclosing aspects of existence, and therefore alienated from ourselves. Heidegger isn’t a Luddite, opposed to technological advancement, but he does worry that our increasing dominance of our surroundings changes us: it inclines us to organize and classify the world solely as a collection of resources at our disposal, and then to perceive the world only in those terms, rather than as its unmediated, unclassified self. We are so utterly surrounded by and entangled in systems and processes designed to exploit available assets that it requires a kind of breakthrough—and/or a breakdown of systems and technologies—to encounter the world as the world.
This is a major concern in The Tree of Life, as well, though that may not be immediately apparent. It is, after all, exactly this kind of breakthrough that the predatory Ornithomimus experiences on the Cretaceous riverbank: rather than viewing the things of the world in purely functional terms—categorized as food and not-food—for a moment it seems to stop and consider the trapped parasaur as a being, both like it and unlike it. The predator seems to do this without any circumstantial prompting. Malick’s implication seems to be that as organisms have become more complex and more sophisticated—better able to dominate and organize their environments—they’ve become more and more estranged from the capacity to slow down and look, to see the world’s phenomena in anything other than functional terms, and therefore less given to this kind of fleeting openness.
Not for nothing, then, does Malick depict Jack O’Brien’s father as an aeronautical engineer, pursuing a career in America’s post-WWII golden era of aerospace. (Malick’s own father, in case you were wondering, was a petroleum geologist.) Mr. O’Brien—restless, ambitious, covetous, never satisfied (“It takes fierce will to get ahead in this world,” he tells his sons)—evokes the tunnel-visioned, results-oriented, technological will-to-power that Heidegger warns against, and that Malick connects with what Thomas à Kempis calls “nature.” Viewed in this light, the young Jack’s cruel “experiment” of launching a frog on a bottle-rocket represents a grotesque parody of his father’s technical aspirations. It’s also a more-or-less intentional blasphemy: “That’s where God lives!” Mrs. O’Brien tells her sons at one point, gesturing skyward. We should note too that the heavenly trajectory of young Jack’s frog-bearing firecracker is recapitulated by the upright BB gun with which he later shoots R.L.’s fingertip. The injury to R.L.’s finger resonates in turn with a brief scene in which R.L. places his small hand over a flashlight’s beam to see the shadows of veins and arteries there—a branching pattern that we might call, with a little metaphorical license, a tree of life.
And I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to associate the artificial light that passes through R.L.’s hand with the light that passes through a camera lens to record images on film, the light that passes through a projector to strike a movie-theater screen: a light that reveals. It’s a little easier to buy the notion that filmmaking might in some ways qualify as a continuation of Malick’s philosophical project when we consider that this is pretty much where Heidegger’s own project concluded: i.e. in approximate prescriptive accord with Viktor Shklovsky, with the idea that art represents the best way to reconnect ourselves with the unmediated textures of the world in which we make our home.
If this is indeed a legit way to characterize Malick’s career, it’s also worth mentioning that the approach he has chosen risks some pitfalls. If, for instance, technology is the major force that alienates us from the world, it seems significant that film is an extremely technology-intensive artistic medium, certainly far more so than the poetry that Heidegger treasures. And in fact examples abound of films that were wrecked by their makers’ access to technology, wrecked because making the movie became secondary to using the technology. (The criminally odious Star Wars prequels are the test case here; I’d argue that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films are already aging poorly because of their tech-heaviness; even something as ostensibly high-minded and serious as Saving Private Ryan—which suffers badly in a head-to-head with The Thin Red Line from the same year—is hastened toward inauthenticity by a bottomless visual-effects budget. Jaws, by contrast, remains a great film precisely because its technology consistently failed during production.)
I get the strong impression that Malick knows this, and has consciously adopted strategies to steer clear of this peril: while his dinosaurs are crafted from state-of-the-art CGI, he hired the legendary Douglas Trumbull to do the outer-space bits in his creation-of-the-world sequence; Trumbull is probably best known for doing effects for Stanley Kubrick on 2001, and returned to those working methods (which involve such high-art, low-tech approaches as filming clouds of milk and dye in a side-lit tank of water) for Tree. It’s also worth noting that Tree’s image of maximum mystery—the auroralike curtains of light that open and close the film—wasn’t made or commissioned by Malick at all: it’s simply footage of Opus 161 by Thomas Wilfred, a work of light-art from the mid-1960s. If art is our best bet for refreshing our encounters with the world, then I suppose it makes sense that Malick’s most overt evocation of the unmediated infinite should arrive in the form of a fairly modest work of studio art by an eccentric Danish immigrant, produced roughly contemporaneously with most of the the events depicted in his film.
Just for the sake of tying up a loose end, it’s also worth mentioning that film tends to rely heavily on another technology that Malick has adopted strategies for keeping in check—a technology that’s very old, and hardly exclusive to film, and so fundamental that it’s typically only visible to us through its absence. I’m talking, of course, about narrative itself. I’ve already gone on at length about how Malick deliberately breaks narrative momentum in his films, so I won’t belabor that here, except to note the interesting tension in Malick’s work between film as a narrative medium for invention (let me tell you a story) and film as a documentary medium for recording (I was here, and these things were here, and I saw these things). These opposed-but-overlaid conceptions of the function of film as a medium run parallel to Heidegger’s famous conception of the two realms of being: what he called the earth (the nonhuman world of objects and forces) and what he called the world (the world of human activity, with every tangible object and force classified according to its purpose or significance). The intersection of these two ways of encountering the world is—for Heidegger, and perhaps for Malick too—where we encounter our own authentic humanity.
So I think Malick’s got a pretty good handle on the intrinsically technological nature of film. My quibble—I MUST have a quibble!—is that I’m less convinced that he has a handle on the intrinsically collaborative nature of film. Jameson and Davies make a good point that Days of Heaven is just about everybody’s favorite Malick film, and that this probably has something to do with the input of Malick’s collaborators and the fertile milieu in which the film took shape; the fact that it’s a more compromised product than Malick’s more recent efforts actually works more to the film’s benefit than its detriment, at least in terms of connecting with and engaging viewers. (It’s not that Days is a more crowd-pleasing movie, necessarily, but rather that it admits a certain degree of rhetorical sophistication that Malick keeps out of his later films—intentionally, I’m guessing.)
My aim in bringing this up is not to criticize Malick for hitting what he aims at just because I’d prefer he picked a different target; I think it’s worth considering the implications of. At the very beginning of this series of posts, I described The Tree of Life as “personal, even private,” and now that I’ve dragged you through some quick-and-dirty Russian formalism and my plagiarize-this-at-your-own-risk survey of Heidegger, I’d like to clarify what I meant by that. I think this film would still feel personal and private if it lacked a single autobiographical reference: I think this feeling comes not (just) from its presentation of character but from its conception of character, specifically a suspicion of or antipathy toward the midrange psychic distance I talked about in the last post. Virtually all—maybe just plain ALL—of The Tree of Life is presented from inside the adult Jack’s head, from a psychic distance of zero. (There’s a reason for all that low-angled handheld camerawork.) As such, we not only never feel like we have a complete understanding of Jack, we also never feel as if we know or understand any of the other characters (i.e. his parents, his brothers, his own younger self). We never feel as if Jack has an understanding of these characters, either; nor do any of those characters seem to understand each other. The film does, I believe, succeed in inducing us, the audience, to think about the things (i.e. our own births, childhoods, families, hopes, loves, aspirations, and eventual deaths in a vast and ancient universe) that the adult Jack thinks about, and to do so in the same way that he thinks about them, which is pretty impressive. But I also believe the film wants me to believe—or at least assumes—that trying to achieve a sympathetic understanding of how other people might confront these same questions is either impossible or ought to be avoided. And I don’t have a super-good feeling about that.
Let’s go back to Heidegger one last time. One of the big knocks on Heidegger—and given the dude’s repellent careerist adventures in National Socialism, the contest is really for second place here—is that while he presents a sweeping and kind of mind-blowing account of the relation of the human subject to being, he is conspicuously unwilling or unable to say much of anything about the relation of the human subject to other human subjects. Maybe I should say that he’s unwilling to say anything positive: his early writings are full of references to society as a force that clouds the consciousness of the human subject with received notions that encourage conformity and mediocrity and alienate it from its own authentic experience of being. The gear that Heidegger idled in—as I mentioned above and will now repeat—was German Romanticism; its fetishism of intuitive individual genius is pretty much always playing in the background when he’s holding forth. (It sounds a lot like a late Beethoven quartet, of course.) As a result of this orientation, the atmosphere that Heidegger evokes is always kind of cool and awestruck and mist-shrouded and mysterious, and it is for damn sure a fun place to take an intellectual vacation. But it doesn’t take very long before the environs start to feel a little like a theme park, before the mist starts to look like production design (is that a fog machine behind that boulder?), and before at least some of the mystery starts to feel like it might be mystification instead.
I feel like Malick may also be susceptible to this. I’m intrigued by reports that Sean Penn has expressed some dissatisfaction with Tree, saying that the finished product didn’t entirely do the screenplay justice, and that the film might have been better served by a “more conventional narrative;” I’m tempted to think that by “more conventional narrative” he might mean “characters having actual conversations with one another.” (This could be taken as another instance of Adrien-Brody-style um-where-did-my-performance-go? sour grapes, but I get the impression that Penn really gets Malick; evidently he helped him edit The Thin Red Line.) This is, of course, pretty much the same conclusion that Mitchell arrives at (rather more efficiently than I have) at The Discreet Bourgeois with his comparison of Tree to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon: if Malick’s assumption is that you can’t really present a vivid and complete evocation of an inhabited world if you complicate it by depicting the complexities of human society, then Yellow Ribbon would sure seem to be a strong argument to the contrary.
An effective comedy constitutes a positive rejoinder to a movie presented from a Heideggerian perspective; an effective film noir—like Memento, mentioned parenthetically in the last post—presents a more cautionary critique. Heidegger’s whole project, ostensibly, is a deconstruction of all the initial assumptions of Western philosophy, but it seems to me that he gives the idea of individual consciousness a free pass. Yeah, sure, he provides an extensive account of how the individual human subject gets all manner of screwed up by listening to the prattle of its friends and neighbors—but the fact that his account of the operations of mass culture is so strongly negative indicates that he’s imagining something pure at the heart of subjectivity, something that could be brought to the surface if the complications of living amidst others could only be stripped away. Heidegger doesn’t seem to consider that those complications might actually constitute the human subject. He’s also very weird about emotions: the “divinities” that he mentions in the passage quoted above are best understood not as invisible quasi-animist forces, but rather as overriding moods or atmospheres that arise from somewhere outside the perceiving subject to determine the character of an experience. That’s kind of nuts; one suspects that Heidegger has to locate these moods outside the self, because his idea of human consciousness can’t admit the unconscious or the irrational without inventing a mysterious inhuman external power to naturalize and legitimate it.
I should end by noting that many, many people have made attempts to draw lines between Heidegger’s philosophical project and its attendant view of the world—i.e. his extremely rich account of lived experience, his complete disinterest in ethics and politics, his extremely accommodating account of individual selfhood—and his deplorable conduct during the Nazi era. Some of those lines look pretty straight and pretty short to me.
Am I here to tell you that any work of art that’s coming from his general direction is ethically suspect, or that The Tree of Life is a piece of fascist propaganda? Hell no. I’m only suggesting that it’s worth spending a little time (and, apparently, a few thousand words) considering what The Tree of Life is—and is not—saying to us, and what it is and is not able to say, given its initial assumptions. There are evidently keys in which Terrence Malick cannot or chooses not to sing; I think part of enjoying his performance probably ought to consist of being mindful of certain pitches that we never hear.