Malick’s Cosmos, Revisited

I love writing on Terrence Malick almost as much as I love his movies. As S. Brent Plate’s essay this week at KtB demonstrates, much can be gained by tapping at the cultural and religious roots of The Tree of Life. Perhaps owing to his training as a philosopher, Malick’s work opens more readily, and more fruitfully, to these kinds of excavations than most. One of my favorites is a slender book Michel Chion wrote on The Thin Red Line. As he admits in the eloquent introduction, his initial comments on the film were few. Part of him, he writes, would have been content to sit before the film “in childlike silence.” Then the ever-inquisitive Chion takes hold: “But let’s go on anyway, let’s explore the details.”

It always pays to dig deeper, at least where Malick is concerned. While Plate’s piece opens some compelling lines of inquiry into the film, it left me wanting more, particularly in the section that concerns The Tree of Life’s place within film history. Though the connection to the marketing practices of Hollywood studios, particularly the design of logos, is interesting in its own right, cinematically Plate misses a more direct link to the robust and varied tradition of cosmic imagery in experimental film. Fandor recently published two pieces that examine, nearly shot-for-shot, the contributions artists and avant-garde filmmakers working on the margins of commercial cinema made to the film, including Jordan Belson, Scott Nyerges, and Thomas Wilfred—whose Lumias, powered by “light organs,” make up the crystalline light sources that open and close the film. As the second post notes, the production team for The Tree of Life consulted with The Center for Visual Music and posted a query for “abstract, non-representational work with mysterious, suggestive elements” on Frameworks, an experimental film listserv. Not all of this, however, stems from explicitly religious concerns; the Emerson-inflected transcendentalism of Brakhage’s Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind (which I discuss in my own The Tree of Life review, part of Reverse Shot’s colloquium on the film) is a long way from Belson’s Beat psychedelia, for example, and it’s important to keep these historical threads from getting tangled.

The experimental links don’t forestall Plate’s argument about studio logos, of course. His visual juxtapositions are powerful, but again I would be careful to anchor these designs and their intentions in their own histories. Though the topic certainly warrants further investigation, my sense is that these images, and a name like Universal Pictures, had less to do with spiritual yearning than with worldly, material conquest in the form of the studios’ expansionist ambitions in the early 20th century, when they were aggressively attempting to amass international markets (however coincident the resulting imagery turned out to be). And The Tree of Life, as a major studio film, an international art film, and an auteurist masterpiece (if such words are still used) that leans on avant-garde traditions, cuts across all these still-vibrating vectors, inviting us to look all the more closely.

Genevieve Yue is a critic based in Los Angeles, where she is also pursuing a PhD in film studies at the University of Southern California. Her writings have appeared in Reverse Shot, Film Comment, Moving Image Source, and Senses of Cinema.