Visualizing the Cosmos
By now critics have heaped thousands upon thousands of words on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a film that, nevertheless, doesn’t have very many of them. As is typical for Malick, a sensuous soundscape meets a lush landscape, and spoken dialogue is at a minimum. Through it all, critics are “surprised,” though not quite dumbfounded, at Malick’s use of special effects in reimagining the origins of the cosmos, finding it “freaky” or “jaw-dropping.”
The film delights in visual connections between the macrocosmos and microcosmos: far off gassy clouds of nebula look like the gassy clouds of DDT sprayed for mosquito control in Waco, Texas; an asteroid strikes the earth, beginning the mass extinction of dinosaurs, while the young Jack O’Brien throws a rock through a window, beginning the extinction of his childhood innocence; one boy emerges from an underwater house as a cosmic metaphor for birth, and later another dies by drowning in a pool.
If we look more closely at these cosmic images, unique as they seem in Tree of Life, we find them situated within a long visual and religious history of such associations. As such, The Tree of Life is simply the latest in a millennia-old project, shared by cultures across the world, of reconciling the microcosmos with the macrocosmos, our local lives with the grand scheme of things.
With that in mind, what follows are a series of visual encounters, attempts to place the imagery of The Tree of Life within a larger religious and cultural history, juxtaposing the new and the traditional through three historical plateaus.
1968: Film and the Cosmos
Critics and audiences have gasped, sometimes in astonishment, sometimes in disgust, at the insertion of cosmic imagery in The Tree of Life, fumbling to place it within a proper cinematic reference, and generally only coming up with connections to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
And yet, film production companies have been doing such things for ages. Notice the following set of images, with stills from Malick’s film on the left, and the visual logos of several film production companies on the right. These images, and many more like them, serve as gateways to a great many bromances, dramedies, sci-fi, and horror flicks alike.
In other words, we might say that film productions are in the business of linking the macrocosmos and microcosmos. This finds curious support in Peter Berger’s now-classic The Sacred Canopy from 1966:
Religion legitimates social institutions by … locating them within a sacred and cosmic frame of reference. … Probably the most ancient form of this legitimation is the conception of the relationship between society and cosmos as one between microcosm and macrocosm. Everything “here below” has its analogue “up above.” By participating in the institutional order, humans participate in the divine cosmos.
Reread this with only a couple changes (in italics):
Film production companies legitimate cinema by … locating films within a sacred and cosmic frame of reference. … Probably the most ancient form of this legitimation is the conception of the relationship between society and cosmos as one between microcosm and macrocosm. Everything “here below” has its analogue “up above.” By participating in the cinematic order, humans participate in the divine cosmos.
1493: Printing and the Cosmos
Film is not the first medium to do this. Once Johannes Gutenberg figured out how to put the East Asian technologies of the printing press to use among the languages of Europe, some radical shifts occurred in Western literature. Among the early publishing fads was a genre of epic chronicles—illustrated histories of the world that directly extended from the creation of the macrocosmos by a Christian Creator-God to established cities in northern Europe. One of the most famous accounts of such a history was the so-called Nuremberg Chronicles. Initially printed in 1493, the stories offer a beautiful mixing of macrocosmos and microcosmos, word and image, with over 1,800 woodcuts. Here is the history of the world, a grand mythology that ultimately landed in fifteenth-century Europe. In Malick’s rendering, it equally settles in Waco, circa the 1950s.
There is, in both accounts, in both media, a direct lineage from the origin of the universe to the origins of the local community. Ancient mythologies bear on us in the here and now, shaping our lives.
1859: Science and the Cosmos
Stepping down in another place and time, and re-searching the imagery of origins, we begin to see an intriguing connection between an evolutionary view of the macrocosmos and the religious mythologies that continue to hold sway. The only illustration to accompany Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859) is a “tree of life” image, similar to that which he produced in his journals in 1837. He wasn’t the first, nor the last, scientist to imagine life along a tree-like continuum.
Filmmakers, artists, scientists, authors, and the rest of us all seek to legitimate our personal stories and histories. Such legitimations are found in words, but equally so in images. By re-viewing some of historical imagery we find new and very old ways of mythologizing, which is to say: finding our lives relevant beyond ourselves, in the past and present, and in word, image, and deed.
Aristotle once noted that a historian tells us what was, while a poet tells us what can be. On this account, Malick is a poet-historian, whose images lay claim over what was, what is, and what can be. “Guide us,” says a voice at the end of the film, “To the end of time.”
For more on The Tree of Life, see Nathan Schneider’s essay, “Mobilize and Contemplate.”
S. Brent Plate is a writer, editor, and part-time college professor at Hamilton College. Recent books include A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects: Bringing the Spiritual To Its Senses (Beacon Press) and Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World (Columbia University Press). His essays have appeared at Salon, The Los Angeles Review of Books, America, The Christian Century, and The Islamic Monthly. More at www.sbrentplate.net or on Twitter @splate1.