Terrence Malick’s highly anticipated and Palme d’Or-winning The Tree of Life (starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain) was released earlier this summer to critical and popular buzz. Less a movie, more a cinematic symphony on grace and the creation of the world (complete with movements and repeated themes), the film garnered both praise and protests from critics and audiences alike. And those familiar with Malick’s oeuvre recognized his hand in the film.
The Tree of Life is more like what we often call “fine art”—painting, for instance, or orchestral compositions—than a traditional film that is driven by narrative, plot, character development, and dialogue (though these elements still exist). There is no passive viewing allowed when we’re watching Malick’s work: like fine art, it requires contemplation and a lot of investment of ourselves to understand it. So who better than a fine artist to comment on the film? I corresponded briefly with my friend, the painter Makoto Fujimura, who previously wrote about the film with his son C.J. (a philosophy and music major at Bucknell University) at The Curator.
Mako: First, a bit about my use of the term “abstraction.” I realize my art can be characterized as “abstract” or “semi-abstract,” but I am not a pure abstractionist. I use “abstraction” as more as “essentiation” of reality, rather than “non-representational.” I am looking for a liminal expression, something that probes and longs for the “think spaces” between heaven and earth, between the invisible and the visible, between “east” and “west.”
Alissa: Tree of Life itself is a bit abstract, in the tradition of Tarkovsky, Kieslowski’s later work, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the documentary-meditation Into Great Silence.
Mako: After seeing the film, I realized there was a part of me that always suspected the art of film as a medium of art expression. Great art makes one believe in that particular medium of expression. Emily Dickinson makes one believe that words can capture the most intimate loves; Arshile Gorky makes one believe that a lyrical gesture of paint can depict the universal longing. Malick’s film “converted” me to the art of film in ways that no other films in the past have been able to do for me.
I am not discounting the great efforts of Tarkovsky, or a film like Magnolia, or what Into Great Silence has been able to do, by the way, but Malick’s effort is a paradigm shift to me. And there’s a difference between the way we think of film when we see it as a noble effort to entertain, as opposed to seeing it as a medium of expression that can capture that Reality behind reality.
Alissa: Each of Malick’s films yearn toward a lost paradise, in their own way. Yet The Tree of Life is most clear in its imagery. And at the same time, it is almost impressionistic. How should a viewer approach this kind of non-linear film or art in order to understand it?
Mako: The film’s collaborative, non-linear expression challenges our assumptions about how a film is to be made. Most of the time, I gather, you write a script and the actors follow the lines and create within the script’s boundaries. But this film seems to have been made without this type of one-to-one rendering. In The Tree of Life, you can come up with multiple “scripts,” each for different characters in the film. But Malick’s genius is in bringing these elements together to work together.
I would have thought that such non-linear efforts would lead to too much ambiguity—that the effort will lose, to use Frank Kermode’s word, “the sense of an ending.” What is remarkable is that The Tree of Life is all about The Beginning, and, by inference, points to The Ending, as well.
Few films, other than Kubrick’s 2001, have this kind of ambition. Many have compared the two films, but in my mind 2001 is the lesser of the two. I am such a science fiction fan that turning Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece into a “script” would always have lost something. Malick’s film, in that sense, transcends a rational “translation” to become an intuitive and collaborative “embodiment.”
Having said that, I was a bit disappointed with “The Ending” of the film, or how the “heaven” scene was captured. It was—as you say—a “lost Paradise” ending, rather than a fulfillment, or a generative reality. The very last scenes, though, creates a great reconciliation. And perhaps the film itself did not warrant attention to the fusing of heaven and earth, as it needed to focus on “The Beginning.” Maybe Malick will tackle “The Ending” side of what his vision would carry, from a generative perspective. I hope so.
Alissa: What can this sort of art accomplish in telling the narrative of the universe (creation, fall, redemption) that representational, linear narrative art cannot?
Mako: Great art takes time to be understood and accepted. I suspect Malick’s film needs time to be digested. Rather than call his film “abstract,” I would say his art, too, is a form of “essentiation.” By accepting the limitation of filmmaking, and challenging the limits of the medium at the same time, Malick poses a profound meditation on what it means to see. So his efforts go beyond the typical categories of “abstract” versus “representation,” or even “art” and “film.” This transmutation of categories is Malick’s greatest contribution in the long term.