Let There Be: Visual Mysticism in “The Tree of Life”

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  And so, director Terrence Malick prophetically joins God in asking us this at the beginning of Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life.  This question from the book of Job sets up a certain amount of distance, a rift between two very different beings—God and people.

It’s the first of a number of dichotomies that Malick gives us: the rift between eternity and time that pervades the film; nature and grace, which resound as a counterpoint; there is life and death; suffering, happiness; darkness and light.  While the film spins on the reel, it becomes obvious that these fissures originate from the initial chasm set up between God and people.  “How does one bridge the gap?” an astute film admirer might ask.  The answer lies shrouded in mysticism.

As Malick is Christian, it is no surprise that he would turn for answers to those who seek transcendent experience of God through prayer.  Catholic mystics have been seeking God in this way for millennia.  Of course, no one walks around in Franciscan garb in this film, yet a prayerful atmosphere permeates.  There are prayers in church, around the dinner table, at bedside.  And there are the much discussed voice-overs, usually whispering overtop a scene.

These permeate the film, and seem more like prayer than all of the preceding, explicit prayers.  They fly beyond the film, beyond the audience, beyond the time of our universe, the entirety of which unfolds from the dawn of creation through the 1950s to contemporary America in the film.  These characters are seeking someone beyond themselves, outside of space-time.  “What are we to You?” a whispering character asks.

The film imbibes a Christian mysticism.  But monks don’t have the corner of the mystic market.  It’s well recognized that Malick owes a philosophical debt to Martin Heidegger.  That becomes most clear in this film through Malick’s image-driven approach, pushing mise-en-scène to a paramount.

With little dialogue in the film, the sparse voice-overs do provide some engagement with language.  But it’s really the presence of images and the transition from one image-event to the next which move the story and evoke the emotion of the film.  A mother cries; a father falls to his knees under the weight of his own tears, and the sun sets.  Their son has died.  We, the audience, connect to this family’s struggle as we’re presented with their grief.

This is Heidegger’s ideal, realized on the film reel: the pure presence of being there—there where the action happens.  Through these events the characters are moved to send out questions to something or someone beyond themselves.  Beholding this, the audience is equally and powerfully moved.  In a sense, the characters and the audience are lifted together through the film, beyond the film.  We commune with a Being that is beyond us by communing with beings that are there, present with us.

As we look for what is there in Malick’s film, it’s appropriate to mention another source for his mystical endeavor.  John Ruskin, the 19th century art critic, seems to lurk in the shadows.  In Ruskin’s view, shadows are necessary in order to see anything.  Too much light blinds.  A little shading brings the field into view.

The sorrow incurred from the death of the beloved son rings throughout the film like a funeral bell.  It casts a shadow over all the images.  Even still, as an engine of emotion, it unifies and beautifies the film.  The memorial of his death is the impetus to remember his life, the efficient cause of the film.  Perhaps Wallace Stevens was right: “Death is the mother of all beauty.”

Beside the conceptual currency, which Malick gains through shadows, there is visual gain as well.  He more than once focuses on the literal shadows that characters cast, rather than on the bodies of these characters.  One scene centers on the shadows of children dancing.  Other times, Malick is keen to observe the interplay of light and shadow on walls and floors, even ominously in a baby’s bedroom.  “How does one bridge the gap?”  Shadows are part of the answer.

So is light.

Much of the film, if not all, is shot in natural light.  And much of the natural light is twilight, with a low-hanging sun.  Again Ruskin enters.  For him, twilight is the best light of the day, not necessarily because it’s the most visually stunning —he doesn’t think it is—but because it moves one to think about eternity.  Twilight is when one notices the change of light, so the change of time.  The presence of light brings us into communion with eternity, that which is beyond us.

The characters move in the drama between light and shadow, afflicted by the separation between God and people.  Yet light grows throughout the film, out of the darkness of primal chaos.  And light prevails in the film, through a scene on a celestial shore, when the family is reunited, lost son and all.

Materially, it is light that penetrated the physical film on the roll, capturing it through the camera lens.  It is light that shoots again through the film, projecting the images onto the theater screen.  Light unites characters and audience as it transcends both, lifting us all beyond the screen.

Heidegger spoke of a clearing, or the penetration of light into a dark forest.  Christian mystics have spoken of the Tabor Light, Christ’s transfiguration before his crucifixion.  Light leaps the gap, though not without its shadow.

Malick is a visual poet, a zoetrope mystic, who has given us a cosmic drama.

G. K. Chesterton, an early 20th century journalist and Catholic lay-theologian, once wrote a description of St. Francis; it easily fits Terrence Malick:

“When we say that a poet praises the whole creation, we commonly mean only that he praises the whole cosmos.  But this sort of poet does really praise creation, in the sense of the act of creation. He praises the passage or transition from nonentity to entity; there falls here also the shadow of that archetypal image of the bridge, which has given to the priest his archaic and mysterious name.  The mystic who passes through the moment when there is nothing but God does in some sense behold the beginningless beginnings in which there was really nothing else.  He not only appreciates everything but the nothing of which everything was made.  In a fashion he endures and even answers the earthquake irony of the Book of Job; in some sense he is there when the foundations of the world are laid.”

The director is not unaware of the bridge as a symbol.  Malick employs it as the final scene of his film.  A bridge spans over a body of water as a seagull circles around its base.  It’s difficult to suppress the resemblance that this final scene shares with another modern mystic’s attempt at transcendence.  The proem to Hart Crane’s epic poem The Bridge falls into mind:

“How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest

The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,

Shedding white rings of tumult, building high

Over the chained bay waters Liberty–

 

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes

As apparitional as sails that cross

Some page of figures to be filed away;

–Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

 

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights

With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene

Never disclosed, but hastened to again,

Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

 

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced

As though the sun took step of thee, yet left

Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,–

Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

 

…Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift

Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,

Beading thy path–condense eternity:

And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.”

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