The Space Between Spaces
Keith Uhlich on The Tree of Life
The Tree of Life is a movie of infinite moments, culled from one personâs singular experience and placed side-by-side in a free-floating mosaic. The best of the filmâs posters plays off this idea: still images from different scenes are gathered in a patchwork, though not ordered according to the movieâs nonlinear chronological progression. Whether conscious or not, this separates the posterâs purpose (to sell) from the filmâs (to represent, or better, re-present). Interestingly, several of my colleagues have said that certain images in Terrence Malickâs semiautobiographical opus are little more than affected bric-a-brac pilloried from perfume commercials (a shot of a commedia dellâarte mask sinking through the ocean is a frequent target for criticism) or computer screen savers (in the case of the âcreation of the cosmosâ interlude, featuring work by special-effects legend Douglas Trumbull and others).
We should be thankful that these negative judgmentsâperfectly defensibleâare near-entirely balanced out by the rest of the commentary on the film. (For me, the cosmos sequence feels overwhelmingly tactile and purposeful, in no way a technological placeholder behaving randomly, and the submerged disguise, when considered in context, implies a beautiful conviction about our human comedy: At the end of time, the masks fall away.) This is the mark of a truly vital work, one that sways, flows, and moves with the tides of opinion. Rather than incline solely toward preferred sentiments (those equally superficial extremes of fawning love or vigorous hate), the film invites voices of all tenor to engage it and encourages dialogue that can never truly be silenced. We resonate, orâto quote Malickâs previous film The New Worldâwe rise.
Of all the images, sounds and mo(ve)ments to explore in The Tree of Life, Iâm most fascinated by the section during the cosmos sequence that recreates the epoch of dinosaurs. This was, unsurprisingly, a prime talking point for fanboys (myself included) during the many months of pre-release buzz. (Malick and Pleistocene beasties? Woot!) And after I hung the movieâs mosaic one-sheet on my wall, I would often play a Whereâs Waldoâlike game with friends: âCan you find the dinosaur?â Iâd ask, and since that part of the poster was around eye-level, everyone would spot the imageâof what looks like a silhouetted raptor out of a Steven Spielberg super-productionâalmost immediately.
The lead-up to any anticipated film is filled with such juvenilia. Hopefully, weâve put those childish things away (those heart- and mind-clouding expectations) by the time the movie itself rolls around, so we can best judge the work of art as it is. Thatâs certainly not easy: Iâll admit I felt more than a twinge of disappointment when the first dino appearedâa wounded plesiosaur, lying in the surf, tending to a large gash along its side. It seemed so noticeably digital, something I figured was anathema to the Malick way of doing things, and at odds with the tenor of what had come before. (The teenage boy in me, too, wished for a little more teeth-baring in the Jurassic Park vein.) Fortunately, the twinge was gone by the next scene in which a smaller dinosaur (Iâm not certain what species) stands alone in a forest and squawks loudlyâfor what purpose weâre never entirely sure.
This was the moment Malickâs artistry became fully apparent. Digital technology is most problematic when used literallyâthe effects created in such cases are inevitably hollow because we know exactly what weâre seeing in every particular. Thereâs no room for the interpretation that results when something actually living or tangible (an animal, a human, a violent natural event, etc) is photographed, orâeven rarerâwhen an artist uses the digital tools at their disposal to create such things, but with the express purpose of leaving some aspect(s) of their being mysterious and enigmatic. A relatively recent case-in-point that I think illuminates Malickâs triumph here is Spielbergâs fourth Indiana Jones film (Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). Itâs for the most part unfairly maligned, as much a heightened memory film (Dream Factory Proust) as The Tree of Life or Francis Ford Coppolaâs Youth Without Youth. Yet it often segues into silliness whenever animals show upâprairie dogs in the opening sequence; monkeys during the jungle chaseâbecause theyâre so clearly literalized 1s and 0s (nothing more than what they are) rather than sibylline flesh and bloodâor even a good approximation thereof. (Interestingly, a mass attack by digital ants does work, perhaps because the mechanistic nature of their creation fits with the hive mentalityâdevour everything!âthey display on screen.)
From Spielbergâs tinkerings to Malickâs intimations: What is that squawking, digital dinosaur thinking? Is it crying for mommy? Listening to the sound of its own voice? Such questions are about as answerable as âDo androids dream of electric sheep?â and no less troubling in their abstruse inconclusiveness. But all this is prelude to the subsequent scene, which I describe here in as dispassionate detail as possible: A similar breed of dinosaur to the one in the forestâperhaps the same one?âlies bleeding beside a riverbank. (The two preceding, half-dreamed imagesâwounded creature; solitary creatureâhave now merged; call it the third panel in this evolutionary triptych.) A raptor-like creature sidles up and stops to loom over the dino. It places its foot heavily on the smaller oneâs neck. It pauses for a few inscrutable seconds. Then it lets go and moves on.
The best and most thorough negative take Iâve read of The Tree of Lifeâ
by critic Robert Koehlerâtakes great issue with the dinosaur sequence, this third part in particular: âThis is pure anthropomorphism,â Koehler writes, âand precisely the opposite of [Stanley] Kubrickâs apes-into-men [in 2001: A Space Odyssey]. Such a depiction of dinosaur love is little more than human wish fulfillment, a fantasyâeven a romanceâof altruism amongst animals, and this after having just been told in blunt terms on the filmâs whispered soundtrack that ânatureâ is bad.â His points are well-observed. So many movies condition us to think of animals as blessed with human wants and desires. And so many movies use digital technology to mimic the illusion of the everyday, in the process eliminating mystery and quintessence (what John Hurtâs character in Crystal Skull might refer to as âthe space between spacesâ).
But I believe Malick goes beyond the mere creation of facsimiles (for creatures, it should be noted, for which we have no living, breathing reference pointâonly dug-up bones, post factum science and the limits of the imagination). To say the raptor is altruistic in sparing the smaller dinosaurâs life is only one part of the equation. If we see a flicker of humanity there, itâs our own projection, tantamount to something the OâBrien boys (the Texas siblings whom the film follows for the most part) might do during a playtime rumination. (Among its many faces, Malickâs film is an assured boysâ adventure.) Equally possible: the raptor is acting solely on instinct. It doesnât kill its perceived prey for reasons commensurate with the flick of a genetic switch. To gaze at instinct is to stare into the void, and not just the one evoked by the filmâs opening epigraph from the Book of Job. For The Tree of Life is as much concerned with the absence of spirit as its presence. If we looked into these dinosaursâ eyes, what would we see? Probably darkness, pure animalism that would likely end with our being torn limb from limb. And yet, observed from a distance, focusing more on body movement and interaction with creatures other than ourselves, mightnât we also see some stirrings of a soul? Something inexplicable that only becomes clarifiedâand still never completelyâwhen given human form? (Debate amongst yourselves whether thatâs an evolutionary leap forward or divine punishment.) To me, Malick isnât engaging in anthropomorphism in these scenes so much as inviting us (maybe even expecting us) to read them that way, before counteracting and complicating them via The Tree of Lifeâs own accumulation of sensations and experiencesâthe evolution of narrative through reverie.