Thursday, July 14, 2011

Tree of Life: Malick, Proust, and the cinema of memory

A month or so ago, I started reading Swann's Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust's epic novel "In Search of Lost Time" (otherwise translated as "In Remembrance of Things Past"). About halfway through, I went to a screening of Terrence Malick's widely-discussed recent film, Tree of Life; there was much to admire in it, but also lots of mixed feelings and dubious appreciation. And just last week, as I was finishing up Swann's Way, I discovered it was Proust's birthday. Happy birthday, Marcel!

Tree of Life is difficult to reconcile privately, I think. It's one of those films that's loose enough -- devoid enough of structure and cues, sufficiently unhinged from standard expectations -- that you might never really know what (or how) to think of it until you can bounce your ideas off of someone else. It's interesting, the way it demands to be reflected upon, and thereby, in a strange way, makes the act of analysis kind of mundane. When you do a critical reading of Wolverine or Harry Potter, there's something subversive about the act... when you write a meditation on Tree of Life, it seems almost perfunctory (i.e. this, and this, and this, and this, and this). The movie is asking for us to read it, to interpret it, to generate conclusions about its themes, its imagery, its technical and creative decisions. In a certain way, being ambiguous and experimental is its way of being predictable (at least to Terrence Malick fans and film students, who seem to be its audience).

In terms of scale, and in relation to the director's other work, I'd liken Tree of Life to Darren Aaronofsky's The Fountain or Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" films. Each of these feels like the director was trying to reach some pinnacle of style, as if to max out their own capacity for filmmaking. In each case, the result seems to overreach, toeing the boundary between eccentricity and self-indulgence. Aaronofsky and Tarantino followed their respective films up with fresh approaches... Aaronofsky totally reversed his heightened melodrama and made The Wrestler, almost comically opposed to The Fountain in spirit. Tarantino took a break from exploring tortured souls with Deathproof, and then went on to make Inglorious Basterds, which was another "masterpiece" film, but felt more like a film he was willing to grow into, and out of.

Perhaps Malick will give us something radically different with his next film, as well; his sensuous-poetic-introspective mode really does seem to have reached some sort of apotheosis with Tree of Life. These speculations aside, however, it's an important demonstration of an artist's ability to push his own defining tendencies as far as possible. The stylistic similarity to Badlands, Malick's first film, is tenuous at best, and he seems to have purged every conventional narrative and literalist instinct that was present in that first film.

Swann's Way was the culmination of Proust's work, as well, though I'm not sure whether he intended it that way (Proust scholars? Steve Carell?). The story is told as a sequence of interwoven memories, some being direct accounts by the narrator of his own life, and others being accounts of the life of Charles Swann, a French aristocrat, whose life intersects with the narrator's at a few key moments. There's a constant theme of budding love and the frustration of romantic asymmetry, all grounded in memories of specific people and places. It's the secondary characters, people like Aunt Leonie and Mme. Verdurin, who make the book so readable.

These two works have the potential to illuminate one another considerably. There are both stylistic and structural similarities between them, and I think you could discover some concordance in their intended effects. Both are experienced as emotionally-fraught reminiscences of grown men looking back on the defining moments of their lives. Both feel like reveries, journeys of the imagination to a personal history of the senses, of sights and smells, less concerned with motivations and grand designs of human lives and more concerned with individual moments.

For instance, the narratives in Proust are evoked via involuntary memory -- the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, the sight of a pink hawthorn flower. These memories, meandering through the narrator's youth, are not called forth as an explanation or a didactic personal history; rather, they emerge as images from a mind freed from immediate tasks. They're the daydreams, distractions, unchained nostalgia, the roaming spirit. They are already filtered, leaving only the most significant, the ones with the most emotional resonance.

And this is why Malick's film feels the way it does, as well: it's a reverie. It's the adult Jack's escape from his solitary life, into his own sense memory. Youth is when memories leave the strongest imprint, and these childhood vignettes quiver with the vitality of boyhood.

One of the tensions in Tree of Life, hinted at in the criticism, is between the feeling that it's "naturalistic" (i.e. referring in an authentic way to memories of an actual time and place) and the feeling that the whole thing has something of the glossed, exaggerated artificial about it. It's a testament to Malick's skill that he can evoke both a real time and place, and also the mood, the golden glow of nostalgia. But the tension between "naturalistic" and "stylistically overwrought" won't really be resolved, because the film is largely about the transition between the two: about how memories become myths, about how the filtering and feedback of internalization can turn the banality of a simple sense impression into a cosmic signifier, a portent, a lesson about good and evil and failure.

Of course, that treatment leads to these scenes having an echo of archetype. (Theory side note: despite the constant references to Heidegger in the criticism, I'd argue that the film owes more to C.J. and Sigmund than to Martin). Mrs. O'Brian's butterfly, and her levitation; a harsh lesson about letting a screen door slam, a backyard wrestling match, a ruined watercolor, a house submerged in water -- to those who are symbolically literate, these might seem too obvious, too blunt. The signification begins to overwhelm the immediacy of the scene. In using such symbolic details, Malick puts himself in a tough position: he has to use convention, tapping the familiar to bring out its semantic resonance, but he has to do it in a way that doesn't feel played out. His product is defensible, but not flawless.

In Swann's Way, Proust seems to have fully solved this problem. He floods his narrative with perceptual details, many of which resist interpretation; he focuses on those things which have personal resonance for his narrator, such as the sight of a female form through the shurbbery, the moments of tension between Swann and Odette, and the unconsciously cruel remarks of Gilberte. Rather than relying on the great reservoir of pre-defined cultural symbols (Malick perhaps overuses the symbols of water and trees), Proust creates an internal symbolic language: the madeleine and the hawthorn, the blue feather, the monocle, the pathways through Combray, the writing of Bergotte. This allows the story to remain contained, and provides a cohesion that Malick never achieves.

In a sense, Malick is trying to do far more than Proust was doing: he's trying to link the episodic memories of an individual life with the mythic history of the universe as a whole. The origin-of-the-universe scene, which I haven't even touched upon here, attests to that ambition. He's also doing it in a single two-hour movie, rather than a seven-volume masterwork of literature. This is perhaps one of the downfalls of this fallible film: it starts to leak out of its scope, and with no horizons, its themes get fuzzy (which is not quite the same as being "complex" per se).

Whether you can appreciate Malick's ambition apart from his execution -- whether you can marvel at his imagery without getting too caught up in the convention and ambivalence of his symbols -- that depends on how you judge execution apart from intention, and on how keyed you are to his particular mode, and to this film's particular time and place. Variance aside, however, it's remarkable how much Malick has to say about what and how we remember our lives, and how these memories make us who we are.


I think there's a lot more to be said about this film. Wish I had the time, energy, and expertise. For instance:

  • Why does it use the language of gestures, in lieu of actual dialog? Could it be seen almost as a ballet or a modern dance?

  • What of Malick's romanticized and stylized naturalism, especially considered as an objection to "realism" as a filmmaking philosophy?

  • With a nod to Nathaniel's post of things people were heard saying at the film, what makes this film so difficult? What's to be gained from spurning the audience's expectations of narrative direction, rhythm, and legible emotional cues?

  • As noted above, what about the debts to Freud and Jung? Just how densely archetypal and psychological is Tree of Life?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good post. I thought of Proust early in the movie when I realized what the effect of the plot's absence was. Slightly overwrought as the Freudian presence may have been, I figured that it, along with Darwinism (shown literally via the prehistoric flashbacks, then exemplified through the father's philosophy and teaching of the boy about the reality of life), formed the contrasting stew of the meanness of life with the grace and love (exemplified through the mother) attainable by humanity, arrived at by billions of years of chaos, and in a small, hopeful way justifying it - though I can't be sure about that conclusion, as it seems rather a vague suggestion or non-judgment by the film that life is wholly worth it. I've read the film described as overtly religious but at most it seems to me spiritual, likely more idealist than anything, aspiring towards cherished human values, but conscious of their potential inadequacy in the face of reality. The film accepts the reality (as an atheist I think this is the only one) most opposed by the Abrahamic religions: that life, specifically human, arises from below; it is irrational, undignified, with aggressive and destructive instincts bound up in the human psyche with those of love and lust for life. Instead of declining from on high (Eden), sparked (inherent) with divinity, grace, the human psyche has clawed its way through the howling wilderness of evolution to, in the rare, minute moments Malick has attempted to commit to film, acheive those ideals through compassion and reflection, distanced but alarmingly close to the destruction rampant in primordial settings - the acheivement of humanism to come is foreshadowed in scene depicting a dinosaur's exhibition of proto-empathy towards another dying dinosaur (I've read many complaints that those scenes served no purpose). I can't see why this wouldn't be a drama highly effective on atheists receptive and keen to perhaps humanity's highest aspiration: exaltation, or transcendence, which shouldn't ever be monopolized by religion. Anyways, great film, contains multitudes; stands out in my mind with similar films: Aguirre, The Wrath of God for mankind's dissolution in the incinerator of nature for its pretensions to be Gods; 2001: A Space Odyssey for its chronicling of man's achievements to his overstepping his abilities and loss of his earthly grounding; The Fountain for depicting man's anxiety about the fear of death and desire to transcend mortal limitations. I might also add Blade Runner to that list, with Roy Batty's striving against palpable mortality and the film's questioning of the definition of the human condition. No doubt all attempt to address the biggest themes.