Sunday, 29 May 2011

“Where Will We Live?”: Terrence Malick’s Fugitive Edens

In late May of this year Terrence Malick will release his fifth feature film, titled The Tree of Life. The trailer indicates that it has all the hallmarks of Malick’s aesthetic vision and directorial practice—foremost stunning cinematography, meditative voiceovers, and a plot structure perhaps best described as lyrical rather than traditionally dramatic. Moreover, while it’s obviously risky to judge the content of a film from a two-minute trailer The Tree of Life also appears to be of a piece thematically with Malick’s other films.
After all, via a voiceover spoken by Jessica Chastain (as the mother of the young boy who is the film’s protagonist) we are given this claim: “There are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.” This and early press about the film that summarizes it as an account of the “loss of innocence” of a young boy growing up in ‘50s America suggest that the film contemplates an essential divide in human nature between the pragmatic necessity for survival and a kind of original state of wonder.
This will hardly come as a surprise to enthusiasts of Malick’s work. Indeed, I will argue that even though Malick’s films are set in profoundly different times and places—ranging, for example, from early 17th century America to the Pacific theater of the second world war—taken all together they present essentially the same story; or more specifically, they are installments of a career-long fascination with the archetypal narrative of a transformation from a state of innocence to one of experience. For again and again Malick’s films rehearse, in ways both literal and figurative, one of the oldest and most abiding stories in myth and literature: the expulsion of human beings from a kind of paradise, an expulsion that in Malick’s work is emblematic of humanity’s painful estrangement from a state of transcendent union with the larger world and, indeed, with the cosmos.
This is not to say, however, that Malick is simply a wistful dreamer offering gorgeous but plaintive encomia to states of lost perfection. Certainly, some features of Malick’s works can support such a view; it’s no accident that words like “Edenic” and “idyllic” proliferate in commentary on the films, especially in reference to the villages of the Powhatan tribe in The New World or the tropical island of the Melanesian people in The Thin Red Line or the vast farm in the Texas panhandle where the better part ofDays of Heaven is set. Each offers, for a time at least, a vision of relative social harmony and human life integrated, however so precariously, with the natural world rather than at odds with it.
What saves Malick’s films from being artfully crafted exercises in nostalgia for prelapsarian perfection, however, is their willingness to recognize that any such vision is not simply fragile but also in a sense delusional—this for two reasons. First, the relationship between the beauty and purity of certain landscapes and the inward states of the characters who move through or inhabit those landscapes is not one of simple correspondence between personal virtue and beneficent environment. In fact, the desire to escape the mundane world and its demands can coincide with a profoundly disturbed, indeed psychopathic, worldview...
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James A. Williams @'PopMatters'


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