The Tree of Life opens May 27th in theaters; of course, having not yet seen the film there is little I can say about it (the studio released only a few plot details), but a discussion of his previous films may inform a deeper viewing more than simply assuming a passive stance. All too often, we are encouraged to receive films or books this way, in some vague popular idea that our minds are storage receptacles and that we simply experience a movie more or less in the fashion the filmmakers intended. I would like to counter this idea and promote a very much active participation when people 'read' a book or 'watch' a movie, and to counter it properly I will invoke and introduce some ideas of the notorious German philosopher, Martin Heidegger.
I do not bring up Heidegger without reason. A curious fact about Terrence Malick's pre-cinematic career is his role as a philosopher: he graduated summa cum laude from Harvard and Northwestern later published his translation of Heidegger's Essence of Reasons. Heidegger famously called language "the house of being" and viewed poetry as the speech of genuine thinking. April being National Poetry Month, this writer saw fit to meditate on Malick, Heidegger and poetry together in a composite trifecta which, although will not approach any genuine thinking itself, may encourage others to read and watch for themselves...
Where do we come from?A central conceit to Heidegger's work is the idea of being (or, "Being"). This may sound simpler than it really is. Heidegger claims that philosophy (or, 'Philosophy') since the time of Plato forgot the question of being, and instead erroneously focused on questions of knowledge. When Heidegger asks in Being and Time, 'what does it mean to be?', he is not speaking of mere empirical existence. Rather he designates a difference between the 'ontic' and the 'ontological'. Indeed, Heidegger is often credited with reinvigorating ontology as a legitimate domain of inquiry in 20th (and 21st) century philosophy, and his influence is remarkably strong to this day in continental philosophy.
Heidegger uses the term "Being There," Dasein, to roughly express the 'presence' of a being whose Being is an issue— he was careful not to designate it as human, an 'individual', a self or a consciousness— instead, Dasein connotes the spatial relationship of Being to itself, and how it is always-already Being-in-the-world.
In later life, Heidegger focused more on language and technology in his thinking. In Language, Poetry, Thought he writes,
"The poetic character of thinking is
still veiled over.
Where it shows itself, it is for a
long time like the utopism of
a half-poetic intellect.
But poetry that thinks is in truth
the topology of Being.
This topology tells Being the
whereabouts of its actual
Terrence Malick's visually poetic films— featuring cameras that hover across landscapes and ethereal, inhuman vistas, persons and situations seem to appear and recede like the tide: processual drones of ebb and flow, wax and wain sound through time and space. This aesthetic distance, this angel's-eye-view, is not just stylized cinematography; in Malick's hands there is an earnest attempt at cinematic reflection, without the Earthly chatter of the 'ontic'...
What are we?For instance, take Malick's characters— less than fully fleshed humans, it is their spectral humanity that is held in relief. Malick's mute and quietist approach to existential intensities (love, war, violence) points not to 'flat affect', but precisely its opposite: the crocus of affect birthed out of life, the veils of Being. We never quite approach Kit's pathology in Badlands, in Days of Heaven we're only given so much of the Farmer to reconcile with his loneliness, or only so much of Bill's anguish and restlessness. In The Thin Red Line, we are given, "What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?"
Later, we hear: "Where is it that we were together? Who were you that I lived with? The brother. The friend. Darkness, light. Strife and love. Are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face? Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining."
Malick's films are less "stories" but a secularized negative theology reducing Being to itself, its presence and its duration. The 'aura' of these things (or this 'Thing') may be arguable but the overall point is driven home: beyond the incessant chattering of the mind (the modern's world obsession with business and technology) the transcendent noumenal/immanent phenomenal are really one and the same.
Hwanhee Lee writes, "Malick's understanding of cinema seems to be influenced by Heidegger's contention that it is a cardinal symptom of modernity (which he claims has its deepest roots in Greek thinking) to apprehend reality as something to be differentiated from how it appears to a subjective consciousness, and that the reality is understood at the most fundamental level as something to be mastered." This brings to mind Heidegger's term, gelassenheit, meaning self-surrender, yielding and acceptance.
Where are we going?This openness, or perhaps even some rarified prostrated gaze, on Being and Life comes to mind in Malick's presentations of images and sound: long, flowing uncut shots of landscape, disembodied voices, nature and wilderness, the luminous appearance of things, the thrownness of our lives into the world. Ultimately, this openness is no pious "worship", but utterly amorous inquiry; we are often led to believe that films and books, likewise life and existence, are phenomena analagous to language's declarative sentences which present information 'as is'. This modern way of thinking inexorably leads to the false idea that reality 'is' a 'something' that can be mastered: but ultimately explanations explain nothing, all explaining is just explaining away...
Perhaps, instead, we might consider that Being at its fount poses itself as a question unceasingly; its form is strictly the interrogative, and the only road there is through poetry.
Thrown into the world,
faced with nothing but death
(the tree of knowledge is not the tree of life)
with or without aura,
the House of Being
will have to suffice.
*For Henry, who I have no answers for, only questions.