So is this the style of our late stage of modernism — erupting volcanoes, surging waves, slithering amoebae, CGI dinosaurs, towering towers of glassy glass? Lots and lots of bombast, that is, covering lots and lots of banality? We are speaking of Terrence Malick’s eagerly awaited feature, The Tree of Life (seen by the DLR at the Rio, along with the rest of Dalston it seems), whose simple story, of a family that loses a son, is raised to the nth order of significance. The father is too tough on his children. The mother, ethereal and loving — the very essence of motherhood, the stuff Oedipal complexes are made of — makes up for his lack of affection. The oldest child is conflicted and grows up to be Sean Penn. It is tender, in places, and beautiful, in many, but the visual pyrotechnics surrounding this lot overstates the case for these good Catholics of Waco, Texas. They are, courtesy of a 15-minute CGI sequence that tracks the earth from the big bang to the present, positioned as being both in time — another stage on this planet — and also as time itself: the very essence of life in its arduous cycle of reproducing, growing up and moving on.
This long view, this superfluity, is quite the rage lately. The German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, in her new novel The Visitation, approaches the Nazis by way of geological change: like Malick, she looks at one plot of land in time, following it from the Ice Age through to the Third Reich to today. Werner Herzog, who has perhaps a greater sense of self-awareness of the bombast of this whole business, tries to understand the minds of pre-historic men and women in the recent The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and then projects onwards, via albino alligators, into the future. The Tree of Life goes back further than both, starting from the beginning of time — sorry, that should be the dawn of time; no holding back here — through another reptilian interlude (dinosaurs), to the 1940s and the present. Perhaps the interest in a geological timescale stems from a current dissatisfaction with the present — a recognition that this generation is the first since the Greatest to have made bad on what was given to us, that is, we have destroyed the dreams of social democracy that Europe was rebuilt on after the war (for Malick it is more likely the everyday violence of the US — the choice of setting the film in Waco, Texas can’t have been accidental) — that forces us to look so far back, to see us, in slightly a Buddhist manner, as one age among many, and one that will pass away just as surely, no matter what we put into it.
Or is Malick’s film his Star Wars I? An older filmmaker, one of the last generation of directors with any credible cinematic grit, given free rein and a vast budget; not altogether surprising that the project turns into a vainglorious attempt to write the history of life on the planet. Or is The Tree of Life a form of late-modernist Baroque — a style historically decadent, virtuosic, bold in its use of colour, religious in temperament and characterised by twistings and turnings: ‘movement translated into mass‘.
Baroque is a Counter-Reformation movement, and one born of insecurity — it’s a need to shore up the contested via the excessive — and it believes its froth to be valid because this beauty will lead the viewer towards an understanding of the glory of god. The fact that Baroque art was religious art vastly justifies the style, for those who believe. However, if you don’t share the sentiment, you cannot follow through on the apotheosis without seeing all the visual glory as, as the common criticism of Baroque work holds, just too much. (This works the other way too, if you don’t see the beauty in a Brillo box, you can’t see its non-interfered-with, anti-Baroque presentation as glorious commentary on beauty in the everyday. There you might think: my kid can do that. [Hey, why always your kid? What about you, you total sloth? Get going.]) Malick’s film, by contrast, seems religious but not unambiguously so (it has an unresolved and continuous debate throughout between evolution (the CGI sequence from amoeba to bird) and the existence of our lord and saviour (the grating, continual off-camera whispering)). For Malick, the focal point of his vision — the gift he lifts upwards to our gaze — is nothing more than our plain old Wacoans. Every family, every tree, every life, The Tree of Life argues, is worthy of the full history-of-the-world-treatment, which is a noble argument, but ultimately invalid. The beauty of a normal family is that they are normal, that they will die and things will move on. To raise them to a level of apotheosis is to deny what makes them worthy of love and study in the first place.
Perhaps more importantly, what is this self-importance hiding? Some self-doubt might be symbolised within the character of Sean Penn, who plays a dissatisfied suit in a faceless city, but that is not enough — the film partakes of its own mythology, leaving us lapped by froth and vaguely fearful of what this explosion of beauty might be covering for.