Two perspectives seem to divide the public of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). The first perspective is that of the idealist. The idealist trusts in the power of great spiritual truths such as love, hope, or grace. He does not only believe in them but he also believes in the artist’s ability to reveal them. For the idealist, watching TheTree of Life is an immediate and emotional revelation. Such a revelation is perfect and unique because the idealist finds that there is nothing more to add to it. The good, the true, and the beautiful are all unmatched. At the same time that the film is unique however, it is also able to generate an infinite amount of associations. In other words, it is immune to explanations because it contains every possible explanation the idealist can think of. This is why the idealist might want to feel the film rather than talk about it. He wants to protect the uniqueness of his experience from the compromising half-truths of a language that can only dissect what seemed to be a whole.

This paradox, when words confuse rather than clarify, is quite similar to the wavering attempts medieval philosophers made to define God. According to some of these thinkers, Giordano Bruno or Thomas Aquinas for instance, God is at once finite and infinite, moving and unmoved. For the idealist, the perfect work of art is very much like this God, closed upon itself and boundlessly outspread. The idealist’s perception on art is that it lasts forever. This does not mean that art is man’s ultimate remedy against his fear of death (nor does it mean that he’s religious). It means that a work of art can transmit universal truths about life in a direct, unifying fashion. Therefore art helps man grasp infinity. It allows a momentary access to the tree of life as it appears in the Book of Genesis:

“And the Lord God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.'”

The further the idealist gives in to this immediate experience, the further he advances towards revelations of truth. But there is no way to explain these truths. “You shall not make for yourself an idol” says one of the Ten Commandments. For the idealist, explanations of aesthetic revelations are like idols. They are only imperfect replica constructing in retrospect the fruit of a moment.

If the idealist likes Malick’s film, he likes it because he can accept the coincidence of opposites. He can open his mind to associations knowing that they will not explain the film, but help him to experience it. Only language appreciates coherency. Images in the mind come and go unexpectedly and do not care for a consistent description of reality. The idealist who will dislike Malick’s film, will think that the artwork interferes with his vision of truth and reality. He will close his mind and prevent associations, holding onto the beliefs he had before watching the film instead.

The second perspective is that of the analyst. For the analyst, a momentary access to infinity is a paradox. The analyst doesn’t want to loose time thinking about things that can’t be known or that are so subjective that they no longer apply to a reasonable majority. Instead of thinking about the meaning of things, the analyst thinks that it is a lot more useful to look at the way we perceive them (which is the analysts definition for meaning). In fact, the analyst does not believe that anything can last forever. Everything is a question of how we see things, and we constantly see things differently.

The analyst, unlike the idealist, does not give in to the immediacy of his emotions. He keeps a safe distance from the things he sees. The analyst thinks that words like “unity”, “truth”, or “God” belong to religion and won’t help him understand the film. Where the idealist felt something unexplainable, the analyst tries to explain. For the analyst, the work of art is not just there, complete and on its own. It can be connected to other realities that it does not necessarily contain. The analyst will consider, for example, that Malick’s film is more related to a specific historical landscape than to the beauty of timeless perfection. Whereas the idealist fears dissection, the analyst loves to split things into parts. The analyst might notice for example that thinking about the universe was especially puzzling for people living during a time when the first satellite was sent into space. This was precisely the time of the fifties, where Malick’s film is set. Or the analyst will find that, in fact, the images of the universe are just an invention of the characters in the film and not something they are a part of. The feeling attributed to seeing these images is thus not one of infinity, but very precise and mundane. Being more of a social theorist than a spiritualist, the analyst can explain Malick’s cosmic and metaphysical visions through images of fairytales, nature magazines, or documentary television. One just has to remember one’s own amazement over nature’s wonders scrolling through a book as a child:

Since the analyst never directly gets involved with the objects of his contemplations, it is easier for him to cultivate an ironic attitude towards them. Most probably he will laugh during the scene where R.L. (Laramie Eppler) reads a science-fiction book at night. He laughs not because the scene is particularly funny, but because for the analyst, the biggest joy art can give is self-consciousness. For the analyst this scene is self-conscious because R.L. does exactly what the public watching the film does, or what Malick himself did making this film: looking at the universe. But while the public was watching the universe on screen, it was probably not thinking about itself as a public watching the universe. Only this later scene featuring R.L. grants this meta-perspective and self-conscious distance. It functions like a mirror. The flashlight underscores the cinematographic meaning of the scene:

For the analyst, the boy and the book explain why he looked at twenty minutes of the universe a couple of sequences prior. The scene justifies the massive impression of the infinite-universe-sequence: images of planets, interstellar dust and prehistoric apocalypse. All of a sudden seeing “the foundation of the earth” no longer parallels God’s perspective. God, as this opening line of the film, cited from the Book of Job, suggests, would be the only one able to have seen dinosaurs, and meteors crashing unto the surface of the earth. It is the question God asks Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” Seeing the child however, even the idealist in the process of grasping what it means to have been there, is forced to return to his own hic et nunc situation. He realizes that something like an omnipercipient perspective doesn’t exist, that the images of the universe depend more on the child’s reveries than the reveries on the universe. Indeed for the analyst, the idealist is much like the child, secretly reading books about space at night, afraid that there is someone there to discover that he is not yet asleep. Only later, he will realize that there was no one to have seen him, no one there to catch him reading. He is isolated and unwatched. But while the analyst is glad about that, the idealist isn’t. The analyst feels at home where he can stay on the outside, and this scene allows him to return to his preferred distant position.

So why does the analyst laugh? He laughs at the idealist, who has been swept away by the pathos of the film’s music and images. The analyst is likely to admire Malick’s film for these self-conscious scenes, where the characters in the film suddenly take on the role of being their own spectators. These scenes comfort the analyst’s fear that the artist, like the idealist, might be ridiculed for his visions. The analyst is terribly afraid of naïveté. Like Voltaire and other detached, ironic thinkers in his legacy, the analyst despises everything that is candid. So if he can prove that the artist’s vision is really that of his characters, the work can no longer be blamed for bad taste or for exposing a naïve perspective of the world. For instance, it cannot be described as kitsch, or as too-much, since the too-muchness is part of the film itself, not the spectator’s impression of it.

In general, the analyst likes films that are self-conscious, for example Jean-Luc Godard’s late works, full of self-reflective hints to enjoy and references to decipher. Films such as JLG/JLG – autoportrait de décembre (1994), or Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-98)arecomposed mostly of already existing material, such as archival footage. Godard reuses these images and deracinates them, changing their meaning through montage, voice-over or other commentary techniques. For Godard, like for the analyst, anything can be remade under changing circumstances. The idealist would at least partially disagree, since this statement would go against his conception of the unique. Instead of reference, the idealist likes to talk about inspiration.

The analyst loves to compare because being aware of one’s art-historical past is further evidence of self-consciousness. Knowing that nothing will come from nothing, the analyst measures an artwork’s self-awareness through its ability to show in which way it has been influenced. How naïve for someone to think that he can produce something unique! The analyst will thus look out for aesthetic and pop-cultural references in Malick’s film. He will be happy seeing these algae for example:

The water-plants in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) help the main character to remember the natural harmony of life on earth while being on a spaceship. In Malick’s film too, the plants are objects for Jack’s (Sean Penn) involuntary memory. They interweave with the playful environment Jack experienced as a child. In a later scene, the plants reappear when he has a swim with his brothers. In opposition to the static, cold buildings Jack works in (and, being an architect, probably constructs), the plants are like souvenirs from Jack’s innocent childhood. But most of all, their floating movement recalls a prior sequence with the levitating mother. Ultimately, the plants seem to be reminiscent of her. They are the only delicate trace amongst indifferent façades of urban architecture. They are the leftovers of a nourishing nature Jack replaced with productive rationale.

Similar to the idealist, the reasons for one analyst to like Malick’s film are the same for another to dislike it. If the analyst doesn’t like Malick’s film, he will therefore criticize or ironize the film’s references. The ironic analyst will argue for example that the film is a homage to Yann Arthus-Bertrand, implying of course that the aesthetic is at best copied and at worse kitsch. Or he will say that the film is a Disney classic cast with real actors:

For another analyst, the Disney reference, being part of Jack’s imagination, will reveal something about the boy’s ambiguous relation to his mother; on a more general scale, it shows how pop culture influences children’s phantasies. The first analyst on the other hand, might feel somewhat betrayed by this scene. Despite the reasonable explanation, this analyst thinks that it is somewhat distasteful to mingle images from cartoons with citations from the artistic Pantheon. He will be somewhat embarrassed, having a hard time telling which scene is part of the characters’ vision and which is part of the author’s; what scene is a possible ironic commentary and what scene is meant sincerely. In the end, the analyst has troubles believing in the self-commentating breaks he discovers because they seem so far away from the earnest proposition of the rest of the film.

The idealist and the analyst thus meet in doubt. While the analyst questions the self-reflexive side of the film, the idealist has doubts about the truth of its revelations. Indeed, Malick’s work seems to be torn apart. It is at once profoundly truthful (in the idealist’s sense of the term) and self-consciously detached (in the analyst’s sense of the term). Not many works are like that. One example is the odd mixture of sincerity and irony David Foster Wallace reared. Wallace’s writing is full of meta-commentary and written in an ironic, dissociated style, at the same time that it wants to be taken seriously. Wallace fervently condemned ironic distanciation (E Unibus Pluram, This is Water), speaking of truthfulness as a peaceful attitude towards life and other people. Here is an excerpt from the end of This is Water:

“The real important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day”


“I know that this stuff doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way the commencement speech’s central stuff should sound.

What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away.

Obviously, you can think of whatever you wish.

But please don’t dismiss this as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon.” (1)

This is Wallace giving a speech about how to be free. At the very moment he has an answer to it however, he sheds doubt about the way he said it. So he talks about rhetoric, and all sorts of other, mostly bad ways, he might have said the same thing differently. But actually, Wallace’s meta-commentary judgment refers to how he imagines an audience to react to what he said, not to the way he said it. Between all the doubts about finding the right way to communicate, he thus insists on the fact that what he says is true. But this is where things get messed up because essentially, for Wallace, things like freedom, awareness, and happiness undoubtedly exist. It is only the world (the audience and Wallace as a person capable of listening to what he is saying) that makes him distrust in the realization of these principles. So the source of doubt doesn’t come from a disbelief in freedom or happiness, but from freedom and happiness being in the hands of others, including himself. Wallace is both an idealist and an analyst. He shares the analyst’s problem of believing that he can say what freedom is by explaining it, while suffering from the fact that he cannot say how it is, without believing that his explanation is somewhat influenced by an outside perspective from which freedom, in its total truth, is. This turns expression into a double-bind. Wallace knows that he wouldn’t be able to say what he is saying, if he didn’t believe that he is profoundly marked by the wondrous circle of existence he is moving away from, by giving that same existence a voice.

Essentially then, Wallace’s speech is a lament over the impossibility to talk honestly about freedom. The ironic last phrase quickly turns into a sad truth, considered that talking about freedom is exactly what other people do, people like “Dr. Laura”, who sells keys in the form of advice for chains in the form of mental isolation. The irony is that these keys can make other people want to lock themselves in. But Wallace’s speech is not ironic, because in the end, it is a lament. It laments over the imperfection of expression.In real life, freedom and happiness are only half as pure. It might even be that only unfree and unhappy people are actually able to think about freedom and happiness in a way that involves purity. Maybe there is no truth without grief over truth’s failures.

Malick’s film follows Wallace’s writing, in that it grieves over it’s own discoveries. In The Tree of Life, the Snow White sequence might be the best example for this. In that scene, Jack takes on the role of Snow White’s mother, who in the beginning of the original tale, looks out the window dreaming of having a beautiful child: “If only I had a child as white as snow, as red as blood, and as black as the wood in this frame.”

Jack is not able to fulfill this dream which is, of course, also the dream his mother has about him. But for Jack, in real life and within himself, beauty seems to founder. Jack’s childhood is haunted by repeated frustrations. Instead of questioning beauty however, or giving up on it, Jack keeps on associating beauty not with his mother, but with a beautified version of her. The image of her sleeping in a glass coffin, alive and dead at the same time, reflects the impossibility of beauty, at the same time that it keeps up the hope for it to continue. The image is an illusion. It only promises treacherous protection from the injuries that proved beauty to be false. The image of Snow White thus has the same melancholy effect as Wallace’s image of himself telling the truth about freedom, and as Tarkovsky’s image of the floating mother in The Mirror (1975). All these images depict the promise of a sensation immune to change knowing that this sensation, if it shall appear, will not only be different, but also pass away. They are images that discredit themselves in the illustration. The paradox of Wallace’s speech is, that he would prefer not to say anything at all. What is “pared away truth”, if not truth free from the need of a mouthpiece?

This seems like a lose-lose situation. For Jack, it means that he will either never find the everlasting truth he was looking for, or that he will succumb to mute eternity. Either he will look out for new images, or yield to hopeless passivity. The image of the glass coffin, of life and death coexisting, asks this question giving its own answer in the fact that it appeared. Nothingness is impossible. The image refuses to efface the hope of possibility with the impossible. Only death can seize from life the failures of the past. In the present, where Jack’s possibility is affirmed, there is hope. Hope then, can only come from the task of tearing ever new possibilities out of the grief over lost sensations, and believe that, despite everything, real truth will come. The creation of images demands courage. It is the obstinate activity to look out for a new chance.


  1. David Foster Wallace, This is Water, New York : Little Brown, 2009, pp. 120-127

About The Author

Moritz Pfeifer studied Philosophy at the Free University of Berlin and Linguistics and Art History at the École des Hautes Études en Science Sociales in Paris. He lives in Paris and works as a freelance journalist for French, English and German speaking press, and is the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of the East European Film Bulletin (eefb.org).

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