To The Wonder of The Tree of Life: Or How I Fell in Love with Cinema Again!
Updated: Jun 16, 2022
Last evening, I had the opportunity to see Terrence Malick’s new film To The Wonder; at the Academy’s theater in New York City. It’s a powerful film about love and how alone and unconnected we all are and "that love that loves us". And I couldn’t help being excited by it and what cinema can do so well.
Certainly, Terrence Malick’s ability to speak the language of cinema is unparalleled, and in watching To The Wonder I couldn’t help being transported back to my experience first seeing The Tree of Life, which I think is one of the masterpieces of recent cinema, if not of all time.
I had the very rare privilege of screening a longer version (than what was released theatrically) of The Tree of Life. It was a pristine 35mm print, struck from the original negative. It was a special screening that had been set up for me for some work I was doing..
There I sat, alone in the screening room at Deluxe in Hollywood, and watched The Tree Of Life unfold. It was a magical afternoon – as if being immersed in the pure language of cinema itself – from a print struck from the negative that actually went thru the camera.
In his last two films (and really all of his films) Terrence Malick is doing something new and exciting with the language of cinema. I think too many times people go to the movies to have a story spoon-fed to them. A story that fits the tightly honed, and long drilled into our heads, main-stream story structure, where this has to happen on page 2 and that by page 10 and this other thing by the end of the first Act, and so on. And that is a wonderful and valid form of filmmaking.
But there is something electrifying about cinema as poetry. Cinema as movement. Cinema as dance. Cinema as pure emotion. And yes, cinema as enlightenment.
Thus, using the printed word as an example, we have grown up on a diet of Charles Dickens, and suddenly we are encountering Faulkner, or better, T. S. Eliot or ee cummings and we are flummoxed, wondering where’s Oliver Twist? Where’s Ebenezer? Where’s what I am used to?
Instead, we are being asked to bring ourselves. And to exist entirely in the present moment of the film.
The beauty of what Malick is doing using cinema, is creating intense emotional moments (like those that occur dance and poetry) with his imagery and sound. These moments then tell a story.
Thus, looking at To The Wonder, an image of a wasp trapped against a glass window, unable to escape – is not about the literal wasp trapped, as in, “Honey, there must be a wasp nest. Call the exterminator.”
But rather, evoking, cinematically, the emotional feeling of BEING trapped.
Thus, it is about the feeling that Marina, (wonderfully acted by Olga Kurlenko) and her lover Neil are feeling by being trapped in a relationship that no longer works – and by extension, how we are all trapped in various ways.
Equally, when Marina and Neil first meet at the beginning of the film, the powerful compositions which focus primarily on their hands touching and their movement, instead of more traditional composition showing only the actor’s faces – is again evoking that emotion of touch that comes when you first fall in love. Likewise, the frequent imagery of planes flying, is about leaving – and being alone.
We track the story entirely by the emotional feeling that the imagery creates - if we let it - and not the plot, directly. We must bring ourselves to these films, in a way different than we would for Superman 7.
We must give ourselves over to the journey and take away what we do. Each time we see these films, we will bring a different "us" - because we are different that day – and the experience will be different. The film will be different.
This is what pure cinema at its best can do.
My life is better having seen these two films.