Ryerson University in Toronto is hosting the Varieties of Continental Thought and Religion conference next week, and I've been lucky enough to receive an invite to respond to Robert Sinnerbrink's new essay on The Tree of Life. This has given me the opportunity to rework some of my ideas about the film and also think about the state of film-philosophy more generally.
The interdisciplinary field of film-philosophy seems to have evolved to the point where we are wondering where next to take it, how to move forward with it. A recent discussion on Girish Shambu's blog queried the ongoing value of film-philosophy, wondering if perhaps the recent turn to philosophy by some scholars was yet another move to view films in the context of Grand Theory -- here is the philosophy, and there is the film that illustrates it. While there is always the danger of reducing the film in question to a set of preexisting concepts (John Mullarkey argues that this is, on some level, unavoidable), I think the best work in the field has been oriented precisely against this perspective.
This is why the idea of response has been crucial to the most interesting recent work in this sub-discipline. In contrast to illustrative theories, Sinnerbrink has summed up the sensibility of film-philosophers who want the films themselves to have a place in discussions about them: "[W]e need to be open and receptive to the 'thinking' that films themselves unfold via image, narrative, and style," he writes, "and remain committed to finding thought-provoking ways of translating this thinking into a fitting philosophical idiom, perhaps evne one that might subtly transform what we take 'doing philosophy' (of film) to mean." (See page 43 in his essay "Re-enfranchising Film" in the collection New Takes in Film-Philosophy). The subtlety mentioned here isn't just about concepts: it's about the act of writing and talking about movies. When we describe films we do not merely perform a redundant act that 'replicates' the film in our discourse. We inflect our discourse with what the film has shown us; every descriptive act is a different kind of aesthetic response, prompted by particular films.
This is probably why Malick has been a popular director in these kinds of discussions, above and beyond his now rather dusty philosophical credentials (he translated Heidegger and attended Harvard over four decades ago). His films, I think, demand aesthetic response as a mode of viewing; they set the search for ideas in motion, and make the response to the aesthetic and natural world a part of their cinematic, thematic, and experiential texture.
In this respect, The Tree of Life might be the perfect film for the subfield right now, not because it cites theology or philosophy explicitly but because it takes the possibility of moving forward with ideas as one of its themes. Early in the film, the camera follows Mrs. O'Brien (Jessica Chastain) as she answer the doorbell. She receives news, we will learn later, of the death of one of her three sons. As she reads the words Emmanuel Lubezki's steadicam remains in medium close-up, but from slightly behind and at a respectful distance. This handheld movement is fragmented by two jump cuts. As fragmented as Malick's recent editing strategies are, his use of jump cuts is still relatively rare, so this is a striking moment: Like Mrs. O'Brien, the film has become momentarily unsure of its own continuity -- it is as if the film is placing the ongoing possibility of continuity, in the context of a personal tragedy such as this, under momentary question.
Chastain’s performance (and this is true of all the performances in The Tree of Life at different moments) is here pitched at a register we do not always see in film. As Andrew Klevan has suggested, film actors often suspend their characters above moments of revelation, on the one hand, and moments of withholding emotion, on the other. This is a tension between public disclosure and private reticence that is at the heart of dramatic narration in both mainstream film and art cinema (and, indeed, much social life). Directors will typically operate to one or the other side of this tension in the making of films; and Malick is, of course, one of the most respectful of directors, refusing to bind the emotions that pass across the faces of his characters to immediately consumable narrative information. But the performance here goes beyond simply disclosing the psychological content of affect or keeping it withheld. The character, understandably, is not quite sure how to respond, not sure how to go on living with the ideas about grace and nature that "the nuns taught us" (established in the preceding few minutes of the movie), the ideas which have hitherto symbolically defined her life and provided it existential continuity. She has nothing to disclose or withhold besides the simple fact of her devastation, and the character is not "choosing" to reveal this: it simply happens, forced by this tragedy. The question is now not which path is the right one (grace or nature) but whether or not this very idea, as a conceptual guide to experience, will survive her tragic loss. Just as Mrs. O’Brien does not quite know how to move forward here, the film, having itself been affected by her devastated presence, also invites wonder at how it might continue.
Cited: Robert Sinnerbrink, "Re-enfranchising Film: Towards a Romantic Film-Philosophy," in New Takes in Film-Philosophy, eds. Havi Carel and Greg Tuck (New York: Palgrave, 2011), 25-47.