My paper for this year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference, coming up next month in Boston, will focus on the two films that got a lot of side-by-side attention at last year’s Cannes festival, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Since a few of my favorite bloggers have also discussed them side by side, I thought I’d share my preliminary thoughts about them here.
The two films play a key role in the final chapter of my (forthcoming) Ecologies of the Moving Image, but as I’m still thinking these themes through, I will be interested in responses I get at the SCMS (or here).
Here’s my original conference abstract, scheduled as part of the first of the Ecocinema panels; see here for the other papers from these panels and related eco-themed ones.
From Environmental Films to Eco(philosophical) Cinema
Ecocinema has tended to be defined thematically as “cinema with ecological themes,” i.e., as “environmental films,” or formally as (something like) “cinema that takes ecology seriously.” Following these two trends, good ecocinema might be defined either as cinema that successfully promotes ecological themes or cinema that has ecologically beneficial effects, or that at least minimizes its ecologically harmful effects. But these two approaches neither take cinema nor ecology seriously enough.
This paper argues on behalf of an engagement with philosophy, including both film-philosophy and ecophilosophy. It insists that eco-film critics need to think through both the film/cinema object (what is cinema and how is it changing in the digital era?) and the eco-subject (what is ecology, and how can both films and their viewers be considered ecological and ecologically?). Proposing that a genuine “ecocinema” requires an engagement with eco/cinema philosophy, it asks what kinds of films might result from such an engagement. It compares James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), Hubert Sauper’s Darwin’s Nightmare (2004), and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2010) in light of these concerns.
I’ve decided to jettison the parts about Avatar and Darwin’s Nightmare, though they take up substantial sections of the “eco-trauma” chapter of my book, and instead to focus on the Malick and von Trier films.
I should mention that by the point I get to these two films in my book, I’ve made a serious case for an ecophilosophical viewing practice, which pays attention to the aesthetics, ethics, and “ecologics” of film’s firstness (its spectacle, its shimmering “thereness”), secondness (its narrative one-thing-after-anotherness), and thirdness (the meanings that emerge out of our encounters with it; those new to C. S. Peirce’s categories can get a quick primer on them and on my use of them in these earlier posts).
I’ve also made a pitch by this point for an understanding of the moving image that is enriched by a Jungian — or, more precisely, a James Hillmanite (Corbinite-Neoplatonic-Bachelardian and post-Jungian) — understanding of the image as something that sweeps us up and takes us elsewhere, if we allow it to do that. Hopefully that’ll be more clear by the end of this…
To the films, then.
Between Malick and von Trier
Both of these films, in my reading of them, present a force that we can move with. They are moving concept-images — images of movement in a moving universe. But where The Tree of Life presents a cinematic image intended to move us toward movement, Melancholia presents something more like an image intended to help us reach a defiantly resistant stasis in a universe that moves so powerfully it can and will destroy us.
Both films are about troubled human characters and their relationships with others, and in particular with familial others; they are comments on the family. Both also render their familial reference points at once both foreign and cosmic. Here I disagree with Anthony Paul Smith’s argument that Malick’s film presents a “nuptial theology” celebrating the family, and agree more with Michael Pearl’s reply to that argument (though I find Smith’s other arguments to be very perceptive, especially about Melancholia; and see my earlier piece on the nature-grace dyad).
The family is central to both films. In von Trier’s hands it is torn to shreds, even as it remains in place right through to the end (an end that kills it). In Malick’s it is probed and struggled with, remaining as a shadowy and ambivalent presence hovering over everything, even as the film’s final moments suggest a homecoming festival for it and everything else in the universe.
Neither film approaches anything like perfection: Malick’s features overgrown limbs flailing around uncontrollably as the film pursues its idea of beauty — I’m thinking of the CGI dinosaurs and the resurrection ending on the beach — while Von Trier’s is shot through with overbearing cliches (which I found easy to ignore, but some critics haven’t).
But cinema (as I argue in my book) is not about perfection. It is about movement, extension, and the ongoing process by which meaning and affect are generated out of this movement.
Tree of Life extends itself like a flowering vine groping toward an elusive sun. As Kent Jones puts it in Film Comment, the film “doesn’t move forward but pulses, like a massive organism, and its beginning and end point are the same: a ball of primal energy in the blackness, ready to generate more theophanies.” It comes not in isolated images but “in bursts of attentively covered emotion and energy,” recalling the instants, the crunching impact moments, that swirl within our own episodic memories of childhood, but following a rhythm, “the film’s signature action” as Jones puts it, “of dilation and contraction, optically, formally, and thematically.”
The film is, as I’ve argued, about flow — the flow of images, fragments, glimpses, memories, feelings, dreams, etc. — and about realization, which is another word for Peircian thirdness. It is about the process of asking questions (through the film’s many offscreen voices) and awaiting their answers, of frustration building when the questions and the still seething traumas underlying them are met with silence, and yet of allowing the arrival of those answers — as the kinds of strangers who enter through the back door of the childhood home that keeps being set alight in one’s memory. And it is about their quiet convergence despite all.
The beauty of the film, for me, is in the way the movement of the images takes you, and the way, when you allow yourself to be taken, you go places that are new and unexpected.
Melancholia works similarly, though here the movement is very different. It’s not a movement somewhere, but a movement coming toward you from somewhere. The blue planet Melancholia, which comes from behind the sun and hurtles slowly on a collision course toward the Earth, is a mesmerizing metaphor for von Trier’s, or anyone’s, depression. It’s a double to the known world, a hidden, deadly intruder destined to come and destroy with a sharp, unfeeling, and deadly blow to the head; a herald and medium of utter extinction.
But where a Buddhist or Lacanian reading of extinction as the shadow of reality would have sufficed, von Trier insinuates a gnostic dualist thread whereby, in Justine’s words, “life on earth is evil” and deserves to be destroyed. Here is where von Trier’s gnosticism parts ways most obviously with Malick’s Heideggerian panentheism.
For Malick the dominant concept-image, the film’s overall, synthetic visual metaphor, is the movement toward the Tree of Life, or the tree’s movement toward the sun, or something like that. This is the Peircian movement from firstness to secondness to thirdness, from chance/possibility/virtuality (firstness) to the rough-and-tumble of actuality (secondness) through to the dawning meaning that opens up before us (thirdness) even as it keeps withdrawing. Malick is a poet of Withdrawing Being and of the process by which we might open ourselves to it.
For von Trier, two concept-images dominate. The first is Melancholia itself, the intruding entity, the Other, as it slowly approaches Earth. The second is Justine’s “magic cave,” which she builds out of sticks and words to shelter her nephew Leo from the incoming abyss. This is what we are capable of doing in the face of extinction: we can build a magic cave. (Which is cinema, among other things.) Or, as Samuel Beckett is supposed to have put it, “I can still crawl.” It’s not nothing, and we can build it as beautifully, as crudely, or as defiantly as we like.
The two films that lurk conspicuously behind both The Tree of Life and Melancholia (like twin planets hiding behind the sun) are Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The latter is about a planet that also acts as a double to the earth, tearing down psychological illusions but ultimately swallowing those who orbit it — rather like the extraterrestrial space (and the computer HAL) that swallows, or attempts to swallow, the astronauts who venture into it in Kubrick’s film.
(The idea that Tarkovsky’s planet Solaris is cinema, or our relationship to cinema, is an idea that I take from Steven Dillon’s book The Solaris Effect. I rework that idea to focus on Tarkovsky’s Stalker and its “Zone,” but the same can be said of von Trier’s magic cave and Malick’s tree. All of them take us into a Zone where, if we open ourselves emotionally, surprising things may happen.)
As in Solaris, the planetary double in Melancholia is an instrument of seduction, of destruction, and of realization: it tears down illusions, renders them impotent, and swallows us in its embrace. Melancholia is, if anything, a more stark, direct, and atheistic version of Solaris‘s embrace. It is a direct hit, which leaves nothing behind.
And yet, despite the bleak nihilism of its seeming message, it is quite possible to leave the theater, as The Village Voice’s J. Hoberman did, feeling “light, rejuvenated and unconscionably happy.” Or as the LA Times’ Betsy Sharkey did.
And while this probably isn’t what either of them had in mind, seeing this killer of planets — not in the frenetic guise of a Hollywood action-packed adventure, but in the slow and deliberate grace of its arrival — makes extinction thinkable and affectively imaginable in a way that only cinema can. It is as simple and powerful a strike at the anthropocentric worldview as has ever been cinematically conceived. (Steven Shaviro seems to be getting at that here.)
What makes the two films ecophilosophical is that they provide a flow of affectively powerful images that render real a certain relationship between subjectivity — or what I call (in my book) subjectivation and anthropomorphosis — and the larger processual ecologies of the Earth and universe.
Tarkovsky’s Stalker (which I analyze here) presents us with a downward view of this relationship, as in the Stalker’s dreaming — of what we don’t know, or perhaps it is dreamless sleep — as the camera pans across objects and processes expressive of their own elusive temporalities, in the film’s famous “dream sequence.”
The Tree of Life presents a view that seems to be arching its head upward, toward a light that is visible through the branches of a tree, but always elusive, so we have to twist ourselves in circuitous contortions to keep moving along with it.
With Melancholia, the little traumas of life are subsumed into a singularly high-impact, planeticidal event, with the result that the gaze becomes a gaze inward into the traumatic abyss of extinction.
But extinction as an image is never mere extinction. If I can claim to have been moved by von Trier’s image of a massive blue planet closing in on the Earth and finally decimating it, this is to say that I have moved along with that image and have in some sense lived and experienced it. Having been so moved, and having given that image the power to transform me, I am no longer in the place where I began. This collision, or at least my response to it, has become a cognitive and affective virtuality for me (in the Deleuzian sense), an imaginal reality (in Corbin’s/Hillman’s sense), something I can feel for and about because I have practiced this feeling while, and after, watching it. I have moved along a vector that has made that set of possibilities mine.
This does not, of course, mean that such a planetary collision has become any more likely than it ever was. But it does mean that I am now more prepared to respond to it, were it to ever arise. This preparation is not mere imagination, as if what I have lived in my imagination is unreal. It is an exercise of real imagination, which means the development of a kind of muscle that poises me for an engaged responsiveness to a certain present or future possibility.
The cinematic is an exercise in such virtuality. Cinema is not unique in this: storytelling, literature, theater, and performative arts in general all provide for some kind of movement along these lines. But cinema is distinctive in its fusion of visual and sound images in temporally sequenced forms. It is the most direct form of moving image that we ourselves can move with, cognitively and affectively, as we watch and as those images continue to percolate in us afterward.
Both of these films (like the others I mentioned) present ecophilosophically potent moving images. It is the discipline of thinking and feeling with those images, as we move on the vectors that they make available, that can make for an ecophilosophical cinema. Between these two very different sets of vectors (Malick’s and von Trier’s) lies a universe of possibilities.