Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"Aftertones of Infinity": Biblical and Darwinian Evocations in Terrence Malick's the Tree of Life and to the Wonder

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

"Aftertones of Infinity": Biblical and Darwinian Evocations in Terrence Malick's the Tree of Life and to the Wonder

Article excerpt

Dreams from a dark millennium

Empyreal visions,

vague myriad tendrils floating

on an eternal voyage,

journeying primordial pathways

through cosmic cauldrons,

to afterworlds beyond the edge of the future.

Celestial voices echo the lost dreams

of the children of the universe

the aftertones of infinity

-Joseph Schwanter

Until quite recently, the films of Terrence Malick had been few and far between. When he released The Tree of Life in 2011, it was only his fifth feature-length film in 38 years. The director has most certainly picked up his pace. In short order he produced a sixth: To the Wonder (2013). Knight of Cups (2015) was screened on February 8th at the Berlin Film Festival (Chang, 2015; Zacharek, 2015; Bradshaw, 2015). Release of a documentary, Voyage of Time, is said to be imminent. An as-yet untitled drama, we are told, is soon to come. Anticipation of Malick's cinematic offerings creates a sense of occasion, usually for good reason. The Tree of Life won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Despite the smattering of boos at its première, it has since inspired enthusiasm bordering on the ecstatic - and no small measure of bafflement (Scott, 2011).

Malick himself is, by nature, a cipher. He does not comment on his work; he hasn't granted a major interview since the early 1970s. The films must speak for themselves. Everything is left for the viewer. And the recent reviews have been decidedly mixed. As the critic Jim Emerson noted about The Tree of Life on his Scanners blog, "Whether they've 'liked' it or not, those who've written about it can't even agree on what they've actually seen (Emerson 2011/12)." To the Wonder, a flash-back intercalated scrapbook of memories, has been less critically acclaimed, but no less discussed (Denby, 2013).

In this paper I shall argue that, in The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, Malick continues to explore, on an epic scale, a theme I believe permeates the previous four (Badlands, 1973; Days of Heaven, 1978; The Thin Red Line, 1998; The New World, 2005): innocence to experience. In doing so I want to suggest that Malick's oeuvre reflects a recurring evocation of and commentary on the primeval, biblical stories of Genesis 1-11.

The title of his 2011 installment betrays, however, a more encompassing vision. Viewers whose gaze is oriented by biblical studies will associate "the tree of life" with Genesis 2 and Revelation 22. Few will recognize "the tree of life" as the name Charles Darwin gives to the only diagram in his On the Origin of Species (1859), an illustration that captures graphically the implications of "descent with modification" over time by means of natural selection.

The Tree of Life is a sprawling meditation on both "trees." To the Wonder continues in the same vein. Malick, I maintain, is reckoning with those forces that seem to be built into the cosmic and societal scheme of things-energies that are at once creative and nurturing, destructive and tragic-and the mythic traditions to which moderns have explanatory recourse. He does not achieve, in my estimation, a synthesis, a cinematic reconciliation of the so-called "conflict" between science and religion (Stenmark, 2004). The Tree of Life, proffers a visual counterpoint that overlays imago dei and the "selfish gene" (Dawkins); it is an image-rich fugue in which the biological record "red in tooth and claw," as limned by Tennyson (In Memoriam A.H.H.), concurs with the Psalmist's praise of heavens that "tell the glory of God" (Psalm 19.1)

By contrast, To the Wonder is a smaller film. While its title seems to promise something both grandiose and mystical, the film offers only fleeting glimpses of the transcendent, the numinous. Like The Tree of Life, it is consumed with disappointment and loss, with yearning and the desire for return. A well-positioned visual quotation of The Tree of Life (one hour and eight minutes into the film) underscores that poignantly. …

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