For those of you who are still in the Reno area, I wanted to mention that Terrence Malick’s film The Tree of Life is currently playing at the Century Riverside, a couple weeks ahead of its general national release. I think it’s a remarkable film, and like all of Malick’s work, it really cries out to be seen on the big screen. It’s too bad that it wasn’t playing during my indy film class last semester — it would’ve made for an excellent field trip. The film centers around the coming of age of a boy in 1950s Waco, Texas, but it’s filmed in an audaciously elliptical style, which makes room for extended sequences that measure the family’s history against the scope of geological and celestial time.
The celestial passages in Tree of Life have been compared to the “stargate” sequence in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a probably-inevitable connection, as the special effects sequences in both films were overseen by the same man — Douglas Trumbull, who has been behind a number of special effects sequences that have burned their way into the collective consciousness (including work on Blade Runner and Close Encounters of the Third Kind).
In some ways, the Tree of Life/2001 conflation is too easy, and the case could be made that, in terms of positioning human life against the scope of the cosmos, the two films have diametrically opposed temperatures. Where Kubrick contemplates his human characters at an icy remove, Tree of Life is suffused with tremulous empathy. That said, the sequences themselves have the same stately sense of awe. Trumbull hasn’t worked on a film for almost 30 years, having devoted himself to various media technologies and multimedia rides and environments (his website showcases the work of a restless inventor — with recent pages devoted to a humvee customized for UFO-spotting, and a prototype for an oil spill cleanup system, devised in response to the BP catastrophe). Despite his prolonged hiatus from special effects for feature films, there’s a remarkable consistency of vision. Scott Bukatman, in his excellent book Matters of Gravity, summed up the Trumbull approach (the book was published back in 2003, but his analysis is still apt for Tree of Life):
An examination of Trumbull’s work reveals a surprisingly coherent aesthetics. A Trumbull sequence is less a description of an object than the construction of an environment… “I like the idea of creating some crazy illusion that looks so great that you can that you can really hang on it like a big master shot of an epic landscape.” (“Epic landscape” suggests the affinity between Trumbull’s effects and the majestic paintings of Turner, Church, Bierstadt, and so on)… Where [special effects artist] John Dykstra’s work in Star Wars or Firefox (1982) is all hyperkinesis and participatory action, Trumbull’s work is especially contemplative.
If anything, the Tree of Life sequences are a culmination of that contemplative, “epic landscape” approach — even the prolonged “stargate” sequence from 2001 had the urgency of “what will the astronaut find at the end of this?” It might have been a rudimentary suspense — one that’s short-circuited by the sheer length of the sequence, which arguably batters you to submit to the state of contemplation, like smashing you over the head with a pile of Rothko and Pollock and Kandinsky canvases. But in Tree of Life, the sequence comes as a sort of musical movement, a recapitulation of the movie’s themes in another register. There’s no plot to be chewed through while the effects unfold — they stand as self-sufficient as musical notes.
I especially liked the organic character of the effects. The fact that Malick approached Trumbull because he didn’t like the look of CGI is perhaps a bit overstated in this interesting WIRED piece on the film’s special effects (digital means were clearly used to get the final results — it’s more that there was a combination of the analog and digital, rather than a complete banishment of computer technology). But clearly, part of the heft of the effects comes from their organic origins, the way Trumbull exploits the formal coherencies between macro and micro scale — the way the curved arms of a galaxy appear when you drop cream into your coffee cup.
Nyerges is puzzled that amidst all the hype surrounding The Tree of Life, more attention hasn’t been given to artists whose work clearly feeds into Malick’s vision. “In the media coverage on this film no one’s really mentioned that they used the work of experimental filmmakers in these sequences.” But for Nyerges, the overlooked, perpetually co-opted status of the avant-garde is nothing new. “This kind of filmmaking has influenced everything from commercials to music videos to movies. And now you can buy iMovie, punch a button and get an effect that took avant garde filmmakers years to develop.”
Here’s the Nyerges short which was excerpted in Tree of Life:
An image that’s used as a sort of “chapter break” in the Tree of Life — a diaphanous whatsit composed of interpenetrating warm colors, which appears onscreen as characters ask whispered questions of God — was also, it turns out, a borrowing from another artist. It was the filming of a work by Thomas Wilfred, an early pioneer of “light art” (a New Yorker article tipped me to the fact).
From William Moritz’s article The Dream of Color Music, And Machines That Made it Possible:
Danish-born Thomas Wilfred came to America as a singer of early music, and got involved with a group of Theosophists who wanted to build a color organ to demonstrate spiritual principles. Wilfred called his color organ the Clavilux, and named the artform of color-music projections “Lumia.” He stressed polymorphous, fluid streams of color slowly metamorphosing. He established an Art Institute of Light in New York, and toured giving Lumia concerts in the United States and Europe (at the famous Art Deco exhibition in Paris). He also built “lumia boxes,” self-contained units that looked rather like television sets, which could play for days or months without repeating the same imagery.”
Here are a couple recording of portions of Wilfred’s Lumia, as well as a trailer for a documentary on Wilfred:
It appeals to me that the trascendentalism of the film is a kind of grab-bag transcendentalism, splicing together the work of artists whose concerns with light and the sublime stretch over the span of nearly a century. Measured against the lifespan of a star, that’s a pretty modest blip — and so is pretty much everything else, which is more or less the point. Light isn’t a fixed substance, which is why it’s so easy to project ourselves into its modulations, fluctuations, its negotiations with darkness and cessation.