Get Back To Our Roots: Romanticizing Nature and Spirituality in Contemporary Film
It is often said that the romantic movement never truly ended. In his book The Long and Winding Road from Blake to the Beatles, Matthew Schneider argues that it “is still the prevailing cultural paradigm in the West.” (15) In that book, Schneider is using the concept to say romanticism reemerged with renewed vigor into the zeitgeist because of the Beatles’ “gift of genius” (16). Director Terrence Malick is another contemporary artist who infuses the themes and ideas of the romantic movement into his work. The romantic ideologies his films incorporate (and update) include the reverence of nature and spirituality, childhood innocence and a self-involved perspective. In this post, I’ll be discussing Malick’s romantic influences as the relate to his 2011 film, The Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life opens with a declaration of a rivalry. Mrs. O’Brien, played by Jessica Chastain, narrates over images of children playing and the countryside. She says there are two ways to live, according to the nuns that taught her in school: either by nature or by grace. Opting for the natural route means allowing yourself to be jealous, feel slighted or any other petty emotion without suppressing those feelings. Living by grace would mean worshiping God and turning the other cheek at any perceived wrongdoing. This opening is a prelude to the rest of the film’s digging into themes that mirror the romantic movement. By mentioning the fact about the nuns, Mrs. O’Brien is allowing the listener to read between the lines and see that she is implying the influence (whether its good or bad is never said) that structured religion had on her life. The fight against succumbing to human nature is present in romantic literature especially in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
Loosely, the film is about a family. It mostly focuses on the eldest son, Jack, in a young family comprised of two other sons and parents. Forrest Wickman of Slate.com writes that The Tree of Life is “remarkably autobiographical” and the film has details that supports the idea that the film is based on a real life family. There is Mrs. O’Brien, a nurturing but meek mother, and Mr. O’Brien, a harsh and domineering alpha-male-type of father. The two boys besides Jack are relatively anonymous until the middle son, R.L., dies at the age of 19 and it sets the heavy and existential gears of the film into motion. But the film doesn’t just imply huge questions. It yells them into the void with scenes of gigantic and seismic scope.
The works of William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley can be grandiose but are often on a more human scale. Malick takes the wonder and explorations of nature and religion (and nature as religion) from the romantic movement those poets cultivated and simultaneously maximizes and minimizes them. There are shots of enlarged veins and arteries as well as ones depicting the creation of the universe. These impressionistic scenes of exploding galaxies and nebulae are juxtaposed with ones of a middle-aged Jack, played by Sean Penn, sitting in his office and staring, dead-eyed, into the middle distance. In these vignettes, Jack seems lost in the sleek and silver landscape he finds himself in. Jack is troubled by the anniversary of his brother’s death and is disengaged from the world. He doesn’t seem one with his environment. Jack is still trying to cope with the meaning of his brother’s death and struggles to understand how any divine being or just universe could have taken someone so loved and talented. His guilt weighs him down similarly to how the ancient mariner is burdened with his own existential and physical dread in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Coleridge 638). Malick updates this dread by adding the symptoms of a boring and monotonous work life for Jack.
The Tree of Life keeps many of the tropes from the romantic movement throughout its length including its focus on a predominately male perspective. In Wordworth’s Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, the perspective is the poet’s own which makes it undeniably masculine and, as mentioned before, Malick’s film operates similarly. Jack can be interpreted as Malick’s stand-in. It must be noted that while Mrs. O’Brien in the film and the sister in the poem are afforded a bit of weight in terms of significance to the way the plots of works and are strong presences, their strength as characters come more from Chastain’s performance and Dorothy Wordsworth’s own works. The two women provide a context and humanity to what their male counterparts write about them.
To be a romantic by definition means viewing the past with rose tinted glasses but in The Tree of Life, it’s not so positive. Jack is haunted by his family life growing up especially the way his father tried to display his love and it has hindered his ability to finish grieving over his brother’s death. Jack, Malick’s proxy, isn’t able to find any closure. It’s his version of Wordsworth’s words: “Though absent long/These forms of beauty have not been to me/as is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.” Jack’s brother lives on for him in his mind and he returns to the “landscape” of the death on its anniversary. This close and intimate struggle Malick’s protagonist is grappling with could be as personal as a blood vessel or as existential and gigantic as stars. The Tree of Life shows it as both. The poetry of the romantic movement, as wonderful and groundbreaking as it was, couldn’t show either. Malick’s film is the 2015 version of Mont Blanc and Tintern Abbey put together.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. ” The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Fifth Edition. 634-649.
Malick, Terrence, dir. The Tree of Life. Cottonwood Pictures, 2011. Film.
Schneider, Matthew. The Long and Winding Road from Blake to the Beatles. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Electronic Book.
Wickman, Forrest. “Terrence Malick’s Personal Period.” Slate. Web. 28 October 2015.
Wordsworth, William. “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” The Longman Anthology British Literature. Fifth Edition. 429-33. Book.
Malick, Terrence. The Tree of Life. 2011. The Art of Movie Stills Tumblr. Web. 28 October 2015.