Tree of Life (2011); “Malick destroys traditional conceptions of spatio-temporal continuity.”

A Book Review Essay by T. R. Merchant-Knudsen.

Terrence Malick’s name remains tinged with a sense of mystique and the aura of philosophical images within his sprawling films. His filmography echoes and reverberates through time in ways that often appear nonlinear; in these places, images of nature and their intersection with culture play into conceptions of time, according to Gabriella Blasi in her new book The Work of Terrence Malick: Time-Based Ecocinema (Amsterdam University Press, 2019). Gabriella Blasi teaches and researches at Griffith University as an Adjunct in the Centre for Social and Cultural Research, and a majority of these chapters have been built from essays Blasi has published on the topic of ecocinema as it relates to Malick’s films. Blasi considers these perceptions of time and the passage of such through the images of Malick’s cinema as a way to “shine a light on the relevance of a Benjaminian film-phenomenological framework in Malick studies and to complement traditional formalist approaches to film analysis with a figural approach in ecocinema studies” (13). The author defines the study of eco-criticism as an investigation of the complex relations between nature and culture while considering historical perspectives intertwined between humans and nature. This focus remains strongly tied throughout Blasi’s argument in the book and provides a great foundation for how these considerations could fit in both Malick’s filmography and moving images in general. By considering the intertwining nature of philosophy and film studies, Blasi’s book considers Malick’s images as a way to consider the tensions of time, nature, and humanity.

In her introduction, Blasi establishes her argument with extreme clarity and maps out the trajectory of her book by clearly defining the chronological examination of Malick’s films and their ties to the philosophical conversations of time and nature. Her thesis in this section clearly defines this: “The concept of a time-based ecocinema […] encapsulates the central notion that Malick’s cinematic work alters teleological notions of time and history in human culture and destroys traditional conceptions of spatio-temporal continuity” (12). Here Blasi considers how these images can elicit the considerations of nature-human relations, and she begins to expand the consideration out into cinema. These moments help to continue the expansion of ecocinema within other films besides Malick’s filmography; Blasi carefully navigates the history of Malick and film scholarship to display how these have evolved throughout time to the point of her research. The author begs the reader to grapple with new conceptualizations of time within Walter Benjamin’s postulations: a “non-linear, plastic trajectory turning and folding time on itself” (34). Within Malick’s films, most especially his latter filmography, these questions of time ring extremely true. However, this introduction does give a hint towards one of the book’s difficulties: philosophical considerations first and Malick’s films second. Blasi’s brilliant examples throughout the filmography perfectly illustrate the points, but they are buried with philosophical conversations that ultimately tends to discuss the possibility of the moving image.

The author defines the study of eco-criticism as an investigation of the complex relations between nature and culture while considering historical perspectives

Chapter 1, “From Myth, Tragedy and Narrative to Allegory, Trauerspeil and Film in Badlands and Days of Heaven,” explores the tensions between nature and the development of second technologies per Benjamin’s postulations on time. Blasi clearly outlines two clear examples in both films that display these points: billboards and a montage between an apple and a stereopticon in Badlands, and the utilization of Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant and its projection in Days of Heaven. In this chapter, the examination of second technologies and how they telegraph human creation (mechanistic) to nature (organicist) provides the framework that the rest of the book hinges on. The final section of the chapter points in the direction of expanding her arguments into film studies more succulently by concluding that Benjamin’s conjectures of a plastic time begin to unfurl the meaning and need for a progression of narrative action. In this way, Blasi’s arguments within this first chapter begin to gesture towards the possibilities afforded by the disorganization of time found in Malick’s later filmography while also expanding into the field of cinema in general. The points are clear, but the philosophy begins to override the direct comparison to the films by considering the placement of Benjamin’s ideas within Malick’s films and how they can extend the discussion of time within cinema.

Blasi’s second chapter, “Time and History in The Thin Red Line and The New World,” extends this examination to Malick’s next two films with historical retellings of war and colonialism. The author argues that The Thin Red Line and The New World reveal finitude and materiality within nature by examining two visions of nature: “an organicist and vitalist vision in which humans and nature are part of a larger whole and all parts are connected and interrelated; another vision of nature where parts are […] disassociated from laws of causality and reciprocity that characterize organicity in general” (80). Blasi claims that these exist within both films and their considerations of a historical world. In The Thin Red Line, the images of violence associated with war bring out considerations of human violence within nature, while The New World considers this in a frame of colonialism. Within this chapter, the philosophical implications expand to involve the mythic and natural and builds further from Benjamin’s conceptions of time. Here, the philosophy that ties the book together becomes more complicated by turning towards a “time-based phenomenology” that critiques violence and peace within the frame of human-nature relationships.

In the third chapter, “Looking at Evolutionary Narratives in The Tree of Life and Voyage of Time,” the philosophical frame becomes the driving force while building on the prior chapters’ ideas. However, here the philosophy begins to take over the book’s arguments in a way that clouds specific examples and clarity within the critique of the films. The author uses The Tree of Life and Voyage of Time to explore concepts of time progressions and evolutionary tales intertwined with the narrative of a family; the main point here is that the family is considered alongside the images of a sprawling nature. In this chapter, Blasi boldly claims

From an ecocritical perspective, Malick’s use of the film medium opens new and unexplored possibilities of interpretation in which technological developments and human relations to the natural world enter a new, not antithetical relation in modern culture. (107)

This counters the earlier chapters and films which position nature and humanity to be constantly at odds with one another through a slew of different possibilities. Here, their considerations become the same. The philosophy begins to override the discussion of the films clearly at points, and oddly this chapter is one of the shortest in the book. Looking back to the Acknowledgements, this chapter is the only chapter that does not have any base from earlier publications by Blasi. This seems odd, considering how clear the discussions of the evolutionary narratives in the fiction and documentary films in this chapter are; they seem to be most in tune with the disorganization of narrative and time that presides in the prior two chapters and the following chapter. The considerations of human-nature relations are clearly articulated, but it comes at the toll of a shorter chapter because many of the points exist within other chapters.

To The Wonder

The final chapter before the conclusion, “The Wastelands of Progress in To The Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song,” acts as a clear culmination of Blasi’s arguments considering time, ecocinema, and the placement of technology in the mediation between nature and humanity. Malick’s modern films engage the interplay of nature and humanity through a disjunction with time – emblemizing our own dysfunction with life, memory, and nature. There are several moments before this chapter where the author maps out how ecocinema works with Benjamin’s second technology – one keeping track of the seconds making up time. This chapter wonderfully ties everything together by revealing “a materialist theology that critiques, precisely, a contradictory phenomenology of the ‘divine’ as [an] expression of universal, transcendental love” (133).  Here, Blasi utilizes the films as examples of articulating the philosophical ideas of the prior chapters in ways that don’t hinge on the philosophy; instead, the example are clear, poignant, and illustrate the book’s overall arguments. By clearly examining the relationships, time, and how the narratives unfold over their runtime, Blasi clearly articulates how these examples fit within the philosophical angles she establishes. Though the strictly chronological approach may seem counter-intuitive, the positioning of the earlier films culminating in the modern films from Malick provides a way of examining Malick as he exists today.

While Blasi’s book expertly maneuvers through the philosophical lenses at play within Malick’s films, the book is not without a few shortcomings. The clearest issue with the book is the heavy subject matter in handling the philosophy of Benjamin, among others. The language may come across alienating for any unfamiliar with the concepts of time, phenomenology, and ecocinema; while it is unlikely anyone unfamiliar would pick up the book in the first place, this is something to consider as the establishment of ecocinema criticism could extend into the field of film studies. Additionally, the play with these lenses begins to override the utilization of Malick’s films as specific examples until the final chapter about Malick’s modern films. Finally, there is a small note within the “Evolutionary Narratives” chapter about the utilization of Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux and Lumia compositions. Blasi points in the direction of Gregory Zinman’s short article in the New Yorker about Lumia Op. 161 (1965-66) within The Tree of Life and gestures towards the possibility of myth and transcendence in relation to the film as a whole (114). However, there are other studies with Thomas Wilfred’s experiments, including Zinman’s contribution to Lumia: Thomas Wilfred and the Art of Light (2017), that could work in tandem with Blasi’s argument. The expansion in these areas could brighten this section a bit by considering how the reappearance of the Lumia imagery could act as an transcendental influence to the family – especially considering how it appears at the beginning of the “Creation” sequence that Blasi examines in response to the mother (Jessica Chastain) asking “Lord, where were you?”

Gabriella Blasi’s The Work of Terrence Malick: Time-Based Ecocinema provides a much-needed examination into the elusive, dense cinema of Terrence Malick by considering the plays with time, nature, and theology that his films embody. While the language and philosophical musings may appear alienating and convoluted, perhaps it cannot be avoided when considering Malick’s filmography. The philosophical bends of the book lend a hand towards the enigmatic films and posit the loops one may have to jump through to completely grasp both the book and his filmography. Blasi’s book provides this examination while also reinvigorating a need for ecocinema studies to flourish further.

T. R. Merchant-Knudsen has a Master’s in English with a concentration in film and media studies from North Carolina State University. He is an instructor, teaching assistant, and the Image Editor for Film International. His writing has been published in Film Matters and Film International, and he has presented at conferences on the interdisciplinary nature of media. His interests in film and media studies are phenomenology, narrative, sound design, and animation studies.

Read also: