Malick Studies

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

I see Terrence Malick’s latest emanation is upon us. Call me crazy, but I tend to be less than enthusiastic about Malick’s movies; they often strike me as weird combos of dum-dum ideas and imperious stylization of the kind you might find in whatever litfic masterpiece “The New York Times” is currently praising. His last film, “The Tree of Life,” has been compared to Kubrick’s “2001.” If you saw “Tree” you’ll know what the comparison is meant to imply: that both movies are inscrutable compendiums of Big Ideas. But where Kubrick’s inclination is to reduce man’s evolution to a few basic movements, Malick takes a simple idea — a kid’s Oedipal issues — and inflates it until it has cosmic significance. The movie starts with the Big Bang (yes, that Big Bang!), moves through a prehistoric interlude during which the dinosaurs learn to be excellent to each other, then turns into a dizzyingly edited evocation of youth in the American South. The images are consistently tasteful and well-lit, the way they are in a Crate & Barrel catalog.

In fact, I didn’t find the movie to be all that hard to understand. Since it doesn’t really have a plot — as a filmmaker, Malick is too much of a butterfly catcher to bother with something as earthbound as a narrative — the director uses a cloud of whispery voice-overs to reveal the deeper nuances of his cogitating. Judging by those voices, Malick’s main theme concerns the way in which Grace, represented by the protag’s twirling, levitating mom, and Conflict, embodied by his growly, sandpapery dad, are at odds within Creation. I guess it’s a movie about the human condition.

Fair enough, worth thinking about for a few minutes, etc. But what to make of the prehistoric material? What’s the Big Bang doing in there?

Having recently read E. O. Wilson’s “On Human Nature,” I have developed a crackpot theory: that Malick is consciously trying to respond to Wilson’s call to give artistic form to scientific materialism, aka the body of attitudes and beliefs which derive from what we call [cue booming, reverb-heavy voice] science.

Wilson sees scientific materialism as providing one of the three great contemporary myths, along with those offered by traditional religion and Marxism. Further, he feels that its explanatory power is such that it will eventually become predominant. For how can a trad religious myth trump a story with the power to explain the stars, gravity, and speciation? (As for Marxism, Wilson sees it as untenable; he calls it “sociobiology without biology.”)

Here’s a good quote:

But make no mistake about the power of scientific materialism. It presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion. Its narrative form is the epic: the evolution of the universe from the big bang of fifteen billion years ago through the origin of the elements and celestial bodies to the beginnings of life on earth. The evolutionary epic is mythology in the sense that the laws it adduces here and now are believed but can never be definitely proved to form a cause-and-effect continuum from physics to the social sciences, from this world to all other worlds in the visible universe, and backward through time to the beginning of the universe.

However, Wilson feels there is one area in which scientific materialism remains weaker than its competitors. Specifically, he believes that it has thus far failed to provide a mythic substructure from which belief may draw power and propagate. In fact, in some ways “the evolutionary epic” pushes people away from it: in Wilson’s words it “denies immortality to the individual and divine privilege to the society, and it suggests only an existential meaning for the human species.”

As a corrective to this, Wilson urges greater cooperation between science and the arts:

What I am suggesting, in the end, is that the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have. It can be adjusted until it comes as close to the truth as the human mind is constructed to judge the truth. And if that is the case, the mythopoeic requirements of the mind must somehow be met by scientific materialism so as to reinvest our superb energies. There are ways of managing such a shift honestly and without dogma. One is to cultivate more intensely the relationship between the sciences and humanities. The great British biologist J. B. S. Haldane said of science and literature, “I am absolutely convinced that science is vastly more stimulating to the imagination than are the classics, but the products of the stimulus do not normally see the light because scientific men as a class are devoid of any perception of literary form.” Indeed, the origin of the universe in the big bang of fifteen billion years ago, as deduced by astronomers and physicists, is far more awesome than the first chapter of Genesis or the Ninevite epic of Gilgamesh.

Giving artistic form to the epic of science. . . Do you suppose this is what Wilson was trying to accomplish with his first work of fiction, the 2010 “Anthill: A Novel“? I haven’t read it, but by all accounts it’s a conservation-minded tale which is partially told from the point of view of ants (they communicate via chemical signals). Could be. But I also can’t help but think of Terrence Malick and his weird, quasi-religious nature doilies.

What do you think? Is it possible that Malick is as influenced by E. O. Wilson as he is by F. W. Murnau?


  • A review of “Anthill” by Steve Sailer.
  • A commenter on this review tries to suss out a Wilson-Malick connection.
  • There has apparently been a lot of debate regarding what the dinosaur sequence in “The Tree of Life” is trying to communicate. Look, I’m just a caveman. Complicated movies confuse and confound me. But is it really that hard to figure out? The apes sequence in “2001” shows the birth of technology. The dinosaur sequence in “Tree” shows the birth of compassion or empathy or whatever you want to call it.
  • I’m only part-way through it, but David Christian’s “Big History” lecture series strikes me as another attempt to fashion science into an epic-narrative form, one which pulls in disciplines like history, philosophy, and the arts.

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Books Publishing and Writing, Movies, Philosophy and Religion, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Malick Studies

  1. Sax von Stroheim says:

    I’ve been working on a short post about “To the Wonder” (which I really loved), and the comparison I keep wanting to make it to A.R. Ammons’ poetry – which is often informed by a scientific, old-school naturalist/biologist/ecologist world view. For example, here’s “Corsons Inlet”:

    I think the Oedipal conent of the story in “Tree of Life” is less important than the form: each event we see represents another moment where the boy’s personality is forming (or maybe “being formed”). The Big Bang sequence happens in the same way: a movement of chaos to order; loose structures reorganizing into things that are more defined.

    I think I’d agree about the connection to Wilson. Or, rather, agree that Malick is trying to do the kind of thing Wilson is talking about. I have no idea if he’s read Wilson, but it wouldn’t surprise me.


  2. Funny and smart. Feature filmmaking as a subcategory of Big Think. Coppola seems up to that a little recently too, at least in “Youth Without Youth,” whose real subject seems to be cyclical-vs-linear time. “Does the film cast an effective spell” is I guess the proper question for the esthetics-minded among us. I’m not that susceptible to Malick’s charms … but, now that I think about it, I’m not very susceptible to the Big-Think genre generally. Let alone sympathetic. Intellectually I can agree: Well, why the hell not? But emotionally/imaginatively I wish these guys would write essays instead and leave the narrative/dramatic/performance arts to the people who have a gift for narrative and drama.

    Plus, where Malick goes, an angle I’ve never seen anyone discuss. 1) He’s a Harvard boy of a certain dewy-genius, wet behind the ears sort, and 2) he aspires to sainthood. This is a type I’ve run into a number of times in the NY arts-and-media world. Anointed too young … Too good and too beautiful for this life … They usually wind up on staff at The New Yorker or writing boringly about ecological topics. (I’m thinking of you, Bill McKibben.) Most of them have some brains and talent, although they’re never nearly as special as they think they are. But, in all honesty, I think they’re a curse, and we’d be better off if we made fun of their narcissism, their pretentions and their too-good-for-this-life preciousness.

    Grrrr. Not that life in the NYC arts-and-media world has left me bitter or anything. And, who knows, maybe I’d like Malick personally. Ya never know.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Artists whose work you don’t enjoy but who might be fun to hang out with. Would make an interesting list.


  3. >>Indeed, the origin of the universe in the big bang of fifteen billion years ago, as deduced by astronomers and physicists, is far more awesome than the first chapter of Genesis or the Ninevite epic of Gilgamesh.

    Yeah, maybe many orders of magnitude too awesome. How can he not realize that? I listened to the first half of Christian’s “Big History” recently, and I loved the mind-boggling perspective it gave me. But as Christian himself admits, our minds simply aren’t built to comprehend reality on a cosmological or quantum mechanical scale. Those on the spectrum aside, people will always find people more interesting than quarks or galaxies.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Wilson’s call to develop a great myth of science seems kind of dippy to me. I mean, I think he’s right — people need myths and such. But he never really describes what he’s talking about. Or at least he doesn’t in “On Human Nature.” It remains very vague. Christian might be onto something, though — the way he moves from the big bang, to thermodynamics, to relationships between complexity and human civilization, is pretty impressive. It humanizes all those murky physical processes.


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