Romanesco and the Tree of Life

To seek the essence of perception is to declare that perception is, not presumed true, but defined as access to truth. So, if I now wanted, according to idealistic principles, to base this de facto self evident truth, this irresistible belief, on some absolute self-evident truth, that is, on the absolute clarity which my thoughts have for me; if I tried to find in myself a creative thought which bodied forth the framework of the world or illumined it through and through, I should once more prove unfaithful to my experience of the world, and should be looking for what it is. The self evidence of perception is not adequate thought or apodictic self evidence. The world is not what I think but what I live through. I am open to the world, I have no doubt that I am in communication with it, but I do not possess it; it is inexhaustible.

Phenomenology of perception
By Maurice Merleau-Ponty

This weekend I saw the Terrance Mallick film Tree of Life. I can honestly say in seeing this film it is truly one of these rare films that works in such a way that is pure poetry and near perfection as one can hope from the art of film.


I only want to write about a couple of points in the film that really resonated for me after watching the film. Before I do that I wanted to share with you just how deeply the film opened my mind up from its usual clutter of my constantly chattering mind.

The film begins with a woman receiving a telegraph and learning that her son has died. There is no indicator of how the son dies; only a barrage of poetic signifiers that clue you into that someone has died. The images and the sparse dialog do not give much to the audience at all, rather it works like a well crafted poem in which the reader must fill in the blanks, and it leaves room for the self, room for the complexities of each and every persons experience sitting in the theatre. The narrative works in a way that memory and consciousness work, folding parts and pieces of remembered experience together to try and make piece of a much larger and bigger whole then one can ever possible imagine. This worked perfectly, all too often in films we see the retelling of a death in family as this attempt of someone to make sense of the lose, but it is always in this way that creates a withdraw from the world as it is, but reflection (or those moments when our life flashes in front of our eyes) never works quite like it does in novels and film. It never withdraws or recalls in this simplistic manner that we see and read in film and books. Instead it flares up and sparks off bits of transcendence like sparks from a campfire. We cannot know, yet we still have a sense of the complexities of the universe and all of creation but as soon as we begin to use language to describe the ‘real’ it our arguments and sense of that shifts and falls apart. This is where Mallick’s genius is, he understands this idea far better then I could even hope to explain, instead of trying to tell you what the nature of life and death is, he sits up a frame work for the audience, the film creates those flames and sparks of life and death and transcendence.

The film read like a poem, and made me recall the work of Lyn Hejinian in her book My Life this collection of poems works in the same manner, never giving the reader the narrative but creating a frame work to create the sparks. It is a rare artist or writer that has the confidence or the insight in allowing their audience the room to allow their minds to work and fill in the empty space.

I sat on the windowsill singing sunny lunny teena, ding-dang-dong. Out there is an aging magician who needs a tray of ice in order to turn his bristling breath into steam. He broke the radio silence. Why would anyone find astrology interesting when it is possible to learn about astronomy. What one passes in the Plymouth. It is the wind slamming the doors. All that is nearly incommunicable to my friends. Velocity and throat verisimilitude.

One of the most remarkable things about the film, was what happened after seeing it. This is a rare thing in art, literature or music, but it changed how I saw the world, I know this feeling might drift away one day. The past few days the impact of the movie still resonates with me, the smallest of details of life and its richness seem so remarkable to me. I went to the grocery store and saw one of my favorite vegetables the romanesco and was almost moved to tears, the exquisite beauty of the vegetable sparked a moment in me of profound awe for the very fact that we has humans exist.

Were we seeing a pattern or merely an appearance of small white sailboats on the bay, floating at such a distance from the hill that they appeared to be making no progress. And for once to a country that did not speak another language. To follow the progress of ideas, or that particular line of reasoning, so full of surprises and unexpected correlations, was somehow to take a vacation. Still, you had to wonder where they had gone, since you could speak of reappearance.

I plan on seeing this film a few more times and really trying to experience it more fully, I was so blown away watching it the first time, I was at a lose for words. I am still at a lose for words to truly try and comprehend this masterpiece of film.