Monday, January 30, 2012

Tarkovsky Allusions in The Tree of Life

Throughout his career, Terrence Malick has been moving towards his own form of non-narrative cinema. His feature debut, Badlands (1973), contains by far the strongest traditional narrative, though within it are glimpses of the style to come (the sections with Kit and Holly hiding out in the woods, for example, which still rank among the finest sequences Malick has shot). With Days of Heaven (1978), his next film, the narrative is pushed further into the background and the characters become somewhat less defined. Much like the story, they're weighed against the landscape, residing and disappearing (to a degree) within it.

By filming around events as well as events themselves, Malick's cinema sets itself against the dominant mode of filmmaking that emphasizes plot and narrative. There are no distinctions in his films between what commercial movies tell us are "significant" and "insignificant" events. In Malick's world, everything is significant. A group of kids playing in a field or a gust of wind sculpting the top of a lake are given as much weight as a wedding or a funeral. His is a cinema of fleeting moments. To further emphasize this shift, the editing of Malick's films has become looser in each subsequent film, his camera more seemingly aimless. Narrative and story come second to sensation and emotion, much like music -- the art Tarkovsky considered to be cinema's closest relative. This method of composing films ends up making The Tree of Life feel a lot like a hyper-version of Tarkovsky's Mirror (1975).

tarkovsky, malick, zerkalo, tree of life, levitation

The Tree of Life is Malick's style distilled to its essence. Likewise, Mirror is the film that best adheres to Tarkovsky's theory of cinema; it's the essence of his unique form distilled. (One could even say he was working towards Mirror ever since his feature debut Ivan's Childhood, which is similar to Badlands in that it's more-or-less a traditional narrative that also contains unique, singular bursts of what was to come.) Finally, in terms of their subject matter and structure, both Tree of Life and Mirror deal with memory in a kind of stream of consciousness-like flow of images (though the former is more of a river, the latter more of a lake).

Below are more similarities between Tarkovsky's films and The Tree of Life. I recognize that just because thematic similarities or rhyming compositions exist between certain images doesn't mean an actual reference is being made. After all, no filmmaker should hold a monopoly on characters lying in the grass or being framed in doorways; however, Tarkovsky does hold the copyright on inexplicable levitation (which Malick quotes), so we can be certain that The Tree of Life tips its hat to Tarkovsky at least once. I'll leave it to you to judge the rest.

Note: In the following images, Tarkovsky's films are on the top and The Tree of Life is on the bottom. They're grouped by film, and in the following order: Mirror (6 images, including the one above); Nostalghia (3); The Sacrifice (2); Solaris (1); Stalker (5). Stalker is the only Tarkovsky film I was able to capture from on my own, the rest I had to find online after taking captures from The Tree of Life.

tarkovsky, malick, mirror, zerkalo, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference

tarkovsky, malick, mirror, zerkalo, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference

tarkovsky, malick, mirror, zerkalo, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference


tarkovsky, malick, mirror, zerkalo, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference, bird, butterfly

tarkovsky, malick, mirror, zerkalo, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference, fire, candle, hand

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tarkovsky, malick, nostalghia, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference, candle

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tarkovsky, malick, sacrifice, offret, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference, baby, carriage

tarkovsky, malick, sacrifice, offret, tree of life, quotes, allusions, reference, planting tree

tarkovsky, malick, solaris, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference, seaweed

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tarkovsky, malick, stalker, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference, grass, weeds


tarkovsky, malick, stalker, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference, well

tarkovsky, malick, stalker, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference, room, doorway, chastain, porch

tarkovsky, malick, stalker, tree of life, quotes, allusion, reference, doorway, door, frame, salt flats


Tyler said...


1.) I don't mean to imply that TREE OF LIFE is as good as MIRROR (it's not even close). See Film Moments: 2011 for a brief overview of my reaction to the film.

2.) Yes, MIRROR and TREE have a very different feel that's largely derived from their very different formal qualities.

3.) One of the images is a cheat. Jessica Chastain walking through the doorway in the NOSTALGHIA section is a capture taken at passing moment. I thought it was notable also because the window(s) in the two images set off other similarities in the composition.

4.) It wasn't until making this post that I fully realized how integral Earth, water, wind, and fire are to Malick. For example, many of his films (possibly all of them, I don't remember) have tragic moments of fire. BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN especially, but TREE OF LIFE also has the burned boy and the quick burst of images showing his tragic background. (The burning house and the thematic connection to the four elements are another small connection to MIRROR / Tarkovsky.)

Anonymous said...

You must have been nodding off to sleep or blinking furiously not to have noticed that earth, water, wind and fire are major tropes in Malick's visual vocabulary before this. How can you say that you are just NOW noticing this???

Tyler said...

I didn't say I didn't notice, I said that I never fully realized it (you must have been blinking furiously when you read that part).

Intervals of a year or more between viewings make patterns less obvious. Also, there's a difference between filming nature (which contains earth, air, wind and fire) and using the four elements as tropes. Water is much more of a trope in the films of Tarkovsky and Tsai, for example, than it is in the films of Malick (Malick only uses more water if we measure by volume).

Anonymous said...

Tyler, I like your work here.

I was just reading an old Anthony Lane mini-precis of Mirror, because I am wondering which film to watch next in my current Tartovsky binge, and before I got to the end, I thought, hey: that's sort of Tree of Life. So now I'm here.

I'm not saying it's a case or an issue one way or another, I like both directors way too much too reduce it to a detective story, but I am saying this interests me and thankyou.


Tyler said...

No problem, & I very much appreciate your commenting!

nuboy said...

Interesting comments. I have just seen Tarkovsky's "Solaris," and I am struck by similarities between it and TOL. Underwater grass, meadows of grass, flowing lava-like forms, shots of outer space, and the whole theme of a universal consciousness which we leave and re-enter. I'm a bit surprised that no one seems to have picked up on this similarity between the 2 films. The Wikipedia article on TOL doesn't even mention Tarkovsky!

Anonymous said...

my god this is need first an eye and second a brain,this is useless and stupid comparing one of the best filmmaker in the history of cinema (terrence malick) with that shitty russian filmmaker

fuck off

Tyler said...


Your overzealous and passionate defense of your favorite artist is admirable, if not dangerous. I would recommend, however, that in all future attacks you take care not to criticize something as being "idiotic" and "useless" with something that is itself "idiotic" and "useless."

And now, since you so desperately need it, I will offer some advice. Most people will respond to such vitriol by becoming further entrenched, barely hearing or considering your point of view. Thus, your method is set for failure.

I myself, however, am the rare exception who will give due consideration to your remarks, as my open-mind is only exceeded by my benevolence.

There, done.

(Unfortunately, since you left me with no argument to consider, and because you dubiously assumed that a comparison of influence was necessarily a comparison of quality, in place of logic and reason I was left with nothing to ponder but your furor, which was neither well articulated nor particularly wrathful.)

You are welcome to try once more to show me the error of my ways, though I warn you in advance that I have yet to be persuaded by an angry face.

Anonymous said...

The elephant in the room is: the eroticization of mothers in both films.

Sven said...

Most of these shots predate Tarkovsky (including the levitation). It's not like he was the first filmmaker to ever shoot through a doorway -- seriously, there are only so many ways one can shoot and block a shot if they want to use the door has a frame within the frame. Same with tracking shots. And the butterfly in "The Tree of Life" was an unplanned, spur of the moment shot that had Malick, Lubezki, and Chastain following the insect for a few blocks before it landed on Chastain's hand.

Also: Where's the copyright on inexplicable levitation? How does that work anyhow?

And lighting a candle? Really? And walking with it? Try walking with an open flame and not using your hand as a windshield.

Despite your statement that no filmmaker holds a monopoly on shots/blocking, you go a helluva lot out of the way to "prove" the opposite.

Tyler said...

I'm curious because I don't know: what pre-Tarkovsky filmmaker(s) used inexplicable levitation in their films?

What is it that irks you so much about my comparing two great artists or suggesting a possible influence?

I (and others) see resemblances between many of the above shots that extend beyond what is literally being shown, just as there are structural resemblances related to the handling of memory and time in both MIRROR and TREE OF LIFE. If you can't (or don't) see any of this, fine. That's why I said, "I'll leave you to judge the rest." I'm not trying to "prove" anything.

I don't think that all of the shots above can be quite as easily brushed aside as some of the others, such as the cribs in the sparse rooms with wooden floors, the older men and young children planting trees (and the significance of the trees), etc. But I guess since people have shot cribs before, and because nearly all rooms have windows, we shouldn't even look at the two images next to one another and think about them? Or think about the tropes being used, or the decision to focus on candles, frame in doorways, exhibit inexplicable levitation, steep the films in water, wind, fire, and so on?

Many of the images are probably coincidences, yes (I even note in the comments how one of them is even a "cheat"). And sure, there are only so many ways to frame certain things. At the same time, it's as if light and color and the composition don't register at all when you look at some of the images above if that's all you're focusing on.

The role the candle plays in NOSTALGHIA (and the process of it being lit, keeping the flame, etc.) extends far beyond mere candle walking. I don't remember if there is any significance to the candle Penn is lighting in TREE OF LIFE -- it's been too long since I've seen it -- but you are being far too literal minded in your approach. Hence,

"Where's the copyright on inexplicable levitation? How does that work anyhow?"

This is called "whimsy."

Phillips said...

Late to this blogpost/blog, and entered via a google search of Tarkovsky's 'Mirror' visuals. I always liking linking artists and artworks and so your 'affinities' posts have struck a chord. Recent readings on the philosophies underlying the 'network' world we live in have only furthered such interests. Anyways, I love both Malick and Tarkovsky, but for some reason only had 'Vertigo' (Hitchcock) in my head while watching 'The Mirror.' There's a few layers in the film that suggest there was a clear influence. This is all maybe old hat and the subject of many cinematic essays/books. The other treasure trove of 'affinities' I felt pulsating within 'the Mirror' was simply the motif of the female portrait reversed, wherein the back of the head/hair w/spiral knot of the female subject is seen in Hitchcock, Gerhard Richter's paintings re his daughter, and on and on. Unfortunately, I don't have any computer skills re blogs and such, so must vicariously live out my own penchant for this sort of stuff via yours. So thank you for the above post and the blog overall. --duggan phillips