How We Remember
Gilberto Perez writes about the films of Terrence Malick
The family is moving out of town, and as the car drives away the mother looks back at the house they’re leaving behind. ‘The only way to be happy is to love,’ she says in voiceover. ‘Unless you love … your life will flash by.’ We cut to her point of view and, through the car’s rear window, see the pale green two-storey house receding down the quiet street. Then, unpredictably, we cut to a shot from inside the empty house: through the middle of three tall bay windows, past a green tree overhanging the road, the car can be seen disappearing into the distance. The home returns the mother’s gaze; in a kind of shot/ reverse shot, the glance of farewell is reciprocal. This occurs towards the end of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), which centres on a family in a Texas town in the 1950s. The use of voiceover is characteristic of Malick – no other filmmaker has been so devoted to the device. Also typical is the personified yet unascribed perspective, the sense we get in the empty house of seeing through the eyes of someone unseen, some house spirit watching the car go.
Vol. 35 No. 19 · 10 October 2013
Gilberto Perez’s description of Terrence Malick’s evocation of memory is right to focus on his editing (LRB, 12 September). It is undoubtedly the movement between and juxtaposition of images, not simply their content, that gives film so much of its power. However, Perez misses out on a fundamental aspect of Malick’s cutting: the frame itself. In the first two stills from The Tree of Life, for example, Malick’s camera neither centres on nor straightens the objects it presents. The heads of both flowers and humans are cut off and we are too close to see it all. This messy intimacy with the object of the gaze has two particular effects. The first is centrifugal. The edge of Malick’s frame is less a boundary or a limit, but something that feels more like a horizon. We cannot see it, but perceive nonetheless that the world extends out from this image or event, that there is an elsewhere we could move into. The images are fragments of a larger whole. At the same time the randomness and ambiguity of the frame’s edges deny it a sense of authority, that this and only this is what we must see, what we must remember. This effect is centripetal. Instead of searching for significance beyond the frame in the wider world our focus is concentrated inwards towards the centre of the image (the closely held kid goat, the density of the sunflowers), creating a sense of these objects as things that are touched rather than simply seen. It is the combination of proximity and distance, close-up detail and vague openness, that we recognise as being like our experience of memory.