Secret Experiments in “The Tree of Life,” Part II: Influences and Antecedents

Trees of Life: Still from "The Hedge Theatre" (1969, dir. Robert Beavers)

Last week Keyframe profiled experimental artist Scott Nyerges, who licensed footage from his work for the film The Tree of Life. In light of the tremendous response the article received, this article offers more links between Terrence Malick’s work and the avant garde visionaries that deserve greater recognition. A past Keyframe article already made links between The Tree of Life and the films of Bruce Baillie and Stan Brakhage.  Doug Cummings and Michael Sicinski, who have both written extensively on avant garde cinema, offer their own reference points for further investigation into the visionary realm both within and beyond The Tree of Life. – KBL

Critics have been name-dropping experimental filmmakers in their efforts to describe the visual grammar of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but the movie’s end credits point the most clearly to direct influences. The abstract, shifting light imagery used as a primary motif in the movie, for example, is the credited Opus 161 “Untitled” (1966), a key Lumia by Thomas Wilfred (1889-1968), a Danish pioneer who performed such works with a “light organ” he invented. Wilfred toured throughout the US and Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s, and later recorded Lumia for museum exhibitions.

Wilfred is one of the many artists whose work is preserved and promoted by the Los Angeles-based Center for Visual Music (CVM), a small but crucial film archive devoted to a subgenre of experimental film associated with often silent, abstract visual presentations.  CVM distributes a number of must-see DVDs featuring key works by artists such as Wilfred, Oskar Fischinger, and Jordan Belson.

Jordan Belson Samadhi

CVM was a consultant for The Tree of Life and is thanked in the credits. In retrospect, the organization’s “call for work” on the Frameworks listserve in 2006 for “segments of abstract and experimental film” for a “major motion picture” give us a clue regarding Malick’s intent. The posting stipulated interest in the following:

a) Abstract, non-representational work with mysterious, suggestive elements

b) Experimental or abstract work suggesting organic processes

c) Abstract, non-representational imagery that metaphorically suggests molecular,  subatomic, natural and/or cosmological processes and phenomena

d) Spiritually-inspired abstract imagery, such as that which is inspired by Buddhist or Taoist beliefs or using sacred imagery

e) Abstract Visualizations of music in which the visuals have an organic, mysterious, spiritual or suggestive element

Those familiar with the work of Belson in particular will note the mystical Beat Generation themes often associated with his films, and CVM confirmed to me that the makers of The Tree of Life “studied” their Belson DVD “intently, plus Belson’s other films for the visual effects” in the movie. The sequences of nebulous, multicolored substances swirling to soaring music are clearly derivative of Belson films such as Samadhi (1967), Light (1973), Fountain of Dreams (1984), and Epilogue (2005).

Doug Cummings


Sarabande (Nathaniel Dorsky)

Much has been made of Malick’s spiritual vision in The Tree of Life, and this is quite accurate; it is a film that attempts, among other things, to invest the quotidian with the radiance of the holy, a concentrated visual power that connects to possible transcendence. Malick, of course, is placing this project in the service of narrative cinema. Nathaniel Dorsky’s films have a more direct, more image-driven approach to a similar project. Dorsky’s films, such a Variations, Aubade, and Compline, are completely silent, 16mm non-narrative works made to be shown at 16 to 18 frames per second, slowing down the universe to the very threshold of natural motion. Whether examining reflections of life in city windows, flowers jostled by wind and sun, or the glint of night rain of a windshield, Dorsky uses his films to re-order linear time into self-sufficient, near-perfect moments, hovering before us onscreen. Dorsky provides a glimpse into our own world as it might be seen by an ideal consciousness, one that the films aim to coax us into inhabiting ourselves.

Much like Dorsky, Robert Beavers is an avant-gardist whose work always maintains direct ties to realism. It is in the framing, ordering and editing of his pictures of our world that his artistry resides. Like Malick, Beavers is a classicist, drawing inspiration from 18th and 19th century European painting, music and architecture, although these elements do not always appear directly in Beavers’ films. In works like The Ground and Work Done, Beavers explores the human body’s relationship to manmade structures and especially nature, using time-honored aesthetic modes to create gentle yet jarring juxtapositions. Beavers is not a storyteller, but over the course of his films, repetition and variation generate a “world” just as surely as Malick does with his vernacular use of cosmic imagery.

Michael Sicinski

Amor Robert Beavers

Helpful links:

The Center for Visual Music
Visionary Film
SFMOMA Article on Jordan Belson
Filmmaker Magazine interview with Nathaniel Dorsky
Diagonal Thoughts on Robert Beavers
Twitch on Robert Beavers


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