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Points of Light by Ian Marcus Corbin

In ethics, film, nature, photography, theory, visual arts on April 2, 2013 at 20:25

From: Points of Light by Ian Marcus Corbin, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

Rumors of our civilization’s collapse have been somewhat exaggerated. When the National Society of Film Critics announced its awards for the year 2011, the top two films — Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, in first place, and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, in second — were separated by a single vote. It is fitting that they should vie so closely: they are opposite and in some ways equal attempts to show the essential nature of reality and the best way to live in it — openly flouting the au courant truism that art is fit chiefly to interrogate, unsettle, and subvert. Both films debuted at Cannes. If there had been any separation between their release dates, it would seem certain that one was made as a rebuttal to the other, for while the symmetry of the two films is striking, there is a deep philosophical quarrel between them. Von Trier and Malick can’t both be right: Melancholia argues that reality, including life, is best understood in the light of death; The Tree of Life argues that reality, including death, is best understood in the light of life. These propositions are familiar enough; more surprising and important are the force and grandeur with which the two films substantiate them.

The tone and the source of light in The Tree of Life are vital to Malick’s philosophical vision. He is a rhapsode of the Emersonian order — plainly enchanted with the stuff of existence. His world is one of illuminations. Rich, clear light suffuses leaves, grass, fabric, hair, water, even skin. The lovely, if sometimes flickering, radiance of earthly life echoes a deeper, more enduring light. As Mrs. O’Brien says, love smiles through all things. We simply need eyes naked and patient enough to see them as they are. The journey of the movie, from Jack’s conjuring of the Big Bang onwards, is an effort not to impose a novel vision, but to shake the scales from his eyes. In Melancholia, by contrast, things in themselves don’t shine. Life has nothing to say for itself. Illumination always comes from without, whether it is cast by the comforting artifice of human technology, the very occasional glimmer of sunlight, or by the sharp white light of heavenly death. Only one of these sources of light has the power to reveal the truth. For von Trier, to bathe in the stark, blanching light of death is simply to become reconciled with reality; death is the one star that illuminates everything.

Read the essay

Reposted with permission from: The New Atlantis

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