I recently saw two movies that got me thinking about what makes a film “poetic.” The first of these “The Tree of Life” I borrowed from a local library; the other film “Wings of Desire” just happened to be on the TCM cable movie channel a few days later. “The Tree of Life” (2011) was directed by American filmmaker, Terrence Malick and “Wings of Desire” (1987) was directed by Wim Wenders, a German filmmaker .
The story in the “The Tree of Life” is told in a non-linear narrative with the movie beginning in voice over that presents a kind of philosophical viewpoint, perhaps even moralistic. Much of the film’s first half hour is also intensely visual with minutes of spectacular photographic footage that I believe is meant to perhaps reflect strong human emotion. Finally, after this long introductory sequence, the story is told from a more structured vantage point: a family in Texas in the 1950s comprised of three boys is run by an authoritative father and an understanding mother. One of the sons is also depicted in alternate sequences as an adult in current time who is now struggling with his lingering animosity towards his father as well as the nostalgia and warmth he feels for his brothers and his mother.
Much of the filmmaker’s visual representation of this story is what I would call “poetic.” It isn’t to everyone’s taste’s to watch and contemplate the images presented. Also the separation of time and distance that occurs in a free form way motivates the viewer to remain alert to shifts in the story as the film moves along.
Describing the movie “The Tree of Life” to people who possibly haven’t seen it is hard. It is a movie that makes you think and puzzle over what is occurring. Does this make it poetic?
In the movie “Wings of Desire” there are two angels who watch over the citizens of the divided city of Berlin, Germany in the mid 1980s. These angels cannot be seen by anyone else other than additional angels and some children. The angels can read the thoughts of all the humans that they come into contact with. One of the angels admits to wondering what it would be like to be human. Eventually this same angel encounters an attractive woman circus performer with whom he falls in love and his yearning to become human grows more intense. What he decides to do forms the final scenes of the film.
Now this film is perhaps more overtly “poetic.” The angel characters are said to be similar to those described in the poet Rainier Maria Rilke’s poetry “Duino Elegies” where the angel is a symbol of a unity of consciousness that transcends human limitation. Rilke’s angel is not related to Christianity, but represents a transcendent reality. Also in “Wings of Desire” there is a recurring element of a poem (written by the movie’s co-writer, Peter Handke) that begins “When the child was a child.” The thread of this poem, interwoven throughout the film, asks and requires the viewer to recognize it as being the verses of a poem.
Maybe because filmmaker Wim Wenders believed at the beginning of making “Wings of Desire” that his film was indescribable he worked to make it more reachable. I am not sure of Terrence Malick’s motivation with his film “The Tree of Life” other than some of its extra-ordinary photographic footage he actually created years before the film was made in 2010/2011. In both movies the viewer is asked to reach beyond a traditional movie watching experience and absorb and think slowly about what is being presented on the screen. Depending on a person’s sensibilities this type of film experience either would be welcomed or disdained.