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Good Letters

Last week, I witnessed the Big Bang.

More specifically—I enjoyed a sneak preview of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

The film’s publicity company will chop off my hands if I publish a review before opening day. But I’ll tell you this: Malick’s movie did more than catapult me back in time to witness the birth of the cosmos. It also brought back an important childhood experience I’d forgotten—the moment I discovered abstract art.

I spent my early teens writing stories, drawing pictures, and staging puppet shows for the kids next door. All weekend I’d play with crayons, construction paper, scissors, and glue.

One day, as I prepared to paint a pencil-sketched backdrop for a puppet-show, I spilled a small pool of water across the canvas.

As panic took hold, I saw a drop of red paint fall from my paintbrush. The drop struck the pool and bloomed into a crimson flower, pink in the middle, dark at the edges. My alarm turned to awe—the same pleasure I feel today watching cream clouds billow in a glass mug of coffee. I added a drop of blue and a purple starfish appeared.

It didn’t matter what I’d meant to create. This was new. And better.

I’ve preserved some of those cloudy paintings, rolled like sacred scrolls, in a special box at my parents’ house. And as I watched The Tree of Life, I realized that these filmmakers were indulging the same kind of play.

Surprises are rare at the movies these days. Strange. With digital animation, filmmakers can make anything happen. So they launch relentless, overwhelming images until audiences are exhausted. I don’t disrespect digital artists—they can produce wonders when their imaginations are equipped with grace and restraint. But most Friday night spectacles offer a barrage of audacious shocks and derivative imagery.

What big-screen images have left you truly awestruck? Most of my favorites were achieved by artists striving for transcendence with very limited resources. When I revisit Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back—the originals—I’m still amazed at what model-makers, artists, and puppeteers accomplished with metal, plastic, fabric, and wood. When George Lucas began inserting digital animation into “special editions,” the films lost some of their magic.

2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, and Raiders of the Lost Ark—these classics were crafted by artists, performed by stuntmen, enacted on stages of elaborate design. We saw real light reflect off of real surfaces. The Dark Crystal? Half of that film’s power came from the fact those elaborate costumes and lifelike creatures were all handmade. They had weight and dimension. They weren’t illusions produced by lines of code.

At a recent science fiction exhibit in downtown Seattle, I marveled at intricate details etched on a model of Star Wars’ Death Star, the tiny lights twinkling through the cracks. Last March, after I gave a lecture about the power of play, a woman presented me with a gift: a single yellow feather. “That’s from the real Big Bird,” she said. “From Sesame Street.” Today, it’s on my writing desk—a sacred relic from my childhood.

There’s mystery in materials.

Dr. John Medina, the developmental molecular biologist who wrote Brain Rules, knows more about the brain than anybody I’ve met. He knows all of today’s cutting-edge tools for boosting brainpower in babies. He says, “The greatest pediatric brain-boosting technology in the world is probably a plain cardboard box, a fresh box of crayons and two hours. The worst is probably your new flat-screen TV.”

There’s something about making. When we draw, we discover. When we sew and sculpt, we slow down. When we scissor and paste, paint and assemble, we consider possibilities, make mistakes, and revise. After watching the Muppets, I responded by making puppets of my own.

After Jurassic Park, there was nothing to do except wait for a sequel.

Few toys and games today invite curiosity about how they work. They’re designed to satisfy consumer impulses or cultivate competition, not to kindle curiosity. I don’t think my experiences playing Atari did much to enhance my imagination. But when I look at my childhood drawings, I can see myself asking questions and exploring. I have such fond memories of having absurd adventures with the kids next door. I miss the surprises and laughter that always came from clumsily brainstorming songs with my college rock band.

We made so much of so little.

In Proverbs 8, Wisdom plays like a child, creating the world.

Digital animation helped achieve those dazzling images in The Tree of Life. But Malick captured unprecedented spectacle thanks to Douglas Trumbull, the same effects expert who filled 2001: A Space Odyssey with indelible images.

Tree of Life’s visions of outer-space were created in Trumbull’s “secret laboratory” in Austin, Texas, where he played with “chemicals, paint, fluorescent dyes, smoke, liquids, CO2, flares, spin dishes, fluid dynamics, lighting and high speed photography.”

Such methods require an artist to surrender some control. Trumbull explains that Malick “didn’t want a mechanistic approach that would be set in cement. He would rather have mysterious phenomena spontaneously occur while the camera was rolling.”

Malick and Trumbull played like this for over a year, waiting for revelation in a way common to artists of any kind. For the rock band U2, it’s about playing together until that moment when “God walks through the room.”

Madeleine L’Engle wrote that “during the act of creation there is collaboration. We do not create alone.”

Trumbull said that Malick was seeking “completely unanticipated phenomena, those magical unexpected moments that no one could possibly design.”

No human being, anyway.

When the materials “take on lives of their own,” I cherish the experience. I’ve learned that I can’t make such moments happen, but I can increase their likelihood. It has something to do with play.

The Persian poet Rumi may have said it best: “New organs of perception come into being as a result of necessity. Therefore, O Man, increase your necessity, so that you may increase your perception.”


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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