Terrence Malick's ... cosmically tinged movie, about a family in Waco, Texas, in the nineteen-fifties, and the creation of the world, among other things, begins and ends with a shifting flame of red-yellow light. Critics have been confounded by the flame. Robert Koehler, of Variety, dismissed it as a “yolk-colored blob”; Amy Taubin, writing in ArtForum, called it “a great whatsit”; and Anthony Lane described it in these pages as “glimmers of unfathomable light.” The Times' A.O. Scott concluded that it “can only represent the creator.”
So what, exactly, is the “great whatsit”? Malick isn't telling - he hasn't granted an interview about his work since the nineteen-seventies. The Tree Of Life's credits, however, reveal the image to be the light artist Thomas Wilfred's “Opus 161” (1965-66). Now largely forgotten, Wilfred's “lumia compositions,” as he called them, are both feats of bric-a-brac engineering and ethereal works of art. He employed reflective mirrors, hand-painted glass disks, and bent pieces of metal - all housed in a screened wooden cabinet, or, in one case, mounted on a walnut “tea wagon” - to transform beams of light produced by a series of lamps and lenses. To look inside a lumia instrument is to see an apparent scrap heap put to near-magical use. Wilfred began honing his technique in the nineteen-twenties, and by the forties and fifties his work was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art. MOMA's founding director, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., wrote to Wilfred, in 1959, “I think it would please you to know that we receive more letters and telephone calls asking for information aout Lumia than about any other single work in the Museum's collection.”
A piecemeal transcendentalist, Wilfred sought to represent “the universal rhythmic flow” in his art. He produced roughly forty works before his death, in 1968. Only eighteen lumia pieces have survived. (Clare Boothe Luce's is in storage at the Honolulu Academy of Arts.) One of these is “Luccata, Opus 162,” whic is currently on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The piece is on loan from the collection of Eugene Epstein, a retired radio astronomer, and his wife, Carol, who own about half of the extant Wilfreds, including the one featured in The Tree Of Life. “These are rarely seen,” Epstein explained the other day. “I you haven't seen one in person, you're totally unaware of them.” This is largely owing to the fact that Wilfred resisted attempts to record the lumia. “I have never permitted any of my works to be filmed,” he wrote in 1962. “We have experimented with the process here and the results have been too poor to be considered.”
Malick's crew first contacted Epstein four years ago about filming “Opus 161,” which they recorded both at LACMA and at the Epstein's home in Los Angeles. The piece runs without repeating itself for one year, three hundred and fifteen days, and twelve hours, although it occupies only about a minute or two of screen time in The Tree of Life. Epstein recalled speaking to one of Malick's producers: “They were trying to capture something about creation and so on, and they were wondering if they could used lumia.” Epstein, who consideres the preservation of Wilfred's works and legacy to be his “life's mission,” is not a film buff, and he did not immediately recognize Malick's name. “Terrence and his wife came over for an afternoon, “he said. “I was told he was a prominent director. He's a bright guy, very cordial, nothing pretentious or anything about him. He didn't come swooping in with an entourage.”
Epstein discovered Wilfred's work in 1960, while visiting MOMA as a graduate student. “There was this darkened alcove where 'Opus 137' was,” he recalled. “It just hit me like a ton of bricks. I stood there for a while watchig, and then my feet got tired, and then I just sat down on the floor and watched some more.” When asked what strikes him about lumia, he says, “Sublime, ineluctable beauty. It's a visceral joy.”
Joshua White, the founder of the nineteen-sixties psychedelic multimedia outfit the Joshua Light Show, also cites Wilfred as one of his primary influences. He recalled taking girlfriends to MOMA after school to stare at the Wilfreds. “He was making something that I call 'fugitive art,’” said White, who was taking a break from prepping a recent three-night stint at the Hayden Planetarium. “You couldn't take a picture of someone looking at a Wilfred, really, because it was so fragile, and the recording medium didn't exist.”
White, who found lumia to have pacific qualities - “I was kind of a hyper child,” he said; “the Wilfred calmed me down” - links his work to his predecessor's: “Light, especially when it's been abstracted by a genius like Thomas Wilfred, the whole point is it's a little ambiguous. You see what you want to see. We make something for you to interpret in your head, so that everybody sees a different light show.” The same, it seems, can be said of film critics.
The New Yorker, June 27, 2011