Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tree of Life

Though I haven't revisited The Tree of Life, as I still hope to, it's been stewing in my head for several days now.

Brad Pitt is probably as good as he's ever been.  The hands-on-lovehandles machismo he played to comedic effect in Inglourious Basterds here re-emerges as the performance of midcentury masculinity.  A rough Don Draper (with a dash of Single Man's Colin Firth, or maybe that's just midcentury modern home design talking), he embodies the marriage of a certain tough minded, indelicate approach to the world (similar to the materialist Sean Penn character in The Thin Red Line) and the Mortimer Adler / modernist self-improvement endemic to a certain class in the period.  Pitt's pouting lip and jawline, his gruff voice - these things glimpsed so many years ago in Legends of the Fall come out and are used to tremendous effect here.  There's no essential distinction between Pitt's performance and the father's "performance."  Or as the doc says in WR - Mysteries of the Organism, you don't have a body, you are your body.

I'm still thinking about the way The Tree of Life situates its women characters.  Jessica Chastain's silent, strong, long-suffering wife: is this a theme of the film, or one of its symptomatic conventions?  I think it may be some of both.  We see here one of cinema's great arguments against patriarchy - that it's neither beneficial nor eternal.  That much is clear.  The question remains, for me, as to Tree of Life's self-awareness with regard to how it uses its male/father/female/mother figures.  I suppose that what we have, in a certain sense, Malick's own examination of a loosely autobiographically informed childhood.  It's tricky to try to tease out what might be meant as historically specific and what might be meant as trans-historical.  Because I can certainly see how one could watch The Tree of Life and roll the eyes at parts, since the gazing-through-trees aspects might suggest the nuclear white 1950s family as the transcendental milieu, the natural context ... rather than a more strictly, more contingently historical one.  On one viewing I'm not sure if the film has really delineated, one way or the other, how it might mean to finesse its viewers' reception of this family microcosm: universal or particular?
  
The esteemed Peter Tonguette takes the film to task for its departures from classical storytelling craft.  But I don't know how fair this is.  Can one think of a film released by a Hollywood studio that more explicitly marks out the fact that its aims - whatever those might be - are not at all those of crafting a clear story with minimal spatial ruptures?  Peter suggests that The Tree of Life often feels like a trailer for itself.  I think I understand precisely what he means but I'm not sure it appropriately applies to this film, where the editing indeed departs from many fiction cinema norms but is nonetheless an extraordinary achievement.  More than any other Hollywood-released film I've ever seen, The Tree of Life reminds me of the likes of not only Nathaniel Dorsky but also Gregory Markopoulos.  The editing rhythms gun for the proprioceptive, the kinaesthetic, rather than the cognitive fundaments of a narrative.  I also think that, in the middle, most "story" heavy section especially, the editing is highly evocative of memory.  Instead of being efficient, images and actions overlap, we feel them more than understand them; they create a surplus without actually telling everything.  Granted, this is not how an economical, 1940s-style Hollywood film typically operates.  But given Malick's track record and the themes of the film, it's a more than reasonable way to produce meaning and sensation through cutting.  All this may, indeed, prove frustrating to some viewers - because the film suggests that there is a clear and compelling story "lost" in the editing.

Now, one doesn't have to love Terrence Malick's work.  And just because one likes the '70s films need have no bearing on reception of the more recent titles.  Even so, as Richard Neer's brilliant recent piece on The New World indicates, the editing patterns and sound-image relations that characterize later Malick are by no means just pretty or picturesque but in fact rather dense, sophisticated, and intricate.  This does not mean they are somehow above all critique.  Yet this is why I'm puzzled by Peter's objections - of all the potential skeptical approaches, is the best (or even the tenth best) to chide the film for "failing" to edit in such a way as to clearly and economically convey narrative information, as if this is the only criterion by which a film can or should ever be edited?  (Is Stan Brakhage a bad editor as well?  Do Bunuel and Dali's cuts fall short too?)

These are still just mostly initial thoughts ...

34 comments:

JeanRZEJ said...

If I know anything about anything it's that a film is always never what it is not. On that point we can count The Tree of Life guilty of a great many things, a film of traditional narrative crafting as much as many other things. I don't see the relevance, myself. Like shooting dead fish in barrels full of dead fish.

The teaser trailer for Broken Embraces is absolutely breathtaking. Wasn't as enamored with the film. The condensed editing, the focus on gestures and moods rather than dialogue and melodramatics - that is some beautiful pure cinema, the type I would love to see. To compare The Tree of Life to a trailer is to say that it takes full advantage of the capabilities of film to convey mood clearly and concisely without relying on words, and to move between images with the type of grace (no pun intended) that exposition and dialogue tend to betray. A great compliment to the film, although it's a shame that the speaker didn't understand the implications of his own words!

I do recommend you check out the Broken Embraces teaser trailer. It's some kind of beautiful.

As for YOUR words on the film - I feel like I agree, but I don't know what your words mean. The impression, though, seems right. My vocabulary does not to this point include the terms found here: 'The editing rhythms gun for the proprioceptive, the kinaesthetic', but what you contrast it with seems to be the same thing I feel a delightful contrast with, so it seems we are on the same wavelength even though I don't actually know what you're saying.

I like what you say here: 'the film suggests that there is a clear and compelling story "lost" in the editing.' And what a find the loss was!

As for the mother - I think, on reflection, there is a sense that the storyteller (we'll say it's Penn's character) doesn't focus much on his mother because he and his brother didn't struggle much with their mother, maybe didn't understand their mother much, although it is telling that she shows up in the film's 'climactic' moment of 'overcoming', the 'giving up of natural worries' or whatever happens in that scene, even after she has been pushed to the background and the father's character development seems to signal that his state of mind is of the most importance. Maybe so, but maybe those who are in less need of a dramatic change should take less importance in the story, and in this respect it is a very particular tale of mother and father, of a single family, and not a historical or cultural take at all. In fact, I don't see any evidence whatsoever that the film should be taken as being of any more importance than any other family. Just one in the universe, not THE one in the universe, and if one is to be chosen it makes sense to choose your own (whether it be Penn or Malick speaking) not out of arrogance but out of humility - speak only that which you know, nothing more. As such, I don't get the 'nuclear white 1950s family as the transcendental milieu, the natural context'. I mean, I doubt there is anyone anywhere arrogant enough to presuppose such a thing intentionally, so I don't know why we would even entertain the option.

Great film, interesting thoughts, as always. If you come upon any more feel free to post them, I'm sure you'll find interested readers.

Jon Hastings said...

In his review on MUBI, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky called Malick a romantic, and that's kind of the sense I got, too. Specifically, I was reminded of the work of AR Ammons, a modern (although not necessarily modernist) poet who continued in the Romantic tradition. Ammons' work also features that kind of juxtaposition of seemingly incommensurate scales.

Calling Malick a "poet" is, admittedly, not very satisfying, but I do think this movie draws more from the confessional, lyrical model of the semi-narratives of Wordsworth (this is Malick's "Prelude") or Whitman.

Anonymous said...

I think the people bitching about the somehow wounded (Is it wounded?) narrativity of the Tree of Life are way off. It seems that form matches content perfectly, the cutting, I agree, is sublime, -- not just as a "memory film" but as a trauma film, like Muriel, but unfolding two traumas at the same time -- the one between God and his creation, and the reciprocal yet banal one between the child and his parents. Were you there, indeed?

Also: what are we to make of the linkage of the two "traumas" -- it seems that Malick forces you to think about an incommensurability of scale which is almost bemused and bemusing. That seems to be the most daring artistic gesture here.

Zach Campbell said...

Damn, I had written a long comment that Blogger seems to have eaten yesterday.

What it boils down to is that, already, the "sides" in this battle for or against Tree of Life have gravitated to extremely predictable sorts of reactions. (My post isn't exactly an exception to this, either.) Peter Tonguette, Dave Kehr, and various others over at DK's site - unofficially carrying a banner for the informed cinephile's appreciation of classical craft - place the blame at the loopy hubris of a guy who's forgotten how to tell a good yarn with efficient mise-en-scene. Kehr notes Malick's cutting which unnecessarily fragments the narrative. Egads! Can't have a film whose purpose is anything other than the communication of a story along the patterns identified by Bordwell et al, can we!?

There are certainly some thoughtful criticisms of The Tree of Life - Koehler's, for instance, and Klawans' - though I think the latter still hews toward the fundamental problem, which is that almost all of these responsess quickly reduce to a trial over the personality, methods, sincerity, effectiveness, etc., of Terence Malick himself. Is he operating in good faith? Or we obligated to approach him in good faith?

Are we fur 'im or agin' 'im?

And many of those of us who have come out in defense of Malick are guilty of this, from the other direction. We judge that Malick knows what he's doing - he's earned credit with his prior films, we are mysteriously moved by this ambitious and opaque project, and we're not clutching our pearls over the clear fact this film evokes a simple story without being that simple story.

This is why I think that Neer piece on The New World. (NB: Richard Neer's "Connoisseurship and the Stakes of Style" is one of my favorite scholarly essays of the past decade or more. Anyone interested should read it pronto.) Anyway, this article also engages in auteurist, but its real worth is in laying out the patterns and rhythms and resonances that work in the film - things that, to the cinephilic eye insistent upon recognizing a classical rendering of space-time and nothing else, will be invisible, or will form only as waste, indulgence, "unnecessary fragmentation." Neer's article proves otherwise, and enriches our understanding of The New World ... even if we don't like or love that film.

This doesn't of course mean that people must like The Tree of Life - only that the terms in which it's being dismissed are inadequate. Likewise, I'll be happy to see the film again, as I continue catching up with all the stuff that's been written about it. Those who admire the film should take the strategy of patient analysis, and see where it leads ...

Zach Campbell said...

Jean, that Broken Embraces trailer is indeed a nice, evocative encapsulation. I never got around to seeing the film, unfortunately. Loved Volver though and was disappointed when it briefly became a "thing" in serious film culture that you were tempted to choose Pedro Costa "over" Pedro Almodovar.

The editing in Tree of Life is built upon a lot of overlapping, sheave-like, sensory effects, I think. That's not the only thing that's happening - it's not the only sort of editing in the movie. But it does mark the middle Waco section, and it's what's coming under fire for its inefficiency.

Jon, I would agree with Ignatiy, pretty much - Malick's a Romantic. Some kind of one anyway. I'll buy it. (I also think Ignatiy's is one of the strongest positive takes on the film I've seen.)

Anonymous, interesting thoughts about the two "traumas." Will have to think more about that. But you bring up 'scale,' which is another huge dimension of this film's aesthetics that I think hasn't gotten much attention. I adore the way Tree of Life stretches and shrinks its frame, so to speak. (Through intelligent editing and photography!) On one viewing, without having written notes, I can't yet provide good clear examples of what I mean, but in the near future perhaps ... I just remember being overwhelmed by the space, and the ways in which it could filter down through the intimate and microcosmic.

I'm not opposed to holding up The Tree of Life to ideological examination and critique - I'm not convinced it's "spotless" myself, and anyway I'm not interested in spotless art. Puritanism (and the puritanical consumerism that so often passes for "politicized" film criticism these days) is not a goal of mine. All the same, I don't want to just dismiss this film because Malick harbors some metaphysical ambitions ... that whole 'New Atheist'/Dawkins type crowd rubs me the wrong way. (Just one cut above "free market," Ayn Rand-style libertarians if you ask me.)

I am more bothered by the inflexibility among some cinephiles who take the film to task for its presumed narrative incoherence. If The Tree of Life clearly indicated itself as a traditional, classically cut and composed story, then those criticisms would be warranted. As it stands, the film obviously, blatantly marks itself out from those particular norms. So that's why I think Kehr, Tonguette, etc., are just plainly wrong to criticize the film on those grounds. Peter, for instance, is arguing for a particular preference - not just for a style, but actually something more general - an idiom of arranging time and space. (This is consonant with what I know of Peter's overall film tastes and his careful, insightful, and dedicated attention to strains of 'late classical' style in Hollywood, for instance.) But there's a clear sense of wanting it both ways - preferring a stylistic idiom other than Malick's quasi-narrativized "symphonic-poetic" approach, and then taking issue with The Tree of Life for "failing" in that other idiom. And the sole grounds for this unfairness is that, back in the 1970s, Malick made two films that more clearly satisfied the demands of that other, more classical idiom while remaining lyrical. If he did it then, why shouldn't we hold him to it now?

Zach Campbell said...

Whoops - left out a couple words in my comments above on Richard Neer. Should have read:

"This is why I think that Neer piece on The New World is so important. [...] Anyway, this article also engages in auteurist defense ..."

Anonymous said...

I'm a little more cynical than you about the whole "failed narrative" critique. This was a charge that really could be mounted against Red Line and TNW much more effectively, back in the day. You could say those films are unbalanced wild tops that veer from narrative back to poetry and feel choppy. I think what's happening here with The Tree of Life is a case of mauvais foi -- these critics feel that they SHOULD mount an ideological critique, but for some strange reason they are flummoxed by something in the work that doesn't make it so easy. And thus, the scornful throwing up of hands, etc.

The film, to me, reminds of something Valery says about poetry -- about how hard it is to hit the mark of poetry -- something that applies metaphorically to film, too. And this quote also explains something about Method which I think is consistent with the way Malick works to find the film.

Paul Valery: "The poetic universe is not created so powerfully or so easily....[The poet] has to borrow language - the voice of the public, that collection of traditional and irrational terms and rules, oddly created and transformed, oddly codified, and very variedly understood and pronounced.... Nothing pure; but a mixture of completely incoherent auditive and psychic stimuli. Each word is an instantaneous coupling of a sound and a sense that have no connection with each other....A discourse can be logical, packed with sense, but devoid of rhythm and measure. It can be pleasing to the ear, yet completely absurd or insignificant; it can be clear, yet useless; vague, yet delightful.

So the poet is at grips with this verbal matter, obliged to speculate on sound and sense at once, and to satisfy not only harmony and musical timing but all the various intellectual and aesthetic conditions, not to mention the conventional rules.

You can see what an effort the poet's understanding would require if he had consciously to solve all these problems...."

JeanRZEJ said...

I don't think anyone would take the negative criticisms of Malick's approach to narrative seriously if they were applied to a film by Aleksandr Sokurov. In fact, they would be laughed at. In fact, they are already laughed at by me. This is not to say that Malick is anywhere near as opaque as Sokurov, but he's closer to him than to Badlands by this point, I think. Would someone criticize Elegy of a Voyage for not having a strong enough narrative? Hilarious. Oh, but The Tree of Life has a hint more narrative (and far less voiceover), so now it must be judged by the standards of a full-blown primary narrative film? Must? Skipping the question of 'meaningful' and 'interesting', to which the answer is 'mildly', and moving on to 'must'? Hilarious. These 'rules' for narrative films are hilarious. Guilty if proven somewhat similar (and sentenced if anything other than completely devoted). It's nonsense.

I have no idea what you mean by 'And many of those of us who have come out in defense of Malick are guilty of this, from the other direction. We judge that Malick knows what he's doing - he's earned credit with his prior films, we are mysteriously moved by this ambitious and opaque project, and we're not clutching our pearls over the clear fact this film evokes a simple story without being that simple story.'

Why judge that anyone knows what they're doing? Why not simply judge the film? I tend to think that Sokurov has no idea what he's doing (or saying), yet what he manages to do is some of the most beguiling, intriguing, amazing stuff I've ever encountered. Simple and not simple, not simple and simple, whatever, I don't see the meaning in the distinction. All it really means is mutable, to which all cinema certainly is and most especially when the threading becomes more opaque. I don't see the point in 'defending' a film. My opinion is unchanged by the opinion of millions (or tens) of others' opinions. To express it in any case is all the same, and always benefiting from continued broadening of experiences. I can't speak well of Koehler's nonsensical insistence upon classical storytelling 'rules': 'He has fatally forgotten the wisdom that in the specific lies the universal, and instead imposes an entirely unearned universal construct on top of a small story that should have a running time of no more than 80 minutes'. That's tailoring the film to fit his wants, not tailoring his mind to fit the beautiful oddity of a new experience. I could pose 10 different idioms to contradict Koehler's point, but the easiest route is simply to say - what has he gained? Defense, attack, it's all silly. At the very least it is two hours spent watching a film that didn't interest you; at the best it's two hours that initially didn't interest you but you found to be wholly revelatory after reorienting your entire approach to experience in such a way which attuned and augmented each experience in ways subtle and impossible to ignore in equal measure. Is that not the goal of art, or is it merely to build certain incontrovertible rules and then defend them against attackers with different rules? If it's not about enriching one's experience then it's merely passive wish-fulfillment - I may as well watch the latest Pirates of the Caribbean.

“Even when the film-maker affronts the public taste there is no justification for his audacity, no justification except insofar as it is possible to admit that it is the spectator who misunderstands what he should and someday will like.”

In essence: Dislike is fleeting and pointless to substantiate as it is instantly invalidated upon a positive change of mind (and I would argue that the opposite is not true!). And there is much room for even the most experienced old man - especially when citing silly platitudes which serve only to map current attitudes, not expand into the new and the beyond-narrative.

Peter Tonguette said...

I read Zach's post with interest, and have been following the subsequent comments with interest, too, though I'm not sure I will have much to contribute beyond restating some preferences and opinions.

Zach defines my film tastes and positions well, and I am glad he sees that I want my argument against TREE OF LIFE to be taken in that spirit. I am arguing on behalf a style of filmmaking that is in serious decline, and arguing against certain aspects of contemporary film style that I find no better because Malick is using them (as opposed to a less gifted director). And I guess I will forever return to my question: were BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN inferior films for being more subject to the classical tradition?

I should clarify that it isn't just the editing that bothers me in TREE OF LIFE. After all, I have just published at Senses of Cinema a piece about the remarkable montages in King Vidor's OUR DAILY BREAD and AN AMERICAN ROMANCE. But the editing of those montages always, always relates to the story or to a point Vidor wishes to make or to a visual structure that is much clearer to me than what I see in TREE OF LIFE.

Photographic style makes a big difference. I mean, I may have a different feeling about the film's editing if the compositions and camera moves didn't also feel so rudderless to me. I find the combination to be completely unedifying. Roeg indulged in a lot of experimental editing, but his films were grounded, if you will, by his remarkable taste as a cinematographer. Dan Sallitt has written (I think on a_film_by) about the contrast in Welles's films between the traditional staging and deep focus of his shots and the quick manner of his editing; Dan found this effective, as do I. But it's not what Malick is doing.

Also, some of Malick's signature visuals increasingly take me out of his films. For example, one of the scenes I did like was when Brad Pitt is out of town and the kids have the run of the house. Perhaps not coincidentally, my recollection is that the shots in this scene were held longer than most others in the '50s scenes, and the compositions were roomier, giving us a better sense of the spaces in the house. I found it a good scene (including a few well-done jump cuts) until there was a cut to a tree blowing in the wind. The effect is like Welles cutting to a shot of a sled called Rosebud in the middle of OTHELLO.

JeanRZEJ, the scene I referenced in THE MAN IN THE MOON (with two lines of dialogue) proves that it is possible to "convey mood clearly and concisely without relying on words," and to do it in one masterfully staged and blocked shot!

Anonymous said...

I love mourning the death of mise-en-scene as much as the next guy, as much as Peter Tonguette even.

But no amount of sackcloth and ashes is going to turn a late Malick film into Metaphysical Hitchcock -- that is, into Kieslowski. Malick just isn't interested in that stuff. And that's not a problem. And it doesn't make his films sloppy or careless, merely because the films are articulated as a thematic (often dialectical) search within certain affect-spaces rather than the firmer stylistic conclusions of an auteur upon his material. This is a particular prejudice of auteurism and we've all indulged in it.

If I was going to characterize later Malick in a short-hand way I would call it "organic or free range vertovianism" -- that is the famous technique of Vertov, but subversively/perversely used for transcendental effects, rather than marxist-scientific ones. This puts him closer to Peleshian and Grandrieux than to (sorry) Mulligan.

JeanRZEJ said...

'JeanRZEJ, the scene I referenced in THE MAN IN THE MOON (with two lines of dialogue) proves that it is possible to "convey mood clearly and concisely without relying on words," and to do it in one masterfully staged and blocked shot!'

Why is art limited to only one regimented possibility and not the entire scope of potential possibilities rendered in new and intriguing ways, all of which have different implications and provoke different sensations even when they touch on the same overlying effect? That Malick does something in the film is not to say that there is not another way to do what he does - I care not for elevating any filmmaker or style's pre-eminence because of a certain effect. Quite the opposite - I look for films I find interesting regardless of the technique or artist. You are representing a very, very opposed view, one which I find quite perplexing, especially given that it is explicitly and intentionally narrow and reductive, relying on the implicit premise that the things mentioned in the following quotation actually matter more than the things they contrast: 'elates to the story or to a point Vidor wishes to make or to a visual structure that is much clearer to me than what I see in TREE OF LIFE.'

To me both the things you mention and the things you oppose are equally capable of producing something interesting, and I see no reason why one should be ghettoized and another praised to high heaven. I love filmmakers who indulge in both modes. Even when you note that Malick's editing choices 'take you out of the film' most of us can relate to experiences of this sort with great enthusiasm, as the techniques of Brecht and Kluge and others work wonderfully even as they are absolutely opposed to the 'traditional' modes of continuity and absorption - modes which have their own benefits and are interesting in their own right. I see no reason to ghettoize certain techniques based on the strengths of others. Context is king, and I have yet to find a technique which cannot in some context be used in an interesting manner. Furthermore, even when I find a technique that doesn't work within a context (let's assume that if I were taken out of The Tree of Life and found it uninteresting) - this doesn't mean that this instance is immediately to be shipped to the ghetto. I think the experience of art should always be a continuing dialogue, and thus I see no reason to condemn any style or even instance, although there is certainly something to be said for focusing on those elements which resonate most in order to understand their underlying mechanisms and contexts to see how such knowledge can spread to other elements which are just as potentially interesting but not as immediately interesting. And an outright dearth of interesting material crafted from a divergent and untrammeled path is never as bad to me as the wholly derivative work of someone merely following narrowly prescribed guidelines. If I am to grow as a person it will not be by ever-sharpening my abilities to cut off new possibilities.

JeanRZEJ said...

'JeanRZEJ, the scene I referenced in THE MAN IN THE MOON (with two lines of dialogue) proves that it is possible to "convey mood clearly and concisely without relying on words," and to do it in one masterfully staged and blocked shot!'

Also, it should be noted that I referenced Sokurov, so I don't see how this possibility was ever in doubt. I prefer a preponderance of riches to everything else.

ted said...

I had to see it twice to fully engage with it, but after my second viewing I don't think there is really anything confusing about the story Malick is telling. It's just told in a way most narrative cinema doesn't tell stories in.

I hope there is a 30-45 minute longer cut released that has a larger section with adult-Jack in order to make his conversion from faithless to a believer more moving. Though, as Adrian Martin wrote in his Malick article, "It is hard to find the decisive, dramatic moment when things happen in Malick’s films." At the end of Tree of Life he tries to show something happening but his oblique style kind of makes it not as a powerful as it could theoretically be otherwise (after the beach scenes I believe there are two shots of Jack before the film ends).

Zach Campbell said...

This is just a placeholder comment - I was out of town for a few days with limited Internet access. Suffice it to say that I mean to address some of the points raised here after my last post. (And Peter, thank you for graciously adding to the debates!) But I may also see Tree of Life again in the next day or two, olympians willing - so it may be worth reserving further comment until then. I'll see.

Zach Campbell said...

OK, I am going to see Tree of Life again, but as I haven't gotten around to it in the last couple days, I did want to address a few points.

Jean wrote: Why judge that anyone knows what they're doing? Why not simply judge the film?

Yes - that's true. I just think that a lot of the film's defenders are, perhaps, a bit defensive, and their approach is to defend Malick of charges of religiosity, suspect universalism, self-indulgent grandiosity, etc., etc. (I don't exclude myself from this impulse.) When in fact that battle should be fought over the film and the evidence it provides.

Peter wrote: And I guess I will forever return to my question: were BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN inferior films for being more subject to the classical tradition?

No! In fact I would propose, if anything, that it is only the Tree of Life skeptics like yourself, Peter, who make such a comparison, as a straw man argument to demolish by way of defending 'early Malick' and his more classically consonant style. I understand and even empathize with the impulse to respect classical traditions - which are withering away, despite the fact that they could improve a great many recent films. But I don't see Malick as having much to do with the Michael Bayization of contemporary cinema. Good or bad, Malick is about as unique and exceptional as one can get with the Hollywood imprimatur still in place - so how effective is it to use him (he who has no imitators, now that David Gordon Green has abandoned the task!) as a whipping boy for the abandonment of the beauty & economy of classical form?

So I have yet to see an appreciation of Tree of Life that suggests that Malick's early works are inferior or inadequate or invalid in the face of Tree of Life. If such claims exist, I'd be happy to see them. But I'm pretty confident in claiming that most of this new film's admirers are not putting themselves behind such statements.

JeanRZEJ said...

'So I have yet to see an appreciation of Tree of Life that suggests that Malick's early works are inferior or inadequate or invalid in the face of Tree of Life. If such claims exist, I'd be happy to see them. But I'm pretty confident in claiming that most of this new film's admirers are not putting themselves behind such statements.'

I put Badlands in the corner long before The Tree of Life! I guess linear serial killer stories are not my bag. Sorry, half of the Korean film industry.

Anonymous said...

"Can't have a film whose purpose is anything other than the communication of a story along the patterns identified by Bordwell et al, can we!?"

That's a pretty gross misrepresentation isn't it? Kehr doesn't appear to be criticizing any and all instances of 'fragmentation' but of unnecessary fragmentation, which is an important distinction. That particular post starts with a quote about Mozart and poverty, and whatever the opinion of your film may be, I don't think you could argue that the film lacks it.

I disagree with where the fragmentation is occurring. I really can't believe that the Waco section is what's come under fire for it's 'inefficiencies.' I realize of course that it did jump around, but the sandbox in which it played was so contained, that it felt very straightforward, though no less mysterious/brilliant/life-affirming for it.

It goes without saying, that when one takes a camera and points it in a direction that it does so in a particular place and time -- that is to say, in relation, even via exclusion, to All other possible places and times. So when the film turns toward Evolution, it dilutes, even further, the specificity of the Waco section, by putting it into context with something that includes, as a case, Every single iteration and interaction of life since the beginning of time. Not only is this section 'unnecessary' in the sense that it is supererogatory, but it does what seems to be the opposite of what it is intended to do. (Intensify the other sections of the film, namely the final beach sequence, which for me fell very flat.) I think this is where the argument against this film lies, although, even if you don't agree, you have to give it to Malick for making such a ridiculously bold move.

Zach, you are a true gentleman, please don't forget to be gentle with me.

P.S. Sokurov knows exactly what he's doing.

Zach Campbell said...

"Can't have a film whose purpose is anything other than the communication of a story along the patterns identified by Bordwell et al, can we!?"

That's a pretty gross misrepresentation isn't it? Kehr doesn't appear to be criticizing any and all instances of 'fragmentation' but of unnecessary fragmentation, which is an important distinction.


It's reductive of me, of course, but I wouldn't say it's misrepresentative. Kehr more or less endorses Peter's take on the film and what's "wrong" with it. Peter expresses his main dissatisfaction as the fact that Malick cuts too much - it "seems chaotic," and there exist "segments" rather than "scenes." (It doesn't go into anything more specific than this - as far as instances, scenes, segments, etc. That work will become easier when we have the film available for home viewing.)

And, if so, this is bad because ...?

Peter's post indicates that it's only bad because it's not efficient in the same way as the classical idiom. To me, this is simply untenable as a criticism of the movie.

Of course Peter, and anyone else, is entitled to his opinion. And I respect Peter's opinion and acuity very much. I just don't understand why more of the film's naysayers don't simply say "not my thing," but instead feel compelled to take Terrence Malick personally to task for his "failures," when in fact just a little bit of thinking-through will show that these are not failures at all...

For instance, in the film, when Jessica Chastain's voice-over says (roughly) "they told us that no one who accepted the way of grace it would come to a bad end," the film cuts to a shot of the middle brother - and again cuts to him when Chastain reads & comprehends the news of his death. These "insertions" violate a clear and realist sense of time-space, sure. But if it can be demonstrated that they accord with some other kind of order ... the whole Kehr-Tonguette charge just sort of deflates, doesn't it?

So then, what are the criteria by which Kehr (et al) judge the necessity of fragmentation, for one thing? The only clear criterion I can make out is an imperative to tell a story as "efficiently" as possible.

I certainly do not dispute the economy, the elasticity, the potential for beauty (and so much else) in the 'classical' idiom of filmmaking. And I agree with Peter, and many other cinephiles, on the merits of a lot of this strain in post-classical filmmaking. I adore Eastwood (especially the less showy, less-than-sexy pre-2003 stuff!). I adore James Gray. And I do think that movies would be more interesting, and probably better, if a larger proportion of directors & crew were working in that idiom. Yet I'm utterly unconvinced that Malick as filmmaker (or Tree of Life as film) is the best whipping boy (or even the 50th best) to use as as the example with which to make this argument.

Peter Tonguette said...

I've taken so long in replying here that the main discussion has moved on to other TREE OF LIFE-related posts, but a few brief comments to some of the points Zach raised.

Zach, it is true that I haven't heard anyone say, "Yes, TREE OF LIFE has it all over BADLANDS. At last, Malick has abandoned stationary shots for good!" My point is that I don't understand why more admirers of his early work don't register any regret that the style of his earlier films has evaporated. Indeed, it's another reason why I agree that Michael Bay isn't the appropriate comparison: unlike Malick, Bay NEVER made beautifully realized films in the classical tradition!

It would be like if Robert Mulligan somehow made one more film after THE MAN IN THE MOON, and it was cut like a music video. It might be interesting, but I would certainly mourn the loss of the aesthetic of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and SUMMER OF '42.

On some level, I am saying, "No thanks, not for me," but I wish to do so by noting the passing of a vision of filmmaking that is becoming extinct, even among one of its former practitioners. Indeed, I agree with you that even Eastwood isn't what he was pre-2003, though HEREAFTER is certainly a masterpiece.

Peter Tonguette said...

Zach wrote: "For instance, in the film, when Jessica Chastain's voice-over says (roughly) "they told us that no one who accepted the way of grace it would come to a bad end," the film cuts to a shot of the middle brother - and again cuts to him when Chastain reads & comprehends the news of his death. These "insertions" violate a clear and realist sense of time-space, sure. But if it can be demonstrated that they accord with some other kind of order ... the whole Kehr-Tonguette charge just sort of deflates, doesn't it?"

The thing is, I don't remember the cutting of many scenes corresponding to any order. You've chosen one that does, but what about the way in which any random, "uneventful" scene is constructed? After a certain point, I gave up trying to figure out why Malick felt it was important to cut to a close-up here and then cut to a reverse angle here and then cut back to the close-up... it just seemed like he had shot too much. I'd like to see the movie again to select a scene or two and put it to my test.

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