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The Tree of Life (2011)


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Anders wrote:

: His Film Journey website is also hosting the Robert Koehler review.

Doug apparently hadn't seen the film at the time, but this morning he posted the following comment under that review:

Saw the US premiere last night at LACMA, and I fully agree with your review, Bob. (Though I’m not sure if the beach dino and the river dino are the same, not that it matters.) In Malick’s best films, his poeticism serves as fascinating counterpoint to the narrative; in this case he’s completely untethered and simply cannot live up to his Stapledon-like ambitions. For all its nonlinearity and amorphous, cosmic imagery, the film ultimately lacks mystery–it feels like leaden summary rather than exploration.

Incidentally, Jonathan Rosenbaum also posted a comment under that review:

I also agree with your verdict and analysis, having seen the film recently at a Chicago press show. Jim Hoberman calls it kitsch, and he’s right as well.

: I haven't seen the film yet (and probably won't until July when it gets a wider release in Canada) . . .

There was a press screening in Vancouver this morning, but I, of course, could not go because I was taking the kids to preschool. And today was, in fact, the first time I had taken all three of them to preschool in at least two weeks, partly because I was sick all week last week. So I was happy to get back to the routine here. Where is the "nature" here, and where is the "grace"? You tell me.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Brett McCracken at CT:

Malick would have us approach his films not as puzzles to be solved, but as phenomena to be experienced. He wants his films to capture the magic, wonder, and mystery of the universe as it is seen, heard, and felt. A Malick film should thus not be deconstructed, but received: washing over us as a cleansing flood of beauty and truth.

Um, so, because he means well, we should just surrender?

What about critical discernment?

What excuses Malick films from the kind of consideration we'd give to any other films?

Tree of Life has a lot of beauty, and its questions are fairly universal. But it has some serious weaknesses, and it's worth discussing them. His films may be more poetry than prose. But some of his poetry is sophisticated and artful, and some isn't.

Edited by Overstreet

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Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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I may or may not have written my above post yesterday after reading the link you just posted today.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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A.O. Scott:

... it would be a mistake simply to bask in (or to sneer at) Mr. Malick’s nostalgia for the vanished world of his Eisenhower-era childhood.

In his view, rooted in an idiosyncratic Christianity and also in the Romantic literary tradition, the loss of innocence is not a singular event in history but rather an axiom of human experience, repeated in every generation and in the consciousness of every individual. The miraculous paradox is that this universal pattern repeats itself in circumstances that are always unique. And so this specific postwar coming-of-age story, quietly astute in its assessment of the psychological dynamics of a nuclear family in the American South at the dawn of the space age, is also an ode to childhood perception and an account of the precipitous fall into knowledge that foretells childhood’s end. It is like Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality” transported into the world of “Leave It to Beaver,” an inadequate and perhaps absurd formulation but one that I hope conveys the full measure of my astonishment and admiration.

...

To watch “The Tree of Life” is, in analogous fashion, to participate in its making. And any criticism will therefore have to be provisional. Mr. Malick might have been well advised to leave out the dinosaurs and the trip to the afterlife and given us a delicate chronicle of a young man’s struggle with his father and himself, set against a backdrop of rapid social change. And perhaps Melville should have suppressed his philosophizing impulses and written a lively tale of a whaling voyage.

But the imagination lives by risk, including the risk of incomprehension. Do all the parts of “The Tree of Life” cohere? Does it all make sense? I can’t say that it does. I suspect, though, that sometime between now and Judgment Day it will.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Jeff, just wondering, what is this "inevitable backlash" to which you refer? It seems to me that this film has had a mixed reaction from Day One, so I don't know whether you're saying that the Malick-haters are jumping on the Malick-zealots or vice versa.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I am not feeling any compulsion to push back. It will probably be on my year-end favorites list, but on the list of five Malick films, after a first viewing I'd say The Tree of Life takes fourth or fifth place for me.

It's more beautiful to look at then Badlands, but Badlands has more distinct characters, whereas these characters are more like clouds of angst-y questions than people. I'd rather spend time in the company of Kit and Holly than... what are their names again?

I do think, though, that's it's fair to note that the characters in Days of Heaven are also quite sketchy. That's a film which, I feel, has been given a critical pass in the character department because its beauty is so striking. Of course, Roger Ebert's review of Days of Heaven helped me to see that a possible explanation for this is the strong degree to which that film is told from the standpoint of a child (through whom the audience experiences everything). I would be interested to hear what you, Jeff, and others think about how the weakness of Tree of Life's characters compares to the character development in Days of Heaven. Is Malick's success about 50/50 with the task of balancing character and visuals/music/experiential qualities in his films? I do love The New World and Thin Red Line and recall rich characters being in both.

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I think Days of Heaven is presented in a mysterious space between history and myth, where the characters are moving like Greek gods in conflict. They're archetypal. I feel like we're watching a sort of high-rez flannel graph. And it works for me there. They're specific enough to be intriguing, universal enough to remind me of shadow play. The child's narration helps that considerably, because when you're a child you're witness to adult behaviors but it's like watching weather systems move over you, drifting and clearing and storming and colliding. Meanwhile, the child is rooted in her own questions, curiosities, troubles, and experiences.

Tree of Life's narration is from the point of view of children and grownups. We get interior dialogue from all of them. Because we're let into the interior dialogue of the child's parents as well as the child, I struggle a little bit with the fact that everything about the 1950s scenes seems to be seen from, and felt from, a child's (or childlike) perspective.

I'm still struggling with how to put it into words, but what works for me very well in Days of Heaven, intermittently in The Thin Red Line, and exceedingly well in The New World, works for me only somewhat in Tree of Life... at least on first viewing. And I have problems with the last act of the film too, which kept me at a distance and never let me in... and which at times felt like a movie made by a Christian college student who really likes Malick but who primarily listens to Switchfoot. You could make a really good perfume commercial from stuff at the end of the movie. (But I really need to wait until tomorrow for a review.)

Let me put it this way: In The New World, in spite of all of the interwoven interior dialogues, I was always grounded in particularity and character and a progression of events. In The Tree of Life, I kept having to remind myself that these whispered meditations were supposed to be grounded in character, while portions of the film felt like visiting the National Geographic Photo of the Day archive slideshow for a long time. (And that's not necessarily a bad thing; I do visit that photo archive often. But is it good filmmaking?)

I may feel entirely differently after a second viewing.

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Let me put it this way: In The New World, in spite of all of the interwoven interior dialogues, I was always grounded in particularity and character and a progression of events. In The Tree of Life...

And Badlands, Thin Red Line, and The New World are actual historical narratives. We could push Days of Heaven this direction as well, as the film wouldn't make much sense if it weren't bracketed by this specific era that gives the script its narrative momentum.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Paste's Josh Jackson turns in a review.

And

Ken Morefield tweets:

More fun to watch flustered: Obama haters dealing with post bin Laden news or Malick devotees dealing with TREE OF LIFE pans?
Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Warning: Spoilers galore in Anthony Lane's New Yorker review. But I think it's one of the assessments that resonates most with me.

Also at The New Yorker:

Terrence Malick, the Way He Was - by Richard Brody

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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To pick up on your comment, JO, I am watching TNW at the moment. I think what I cherish most about this film is the way Malick just rides that line, beyond which the film would be almost meaningless.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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Brett McCracken at CT:

Malick would have us approach his films not as puzzles to be solved, but as phenomena to be experienced. He wants his films to capture the magic, wonder, and mystery of the universe as it is seen, heard, and felt. A Malick film should thus not be deconstructed, but received: washing over us as a cleansing flood of beauty and truth.

Um, so, because he means well, we should just surrender?

What about critical discernment?

What excuses Malick films from the kind of consideration we'd give to any other films?

Tree of Life has a lot of beauty, and its questions are fairly universal. But it has some serious weaknesses, and it's worth discussing them. His films may be more poetry than prose. But some of his poetry is sophisticated and artful, and some isn't.

I say this as one who is less enthralled with Malick than JO. I like him, but I don't dive into him to the extent some others do.

This is a film that I found completely compelling - far more than any of Malick's other films. As to critical discernment - it's like many works of art. You can take that route - or you can take the experience it provides - be that a poem, novel, a painting by Monet or Picasso or Rembrandt. Is it wrong to be objective - no. Is it wrong to be subjective - no. I think this film will be loved by those who go for the subjective experience and will have trouble with those who want to apply various legitimate standards of critical thinking.

I was interested to read Detweiller's review since he was sitting 2 chairs away at the screening.

Edited by Darrel Manson
A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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I think this film will be loved by those who go for the subjective experience and will have trouble with those who want to apply various legitimate standards of critical thinking.

I don't think you can cleanly divide these groups. I often have very subjective experiences at the movies. But the subjective experiences I have had over the years have changed, in part, because of what I have learned, and am still learning, about critical thinking.

Plus, I can enjoy a lot of movies that I criticize, and I am unmoved by many that I find to be excellent by artistic standards.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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I think this film will be loved by those who go for the subjective experience and will have trouble with those who want to apply various legitimate standards of critical thinking.

I don't think you can cleanly divide these groups. I often have very subjective experiences at the movies. But the subjective experiences I have had over the years have changed, in part, because of what I have learned, and am still learning, about critical thinking.

Yes. Exactly. Plus, issues like not connecting with the characters don't represent abstract critical criteria but simple human experience of the film.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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As to critical discernment - it's like many works of art. You can take that route - or you can take the experience it provides - be that a poem, novel, a painting by Monet or Picasso or Rembrandt. Is it wrong to be objective - no. Is it wrong to be subjective - no. I think this film will be loved by those who go for the subjective experience and will have trouble with those who want to apply various legitimate standards of critical thinking.

I think you're relying on a false dichotomy. You can't separate "critical discernment" and "experience." Each informs the other.

Edited by Ryan H.
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I don't think I'm talking either/or. Certainly subjective and objective approaches can both be done - even by the same person. E.g., the biblical book of Revelation is one that I spent a semester is seminary picking through the Greek grammar searching for nuances, but even with a critical understanding of the book, I don't think the book can be understood with out a thoroughly subjective experience of hearing it as the churches of Asia would have heard it. That critical study can be both a tool to help us try to find that experience and also a hindrance.

Tree of Life, I think more than most films, really demands to be encountered as experience. That doesn't mean that a critical mind has no place. But like biblical study, that critical approach will have the potential to enhance and destroy the experience at the same time.

and fwiw, my review.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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I'll use this as one more opportunity to preach the importance of formal analysis in film criticism. I can say, "I was moved by this film" or "this film is first and foremost a subjective, aesthetic experience," and that's an important part of the critical equation, but it's not, in and of itself, criticism. It's the starting point for a much harder job: accurately describing how a film functions.

I'm deeply moved by Nick Dorsky's short, abstract, silent films. I'm at first moved and then, eventually, bored by similarly abstract sequences in Malick's films. So far, all I've offered here is an expression of my personal taste.* Again, that's not criticism. To be a critic, I have to explore the "stuff" of both films--shot lengths, the visual and temporal rhythms of the cutting, the material of the images, the relationship between shots and sequences or sequences and the film as a whole. If someone refers vaguely to Malick's "visual poetry" in a review, I'm gone, unless he/she is then willing to give me the close reading a film like that deserves. Scansion is a dying skill in all arts criticism, I suppose.

I don't make the time to do this kind of writing much anymore, but I think this piece I wrote about Chantal Akerman's Les rendez-vous d'Anna is a decent example of what I'm talking about. Or, pretty much anything David Bordwell writes.

* Twitter is the perfect medium for expressing taste. For example, because I trust/share Mike Sicinski's taste, if he gives 8/10 points to a film I've never heard of, I'll jot down the title and seek it out. His critical work takes place elsewhere, though -- on his website or in the pages of Cinema Scope.

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As I tried to say above, I think such critical approaches are necessary, but also a two-edged sword. Consider Picasso's Guernica. It is important to know why it is as powerful as it is. It can be helpful to understand the relationship between the light bulb and the screaming horse or Picasso's choice to be colorless. Such can also distance us from the painting. There are things that we should approach by first standing in awe. Whether The Tree of Life is in that category, we can debate. It is the rare film that calls for that. But it is my starting point for this film.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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I'll use this as one more opportunity to preach the importance of formal analysis in film criticism. I can say, "I was moved by this film" or "this film is first and foremost a subjective, aesthetic experience," and that's an important part of the critical equation, but it's not, in and of itself, criticism. It's the starting point for a much harder job: accurately describing how a film functions.

I'm deeply moved by Nick Dorsky's short, abstract, silent films. I'm at first moved and then, eventually, bored by similarly abstract sequences in Malick's films. So far, all I've offered here is an expression of my personal taste.* Again, that's not criticism. To be a critic, I have to explore the "stuff" of both films--shot lengths, the visual and temporal rhythms of the cutting, the material of the images, the relationship between shots and sequences or sequences and the film as a whole. If someone refers vaguely to Malick's "visual poetry" in a review, I'm gone, unless he/she is then willing to give me the close reading a film like that deserves. Scansion is a dying skill in all arts criticism, I suppose.

I don't make the time to do this kind of writing much anymore, but I think this piece I wrote about Chantal Akerman's Les rendez-vous d'Anna is a decent example of what I'm talking about. Or, pretty much anything David Bordwell writes.

* Twitter is the perfect medium for expressing taste. For example, because I trust/share Mike Sicinski's taste, if he gives 8/10 points to a film I've never heard of, I'll jot down the title and seek it out. His critical work takes place elsewhere, though -- on his website or in the pages of Cinema Scope.

I think this is generally attributable to the fact that much of what passes for film criticism, is actually film promotion (or anti-promotion if the reviewer gives a negative reaction to a film). But you're right that the kind of arts criticism you're yearning for is hard to find, partly because most film reviewers are not formally trained in film studies. As someone who is working toward a degree film studies (and literary and cultural studies more generally), but coming from a more personal, leisured background in film, it's a challenge to gain the skills and do the close reading. But I strive toward it.

This is not to apply pit a scientific against the kind of subjective response that Darrell calls for, since much of the theory that informs modern films studies is all about this. But we need to explain how these subjective affective experiences are connected to the experience of the film. We can say a film moved us, but it's more revealing to others if we can explain why.

Most film reviewers have little to no experience with critical approaches to film. An example of a commentary on Malick's film that I found helpful is Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's article at mubi.com. The comments are quite good as well.

"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Certainly subjective and objective approaches can both be done - even by the same person. E.g., the biblical book of Revelation is one that I spent a semester is seminary picking through the Greek grammar searching for nuances, but even with a critical understanding of the book, I don't think the book can be understood with out a thoroughly subjective experience of hearing it as the churches of Asia would have heard it. That critical study can be both a tool to help us try to find that experience and also a hindrance.

Tree of Life, I think more than most films, really demands to be encountered as experience. That doesn't mean that a critical mind has no place. But like biblical study, that critical approach will have the potential to enhance and destroy the experience at the same time.

You speak of "critical study" as though it's something we "put on," a toolbox we take out, something we switch on and off. But critical response can also be innate; the more often we critically respond to a work, the more this becomes a natural way of engaging and experiencing with work. The relationship between critical analysis and subjective emotional experience is like a feedback loop, each one perpetually feeding into the other.

Saying that TREE OF LIFE "demands to be encountered as experience" makes little sense to me, since so often critical thinking is a natural part of the initial experience of any work of art, one that informs and is informed by my subjective emotional response.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Darren H wrote:

: If someone refers vaguely to Malick's "visual poetry" in a review, I'm gone, unless he/she is then willing to give me the close reading a film like that deserves.

Thanks for this (and your post as a whole). I also appreciate Jeff's point that calling the film "poetry" doesn't clarify whether the film is good poetry or bad poetry; it's not like "poetry" automatically equals "good".

I am reminded of how C.S. Lewis once took issue with people who thought that calling art "serious" was a mark of praise. Or, for that matter, of how Robert De Niro explained his jury's decision to give the film the Palme D'Or by saying that the film was "important".

Darrel Manson wrote:

: There are things that we should approach by first standing in awe.

This, I think, almost goes beyond subjectivity to a kind of dogmatism. To say that we should respect the experience is one thing; but to say that the experience should be a certain KIND of experience is another. Perhaps we could also say that there are some things that we should approach first by sitting in boredom? And perhaps criticism, by "destroying the experience", can make films that once seemed boring seem like something else, something better.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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