Note from the editor: Mike wrote on The Tree of Life last year for Cinémezzo, this piece acts as a sort of sequel
2011 was a great year for new movies. As a fortunate Vancouverite−i.e. someone with access to one of the world’s best film fests, the Vancouver International Film Festival−I usually have good years for new movies, albeit ones with the manna packed into a frenzied, exhausting compact of three weeks. I see great films every year at VIFF, many of them radical art films from Europe and Asia never to be seen again in North American theatres. The dream of an uncompromising crossover art cinema that animated the late 60s and 70s often seems gone; commercial and mainstream-critical conformism have created a rarefied ghetto for international art cinema, with only the odd Weinstein-backed mediocrity breaking through the walls. VIFF packs the houses for films by Jia Zhangke, Jafar Panahi and others, but they rarely show up at local commercial theatres.
What’s up with that? Is the interest so minor that in can be crammed into a few screenings once a year? Should we blame the media-industrial complex exclusively? Were the 60s and 70s a lucky anomaly that we should get over already? Is the majority-white audience in North America too parochial? I think about this stuff every time I watch a Bergman, Fellini (not often these days), Antonioni or 60s Godard film; every time I read Davids Denby and Thomson, every time I come out of a masterpiece like Syndromes and a Century and it occurs to me that only a sliver of an audience will have- take?- the chance of seeing it. I can’t stop believing in the dream of Uncompromising Crossover Art Cinema (why not coin a phrase? UCAC hereafter), and it’s this dream that made the mainstream-critical and relative commercial success of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life the movie event of 2011 for me.
I still can’t believe that Hollywood backed a film so antithetical to its conventional practice. TTOL is as arty (that’s not a term of abuse for me!) as it gets: massively pretentious, unashamedly poetic, radically associative and discontinuous. It’s not just anomalous in relation to the mainstream, though: TTOL is also an exception to the contemporary arthouse standard of anti-dramatic stasis. It’s as excessive as any tentpole blockbuster and as emotional as any melodrama; Malick deserves a Nobel Prize for folding those elements into one of the most unconventional films ever made. This movie is as cerebral as it is moving, as generous as it is mysterious, as viscerally pungent as it is abstract.
Getting back to parochialism for a second, I have to concede that the film’s ethnic makeup and thematics, its relatively high marketing budget (trailers in multiplexes, etc.), and its Pitt-power (star and co-producer) probably have more than a little to do with its success. But I also want to stress that in no way do those things entail compromise. Malick was able to live the dream of millions: making a deeply radical narrative film with generous commercial backing and distribution. The cinema(s) of static sensual indulgence practiced by Joe, Kiarostami, Hou, Jia and all their compatriots and clones is often wonderful, but what’s missing from the festival circuit styles is something that would push them beyond the…festival circuit. Exuberance, interiority, lyricism, excess, speed, emotionalism, verbosity−by and large, these have been missing from art cinema for decades (exceptions like Wong Kar-Wai prove the rule), and I think that does relate to its commercial marginalization. (Obviously this isn’t the filmmakers’ fault, or even responsibility, and there are other, more significant, cultural and economic factors at work. But still…) TTOL is as intellectually and formally challenging as almost any work of narrative cinema, and it’s also powerfully emotional and spectacular: Malick’s combination of intense drama and formal radicalism is rarer than it should be. I don’t think every radical cineaste should aim to break into the multiplex. I don’t think that popularity is legitimacy. But it’s surely a sign of health and hope for culture when a film like TTOL can barge into the multiplex without dumbing down for what that audience is supposed to want. Sure, there were boos and walkouts, but there were also people I turned onto the film that responded with awe, rapture, tears. Surely that matters more. The last thing I’d want to do is hold up Malick’s achievement as a standard. But a standard and an inspiration are two different things, and it’s not too much to hope that this example of UCAC will give similarly ambitious filmmakers hope.
The film has a lot of detractors. On the one hand, there are the intelligent and principled demurrals of cinephiles like Robert Koehler and Dave Kehr. On the other hand, there are the people who walked out twenty minutes into the movie at the first of three multiplex screenings I attended, and the guy who muttered “What the fuck was that?” at the end of same showing. Some non-cinephiles presumably felt suckered, thinking that the presence of Brad Pitt on the poster and the film’s presence in a multiplex augured a more conventional experience; all I can say is, let’s give them more films this radical and change their expectations! Some people dislike the Christian thematics of the film, but to me they’re tinged with agnosticism (the for-many-disappointing beach finale of the film registers to me as totally hypothetical−the none-too-original dream of an unexceptional man). Some people dislike the rapid, discontinuous editing and the lack of narrative clarity, but to me it’s just part and parcel of the film’s oneiric, memory-evoking vibe. Some people dislike the way it mixes intimate particularization with the creation of the universe, but I see the mixture as a way of humbling the human situations as much as inflating them.
The mixture of grandiosity and intimate subjectivity in TTOL is entirely winning for me; each puts the other in perspective. Malick’s film is about confronting, and trying to bridge, the fundamental contradictions of human existence, including contradictions of scale: between the personal and cosmic, a gap which−tragically, as Malick surely acknowledges−can’t be either ignored or fully bridged. It’s a movie that defies the restrictive adage, cited by Koehler, about finding the universal in the particular. Malick is brave enough to start from the universal; the miracle of the film is that he’s able to establish this priority without diminishing the human element in the slightest. Brad Pitt, Hunter McCracken and Laramie Eppler are some of the most powerful presences I’ve ever seen and heard onscreen; they share the stage with dinosaurs, space vapour and a hypothetical God, and Malick has room for all of them.
Like many American films these days, Malick’s film is slowly paced and rapidly cut. What separates it from the pack−okay, one of several dozen things−is the combination of familiarly propulsive editing and non-narrative film strategy. TTOL pretty much rejects conventional storytelling−it’s as close to an avant-garde film as has ever been made with a 30 million dollar budget. Things are arranged with a rough consequential logic in the largest, middle section of the film, but in terms of regular cause-and-effect film plotting we get very little for our time. The film is intensely focused, at the expense of narrative progression, while also having a scatterbrained wealth of incident. The minimum of cause-oriented story progression evokes stasis, while the rapid cutting registers a sense of impermanence and plenitude. The film’s memory-like quality comes from its vividness, its breaks in sequence, and its lack of suspense. There’s a sense of foreclosure that registers from the very beginning and contrasts with the prolific imagery in fascinating ways.
Malick creates a near-equalization of things that usually contrast in most films: past and present, material and spiritual, individual and universal. He seems to be trying to triangulate extremes, except there’s no definitive third element that comes from it. Every paradox in the film goes unresolved. People scoff at the dichotomy of “the way of nature” and “the way of grace” outlined in Sean Penn’s voiceover narration. I’d have scoffed too if Malick had left it at that, but he didn’t. The film clearly shows Brad Pitt’s character, the obvious representative of “nature,” as having many of the traits that the voiceover groups under “grace”; the same could even be said of the now-infamous dinosaurs- clearly a part of “nature.” The dichotomy is complicated through dozens of incidents, and Malick’s style—in which the rapid cutting violates continuity while uniting contrasts in a blurry, stream-like proliferation—speaks to the slippery give and take between unity and contrast. It’s this give and take that defines Jack’s struggle within the film and Malick’s struggle in making it.
In Stanley Fish’s wonderful little book How To Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, he talks about Gertrude Stein’s strategy of dropping punctuation to create a continuous flow: “[L]ikeness and difference, the basic constituents of a discourse that anatomizes and ranks, change places, go in opposite directions, come together again, are in the end made one. By insisting on the alikeness in value of every word, Stein also insists on the difference or uniqueness of every word.” It seems to me like Malick is doing something similar with his lack of continuity in regards to storytelling, editing and imagery. TTOL is disjunctive and fluid at the same time, each in different ways. The montage is often radical, but it’s so steadily−and, eventually, predictably−prolific that the impact of each shot becomes equal while the visual content is often radically contrasted. The relentless pace of quick cutting turns it into a flowing stream of different colours; equality and difference come as close to merging as is possible. It’s like Malick wants to achieve the ultimate reconciliation, and is smart enough to know that he can’t. He hasn’t discovered a language that will express a unified sense of the world, probably because one doesn’t exist and can’t exist. TTOL is the record of a struggle to build a whole out of fractures, and the failures and successes of that struggle. That’s the reason I balk at my temptation to use the word “hubris” in relation to this movie: it’s ambitious as hell, but it deliberately incorporates a sense of incompleteness. That’s what makes it an agnostic film for me. Think of the grand-scale classics of the cinema: how many of them project anything near this level of uncertainty and irresolution?
When I try to articulate the sense of miraculous in a film I love, I usually come down to the same thing: the instructive commingling of opposites. The opposites here are massive-scale ambition and intense personal interiority. If there’s any didacticism in this film, it’s not to be found in Penn’s highfalutin voiceover, which is really a mere starting point; it’s in the lesson that the microscopic and the massive, the spectacular and the intimate, can belong together onscreen, even if they’re fighting an endless battle with each other. Malick’s fusion of scales, and of industrial contexts, is, if not sui generis, at least a history-making transgression. I can only hope that it’s quickly outstripped. Fingers crossed.