So the early word is out on The Tree of Life, the new gift from the firmament — uh, I mean the new Terrence Malick film. It has now played at Cannes, and the buzz is decidedly mixed. People who obviously wanted the film to be great are choking out admissions that it isn’t. Typing through a wretched prism of tears, they report that the movie is unfocused, that it is way too far up itself, that it expends vast ambition and gorgeous imagery on an utterly banal story.
To these people I must say the apparently unsayable: What, then, makes The Tree of Life so different from Malick’s previous films?
I say “apparently unsayable” because Terrence Malick, on the strength of five films he has directed over a period of 38 years, has ascended to the status of Film God in many quarters. He is a Poet, an Artist, a Sage. His Vision is Beyond Question. (Capitalization seems to suit the sort of hype that wreathes Malick.) Many people salivate over a new Malick the way they used to over a new Kubrick, Kurosawa, Bergman. I don’t mean to caricature those genuinely moved by Malickian cinema. They’re welcome to it, as I am welcome to my own David-Lynch-can-do-no-wrong thing. Anyone who cares about films has at least one director they consider flawless. It’s not that they’re in denial about the director’s turkeys. It’s that they are honestly tuned in to the director’s style and way of seeing. I’m sure there are John Landis acolytes who’ll give you 500 words on the unrecognized brilliance of The Stupids. In fact, I know there are.
So I’m not attacking the weeping masses of Malick supporters so much as the hype. I am given to wonder anew what so many perfectly credible people see in Malick. Partly it must be that we’re fast running out of American directors of true epics. (These days, of course, the closest thing we usually get to an epic is Harry Potter and the Whatever of Foo-Foo.) We do, I think, need more mad visionaries who throw caution, logic and narrative to the winds and obey nothing but whatever angel/demon resides in their hearts/minds/souls, driving them to make unclassifiable graffiti on the walls of good taste, sanity and propriety. For many people, Malick is that person, a man who cares little for monetary return, who wants only to paint his pictures about how mankind is a giant squalid bug farting flames all over resplendent, innocent nature, and also dads suck except when they don’t. In theory I should be completely in this guy’s pocket, but I have been steadfastly unengaged by the three Malick films I’ve seen (I opted out of The New World, still nauseous from the inchoate chowder that was The Thin Red Line).
In an era when Kenneth Branagh is making Thor and any film arrogant enough to tell a story about actual people is relegated to cable, Malick looks like a giant. I understand that. He is the anti-Michael Bay. That alone is almost enough to recommend him. I enjoy the idea of Malick. What I don’t understand, for starters, is the golden reputation he has among actors, especially now. An almost-literal army of actors — the green and the esteemed alike — clamored to appear in The Thin Red Line. Many of them saw their scenes whittled to shreds or thrown out entirely. After that, one would think an actor might look askance at the (slim) chance of seeing himself in a Malick flick. As it is, one hears that Sean Penn (a veteran of Malick’s World War II) is barely in The Tree of Life. Humans are but a part of the grand design in a Malick film; they don’t talk like real people and their iconicism verges on simplistic, cartoonish. Much the same, incidentally, could be said of George Lucas.
Malick’s movies are beautiful. Of course they are. Consider the list of world-class cinematographers who serve as his paintbrush: Tak Fujimoto on Badlands, Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler on Days of Heaven, John Toll on Thin Red Line, Emmanuel Lubezki on The New World and The Tree of Life. These are not Joe Shmoes pointing and shooting. You or I could make dazzling films with men such as these in our corner. Ah, yes, the Malick apologist will say, but you could not duplicate the vision that animates those delicious pictures. To the apologist I must shrug and say, What vision? Malick may have a keen pictorial eye but so do many anonymous photographers who compose well and/or luck into evocative shots. The eye is only one of the organs a movie must engage. The brain is another, and from where I sit, there is not much in Malick for that organ to, so to speak, chew on.
The key Malick moment is the luscious quietude of natural Earth disturbed by the ignorant violence of its dominant life form. There are dinosaurs in The Tree of Life, Malick only knows why — I mean, God only knows why, though the other way works too. Even in early Malick, we see the problems of the central humans reduced by the grandeur of their backdrop to mere scuttling insects. I have no problem with this emphasis; it could as well describe Kubrick, or late Kurosawa. But Malick gives us nothing to hold onto aside from the hippy-dippy-trippy visuals and the motif of the innocent seeking enlightenment in the flawed false father rather than in the Mother (Earth, of course). There’s no edge to his work, no vitality.
A while ago, we could rationalize the hoopla over “the new Malick” because he emerged from his cave so seldom — The Thin Red Line was his first in twenty years. Since then he has released two films, with another reportedly in the can, a blistering pace for him. So the novelty of A New Malick isn’t quite as exciting these days. Yet the hype persists. Even allowing for welcome-back elation, I can’t imagine anyone looking at The Thin Red Line and seeing anything but a broken, incomplete film. Malick famously shoots miles of footage and then takes a year or more making sense of it in the editing bay. The waggish Erik Childress, who delights in skewering blurb whores in his Criticwatch, dared to suggest on Twitter that if Jonah Hex (a famously troubled production, similarly Frankensteined together in the editing room) were revealed to have been directed by Terrence Malick, it would magically, retroactively become a masterpiece.
Aggrieved Malickians hissed Childress for his impertinence, but the point stands. The point especially stands because Childress was hissed. What other director commands such knee-jerk loyalty? And why him? And why, for Malickians, does a distaste for or disinterest in Malick’s work speak poorly of a critic? Roger Ebert dumped on David Lynch for years; it didn’t make me stop reading Ebert. Pauline Kael savaged Kubrick for most of his and her careers; didn’t dim my admiration of Kael. Erik Childress gets mildly snarky about The Master and the weepers shriek “STOP IT! UR STOOPID!”
I dig my Tarkovsky and my Barry Lyndon and so on. Long-winded, contemplative films aren’t my Kryptonite. But I need to perceive some inner life, some drive and purpose. I don’t get that from Malick. Perhaps you do. Bon appetit. If Malick’s meandering daddy-issue tone poems are what ring your bell, The Tree of Life is said, for better or worse, to be the Malickiest Malick of them all. Dive right in. Just don’t expect me to join you, or to relish the immersion if I do jump in. We Malick skeptics are not necessarily belching vulgarians whose idea of cinematic transcendence is Transformers. Isn’t the point of art that it isn’t for everyone?
All that said, I am glad that Malick exists and that he unaccountably continues to get money to make his films (though, as my friend Kenneth Souza rightly points out, Orson Welles did not benefit from such largesse; and other filmmakers today have to scrape and bow for pennies to finance movies far less opaque and interiorized than Malick’s). In an industry dominated by mercenary crap, Malick, as I said, looks like a giant and possibly is one. But this giant seems to have fallen with The Tree of Life, which according to many reports is a spindly sapling that can’t support the weight of its ambition or its audience’s expectations. Finally, the Malickians gaze upon the Master’s canvas and see something of what I’ve seen all along.