[By now it was late. The three stars were dimpling the sky. The baby raccoon was crying for its milk (I’d taken in an orphan the week before). But Jeremy and I weren’t finished yet discussing the movies we’d just watched.]
A D: You had a rather serious reaction to this one, Jeremy. Were you crying afterward?
Jeremy: Yes. Crying because I realized how much of my life I had wasted watching movies. What George Lucas did for his own franchise with the prequels, Malick did for all of cinema with The Tree of Life.
I am not sure how to explain. I began the movie with all the goodwill in the world for Malick, his project, his ambitions, his masterful appropriation of the visual culture of each period of contemporary cinema in which he has condescended to wade …
Is it always so masterful? I just saw The New World again, and while I admire the film overall (I think), its Adobe After Effects-style credits are cringe-inducing (and already so dated as so mid-2000s).
I was perhaps being a bit facetious in saying so, given the re-estimation of his entire oeuvre that has been forced upon me by Tree. Nevertheless, Malick is a chameleon while remaining an immediately recognizable stylist. You have to admit, that’s a neat trick.
Days of Heaven is a masterpiece (and one of my all-time favorite films), but it might be the case that Malick got somewhat lucky with that one. Hollywood was so inundated with craft, he was able to work with really expert crews and technicians.
Oh, sure, you’re right (and he was right to hire them). I guess I was trying to say something more like: “Malick wouldn’t have been able to make that film at any other time.” Days is a real collaboration, something which is often lost sight of. What we get instead is: It’s “Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, Days of Heaven.”
That’s what I was trying to get at. Whatever else it is, that movie is also “The Seventies’ masterpiece, Days of Heaven.” When we watch it we watch a textbook case of an artist marshaling the materials, technology, collaborators, and assumptions (dominants, if you will) at hand and making from them something of worth that has since been subsumed under the hoopskirt of auteurship.
But since I happen to love ’70s moviemaking, well, Days just bowls me over.
Agreed. Though Malick still deserves a lot of credit for great direction in making all of it happen, and in that particular way. (Who else would have had the film edited like that?)
I’m not sure that’s fair to Gummo.
That said, Tree might as well have a co-director credit for the last fifteen years of film technique—an era whose filmic vocabulary, unlike that of the ’70s, I am not especially enamoured of. “A film by Terrence Malick, brought to you by the letter G, the number 3, and the cinema of late capitalism.”
Where were the G and the 3?
Where is the mirror? Where is the dust?
Let’s go back to the beginning. I remember that there was a vast darkness, and God was moving over the face of the waters. And then … the universe began?
The movie began. And its prologue, of the family’s grief, provoked an elation in me as I waited—and waited—and waited—for the film-proper to begin. Instead we returned to the start of the universe—
That’s right, it started twice! There were two universes!
—and I craned forward in my stadium seat appreciating the simple didactic chutzpah of these scenes, and their colors, and their shrieking chorales …
But then, somewhere about forty-five minutes to an hour in, I began to feel a sense of physical revulsion that took me another hour to notice on a conscious, we’ll say intellectual level. By the time I reached the final five minutes and the endless end-credit crawl, I had just about managed to bring these feelings to the stage of verbalization. I realized—and it was an organic realization—that I hated this movie with a near-religious intensity.
An appropriate sort (even if I didn’t share it).
Yes, a hatred so vital and subterranean that it very nearly tunneled through into hysterical adoration. I think I might have loathed and abhorred the movie, which must surely be considered an “art film,” as I have never loathed any of the cheap compromises or outright insults that commercial filmmaking, by contrast, has before perpetrated upon my eyes and mind.
Hrm. It didn’t bother me anywhere near as much. Because I think I decided, after the first twenty minutes or so, that I simply didn’t care. I remember thinking, “This is just as big a tar baby as the latest Michael Haneke or Lars von Trier flick.”
Tar baby or straw dog? But yes, that might be the proper response. Now that the physical revulsion has faded, I find the film filed under “kitsch,” in my brain, most days.
But my expectations were perhaps lower than yours. For one thing, I rewatched The New World recently, and was expecting something more like that: a lesser Malick (though I was hoping for more).
So was he, apparently. As usual, in this culture, the real masterpiece here might be the PR campaign …
That’s Cannes for you. Von Trier must have been pissed that his Hitler comments didn’t win him the Palme d’Or.
God is already a more famous war criminal than Hitler. Shows what fifty years will do to a reputation. Next time you’ll know better, Lars.
So I wasn’t so crazy about that prologue. Part of what I enjoy about Days of Heaven is how much Malick elides from its simple, familiar story (which, as Curt [White] observed when I showed him the film, is The Wings of the Dove, in an unofficial adaptation). He skips his way through the film, filling it with stray moments and incidental shots, but the overall form is clear: it’s Linda’s impression of that time. (She’s the main character; she’s the one telling us the story.)
If Trees and Fifes had any of Days’s verbal brilliance, it would have been a better picture, even as it stands. You have to fall a fair ways from Heidegger to get to the whispered inanities of Tree.
Yeah. Sample narration from Days of Heaven:
“The sun looks ghostly when there’s a mist on a river and everything’s quiet. I never knowed it before. And you could see people on the shore, but they was far off and you couldn’t see what they were doing. They were probably … calling for help or something, or they were trying to bury somebody or something. We seen trees that the leaves are shaking and it looks like shadows of guys coming at you and stuff. We heard owls squawking away, moving away. We didn’t know where we were going, what we were going to do. I’ve never been on a boat before. That was the first time. Some sights that I saw was really spooky that it gave me goosepimples. That felt like cold hands touching the back of my neck, and and it could have been the dead coming for me or something. I remember this guy, his name was … Blackjack. He died. He only had one leg, and he died. And I think that was Blackjack making those noises.”
Sample narration from The Tree of Life:
“The only way to be happy is to love. Unless you love, your life will flash by.”
Yep. Remember, kids: “The quest of the one true sentence leads to wordlessness.”
The silly dialogue didn’t bother me that much (although I didn’t like it). Rather, what I couldn’t figure out why Malick kept crosscutting so much between the film’s different time periods. The resulting picture had no form, except a purely associative one, which I’m not sure suits Malick all that well, when there’s nothing to anchor it. Thus, I cheered up some after the first part, when the images settled down into their respective sections.
Though, within those sections, we’re still pretty much adrift. I wish I could praise Malick for bringing that sort of editing structure (or unstructure) to the multiplex, but it has less in common with experimental film, which I suspect is the intended referent, and more in common with the “no shot longer than a second save for close-ups on sad faces and effects set pieces” ethos that The Lord of the Rings called down on us.
I suspect you’re right. And I think that by jumbling it up like that, he lost a great deal.
Well, consider The New World. It’s hardly a flawless film, but one of its remarkable achievements is that, after spending so much screentime down and out in the Virginia colony, mired in the absolute muck and grime of it, that when, after two hours, the action finally carries us to England, it feels like we’ve arrived in a truly foreign world. Which we have. The cobblestones, the cathedrals, the court of King James and Queen Anne—it feels like a lunar colony. I find myself pining for the marshes, the passenger pigeons. And that’s a wonderful distancing effect: to make a 17th-century period piece feel so estranged. And not too long after Shakespeare in Love, The Queen, other Miramax Oscar-bait.
This calls to mind Samuel R. Delany’s line about science fiction being a way of reading, not writing. Which I like to apply to films like Winstanley or Culloden or Barry Lyndon. In what ways are they not science fiction? Aren’t they just as estranging? Malick’s pre-Life movies are easily co-opted by this reading. And they were better when he hadn’t “actualized the cosmic” in his work. It even appears—and I suppose I am being awful and presumptuous in so saying—that his thinking was better, in those days, as an artist, even as a philosopher, moralist, storyteller …
I agree. Thin Red Line, despite all its craned-neck shots of trees (indeed, even with them), is a much more complex film, intellectually and emotionally, than The Tree of Life.
It’s also a much more visceral film. The taking of the hill in Thin Red trumps anything in Tree, possibly everything else in Malick’s filmography, for sheer impact. And it manages to be both spatially coherent and completely impressionistic, brutal, frightening, disorienting, even grimly humorous. Meanwhile, in Tree, we get … one weightless, rubbery CGI dinosaur declining to eat another? At least there was no shaky-cam during those scenes …
I almost laughed when the dinosaurs came in …
I almost didn’t.
I don’t think that’s quite what Malick was going for (although I don’t know what he was going for!). Whereas the locusts in Days of Heaven are pretty scary.
Especially if you have a peanut allergy.
When I first heard about The Tree of Life, I spent some time wondering whether Malick would pull a similar distancing trick there as he had in New World. Certainly the man loves reusing plots and structures: for instance, the love triangle at the center of The New World is largely congruous with the one in Days of Heaven. (Henry James stole his plot from Pocahontas!)
And his tree fetish has been building since The Thin Red Line, apparently. One of Days of Heaven’s saving graces is that there weren’t many trees in the Texas panhandle. He would have filmed them if he could!
Trees or no trees, I anticipated a film in which, after spending a very long stretch in 1950s Texas, we flashed forward to Sean Penn’s character living in the present day—the shots of him running his hand under a faucet, entombed in a glass and steel urban setting made surreal by contrast with the past. Which would have been simple but powerful. But that effect did not happen. And I don’t see why he didn’t do it.
That’s a nice thought, and a nice idea for a picture, but it’s better to criticize the film the director made, rather than the film we wish he’d made.
Well, put it this way, then: cutting so much between everything turned it to mush. Well, not mush. But it erased a lot of difference he could have exploited. It turned the film brown. (It’s Malick by way of Michael Bay.)
I heard Optimus Prime was in the rough cut, but his scenes were all taken out in the final edit. That’s why his name’s in the credits and you never see him in the picture.
[Jeremy is referring to an unusual aspect of the editing of The Thin Red Line, during which Malick removed performances by Lukas Haas, Viggo Mortensen, Gary Oldman, Bill Pullman, Mickey Rourke, Martin Sheen, and Billy Bob Thornton. —A D]
Just like Michael Bay, Malick’s steadily cutting all the Transformers from his films …
Except Grimlock. And, hey, he’s looking well, after all these years. Distinguished. Spry.
Would that Grimlock had really been in The Tree of Life!
I keep saying that the directors of these so-called blockbusters ought to trade projects with each other. Malick’s Transformers would be sublime. And Bay’s Tree of Life …
…would be Pearl Harbor.
Hey, yeah. Or, “a good excuse to stay home and read Marx.”
I actually kind of like Pearl Harbor (just saw it again, in fact, on AMC). It can be enjoyed as camp.
Like Tree of Life will one day be enjoyed by our robot overlords.
Anyway, at the risk of repeating myself—I’ll claim that I’m clarifying!—Days of Heaven has so much more life in it than Tree of Life. When I think about any ten seconds of that earlier film, it’s so idiosyncratic and mysterious. So beguiling:
Whereas in Tree of Life … I feel as though I don’t have any access to it. There’s no comparable ten seconds. It’s beautiful, I suppose (in a calculating, ultra-clean, Andy Goldsworthy kind of way) but I can’t enter into it anywhere.
The images are all over-familiar. And they encourage us—as Curtis White so memorably put it in his criticism of Saving Private Ryan—to not “try to do no thinkin’!”
As I mentioned above, I rather adore all the montage in Days of Heaven—how so much of the film is elided, so little of it presented as traditional scene. (Although there is also a lot of scene.) It’s one of the things I’m always praising in that film, and one of the reasons why I encourage people to see it. And in Tree of Life, he’s taken that technique so much further. Is there even any continuity editing in the film?
There’s a little. But not much. Every little moment where there is, or a take is allowed to play out without a cut, was like a islet in the rushing river of sun-dappled vertigo and exploding frogs.
[Laughing] Did you see Andrew O’Hehir’s review of the film, at Salon?
“I get the feeling Malick is really, really sorry about that frog he sent into orbit way back when.”
That was my thought, too, right after it ended: I’ve just watched the most expensive self-therapy session in cinema history.
It’s Malick’s decision of course how to make his film, and he’s welcome to make any film he wants. But the consistent lack of scenes, the constant whirlwind of shots … When I first learned about it, heard it described as “Malick Malick’d,” I suppose I was excited (or intrigued). But, dun-brown mush, it ended up leaving me pretty cold.
It’s the clearest demonstration I’ve seen of Raúl Ruiz’s notion that every shot in a film is its own film. Malick starts pretty much from zero with almost every cut. Starts the movie from the beginning. On paper this sounds extraordinary; in practice, it’s nauseating.
And curiously disaffecting. I wish the whole thing had been weirder, like the shot of the mother in the glass coffin, a la Sleeping Beauty.
And which is unusual for Malick. I mean, such obviousness. Unless, Pierre Menardlike, he simply managed to bring himself to the point in his life wherein he could compose those sequences spontaneously, not as references but as inventions that we are simply too cynical to take on their own terms …
I suspect you of being facetious.
But I came by it honestly.
Those references are problems, because The Tree of Life is not anywhere near as good as The Mirror. Or 2001, the other clear point of reference. Stalker makes for a more fitting comparison.
Surprising he didn’t slip a nod to Solaris in there somewhere.
He did! Big sentient ocean, giving us what it thinks we want. Cuddly dinosaurs and ethereal redheads with superpowers!
Ah. At last we have struck upon a reading of the film that makes me feel less violated.
But all film—all art—is derivative, referential. It’s just that, in Malick’s case, he’s always tended to quote himself more than anyone else.
I wish to fuck he was quoting Heidegger or Wittgenstein instead. This film, its situations and characters, its shots, are all so prechewed. They don’t reference any particular film so much as they do a whole body of cinematic cliche.
Are they cliched, though, or just typical? I know that a lot of the Texas incidences reminded me very strongly of my own childhood. A lot of life, after all, is stereotypical.
Life is whatever it is.
But, to be very simplistic about it, representations, on the other hand, can relax into familiar idylls and effects or can “e(n)strange.” I didn’t grow up in the country, and perhaps this better prepares me to call foul when I see so-called typical, archetypal experiences made reference to or manifested without the least nod toward the sublunary world all we non-Hollywood subsidized geniuses must toil in, awash all the goddamn while in the suffocating kitsch of these tacky pre-processed ideograms of childhood. It’s as though Malick has never seen an American film about childhood in the fifties before. Or a pharmaceuticals commercial utilizing such imagery to associate our “golden age” nostalgia with this or that given product (children running through those dappled fields, etc.).
Perhaps all of this could have been avoided had someone sat Malick down with a DVD of The Wonder Years? Stand by Me?
This may also sound like a silly complaint, but I don’t like any of the characters in the film. Whereas Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard, Linda Manz—I really feel for the four of them.
Yes, welcome once again to contemporary Hollywood, where the dinosaurs are the stars. There’s no real performance in the film. Save the eldest kid, I suppose. Perhaps some few actual dramatic scenes were shot and then excised? The mother is an absurd cipher. ([points to sky] “That’s where God lives!” [points to lake] “This is where the fish lives!” [points to mouth] “This is where my tongue lives!”)
She is rather vapid. She’s also—the actress portraying her, I mean—20 years younger than Mr. Pitt. Oh, Hollywood.
Pitt does well with his role, which I suspect is only better developed because cruelty in Malick’s universe is necessarily verbal and physical. You can listen to and watch a man misbehave, but you can neither see nor hear goodness unless it’s manifested in an action. (It can’t be spoken of in condescending monosyllables and still hold any shape. Whereas, as has been noted ad infinitum, being ungood is simple enough to sketch in. Easy-peasy. A glower suffices.) Or, is it that all those damn shots of the sun through trees or fingers are meant to be goodness incarnate?
That’s my suspicion, too. “Ask your doctor if The Tree of Life may be right for you. Side-effects may include nausea and an aversion to cinema.”
I wish I’d brought some Bonine along, in any case. But sure, Tree has no end of strangeness to it, clearly, and I find the film utterly remarkable despite my sense that if it were a politician, it would want me in a camp or on the other side of a wall. But perhaps Tree’s greatest strangeness is that it is presenting such impeccably indigestible ambitions while any one of its depictions of so-called typical childhood, shot through with cosmic significance and the possibility of grace, could be intercut with a television commercial …
It’s a remarkable thing. It looks like no other Hollywood film in the theaters right now, or that will be released anytime soon (if ever). And I admire it, or at least the effort behind it. No one will work harder on a film this year. Mr. Malick has shot ten million miles of footage …
He genetically engineered dinosaurs just to film them!
He aged Sean Penn in a time machine!
He flew Douglas Trumbull into outer space to film the birth of creation!
He transformed Brad Pitt into a flat-topped Eisenhower Republican!
He destroyed the world just to be able to film the afterlife!
Wait, he destroyed the world? I must have missed that scene.
Come on, Tree must rank at least a 9.5 on the implied apocalypse scale. Neck and neck with L’Eclisse!
But, why did Malick do all of these things? What is Life all about?
It’s about trees, hands, and sunlight. And staring up at things. Which is what 90% of its shots consist of. I still am a little seasick.
(Oh, and whispering. It’s about lots of whispering.)
I still think, though, that it’s a must-see. It’s so unique and peculiar. (I’m going to recommend it to my brother, father, mother.)
I don’t know what’s wrong with me or with Tree that I can’t agree with you save for in the abstract sense that any monumentally peculiar work of art, be it cri de coeur or calculated construction (or calculated cri de coeur?) is worth the seeing. But I couldn’t recommend that anyone I loved see Tree, as I wouldn’t wish my own physiological discomfort with the film upon anyone whose feelings mattered to me. Though, on the other hand, any person with any interest at all in cinema might perhaps have an obligation to see it, and see it projected. And so be forced to come to some difficult conclusions about the state of the art, the value of the art, the value of value …
I’d put it like this: It’s astonishing. It’s also, honestly, pretty boring. Astonishingly boring?
Great films put something back into life, and into cinema. Life sucks it all dry.
And shoves a rocket up its, uh, tailpipe.
The defendant is sentenced to three years of rewatching Ordet every morning at ten. Court dismissed.
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Jeremy [M. Davies] is the author of the critically-acclaimed film-centric novel Rose Alley, and an editor at Dalkey Archive Press in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois.
- Source Code, Friends, Woody Allen, The Man from London, Sucker Punch, Zardoz, Tron, Willow, and Shoot ‘Em Up
- Source Code, Moon, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
- Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, all films Kenneth Branagh, Sleuth, Joseph Mankiewicz, Thor, and superhero movies (every one)
- Midnight in Paris (and other recent Woody Allens)
- Extra: Ranking Woody Allen
- The Tree of Life
- Extra: Linda’s Voice-Over Narration in Days of Heaven
- X-Men: First Class