I’m terrible about getting out to the theater, but Jason’s review compelled me to go see Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, a two and a half hour journey of a film that defies description. At first I was worried about including possible spoilers in this post, but I’ve decided not to worry about that. The film cannot be experienced secondhand; I could write out the entire thing minute-by-minute and you still wouldn’t get it until you’d seen it.
At first glance, Tree of Life is about a Texas family in the 1950s. It follows the oldest child, Jack, from birth until the age when he starts questioning his parents and his place in the world (I would guess about age 11); these childhood memories are filtered through the backwards glance of adult Jack. But though the film centers on this one family in all their specificity, these characters are really meant to stand in for us all, as the film explores central questions of faith, love, death, and loss — in short, the meaning of life, and more to the point, what it means to exist, for each of us, as individuals. If this sounds like a lot, it is… and I haven’t even mentioned the creation sequence or the surrealism, or the stunningly nonverbal nature of most of the scenes.
I really don’t know how I would have received this movie if I’d watched it six months ago. There were at least two separate groups of viewers in the theater who just didn’t understand the film and were trying to. Before IWL, I might have been among them, but after a few months of committing to experimentation and being among other artists who feel the same, I’m much more receptive to trying to experience a work on its own terms (rather than fitting it into established guidelines for how things are supposed to be). As it was, suspending my analytical brain was probably the best way to watch this film. It confused me, at least intellectually. But as Erik and I left the theater, both of us teary and silent, I had to ask myself: Does art need to make sense in order to be good? If I’m this moved by something I don’t understand, what is the point of making sense?
Mention experimental art to someone and their mind will automatically conjure up the worst, most incomprehensible avant-garde work they’ve ever seen. I have little patience for experimentation that’s unwatchable (unlistenable, unreadable, etc). For me, the goal of experimentation is to create something new and unfamiliar that is yet resonant and meaningful to its audience. In this view, experimentation is exciting because it forces us to value — and therefore strive to develop — our personal voices above all else, including if necessary the established criteria for what makes something “good.”
The Tree of Life is that for me: a completely realized artistic vision, so true to its creator’s way of thinking that it doesn’t always make sense to the rest of us. Maybe I don’t agree with all the choices, but I’m still exhilarated that Malick was bold enough to make them. The fascinating thing about a work that defies convention is that it’s really hard to judge it as good or bad — or perhaps it shows us, clearly for once, that all our criteria are generalizations that fall to pieces when set against the backdrop of a truly unique perspective. I saw this reflected in the bewildered responses of the people sitting behind us. The woman said plaintively, “But there was no story,” adding after a pause, “but the cinematography was gorgeous at least.” “It was about an hour too long,” said her companion. “Good music, though.” They didn’t know what to make of it, and in the sense that I can’t give a simple assessment of it, neither can I — but I’m not trying. Did I like it? I have no idea! But it was deeply interesting, and to me that’s even better.
There’s a lot more I could say about the film, but I think that’s the gist of it. It’s really one to see and then ponder and discuss, so if you’ve seen it or are going to, let’s talk. It’s almost worth seeing for the cinematography alone (the same guy did Children of Men), which is so incredible it makes film seem more real than real. Some critics have hated it, and I don’t blame them, but if you are at all interested in how vision translates itself into art, I think this is a good one for you.
I’ve been wanting to see this movie, desperately! I was forewarned by the main reviewer in the Chicago Tribune (who I like), that it was more an experience than a movie with a story, and I think that your reaction has almost mirrored his.
I’ve been wanting to experiment with relating impression in my stories more than advancing a certain series of events, and I’m sure this is why the warm reception to the small amount of poetry that I’ve stared to write, has helped me work on that comfortably. I still have the mild fear of losing my reader if I try that with a story, because I too, can just give up on something that makes no sense to me AND doesn’t take me on an interesting ride while I experience it. I’m always interested in what Terrence Malick does, even if I am confounded by it. I think it helps that I love photography, and I know that his choices about how his films look will always interest me. Thanks for the review!
I was reading through lots of reviews after we saw the film, and a lot of them touch on similar things. It’s fascinating (as always) how it speaks differently to different people. I hope you get to see it!
I know what you mean about walking the line between experimentation in our work, and losing readers. I keep reminding myself that Malick is sixtysomething and has released five films in a nearly 40-year career. Think, simmer, percolate.
Well, in fairness to Malick I don’t think he chose to make 5 movies in 40 years, but it certainly have time for his vision to simmer, as you say. Apparently his next one is slated to come out in 2012. Two movies in one decade! That hasn’t been done since the 1970s.
Yeah, I was thinking about this and wondering how it works with filmmakers. With a novelist I might expect that he wrote many “bad” books that no one saw, in between his published ones, but if a filmmaker waits decades between films, what is he doing in the meantime? You can have drafts of screenplays but it’s so expensive to make a movie, I don’t think you can have many drafts of the actual film, either raw or edited.
[…] plural. But I am also a child of the internet, a devotee of the one-of-a-kind and artisanal, and a supporter of experimentation in art. I feel no need to bow down before a single form of publication, any more than I am willing […]
Sorry so late getting here… Things have been a little hectic. I suspected that you would have a reaction like this and, though we already mulled over some of this in email, I wanted to respond a bit. I have had a longstanding disapproval of avant-garde art as well, though as I’m getting older I find myself appreciating it more and more. Maybe I’m craving something new and different, or maybe I’m becoming a snob. Both are possibilities. I think it has something to do with finally letting go of that intense need to UNDERSTAND. Sometimes there is nothing to understand. Sometimes it’s just about the sequence of images or flow of words and the emotional response they inspire in us.
For instance Stan Brakhage made an experimental film in 1963 called “Mothlight.” He just took a strip of film and pasted on things he found in the forest: moths, butterflies, beetles, leaves, etc. What we see it about four minutes of vague images flashing at us almost too quickly to comprehend. There’s little point and no inherent meaning, but I found it a fascinating experience. (You can see it on You Tube, but it really needs to be seen on a big screen.) The same goes for Kenneth Angers 1947 short film “Fireworks” in which he translated his own gay bashing (at a time before people called it that) into a surreal nightmare. Anger’s film, I suppose, has more obvious meaning, but the surreal touches elevate what could have been a deeply depressing and disturbing incident into something almost transcendent.
I guess I’m saying I am now more open to art just being art without a neurotic need to interpret everything or to think some snotty auteur is putting something over on me (though I still have that response to some — like just about all of Kenneth Anger’s movies after “Fireworks”). Roger Ebert once wrote that if you have to ask what it means, it doesn’t. Maybe a little simplistic, but he’s helping us reclaim all that art we don’t understand. To reclaim it and judge it on our own terms, not those of hip art critics.
Erik and I kept remembering that one Balderdash game where he got “Off Your Rocker” as his movie title. 😉 That’s what “experimental film” makes us think of!
I looked at “Mothlight” and I can imagine it must be fascinating on a big screen. It made me think of the sounds and light changes of moths flickering across a porch light after dark. That’s probably too literal an interpretation. But I did find it interesting to watch, and again I’m not sure if I would have felt that way pre-IWL workshop. These thoughts of yours jump out at me:
“Maybe I’m craving something new and different, or maybe I’m becoming a snob. Both are possibilities.”
“think some snotty auteur is putting something over on me”
Yeah, I’m looking forward to my own new path when it comes to experiencing art. What does it mean to appreciate something that others don’t? Is it just that we’re more receptive to the unfamiliar? Have we turned into the arrogant critics we don’t like? Or is there still always going to be something even weirder out there that makes us feel like the joke’s on us?
I’m so excited by experimentation these days, I wonder if it’s similar to what the Zen masters call “beginner’s mind.” (As in: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”) This business of stuff that works emotionally/intuitively without necessarily making sense intellectually — it feels to me like dreaming, and I’ve always believed in the power of dreams. But there’s definitely still experimental stuff I don’t like. In grad school my aim was to write a book someday that my immigrant relatives would be able to enjoy. I still feel strongly about accessibility. If people are so turned off by something’s weirdness that they’ll close themselves off to the experience… that’s not the kind of art I want to make. But if they respond to it the way I responded to Tree of Life, that’s okay with me. It’s a balance.