Robert's Virtual Soapbox

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Editor’s Pick
JULY 4, 2011 4:39PM

‘Tree of Life’: For film critics or for viewers?

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Film review

“The Tree of Life” (which contains all of the images above, among many, many, many others): Great art or the self-indulgent, inaccessible pretensions of a baby boomer growing ever closer to death?

It is telling that (as I type this sentence, anyway) Yahoo! Movies shows American director Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” as having garnered an “A-” from film critics — and only a “C+” from the common folk.

The question then becomes, I think, whether the film is flawed or whether the film is just above the audience’s head.

“The Tree of Life” spectacularly peculiarly alternates between the very apple-pie story of a white middle-class family in the suburbs of Texas in the 1950s, patronized by Brad Pitt – and “2001: A Space Odyssey”-like grand views of the cosmos, views of dramatic geological events here at home (lots o’ lava, that is), and micro-views, such as that of a developing embryo (which we also saw in “2001,” and the same guy who did the special effects for “2001” [which was released the year that I was born] was involved with the special effects for “The Tree of Life,” and thus the deja vu). And throw in a lot of surrealism involving our real-life characters, such as an apparent family reunion in the afterlife on an ephemeral beach. Oh, and dinosaurs, too.

In “Tree of Life” Sean Penn plays the grown-up eldest son of Pitt’s character — and Penn apparently is the stand-in for Malick, kind of like one of Woody Allen’s stand-ins for himself – but Penn actually isn’t in the film all that much. It’s mostly Pitt, but Pitt does a great job, as he usually does, and the child actors also impress with their very natural acting.

The main problem with “The Tree of Life,” I think, is that the previews make it look like a Pitt-and-Penn vehicle with a little bit of artsy-fartsy stuff thrown in there, but the actual film is two hours and 15 minutes of an awful lot of artsy-fartsy stuff thrown in there. American audiences, at least, aren’t, I surmise, ready to go back and forth among watching Brad Pitt playing a family man in 1950s suburbia and Sean Penn playing his reminiscing grown-up son and watching Carl-Saganesque grand cosmic events and more down-to-Earth lava flows and even dinosaur politics.

(The French, however, have loved “The Tree of Life,” which they awarded the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival…)

Don’t get me wrong. The dinosaurs in “The Tree of Life” are quite well done, perhaps the best technically done dinosaurs to hit the silver screen thus far in cinematic history. I’d love to see a feature-length film about dinosaurs made by Malick — even if the dinosaurs aren’t anthropomorphized, even if there is no plot, so to speak, even if it’s just the dinosaurs hanging out and being dinosaurs. (Actually, I don’t like it when critters are inappropriately anthropomorphized, such as in Disney’s “documentary” “African Cats,” even though its target audience is children.)

And the story of the humans in “The Tree of Life” probably would have made a much better stand-alone film, stripped of the “2001”-like surrealism of cosmic vomiting and universal diarrhea, in which creation often rather violently explodes all over the place.

Indeed, not long into “Tree of Life” it occurred to me that just as they hand you your 3-D glasses before you view a 3-D movie, they should give you a joint to inhale (or maybe a bong would be less cleanup afterward) before you view the surreal “Tree of Life.” Then you’ll love it.

I suppose that there are two general camps when it comes to art. One camp maintains that art is whatever the artist wants it to be. Therefore, highly personal art is perfectly acceptable, probably even more preferable to art meant for the masses, to this camp. The more inaccessible, the better – the more artistic/“artistic” – some if not most of those in this camp seem to believe.

The other camp, which I favor, believes that art should be accessible, that art should communicate, or at least touch those who experience it, and that if the artist does not touch his audience, then the artist has failed.

It probably isn’t an over-generalization to state that we might call the camp of artistic/“artistic” inaccessibility the French Camp and the camp of accessibility the American Camp. Those in the American Camp often view those in the French Camp as pretentious. Those in the French Camp don’t really understand the incomprehensible art that they claim to understand, those in the American Camp believe (and thus the charge of pretension), and I tend to agree.

But art doesn’t have to be comprehensible, doesn’t have to be logical and rational and linear. As I stated, as long as the art touches you, in my book, then the artist has succeeded.

It is true that with American audiences, Malick had an uphill battle making such an impressionist film that would be well received (if he really even cared at all how it would be received by American audiences, indeed). Americans aren’t used to impressionism in their movies. American audiences are used to realism, to literalism, to fairly clear, point-A-to-point-Z plots.

“The Tree of Life” has elements that succeed, but in my eyes with the film Malick fails as an artist because his film goes on for so long, and becomes so ponderous and so difficult to experience, that he loses his (at-least-American) audience. In the audience that I was in, I think that most if not all of us were ready for the film to be over at least a half-hour before it actually ended, and at the end of the film we felt only the type of satisfaction that a long-suffering cancer patient might feel during the last few moments of euthanasia.

I’m down with the dinosaurs, and I am open-minded enough to be able to give a chance to a film that tries to capture Life, the Universe and Everything, but in my book when the viewer just wants it all to be over already, please please please God just make it end!, the artist probably has done something wrong.

I get the impression with “The Tree of Life” that the 67-year-old Malick had two films inside of him trying to claw their way out of his chest cavity like identical twin aliens a la “Alien,” but that he was concerned that if he didn’t put them into one film, he might not live long enough to get both films made, so he put both of the films into a blender.

Again, either of these two films probably would have been or at least could have been great, Malick’s ode to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” (and to “Jurassic Park”) or Malick’s very personal (perhaps too personal) recap of his own childhood as an American baby boomer having grown up in Texas.

Malick’s fellow baby boomer Roger Ebert ate up* “The Tree of Life,” which, while apparently is accessible to white American baby boomers who grew up in families that were at least middle class, isn’t as accessible to the rest of us. (I, as a member of Generation X “raised” by and surrounded by baby boomers, had quite a different experience growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Yeah, my memories of childhood are not so fucking idyllic.)

So we come back to the question as to whether a film succeeds even if it loses most of its viewers (here in the United States, anyway, since I am an American writing this review primarily for my fellow Americans). I say that it does not. (Again, the French, apparently, say that it does [indeed, a good number of them apparently believe that if a film is comprehensible, then it is shit].)

So, while I appreciate Malick’s technical achievements — again, love those dinosaurs, and he directed his child actors masterfully — I cannot ignore the fact that as patient as I am, “The Tree of Life” wore out its welcome, wore out my patience, and apparently wore out my fellow audience members’ patience even more so and even more quickly than it wore out mine. A good film, it seems to me, makes you regretful, not relieved, at having to leave the movie theater at film’s end.

And again, unlike Roger Ebert, I cannot ignore what doesn’t work in “The Tree of Life” — such as the apparently uber-pretentious scene, among many apparently pretentious scenes, that has Sean Penn walking through a door frame that is erected in the middle of nowhere — and focus on how great it is to take a stroll down Baby-Boomer Memory Lane, because I think that I can relate to the lives of the dinosaurs a lot more than I can relate to the reportedly idyllic childhoods of the baby boomers, who made my childhood much less idyllic than theirs.

“The Tree of Life,” as a whole, fails (at least here in the United States of America) because it loses its (American) audience.

And the grade for failure is an “F.”

My grade: F

(I surmise that Yahoo!’s commoners give the film an average grade of “C+” only because some people will give a movie a decent grade if there are at least some scenes that they liked and because there are plenty of pretentious, “artistic” people who will claim to have appreciated and understood an incomprehensible film.)

*Ebert swoons:

I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of “The Tree of Life” reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this.

Yeah, like I said, I had a different life experience…

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I'm not sure where I sit on the French-American continuum, being Australian, but I found this film tedious beyond belief.

Fortunately my tickets came gratis, at the Sydney Film Festival last month, and it screened in a nice old theatre with comfortable seats & decent popcorn.

I heartily rate your review, and I recommend the seats at the State Theatre, and their popcorn.

ps. This is the first negative view on the film I've read - & believe me, I've been searching. I just did not get it.
I'm very much looking forward to Tree of Life and your very good review did not dissuade me from my intention. But I loved your review. I thought it was very interesting, and funny. This made me laugh out loud, especially since living in Boulder, can easily get a contact high just sitting in the audience..."they should give you a joint to inhale (or maybe a bong would be less cleanup afterward) before you view the surreal “Tree of Life.” Then you’ll love it." Yep, I'm still laughing at that line. I think I tend a little more on the French side...I can pull existential meaning out of an Austin Powers movie...but I may be kidding myself. I'll let you know after I see the movie (if I can remember it!). (An F??? Really???)
neilpaul: defines "idyllic" as "charmingly simple or rustic." "Idyllic" doesn't mean ideal or perfect.

Again, I found the film more or less watchable until around the last half-hour or so, at which point I was more than ready for it to end. The film has some great visuals (again, I love the dinosaur stuff and what apparently is the dinosaur-exterminating asteroid hitting the Yucatan Peninsula, as pictured above), but overall the film fails, as I opined.

Mr. Gamble: The film is just too personal, in my book. Terrence Malick seems to have made a film for himself, not for an audience, not entirely unlike how people write poetry and short stories and even novels for themselves more than for an audience.

Further, it seems to me that film critics write for other film critics, and none of them wants to admit that he or she didn't "get" or like a film that's supposed to be so fucking great.

When I write a movie review, my bottom line is whether or not the film succeeded. Of course, in this case it's difficult to near impossible to say what Malick even set out to do (outside of cinematic masturbation, that is). If a film does not succeed, I do not automatically blame the viewer because the film was made by an acclaimed director.

If you want to see a good film, I suggest Woody Allen's latest, "Midnight in Paris."

marytkelly: Well, kind of like "The Passion of the Christ" was more of an event than a film, "The Tree of Life" is more than just a film, it seems. It is worth seeing for the cultural experience, I suppose. No fair, though, if you do get high before you watch it, because you will have had an advantage that I did not.

Anyway, yes, an "F" -- because I can't remember the last film that I wanted to end already as much as I wanted "Tree of Life" to end. Really.

And I WANTED to like it. I dragged my husband and one of my best friends to it and I apologized to them afterward... The film might be subtitled: "Or, Two Hours and Fifteen Minutes of Your Life That You Can't Get Back."
Your comments back to us were great. I love your sense of humor and I really agree. No one wants to admit when they don't "get" something when the reality may be there was nothing to get. I just watched, "I Am Love" and while I loved the cinematography, I wanted to barf at the ending and grab that mother and shake some sense into her. Horrific really and the whole movie sank down the toilet for me. But apparently, I'm quite shallow and hysterical given the many glowing reviews of that film. As for my state of mind when I go see Tree of Life, I have a reputation to protect (what that is I have no idea but I must err on the conservative side). I've been meaning to see Allen's latest movie and your reminder was a good one. Write more movie reviews. I like your style and I love movies.
Glad you enjoyed the piece. Upon re-reading it I find it to be too repetitive, but truth be told, I don't feel like paring it down...

I enjoy writing movie reviews but I don't write them consistently. The films that everyone talks about, such as this one, I'm more likely to review.

Yes, with "Tree of Life" I don't think that there is much to get. However, I don't assume that Malick had one or more central points that he wanted us to get. I suspect that he just wanted to play with some ideas. I was pretty much OK with this up to, I think, the aforementioned scene in which Sean Penn walks through a doorframe in the middle of nowhere. It was like a scene from a bad student art film. (I wonder if Penn pointed this out during filming...)

The one scene that everyone seems to be talking about is the scene with the "compassionate" dinosaur. I don't necessarily think that the dinosaur was being "compassionate" to the other one. I suspect that the "compassionate" dinosaur just wasn't hungry. (Seriously...)
Confession (iwatcheverythingwithbradpittinit). Going to see Tree this weekend without the bong, and hopefully without my 7 year old!
Anti-intellectualism is an American disease.


"the French"

"I give it an F"

"But apparently, I'm quite shallow and hysterical given the many glowing reviews of that film."

I'd have to have more information to dine why you're so shallow and hysterical.
"Further, it seems to me that film critics write for other film critics, and none of them wants to admit that he or she didn't "get" or like a film that's supposed to be so fucking great."

This is like reading "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." Apprently we film critics are of a different "race" -- like Alberecht in the "Ring" cycle.

Never heard of the "ring" cycle? Well Toklein ripped it off for that trilogy you so adore. And its full of beautiful music that will doubtless annoy you cause it isn't hip-hop.
An F? I would figure that mid-C range seems pretty appropriate. I liked some of it, but I also found it disjointed. Like two movies directly overlapped. It's like watching Memento without the scenes that explain Leonard's memory problem. No.... actually that might be more entertaining. I didn't think the childhood in the movie was that rosy-glow, but it does seem somewhat realistic, at least as far as a recollection perspective. I suspect that for a lot of people that feel they have good childhoods, it's a combination of mostly happy-tinged memories, interspersed with moments of anger or sadness.

I think your discussion of pretension is interesting, and it's likely right on for a lot of critics. Liking something but likely not fully being able to understand why, just that it seems like something they should like. Pretty pretenious. I like that at least Ebert likes it because it calls back his own childhood and finds something to touch in his own sense of self.

That is kind of the thing about art. It touches some people in a good way, and it misses others. I at least approve of Malick's intent. He himself seems to avoid the idea of pretension by basically putting together something he wants to make, combining images the way he wants to see them, telling the story in his own manner. That to me is what I would hope a lot of artists could try to do sometimes. Not always - I mean I love all kinds of movies - but I can appreciate the artistic intent of Malick, even if I am kind of blah on the result.
I hate movies that make you "look at your watch". I hate movies that have false endings. You think your torment is finally over when, wait, there is still twenty minutes left!
David: I'm quite pro-intellectualism. (I loved Susan Jacoby's 2008 book on anti-intellectualism, and I have another few books on the topic.) I am anti-pretentiousness, however.

The French have made many wonderful cultural contributions to the world, as have most if not all nations. However, it does strike me that they gave "The Tree of Life" their top honor and it's one of the most pretentious films I've ever seen. Coinky-dink? Prolly not.

I don't know WTF you're talking about when you bring up Tolkien, whose name you apparently cannot spell, for such an intellectual. Are you French? Is that why you make no fucking sense but seem so full of yourself nonetheless?

Wade: The absolute best that I could give "Tree of Life" would be a "C" or "C-" -- for its visuals. However, since just about everyone is bringing up "2001" when they discuss "Tree of Life," it seems that Malick ripped off "2001." So yeah, that's another reason for the "F."

neilpaul: I often bring my sociopolitical beliefs and my own life experience into my movie reviews. I tend to take a holistic approach to a film, looking at its sociopolitical aspects as well as its strictly artistic (technical) aspects. If that's a problem for you, don't come back like you keep coming back.

That said, the point that I made is that while Roger Ebert could feel the nostalgia that Malick apparently felt, I could not. I stand by my original point, which is that those outside of Ebert's and Malick's cohort (white male baby boomer belonging at least to the middle calss) may not enjoy the film that much. People usually read movie reviews because they want to know whether they probably will enjoy the film or not. I keep that in mind when I write movie reviews.

And I don't need a lecture on "overlong films." I'm happy to watch a GOOD film that is two or three hours long. Or even longer. ("Lagaan," an Indian film, is, if memory serves, more than four hours long, and I love that film. [It was nominated for Best Foreign Film, if memory serves. I can't remember whether or not it won.])
"If you don't like overlong movies, stop going to the movies." Come on, now. Not only can that statement reasonably be taken as patronizing and confrontational, but obviously my main criticism of the film is not that it is overlong, as though any film more than 90 minutes long by definition is a bad film. (Still, you are correct that many films would be improved if the director had cut out at least 15 to 20 minutes.)

P.S. to Wade: I surmise that Malick's defenders are giving him credit for his intentions. However, as Malick reportedly is a recluse, will we ever know what his intentions with this film were? Anyway, I can't review a film for its intentions -- only for its results... (Further, I surmise that Malick's defenders are giving him a pass on "Tree" because his other films are better. But again, I reviewed THIS film of his, not his other ones...)
For the most part, I found watching ToL to be a beautiful, meditative experience and judging from the chatter in the packed lobby afterwards, so did most of my fellow audience members.

It certainly had its flaws--I found some of the childhood scenes to be overly long, for example (although not at all sure how you can describe them as "idyllic") but overall I enjoyed the acting, the cinematography, the characters, the universe scenes, etc.

I am not a snob, but nor am I interested in movies made for Sarah Palin's America. I feel lucky to live in a city where I can see movies made for people who enjoy film as an art form.

My grade: B+
Oh, just read the comments and see you answered the "idyllic" question. I thought you meant it more in the sense of extremely happy, or peaceful....
"Pretentious" = "It made me feel stupid and I think I'm smart."
"However, as Malick reportedly is a recluse, will we ever know what his intentions with this film were? "

What do you want? An e-mail wioth a list on it?

What he's doing in "The Tree of Life" is screamingly obious. It's an evocation of his childhood. Yes it also deals with the creation of the world and climaxes with a speculation on the "Afterlife." But what impresses me about it most is the way it approaches this in such a simple manner. 2 1/2 hours of images and sounds without Malick ever raising his voice or hectoring the viewer as to how he or she is supposed to "feel" about what he's showing you. In this it relates to much of avant-garde cinema, especially David Brooks' "The Wind is Driving Him Towards The Open Sea" (1968)
Caroline: Did you see the movie in France? Hee hee hee... Just kidding... As I noted, the sentiment in the audience that I was in -- and this was in an art house here in Sacramento -- was different...

Anyway, I, too, am happy to live in a city in which we get art films (we get them so late sometimes, though, unfortunately, not being a huge city...).

David: Getting an "editor's pick" is bittersweet because it garners a lot of comments from the visibility. Which is bittersweet. Just sayin'. (Maybe someday I'll make an incomprehensible two-hour-plus-long film about it...)
I think the reviewers like it because they get tired of the same old shit. I know I do, and that's what gives the Malick's of the world their chance to re-invent the form. You fail to mention the beauty of the pictures of the cosmos, which even in our jilted time were extraordinary, nor the delicate nature of the story that unfolds ever so gracefully.

Making the movie into a dumping ground for Gen X grievances against the boomers hardly seems like a fair perspective to judge. I give your reviewing a low grade. I suggest leaving your generational prejudices out of it.

I'd say that to Mr. Ebert too. The movie grows on you, which is the mark of a good film.
The portrayal of idyllic, white, middle-class families living in the 1950s is HARDLY untrodden ground. Countless movies and TV sitcoms and dramas have tread this path. And, as I have noted, we've seen everything else before, too, not only in "2001" but in other films and on Carl Sagan's PBS series "Cosmos," for fuck's sake.

There is nothing original here. It's just a mish-mash of what we've seen before. I understand your desire to see something original, but alas, there is nothing new under the sun.

I reject your unsolicited suggestion to not write about generational differences when I so desire. I think it is pertinent in this case, given the viewpoint of the filmmaker as a baby boomer. Duh.
Of course it's old ground, which is why HOW IT IS TOLD is what matters and the true test of the filmakers talent. U think Malick doesn't know that? U think people whose profession is reviewing movies don't know that? I suspect at this point your views are entirely provincial. the best reviewers "add on", they don't take away, especially when risks are being taken. your opportunity was to educate your dull friends. yeah, unsolicited, but that's how it works. let me know when you like a movie. i was being nice and u got defensive.
the filmaker was telling a story from the 50's--that doesn't make him "pro" or "against." It means he is examing the period. duh. godless slander is ok but pretense is bad faith.
to call this story "idylic" means you fell asleep regardless of what generation you come from. i don't know what you write about well, but films ain't it.
"Dull friends"? You presume to know waaaaay too much.

So you don't like my movie reviews? Oh, boo hoo! I invite you not to return to my blog!

You must be another baby boomer who is pissed off that I haven't licked your generation's porcine ass.

Good riddance.
Aha, so now we get to the heart of the matter --Boomerphobia !
OK, you are done commenting on this post. But if you had any reading comprehension, you would know that my "boomerphobia" is only one of several reasons that I give the film an "F."
You've sold me, I'm not seeing this film. I used to be more of the "French" camp as you put it, reveling in enigmatic cinema, and I think I have a lot of patience, but as I grow older, I seek to connect and be moved.
Visually stunning, hard to comprehend. Don't know if I'd say it failed outright but yes, I was ready for it to end. What I came away with is a man facing his mid-life, never having fully recovered from the death of a beloved brother, reviewing the life events that shaped him, with particular focus on the advent of adolesence - another confusing, tumultuous time. Particularly the voice-over, "How do I get back to where you are?" Not just nostalgia, but longing for a simpler time, even if it wasn't "ideal."
A great review. Thanks. Rated.