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"The Tree of Life," Round 2

David Hudson

Updated through 6/26.

In yesterday's Los Angeles Times, John Horn and Steven Zeitchik report on the uphill battle Fox Searchlight will be fighting this summer as they roll out Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life from just four theaters this weekend in New York and Los Angeles to eight more cities next week, all the way to 200 by the July 4 holiday weekend. In short, they realize that Brad Pitt and the Palme d'Or alone won't hack it. If marketing success were measured by the sheer bulk of critical coverage, though — and, Lord knows, it isn't — the team could already be resting on its laurels.

Reverse Shot, for example, has spent all this past week with the film, running five essays in all. Here in The Notebook, we've had Daniel Kasman's first impressions from Cannes and, on Thursday, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's (if you'll allow us) magnificent review. Both follow, of course, the roundup begun on May 16, the day critics jammed the Grand Théâtre Lumière and rushed out nearly two and a half hours later to get something in writing that could be tweeted and retweeted, blogged and Like'd and rounded up by eager leeches like me. Many wrote under not insubstantial pressure from their editors even as they raced to their next screening, all the while dodging a ridiculous hail of rhetorical spitballs from their tweeps back home. You'll note, though, that, aside from those writing for the trades, most reviewers insisted those first few days that theirs were the merely the first words, hardly the last, on one of the most anticipated films of at least the past two years.

Towards the end of that first roundup, you'll notice, too, a transition into reviews clearly written with the benefit of a decent night's sleep, days' rather than hours' worth of contemplation and, in some cases, a second viewing. The stateside press screenings had begun and, on May 22, I stopped updating that entry. Here, then, we pick up where that one left off. I want to begin, though, with a piece written last year for The Point Magazine. Jon Baskin:

The director of four films beginning with Badlands in 1973, Terrence Malick studied philosophy with Stanley Cavell at Harvard before abandoning a doctorate on Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. A promising journalist and academic — as well as an outstanding high school football player — in 1969 Malick published what is still the authoritative translation of Heidegger's The Essence of Reasons. That same year he ended his academic career and enrolled alongside David Lynch and Paul Schrader in the American Film Institute's new conservatory, developed to encourage "film as art" in America…. Like any great filmmaker, Malick demands that we see in a new way. Unlike most filmmakers, his films are also about the problem of seeing — that is, of perspective.

Each of Malick's films presents a conversation or debate between what he suggests is the dominant Western worldview and a competing perspective. Malick follows Heidegger in identifying the Western worldview with the Enlightenment drive to systematize and conquer nature. According to this point of view, man demonstrates his significance through technical and scientific mastery — and on an individual level, he falls into insignificance when he fails to win the acclaim of other men. The competing perspective in Malick's films is the artistic or filmic perspective, of which the paragon example is Malick's camera itself. Malick's goal as a filmmaker is to educate the human eye to see like his camera does. If our habits of vision are characterized by ambition, skepticism and greed, Malick inspires us with the virtues of patience, appreciation and awe.

Back to the week at Reverse Shot, beginning with Chris Wisniewski: "Psychology and incident are peripheral to this project, and to criticize Malick for his opaque characterizations and his disinterest in narrative cause-and-effect — as some already have — is to quite miss the point of the form and object of Malick's filmmaking: though the comparison is something of a reach, it's akin to lobbing the same criticisms at Faulkner or Joyce…. Jack's mother draws a distinction between the 'way of nature' and the 'way of grace.' The dichotomy is central to the history of Christian theology — one finds it in St Augustine, St Thomas Aquinas, and the monk Thomas à Kempis, though Malick's version appears to be most indebted to the latter—and it instantiates a different attitude towards metaphysics than that espoused by Heidegger." Read on.

Genevieve Yue: "The Norse myth of the world tree is cited by Stan Brakhage's Yggdrasill: Whose Roots Are Stars in the Human Mind, an experimental epic that brings together city and country — power lines, fireworks, winter branches, and sunlight skimming the surface of a pond — and, awash in crackled, hand-painted splendor, offers them to the light of the projector. Cinematically, it's one of Tree of Life's closest arboreal cousins, a kind of film best described as devotional: one that gives us a direct experience of the world, or as Nathaniel Dorsky writes, 'an image that is in itself a manifested act of seeing.'"

Michael Koresky: "We've witnessed hazy cinematic views of childhood before, but none quite like this: where in films like The Thin Red Line and The New World Malick stretched time, so that moments of love or horror play out as evocations of the infinite, in The Tree of Life he collapses time, so that the entirety of an adolescence seems to be happening all at once…. Of course, The Tree of Life is not simply about growing up. It's a bottomless evocation of a universe both warmly embracing and unforgivingly Darwinian. But in charting the moments when we enter that universe, as both physical beings and transcendent humans, it's incredibly intimate: a gargantuan film about small things."

Keith Uhlich: "Of all the images, sounds and mo(ve)ments to explore in The Tree of Life, I'm most fascinated by the section during the cosmos sequence that recreates the epoch of dinosaurs." And he writes a response to the "best and most thorough negative take I've read" on ToL, Robert Koehler's. More at Time Out New York.

Jeff Reichert: "Though separated by over a century of cinema, L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat and The Tree of Life share a fundamental sense of wonder: at the image, at the world, at the fact that we are able to capture pieces of its beauty in images…. Perhaps ten years from now, every film will look and feel a little more like The Tree of Life. Maybe none will. There's enough grandeur in it that it can stand alone. While watching the film, remember that its unutterably complex, meaning-laden cavalcade of images evolved from a single shot of a train pulling into a station captured over a century earlier."


AO Scott in the New York Times: "This movie stands stubbornly alone, and yet in part by virtue of its defiant peculiarity it shows a clear kinship with other eccentric, permanent works of the American imagination, in which sober consideration of life on this continent is yoked to transcendental, even prophetic ambition. More than any other active filmmaker Mr Malick belongs in the visionary company of homegrown romantics like Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane and James Agee. The definitive writings of these authors did not sit comfortably or find universal favor in their own time. They can still seem ungainly, unfinished, lacking polish and perfection. This is precisely what makes them alive and exciting: Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, The Bridge and A Death in the Family lean perpetually into the future, pushing their readers forward toward a new horizon of understanding. To watch The Tree of Life is, in analogous fashion, to participate in its making."

Anthony Lane in the New Yorker: "Nabokov's knowing remark that only one letter divides the comic from the cosmic would touch no chord in Malick…. Afflatus has an unhappy habit, as Malick has proved before, of subsiding into a monotone. Tucked away inside the grandeur, though, and enlivened by jump cuts, is a sharp, not unharrowing story of a father and son, and, amid one's exasperation, there is no mistaking Malick's unfailing ability to grab at glories on the fly." Richard Brody: "I'm not sure why Anthony thinks that Malick 'finds something distasteful in our current mores.' Rather, his filming of the contemporary life of the architect seems to emphasize the quest for the eternal in the ephemeral, the transcendent in the banal, the ecstatic in the ordinary, and the deeply subjective, sublimely visionary, and prophetic in the prosaic and the factual."

Writing for Artforum, Amy Taubin finds much to praise — "No one can move the camera like Malick — or more precisely no one directs the way Malick directs his great cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, or Lubezki's operator, Jörg Widmer, to move the camera" — but also much to object to: "I know that Malick was, in fact, born in 1943, but to depict what is, in the context of this film, the essential family as resembling a Norman Rockwell cover and to locate the moment of childhood innocence in the 50s and the fall from grace (the death of the middle brother) in the 60s, well that's going to give comfort to a lot of very reactionary folk living in 2011."

David Edelstein in New York: "Malick has succeeded in fully creating his own film syntax, his own temporal reality, and lo, it is … kind of goofy. But riveting…. Malick is often likened to Stanley Kubrick, who meticulously composed his shots and often needed scores of takes to get exactly what he wanted. (He drove actors crazy.) If anything, Malick is the anti-Kubrick."

Dana Stevens in Slate: "Kubrick's shots of outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey felt ominous and mythic; Malick's have the quiet accuracy of a NASA video sent from space. Watching the asteroid that will kill off the dinosaurs hurtle toward the atmosphere, we think, 'There was a moment when this happened,' and are awed. But the astronomical flashback isn't without a measure of wit as well; the sheer scope of it is a kind of joke on the impossibility of storytelling. The notion of returning to the birth of the universe to kick off your movie is a way of going Tristram Shandy — who couldn't tell his story without a detailed account of his conception — one better."

Advice from Nick Pinkerton in the Voice: "You may feel amazed or muddled, softly spoken to, or simply abandoned while watching it; in any case, you shouldn't wait for the DVD. Better than a masterpiece — whatever that is — The Tree of Life is an eruption of a movie, something to live with, think, and talk about afterward."

For Michael Joshua Rowan, writing in the L, "return visits to the sensorium prove the film's flaws unignorable. Clichés pock its visual tapestry: a child sticks his hand out a car window, dipping it through the air; a field of sunflowers represents heaven. Bildungsroman Jack never truly matches Penn's grown version since the latter remains a barely glimpsed cipher. And an -inspired coda — featuring the O'Briens and other characters reunited within Jack's splendiferous mental landscapes in order to acceptingly relinquish the younger brother to God — might have resonated much more profoundly had we gotten to better know this sibling." That said: "Ambition has its price, but the rewards Malick offers are exceedingly deep, bogglingly vast, and truly rare."


Chris Barsanti for Film Journal International: "If films are going to be pretentious bunk — and there is a very good chance that The Tree of Life falls squarely into that category — then let them at the very least look, sound and feel like this one does."

Steve Erickson in Gay City News: "The Tree of Life stages a shotgun wedding between visionary head-trip cinema and a 50s coming-of-age drama. Individually, its pieces work very well. Together, the connections seem more dubious."

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir: "To my taste the visual and auditory experience of The Tree of Life is frequently spectacular, but also nearly drowns the film's Texas family story in a rising tide of mystical mumbo-jumbo, culminating in a vision of the afterlife that seems sentimental and alarmingly literal-minded."

Two Hammer to Nail reviews. Michael Tully argues that ToL "isn't the statement of a believer; it's the rumination of a questioner." He's most reminded of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "Technically and structurally speaking, this film is Malick's attempt to use the tools of cinema — editing, sound, imagery — to not just recreate the life of one family in the 1950s, but to transport us into Jack's skin, to remember what he remembers, to feel his life as he feels it in his memory." Michael Nordine: "The Tree of Life isn't Malick's 2001; it's his Sistine Chapel."

Heather Havrilesky for Movie City News: "Despite ample talk of God in the film's voiceovers, Malick's ultimate vision seems distinctly secular: We have each other, we have this world, for just a tiny slip of time."

Scott Tobias at the AV Club: "Malick spends much of the brilliant first hour assembling exalted images of man and nature with an intuitive, poetic style that recalls Wong Kar-wai…. The simplicity of The Tree of Life will be mistaken for naïveté."

IFC's Matt Singer finds the experience as a whole "like watching a magician perform one trick over and over again for 138 minutes. As amazing as that trick is, when it's repeated endlessly, it loses some of its luster."

But Mathieu Ravier finds there's "much reward to be reaped from an active questioning of the film’s silent invitation to philosophical consideration."

Spout's Christopher Campbell "will come right out and say this at the risk certainty of being thought a pretentious ass who doesn't know what he's talking about: I am intellectually above Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Or, I'm at least philosophically and religiously above it. That is the only explanation I can have for getting so little out of it and walking away feeling nary a bit of enlightenment or passionate response."

Cinespect's Ryan Wells has his problems with ToL, too — the beach scene is "overtly Felliniesque and has been stale since the 60s" — but still considers it to be "a monumental contribution to contemporary cinema."

For the New York Press's Armond White, ToL "is little more than a grab-bag of generational preoccupations: outerspace explorations and inner space doubt."

Richard and Mary Corliss talk with Pitt for Time, while, for Flickering Myth, Trevor Hogg chats with visual effects supervisors Dan Glass and Bryan Hirota.

Back to Steven Zeitchik in the LAT: "Malick has finished shooting his new film, a drama once titled Burial and now without a title. Starring Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Olga Kurylenko, its contents have been shrouded in mystery, as is typical for a Malick project. What is known: It's a love story, and it uses some of the same radical slice-of-life production techniques used on Tree. One person who worked on the film described it as even more experimental, in fact."


Finally for now, a reminder of a few ways to revisit the entire Malick oeuvre: Matt Zoller Seitz's trailer for a retrospective, plus video essays on Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World. At Not Coming to a Theater Near You: Michael Nordine on Badlands, Days, Red Line and New World and Leo Goldsmith on The Tree of Life ("the closest points of reference here are Tarkovsky's The Mirror or Resnais's Je t'aime je t'aime, scrambled excursions through time and memory that grasp at the causes of things.") At Cinémezzo: Edwin Davies on Badlands, Josh Timmermann on Days, Adam Cook on Red Line and Nathanael Smith on New World. Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss Malick at the House Next Door.

"Badlands launched not only his own career but also those of [Martin] Sheen and [Sissy] Spacek, cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, producer Edward R Pressman, art director Jack Fisk, and many others." For GQ, Nathaniel Penn pieces together a fascinating oral history of Malick's debut.

In PopMatters, James A Williams argues that "even though Malick's films are set in profoundly different times and places — ranging, for example, from early 17th century America to the Pacific theater of the second world war — taken all together they present essentially the same story; or more specifically, they are installments of a career-long fascination with the archetypal narrative of a transformation from a state of innocence to one of experience. For again and again Malick's films rehearse, in ways both literal and figurative, one of the oldest and most abiding stories in myth and literature: the expulsion of human beings from a kind of paradise, an expulsion that in Malick's work is emblematic of humanity's painful estrangement from a state of transcendent union with the larger world and, indeed, with the cosmos."

Updates, 5/31: For Andrew Schenker, Malick "takes a top-down approach to spirituality that results in a generic set of circumstances being worked into an underimagined framework. We know nothing about this family or their Waco surroundings — except that they travel to the black part of town to buy brisket — and we don't really need to know more. Bringing up questionable dichotomies between grace and nature via voice-over helps little. These people are simply clichéd props to deliver Malick's increasingly out-of-touch vision of dubious spiritualism."

"There is some lovely behavioral stuff here about brothers and the tender, fretful static that flies between them," writes Tom Shone. "Would that Malick had left it there. It should have been enough. But it gives me no pleasure to report that in addition to making this supple, impressionistic film about childhood, he has also squared off against his demons, summoned hither his muse and succumbed to the entirely regrettable impulse to deliver a masterpiece…. To tell a tale of childhood so well that people compare it to the story of Genesis would be a wondrous thing. To supply the comparison yourself, not so much."

Updates, 6/3: "The new film appears as a beautiful, mist-shrouded shipwreck," writes Jonathan Kiefer in the Faster Times. "God knows it exudes determined dignity, as if having run aground somewhere along an uncharted course always was part of its plan."

"Having seen The Tree of Life twice and committed to my skepticism in print, I still can't quite bring myself to lift a finger against it, as if doing so would be like beating back the winds of time," writes Time Out Chicago's Ben Kenigsberg. "But loving the idea of The Tree of Life is not the same as loving The Tree of Life itself."

JR Jones in the Chicago Reader: "One can only speculate whether the father-son relationship at the center of The Tree of Life is autobiographical, but its emotional detail is vivid and painful."

For Dennis Harvey, writing in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, it's "like The Great Santini or This Boy's Life meets Tarkovsky (or, worse, Tarsem); something relatably intimate housed in the most ornately overblown package imaginable. It's like those James Michener novels in which a simple soap opera is backgrounded by 300 pages of historical errata practically going back to the amoeba from which our protagonists descended. Only Malick, bless him, actually depicts the amoeba."

"Without a doubt this is one that will perplex and madden, but will also inspire and captivate," writes Matthew Groves in the Alternative Chronicle. "I find it to be a deeply affecting, quiet and moving experimental drama that is personal and mysterious, majestic and down to earth."

At the Playlist, Oliver Lyttelton notes that the "San Diego Reader reports that Malick has written a letter — or as the writer calls it 'a fraternal salute' — for the attention of every projectionist who'll show The Tree of Life, asking them to take certain things into account. As he says, 'Proper theatre projection is fast becoming a forgotten art.' … In other Tree of Life news, Fandor talked to experimental filmmaker Scott Nyerges, whose short Autumnal had twelve seconds worth of footage sampled by Malick for his latest, with permission, obviously."

"One handy way that film theorists divide movies is the realist/formalist dichotomy," writes Donna Bowman in the Nashville Scene. "Looking at Malick's body of work through this lens is confounding. He has drawn from history since his very first feature, as The Belcourt's Tuesdays with Terrence Malick retrospective establishes. But that history, reflected to varying degrees in all Malick's films, has increasingly been used as a setting for meditation rather than a stage for strong narratives."

The latest additions to Jim Emerson's Opening Shots Project: Badlands and The New World; and Matt Zoller Seitz's five-part video series is now complete.

Update, 6/7: For Fandor, Doug Cummings and Michael Sicinski explore more links between The Tree of Life and the avant-garde.

Updates, 6/10: "If I see a film or read a book or hear a symphony or song and respond to it in a personal way, it's because it expresses something for which I have a high degree of sympathy," writes David Lowery. "It is not my own experience but a mirror of it; recognizing that reflection is an experience in and of itself, and it is this refraction that I will not try to express, nor compress with objectivity. At least for a time. At least in this one case. We'll see how long it lasts."

For Sam Wasson, writing in the LA Weekly, The Tree of Life is "a pseudometaphysical filibuster set to Berlioz. Don't let the dinosaurs fool you. [Malick's] latest is a screen saver, a Hallmark card, a Rorschach test expansive only in its indetermination, like a Zen master who in saying nothing is thought to have said everything. But it's not the film's failure that is troubling; even the greatest failures are majestic in some way. As ever, the trouble is in Malick's ivory tower of unaccountability, his defensive stance against the fact of community and the egalitarian notion of boundless conversation."



Updates, 6/22: "The esteemed Peter Tonguette takes the film to task for its departures from classical storytelling craft," blogs Zach Campbell. "But I don't know how fair this is.  Can one think of a film released by a Hollywood studio that more explicitly marks out the fact that its aims — whatever those might be — are not at all those of crafting a clear story with minimal spatial ruptures?  Peter suggests that The Tree of Life often feels like a trailer for itself.  I think I understand precisely what he means but I'm not sure it appropriately applies to this film, where the editing indeed departs from many fiction cinema norms but is nonetheless an extraordinary achievement.  More than any other Hollywood-released film I've ever seen, The Tree of Life reminds me of the likes of not only Nathaniel Dorsky but also Gregory Markopoulos."

"Malick's movies, let us imagine, may not be 'arguments or descriptions,'" writes Richard Neer at nonsite.org, "but they might help us to see what makes such procedures possible; they may not be illustrations of Heidegger (or Wittgenstein, or Cavell, or Thoreau) but, so to speak, companions to them. In this light, the question of whether his films are or are not philosophy, are or are not mystical, loses its power to distract. Instead, the question becomes where to look for Malick's own 'relevances,' that we might 'share his purposes.' A good place to start might be in a movie theater, with eyes on the screen. What does The New World look like?"

"By far the best exegesis I've read of The Tree of Life is this amazingly in-depth, lovingly written, and occasionally hilarious essay courtesy of Niles Schwartz at The Niles Files," notes Bilge Ebiri. "There are many money quotes in there, but perhaps this one will give you a taste:

To me there is little that is confusing about The Tree of Life, which is dually impenetrable as a personal reflection, confession, and requiem for a dead brother, just as it is, while burrowing into its roots, universal. Malick's images are very specific pictures of his own biographical childhood outside of Waco, Texas in the 1950s…. The Tree of Life is too sincere to be pretentious, and though many of us may scoff at one man's presumption to link his own biography to the origins of life, Malick is in fact calling out to us to do the same, and so to wonder about our Being, rather than just being-in-the-world, working day to day, reading internet articles, watching The Hangover Part II and Sex and the City, and drinking PBRs. The Tree of Life is Malick's "Song of Myself," recalling Whitman:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss the film at length at the House Next Door and, at In Contention, Kristopher Tapley has a recording of an hour-long discussion: "The panelists included Sister Rose Pacatte of the Pauline Center for Media Studies, Dr Robert K Johnston of the Fuller Theological Seminary and author of Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue; Rabbi David Wolpe of the Sinai Temple (a bit of a celebrity in his own right); Scott Young, executive director of the University Religious Conference at UCLA; Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at the Islamic Center for Southern California; and Jim Hosney, Professor of Literature at the American Film Institute. The panel was moderated by spiritual author Erwin Raphael McManus."

Updates, 6/26: "Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life is insufferable: interminable, madly repetitive, vague, humorless, grandiose. It is also, astoundingly, one of the great lyric achievements of the screen in recent years and a considerable enlargement of the rhetoric of cinema. Years from now, the movie will be remembered as a freshening, even a reinvention, of film language." The New Yorker's David Denby: "I admire The Tree of Life enormously, but I think it would be less than candid if I didn't say how far away from it I feel emotionally. At the end, speaking to God of her dead son, the mother raises her arms and says, 'I give him to you.' The moment is lovely, and, as an apotheosis of feeling and belief, it's fully earned by the rest of the movie. But let me say categorically that no woman I've known could raise her arms and yield up her son to any God whatsoever."

Stamford, Connecticut's Avon Theatre is not giving refunds. Ray Pride has the notice.

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