(This is too long so I'm sorry to anyone who reads it)
Wow, Lisa, way to take us to task. I like that. You got some fight in ya. Let’s go at it! I'll try to defend myself to you and John too. This will take a while.
I really like that you say this:
“And no matter what Malick makes, it will be genius. His name is more important than the movie itself, and in another 8 years, everyone will be saying his next film is the most important film of the millennium, because he made it.”
And then you say “NOTE: I'm not saying this is you guys, I just mean in general.”
The sad thing is that I AM that guy haha. I will be saying that the next time he makes a movie but that’s only because I love him unconditionally and he has always left me in awe. If Kubrick rose from the grave and made another film, I’d probably call it the greatest thing ever made in the history of time. That’s just because I’m psychotic, but also because he never ever made a bad film. Every time I saw one of his films I felt like it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. That isn’t so much indicative of his name as it is of how incredible and consistent his films were.
So, where I would disagree is that it isn’t all in the name but in the quality of the film. I’ll use an example:
I love and worship Ingmar Bergman. One of the great artists in any medium of the 20th century. Now, Bergman didn’t make a theatrical film for 20 years and then suddenly came out with Saraband. I loved that film but wouldn’t call it the greatest of the decade at all. It’s a great film, but it doesn’t contain the quality or the weight of his greatest films. Kubrick’s films always contained the same quality and weight to them. He never disappointed or steered me wrong. The same thing with Malick. He’s never lost it. So when he makes a film, you know you’re in for an event that is comparable to his other works which are already among the greatest films ever made. The hype is there, but I think it’s for a very good reason (the enormous time between his films probably helps like with Kubrick).
There are definitely people who love everything a director makes just for the name (John will probably take this, quote it, and then write “Says the guy who loved Midnight in Paris”). I might be guilty of this at times and if someone called me out on it, I’d admit it. But it would be hard to do this with Malick because in my opinion he’s never made a questionable film that truly tested the name versus the quality.
I think it might be unfair to lump Terry Malick in with someone who would shoot a 10 hour film of a brick wall or something. I think he’s too genuine and sincere for something like that. If someone like Hanake (who I really like mind you) made a film like that, I wouldn’t be surprised because he’s an asshole and he likes to pontificate. Malick isn’t like that to me though. He really is sincere, almost naively sincere you’d think at times. He’s just a kid with a movie camera who is in love with everything he sees. He treats every image with reverence. He’s Ginsburg at the end of Howl shouting “Holy Holy Holy Holy Holy Holy.” He’s got an earnest poetic spirit that is just rare for a filmmaker, which is one reason I love him so much. He’s one of the only people who can shoot an image of grass swaying and REALLY REALLY mean it.
If someone had made this exact film instead of Malick, well, A.) I’d think it were a rip-off of Malick but B.) If Malick didn’t exist, never made a film, and then someone just made this film out of nowhere I’d probably have a new favorite director. I’d probably love the movie even more than I do because I’d think, “wow, who’s this little shit who thinks he can blow everyone else out of the water and just did.” With Malick, I expect greatness because he’s never made a bad film. He’s only made masterpieces. But if someone made this who I had never heard of, I’d be shocked and bow down to them because you can tell they really really meant it.
I think The Tree of Life is entirely genuine. I don’t think the film is trying to fuck with us or to be needlessly showy. I think it’s consistently devoted to itself without any pretension involved. It’s a very, very difficult and challenging film. I can understand not getting it at all; there were many things I didn’t understand about it myself. But I never felt while watching it that it was confused or out of control. I felt throughout that Malick was in complete control and if I were lost at points it was because he was way ahead of me.
There are certain writers like Shakespeare, Faulkner, or Nabokov that are like that. Sometimes I read their stuff and can’t fully understand it. I’m just not seeing what they are seeing. But with guys like that, I would never say “this is just pure obfuscation and therefore bad writing.” I always can recognize that the deficiency lies with me, and that these guys are just 30 steps ahead of me. If I can’t always see what they are seeing it’s because I’m not a genius and they are.
Malick probably is a genius (he’s a Heideggerian scholar for christsakes). I will always give him the benefit of my confusion because I respect and admire his intelligence as a filmmaker.
Does that all make any sense, Lisa? I’m really just trying to clumsily articulate why I think Malick is different than most filmmakers and why people like me get so excited at the thought of him. I’m not trying to attack you for disliking the film; I’m just trying to give you a defense, albeit very poor, for MalickMania.
I do stand by the opinion that The Tree of Life is the most important film of the year, though of course that opinion is going to be relative. Here’s why I say so: Malick is a titanic filmmaker who rarely puts out films, so when he does it’s going to be important to anyone who has a serious interest in film history. Film history is composed of auteurs who have propelled the medium forward, much like literature is composed of authors who have done the same. Malick is like a great, indispensable author who comes out with a new book. People who seriously care about literature are going to be paying attention. Malick's a living legend who’s still on top of his game–something to always look out for no matter the medium. Also, the epic scale and sheer ambition of this film alone make it unlike anything you are going to see this year. A 2 and 1/2 hour prayer to God and the Universe and a meditation on the birth, struggle, and death of all living things doesn’t come around very often. In fact, the reason Brandon, John, and I bring up older filmmakers like Tarkovsky and Kubrick is because (I hate to speak for you guys but sadly I will) we really haven’t seen something like this since those guys. This is where our interest in film history really comes into play. I know I’m certainly looking at it from a film evolution perspective. I truly think it’s a landmark film, something that will be reflected upon for ages like 2001.
It’s the most important film of the year to someone like myself. But you’re right. The Tree of Life probably won’t be the most important movie of the year to most people. The Hangover 2 will be!
All right, suddenly I feel like defending the film’s emotional qualities against you and John. First off, I think this film wears its tenderness on its sleeve. I think it asks you to be emotionally involved through empathy. It asks you to bring your emotions and consideration for things instead of just telling you to be emotional. If anything, it should be commended for not going for cheap emotional cues. It’s not directing you emotionally–you have to direct yourself. I don’t need to know how one of the kids died to know that it is hurting everyone like hell. I don’t need to know what is going on in Jack’s adult life to know that he is struggling with his past and his reflections on his parents and childhood. If I feel emotions for him, it’s because I can relate but also because I want to relate. To me, the film obviously cares about its characters, which I appreciate immensely so I direct myself to care, be invested, and empathize. The same with the film’s care for nature. I think the film has a reverence for every image it depicts; it practically dances around everything it sees as if to see it from all sides. It’s trying to communicate this reverence to you in a way that I would hope makes you feel something. I have strong emotions for nature, and the way Malick and Lubezki film nature lets me know that they do to. I bring a lot of my own emotions on nature to the film but only because the film lets me.
The anguish to me is there, but its a soft, elegaic anguish. If the characters whisper to God its because they’ve been defeated and are hoping that even with their last, lingering whimpers he might be able to hear them (on a side note, Malick’s last two films also featured whispering to things greater than the main characters). The film is an anguished, whimpering Prayer to God. The kind of prayer you have after crying and anger have gotten you nowhere. It’s an anguish not at just the death of your family member but at God’s silence throughout all birth, struggle, and death (this is where the Bergman comparisons are strong). It’s Jack and the mother begging God to give a shit. At the end, whether the trip to heaven is real or not, it still expresses a desire for there to be something to protect life and to take responsiblity for it.
I’m a comitted atheist, but dammit, I can understand Malick’s hope that there is something there to take and accept your brother when he dies and hold all your loved ones like a treasure box. I don’t know if Jack was just fantasizing about heaven there. If he was, I’ve fantasized about it too.
You now, I really think this film is about creation. The family story follows the coming together of two people (a big bang of sorts), the birth of their children (the genesis of living things), and how they raise them (evolution of those living things). The creators of Jack are his parents, and they are the forces that shape him much like an ocean shapes a canyon. He knows who created him and who has shaped him. He reflects on his creators often when he is considering who he is as a person and how he became who he is. When he starts reflecting on the death of his brother and maybe even the universe around him, he starts thinking about an even bigger creator. Who created the universe itself? We see the universe unfold and the birth and evolution of life that has lead to the creation of a family like Jack’s. Who’s responsible for giving birth to and shaping all things?
In this way, the film is a relection on the forces that shape you as a person (your childhood and family) and then a questioning of the invisible forces that have shaped everything else and led to you. Has it all come through nature or divine grace? Or like Jack, has it come through both?
I think this film is a prayer for the existence of both–a nature that has developed all things and a grace that will someday save them. I think Malick is much more hopeful than I am about his, but there is still something sincerely beautiful about his deeply personal and hopeful epic prayer.