Monday, May 30, 2011

Malick Comes Home

Malick's Tree of Life has come to the US but only to two cities thus far, LA and NYC. When it will arrive for the rest of us is anybody's guess, though it will supposedly open in Chicago this coming weekend.

And the critics have spoken, by and large very, very favorably, if not quite as ecstatically as they might. Some have reservations about the effectiveness of this or that in the film, for it is very much an experimental film, and some even get snide about what they see as pretentiousness, Malick asking all those big metaphysical mystery questions. Some are clearly bothered by the film's straight-on earnestness--call it sincerity, if you wish--and that sort of bugs them, for plain-spoken psycho-intellectual honesty is surely not post-modern hip. There is also, somewhat related to the hipness question, incomprehension of the sorts of questions Malick asks and the modes of perception he evokes in the film, specifically Tree's conspicuous religious content. Yeah, it's spiritual alright, but what exactly is this nebulous ether of "spirit" pervading the thing from start to finish? The notion itself is alien, and from whence Malick draws his "spiritual" fire, so to speak, goes entirely unrecognized. Otherwise very smart, astute, and lively critics, such as Andrew O'Hehir in Salon, get no further than detecting an "indecipherable spiritual allegory," and another finds all of it sort of "goofy." Actually, for those with a modicum of cultural literacy, and surely for any with a half-substantial church background, it's all pretty darn obvious, and a few critics of lesser note recognize that (see Nick Pinkerton in The Village Voice: "its characters address the gauche subject of the eternal, naturally, through the Judeo-Christian lingua franca instead of via a vague, enervated 'spirituality,'" and in this, "it is quite direct and accessible").

The most significant, and instructive, dispute over the film comes in the disagreement between two of the country's best critics, Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times and A. O. Scott of The New York Times, both insightful, learned, and very articulate (Turan was one of the champions of late Polish filmmaker Krysztof Kieslowski). Turan suggests that The Tree of Life will prod audiences to ask what they want out of cinema: " serious philosophizing, fluid filmmaking and stunning images? Or...satisfying drama and deep emotional connection"? In short, Turan thinks that Malick's big questions fast go abstract and dominate at the expense of human interest. He thinks some of it is obscure, such as the long cosmic history section, and, on top of that, he doesn't think much of the audience's capacity to grasp or appreciate that sort of thing: "It is, unfortunately, characteristic of this meditative and elliptical film that it is simply not possible for rank-and-file viewers to know as much about it as Malick does." That misses the point on the sort of "knowledge" Malick is after. Oddly, for Turan is usually more perceptive, the long "family section" seems terribly bland, a rather uncommon view (for this, see Roger Ebert's hymn to that very section). Scott, on the other hand, seemingly anticipating Turan's objection, leaps to Malick's defense, deeming the film cause for "a full measure of my astonishment and admiration." More than that, opting for family drama to the exclusion of metaphysical ponderings would be akin to Melville leaving out the whale in Moby Dick to settle for "a lively tale of a whaling voyage." Scott's best comment, one that pretty well summarizes what Malick is after in The Tree of Life, gets to the soul of the film: "The sheer beauty of this film is almost overwhelming, but as with other works of religiously minded art, its aesthetic glories are tethered to a humble and exalted purpose, which is to shine the light of the sacred on secular reality." Amen.

So SEE IT. DO, TWICE. And bring friends, neighbors, relatives, and pets. In Imax if possible, or at least on a big screen, and sit to the front in the middle. After all, first and last, Malick wishes to envelop viewers with a world unlike any they've ever seen (or dreamed), for in the film's central image, one repeated multiple times and in which Malick clearly exults, light shines in the darkness.

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