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The Tree of Life (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on July 10, 2012

Cynicism and optimism… always you wrestle inside me.  While revisiting this film, I questioned my admiration for it, hearing the voices of the critics in my ear.  “Isn’t all this whispering kinda silly?”  Yes, yes it is.  It’s the one thing I would unhesitatingly change about the film.  It doesn’t make anything sound more heartfelt or profound, it just makes it difficult to hear.

“Isn’t this all rather self-important?”  Maybe.  But I don’t buy it.  I think that’s a knee-jerk reaction to films that are light on “plot”, as if every movie only needs to convey some series of events.  This happened, then that happened, then this guy did a thing.  No, I don’t buy it.  I don’t buy that movies should be one thing and one thing only.  I love stories, too.  Most of my favorite films tell a story.  You know what?  So does The Tree of Life.  It just happens to also take some detours along the way to ask questions, to ponder things.  Maybe these things are important, and maybe we don’t have to be cynical bastards who mock everything that seems “self-important”.

“It’s style over substance!”  Could be.  I haven’t done the math.  What is it, 60% style and 40% substance?  55/45?  90/10?  Does it matter if you really really love the style?  I could say “I love this film because it’s beautiful images of beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places.”  And I’d be happy with that review.  There’s nothing wrong or shameful about letting the aesthetic qualities of a work of art sweep you off your feet.  Is there any “substance” to the lengthy creation scene?  I honestly don’t know.  I’ve read some defenses of it, some of them make sense to me, some of them don’t.  I see it as part of the whole, as the entire history of the universe feeding into and building up the lives of these characters and everyone else.  But mostly I just enjoy being intoxicated by the glory of it.  I take pleasure in that.  I felt sad for a dinosaur.  I take pleasure in that emotion too.  When style is so rapturous, let it be style over substance (though I do not deny the substance).

“Malick didn’t even know what he was doing!  He figured it all out in the editing room!”  Oh, buzz off.  That’s not a valid complaint.  If you think there’s only one “right” way to make a film, you’re only cheating yourself.  Hitchcock edited entire films in his head before shooting.  Good for him, that worked out beautifully.  This worked out beautifully too.  Wonderful songs arise out of jam sessions.  Wonderful paintings are begun with random brush strokes.  Wonderful comedy is improvised out of a barebones idea.  Let Malick have his cinematic jam sessions if this is to be the result.  Rating: Masterpiece (96)


6 Responses to “The Tree of Life (rewatch)”

  1. Jessica said

    This film worked half and half for me. I loved the cosmic parts and even the dino stuff. I loved the whispering voice poetry and the classical music. Some of the childhood stuff though almost made me fall asleep and I couldn’t wrap my head around the beach. Sean Penn also felt a bit lost. All in all it was a 4/5 for me and I’m glad that I gave it a chance and didn’t dismiss it with the p-word.

    • A lot of people have a problem with the Penn bits, the beach in particular. I love all of it, but I will admit the earlier Penn scenes are probably the least dazzling/moving in the film.

      Interesting that you were bored by the childhood scenes, which are really the meat of the picture, its narrative core. I wonder if there might be that the perspective of an American boy is hard for a Swedish girl to relate to.

  2. I love this. I think your rebukes are completely fair and, in my mind, accurate. I definitely think it’s safe to call this film a masterpiece. Well done here.

  3. kevlarcardhouse said

    I find “style over substance” to be the most useless criticism ever. One could use it on some of the most influential art ever made. If the style is interesting and creative enough, who cares? At the very least Malick appears to be earnest about what he is doing regardless of how it comes across, not something you can claim about the indulgences from some directors.

    • I’m sure at some point I’ve used the “style over substance” criticism myself, but I agree… it is almost as useless as “pretentious”. Malick’s style is so much a part of who he is as a filmmaker.

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