Monday, July 04, 2011

Review: Tree of Life

When considering how to review a film, there are two basic questions that must be asked. Did the film accomplish what it set out to do well? And was what it was trying to accomplish worth trying? Any observations about genre, technique, performance, et al. fit into the first question, which tends to be more quantitative; the second question is slightly more difficult to answer, since it entails a qualitative judgement. The second often affects the first, which is why many critics seem predisposed to giving negative reviews of superhero movies, for example. If they do not like (and or understand) what a film is trying to accomplish (ie. the genre), it becomes more difficult to evaluate the quantitative side objectively. Furthermore, the whole enterprise is complicated by the idea that there is a standard of filmmaking to which all films can aspire, regardless of intended audience or method. I liken it to a comparison between novels written for the mass-market and those written for a more informed audience. Take John Grisham, for example: some of his novels are good for their genre, while some transcend their mass status and provide literary benefit on a broader scale. Don't get me wrong: it's okay to like John Grisham, and reading his novels is far preferrable to reading, say, Harlequin romances. It's another thing entirely to argue that Grisham represents a pinnacle of literary achievement; acknowledge your preferences and the strengths and weaknesses, and that there are people with a wider perspective who can accurately place Grisham in the spectrum of novel-writers, regardless of your personal predilection. Similarly, if you are content with a diet of insipid blockbuster movies, don't try to tell me that they are "good movies"; they may be entertaining, or even good within their genre, but they are not good, and they must be considered differently than other films. With this all in mind, I also believe that it's okay to have a place to enjoy or appreciate the mass-audience movies (and novels), as long as you're aware of their status, and that the qualitative and quantitative analyses of movies/films may differ, particularly for less-experienced movie-watchers. I find that as my film-viewing skill set has grown, that I can have less distance between those two fields, meaning that I find it much more difficult to appreciate movies or films that either have poor quality or weak intent. But this is entirely background discussion to what I've been thinking about Terrence Malick's film Tree of Life.
Malick, and his film, are fascinating. It has generated almost unanimous acclaim and bewilderment, perhaps the perfect combination to win the Palme D'or (which it did). It is the fifth film in nearly four decades for the reclusive Malick, whose reputation as an auteur is indelibly attached to any film he releases as a result. His films are decidedly not for mass consumption, though his most recent two films (The Thin Red Line and The New World) were more oriented toward the public. He is not like Spielberg or Scorsese, but rather an auteur like Kubrick or P.T. Anderson: a filmmaker who is more interested in advancing the art of film than in the public reception of a film. In crafting a releasing a film, Malick (or Kubrick or Anderson) actively tries to stretch boundaries and redefine the limitations imposed on the medium. This nature of Malick's work makes it difficult to evaluate his films, and Tree of Life is easily the most obscure to interpret.
Ostensibly, it is the story of an adult reflecting on his upbringing in 1950s Texas, but it is much more than that. The film is familial yet distant, immediate yet eternal; intimate yet cosmic. It eschews narrative convention, preferring to present its story through the lens of memory, reflection, and dream. It is one of the most meditative and contemplative films I have ever seen, in so doing creating one of the most necessarily interactive cinematic experiences in which I have ever participated; watching the film requires significant thought, reflection, and self-evaluation. It is closer to a visual poem than perhaps any other film I have watched, and adjectives like philosophical and metaphysical that have been used by critics are entirely appropriate for the film (as are comparisons to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey). It is one of the most beautifully shot films I have ever watched, and the cinematography alone is worth viewing the film. Images, dialogue, camera angles are all presented in a way that is fresh yet familiar, and they all contribute to Malick's vision for the film. It is that vision that compels the film forward, arrests the attention of the audience, and unites what could be otherwise considered a disparate set of ideas. I would argue that Malick is attempting something that has rarely been seen in film, and that he succeeds. He has crafted a film that is challenging intellectually, and that requires reflection to understand. That's the answer to the first question.
The second question is much more difficult to answer, since I'm still working through what everything means. There are some decisions he has made in the film in terms of framing, pacing, and presentation that I'm not sure I understand, which makes it hard to process whether it was worth trying. I am still working to piece the whole thing together, but I don't think I can do it alone. I think I need to dialogue and work through the film's meaning with others, although I fear that their interpretations will influence my opinion of the film. I feel that I cannot actually rate this film on a numerical scale any more than I could evaluate a poem or a painting that is intended to push the boundaries of the medium; that does not necessarily excuse it from being judged as an example of the medium, but it does mean that I'm not sure that my existing frame of reference can accurately evaluate it. If the question is "did I like it?", I would have to challenge the nature of the question; I'm not sure this is a film that is easily "liked" or "disliked", as is the nature of the binary evaluation method of social media. I appreciated the film for what it tried to do, as well as how it did it, and I am working through whether it did in fact succeed, or whether it violated its gravitas with its presentation. I am glad to have seen the film and to be part of the dialogue surrounding it, as I am certain that there is far more dialogue to be had. In some ways, I would consider Tree of Life to be a mystical film; there are parts of it that are meant to be wrestled with and worked through, and it's not meant to be easy. If you're a viewer who wants to be challenged and to be part of the dialogue, I recommend watching it; whether you end up liking it or not, it's part of the evolution of film, and that alone makes it worth viewing.

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