Tree of Life

I’ve been thinking about the movie Tree of Life, and I haven’t really gotten anywhere. A nice, attempted partial explication of the themes was written by Matt Zoller Seitz, but take a look at this quote:

Why is there a creation sequence? What does it mean?
It’s probably in there because Malick has been imagining the creation of the universe since he was a boy, and always wanted to see it depicted on a big screen.

This bothers me a little bit. Basically, Malick gets to produce this entire rambling piece that Seitz describes as a puzzle with no box art. Malick doesn’t do interviews. We don’t know what Malick truly intended. So, we have to place an enormous amount of trust in Malick, that he actually does have an overarching artistic vision.

What if he doesn’t?

If there’s no strict vision, then Malick gets to just toss in scenes of whatever he wants, whenever he wants to. The viewers and critics are forced to do intellectual backflips to connect dots that might not have even been meant to be connected.

I think I trust Malick, but I don’t really have any reason to do so. I’m not sure if all the dots are worth connecting.

4 comments left


Mrs. Alex

I increasingly feel this way about art in general (more apt for me is usually something of the performing variety, but I think it applies more widely). Something is good because the right people say it’s good. I would also argue that film/art/literary critics acquire their positions because the right people think they are saying the right things about the right pieces. This is not always helpful, and I think it can lead to biases that influence the work artists create—which they know will be critiqued by these people. (I experience this in my own work with choreography, but that’s a different story for a different time.) This leads to the valuation of opinions of people who might know a lot, but who when it comes down to it are still people with their own opinions and preferences and moods and alliances. I’m supposed to like something because the right people liked this or that guy’s opinion, and I’m not cultured or smart or perceptive enough if I don’t.

When art is created to truly say something, I think one can objectively agree with or be moved by its message, regardless of one’s opinions about the artistic execution. In other words, I could like what Tree of Life represented without loving the 10 minute dinosaur interlude or ambiguous final beach scene. However, because I’m not certain at all that I know what to make of the movie’s message, I walked away feeling unsettled and almost cheated. I do not need to be presented with a tidy, wrapped-with-a-bow kind of storyline, but I do want to feel like the creator himself knew what he/she was intending. The whole thing feels experimental in the worst kind of way to me, and the fact that Malick has not agreed to an interview in 25 years makes me think he’s got this whole enigmatic gig going on and wants to see how self-indulgent he can be and get away with it. I’m all for pushing the envelope, as this is the only way anything truly innovative gets created, but knowing the direction in which you are pushing—and what for—seems a critical element; otherwise it’s just a game in which all the “right” people are falling all over themselves to tout their important and influential reviews and audiences rightfully feel cheated out of something supposedly extraordinary.

Mrs. Alex

And don’t get me wrong… I’ll probably watch the whole thing 2 or 3 more times. My feelings around the whole system and Malick’s intentions (or lack thereof) do not take away from my desire to delve into and grapple with some of my interpretations of the film. But that’s all they can ever be: my own interpretations of the chaotic insanity that is Tree of Life. People labeling something they do not and cannot understand as a “masterpiece” is irritating, and feels vaguely like ass-kissing mid-level management and an overly-exalted CEO: he can do no wrong and even if he’s wrong, well, he’s not. I do want to try and make my own sense of something that does not have any recognizable order, but I want to do it because I am driven to of my own accord, not because I am compelled to learn to like something I’ve been told I’m supposed to.

Alexander Micek

This response to your comment would have come a lot sooner if this hadn’t happened: 7 days ago I almost blew up the server. So, a delayed response follows.

I agree that critics get to direct the public’s attention toward pieces of art, legitimizing through the power of attention. To avoid tailoring one’s work to the tastes of the critical community requires a single-minded commitment to one’s art, instinct, taste. I think it’s an exceedingly rare artist who maintains this single-mindedness. Instead, most artists blend the values of their critical community with their own art ideals.

I think you’re asking Why THESE critics? What do they know? I would guess that critics really took hold in the days of theater, when people wanted to know if they should spend their money on the shows in town. (It wasn’t just “see the circus” or “stay at home” anymore. Maybe they had 3 choices for entertainment on a Friday night!) Now, though, I think critics exist to stem the immense tide of art/music/remixes/television/movies constantly rushing over us. If someone doesn’t work full time to sort out the wheat from the chafe, we’ll all be overwhelmed. Consider The Sad, Beautiful Fact We’re All Going to Miss Almost Everything:

Imagine if you’d seen everything good, or if you knew about everything good. Imagine if you really got to all the recordings and books and movies you’re “supposed to see.” Imagine you got through everybody’s list, until everything you hadn’t read didn’t really need reading. That would imply that all the cultural value the world has managed to produce since a glob of primordial ooze first picked up a violin is so tiny and insignificant that a single human being can gobble all of it in one lifetime. That would make us failures, I think.

But I’m getting off topic. The critics may get to legitimize certain movies, to enthrone them in top 200 lists and honor certain ones each year, but we get to decide which ones to cherish, which ones to watch. We get to vote with our dollars.

Unfortunately, as evidenced by the Transformers franchise, advertising and gross sensationalism cause people to vote for junk with their dollars:

But the lasting legacy of this film will be that it redefined the uselessness of the MPAA ratings system; begged the question of how much hatefulness is permissible in our popular entertainment before someone says something; and caused too few people to scratch their heads in helpless dismay before this wholesale disrespecting of an entire country and its people. Ours.

Tree of Life presents the opposite problem, one which you do a good job articulating. It’s not that we are missing out on a national discussion about a blockbuster movie (“Transformers”), it’s that you are some sort of plebeian amongst intellectual “giants” if you disliked or didn’t get the movie (“Tree of Life”). If we turn toward the critics for sorting out the vast amount of media, we have to turn away from them to allow our own opinions to crystallize.

I still think Malick does respect his audience and does have SOMETHING in mind, but I agree with you about the lack of interview: why not explain? Is this like Sigur Rós leaving blank spaces in their liner notes for listeners to fill in their interpretation of the lyrics? The movie has overarching themes and messages… but I’d like to hear Malick articulate them.

One thing we talked about after you wrote these comments was the quality of execution. Despite feeling a bit adrift in the sea of cosmic creationism special effects and jurassic interludes, the quality of the filmmaking in Tree of Life is excellent. That’s important. If someone determines their deeper artistic purpose to be drawing fruit bowls, then we can certainly speculate about the meaning of their fruit bowls. However, we needn’t extrapolate with interpretations and complicated explications when we can simply admire the quality of the execution. Quality matters.

I do agree: the movie will reward re-watching. Don’t know if I’ll ever get closer to understanding it: perhaps Malick aims to guide our contemplation of certain ideas through ambiguous cues rather than tell us a clear, well-defined message. If that’s his goal, he’s doing an awfully good job.

Mrs. Alex +1

I agree. And the more I think about the whole thing, the more I realize that my reaction to the film is probably precisely Malick’s intent: I appreciate the beauty, am frustrated by the lack of clarity, and unsettled by the questions I’m left puzzling over weeks later. That is life—quite literally. There are simply answers we will never have and things we cannot know, and I can shake my fist at the creator of all this madness… but it won’t make me understand any more of it.

So, I suppose the only thing to do is keep on questioning.

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