Sunday, January 8, 2012

Malick vs. Allen

For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Last summer, there were only two movies discussed with true movie-going fever and they couldn't have been more different. (Both directors however march to the beat of their own drums). They were Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. If Woody Allen's surprise hit brought practically a deluge of good will and excitement, Malick's experimental epic memoir was as passionately hated as it was loved. It's rare that our critics answer each other's reviews, but these two films warranted it. Shlomo Schwartzberg was relatively warm towards Midnight in Paris but loathed The Tree of Life feeling that the Emperor had no clothes. Kevin Courrier, on the other hand, thought Midnight in Paris showed a new and welcoming spirit from its director. As for The Tree of Life, Courrier agreed that the Emperor had no clothes, but he thought he looked interesting in the nude.    

Woody Allen’s latest comedy, Midnight in Paris, which opened this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a moderately entertaining and somewhat imaginative lark of a movie. If that sounds like a lukewarm recommendation, bear in mind that most of Allen’s output in the last decade and a half, including Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Deconstructing Harry (1997), Celebrity (1998), Hollywood Ending (2002), Anything Else (2003), Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), Whatever Works (2009) and You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), has been negligible, if not contemptuous and utterly fake. (The last Allen movie that fully impressed me was 1992's fine Husbands and Wives. But that one's nearly 20 years old!) At least, this time around, Allen has fashioned a film that has a modicum of wit, a smidgen of style and, only occasionally mind you, a bit of thought. Considering how he’s been generally going through the motions in recent years, I’ll take what I can get.

The movie’s opening is even different than Allen’s usual, predictable and bland norm. Instead of an old standard playing over the credits, on a black background, Midnight in Paris begins with a montage of the City of Light’s most famous landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Versailles, etc. Then, while the opening credits run, we hear the plaintive voice of actor Owen Wilson (Meet the Parents, Wedding Crashers), as screenwriter Gil Pender. Pender, accompanying his putative in-laws on a business trip to Paris, and with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) in tow, wants to leave his stifling Hollywood career, rewriting action flicks, behind and become a ‘real writer.’ And where better to do that than in Paris? But what Pender – who has penned his first novel but hasn’t shown the draft to anyone – really wants is to be an author in the Paris of the 1920s, when famous expatriates like writers Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and others made the city their home away from home. One night, strolling along the city streets, an old fashioned car pulls up, just at the stroke of midnight. Pender gets in and, voila, he’s exactly where he wants to be, the glamorous Paris of his dreams.

Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard
Midnight in Paris takes an awfully long time to get to where it’s going. Initially, Allen seems to have a problem integrating the foreground of his characters with the background of the cityscape. His view of Paris doesn’t seem as artificial as his take on London was in Scoop or Match Point, but neither is it convincing. And the idea of Pender being transplanted each night to the past quickly becomes repetitive and rote as each visit merely means him bumping up against a different celebrity or two. The first night he encounters Hemingway (Corey Stoll), and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill). The next night, it’s Salvador Dali (Adrien Brody) and Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van) and so on. Those early scenes are flat, though Wilson, the best thing about the movie, does his best to goose them as the incredulous Pender increasingly finds it difficult to reconcile his fantastical experiences with the harsh reality of daylight, where his unsupportive fiancée shoots down his aspirations and her parents start to wonder where he disappears to each night. Wilson is also much more convincing as an intellectual than Josh Brolin was in a similar role as a struggling writer in Allen's last film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger.

But it’s when Pender makes the acquaintance of Adriana (Marian Cotillard), who is the mistress of painter Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo), that Allen’s screenplay and the film shifts into higher, funnier gear. The joke that she, too, isn’t enamoured of her time, and would prefer to live in a different past, the Paris of the 1890s (La Belle Époque) is a good one. So, too, is the scene where Pender gives Buñuel, who has yet to make a movie, the plotline for one of his most famous films, The Exterminating Angel (1962), about a group of bourgeoisie who cannot leave their surroundings. We know it’s the genesis of one of Bunuel’s best and most lasting films, but the concept leaves him baffled nonetheless. Too bad, Midnight in Paris isn’t more consistently smart.

As usual, in late career Allen, most of his illustrious cast is left stranded with paper thin characterizations. McAdams (Red Eye, Sherlock Holmes) in particular is given a shrill one note role to play. Inez shows not the slightest affection or softness towards Gil, which begs the question of why they’re together in the first place. (Rendering Inez’s father John (Kurt Fuller) as a Tea Party stalwart is Allen’s tone-deaf attempt to stay au courant with his country’s current politics.) And what was Allen thinking when he saddled talented British actor Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon, The Queen) with a stereotypical, vapid role as a pretentious American intellectual, who is also Inez’s ex-boyfriend? As for Pender’s ‘famous’ new acquaintances, Hemingway, Buñuel, et al, with the exception of Kathy Bate’s world-weary and amusing Gertrude Stein, they’re more impersonations than incarnations. Incidentally, France’s First Lady, Carla Bruni has a small part as a museum guide but it’s a piffle.

Writer/Director Woody Allen
It’s only when Wilson, still one of the most appealing of American actors, and Cotillard (Little White Lies, Inception), who brings some tragic gravity to her role, begin a tentative relationship that Midnight in Paris starts to accrue some substance. I‘m not sure Allen, whose film and musical tastes are perpetually stuck in the ‘30s, gets the irony of asking the question of why people like Gil or Adriana wouldn’t be satisfied with their here and now, but, at least he executes the climax and point of Midnight in Paris with some panache. At its best, the film is deliciously reminiscent of "The Kugelmass Episode," Allen’s wonderfully wry short story from 1977’s Side Effects short story compilation whereas a humanities professor finds himself transported into the fictional world of Madame Bovary (only to have his presence change everything). Midnight in Paris doesn’t push its science fictional concept nearly as far as it could have, but at least it makes an attempt at doing something novel. The movie isn’t as nearly as good as Allen’s one recent success, the lively Spanish-set Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), but it’s considerably more accomplished than Allen’s norm. I still maintain that he’s largely become an irrelevant filmmaker, but Midnight in Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona show that his talents aren’t entirely dormant, either. Only time will tell whether this movie heralds the start of a new, welcome phase in Allen’s filmography, or merely displays the last gasp of innovation from a director whose creative well has run dry

- originally published on June 3, 2011 in Critics at Large.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute. 

The Fog of Film: Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

Though it’s been a decidedly lacklustre summer at the movies, there’s one film that’s a must see, if you are to believe its almost uniformly rapturous reviews. Apparently, The Tree of Life, the latest opus from Terrence Malick (The Thin Red LineThe New World) is one for the ages, a masterpiece equivalent to any of the great movies, such as, I suppose, Citizen KaneThe Rules of the GameThe Seven SamuraiThe ‘Apu’ TrilogyMASH and The Godfather, Part 1 and II, to name a few important milestones in world cinema. Well, I can’t concur with that view. The Tree of Life is actually pretty mediocre; a movie that traffics in indulgent, pretentious and often empty (albeit) beautiful imagery. It's a film most defined by the word meretricious: …"apparently attractive but in reality has little value:” That evaluation, too, pretty much sums up Malick’s career.

In many ways, and not just because they share similar eccentricities, Terrence Malick reminds me most of Stanley Kubrick, another genuine American talent who, after a strong film-making debut, pretty much flamed out, delivering mostly wretched, excessive movies in his late career. Kubrick, after offering up such gems as Paths of Glory (1957), Spartacus (1960), Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), then trailed off and dove relentlessly into a sea of forgettable mediocrity. Excepting his fine A Clockwork Orange (1971), his second half, much less prolific, oeuvre included the nonsensical and loopy science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968); the vapid Barry Lyndon (1975), starring a woefully miscast Ryan O’Neal in what is surely the most tedious costume drama ever made; the (deliberately?) botched adaptation of Stephen King’s fine horror novel The Shining (1975); Full Metal Jacket (1987), an incoherent war movie to rival Malick’s own The Thin Red Line (1998); and, of course, Kubrick’s final movie, the ridiculous Eyes Wide Shut (1999), which transposed a 1926 novella by Arthur Schnitzler to the end of the 20th century while pretending that its themes of sexual jealousy, wherein the woman merely contemplates an affair, would be reacted to in the same fashion nearly a hundred years on.

Richard Gere and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven
Malick, for his part, after a stunning, powerful debut with Badlands (1973), loosely based on the life of thrill killer Charles Starkweather, followed up with Days of Heaven (1978), a beautifully shot, somewhat affecting love triangle set in depression-era America. Though I enjoyed that movie, despite the miscasting of Richard Gere as a manual laborer, it was also laden with a distinct lack of narrative flow and a disinterest in strong characterization. Nevertheless, being a departure from his first film, I felt it was a forgivable deviation and I looked forward to what he would do next. However, after a twenty year hiatus, the Malick who returned to film-making, pretty much stood still as a director, continuing to make movies such as The Thin Red Line and The New World (2005), which, even more so than Days of Heaven, concentrated almost solely on forming pretty pictures, eschewing in the process any vestige of flesh and blood emotional dramas, stories that would have left a lasting impact. The Tree of Life, unfortunately, is more of the same.

Somewhat autobiographical, the movie is largely set in 1950s Waco, Texas, and revolves around a family, comprised of an embittered patriarch (Brad Pitt), his long suffering wife (Jessica Chastain) who puts up with his emotional abuse, and their three children (Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan) who grow up in a fractured, dissonant household. But the film begins with news of the death of one of the boys (it doesn’t specifically identify which one, but likely the sensitive Steve) at age 19. The other time frame in the movie is about forty years later when the oldest boy, Jack, now an architect (and played by Sean Penn, in what is little more than an extended cameo) copes with the lingering pain of his brother’s death before heading off on a pilgrimage wherein he rejoins his family, including his late brother and others of his loved ones who have died. Oh, did I mention the dinosaurs? Extrapolating from the film’s opening quotation from The Book of Job, when God tells Job about his creating the Earth, (“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”), The Tree of Life decides to do just that, showing the Earth being created, then the dinosaurs appearing and, finally, the first mammal coming into existence.

Obviously, Malick felt that this special effects-laden sequence needed to be included in the movie, but it’s an awfully distracting, irritating and dramatically unnecessary addition to the film, one that pushed me entirely out of the movie and prompted me to muse on where I was going to have dinner that evening after the show. One sequence, where a dinosaur casually stomps another, was pretty startling and disquieting, but the fact that it effectively conveyed more emotion than any scene involving their human counterparts spoke volumes. (It also reminded me of the inventive scene in the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Adaptation (2002), wherein the fictional Charlie Kaufman character, played by Nicolas Cage, muses about the beginnings of the universe and his place in the scheme of things after a bad date. The ensuing depiction of the Earth's birth is thus germane to the film and very funny, besides. Needless to say, humour is non-existent in Malick's output.)

Look at the pretty pictures!
It’s Malick’s insistence on cluttering up what could have been a devastating story with all manner of set pieces that call attention to themselves instead of melding seamlessly into the whole which surely sinks The Tree of Life and alienates so many in the audience. (One of my students was warned before purchasing his ticket that walkouts were plentiful, surely a first in box office etiquette. He stayed all through the film, but reluctantly.) Consider one potentially gripping sequence where Jack wanders through his hometown eavesdropping on and observing the disturbing angry underbelly of the city. It could have built in power and momentum but Malick abruptly ends it almost as soon as it begins.

Similarly, he short shrifts his cast in the same fashion. Pitt is given a bit to play with – his father figure has settled for a career as a salesman instead of pursuing a life in music, his first love – but that doesn’t entirely explain why he is alternately abusive and loving. Chastain, for her part, gets to look pained when she isn’t standing up for her boys but, again, it’s not much of a character to delve into. As for the boys, well Jack is rebellious and Steve is sensitive but that’s it and the middle kid is a cipher, not even appearing in the latter part of the movie. Losing track of his protagonists is old hat for Malick; I still don’t know where actor Jared Leto got to in the The Thin Red Line. It also should be significant for us to know how Steve died. Did he enlist in Vietnam to prove to his dad that he could be a man? Did he commit suicide? Did he die in an accident? (Possibly the last scenario, as the movie mutters a lot about the uncaring vagaries of life and death.) Not imparting that bit of information isn’t a minor error in the movie, it’s a colossal plot hole and indicative, again, of Malick's refusal to delve deeply into his characters’ lives, assuming, incorrectly, that his images and shots can carry the movie. Some of these images, such as a shot of the boys carousing in the midst of a poisonous cloud of DDT as a city truck sprays for mosquitoes, are indelible but that’s no substitute for detail and depth. Unsatisfyingly, all we get are glimpses and impressions of the town and its inhabitants.

Director Terrence Malick
So why are all the critics so ga-ga for this minor, fractured movie? Some of it is them getting on the critical bandwagon, as the movie won the top prize at Cannes last spring (Other bad movies like Barton FinkFahrenheit 9/11 and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives have also won there, so this fact shouldn’t impress anyone.) But much of it is the refusal of the critical establishment to recognize how bogus Malick actually is. The cineastes may not agree, but generally the best movies, such as The 400 BlowsNashvilleTaxi DriverSchindler's ListYi Yi, etc. and the ones mentioned in paragraph one, can boast of strong narratives and shaded characterizing working in tandem with skilled direction. The Tree of Life contingent would rather praise the movie’s ambition – the single most overused word in the rave reviews – as if that is laudatory in itself. Don’t hacks like Roland Emmerich (2012The Day After Tomorrow) and Michael Bay (Pearl HarborArmageddon) display ambition in their attempts to destroy our world or create new ones? It’s a meaningless compliment.

So what about the movie’s themes of life, death, faith, hope and charit?. Are those dealt with in a fresh, original way? Not really, since Malick merely uses them as hooks for his excellent cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki) and set designer (Jack Fisk) to craft his gorgeous images on. (There's a 2001 connection to The Tree of Life, too, with that movie's special effects maven, Douglas Trumbull, contributing his expertise to Malick's film.) Besides, if you want to see a movie that does justice to these provocative concepts, check out Xavier Beauvois’s Of Gods and MenMike Leigh’s Naked, Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, Theodore Dryer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or any number of better films that surpass Malick in thought and effect. You can also catch David Fincher's modern American masterpiece The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which also starred Brad Pitt. That film, as as Baltimore Sun movie critic Michael Sragow aptly pointed out, tackles all of The Tree of Life's big themes with considerably more success(I will concede that on one level, I can understand the critical enthusiasm for Malick. He has a movie director's eye, though he probably should have been a painter in his professional life. He's also like someone on acid unduly thrilled by the way the sun shines through the leaves; The New World was especially filled with those egregious images. I am more taken aback by the inexplicable praise lavished on inept directors like Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Syndromes and a CenturyUncle Boonmee Who can Recall His Past Lives), Harmony Korine (Julien Donkey-Boy), Paul Thomas Anderson (MagnoliaThere Will Be Blood) and Todd Solondz (Welcome to the DollhouseLife During Wartime) who haven’t the faintest idea of how to frame or shoot a movie much less get good performances out of their casts.)

However, if you don’t ‘get’ the movie, wrote critic Stephanie Zacharek recently in, you’re apt to be pilloried for it, as if you’re a philistine, by your fellow critics. Andrew Tracy, one of those type of reviewers, writing in the current issue of Canada’s lesser film magazine Cinema Scope, which features a round table on this oh so important, vital movie, denounced critics who labeled the film ‘flawed’ or ‘imperfect’ as 'lazy.' Isn’t it their job to point out those elements in a film? Well, don’t worry, Andrew, I only use those terms for films that I can laud in the first place, seeing their flaws or imperfections as the weak components that mar an otherwise fine work of art. The Tree of Life doesn't even qualify for that appellation.

- originally published on August 12, 2011 in Critics at Large.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute.

Unlikely Duo: Allen & Malick

For a variety of reasons, I didn't get to many movies this past summer. It would also appear that I wasn't alone. (According to CBC News, box office attendance was at its lowest since 1997.) So I didn't feel like I missed much. But there were a couple of movies over the past few months that did cause some lively discussions and unresolved arguments.Students in my classes and people attending various lectures all wanted to talk about Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Given the dramatically different sensibilities of both of these directors, the talk reflected much of that divide.

In the case of Midnight in Paris, a romantic comedy fantasy about a screenwriter and novelist (Owen Wilson) visiting Paris with his fiancée (Rachel McAdams), the story is about how a contemporary writer's nostalgia for an earlier artistic culture allows him to wish-fulfill himself back into that time. In this case, it's the twenties with Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Midnight in Paris is a completely enjoyable and charming picture where the pleasures are within the conception of the story rather than in what Allen does with the inhabitants in it. The characters mostly reflect the screenwriter's impressions of them rather than becoming fully fleshed out versions of Hemingway and Stein. Still Midnight in Paris has deservedly become a huge global hit, one of the director's most successful films, and it continues to sell out at rep houses showing it in second run. What I enjoyed most about Midnight in Paris though was the way Woody Allen finally confronts his need to hide in the past. It was a significant step coming from a man who stopped being a strong contemporary comic voice a long time ago.

In the early seventies, in pictures like Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973), where he went into the future, Allen provided a satiric counter-culture alternative to the mainstream acceptance of WASP values. This slight, harmless hero celebrated braininess over brawn; the substance of sex over style, and allowed us to accept our vulnerabilities. We could laugh at our desperate attempts to be people we weren't and feel free to be ourselves. But, by the eighties, Allen decided he wanted to be someone he wasn't: Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, September, Another Woman), Arthur Miller (Crimes and Misdemeanors), Fellini (Stardust Memories) and Fritz Lang (Shadows and Fog). Pretty soon, he lost that contemporary voice while choosing instead to grow nostalgic. Even his choice of music, the jazz of the swing era, carried a pedigree of snobbery that rejected contemporary pop and rock. You got the feeling that the music of Fletcher Henderson was present not because of the pleasure it gives but because it represented the High Culture Allen wished to embrace over pop.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Sleeper 
For years, Allen turned out one bummer after another with rare occasional exceptions (Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery,Vicky Christina Barcelona) while audiences continued to wait - and hope - for his return to form. Most moviegoers (even critics) usually have their patience exhausted after a short time, but Woody Allen had been given a wide berth. He was like a batter in a long slump who people hoped to see break free of it. Allen had built up an inordinate amount of good will. So when Midnight in Paris turned out to be good, audiences began flocking happily to it. Now I don't think they responded (as I did) to the fact that Owen Wilson's screenwriter (Allen's surrogate) gets to deal with his need to escape the present and to find new meaning in his life. Besides, I don't know if this represents a shift in Allen's thinking, or that it will bring us even more interesting work in the years to come. Time will tell. But I do think audiences were looking for some sign of sensibility at the movies.

So many films today (and not just Hollywood ones) have abandoned intelligent and engaging craft-work for either the impersonal studio product that's gutted of any personality (The Green Hornet), buried in effects (The Adjustment Bureau), or cannibalizing Steven Spielberg (Super 8). Some filmgoers (and I include myself here) have grown weary of the packaging, the lack of risk and imagination, and the committee room devised concept scripts. So try and imagine then a film that completely breaks with any standard of conventional storytelling, abandons any means to engage the audience on terms it understands and yet still contains a singular voice with the wonkiest of visions guiding it. If you can, then you've likely encountered Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

As in the case of Midnight in Paris, I heard a lot about this picture before I got to see it. The only difference was people weren't excitedly asking me what I thought, instead they were screaming angry about it. The common complaint was that critics had misled them to believe that The Tree of Life represented the second coming of Orson Welles. They were furious at the movie's pretensions, its length, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, even the dinosaurs that turned up. One movie theatre began posting signs in their ticket booths reminding people that they must walk out in the first half-hour if they wish to get their money back. In thirty years of reviewing, I don't ever recall such a step taken by a movie-house. Even with its acclaim at Cannes winning the Palme d'Or, The Tree of Life was dividing critics as well. Lines were being drawn and names taken.

Of course, this made me all the more curious to see what was causing the fuss. So I was surprised that when I finally saw it because I was more fascinated than repelled. While I agree with Shlomo Schwartzberg (and many other friends who were exasperated) about the picture's follies - and there are many - there was something about The Tree of Life that still gripped me. Now I've never been a fan of Terrence Malick's work. His first film, Badlands (1973), was a crime story based on the real-life murder spree in 1958 by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. But Malick's attempt to locate the gutted emotions in the killers, as a means to discover what motivated them, he also extended to the culture that created them. As a result, Badlands became an abstract, almost amorphous rendering of what makes a criminal. In other words, it was dramatically inert.

Days of Heaven (1978) fared little better as Malick tried to tell a romantic story set early in the 20th Century about a farmer (Sam Shepard) who is swindled by a couple (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) working his farm.While trying to contrast nature's scorn (a locust attack) with human betrayal, Malick revealed a key to his work. It was the idea that nature had determined laws that man always chose to violate. Although Days of Heaven had moments of both grandeur and great beauty, inspired by Johannes Vermeer and Edward Hopper, it was deprived of dramatic motivation. The Thin Red Line (1998) had a vague narrative (very loosely) based on James Jones' 1962 epic novel about American forces at the Battle of Mount Austen during the Guadalcanal campaign in World War Two. If Jones concentrated on the specific horrors that men act out under the strain of battle, Malick turned the novel into a pastiche of man's continued war against the natural world. It lasted a lifetime and (like Shlomo) I couldn't find some of the actors who were apparently in it.

Colin Ferrell and Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World
His last film, The New World (2005), though was something of a strange surprise. Ostensibly a historical drama that depicts the founding of Jamestown, Virginia by Captain John Smith (Colin Ferrell) and his romance with Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), The New World had that languidly paced beauty of Malick's other work, but there was also a new passionate quest here, the sense of someone looking into the process of discovery itself. The new world of the story wasn't just what the discoverers found in the new America but also what the indigenous cultures would later observe in the so-called civilized world. But in The Tree of Life, Malick made getting to those sources of discovery much more personal. He directed it with a keenly searching eye as if trying to get to the source of life itself.

Sometimes a movie's failure yields more to discuss than an ordinary movie's success. The Tree of Life is certainly not an ordinary failure, but one that has a way of raising the stakes. Critics have been throwing the word ambitious around when they've discussed the film, but I would say that it's more audacious than ambitious. In The Tree of Life, a memoir about his growing up in Waco, Texas, Malick doesn't give the story a typical dramatic narrative. He tells the story instead through a series of associations, fleeting memories and abstract thoughts. (Imagine Jordan Belson interpreting Carson McCullers.).Unlike in his past movies, though, where Malick's disassociated style gets awkwardly wedded to traditional dramatic narratives, The Tree of Life disassociates itself altogether from traditional narrative. Is it any surprise that people were walking out? A viewer can feel lost in a series of elliptically linked daydreams.

Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life
If Malick has a striking eye for detail (Jessica Chastain dancing through the air like Mary Martin), his biggest weakness is his inability to provide dramatic structure and motivation. Because of that, he gives you no clue as to why Sean Penn's architect is so spiritually adrift in his life and work (apparently Penn has expressed similar confusion). He continually loses track of characters and plot details. Malick seems so doggedly determined to create his bigger picture that he loses complete touch with the smaller details that could help an audience make sense of it. Yet despite sitting there muttering to myself how nutty the picture was in its mad desire to wed spiritual grace and nature's cruelty, I was held by Malick's desire to discover the process of the narrative of his story rather than giving it one. What I realized was that despite the film's failure to provide a clearly developed vision, it was still a vision and not a negligible one.

In part, the critical lines being drawn over The Tree of Life is the continued acting out of the Andrew Sarris/Pauline Kael debate over auteurism. But I also believe that the debate reveals something about the way so few movies being made today inspire any kind of strong reaction. We've grown so used to the ordinary. When Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980), another epic folly, pretty much sank the power of the director in Hollywood, the industry turned towards accepting the bland and the conventional.Yet as bad as Heaven's Gate was, the anger directed towards it was never directed with the same force towards some equally bad studio product. That may be because it's hard to hate something so impersonal and committee driven. But in Michael Cimino there was someone to hate.

Mad visions are however an integral part of the history of movies and we wouldn't have great works without the great follies that sometimes make them possible. The Tree of Life is very much in that tradition. Yes. Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life are indeed an unlikely duo, but in their very different ways, they've woken up a sleeping desire in the audience, a desire for movies that matter.

- originally published on September 6, 2011 in Critics at Large.

– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism

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