Tuesday, November 08, 2011
At Play in the Fields of the Malick
As someone who was raised Christian and attended parochial schools until my sophomore year of college, I’m always fascinated by how religious themes in films are interpreted by cinephiles, whether they be devout in their own faiths, agnostics or atheists. Personally, I often look for not-necessarily-religious-at-all Big Life Meaning in films, whether the filmmakers intended such interpretations to be made or not.
Back when The Tree of Life came out in the summer of 2011, Alejandro Adams collected pieces of a lively Twitter discussion regarding the faith-based elements of the film and assembled them for easier reading in a blog post (very worth a read).
His opening salvo in the tweet exchange was this: “I don’t know how you can like Tree of Life without embracing its Christianity.” I disagree. Any atheist, agnostic or otherwise religion-adverse non-embracer could, in theory, love the film on its own merits as a Malickian manifesto or as an undeniably ambitious cinematic work. They’d merely need to “forgive” (apropos, no?) the Christianity-based ideas presented within. After all, the GOP has taught us that Christian values can easily be repackaged as “family values” for equal opportunity consumption. I’m sure many non-believers were moved by the film’s dysfunctional family touchstones of distant father, passive mother and love-hate sibling.
During the Twitter exchange, Mike Ryan complained that The Tree of Life is overly simplistic. Indeed it is, but not so in relation to Christianity. The simplicity trap here is that Malick expresses himself in such A,B,C's. He’s virtually spoon-feeding the audience with patriarchal, patronizing pablum.
I admire that Malick wanted to distill enormities down to essential elements. I admire that he was so ambitious in his scope, bascially taking on life, the universe and everything (Hat tip, Douglas Adams). I admire that he took such personal memories and cherished beliefs and managed to strike some universal chords. What I don’t admire is the "how." OK, I don’t admire 80% of the how—the first 20 minutes or so of The Tree of Life took my breath away. I was sure I was seeing one of the best films ever made for that wonderful, although tragically short, window of time.
Adams (Alejandro, not Douglas), a passionate proponent of Malick from way back, eloquently dissected the problem of the “how” in his Look of the Week #7 segment (definitely worth a watch). Here's how Adams breaks it down: Malick tripped himself up by layering expressionism on top of impressionism. As they say in many a church basement, "Bingo!"
The impressionism in The Tree of Life is goddamn amazing. The impressionism was wowing me. In that initial fluttering sweep of masterful editing, I was mainlining gut emotions and narrative details in a rush of human experience. There were just enough landmarks to lead the way, but it was like being umbilically connected to the director’s vision. Thrilling stuff! Then a six-foot long submarine sandwich of Discovery Channel-esque baloney rolled in and smothered the life out of all that impressionistic beauty. Yep, the spoon—sterling silver as it may be with all that precise and laborious digital effects noodling—came out and Papa Malick started dishing the mental mush, even resorting to anthropomorphic dinosaurs that were laughably Spielbergian in their very presence.
Stalling the engine of the startling beauty he’d begun, Malick then launches into a straight-ahead family drama, the likes of which has been told so often it's worn thin. Worthwhile among the generic family tale are some lovely “sense memory” moments and child POV shots. Still, those glimpses of gorgeousness are oddly, counterintuitively, alarming empty of emotion.
By the time Sean Penn is encountering his younger self in the sands of time and a sea of extras is making uplifting footprints across a reunited-in-heaven central casting call beach, I was stifling laughter. That’s not God’s fault, that’s Malick-Playing-God’s fault.