Thursday, July 14, 2011

Response to Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

[Each paragraph in this piece is a pairing of a sentence from a 5-star critical review listed on Metacritic and a sentence from a 1-star user review in the comments section of the New York Times website.]

The Tree of Life is rooted in human nature but ascends to the infinite mystery. In an effort to be universal, there is nothing.

There is simply nothing like it out there. It’s a collection of bland didactic statements.

Malick doesn’t pretend to have actual answers. But then not one interesting question is posed by The Tree of Life.

Which is kind of transcendent, and kind of Zen, and kind of corny — and definitely something to think about. I am struck by the possibility that with this film Terrence Malick believes he has completed his doctoral dissertation in philosophy and will finally have earned his Ph.D.

That’s daring, mostly because it’s not how Michael Bay does it. Cut out 50% or so and it is a perfect IMAX film.

There were once several directors who yearned to make no less than a masterpiece, but now there are only a few. What would the reviews have been like if the name Malick wasn't attached to the movie?

A sense of reconciliation is Malick’s great accomplishment in The Tree of Life, affording us equal wonder at grace and nature alike. The audience here actually broke out in laughter when there was one too many “light from the heavens” sequences.

And it all happens in this blink of a lifetime, surrounded by the realms of unimaginable time and space. It has much in common with the old advertising campaign for Calvin Klein Obsession — lots of slow motion shots, gossamer fabrics blowing in the wind, and everyone speaking in whispers.

But there’s the throb of poetry in every frame — and, really, when was the last time you could say that at the multiplex? I spent a decent afternoon watching this movie, the whole time thinking is it too late for me to sneak into The Hangover 2.

But by that point it’s clear Malick, after five films over nearly 40 years, hasn’t given up his search for new ways of seeing truth and beauty — in life, or in cinema. It must be deep or there wouldn’t have been classical music in it.

And yet, we’ve shared in something divine. Drivel.

It’s hard to watch, but the pure emotion resonates deeply. Professional wrestling is more entertaining.

Yet The Tree Of Life isn’t despairing about it in the least; it’s a genuine attempt to grasp the transcendent, and the rare religious film that deserves to be called spiritual. Have you ever been seated next to a pompous windbag at a seven-course dinner party?

I suspect, though, that sometime between now and Judgment Day it will all make sense. Please don’t pretend that you found it deep and meaningful and that it effectively made sense.

Still, there is little doubt that The Tree of Life will stand as the cinematic achievement of the year. Worst movie ever made.

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