Sunday, June 12, 2011

Terence Malick's Tree of Life

The general reviews on Terence Malick's new film Tree of LIfe have been very positive.  Malick is something of a cult figure in cinema (this is only his fifth feature in 40 years and he is a recluse).  Compared to the mind-numbingly stupid films most of these critics have to watch day in a day out,  its obvious why such a serious and ambitious a film as Tree of Life has to be reckoned with.   However, that also means that the standards by which this film is measured are not  the same as Hangover 2 or other such dreck.

No, this is the big leagues of filmmaking where names like Kubrick, Godard, Bergman, and Kurosawa figure.  By this standard, Malick's is a terribly flawed and at times embarrassingly pretentious film.  Google the film for a plot synopsis, but its main theme of  loss, grace, the brutality of nature and human relations are fertile ground for something interesting.  The film is beautifully shot and directed.  It's just that Malick who is almost 70 somehow started thinking like a typical M.F.A. film student and thought he would put forth some grand opus that would change cinema and our view of the universe.  It does neither.  And even more shocking is that someone as old as Malick would even think it wise or possible to do so.  Normally,  artists at 70 are well aware of all the things they don't know.  That's called grace.  Malick's Tree of Life has no grace, except for the ersatz grace of New Age Christian platitudes.

Much of the beautifully shot sequences are as artful and perfect as shampoo commercials. Lots of willowy hands reaching through gauze and water.  Water is everywhere.  I wanted to book my week in St. Barts right away.  So much of the imagery (when it strays from the narrative of Brad Pitt's family in 1950s Texas) is accompanied by choral music of the Western European tradition--Brahms, Mahler et al.  It gets very manipulative and predictable--feel God's wondrous power, quake under the awe of your insignificance.  I prefer Charles Eames'
Powers of 10 to demonstrate the latter in a more imaginative way. 

It is a conventionally Christian tale, but don't expect the religious right to embrace this kind of difficult work.  My problem was the conventionality of so much of it.  The final sequences with all the dead people dancing in the ocean (or heaven) as it were is like an AT&T commercial.  The family tale of 1950s life replete with the stern father and the passive mom has been done to death thousands of times.  

Much of the "big picture" concepts of the film were done so much better in Godfrey Reggio's landmark film Koyaanisquatsi (1983) and Kubrick's 2001 (1968).   Finally, I would still rather sit through Tree of Life with its supreme flaws than sit through films where the endings have been market-tested and the main character is available as a doll with the purchase of a Happy Meal.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


Memo to aging rockers and aging politicians and popes (dead or otherwise).  None of you are cool anymore, some of you were never cool and one of you is a dork.  Musicians, actors, writers always love fluffing the powerful.  At least visual artists (an alienated bunch as it is) are less inclined to do so, or maybe nobody gives a shit about them anyway.

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon is the biggest thing to hit Broadway since The Producers over ten years ago.  It has received rapturous reviews everywhere, so I decided it was time to pony up the big bucks to see what all the fuss was about.   The show is funny, clever and wildly fun.  It is also incredibly vulgar, but what did you expect from the South Park gang?  I enjoyed every minute of it while it lasted and then like a great meal it was digested in hours.  

I understand all the critical hosannas especially those heralding the show as an attempt to bring in a younger demographic to the Great Gray Way.  I am not a big fan of the Broadway musical past or present though I am a fan of Stephen Sondheim.  This is not Sunday in The Park With George.  It says something about the state of Broadway, that The Book of Mormon is seen a the greatest show of  the new millennium.  It probably is.  I wouldn't know.  But I haven't enjoyed a musical this much since the first 40 minutes of Rent.  I guess I wonder why very good shows are so rare.  I'm still not even sure if it was worth the $225 a seat.  

For all its iconoclasm, the show comes down decidedly on the side of religion as a goofy, silly but somehow necessary, understandable thing.  This is not the position that Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins (or I) would take but it makes sense at the Box Office.   So the South Park guys get to have it both ways--you are all nuts to believe in any supernatural being, but life is hard so knock yourselves out if  believing makes you feel good.