Sean Penn, The Tree of Life, and the difference between prose and poetry.

The L.A. Times, In Contention, Hollywood Elsewhere… everybody’s getting worked up because Sean Penn apparently “dissed” director Terrence Malick and The Tree of Life:

I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. … Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context. … Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.

In Contention‘s Kristopher Tapley went so far as to call the comments a “bitch slap.”

Oh, my, how we jump to conclusions. If they’d read farther in the interview, they’d have read Sean Penn saying something that complicates matters:

But it’s a film I recommend, on the condition that you go in without preconceptions. Each viewer could find in it a personal, emotional or spiritual connection. Those who are able to make that connection generally find themselves very touched by the picture.

(That excerpt was translated by Glenn Kenny.)

So… we’re to qualify Penn as “slamming” the movie? That seems unfair.

Whatever the case, Penn’s criticisms are similar to those of many moviegoers. Just yesterday, yet another friend of mine dismissed the film as “boring.”

I’ve also heard the following terms used: “Empty.” “Pretentious.” “Obnoxious.” And, strangest of all… “Gnostic.” Just to name a few. (Is there any less-Gnostic filmmaker than Malick?)

These criticisms tell me much more about the viewers than the movie itself.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN REACTIONS AND INTERPRETATIONS

Some people go to the movies with different desires and expectations. Some go to the movies tired and looking to be entertained with easier, more familiar, more predictable material. And that’s fine. Sometimes we go looking for a snack and we get served a steak. Sometimes we want fast-paced razzle-dazzle, and we’re served an epic poem.

But let’s get one thing straight: There is a big difference between saying “I was bored during this movie” and declaring that “The movie is boring.

Do you get the difference between the two?

The first statement acknowledges the quality of an individual’s experience. The second asserts that the movie produces this experience in general, for anybody. The first claim is easy to believe, for it is a person’s expression of their feelings. And feelings are untrustworthy, conditional things. The other claim is easy to disprove, especially when we’re talking about The Tree of Life. Is the movie boring? Just look around. Many moviegoers are vigorously enjoying it and revisiting it. They’re discussing it all over the place.

What is “boring” to one person may be another person’s most rewarding activity. Folks who only go to the occasional commercial American movie will probably be baffled by The Tree of Life. I eat, sleep, and breathe movies, and I have found few that are as astonishing and enthralling to me as the impressionistic, intuitive, “incomplete,” mysterious works of Terrence Malick.

I’m not saying that you have to like it. But your confusion or boredom does not prove anything about the movie itself. Learn to get past the emotions and into the interpretation: the analysis of how the film is made, and how its form enhances (or fails to enhance) its meaning.

That will take work. It will take a second viewing, and probably a third. But it’s worth it.

Let’s not forget what C.S. Lewis said:

An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only.

WHAT GENRE IS THIS? HOW DOES IT WORK?

It’s important to note that Malick’s films will not be fully appreciated if they’re only assessed by the standards of typical narrative cinema.

Anybody who watches his string of films — Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life — can see that the artist is developing and evolving in his style. And that style has more in common with abstract art and impressionistic poetry — art that challenges us to explore its questions, mysteries, pauses, omissions, and silences — than typical narrative entertainment that serves up all the answers and merely entertains.

Cinema can offer so much more than mere narrative. Look at the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, Krzysztof Kieslowski, or the other great Terence… Terence Davies… to see how cinema can work as poetry, or even abstract painting. (And while all of these filmmakers are revered among the greats, most American moviegoers would find just about all of those filmmakers’ projects “boring.”)

As John Keats was quoted in the film Bright Star:

A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving in a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it’s to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.

That is not to say you should just “feel” a Malick movie, or “just let it wash over you.” That’s only the beginning. That’s only the moment when the flavor first touches your tongue. Then comes the work of — for lack of better vocabulary — chewing, swallowing, digesting, taking another bite, having a second helping. In other words, the work of conversation, listening, reading, reflecting, revisiting, interpreting.

In the film seminar that I led at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe a few weeks ago, I encouraged the attendees to watch an impressionistic film clip, to watch it again, to discuss it, to watch it again, to consider all of its various elements and how they affected the whole, to consider invisible connections and relationships between the images, and to watch it again. The more closely we paid attention, the more we found that our initial reactions were only reactions and not interpretations.

This experiment prepared us for the feature films that we would watch over the rest of the week. We began to distinguish between our initial, emotional responses and the opinions that took shape over the next several hours as discussions developed. Our reactions reveal our biases, our emotions, and how we jump to conclusions, and they often have very little bearing on what the movie actually is, or what it offers. By the end of the week, we had all taken journeys with the six movies that we watched. I suspect most of us would say that we could appreciate the films far more after discussion than we did at first. I suspect that another week, during which we would watch them all again, would find many of us completely changing our minds about some of them.

Allow me to make what I admit is a dangerous generalization for the sake of clarity: Among the moviegoers and film critics with whom I’ve seen and discussed The Tree of Life, those who read and enjoy and wrestle with poetry seem to understand and appreciate Malick’s cinematic language far more than those who only have the patience for formulaic, instantly-accessible narratives. And poetry requires a lot more effort on the part of the reader, a lot more engagement, and a lot more willingness to live with questions, contradictions, and unresolved tensions.

(And by the way, if you want easy movies, if the work of interpretation is unappealing to you, you should probably avoid most of the The Arts and Faith Top 100… films that a large community of film lovers voted as the most rewarding films they’ve ever seen.)

TWO SCENES AND THEIR CONNECTIONS

Let me share an example of what I mean:

Early in the film, there’s a scene in which Adult Jack (Sean Penn) is at the office looking at engineering blueprints. His coworker, a big tough-looking fellow, is talking about his personal life and lamenting the disintegration of a relationship. Adult Jack says something like, “What will you do?” His friend says, “I don’t know. Experiment.”

Later, we’re given a flashback to when Young Jack (Hunter McCracken). He’s storming around the neighborhood with a pack of boys. They break a neighbor’s window just to show how tough they are. To quote a Bob Dylan song, “They’re breaking down the distance between right and wrong.” Then, the boys catch a frog, strap it to a firework, and blow the frog up. They celebrate their violent act. They laugh, but we can see them hardening their hearts. And how does Young Jack’s friend excuse what they’ve just done to the poor frog? He shouts, “It’s an EXPERIMENT!

So many scenes work together like these two scenes to reveal the tension between restraint and cruelty, between what the film calls “the way of grace” and “the way of nature.” Young Jack is not showing restraint among the boys, but in time, through his relationship with his kinder, gentler brother, he will learn something about restraint and grace. He will be forgiven for what he did to overpower and harm his brother. This is, I think, one of the film’s most important threads.

And that’s why I think the long, surreal creation sequence is so amazing. It’s a concert of destructive collisions and moments of strange, inexplicable beauty. And Malick entertains the idea that there, among early life forms, came the first stirring of grace, of restraint, of something that contradicts the mere “survival of the fittest” impulses among created things.

A LEARNING CURVE

I don’t want to be condescending and say, “If you don’t get it, you’re stupid.” I don’t mean that at all.

But imagine this: A person who has studied arithmetic, but not algebra, starts claiming that algebra is really just “boring” and “empty” and “pretentious”, and that people who say they love it are really just full of it. That’s pretty unfair, isn’t it?

Or imagine this: A basketball fan goes fishing for the first time and thinks fishing is “boring” because it isn’t fast-paced, team-oriented, or accompanied by the roar of a crowd. Perhaps the basketball fan should step back, put down his unfair expectations, and become acquainted with a new kind of sport in which the pleasures of the pursuit are entirely different from that of watching basketball.

These things take time. You probably didn’t like coffee or wine when you were a small child. You probably liked soda. But if you’re like me, you’re glad you worked at it. I’ve come to appreciate both coffee and wine. They’re different from one another, but each opens up a whole world of experiences. And while I enjoy a can of soda once in a while, I’ve pretty much lost my taste for the stuff. I don’t sneer at people who drink Coke, but do I think there are greater, more rewarding choices? Oh, yes.

Moviegoing is a journey for all of us. We grow in our appreciation of art. That doesn’t mean we all make the same journeys or arrive at the same conclusions. But enough great filmmakers, accomplished critics, insightful artists, and film enthusiasts return to Malick’s films again and again for nourishment and inspiration for me to know that I’m not just fooling myself. There is rare treasure to be found when we explore Malick’s substance and style. I could write a book on the meaningful meditations that his works have given me.

THE FILM’S THE THING…

I’m not going the make the same mistake that I’ve seen a lot of other critics make, and exalt Terrence Malick as some kind of filmmaking idol or saint or hero. And I’ve been troubled by all of the articles compiling facts, rumors, and speculation about his life, his marriages, his beliefs, etc. The man wants to avoid that kind of spotlight, and I’d like to show him that respect. I like what Annie Dillard says about artists:

There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.

For all I know, Malick’s next film might be a disaster. But I’m grateful for the light he’s brought into the world so far.

I’m not as fond of The Tree of Life as I am of Malick’s The New World. Nevertheless, I’ve seen the movie three times and I’m ready to go see it again. A few of my initial frustrations with the film (described in this two-part review – Part One, Part Two) remain constant.

For example, the film’s voice-over narration feels like a problem to me, particularly because Malick has employed voice-over narration before that was written with more particularity, and with a sense that we were encountering a unique character’s voice. (I’m talking about Days of Heaven.)  The more movies he makes, the more his voice-overs are dissolving into a sort of universal voice that lacks the persuasive power of particularity.

But most of my frustrations have dissolved. I came to see that I needed more time and experience in order to grasp what was happening. (No surprise there — that’s been my experience with most of my favorite films.) Each time I see The Tree of Life, it becomes more exciting to me.

FILMS THAT LINGER AND HAUNT

My favorite film I’ve seen this year? It’s a film called Certified Copy, by one of the world’s most beloved filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami. I guarantee you, it will bore most people I know silly.

In an interview, Kiarostami once said:

I think that a good film is one that has a lasting power, and you start to reconstruct it after you leave the theater. There are a lot of films that seem to be boring, but they are decent films. On the other hand, there are films that nail you to your seat and overwhelm you to the point that you forget everything, but you feel cheated later. These are the films that take you hostage. I absolutely don’t like the films in which the filmmakers take their viewers hostage and provoke them. I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to offer you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kind of films I like.

Ordinary entertainment lulls our minds to sleep and leaves us in a state of mere amusement at the constant stream of sensation. We enjoy what we’re seeing as we see it, but that’s where the pleasure usually stops. Great artists exercise restraint, tease our minds into action, invite us to do some hard work. And when that happens, the greatest pleasures of the moviegoing experience may develop after the credits have rolled.

Orson Welles said,

I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won’t contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.

Why do I meet so many people who have no interested in the “social act” of art? Perhaps that has something to do with what we’ve been conditioned to expect by television and commercial American cinema. Perhaps that has to do with lifestyles and schedules that deprive us of time for study and reflection. I don’t know. But, strange as it sounds, I’ve learned that when friends who usually go to commercial American movies tell me that a film is “boring,” I’m likely to have a fantastic time.

I encourage you to see The Tree of Life again. And to interpret it in the context of Malick’s whole body of work. And then… and this is very important… join the discussion. Listen to other interpretations. Read studies and critical assessments, not just “reactions.”

The world of art becomes so much more rewarding when we move past our initial reactions of “I liked it” or “It was boring” into the arena of reflection, listening, reconsidering, and, in time, revelation.

Once upon a time, I would have found a long scene of clouds in the sky “boring.” But I’m learning that the curiosity I had as a child has been wrung out of me by the conditioning of commercial entertainment, conditioning that inclines me to expect jolts and swift sensation.

I’m also learning to accept the challenge of G.K. Chesterton:

Why should the eye be so lazy? Let us exercise the eye until it learns to see startling facts that run across the landscape as plain as a painted fence. Let us be ocular athletes. Let us learn to write essays on a stray cat or a coloured cloud.

  • Facebook