Page Two: Band of Outsiders

Terrence Malick's ambitious cinematic aesthetic

Page Two
I still find myself starting to cry whenever I talk or think about Terrence Malick's film The Tree of Life. Even though it has now been more than a week since the Austin Film Society hosted a screening at the Paramount, my response to the film hasn't mellowed but instead seems to be intensifying. A friend suggested that perhaps the film was forcing me to finally deal with my father's death in early December 2010, which didn't affect me that much at the time. But I don't think that it is my father for whom I'm crying in any way. Rather, I think most of the tears are for me and for my childhood.

A tear or two have also been shed for these times in which we live, when there is such weak and generally empty-headed cultural criticism. During the decades when I was coming of age, there were any number of great critics. Many of them were unafraid to champion serious filmmakers whose work they admired and, in doing so, go out on critical limbs that exposed them to all kinds of cheap shots. Precious few critics still working offer any kind of vision accompanied by that kind of courage. (I do include the Chronicle critics among those few, but of course I would, so the veracity and the extent of that call is left to our readers.)

Most of the modern gang of working national film critics comes across as members of the same, very large, inbred national community with a simple, two-part critical credo:

1) It is important to be seen as representing the audience's interests and not as film fans.

2) One has a responsibility to take only the most obvious critical position on a film so as not to be too much an advocate or too esoteric in one's critical support.

(The unwritten corollary to this is to not take a position that other film critics will either offhandedly dismiss or, even worse, mock one for taking; there are a very few who will take only positions that all others find outrageous, but in their cases, it hardly demonstrates courage.)

It is accurate to point out that almost none of these critics ever has anything too kindly to say about mainstream Hollywood releases (but that has been the case for a couple of generations now). They acknowledge the consistency with which they are forced to lament the industry's failings as they also point out the extent of those failings. It is almost too easy to predict which films they will like and which ones they won't.

Still, they not only never advocate for a different cinematic aesthetic; when given opportunities to support just such alternatives, they rarely take them. Rather than desiring to change the industry's mediocrity, they are happy with it, evincing an almost obvious gratitude at the easy targets they are offered.

The attitude prized here is being cool. Being too passionate about a film, especially the wrong film, is a terrible mistake in that community.

The poster children for these modern major American film critics are those amazing Flying Wallenda brothers, Anthony Lane and David Denby, over at The New Yorker, where once Goddamn Pauline Kael herself held sway. Knowledgeable on film and culture, consistently impressive writers, they both manage to appear substantive while never deigning to actually say very much.

Lane is extremely witty, widely read, and writes with style to burn. His only noticeable failing as a film critic is that he doesn't have much of substance to say about films or filmmakers, though what he does offer he at least usually says very well. The shame is that not only does Denby have even less of consequence to say than Lane, but that he also doesn't say it nearly as well.

They both have a tendency to go glib in the face of a complicated film. "If you wait long enough, a new Terrence Malick film comes around," is the opening sentence of Lane's New Yorker review of The Tree of Life. The sentence lacks wit, meaning, and style, though it pretends to the last.

The last sentence of that paragraph – "Don't forget Edgar G. Ulmer's coruscating Detour (1945), which was shot in six days" – is stunning in how little it actually says compared to how much it appears to be saying. It really is such a desperate and extravagantly cheap act of critical sleight of hand that in comparison, one of comedian Rip Taylor's confetti-strewing, overly hysterical entrances seems measured and unusually sophisticated.

Unfortunately, the dearth of ambitious critics eventually has a negative impact on the quality of the films being made and released.

Jean-Luc Godard once argued that no matter how radical, anti-social, and revolutionary a film's narrative content, if the film was presented in a known and accepted style, it invariably ended up reinforcing and supporting dominant ideology rather than challenging it.

The most widely used, internationally known, and universally understood visual film style has long been invisible, or "Hollywood," editing. This is where the tools of cinematic language are used to mask any evidence of artificiality from viewers. The uses of cutting, camera movement, sound, and music are all designed to fool the audience members' eyes and lull their brains into believing there is a seamless continuity to what is being shown on the screen. This is not to charge conspiracy or attempt at subliminal manipulation; it is about the audience buying into the film and believing it.

A revolutionary political filmmaker, Godard directly challenged classic visual language, ripping it apart: alternating jump cuts with long takes, having editing within sequences in the wrong order, moving the camera in such a way that it called attention to itself; not just an actor but sometimes the whole filmmaking process violated the fourth wall by interacting with the audience.

During his first decade of making films (the 1960s), Godard was regarded as revolutionary, complex, stylistically difficult, and confrontational, making films that were often too difficult for even veteran filmgoers to understand.

Now, a half-century or more after they first appeared, they seem almost quaint. Over those intervening decades, almost all of Godard's filmic innovations and distortions of cinematic language have become so widely used that, rather than being stylistically eccentric, they are now mundane. Once disruptive, they've been homogenized into the dominant visual style and are seen as often in TV commercials as anywhere.

Seeming to lack any polemical ambitions, Malick's pioneering cinematic styles have played in the opposite direction from those of Godard. Rather than a street-style deconstruction of text, Malick pushed for a richer and more elaborate cinematic language, resulting in a stunning style used to convey an exaggerated reality, a contemplation on the differences between grace and nature, between faith and belief.

Malick is of the very few directors to create a personal style so overwhelming, idiosyncratic, and unique, and his grandness of cinema derives more from a truly ambitious aesthetic drive than the pursuit of specific political goals. Instead of the tight, black-and-white, street rhythm of Godard, he has gone for the grandly opulent, a style so lush and exaggerated it is damn near ever impossible to just sink into his filmmaking, though it is the most overflowing of styles. It is always work to watch a Malick film.

Stylistically, I can think of no contemporary working filmmaker besides Malick who is so close aesthetically to such geniuses of silent cinema as F.W. Murnau, Maurice Tourneur, Clarence Brown, and G.W. Pabst. But Malick's work is neither complacent nor reactionary. Rather, no other director so completely delivers the very distancing Godard sought. Watch, for example, Malick's The Thin Red Line and Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. The latter opens with as brilliant a half-hour depiction of war as can be found in the cinema, but then it immediately reverts to a brilliantly done but all-too-classic Hollywood war movie. The Thin Red Line constantly offers contradictions, between silence and the noises of war, between the natural and the violent. It never provides a convenient, generic structure that allows one to slip into just watching a war film the way one has always watched war films.

And then there is The Tree of Life, a film about which there are so many different, intriguing, and exciting ways to talk, not one of which is enriched in any way by sharing how long it took Edgar Ulmer to make Detour.

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The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick, film criticism, Jean-Luc Godard, Anthony Lane, David Denby, Pauline Kael

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