‘Tree of Life’: For critics or for viewers?

Film review

“The Tree of Life” (which contains all of the images above, among many, many, many others): Great art or the self-indulgent, inaccessible pretensions of a baby boomer growing ever closer to death?

It is telling that (as I type this sentence, anyway) Yahoo! Movies shows American director Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” as having garnered an “A-” from film critics — and only a “C+” from the common folk.

The question then becomes, I think, whether the film is flawed or whether the film is just above the audience’s head.

“The Tree of Life” spectacularly peculiarly alternates between the very apple-pie story of a white middle-class family in the suburbs of Texas in the 1950s, patronized by Brad Pitt — and “2001: A Space Odyssey”-like grand views of the cosmos, views of dramatic geological events here at home (lots o’ lava, that is), and micro-views, such as that of a developing embryo (which we also saw in “2001,” and the same guy who did the special effects for “2001” [which was released the year that I was born] was involved with the special effects for “The Tree of Life,” and thus the deja vu). And throw in a lot of surrealism involving our real-life characters, such as an apparent family reunion in the afterlife on an ephemeral beach. Oh, and dinosaurs, too.

In “Tree of Life” Sean Penn plays the grown-up eldest son of Pitt’s character — and Penn apparently is the stand-in for Malick, kind of like one of Woody Allen’s stand-ins for himself — but Penn actually isn’t in the film all that much. It’s mostly Pitt, but Pitt does a great job, as he usually does, and the child actors also impress with their very natural acting.

The main problem with “The Tree of Life,” I think, is that the previews make it look like a Pitt-and-Penn vehicle with a little bit of artsy-fartsy stuff thrown in there, but the actual film is two hours and 15 minutes of an awful lot of artsy-fartsy stuff thrown in there. American audiences, at least, aren’t, I surmise, ready to go back and forth among watching Brad Pitt playing a family man in 1950s suburbia and Sean Penn playing his reminiscing grown-up son and watching Carl-Saganesque grand cosmic events and more down-to-Earth lava flows and even dinosaur politics.

(The French, however, have loved “The Tree of Life,” which they awarded the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival…)

Don’t get me wrong. The dinosaurs in “The Tree of Life” are quite well done, perhaps the best technically done dinosaurs to hit the silver screen thus far in cinematic history. I’d love to see a feature-length film about dinosaurs made by Malick — even if the dinosaurs aren’t anthropomorphized, even if there is no plot, so to speak, even if it’s just the dinosaurs hanging out and being dinosaurs. (Actually, I don’t like it when critters are inappropriately anthropomorphized, such as in Disney’s “documentary” “African Cats,” even though its target audience is children.)

And the story of the humans in “The Tree of Life” probably would have made a much better stand-alone film, stripped of the “2001”-like surrealism of cosmic vomiting and universal diarrhea, in which creation often rather violently explodes all over the place.

Indeed, not long into “Tree of Life” it occurred to me that just as they hand you your 3-D glasses before you view a 3-D movie, they should give you a joint to inhale (or maybe a bong would be less cleanup afterward) before you view the surreal “Tree of Life.” Then you’ll love it.

I suppose that there are two general camps when it comes to art. One camp maintains that art is whatever the artist wants it to be. Therefore, highly personal art is perfectly acceptable, probably even more preferable to art meant for the masses, to this camp. The more inaccessible, the better — the more artistic/“artistic” — some if not most of those in this camp seem to believe.

The other camp, which I favor, believes that art should be accessible, that art should communicate, or at least touch those who experience it, and that if the artist does not touch his audience, then the artist has failed.

It probably isn’t an over-generalization to state that we might call the camp of artistic/“artistic” inaccessibility the French Camp and the camp of accessibility the American Camp. Those in the American Camp often view those in the French Camp as pretentious. Those in the French Camp don’t really understand the incomprehensible art that they claim to understand, those in the American Camp believe (and thus the charge of pretension), and I tend to agree.

But art doesn’t have to be comprehensible, doesn’t have to be logical and rational and linear. As I stated, as long as the art touches you, in my book, then the artist has succeeded.

It is true that with American audiences, Malick had an uphill battle making such an impressionist film that would be well received (if he really even cared at all how it would be received by American audiences, indeed). Americans aren’t used to impressionism in their movies. American audiences are used to realism, to literalism, to fairly clear, point-A-to-point-Z plots.

“The Tree of Life” has elements that succeed, but in my eyes with the film Malick fails as an artist because his film goes on for so long, and becomes so ponderous and so difficult to experience, that he loses his (at-least-American) audience. In the audience that I was in, I think that most if not all of us were ready for the film to be over at least a half-hour before it actually ended, and at the end of the film we felt only the type of satisfaction that a long-suffering cancer patient might feel during the last few moments of euthanasia.

I’m down with the dinosaurs, and I am open-minded enough to be able to give a chance to a film that tries to capture Life, the Universe and Everything, but in my book when the viewer just wants it all to be over already, please please please God just make it end!, the artist probably has done something wrong.

I get the impression with “The Tree of Life” that the 67-year-old Malick had two films inside of him trying to claw their way out of his chest cavity like identical twin aliens a la “Alien,” but that he was concerned that if he didn’t put them into one film, he might not live long enough to get both films made, so he put both of the films into a blender.

Again, either of these two films probably would have been or at least could have been great, Malick’s ode to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” (and to “Jurassic Park”) or Malick’s very personal (perhaps too personal) recap of his own childhood as an American baby boomer having grown up in Texas.

Malick’s fellow baby boomer Roger Ebert ate up* “The Tree of Life,” which, while apparently is accessible to white American baby boomers who grew up in families that were at least middle class, isn’t as accessible to the rest of us. (I, as a member of Generation X “raised” by and surrounded by baby boomers, had quite a different experience growing up in the 1970s and 1980s. Yeah, my memories of childhood are not so fucking idyllic.)

So we come back to the question as to whether a film succeeds even if it loses most of its viewers (here in the United States, anyway, since I am an American writing this review primarily for my fellow Americans). I say that it does not. (Again, the French, apparently, say that it does [indeed, a good number of them apparently believe that if a film is comprehensible, then it is shit].)

So, while I appreciate Malick’s technical achievements — again, love those dinosaurs, and he directed his child actors masterfully — I cannot ignore the fact that as patient as I am, “The Tree of Life” wore out its welcome, wore out my patience, and apparently wore out my fellow audience members’ patience even more so and even more quickly than it wore out mine. A good film, it seems to me, makes you regretful, not relieved, at having to leave the movie theater at film’s end.

And again, unlike Roger Ebert, I cannot ignore what doesn’t work in “The Tree of Life” — such as the apparently uber-pretentious scene, among many apparently pretentious scenes, that has Sean Penn walking through a door frame that is erected in the middle of nowhere — and focus on how great it is to take a stroll down Baby-Boomer Memory Lane, because I think that I can relate to the lives of the dinosaurs a lot more than I can relate to the reportedly idyllic childhoods of the baby boomers, who made my childhood much less idyllic than theirs.

“The Tree of Life,” as a whole, fails (at least here in the United States of America) because it loses its (American) audience.

And the grade for failure is an “F.”

My grade: F

(I surmise that Yahoo!’s commoners give the film an average grade of “C+” only because some people will give a movie a decent grade if there are at least some scenes that they liked and because there are plenty of pretentious, “artistic” people who will claim to have appreciated and understood an incomprehensible film.)

*Ebert swoons:

I don’t know when a film has connected more immediately with my own personal experience. In uncanny ways, the central events of “The Tree of Life” reflect a time and place I lived in, and the boys in it are me. If I set out to make an autobiographical film, and if I had Malick’s gift, it would look so much like this.

Yeah, like I said, I had a different life experience…

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