The Tree of Life: Questions from the Critical Divide

In a blogpost entitled "Should Movies be Slow and Boring?" Brett McCracken reviews the critical back-and-forth that has erupted over Terence Malick's new film, The Tree of Life.

Richard Schickel, writing online for Truth Dig, is representative of the critics (and audience members?) who've hated The Tree of Life, faulting Malick's work for it's “twaddling pretenses.” While acknowledging the "beautiful images," Schickel ultimately dismisses Malick as “an inept filmmaker.” To deliver the coup de grace, Schickel quotes Preston Sturges (from my favorite film about Hollywood): In Sullivan's Travels, Veronica Lake's canny would-be starlet character observes, “There’s nothing like a deep-dish movie to drive you out in the open.”

The other extreme is represented by A. O. Scott, writing in a think piece - that also included commentary by Manohla Dargis - entitled "In Defense of Slow and Boring" that appeared in the NY Times on June 3, 2011. A.O. Scott writes that "sincerity" (which he sees in Malick's work) should not (automatically) be confused with "pretension."

A.O. Scott argues for a broader definition of cinema: "I certainly don’t think fun should be banished from the screen, or that popular entertainment is essentially antithetical to art. And while I derive great pleasure from some movies that might be described as slow or tedious, I also find food for thought in fast, slick, whimsical entertainments. I would like to think there is room in the cinematic diet for various flavors, including some that may seem, on first encounter, unfamiliar or even unpleasant."

While The Tree of Life clearly isn't for everyone, the questions raised by the extremes of the critical response seem very relevant to those of us working with young filmmakers:

What role should films serve in the New World of filmmaking - where permission from the six studios is no longer the only path?

Is it really a provocative mistake - as some critics have argued - to use actors from popular cinema to star in arthouse films (Ryan O'Neal in Barry Lyndon, Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life, etc.)?

Should a film with deep roots in arthouse classics be judged by those standards (not as good as Blow Up and Breathless) or by the standards of contemporary entertainment (better than Hangover 2 and Zookeeper)?

Is sincerity deserving of respect or suspicion?

How should we treat Terence Malick and his "deep-dish" cinema?

Is it folly to plan a "wide" theatrical release of a film that strives to expand the possibilities of cinematic storytelling?

Have we grown too cynical and skeptical of film as art?

Is there a place in popular culture (not just a few arthouses) for a film that isn't designed primarily to entertain?

UPDATE: August 21, 2011 Even one of the stars of The Tree of Life seems to think the film might have been a bit too unconventional. In an August 20th, 2011 interview published (in French) in Le Figaro, actor Sean Penn says a "clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film." Here is a link (in English) to how The New Yorker covered Sean Penn's statements to the French press.

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