Confederacy of Dunces
People rarely learn from history — even, or especially, recent history. It is fact that no Terrence Malick film (with the exception of The Thin Red Line, 1998) has ever been welcomed with widespread praise or respect at the moment of its initial appearance — and yet, decades later, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) are regarded as unassailable masterpieces, while The New World (2006) is already on its way to re-evaluation (a process that takes about seven years, by my reckoning).
But do you think this historical lesson could possibly halt the international army of reviewers, commentators, bloggers, etc, pouncing on The Tree of Life and declaring it (I quote one veteran critic) further evidence of its director's "regrettable decline"? Nope.
I can measure my own life as a cinephile from the moment of seeing Badlands at age 14 to seeing The Tree of Life at 51. For what I remember and treasure, five times in spread-out succession over those 37 years, is this: the quite euphoric sensation, during my first viewing, of experiencing something extraordinary, alien, radically novel, impossible to fully appreciate in one sitting. A feeling of critical humility in the face of a true artist-explorer.
I have tried not to depress myself by consulting too many of the dreary, stupid things already written about The Tree of Life published online. Richard Schickel's diatribe (http://www.truthdig.com/arts_culture/item/the_tree_of_life_terrence_malick_syndrome_strikes_again_20110529/) — possibly the single most offensive piece of American film criticism I have ever read — was enough to make me unplug my Internet connection. Why must critics, at a crucial moment like this, rush like lemmings to prove themselves to be a veritable confederacy of dunces, so unworthy of the UFO (Unidentified Filmic Object) they are addressing?
Not much that is particularly sensible or sensitive has yet been said about The Tree of Life. Hopefully the insights will come. In the meantime, we witness the repetition of a tired old spectacle, delivered with pugilistic glee: the film is trashed for failing to be the kind of film that it does not try to be for a single instant. It is judged against a spurious norm that is utterly conventional and retrograde, completely out of step with everything new happening in this film, and in contemporary cinema in general.
So we are told that the story is hard to follow, that the characters are not easily identifiable, that the editing and camerawork are formless, that there is no psychology/personality, that the actors have nothing to work with, that the cosmic apparitions have nothing to do with the human plotline... and we are told that the whole thing is one big New Age cliché, that the dinosaurs are silly, that the images of creation are pretentious, that the voice-overs are 'straining for significance' and delivering banal messages... And of course, many critics (being, in their fantasies, such superior filmmakers to Malick) indulge their vision of a taut little family-movie 40 minutes shorter and so much clearer...
Here's another history lesson or three. It wasn't too clear who all the characters were zipping by in Bresson's Balthazar, either. Spiritual-surreal visions abound in Tarkovsky's films. Victor Erice also starts out with simple clichés of family life, the better to explore and transform them. Agnès Varda has her own New Age-y beach scenes. And The Tree of Life plays better in your head if you put in a double-bill with Claire Denis' The Intruder rather than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.