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May 19, 2011


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The Music Box Theater here in Chicago has been doing a retrospective of Terrence Malick's movie for the past few weekends, and seeing those pictures on the big screen have been some of the most powerful movie-going experiences of my life, just in terms of pure aesthetic wonder. I was already close to crapping myself with excitement over THE TREE OF LIFE, and now your review has pushed me close to the edge. (I thought about framing that idea in less filthy terms, but it just didn't seem as honest, y'know?)

David Jameson

Having lived in Houston while Malick was filming "Tree of Life", I'm curious about some of the scenes filmed in the Museum of Fine Arts, particularly in the "Turrell tunnel". When I heard from friends that Malick was filming in the Quaker's light sculpture, I could only image the scene being a transcendent moment. Now that I read about the film being influenced by Tarkovsky, specifically "The Mirror", I have even more anticipation.

Coincidentally, I feel the same way about "The Mirror" as you describe in the last paragraph of your review for "Tree of Life", but I believe this is why I am so affected by the film. It brings up the same question much of the "great" art of the 20th century (and beyond) poses to the viewer. "If I don't understand a piece, what makes it great art?" Leave it to the viewer to decide, but I'll take a piece that resonates over much else.

Ryan H.

So far, the most robust response to TREE OF LIFE I've encountered has been resoundingly negative (I'm speaking of Robert Koehler's review, which you can find here: http://www.filmjourney.org/2011/05/18/cannes-ears-to-the-ground-2/).

Glenn Kenny

Yeah, Robert's review is robust, all right, and good and pissed-off, too. I hold Robert in very high esteem as a critic, but I think his irritation sometimes gets the better of him here. To say that Pitt's character is straight out of Lawrence and then to chide Malick for misapprehending Lawrence is rich. Imposing a conceit on a work and then chastising the work's maker for not living up to the standard of the imposed conceit; damn, I should try that some time. (Is there even a name for that particular fallacy?) And then there's all the sneering at the various composers beloved of the fave straw man of lefty materialists, The New Ager. Yeah, Gorecki sucks, you fucking hippies, and so does David Hykes! If Malick had any balls, he woulda gotten Merzbow to do the score. Whatever. Robert clearly sees the use of voice over and the various philosophical notions articulated therein as so much mush--"airy-fairy," as Jeff Wells put it--but I think something else is going on, and I'm not sure what it is. If I figure it out and decide it's lame, boy is my face gonna be red!

That Fuzzy Bastard

Koehler's summer up a great deal of what I found so hateful in THE NEW WORLD---philosophy that was at once vague and on-the-nose, appropriation of Kubrickian grandeur with none of the sharp intelligence that grounded Kubrick, and worst of all, a fierce allergy to politics. It was the kind of thing that makes me wanna punch a hippie, a movie desperate to film people's beautiful souls instead of their actual lives, the cinematic equivalent of a dreamcatcher hanging in a shop window, and it pissed me off like a white hipster wearing Hey-Ya-inspired Cherokee feathers. But the trailer for TREE is lovely enough that, shit, maybe I'll see if Malick on a less inherently charged subject is more tolerable.
(note that like GK reviewing THOR, my bitterness here is largely disappointment---I pretty much worship BADLANDS, a movie with all the intellectual detachment and sharp observation that every other Terrence Malick joint has painfully lacked)


"philosophy that was at once vague and on-the-nose"

Not sure how this can function as a criticism since it's having it both ways. In fact it makes it sound like his philosophy is remarkably nuanced. For what it's worth, Malick's philosophy is not exactly equal to what the characters are saying.

Secondly, I actually do think The New World is political--it's fundamentally a movie about the American creation myth (emphasis on myth)--and as such there's a great deal of sadness involved there, and the impending genocide of Native Americans hangs over the whole film. That said, the politics are not exactly "on the nose."

Kent Jones

GK, I've seen it twice. An immense experience.

Despite its political vacuity, borrowed Kubrickian grandeur and vague yet on-the-nose philosophizing, of course.


Like Ryan, I don't see the argument against Malick's supposed "philosophy" (or lack thereof). It's a perennial problem with some of the criticism of Malick's movies; with so little known about the man, the known facts get overemphasized, and people drag Heidegger in, and some kind of philosophical disquisition is expected and not found, or in other cases is found and then rejected. I personally find Malick's grandeur to be an entirely different kind than Kubrick's, and no less compelling for that. I also don't see any "allergy" to politics; the films just aren't operating on that level (although, as Ryan points out, there certainly is a political dimension to TNW). Anyway, isn't it one of the first rules of criticism that you don't critique a film for what it DOESN'T contain? Malick's films also mostly lack sex and psychology, but that shouldn't count against them.

Kent Jones

What that guy said.

John M

Looking forward to Dave Kehr and Co's dismissal, pointing to the newfangled editing enable by newfangled editing software. Otto Preminger would never search for something in the editing room!


Although I do think, relatively speaking, TNW is the weakest of Malick's films as director - emphasis on "relatively speaking" - I don't get the charge of it being "allergic to politics" either. Your opinion may vary, but in addition to what Ryan talks about, isn't the very fact of presenting Pocahontas and the rest of the tribe as neither savages nor one-dimensional noble people in of itself political in some way?

That Fuzzy Bastard

@ lbranzer: But my problem is that they weren't people at all---they were symbols of 'nature' or something. I admit, my disappointment with the movie extends from the second half from the first---I spent the first half-hour thinking it was one of the most visceral experiences of a pre-industrial world I'd ever seen, evoking like nothing else what it would actually feel like to be on either side of the technological (and architectural) divide. The way the Europeans senselessly recreated a crowded block of London in the middle of the jungle was a smart, resonant image. And then it turned into a mushy (in the Lance Mannion sense) love story and I wanted Alex Cox to come storming through the set to rewrite the goddamn thing complete with cackling Spanish royalty and a grotesque fat guy ruling the tribe, just so there'd be some sense of the immense political context around the credulously swallowed myth of all-natural America, one of the more tiresome myths there is.

Bilge Ebiri

Seconding Ryan's notion that TNW is in fact a film about the American Creation myth. For perhaps obvious reasons, some people like to focus on the love story with John Smith and often ignore the love story with John Rolfe (the same way that some people ignore the love story with Sam Shepard in DAYS OF HEAVEN) even though that's crucial to the film's "message" if it can be called that: The reconciliation of the ideal with the pragmatic, of nature with civilization. There *is* a reduction there, of course, and a bittersweet lament for the loss of a purely idealized existence (where even things like vanity and pride have no place), but I think it's one the film acknowledges as almost inevitable.

I *do* agree with TFB that the Naturals are treated in more symbolic fashion in the film, but it's to emphasize how Pocahontas (who is btw never named in the film, until she takes the name of Rebecca later) ultimately becomes the one to straddle these twin, seemingly opposing worlds. I don't know if one wants to call that "political," but I think the film certainly has a lot more on its mind than just a bunch of shots of young lovers rolling around in tall grass.

As for THE TREE OF LIFE, I think it might be the greatest film I've ever seen -- the most confident and, yes, controlled film Malick has ever made. Its structure may not be narrative, but that's not to say that it isn't there: In fact, it's symphonic, and not just in its broad strokes -- the supposedly loosey-goosey Texas passage itself seems to adhere to sonata form, too. Anyone who calls it undisciplined doesn't know what he/she's talking about; if only all films were this disciplined. Watching it I was reminded of Bertolucci's prayer for Welles sometime in the mid-70s: "One day, he will make a film that will put us all to shame."

As for the voiceovers, here's what struck me about them: The opening quote is God asking where humans (specifically, Job) were, while many of the voiceovers are humans wondering where God is. The film is, on some level, an attempt to answer both questions.


There was a scene in the first half of "The new world" (don't remember if it's in both versions of the film) where you see the natives discussing whether to kill the new white colonists, saying something like: "so what if we help them? They are only a few, what can they do to us? We'll always have time to kill them". If it wasn't for that scene, I could see a point in the idea that the natives are just "empty symbols", but when Malick actually shows them arguing politics ("their" politics) and even being cunning about it... dunno, I don't think so.


I don't think it's really that the natives are symbols in Malick's film, so much as the worlds he creates are always somewhat generalized. The island natives in THE THIN RED LINE are pretty much interchangeable with the American natives in THE NEW WORLD. It's a matter of the tone and texture of Malick's filmmaking, what activities he chooses to represent and how he represents them. For instance, his treatment of war. Even when things get ugly between the British and the natives in THE NEW WORLD and, for that matter, between the American soldiers and the Japanese in THE THIN RED LINE, there's always a graceful, almost beatific distance that's maintained. It's as if we're seeing things from the perspective of a world soul, not exactly dispassionate, but not exactly personally involved either. Everything is set in this same heightened key, and sometimes it's sublime, sometimes it's really really tedious.

I'm very much looking forward to THE TREE OF LIFE.

Dan Callahan

"The Tree of Life" is the best American film I've seen since "Mulholland Drive" ten years ago. Both films had Jack Fisk as production designer, which makes me want to read a huge, detailed interview with Fisk. And see "Raggedy Man" again. Fisk also designed "There Will Be Blood," which makes me think that this man is the ultimate secret weapon of the cinema.

While I was watching "Tree," I could barely believe what I was seeing and hearing; it has a rhythmic audacity and it moves by so quickly that I was sure I was missing so much, but that's part of what the film is about. Negative reviews of "The Tree of Life"? For THIS movie?! What does a filmmaker have to do? Get Christ down from the cross? He practically does that here!

Glenn Kenny

Good stuff Dan.

FWIW, I'm kind of agnostic on "The New World" and I'm also not sure if Dave Kehr will find the same fault with "Tree" as he did with the earlier film. In point of fact, I think that "Tree" really refines the editing approach that Malick took on "World" in the service of something that coheres better than it did in the earlier film. Most of what can be deemed "jittery" cutting in "Tree" is in the early portions of the '50s Waco stuff, and it speaks to a restlessness of perspective/consciousness and really works like a charm, I think. So many layers here.


I want to see this so much...

Glenn Kenny

Bill: As Tallulah Bankhead once said to Chico Marx in a radically different context, "And you shall, dear boy, you shall."

Kent Jones

GK, I don't think that editing is the issue. The films are edited based on the way he shoots and the way he represents the passage of time - there's a cut, and you have no idea how much or how little time has passed. I took another look at THE NEW WORLD recently, and I think that he never quite addressed a central question: how did the settlers in 17th century colonial America move and behave? Same with the natives. I'm guessing that for someone like Malick, the question is irrelevant: humanity is humanity, behavior is behavior, and there you have it. But, for instance, if you look at the way the couples move through the house in the new movie, the way Penn and his wife move around each other, the way Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain move between the kitchen and the dining room and back - he's pursuing her, she's avoiding him - it's extremely place-specific, and the way they're behaving with each other is very true to a certain kind of hurt, rejection, need for control. And when you're oriented in place, you're oriented in time. It's more than getting the spoken language right.

When Farrell wanders through the grass or gets his ear tickled or gazes longingly at Kilcher, all I see is a 21st century actor left to his own devices. When you go inside the fort, the behavior of the people in the first half is monotonous - lots of circling around each other. And while a lot of the physical work the Native American actors do is very good, some of it isn't: there's a shot of a woman, somewhere about two thirds into Farrell's stay in the forest, that looks like something you might see at a dance club in NY or LA. But it's Farrell, a good actor who just didn't find his bearings in the movie, who the film keeps returning to, with the same expression on his face, making the same moves, and that makes the "editing" seem monotonous. After he leaves the movie and Christian Bale arrives, things change. Here's someone who really seems to have thought about what it's like to live in a world without media, where you feel the length of every day.

Again, I understand the dilemma. Malick encourages people to just be - he breaks up the continuity of the shoots, disorienting the actors in order to get them to approach every new take afresh. Nick Nolte told me that one day during the THIN RED LINE shoot, he was sitting there, taking a break, and only after a few minutes realized that he was being filmed, and it's in the movie. So, it's hard to just be and work out the physical vocabulary of a much earlier historical moment.

For all that, I think THE NEW WORLD is a towering film.

But THE TREE OF LIFE is something else again.

Glenn Kenny

Thanks Kent. I also think it's worth mentioning that the three boys, Hunter McCracken, Laramie Eppler, and Tye Sheridan, are very extraordinary and alive in their moments/movements. I think Malick must have very much enjoyed capturing them.

Claire and I once met Ben Chaplin at a party. A really lovely fellow, he spoke at length about what a great experience and an honor it was to work with Malick for two films in a row, and gave the impression that the fact that he's not in either "Thin Red Line" or "New World" for particularly long periods of time as being completely beside the point.

Kent Jones

The boys? Every single move, look, whisper is true.

Actually, Ben Chaplin is featured fairly prominently in THE THIN RED LINE. But yeah, he's almost gone from THE NEW WORLD.

Dan Callahan

After seeing "Tree," I also thought right away of Tarkovsky's "The Mirror," but I'm starting
to think of it in relation to Terence Davies's films, as well. I don't think any director has made
a better memory movie about this particular family material. Malick starts out very high and he just
takes you higher and higher.

An aside: I don't really smoke pot, but I think I might make an exception to this rule for my, say, fourth or fifth screening of "The Tree of Life."

That Fuzzy Bastard

THE MIRROR illustrates everything that's missing in Malick: political contextualizing (why was Mother so worried about a misprint in the newspaper?), a sense of humor (the mournful Spanish Civil War vet), and transcendence that's earned through materialist/cinematic means (the difficult and rewarding barn-burning shot) rather than mere insistence.

Chris O.

"Yeah, Gorecki sucks, you fucking hippies, and so does David Hykes! If Malick had any balls, he woulda gotten Merzbow to do the score. Whatever."

Sorry, but I'm a little confused. Malick's use of Gorecki is being taken to task? I was hoping you'd talk about the music a little, Glenn and/or Kent. I've always liked the way he's used music from Micky & Sylvia and Leo Kottke to Choir of All Saints and *gasp* Wagner.

Robert Koehler

On Glenn's issue with my D.H. Lawrence reference of Pitt's Mr. O'Brien, my point was that precisely because he is an explicitly Lawrencian character who defines himself in terms of "will," to then have him also defined as "the way of nature" is quite contradictory. "Will" and "Nature" are opposite constructs in this universe, and which I think any close viewing of "The Tree of Life" should reveal. I think where Malick gets himself into trouble--well, beyond the somewhat questionable judgment of labeling characters from the get-go in such absurdly lofty identifiers--is identifying Mrs. O'Brien as "the way of grace." "Grace" remains a fuzzy concept from the beginning of the film to its end, and it may very well be part of the film's undoing from a philosophical standpoint.
Perhaps the most interesting visual detail (in a film that I find visually quite flawed and troubling) and correlative to this in the film is how "Will" is frequently viewed as a vertical form (the Houston skyscrapers, the oil refinery, the capitol building) while "Nature" is seen as a horizontal (the swimmin' hole, the grassy lawns, the groves of trees, the flat beach). Yet even this notion breaks down when considering the verticality of the forest, one of the more cliched repeated images in the film. So unlike a Renoir or Antonioni, who reliably keep sure hands on their visual correlatives, this vertical-horizontal concept ball is perhaps fumbled by Malick. By the way, this is hardly the first time Malick has borrowed from Lawrence's world for his storytelling; "Days of Heaven" can be seen as a Lawrence-like story from start to finish, and it's quite easy to glean the Lawrence shadings in "The New World" as well.


Robert, this is a bit bizarre. The vertical-horizontal construct you're suggesting is YOUR interpretation of its visual schema; you then fault the film for not adhering to your interpretation of it, "fumbling" this so-called "vertical-horizontal concept ball." A little cart before the horse, no? To say nothing of, uh, reductive.

Kent Jones

Chris O., the music is abundant and very rich. The Smetena that you hear in the trailer is also used pretty prominently in the movie, as is Tavener's "Funeral Canticle." There's a little bit of the opening of Mahler's 1st, and the Bach is really striking from a dramatic standpoint. "Lacrimosa 2" by Preisner is also featured prominently. Brahms' 2nd is played on a record player. I don't really want to go into more detail because you should be able to discover it for yourself.

I agree with you, his musical sense has always been extraordinary. The Wagner opening and closing THE NEW WORLD, for instance. The Orff in BADLANDS.


I agree, for the most part, about Malick's musical sense, but I have to say that I find his use of Wagner in THE NEW WORLD a lot less powerful than Herzog's in his remake of NOSFERATU. Before I explain further, I should say that I do think Malick is a much greater filmmaker than Herzog. Still, in NOSFERATU, Herzog plays on the frisson of terror in the Das Rheingold prelude as much as its ethereality. I think Malick tends to lean too close to the latter. Another filmmaker, whom Malick is oft compared to, Brakhage, he too had an acute sensitivity for the terror of being, as much as the glory. But whenever Malick deals with horrors or atrocities it's presented with a veil over it. At least I think this is true of THE NEW WORLD and THE THIN RED LINE. BADLANDS and DAYS OF HEAVEN are different cases, and THE TREE OF LIFE may indeed turn out to be as well.


Will and Nature opposites? Read thee some Schopenhauer sir!

There is a persistent flaw in a lot of Malick criticism (in my opinion) that takes the stark dichotomies that Malick sets up at face value, when it seems to me that he is interested in (if you'll pardon the word) deconstructing those very oppositions. The world DOES, quite paradoxically, pull in two directions.

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