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Entries in The Tree of Life (31)

Monday
Jan022012

Burning Questions: How Does One Rank An Almost Masterpiece?

Michael C. here with a question I can't stop turning over in my mind.

After finalizing my list of the best movies of 2011 I experienced a powerful surge of cinephile guilt when I realized Joe Cornish’s fantastically goofy Attack the Block enjoyed a healthy place on the list while Malick’s The Tree of Life was nowhere to be seen. Certainly this was an unforgivable lapse of taste, if not a dereliction of my duties as a film writer. Tree of Life is about nothing less than - to borrow a phrase from Douglas Adams - life, the universe and everything. Even if I had gripes with Tree and thought it only reached its potential in fits and starts, shouldn’t laying a fingertip on such greatness guarantee it a spot? If Olympic athletes can be graded according to degree of difficulty, why not films?

The question, simply put, is how does one rank a flawed masterpiece?

If, by the way, you consider Malick's magnum opus an unqualified success, if you had a religious experience watching butterflies land on Jessica Chastain, then feel free to substitute the name Melancholia, Shame, Margaret or whichever hugely ambitious endeavor you felt stayed stubbornly Earthbound despite its attempts to reach for the stars. But for me, Tree is the one I wrestle with.

One problem with giving points for unfulfilled ambition is that it reinforces the idea that certain movies are superior to others in their very conception. This is the same lazy thinking that leads thudding Oscar bait to be nominated over exciting genre fare year after year. Frost/Nixon is history, Dark Knight is kid stuff. Nominate Frost/Nixon. Ideally both Attack the Block and The Tree of Life start with the same blank slate. 

Of course, the real dilemma is not unfulfilled ambition but those fleeting moments when a film earns all that hyperbolic praise. It would be irresponsible to ignore that Tree of Life frequently presents images that stop the heart and contains stretches that are just about flawless. But those moments come married to endless minutes of Sean Penn stumbling over rocks. Material that felt like Malick cut it down just enough to lose all meaning but kept it in to assure us that it had a purpose when he started. In the end, I was overwhelmed with admiration but my spirit remained curiously unstirred. Wouldn’t the professional thing be to chalk that up to my own problem and rank Tree highly because I recognize the film's potential to move others?

Sean Penn, stumbling around.

I don’t think so. If there is a benefit to the questionable practice of ranking artistic achievements against each other it is to level the playing field between the grand apples and the quirky oranges. What is owed to Malick’s achievement is respect and careful consideration, not genuflection. If in 2011 the film that made the strongest impression on me was the one with furry black aliens with bioluminescent blue teeth then I have to stand up and say so, even if that makes it appear that I have the critical acumen of a 12 year old boy on a sugar high. 

Because when you get down to it all movies from Kubrick and Tarkovsky down to Babe: Pig in the City are after the same thing: a lasting connection with the audience. The test of time is going to be merciless to those films that almost but did not quite achieve greatness, so we may as well be just as merciless in the present. Singin' in Rain was not made with an eye for the list of all-time greats, but there it sits while grand almost-masterpieces like Lost Horizon fade with each year. I would take any random Daffy Duck cartoon over Doctor Zhivago. And let's not forget: In 1998 it wasn't exactly fashionable for a critic to rank a shaggy mystery about a pot-addled bowler above Malick’s Thin Red Line. Yet which of those two films spawned a religion?  

Dudeism

 

Feel that I am being way too glib with a cinematic masterpiece? Have another example of cinematic emperor's new clothes that needs to be mentioned? Let me know in the comments. You can follow Michael C. on Twitter at @SeriousFilm or read his blog Serious Film

Previous Burning Questions...

Friday
Dec302011

Distant Relatives: 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life

Robert here w/ Distant Relatives, exploring the connections between one classic and one contemporary film.

It's not exactly the secret of the cinematic year that Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey and Terrence Malick's Tree of Life are two films of a similar kind. Indeed as Tree of Life hype grew to its crescendo this past spring and reviews started hitting the web it seemed like almost a requirement for writers to reference the 1968 science fiction classic. There were, I think, three reasons for this. First, which we'll get to shortly, that the two films do indeed have much in common in terms of theme and narrative. Second that both are epic length stories that many cinephiles consider high-water marks in the medium, and finally the involvement of Douglas Trumbull whose special effects work helped realize 2001: A Space Odyssey. When it was announced that he'd be working on The Tree of Life and creating sequences of a cosmic nature, the inexorable relationship between these two movies seemed predestined, and no one had even seen the Malick film yet. But with all the hooting about space and science fiction and experimental narrative and Trumble effects, the connection between 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life now feels more like a solid fact to state and less like a flexible area to explore. So let's explore it.
 
Questions about the meaning of life, ponderances about the origin of the world and wonderment about how it all connects isn't a new or even unusal theme in moviedom. But most of the time, in fact almost all of the time, filmmakers feel the need to create an onscreen surrogate for both themselves and the audience to ask these questions. So most films about the meaning of life involve a solitary figure, a writer or an artist or a chess-playing knight meandering about wondering out loud what it all means. In movies about the meaning of life, it is the goal of the protagonist to find the meaning of life. Not so in The Tree of Life and 2001. While characters do ponder big mysteries, it's the narrative itself that takes us to the origins of creation. And to be clear, I'm using the term "origins of creation" pretty loosely here applying it to both the big bang for The Tree of Life and the early evolution of man for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Events past, much like stars in the sky, seem to be much farther from us and closer to one another than truth would have it. But in each film, the point is the same, that the events that will make up the significant dramatic conflict in the picture mean very little without cosmic context.


 
This context involves where we've been, where we are, and where we're going, scientifically & religiously speaking. The purpose of showing both the grandeur of the universe and the primal nature of man's past is to suggest our smallness and the smallness of the characters in these films. To them, their lives and their conflicts are the encompass of their universe. But in the scope of history, they are miniscule. Malick and Kubrick do this by creating worlds that at first seem dissimilar but upon further investigation are very alike. If there's any consistent criticism of Stanley Kubrick it's that he is a "cold" director, caring less for his humans than for his technique. 2001: A Space Odyssey plays into the hands of this criticism, featuring stoic human characters and providing our only emotional payoff from the mind of a machine. This seems in great contrast to Malick's film about the daily life, fears, loves and feelings of a family. But Malick's filmography has always presented us with the image of a harmonious world invaded by human violence, apathy, and destruction. The present set segments of The Tree of Life (the ones featuring Sean Penn that have been criticized as a somewhat pointless framing device) show us a world constructed, or is that destructed, by modern technology, and are as cold and austere as anything found in a Kubrick film.

But neither director holds as much ill-will toward the human race as you may suspect. Both films ultimately take us to our unknown future, whether that be the future of one man or all of humanity is, in both cases, ambiguous at best. Interpretations of the "star child" into which astronaut Dave Bowman turns at the end of 2001 are varied and range from the suggestion of alien manipulation to natural evolution to spiritual rebirth. Kubrick's film's finale may generally be considered more atheistic than Malick's but even the then pope (John Paul II, quite the film buff) was said to be a fan and considered the film one of great spirituality. This spirituality is how most people have viewed The Tree of Life's final sequence which presents us with a "heaven" that doesn't exactly adhere to any specific religion's interpretation of such a place, but still seems to present man's ultimate destination as one of great peace, community and beauty. In addition to this, both films seem to view mankind's journey to this ultimate destination as one essentially intertwined with the act of creation and the relationship between the creator and the created, whether it be ape and tool, parent and child, scientist and AI, god and man, and may I add, filmmaker and film. The message seems to be that it is creation that give us meaning, and advances us from insignificantly miniscule and suffering to, ultimately, a state of grace.

Other Cinematic Relatives: Such is the uniqueness of these two films, no other were immediately apparent to me. I'll let you fill in your suggestions in the comments.

Monday
Dec262011

OFCS Nominations: The Drive of Life

The Online Film Critics Society is the latest group to chime in with their nominations for the best of 2011. They'll announce the winners on January 2nd but because they're a big group we deigned to feature their nominees this year. As in most years there are a couple of eyebrow raising choices (I really can't handle Editing and Screenplay nominations for We Need To Talk About Kevin! Shoot me now... with bow and arrow if you must.) but their Best Cinematography list is just... well, we should only pray we get an Oscar field that beautiful, that acclaimed, that challenging, that perfect, that War Horse evading.

The Tree of Life led their field of contenders with seven nominations including two for acting (Brad Pitt was honored there,  not for Moneyball) with Drive in hot pursuit with six. And for what seems like the first time in ages, Martha Marcy May Marlene was not left out in the cold, picking up three nominations including Original Screenplay for Sean Durkin (recently interviewed).

Full list of nominations with a few thoughts after the jump.

Click to read more ...

Saturday
Dec102011

Oscar's FX Semi-Finalists: Superheroes, Aliens, Dinosaurs, Mermaids

Wouldn't it be weird if Oscar had finalist rounds for all categories and not just a few of them? Can you imagine a runway elimination for Costume Design or a Supporting Actress pre-nom bake-off? But, bringing us back to reality, few categories do this. The effects branch does and after having a looksie at this year's showiest films, they've narrowed the Oscar posssibilities for "Best Achievement in Visual Effects"  to 15. We're not sure why there are so many steps in the process but they'll narrow it down again in early January to 10 before 5 are named at the end of January on Oscar Nomination Morning (Or what Nathaniel calls Christmas Eve... Christmas being Oscar Night, his favorite holiday!)

The semi-finalist list bring us a few dinosaurs, a handful of mythical creatures, several aliens, a dozen colorful superheroes, a scary school (herd? pack? fleet?) of mermaids, and many robots from small to super sized.

Captain America: The First Avenger 
Cowboys & Aliens 
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 
Hugo 
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Sucker Punch

Super 8
Thor
Transformers: Dark of the Moon
The Tree of Life
X-Men: First Class

DINOSAURS! There's no award for Best Supporting Visual Effects but I always root for that film even though it's rarely nominated. I mean how are you going to ignore the visual effects of Eternal Sunshine back in its day. But they did.  So this year's I'm really pulling for the audacious creation of the earth segment from The Tree of Life since we obviously can't have the destruction of the earth in Melancholia. Together they're a Double Scoop of Circle of Life Awesome.

OMISSIONS! Effects work that didn't make it to the finals include Tarsem's warring god boytoys in The Immortals, the elaborate visual wows of The Adventures of Tintin, the apocalyptic beauty of Melancholia's opening/closing segments, and the yellow clouds enlarged craniums alient whatnots and gooey green CGI messes of Green Lantern -- someone mop that up!

FOUR NOMINEES... BUT THEY ARE LEGION

On Oscar nomination morning five films will be left standing and four lucky craftsmen will reap the benefits for each film, their names to be determined by the producers. It's interesting to note how many people work on a movie's effects sequences versus how many are nominated for what the teams deliver unto us. Let's take Captain America for an example. The Special Effects department which does models, pyrotechnics, explosives, snow, molds and other sundries and whatnots numbers 40. The Visual Effects department, which does ... uh... everything else [marvel at my intricate knowledge of the process! *snort*] numbers nearly 800 (!!!). Generally speaking one assumes the producers merely pick department heads because most of the job descriptions of those nominated are simply  "visual effects supervisor" though sometimes you'll get a "special effects supervisor" from the sister department. And occassionally something a lot more specific like last year's nomination for Michael Owens on Hereafter whose job title reads "designer: tsunami sequence, visual effects supervisor".

Beyond possibly previously Oscared Craig Barron (2 noms / 1 win) I'm not sure who would get Captain America's nomination (should it receive one) since there are several visual effects supervisors most of whom would be first time nominees. But I think the producers ought to think outside the box hyperbaric chamber and consider Simon Waterson, Chris Evans' trainer because this here was the movie's single greatest visual effect...

 

I rest my case.

If they need further convincing -- perhaps even towards an honorary Oscar --  please to note that Simon Waterson was also responsible for Daniel Craig's Casino Royale body. You owe Simon Waterson, moviegoer, even if you don't know it!

Which 33% of the semi-finalists do you think will call themselves Oscar Nominees come January's end?

Oscar Predictions -Visual Categories

Wednesday
Dec072011

The Tree of Link

Nicks Flick Picks looks at the cinematography of Todd Haynes masterwork Safe (1995).
Scene Stealers chooses the ten best cinematography jobs of the past decade, with The Tree of Life the only current film to place.
In Contention on Fox News freakout over The Muppets liberal agenda. 
Paper Mag has an enjoyable profile of Kristen Wiig and her superstar-making year 
Karine Vanasse ...will we see her again after Pan Am flies away? I find TV news difficult to follow so I'll admit total confusion when shows randomly show up on my DVR or move networks or whatnot but apparently this charming French Canadian actress says Pan Am has been cancelled and the network says it's just on hiatus? My point is that I watch the show and am totally in l'amour with her.

The Hollywood Reporter worries that the AMPAS demographic (which skews very male) may hurt The Help. Of course this argument supposes that only women would like The Help.
The Wrap though it's a rather unusual decision, given its history, this year's Vanguard Award at the Santa Barbara Film Festival is not going to a well known acting legend but to the two stars of The Artist Bérénice Bejo and Jean Dujardin. That's a major get for the Weinstein Co moving into the Oscars.
Forbes did one of those "return on investment" things to rank actors. Kristen Stewart is named the best deal with $55.83 earned for every $1 spent on her. Anne Hathaway comes in at #2 with $45.67 for every $1. Most of the list is composed of people in franchises so the numbers are quite skewed; Harry Potter is the star of Harry Potter and Twilight is the star of Twilight if you get me. Meryl Streep, who isn't exactly known for franchise appears, does make the list though with $13.54 earned for every $1 she's paid.

on embargos, social media and film critics in general
Carpet Bagger David Fincher on embargo breaking. He doesn't want any advance screenings and thinks the best film critics are moviegoers who text their friends (oy! the self-serving pomposity of some people. And I love Fincher)
AV Club Sign of the Apocalypse. Twitter-friendly seats in theaters as trend? Thousands of little glowing screens to distract you from the big one. Ugh.
Telegraph Kevin Spacey isn't having any of it. This is our favorite Kevin Spacey anything in like 12 years.

Top Ten o' the Day -David Denby
Speaking of embargos and film critics... Fast on the heels of the Dragon Tattoo ruckus, we have Denby's top ten list on which it does not appear. It's a mixture of lazy fandom (J Edgar? Ugh... seriously. I'm going to have to assume that critics who label this a top ten'er only saw 30 or 40 movies this year and even then, you'll have to make concessions.) and the highbrow like Certified Copy and the Tree of Life about which he begins, affectionately, this way...

Yes, I know, Terrence Malick’s movie is unbearably high-minded and humorless. But still! 

All in all an interesting list and suggests that for Denby, two types of entertainments are generally favored: intellectual puzzlers and popcorn entertainment for the masses (Source Code, Contagion and Rise of the Planet of the Apes all appear).