Thursday, January 26, 2012


At the risk of alienating however many readers we have left, I'd like to begin this final post at the same place I left off, with the creation sequence in The Tree of Life. I know, I know: Enough with Malick, already! I understand. But, please, give me a chance, because I think this story is worth sharing, and it might be appreciated more by the film's detractors than by its orgasmic fans.

I saw The Tree of Life at the theater four times last year. Not once did I see it on a particularly big screen, and in fact the theaters got smaller each time. The last time I saw it, in its final week before it left Washington, DC, The Tree of Life had been relegated to a theater with just three rows super-close to the screen and then two rows even closer than that. I sat in the back row, and in front of me sat a group of about eight people - coworkers for the most part, it seemed, plus one or two significant others.

Because the theater was so small, and because I was now very familiar with the movie, I inevitably glanced in the group's direction to see how they were responding. Once I did, it was hard to look away. From right to left, the gang of eight ran the gamut from enthralled to befuddled to disgruntled - or so I deduced by the frequency with which they shook their heads and the amount of the movie they endured before walking out. Four of them went the distance and lingered through the credits. Two of them nearly made it to the beach sequence before bailing. And the other two left about midway through the childhood sequence, with one of them pausing on the way out to whisper to the group's ringleader: "You're a cruel, cruel man."

To borrow a phrase I read on Twitter today, it would be tempting to typecast those "premature evacuators" as intellectual lightweights who want their cinema no more adventurous than a fast-food hamburger, and maybe they were. But whatever its inspiration, their nonstop fidgeting made it clear that those who didn't "feel" The Tree of Life weren't rejecting what was happening on screen so much as they didn't think anything was "happening" at all.

As someone who is deeply moved by Malick's intimate epic, their reaction confused me. Nothing happening? Why, in the creation scene, everything is happening! And yet at the same time, I understood. Because, the truth is, that night I didn't strongly feel The Tree of Life either, not even during the creation sequence.

The problem wasn't that I'd become desensitized to the movie's awe. The problem was that the awe was actually missing. Yes, technically, this was the same movie I'd seen the three times before, but there was one big difference: the volume wasn't cranked to 11. The sound wasn't so low that the uninitiated would have noticed; Sean Penn's mumbling was hard to hear, sure, but it's that way by design. But during the creation sequence, when the spindle of light appears and "Lacrimosa" is supposed to be blaring with the kind of volume that something as enormous as the creation of the universe demands, the theater walls didn't tremble, and thus my soul didn't either.

See, there's a reason that The Tree of Life's Blu-ray edition begins with a recommendation that you "play it loud," because, sure enough, that night, with the score perfectly audible but not colossal, my favorite scene didn't feel like a religious experience at all. Instead, it played like pretty pictures set to music. A vacation slideshow. A screensaver.

In that moment, I saw the movie the way its detractors do. I was on the outside looking in. And I hated it there.

I wish I could say that's the only time I felt that way in 2011, but of course it wasn't.

Sheila has beautifully described her powerful reaction to Melancholia, but as much as I was moved by the first half of the film - including that terrific scene with the paper hot-air balloons - and Kirsten Dunst's performance overall, there are parts of Melancholia that I felt thudded like a lead balloon, either at the time or after the fact.

For example, where the movie's fans see triumph, heroism and/or redemption in the movie's conclusion, when Dunst's character builds a fortress of sticks to "protect" her nephew from the oncoming cataclysm, I see nothing more than resignation and basic human decency, which is honest, sure, but not overwhelming. Meanwhile, as the months go by, I find I'm increasingly put off by the now relatively famous scene in which Dunst's character sprawls naked in the light of the doomsday planet. It's a beautiful image, no doubt, but it doesn't make sense to me: If Melancholia (the planet) is a symbol of depression itself, then there's nothing alluring (never mind arousing) about it. And if instead the planet is the deus ex machina that Dunst's character has been longing for, a deathly means to end her depression, that doesn't work for me either, because thoughts of "the end" provide relief for the depressed, not euphoria.

And then there's War Horse, which, according to my earlier anonymity exercise, Dennis thinks would benefit if freed from Spielbergian expectations, while I think it's been given the benefit of the doubt precisely because of the legend attached. War Horse is a fine movie, don't get me wrong, and I was sporadically moved by its emotions and imagery, in particular the first shot of the saddled horse sprinting through the forest after its rider has been gunned down, and the scene in which Spielberg tactfully hides the execution of two runaway soldiers with the passing sweep of a windmill.

But even setting aside the opening act that channels The Quiet Man and the closing sequence that channels Gone With the Wind, which make for some of the sloppiest emotionality in Spielberg's career (and that's saying something), I couldn't escape the feeling that Spielberg was committing the same mistake that The Help was (somewhat fairly, somewhat unfairly) lambasted for over the summer, because even amidst tragedy War Horse wants everyone to be having a good time.

It's fair to point out that Spielberg made War Horse as a family film, and thus the horrors of World War I needed to be mostly sterilized; I get that. But think of how powerful that scene with the British and German soldiers working together to free the horse from the wire would be if Spielberg had dared to convey the warring parties as distinct tribes, rather than presenting WWI like a minor disagreement among one sprawling European family that everyone knew would blow over with time and a few shootouts.

And, yeah, Jim, what about We Need to Talk About Kevin? I can't think of a single movie from 2011 that I found so penetrating and so silly in equal measure. I had the great fortune of seeing this movie "cold" (and if you don't know a thing about We Need to Talk About Kevin, skip the rest of this paragraph), and over the first 20 minutes it provided a thrilling experience, as the elliptical storytelling and Tilda Swinton's transfixing yet enigmatic performance invite us to puzzle out this broken woman's past and present trauma. As a portrait of parental guilt, regret and ultimately unbreakable love, this movie is profound. But the other half, with the crazed problem child who seems to be maliciously fucking with his mother's sanity before he's even out of diapers? It's a joke. And whether it's an intentional joke or not - I honestly can't tell - it cheapens what might otherwise be a cutting examination of parent-child dysfunction.

There are other movies that did well on critics' year-end best lists that failed to register with me. Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives seared some powerful images into my brain, but it never touched my soul. A Dangerous Method engrossed me as I was watching it, but by the time I was home from the theater the effect had worn off, never to return, and Jane Eyre, similarly, vanished from memory like a ghost. And so on.

But this is how moviegoing works. In the big picture, on the widest of screens, it's good to be on the outside every once in a while, because it makes coming inside feel so much better, like being invited into a friend's home where a fire is burning and chocolate chip cookies are baking in the oven on a cold winter day.

Although The Tree of Life was in my crosshairs in 2010, often it's the surprises that warm us most. Warrior was a surprise for me, and in a way Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was, too, because I never could have predicted how emotional I'd find it on second viewing. And so I wonder what I would have thought of, say, The Arist had I gotten to the movie before its Oscar campaign got to me. Expectations can be a bitch, you know.

I say that en route to Dennis' challenge: What movie out of the top 100 do I think deserves to be seen by a wider audience? Well, excluding documentaries, I'm going to go with a movie I name-dropped in one of my previous installments: Blackthorn, the retirement tale of Butch Cassidy. It's a feast for the eyes, includes the best chase sequence I saw all year and embraces its place in the shadow of 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid without sacrificing its own identity.

Despite its panoramic views, Blackthorn is a small picture, so whether it holds up to expectations, I don't know. But if you watch it, do me one favor, do the movie a favor and do yourself a favor: play it loud.


Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler and is a regular contributor to Slant Magazine's The House Next Door, coauthoring The Conversations series with Ed Howard. He's also a contributor to Press Play. Follow him on Twitter.


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Craig said...

I feel lucky that my first encounter with The Tree of Life was under optimum conditions, an absolutely perfect audio-visual experience. (Same with Drive, in the same theater, incidentally.) When I saw it again months later, streaming less than perfectly on Xfinity, I still loved the picture, but I'm glad that that wasn't my introduction to the film.

As we've all discussed in recent years, the moviegoing experience leaves much to be desired. A colleague at work and I often go to the same movie over the weekend, but not at the same time. He goes to a morning matinee, I go later in the afternoon, then Monday we swap notes. What's invariably the case is he doesn't have to deal with rude patrons (or any patrons) in the wee hours but frequently experiences technical malfunctions by the hungover staff; by the afternoon screening they've usually ironed out the kinks, but now you have to deal with the jerkoffs. I've previously shared with Dennis my story of the dude who began texting halfway into Meek's Cutoff. But there was also an older couple sitting behind me in the audience for The Descendants who flipped out every time Clooney's teenage daughter uttered the f-word. (Needless to say, they roared when Robert Forster punched Sid in the face.) I see that kind of behavior, and I hear about others angrily demanding their money back from Tree of Life or The Artist, and I think, Christ, people, don't you even bother to find out the bare minimum of what it is you're going to see? The rating, the content, who's saying fuck and who's doing it? While I would certainly expect compensation for a technical glitch during a screening, I would never ask for a refund because I thought the movie stank.

However, I am getting increasingly tempted to ask obnoxious fellow moviegoers for my money back, because they're the ones who are ruining the experience. And it's not just the young whippersnappers, either; more often than not, it's members of the older generation, the ones always blowing hot air about their own civility. Near the end of Moneyball, when a dejected Brad Pitt lies down on the baseball diamond after a playoff loss, an elderly gentleman behind me hollered with admirable concern whether Pitt was having a heart attack. ("Yes, call 9-1-1.") Another Grandpa Simpson talked loudly and freely all during War Horse ("Back then I wore an onion around my belt, which was the style at the time"), only in the case of that movie, between checking my watch and rolling my eyes, I didn't mind.

Speaking of the horsey set, I too have heard the curious claim elsewhere that Spielberg's sack of treacle would be universally admired if his name weren't attached to it, so I like what you, Jason, say about "it's been given the benefit of the doubt precisely because of the legend attached." I think you hedge your bet, though, in the very next sentence when you add out of nowhere that you think it's "a fine movie." To conclude: What?

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Craig, here's what I said:

"I wonder how much of the distaste for Spielberg’s movie, and consequently the reverence, or at least the heightened expectations for Malick’s, would be adjusted if audiences (or perhaps more to the point, critics) didn’t know going in who the director of each film was. I believe that if all context could be removed and War Horse could be viewed outside of one’s negative or positive notions of what Spielberg brings to the table— say, if it were presented as a lost wide-screen classic from the ‘50s— some of the resistance to its confidence as a piece of filmmaking might be eroded.

To my way of thinking anyway, "some of the resistance... might be eroded" is a long way from saying it would be "universally admired."

But I do think it's true that those who admire Spielberg (and I need to say that I'm no Armond White-- I feel like it's been a long time since he's made movies as good as War Horse and Tintin) and those who admire Malick might carry a certain set of expectations into the theater that could possibly be defused if Jason's never-gonna-happen-in-the-real-world proposal were to somehow come about. Like we've talked about, going into any movie cold is the ideal, but in this ADD-riddled, tidbit-oriented media atmosphere it's also a bit of a holy grail.

And speaking of never-gonna-happen-in-the-real-world proposals:

"I am getting increasingly tempted to ask obnoxious fellow moviegoers for my money back, because they're the ones who are ruining the experience."

Absolutely goddamn right. It'd almost be worth the risk of a fistfight to try this one out!

Craig said...

Dennis, just to clarify, because I know my original sentence was muddled: I was referring to other claims that I've read ("elsewhere") about Spielberg, which tie into this sense of victimization some of his die-hard fans (not any of you) trot out when defending him. Which I find a little strange. Your take was more nuanced; I was just using it as a springboard into the larger issue.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Craig. I was probably being oversensitive about it too! And I do know what you mean about that sense of "victimization." Sometimes I feel it myself regarding other filmmakers-- Not Spielberg, though. He's got compensation enough to salve the slings and arrows of folks like us! (That said, I will go to my grave evangelizing about 1941!)

Jason Bellamy said...

I think you hedge your bet, though, in the very next sentence when you add out of nowhere that you think it's "a fine movie." To conclude: What?

Yeah, I should have phrased that differently. What I meant wasn't so much that "War Horse is a fine movie," which is what I wrote, but something more along the lines of, "War Horse? It's fine."

And it is. It's nowhere close to great. And there were more excruciating moments than compelling ones. But I've seen much worse this year. Especially at the time I was writing it, I was trying to be cautious not to let my comments about the film turn into mere backlash, which tends to happen this time of year, in which faulty films get discussed as if they're faulty and nothing more. (For example, right now most of the conversations about Drive make it sound like either the best film ever made or the worst, and that irritates me.)

Bottom line, though, yeah, that's a sentence I wish I had back. So it goes ...