In 1992 my wife and I went out to a movie, our first since the birth of our first child Aurora. We were nervous about leaving the baby with a sitter, but knew that this had to happen at some point, so we took the plunge. Sherri had always gone to the movies with me, press screenings excepted of course, and I missed having her along with me. The film was Unforgiven (1992) and two hours later we emerged from the film looking at each other as though we had eaten something bad. Neither of us liked the film very much, and voiced this to each other all the way home. But then for the next week, I could not stop thinking about the movie, the little moments, the performances, the many layers of the deceptively simplistic screenplay that contained enormous depth. Eastwood’s superb performance, Hackman’s terrifying Little Bill, all weighed on my mind. Oddly enough, Sherri had also been thinking about the film so we decided to go and give it another try.
This time we emerged from the theatre knowing we had seen one of the greatest films of all time. Perhaps it was the thought of our new baby at home in the hands of another that impacted our first viewing of the picture, perhaps we needed a different type of film for that first night out, but whatever had happened, the second time the movie hit us as it should have the first time.
It happens. Life gets in the way, the mood is wrong, perhaps the film started late and ticked you off, there can be reasons for disliking a film beyond the film itself. Critics see a film and love it but by the end of the year begin to feel very differently about the film they had seen. God I remember seeing Gandhi (1982) for the first time and thinking it was a pretty decent film, but certainly not worth eight Academy Awards. Ironically those same Academy voters had egg on their face a year after honoring the film, because the picture had not aged well, one year out and now looked like, at best, an old fashioned movie. Earlier in my life, 1977, my brothers and I had gone to see Islands in the Stream (1977) and adored the movie and the performance of George C. Scott, but a few years later we all three managed ot watch the film together with our families on DVD and it did not hold up at all. Critics have been known to change their mind on films, famously in some cases. God, so many did an about face on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) once Pauline Kael had embraced the film, it was crazy reading re-writes of their reviews now praising a film that just a few months earlier they had condemned as being terrible. Are the critics who so celebrated Slumdog Millionaire (2008) still high on the film or do they realize that they awarded an old fashioned love story set in India a ridiculous number of Oscars?? Has anyone from the Academy ever sat down and watched The English Patient (1996) again after handing it nine Oscars?? That film, more than any winner pains me because it was so painful to watch and I never understood the adoration of the picture.
The Tree of Life.
The first time I saw the film I admired it, though admitted to struggling with some of it.
The second time I saw the film, I struggled more with it than ever before, read some other reviews praising the film and wondered why they were praising the very things I disliked about the film, and the third and most recent time I watched it, I was angry. Angry at being bamboozled by Terence Malick, angry at myself for being sucked into the thinking that the film is a work of art, angry that I did not catch the self indulgence and blatant disregard, almost contempt for his audience the first time through. Granted I am a child of the seventies and tend to be a worshiper of the greats of the seventies, thrilled that they are still working after all these years doing vital work. Malick was never one of the boys so to speak, and marches to his own drummer. But has he broken from the pack to the extent that he is no longer making films for an audience but rather just himself? If so that is not being an artist…that is masturbation. I struggled to write this because it could be said that I can no longer be trusted as a critic, my credibility is at stake here, but I felt that to be honest about how I felt about the film was to be fair to the readers, who would wonder why the film is not among my best of the year. Say what you will about me, I am honest.
My third viewing I found the picture tedious, torturous and at points I was bored out of my mind, which never happens with me and great films. I have seen Citizen Kane (1941) at least fifteen times and never grow tired watching the film, and The Godfather Part II (1974) I have seen easily twenty times and could watch it right now and not be bored. The films on my ten best list I could watch and not be bored with them, but if you asked me to watch The Tree of Life right now I may run screaming from the room. So what happened the first time I saw the film? Was I so impressed that Malick had broken boundaries with his story telling that I elevated the film in my mind?? Was I trying to hard to bring my love for the seventies artists to the readers and hoped Malick might be another from that wonderful decade they could discover? Did I want to like the film so much my critical eye was clouded?? In my original review I admit to being confounded by the film, and that should have been the warning for me, the point where I should have said, “John you really do not like this film” but it did not happen. There are admirable things in the film, much to like, including the Brad Pitt performance (very powerful), and the lovely Jessica Chastain who is often a tableaux of grief in the movie. The cinematography is quite striking, and I liked that Malick remembers that film is a visual medium, but then again this is not new to him. The Thin Red Line (1998) was a hugely visual film, a two hour plus visual poem if you will about war’s impact not only on mankind but the earth, the creatures who live here besides us!! His next film The New Land (2005) was even more visual, with its startling green forests, and stark snowy landscapes plunging us back in time to when the Americas were still new countries. Now, The New World (2005) I loved, and believe it to be one of the best films of the decade.
The Tree of Life…no. I wanted to like it, I really did!! Why make a movie that is a chore to watch? Malick is known to dislike the press, but has that dislike spilled over to his audiences as well (and they are not huge)? Does he have disdain for everyone watching moves that he can no longer just tell a story? Spielberg is a great storyteller, as is Scorsese. The late great Stanley Kubrick was an equally brilliant storyteller and could fill his films with deep intellect and challenging questions for his audience. Kubrick might have kept them at a distance, but he at least invited them in to watch the film. I admired a lot of The Tree of Life, but never felt like I was welcomed into the film, I never felt he was telling the audience a story, but rather talking to himself.
My friends have put this all down to having a great deal on my mind with my wife ill, but it’s not that. I thought one thing about a film, and changed my mind. It’s allowed. I remember seeing Grease (1978) and at that time I was heavy into foreign language films, so obviously Grease (1978) was silly. But I kept going back because it was fun, pure and simple, and to this day I enjoy the film. Had I not admitted that to myself, had I not possessed the courage to come out and say, I am wrong about Grease (1978) sure it isn’t art, but it’s a lot of fun, I would have deprived myself of a great deal of enjoyment. Yes I am going through a bad time at home, Sherri is with us for likely her last Christmas, and I do not know how I will wake up in a world where she does not exist, but that time is looming. At some point I am going to have to tell our youngest daughter she is going to lose her mom, and I am struggling with that, but these are life matters and life matters have never clouded my critical eye about cinema.
It is said that I wear my heart on my sleeve when I write about film, that I share a great of myself with readers, that I write from the heart, that I write with brutal honesty. I hope so, and I hope I can always be accused of doing so. And right from the heart I am telling you the first I saw Unforgiven (1992) I missed its artistry, its genius, and was man enough to go back and see it again and admit I had missed it. This year I was wrong, dead wrong about The Tree of Life, a film I initially thought was a great film. It’s not, it’s a self indulgent wreck of a movie with some interesting things in it but not enough for me to ever wish to see it again. And for someone who can watch great films over and over and over, that it one bold statement.