Thursday, May 19, 2011

When Film Critics Are Baffled by Art, and Originality, and "Life"

While reading about this year's Cannes Film Festival, and the violently diverse reception given to some of the new work on display, I reflected on the essays and reviews of one particular film:

"...(It) reached its initial audience slightly in advance of their expectations; acceptance of the film’s radical structure and revolutionary content was slower to come....  While seeing a new use of film, (critics) reacted with responses geared to conventionally shaped films...."

"...The most common complaint of early press reviews ...was its long length and slow pace...."

"...a “crashing bore...”

“...morally pretentious, intellectually obscure, and inordinately long...”

“...a thoroughly uninteresting failure and the most damning demonstration yet of (the Director's) inability to tell a story coherently and with a consistent point of view...”

“...trash masquerading as art....  monumentally unimaginative...the biggest amateur movie of them all...”

No, these are not the critics' comments about Terrence Malick's highly anticipated "Tree of Life", which prompted a round of "boos" along with a chorus of cheers and applause, after its premiere screening at Cannes.

Rather, these are from the original essays and reviews from 1968's "2001: A Space Odyssey", Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, to which "Tree of Life" has been compared.   Not only that, but these are from critics that I respect, and regard as mentors for my own film criticism; people like Joseph Morgenstern, Andrew Sarris,  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and even Pauline Kael.

Kael's dismissal of this ground-breaking work is especially surprising, given her championing of another classic that was highly misunderstood in its initial release: "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967).  Kael's defense of "Bonnie and Clyde" heralded a new openness to cinematic innovation and risk-taking from within the ranks of professional film critics.  She helped save the film from early obscurity, and defined a new way of considering cinematic art.

It is understandable that even astute movie reviewers and critics were lost, when the critera they used to define greatness proved ineffective when analyzing and evaluating a wholly original work like "2001".

Here is a film that entered the consciousness in unfamiliar ways; visually of course but not aroused a sense of ambiguity and awe, and was so well-controlled, that sensitive viewers were inspired. 

It unreeled on the screen like poetry on the page.  And, like poetry, it was impervious to a literal interpretation. 

And after the movie haunted viewers, and had a chance to settle; and as the implications of it began to come into focus, the resulting exhilaration---and repeat viewings---guaranteed its classic status.

Film poetry, done well, is rare.

That excitement of connecting to a film's ambiguity, to understand it first of all in your gut, and then later in your head, is an experience I live for at the movies. 

Altman's "Nashville" was like that for me.  And Bergman's "Persona".  David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive".  "The Red Balloon".  "Fellini Satyricon".  Terrence Malick's "Thin Red Line".  Most recently,  "Black Swan" and "Uncle Boonmee". And of course "2001."

I am not in the habit of "reviewing" a movie that I am anxious to see before it's even released. It's not fair to the film, and prevents me from going in with an open mind.  But wow, I am really excited about the release of "Tree of Life".

Let's just say that I am grateful that there's one film artist out there whose work will be unlike the typical plastic Hollywood output.  That there's at least the promise of a summer moviegoing experience that will stimulate the creative juices, and be concerned with matters of heart and mind first and foremost.  Directors like Terrence Malick, even when they fail, deserve support for their originality, wisdom and ambition, from movie-lovers like yours truly!

And, like "2001", there will be the bafflement of professional critics who are not moved by it, or whose criteria to define greatness are rooted in fantasy, or in action that is spelled out and explained...without those, they have nothing at which to Marvel...

I will come back to "Tree of Life" after I screen it in June.  I hope it proves to be half as exhilarating as my anticipation of it. If not...guess I'll have even more to write about, to understand why. 


  1. Beautiful post in defence of the art of cinema, and of course the boundaries of what is and isn't artistic endeavour in the form must be pushed and reformed with each generation of artists, be it Kubrick, Malick or Aronofsky, D. W. Griffiths or Hitchcock.

    I mention the second two because whilst they pushed artistic and narrative boundaries they never forget the prime aim of cinema is to entertain. Film, even art-house cinema, must ensure there are the right hooks so the audience arrive at the beginning and leave at the end, perplexed maybe, astounded hopefully. If the plan is to make a film suitable for display in an art gallery then fine, don't exhibit it at local cinemas.

    Of course like you I've yet to see The Tree of Life, but I've also yet to be persuaded to.

  2. Thanks Ben-- You list a fine example of masterful directors! Your comments are always thoughtful, and articulate.

    There ARE some who are are, in fact, entertained by what we find displayed in an art gallery. We find our "hooks" in different elements.

    A local cinema should run a gamut.

    It saddens me that the nearby 10-plex can devote 3 screens to pirates, 3 to Norse gods, 2 to hangovers, and 2 to 3-D animated retreads, but completely neglect a small but devoted group of cinephiles who want to be challenged, and nourished. Even if only for one week!

  3. I think there is often the misconception that art and entertainment in films are exclusive ideas. Instead, to me they are often synonymous. Great art films are entertaining. A few immediate examples come to mind: A Single Man, The Hours, The Graduate. I hope Tree of Life does both. That's what I'm expecting.

  4. I've accepted your challenge, Tom. Although after the brief possibility that Tree of Life might come out here before Cannes it now hasn't got a UK release date.

    I'm fairly lucky with my local cinema. 16 screens showing 18 different films. Sure the most showings are for Pirates and Thor, but there's also Win Win, The Way and Julia's Eyes all of which are limited releases over here. Indeed of the 28 films I've seen and reviewed this year only The Tempest and New York I Love you did not show there.

    Mark, I don't think art and entertainment are mutually exclusive, as you say the best films fall in both categories, however you cannot focus on one at the expence of the other and still expect a great film.

  5. Gosh, is it terrible that I've only ever seen 2001 once - and I hated it? I mean, I was about 10 years old, but still... I'm not positive I'll like it in my adulthood though. It definitely seems like one of those movies that's utterly bizarre for the sake of it. Should I in turn be worried about Tree of Life then??