Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.

Lisa Quote #1
But I think in our long tradition of being a storytelling culture it's hard to enjoy something that SEEMS like it's going to have a narrative, and then doesn't really. I think people can "put up" with a lot cinematography- and editing-wise, but start messing with plotline and you're treading dangerous ground. Especially when it's set up like it's going to have a structural narrative. I mean, there are characters for heaven's sake.

This is partly what I was getting at with my "use narrative wrongly" assessment. I think that it is all over your last couple of posts. I'm not suggesting that you think that "there is only one way to use narrative," but that this seemed to be what you were wrestling with specifically and where you wanted the conversation to go. I may have failed to adequately address this, but that's what I was attempting.

Lisa Quote #2
Why don't we ask why it's so hard to understand? You can have the greatest most powerful most important message in the world, or be doing the most important thing in the world, but if you're not getting it out to all the people you want to get it out to, or they're not really getting it, what does that mean? (That was my only point about the poems.) If they can't truly understand it because of certain decisions that you made, did you accomplish what you were setting out to do? And if you don't care whether they did... why? If they are up for being challenged by a film but came out of it not quite sure what they were challenged about or what you meant for sure but they did know that it was beautiful and powerful in some way, is that fine? And a person can't say - you know, "I think everything being about the experience of the film itself is great, I was WITH him on that, but then why did he kind of set it up like it was going to be a narrative? That's a strange choice, I felt confused and duped by that." without everyone acting like they're stupid and telling them why they don't care about film enough. Why isn't that a valid question after seeing a movie like this?

Not only is it a valid question, it's a great question. I was gropingly trying to address this question with my references to The Waste Land and Picasso portraits and Beethoven symphonies. The symphony response was my attempt at showing how Malick is using narrative in a musical way rather than in a picture book sort of way. I'm convinced that the editing is the soul of this movie, NOT the cinematography and NOT the performances and NOT the "story," but ALL of those things as ARRANGED by the editing. Editing is probably always the most important part of filmmaking (my personal opinion). It becomes so to a greater degree when a film's reason for being is how its own images relate back to one another.

My references by association are weaker, but were intended to show that Malick is not making these choices to be difficult, but rather to be as clear as he possibly can be. I still do not understand The Waste Land. That doesn't make it any less of a poem or mean that Eliot hasn't accomplished exactly what he meant to. Ultimately, what I'm reacting against is the idea that we ought to know everything about something upon first contact (which I'm not saying is your position). If popular audiences watch Tree of Life or Lost Highway (and Lynch is one of the few other U.S. directors working at this same level of ambition, whether I like him or not) and grapple with understanding, then great. If they watch these films and wonder why they're not at all like an episode of CSI, then we've got a problem, and yes, I don't think those folks care about film or film history. Sorry. They don't. They're not stupid. I know lots of smart people who would hate Tree of Life. My friend Matt couldn't finish Ruben & Ed. I think that that film is brilliant. Is Matt stupid because he thought it was all pointless and and deliberately weird? Nope. Not stupid. He's still wrong. :)

Seriously, though, in order to address the question of "why so serious, Malick?," one has to start engaging the film on a structural level (which I'm just not prepared to do after one viewing, though my gut is telling me that it's worth the struggle of several more viewings). My experience with most people asking (turn on whiny voice) "Why's this so hard to understand?" is that they're not interested in actually exploring nuts and bolts. They don't really care about film as an artistic medium. They may love individual films. They may watch moving images every night. They may just want to get back to Wipeout (apologies to Tara). If one does not want to put in the work to deal with "challenging" films, then I will say that that person does not really care about Film. Any more than the person that reads a Dick Francis novel every week (as my one grandfather did) cares about Big 'L' Literature. AGAIN, I'll STRESS, THIS DOES NOT MAKE THEM STUPID.

And again, you always have to pick and choose. I'll probably never get around to watching Salo, though from all that I've heard, I'm sure that it's "challenging." I still haven't gotten around to watching much Fellini because the only thing that I've liked by him was his collaboration with Rossellini, The Flowers of St. Francis. I'm not into Antonioni. I still feel like I should be watching more films by these guys. The reason I don't is more a matter of time and interest, then that I don't want to be challenged. But, part of it is also that I don't want to be challenged all the time. That would get old fast. I agree with you about that. It's a lot easier at the end of the day to watch a couple of episodes of BSG than it is to deal with Fellini. And there's a place for BSG and I respect it and appreciatte it.

I understand why someone who has seen The Thin Red Line and The New World might articulate a profound dislike for Malick. I think that there are good reasons why someone wouldn't like Malick. I don't expect them to want to "waste their time" on Tree of Life. I feel this way about Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky. Both of these guys are well-loved and critically-respected, even by my fellow clubbers here. I don't care for them. I don't get excited about their new films. The only reason I keep giving them chances is because others, especially here, keep raving about them. And I think that it's good that I do. I don't want to watch only what's comfortable for me or only what I'm already inclined to like (Malick, for instance).

Lisa Quote #3
I'm not saying everything has to be accessible, I'm saying we should be able to talk about why it's not and what that means. And I am not saying he uses narrative "wrong," I would never say something like that. I'm saying that it's frustrating that a person can't even have this conversation with someone about a film because it was a certain director.

Sure. But! I think that we're *trying* to have this conversation.

Lisa Quote #4
When I said "people" I really did mean "people," not "you guys."

I think that we've all been talking past each other more than a little bit. Partially, at least, because we're trying to have a conversation on several different levels at once. Jeff and I have been trying to respond to Lisa, but we've also been trying to respond to the not-Lisa general audience that she has been arguing on behalf of, distinct from but related to her own position. We've also been defending the "critics" (or rather, maybe, the critical [fanboy?] mindset) that make/s her/them so angry, while trying to set ourselves slightly apart from that crowd as well.

Lisa Quote #5
But instead the conversation gets shut down because "Lots of people with more knowledge than I have are already pretty much agreed on the issue." Maybe... but The Tree of Life isn't as old as Beethoven's 9th and I'm not so sure that there is a consensus on this film. And anyway doesn't that defeat the purpose of this club?

Again, talking on different levels and obviously not being clear. I wasn't speaking of Malick specifically then. I was, in broad strokes, trying to address the "care about film history and care about serious films" business. Those who attack critics today often dismiss all of film history as irrelevant because it has been filtered through a critical apparatus. Somewhere in our archives is a friendly debate that Jason and Brandon and I had about it.

I found it.

Here's one response from me. You'll have to search through Sep '10 archives to find all sides of the conversation.


So, back to the above, I'm not saying that there is any sort of critical consensus of Malick or specifically Tree of Life that we should submit to. We're privileged to be in the time and place to be part of the conversation figuring this all out. Film is still a young art. Who knows who will be remembered 500 years from now? It might not at all be like what we think. If I was a betting man, though, I'd place my money on Malick as being a name that sticks. HE'S IMPORTANT!

Part of the fun of digging back in the past is re-evaluating "classics" and championing the pics that most have forgotten. I like Henry King's Westerns and think that they should get more attention. That doesn't mean that I think that something like Rashomon is less IMPORTANT. Rashomon is undoubtedly more important. Every film has its place. As far as I'm concerned, Tree of Life is, so far, the undisputed King of 2010 (with the obvious disclaimer that I've seen hardly any films from this year and am only going based on reading about other films and based on my opinion of the level of quality of films of the past decade or so).

Lisa Quote #6
But that doesn't mean I don't care about serious film! I know you guys don't really see value in watching these other kinds of movies, like American indies or documentaries, and that's okay, but I do see value in it, and I don't think there's One Right Way. I protest that idea, always. Just because I enjoy films for entertainment value and watch indies and an occasional romcom doesn't mean I don't also take film seriously and don't enjoy and care about Serious and Important films, you know? It's not mutually exclusive.

We're actually agreed on this, though we're coming at it from different angles. Yes, I was being "provocative" with the wine coolers bit. Here's a better personal example. My staple drink of choice is Yuengling Black & Tan. It's getting rarer and rarer that I buy more expensive craft beers. That's usually reserved for guests. Anyhow, I like the comfort and familiarity of Yuengling Black & Tan. Likewise, I'm usually more interested in watching a Randolph Scott Western or a Danny Kaye comedy than I am interested in watching the Next Big Art Film.

As far as the Indie thing goes, I'm sure that there's value there. Absolutely sure. It's just not my calling to wade through that specific muck to find the gems. The work-to-rewards ratio is a lot higher than I'd like. A lot of work. Few rewards. That's not to say that no one should be doing that work. I need a whole lot of someones to go to Sundance for me and come back and tell me how great Moon is. I value that.

To speak for Brandon and Jeff, though, I think that our interests are such that we want to go as broad and deep as we can, stretching back to the '30s (and earlier) while looking to the future. Being familiar with the past helps us safeguard against both art-house wankery and multiplex mind-dumps.

Lisa Quote #7
Based on your metaphor, I think it's possible that you don't take my opinions seriously because you don't care for the kinds of movies I've been watching lately. What can you do, right? I don't take my opinions seriously about anything, so there you have it

I've always liked the Chesterton quote (and its context in Orthodoxy) that I used to title this post. Even when I'm being serious, maybe especially when I'm being serious, I try to take myself lightly (which, as Chesterton would well know, is somehow paradoxically often easier for us heavier guys). The aside about wine coolers was honestly meant to reassure you that I do trust your opinion because you've proven that you know a "pilsener from a pale ale." Of course, I was making a light jab at Indie movies, but the use of "inexplicably" should have keyed you to the fact that I just don't understand the appeal, not that there is no appeal or that you're wrong. The whole point of that beer metaphor was that you were bringing a challenging and unique perspective to the Malick Winter Brew, not that your wine-cooler-swilling ways automatically disqualifies you from conversation.


You're right, though, it's us vs. you. Battle for survival. And you're going in the gorges, kiddo. Murdered dead. Can't write home to mama.

Then again, we're all hoping you'll mature and that things won't have to come to that. Maybe when you're 28.


Finally, Jeffrey....

You wrote:
"The anguish to me is there, but its a soft, elegaic anguish. If the characters whisper to God its because they’ve been defeated and are hoping that even with their last, lingering whimpers he might be able to hear them (on a side note, Malick’s last two films also featured whispering to things greater than the main characters). The film is an anguished, whimpering Prayer to God. The kind of prayer you have after crying and anger have gotten you nowhere."

First of all, great post. Growing that beard has really helped the clarity of your thought. You should probably go back and re-watch Midnight in Paris with a full beard.

Second of all, I've been thinking about the above a lot. I'm wondering if the point of the Job quote that begins it all is to indicate that what follows is a post-"Job chap. 38 being put in place by God"-attitude. We no longer see bitter anguish. We see prayerful resignation.

Then Job answered the LORD, and said,

I know that thou canst do every thing, and that no thought can be withholden from thee. Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not. Hear, I beseech thee, and I will speak: I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me. I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.


Okay, I've got to stop here. I've already killed too much time writing all of this. I woke up at 6:30. It's 10:30 now and I haven't gotten much done on my day off. I'll start something, then I keep coming back to this post. No more. Talk amongst yourselves now. I'm done for a while. At least until tonight. :)

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