This last weekend, I finally took the opportunity to see The Tree of Life. By this point, nearly everyone else with access to both a metropolitan movie theater and the Internet has already commented on this film. There are already numerous comprehensive, provocative pieces of criticism out there on the film, and in a future post, I may highlight a few of them. I just wanted to ruminate (or fulminate, perhaps) a bit on Malick’s editing style. One of the more intriguing criticisms I have read of the film was written by Peter Tonguette:
[A]fter I saw The Tree of Life, I remarked to a friend that the movie didn’t seem to contain any real scenes at all — only fragments of scenes. The film is a series of snapshots, and it’s hard to judge, exactly, what we’re missing in all of the cutting. […] At times, it felt like I was watching a 138-minute trailer for The Tree of Life. Steven Soderbergh’s 1999 crime film, The Limey, is rarely discussed this days, but there’s a daring sequence in which Peter Fonda’s character, Terry Valentine, is introduced by way of a series of shots of him borrowed from later in the picture. As Soderbergh described it, it’s supposed to be like a trailer for Terry Valentine. That was the point. But this sequence lasts for perhaps 20 seconds, not two hours and 18 minutes.
In his blog post, Tonguette compares The Tree of Life to The Man in the Moon, a Robert Mulligan film from 1991 that I have not seen, so I can’t, in good faith, comment on the accuracy of the comparison. I can only note that Tonguette frames the comparison in terms of the settings of both films (the 50s, though a nostalgic filter) and the editing styles, which he casts as classical, with sparing use of edits (Mulligan) versus chaotic and unnecessary (Malick). Irrespective of Man in the Moon, I think there’s something to this critique. I’ve commented elsewhere that I was not a fan of The New World — in particular, I disliked the editing, which I thought confused both the physical and emotional geography of the film. Portions of the film actually gave me a headache, purely from the visual assault. Mind you, I didn’t actively dislike the film; I simply disagreed with the chorus of acolytes that praised it for its visionary lyricism. It’s precisely the kind of film that I wished very much to like and admire, but on both a visceral and intellectual level, its jarring aesthetic approach was at odds with its presentation of an ascendant narrative.
This presents a problem of inconsistency, though. Tonguette cites Otto Preminger’s quote, “[E]very cut interrupts the flow of storytelling.” In essence, he casts the technique of quick, associative edits in a pejorative light, instead placing the more classical emphasis on staging and fewer, invisible cuts on a pedestal. This doesn’t quite sit well with me, either. One of the great contemporary filmmakers, Wong Kar-Wai, has built his entire style around free-form editing. Like Malick, he works from a screenplay he treats more as a scenario, improvising with his cast and crew, then “finding” the film in the editing room. Masterpieces like Happy Together and In the Mood for Love are the result. I have no hard data on hand that compares the shot lengths of Wong’s films to each other over time; similarly, I have no idea how long the shots are in The New World or The Tree of Life. Yet I have a far more positive impression of Wong’s films than of Malick’s post-sabbatical filmography. Why is that?
Before I address that, let me take the conversation a step further. The intersection of shot length and staging has taken more of a center stage in contemporary genre filmmaking. Christopher Nolan, Paul Greengrass, and especially Michael Bay have taken merciless drubbings from both critics and fans for their aesthetic approaches, particularly in the way they construct action scenes. I’ve done this myself. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was one of the worst theater-going experiences I’ve had in the last few years — again, due largely to the fact that I had a massive headache by the end of the film. I’ve asserted since its release that many of the action sequences were victims of outright incompetence. The latest Transformers film, Dark of the Moon, was subjected to similar treatment.
Ponder this quote from Armond White’s review of the film for the New York Press:
Transformers stubbornly remains a boy’s thing: IMAX-scale figures combining destruction and reconstruction. Bay rivals Sam Peckinpah’s compositional gifts, but the unexamined violence is offered as primal acts of mindless leisure.[…] Bay’s image of a skyscraper squeezed by a serpentine turbine is, frankly, a marvel. To watch the solid structure bend and fold over evokes the 9/11 WTC nightmare: pure Hollywood Capitalist defiance. It’s a Pop Art thing that shouldn’t be mistaken for a summer blockbuster thing. Bay’s fantasy of mankind’s upheaval is certainly about dynamism, yet not much else. […] Still, critics and fanboys should demand more—that he dig deeper. The smallest narrative link between Chicago’s decimation and a single character’s caring about it would make this sequence magnificent, not just spectacular.
Then consider this selection from Andrew O’Hehir’s review for Salon:
What makes “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” interesting, to the extent that something that’s so fundamentally idiotic and soul-deadening can also be “interesting,” is what you might call its aesthetic and ontological ambivalence. To put that in English, Bay doesn’t seem quite sure what kind of movie he’s making, or what the point of it is. With “Dark of the Moon,” he pushes the dumbass summer popcorn-movie formula to the max, and then pushes beyond that into an incoherent, purely symbolic realm that’s closer to experimental cinema than to Hollywood: sunsets and helicopters and vertical plunges through space and aircraft crashing to the ground and images of apocalyptic destruction and male bodies in motion and female bodies at rest (always as observers and objects, but never as subjects), all of it set to a throbbing score that never quite reaches the moment when it tries to sell you a beer or a pickup truck or pills to make your dick bigger.
I chose those two reviews for specific reasons. First, let’s contrast White’s comments on Dark of the Moon with his rapturous observation on its predecessor, Revenge of the Fallen:
Why waste spleen on Michael Bay? He’s a real visionary—perhaps mindless in some ways (he’s never bothered filming a good script), but Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is more proof he has a great eye for scale and a gift for visceral amazement. Bay’s ability to shoot spectacle makes the Ridley-Tony-Jake Scott family look like cavemen.[…] There’s still advertising porn in Bay’s soul, but it’s so expressive of the media norm that it’s funny—proof we’re watching nothing more than fantasy.
In his review of Transformers 3, White bends over backwards to draw a distinction between his praise of the first two films and his disappointment in the third, yet his distinction is based primarily on appeals to ideology and art history. Aesthetically, he grants Bay an “absolute visual wit,” so if he’s drawing distinctions, it’s not based in the raw craft of bodies in motion being captured by a camera. Frankly, I think his attempt to reconcile his dislike of the most recent film with his praise of the first two is specious. If Bay’s gift for consumerist spectacle was sufficient to bestow plaudits upon Transformers 2, why not Transformers 3? In Transformers 2, Bay trashed the freaking pyramids of Giza; I realize that the shadow of 9/11 hangs over the critical intelligentsia of New York, NY, but why is it okay to destroy the cultural artifacts of a far more ancient culture, but not okay to destroy the cultural artifacts of our current culture, just because the imagery may remind us of terrorist attacks? Why is the unfettered celebration of capitalist excess a legitimate artistic expression in one film but not in the other, even though it’s “pure Hollywood Capitalist defiance?”
The quote from O’Hehir’s review (probably my favorite of all the ones I’ve read on the film) also lampoons the ideological implications of the film. He was clearly amused by the film, but he doesn’t take it seriously as anything other than a totally un-self-aware parody of The Times We Live In. Yet he does spare some gracious prose on Bay’s acumen as a wrangler of state-of-the-art F/X razzle-dazzle:
“Dark of the Moon” uses the [3-D] format brilliantly, blending CGI elements, models and miniatures, and live action brilliantly into dynamic action scenes with tremendous depth of field and the feeling of vertiginous space. Once we stipulate that Bay’s action sequences have no respect for plot coherence or the physical laws of the universe or the fragility of the human body, we can say that they feel realistic. There’s a claustrophobic and terrifying scene involving hero Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) and his post-Megan girlfriend Carly (Huntington-Whiteley) and a bunch of other characters trying to stay alive in a collapsing Chicago skyscraper as it’s being munched by a worm-like Decepticon named Snowcone or Showboat or something that will leave you totally wrung out.
I bolded that particular phrase in the quote because it’s incredibly important to this discussion. O’Hehir subsequently mentions that a colleague of his invoked Luis Bunuel and Stan Brakhage in response to the film. That’s pretty heady company for a filmmaker who has made gazillions of dollars from stupid movies about giant alien robots blowing each other up. What’s important to glean from both of these critics is that they are willing to cede Bay a single, critical point: Transformers 3 does action well. What’s more, the action sequences in this film are done well even though they violate basic cinematic rules for coherence.
As it happens, I agree with them on that point. I enjoyed Transformers: Dark of the Moon a great deal. It was certainly a better film than its direct predecessor, and in terms of scope and straightforward spectacle, it even tops the first film. I didn’t see the film in 3-D, but as I mentioned in my previous post regarding Paul W. S. Anderson, I believe that shooting in 3-D forced Michael Bay to design his action sequences more carefully than he has in the past. His shot lengths are still small, though. And his sense of spatial geography is still, um, “elastic.” Hong Kong filmmaker Tsui Hark has contended for some time that it’s more important to heighten the audience’s engagement with a scene by employing all available techniques than it is to rely on time-tested methods of “invisible” construction. His cameras swoop, track, pan, whip, push, and tilt; his shot lengths vary dramatically, though he cuts quite a bit in some of his most celebrated action films. Similarly, Suzuki Seijun experimented with a highly fragmented film style in his generic gangster films, obliterating continuity by investing each discrete shot with the most “oomph,” tailoring each to whatever he felt would best emphasize the content.
Quite obviously, Bunuel and Brakhage are renowned for their avant-garde techniques. The upshot is that cinema has a long history of acclaimed filmmakers violating the boundaries of what constitutes “good” filmmaking in order to find new ways to engage the audience. It seems improbable to me that Bay sees himself as following the experimental tradition, and I sincerely doubt that he’s purposely fracturing mainstream narrative techniques for conceptually advanced reasons, a la Suzuki. However, it seems to me that even critics who deride his films agree to some extent that Bay has a knack for creating sequences that possess a certain grandeur and immediacy. He achieves this effect by utilizing fast cuts and distorting spatial/temporal continuity.
My question is, how is that different from what Terrence Malick does? Put another way (and perhaps more significantly), why is Malick considered to be a true “artist,” whereas Bay is, at best, a successful “hack?”
O’Hehir even (derisively) compares Bay to Malick in his review of Transformers 3, as if a director fussing over the projection specs for a film about giant alien robots merits less consideration than a director fussing over the projection specs for a film that aspires to be about the existence of God, grace, parent-child dynamics, life, the universe, and everything. Well, it may be true that the higher aspirations of one director are more praiseworthy than the other. But that’s a value judgment based upon the perception we have of the intended effect of each film. It’s true that Bay’s film is, above all, meant to be a summer diversion, whereas Malick’s film is meant to be a meditation on the human condition. Yet Bay (somewhat tangentially) deals with the theme of good vs. evil, of the choices made that define what a person stands for, and of the sacrifices made by people who place the ideal of freedom above the value of their own lives. Moreover, I think an argument could be made that the awe with which Bay treats his architecture, gadgets, and military personnel is comparable in a limited fashion to the awe with which Malick treats the natural world.
Before I give the wrong impression, I would like to be clear that I do find Malick’s aspirations to be more admirable than Bay’s. But even allowing that Bay’s films are sillier and less substantial than Malick’s, it seems to me that when people attack Bay, they marry the silliness of his ideas to the (supposed) inadequacy of his technique. When Bay chops an action sequence into a bunch of short shots from a multitude of angles, it’s called “incoherent;” when Malick chops an idyllic sequence into a bunch of short shots from a multitude of angles, it’s called “fragmented.” One term is pejorative; the other is not. Anyone with a modicum of education in cinema knows that the techniques employed by a filmmaker are inseparable from the ultimate impact of the film’s substance. The way Bay shoots an action scene is stylistically akin to the way Malick shoots a pair of boys wandering through a neighborhood. Yet the former is incoherent hackery, whereas the latter is stylistically ambitious.
Again I ask: why?
Critics are far from unanimous in praise of Malick’s latest film. Excepting the select few who deem it virtually flawless, the film is most frequently praised for its daring and ambition, even as critics admit that it is messy and idiosyncratic. Far from being an unqualified success, the allure of The Tree of Life is as much in its failure to live up to the bigness of its grand ideas as it is in the precious moments when it works its delicate magic. Yet the overall emphasis that I find when I read the copious amount of criticism that has already sprung up around this film is on how the film’s flaws just make it more interesting, or in how Malick’s failure to match his grandiose ambition only makes the film more worthwhile. I’m personally inclined to be sympathetic to this line of thought, but so little of it actually breaks down the methods Malick used in order to analyze what went wrong or right. Most of the criticism is still fundamentally conceptual, rather than technical. Take, for instance, Tom Shone’s jibe at the film’s ending, in context of the creation sequence:
[I]n addition to Malick’s tender, fretful evocation of childhood’s lost Eden, we get an actual, literal Eden: a history of the world in 25 chapters, complete with dinosaurs, lava flows and angelic choirs, plus a climax set, I think, in the afterlife, where the entire cast get to hold hands and gaze into one another’s eyes while walking across a white sandy beach suspiciously similar to the white sandy beach last used to represent the hereafter or sell sanitary napkins, or life insurance, depending on which channel you chance upon.
Hm. The endgame of Malick’s transcendental film is compared unfavorably to a generic advertising campaign. Contrast that to Transformers 3, which is almost literally a feature length product placement for a line of action figures. This is a conceptual criticism, but again, I think it illustrates my point: a conceptual value judgment informs the analysis, rather than analysis of technique informing judgment of aesthetic value. Great stylistic choices can elevate mundane material, giving shape, definition, and meaning. A scene of a man sitting alone in a room can either be the most boring thing you’ve ever seen, or it can be utterly electric. It’s possible — and possibly valid — to criticize a film for including a scene of a man sitting alone in a room, but the way in which that scene is filmed can make all the difference. (I have no doubt that Tony Scott could make a movie titled Man in Chair that would require you to imbibe seizure medication just to make it through a single viewing.) That technique, whatever it may be, could be entirely appropriate or entirely inappropriate; it may elevate or detract from the material. But an informed viewer will analyze it in context of both the film and its usage elsewhere.
Tonguette criticizes The Tree of Life for an overabundance of editing without establishing why frequent cuts are necessarily bad in and of themselves; he therefore not only slams Malick’s style, but the style of any/all filmmakers who employ similar techniques. By the same token, it seems disingenuous for critics to rhapsodize over Malick’s style in Tree of Life while mitigating its use elsewhere. In each of these cases, I think there is an unacknowledged bias. Biases are inevitable, and — as with virtually any cinematic technique — not “bad” in and of themselves. But if they form the basis for value judgments, it is important that these biases be both informed and qualified.
Once those biases are elucidated, though, there remains the problem of consistency. I give Tonguette credit for baldly attacking the film on purely technical merits, but I suspect that, if pressed, he would admit to enjoying at least one other film with comparable shot lengths and compositions. (If not, then kudos to him!) As I said earlier, I enjoyed Transformers 3; I would argue that it was technically more accomplished than the last film, but I will admit that there is not such a massive stylistic disparity that my utter enjoyment of one film makes sense in contrast to my utter disdain for the other. By the same token, Malick’s editing in both The New World and The Tree of Life is probably very similar. Why is it, then, that I am far more intrigued by the latter than the former? Am I more biased toward a film that so openly grapples with the Big Questions, as opposed to the film that grapples with big questions, but in a much more oblique manner? Am I simply more interested in certain questions than others? It’s certainly true that The New World is a far more conventional film than The Tree of Life, and I tend to be more kindly disposed toward films that strive to do something different or outright defy certain conventions (a la The Spirit). Maybe I’m automatically more inclined to gravitate toward a film with a problematic chunk air-dropped into its first third than a film that is simply messy in more mundane ways.
I don’t know what the answer is. It’s a problem worth wrestling with. It’s also worth bearing in mind that the kinds of assumptions that people make on the basis of theme, publicity campaigns, interviews with filmmakers, and the critical literature surrounding a film — or even a technique — all inform the biases brought to a viewing experience. My own fickleness might derive from the simple fact that I cannot possibly untangle all the facts, experiences, and theories I’ve absorbed over the years while I’m in the process of watching a film. The only way to be utterly consistent, I think, would be to establish a hard and fast set of aesthetic ideals to which every film must adhere. Personally, I find that a bit too draconian to be useful, even if I did someday acquire enough knowledge and wisdom in order to formulate a pretty reasonable unified theory of cinema. On the other hand, I’m also not willing to go as far as Brett McCracken recommends in “How to Watch a Malick Film:”
“This is not to say they shouldn’t be thought about, analyzed or deconstructed after the fact (because certainly his complicated films invite all manner of critical response and worthy engagement). It’s just to say that, in the midst of experiencing the films, it’s best to receive them with eyes and ears wide open rather than trying to figure them out in the moment. Heavily influenced by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (Malick studied philosophy at Harvard, Oxford and MIT before he made his first film), Malick wants his films to be experienced viscerally before they are understood cognitively.”
This approach is reasonable to a great extent. First, it’s far more pleasurable simply to enjoy a film rather than take it apart while you’re right in the middle of it. Second, putting on one’s Analyst hat during a film can build a barrier between the visceral experience and the viewer, which can have the negative effect of disengagement. But we live in a culture where people are encouraged not to think about what they’re watching while they’re watching it. “Switch your brain off,” they say. Refusing to think critically is stupid at best and dangerous at worst. I’ve found that, even if I’m not being resolutely analytical while watching a film, I can still actively engage with what’s in front of me. Most worthwhile filmmakers want me to. I don’t think McCracken is advocating that we not pay attention, but I think the line between being “receptive” and passively absorbing something is wobbly, thin, and crossed with far, far too much ease. This is another one of those sticky philosophical problems for which I have no answer, but the Bible is full of admonitions to be alert and proactive in one’s spiritual journey. “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1) and all that. I don’t mean that flippantly (even though there is some cheek to it). Michael Bay is not out to ponder with us the metaphysical secrets of the universe; Terrence Malick is. If we’re being invited to engage with a film on a spiritual level, shouldn’t we be particularly alert as we allow it to wash over us? I’m all for riding the waves, but sharks and jellyfish swim in the surf, too. Both Bay and Malick are filmmakers that want their films to be experienced “viscerally” (as opposed to intellectually, I guess?) only compounds the double standard to which critics have been holding each filmmaker. Sure, Bay chops his action sequences into dozens of shots, and it’s easy to lose track of what’s going on in all the freneticism, while Malick chops the heck out of… scenes of people wandering around giving each other baleful looks. There’s a difference in aesthetic intent, but even if each is appropriate to the different aims of each film, why should the formal similarity engender such disparate responses?
None of this is to say that Bay is a better filmmaker than Malick. I just think it’s fascinating that such an obvious parallel has gone unremarked for so long. While this post is not the place to start an in-depth side-by-side comparison between their two most recent films (since I’ve gone on at length already), it will serve as a sort of jumping off point for future considerations of the ways in which “art films” and “blockbuster films” are held to different standards, and what we, as viewers, can do to start appreciating them within a much more consistent — and hopefully consistent — framework. ☕