Sunday, June 12, 2011

My problem with The Tree of Life

As I was watching The Tree of Life, the new film written and directed by Terrence Malick, I remembered something legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis told me when I interviewed him for my book about James Bridges. "The lack of definition in movies today is appalling," Willis said. "Very few people know how to mount a narrative anymore. If a scene works in one cut, you don't need ten. Or it might need ten; let's not make it twenty."

The Tree of Life is a case study of how not to follow Willis's tenets about cutting. In all of his recent films, and particularly in this one, Malick seems to subscribe to the idea that if a scene works in twenty cuts, it will work even better in fifty, rather than the other way around.

Terrence Malick and Gordon Willis began their film careers within one year of each other; Malick's debut, the short film Lanton Mills, was completed in 1969, while Willis's first feature, The End of the Road, was released in 1970. Theirs was an era in which long takes were prized, and editing within scenes was deeply connected to the visual rhythms established by the cinematographer and, more importantly, the emotional meanings established by the screenwriter. In an interview in Vincent LoBrutto's Selected Takes: Film Editors on Editing, the great editor Tom Rolf observed, "It's much more important to learn what not to cut.... You learn that the scene is playing, you don't have to justify your existence by making a cut; it works." (Coincidentally, Rolf edited the last film Willis shot before retiring, 1997's The Devil's Own, directed by Alan J. Pakula.)

Yet Malick has come to reject this approach, leaving behind the clarity and precision of the great films of the '70s -- including his own Badlands -- for an editing style that seems, frankly, chaotic. Rolf says not to cut when a scene is playing without one. But after 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. In this crucial way, the story (about a middle-class family in Texas in the 1950s) lacks any context at all, even though the film's admirers will point to the 2001-like context Malick tries to give it through the shots of the origins of life on Earth, etc., etc.

"[E]very cut interrupts the flow of storytelling," Otto Preminger said to Peter Bogdanovich. That was true for Preminger more than most. The great directors and editors know that those interruptions are often necessary, even essential. But most of the cuts in The Tree of Life are not necessary, let alone essential, and indeed they do interrupt our emotional involvement in the story.

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.

After the film was over, I overheard a number of audience members express their utter bewilderment at Malick's evasiveness -- there's no other word for it -- as a storyteller. To his credit, they were interested in his story, and hungry for more of it. They wanted more detail about the Brad Pitt character's frustrated musical ambitions, and less about dinosaurs and natural history.

One of my favorite films is Robert Mulligan's The Man in the Moon. Like The Tree of Life, it's set in the South in the '50s -- Louisiana instead of Texas. Like The Tree of Life, it depicts family life -- three (eventually four) sisters instead of three brothers. The character of the father is rather overbearing in both films. And tragedy strikes in both films, too. But the differences in style between The Man in the Moon and The Tree of Life are vast.

Mulligan respects Jenny Wingfield's brilliant, subtle screenplay much more than Malick seems to respect his own. (I hasten to add that I haven't read any of Malick's screenplays.) I say this because all of Mulligan's visual choices reinforce, rather than obscure, the point of a given scene.

Consider a scene late in the picture, after the tragedy of the film has occurred. The middle child, Dani (Reese Witherspoon), asks her mother, Abigail (Tess Harper), if she can skip going to church this Sunday and instead join her father (who always skips church and spends Sunday mornings fishing). The camera pans Dani into the living room, where Abigail is sitting down, holding Dani's newborn sister. She stops and asks her mother, who after a pause quietly says, "All right." Dani exits and the camera then moves in on Abigail. But the shot doesn't end on Abigail, as we think if might. Instead, the camera focuses on Dani, who we can see through a bank of windows behind Abigail. Abigail cranes her neck toward the windows as the camera moves beyond her and follows Dani through the windows, panning across them from left to right. When Dani gets in her father's pickup truck and she and her father leave, the camera again follows them, this time from right to left. The shot ends up back on Abigail, who after a pause, looks up. She is thinking of her eldest daughter, who is in her room upstairs. Like Dani, she, too, has been greatly affected by what has happened.

Well. This is an impeccably directed scene, and I can't see how its humanity would have been deepened if it had been filmed in ten shots rather than one. Or if the camera was swirling. Or if it was intercut with shots of outer space. The Man in the Moon proves that you don't have to show shots of the cosmos for a movie story to have cosmic significance.

An editor who worked with Mulligan, Sid Levin, said to me, "The rhythm and pacing of [Mulligan's] films are not of this time." Regrettably, the rhythm and pacing of The Tree of Life is very much of this time.