With a Shine on My Shoes

“If Mozart had written an opera set in poverty, it might have had this kind of painful beauty.” So wrote Pauline Kael of Vittorio De Sica’s 1946 “Shoeshine,” which has finally been released in a decent region one disc from Entertainment One (though purists will no doubt prefer the region two release from Masters of Cinema). But the film hasn’t aged well, particularly in comparison to the eternally modern work of Roberto Rossellini, and it’s hard from the vantage point of 2011 to know what Kael was responding to. It remains a watchable film, as I write in this week’s New York Times column, but its compromises, sentimentality and aggressive metaphors make it seem a much lesser film than, say, William Wellman’s “Wild Boys of the Road,” made thirteen years earlier.

Meanwhile, Raro Video has released “Adua and Her Friends,” an intriguing 1960 feature by Antonio Pietrangeli that’s almost impossible to pin down, shifting as it does between wry social observation and romantic comedy, before finally settling into a stunning pessimism that recalls film noir. On the basis of this and “Io la conoscevo bene” (1965), Pietrangeli clearly seems a filmmaker worthy of further investigation. He died in an accident during the making of “Come, quando, perché” in 1969, and the film was finished by the gifted Valerio Zurlini (“Girl with a Suitcase”), a director with a similarly porous sense of genre.

The elephant in the room is Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life,” and while I’m reluctant to initiate a new flame war, I guess I’ll man up and admit it didn’t alter my sense of Malick’s regrettable decline. Peter Tonguette has a fine piece at his blog that deals with what I would also identify as the film’s most problematic aspect — the frantic, dissociated editing that needlessly fractures the narrative and prevents the emotions (already rather generic) from taking root. But I suspect there are those who disagree . . .

192 comments to With a Shine on My Shoes

  • tom brueggemann

    Count me as someone else disappointed (devastated?) by how weak I felt The Tree of Life was, despite the warning signs from the Cannes reviews (which seemed quite schizophrenic).

    I love Days of Heaven, and have seen it more than any film in my life (most recently right after Tree) including three times in 70mm, so it’s not like I didn’t want to love it.

    But Dave hits on for me its greatest issue – its unsuccessful narrative, or maybe more accurately, its inability to integrate a narrative within a grander structural scheme. And that’s where is differs from Days, which, though at times elliptical, though it contains (on a smaller scale that Tree) a focus on nature and a grand design and fate (but also randomness), it does so within a more conventional arc, and one which for me integrates all the elements.

    The public seems to be agreeing – its grosses are decent for an art house film, but there are already signs of its limited appeal and quick fall off in existing theatres. The good thing is that he is already well under way with his next one (though it also remains without a distributor at this point).

  • Michael Giaccio

    I agree with Tonguette that The Tree of Life doesn’t have any real “scenes,” in the sense that everything flows into everything else, but that cuts against his other argument, that the movie is unnecessarily fragmented. I think flow, rather than fragmentation, is what Malick was after–the movie presents all of history (and pre-history) as one seamless continuum, and it presents its characters as inextricably woven into a greater natural (and supernatural) order. Everything is part of everything else.

    Traditional narrative structure relies upon gaps, breaks, and divisions, both between and within scenes; Malick’s shapelessness is a rejection of those tropes and an embrace of relentless continuity. If traditional narrative structure is designed to highlight some things as more important than others, the continuous stream of this movie seems to obliterate distinctions or hierarchies of any kind. It may seem monotonous or superficial, but its consistency has thematic weight: it suggests that nothing is more important than anything else, because everything is part of a greater cosmic order.

    What’s interesting is that Malick achieves this continuity through rapid-fire cutting, i.e. relentless discontinuity. In fact, the cutting doesn’t really register as such at all. It reads instead as a stylistic analog for Malick’s stream of consciousness, as if his thoughts were skipping ahead too quickly for his images to stay trapped in real time.

    That said, I’m not a huge fan of the movie, either. It seems to me that all this fancy footwork is in the service of very simple-minded ideas (the Manichean binary of nature vs. grace is silly and crude). The New Age group hug at the end comes dangerously close to self-parody, as do the pseudo-poetic voice-overs. The movie also loses a lot of steam after the first thirty minutes or so (somewhere in the vicinity of that phony-looking dinosaur parable), and it struck me overall as an interminable wisp. But I don’t really care for The Thin Red Line or the innumerable manifestations of The New World, either, so I’m probably not the right audience for this kind of thing. -Mike

  • Alex

    On the other hand there is Orson Welles’ famous remarked about Vittorio De Sica’s “Shoeshine,” “It was as if the camera disappeared, the screen disappeared. It was just life (unfolding in front of the audience).”

    Not that I disagree with the “Wild Boys of the Road” comparison, but then “Wild Boys of the Road” is a Wellman peak, while “Shoeshine’ is just De Sica’s first ascent onto that little plateau on which he (or is it DeSica-Zavattini) take the short, immortal trio from “Ladroni” to “Umberto D.” before flying back down to earth with Miraculo a Milano. Limited inventiveness in comparison with the three or four creative phases of Rossellini’s career, but closer to the sublime perhaps than any of Rossellini’ more variously masterly inventions. The fall from De Sica’s 1952 and 1962 places near the top of the BFI/S&S polls is marked, but “Ladoni” to “Umberto D” are forever — in part because they make failed struggles so noble and universal one fellow’s at the wrong end of a job queue and the other in a nation with crummy pensions –unworthy artistic material perhaps for some).

    Malick’s “Tree of Life” might be less evidence of a decline than a collapse, if the family drama where not almost extraordinary enough to keep its head above the windy metaphysical nonsense that book ends it.

    The editing of the family drama seems to me integral to a creative peak in poetic cinema, but we sure don’t have a film that meets the AFI’s narrative fiction criterion — and the metaphysical hysteria about nature versus spirituality (Dinosaurs and floating Moms) and final salvation (solar sets, eclipses and rises) is just about ruinous.

  • For me the status of Vittorio De Sica has grown. When I was young I dismissed him as sentimental, but now I value the true heart-breaking emotion that is there behind the conventions that were also a part of neorealism. Maybe Sciuscià is not De Sica’s best film, but I agree with Alex about Ladri di biciclette, Miracolo a Milano, and Umberto D. The cinematography is miraculous at least from Ladri di bicilette till Umberto D. They are displays of cinematography as illumination.

    An Antonio Pietrangeli tip: La visita!

  • Peter Henne

    De Sica and “Miracle in Milan” I’d like to get to another time. On Terrence Malick, I’m closer to Alex’s point of view. To begin with, I don’t think a filmmaker has to apologize for opting out of conventional plotting to gather together story material, just as Impressionism prioritizes interpretating shifting light over representing material objects. The general public made its truce with Impressionism before most people contributing to this site were born. Upbraiding Malick for deviating from the norm by loosening the narrative flow would resemble getting on Monet for not more exactly evoking the contours of Rouen Cathedral. In principle, at least; on the basis of only five films, Malick hasn’t earned parity with Monet. What I regard as the main body of “Tree of Life,” the section in the middle depicting the three children growing up, still conveys a story line, just as that cathedral’s appearance is unmistakably in the series of paintings. Malick wishes to concentrate on the crackling resonance of fleeting moments, and his film suggests that children incorporate these into stories about themselves. The film is clearly a looking back, a panegyric on growing up in an era, place and social class. I think we can determine this temporal framing by the tone of fondness for a period of time having passed in the middle section alone.

    I thought the middle section was lyrical and beautiful—not without awkwardness, and emotional simplification of an over-idealized mother. Malick almost confronts his idealizing in two shots, one of her as though lying in state in a picture-postcard, glass-encased coffin, the other of her levitating, an obvious nod to Tarkovsky. The second shot does not seem to have any point of view attached but Malick’s, as though he were observing he’s taken his mother worship too far, an unexpectedly wry moment in a solemn film.

    I went into the film having seen a segment on a fan site and wary the film might wield a whiplash rhythm, but it did not snap ahead too fast and there was enough quietness and reflection. But I didn’t care for the opening of the film with the family in the early ’70s (?) hearing the news of one son’s death, Sean Penn in the present, and the long stretch of “2001” stuff. These sections were disconnected to me and I must say they came off arty, downright clubbing with symbolism. The same goes for the coda at the end, though there were individual shots of the coda that I found achingly poetic.

    Righting this film seems straightforward to me. I would have liked the film to cut out everything before we start with the family in their house on the rural street, up to the coda which I’d also get rid of. It’s not Sean Penn’s fault—I have the impression he acted how he was directed–but I would take out his character entirely. I think all this trimming would make the film around 90 or 95 minutes and I’d be just fine with that. To me, every “message” of growth, death, forgiveness, and needing love in the early sections and end is implied in the family’s story, anyway, only restrained from breaking into lessons.

    I still wouldn’t put that revised, hour-and-a-half version of “Tree of Life” on a level with either of Malick’s last two features, where he reaches a peak of ambition and sure expression to me, but it would make a lovely film. So much in my view in “Tree of Life” feels that it sweeps along in a swift current of memory selected from childhood, such as kids bounding across a playground, even though there’s no strictly narrative tie to the shot. Yet their movement among themselves is so harmonized that probably any frame could have been designed for a painting.

  • From my perspective, Malick’s editing style denies the audience of a lot of the pleasures of movie storytelling, such as the introduction of a key character. Think of another “family drama”: Woody Allen’s INTERIORS. It’s an appropriate choice given that it was photographed by Gordon Willis, and I opened my piece on TREE OF LIFE with that quote by Willis.

    The best moment in INTERIORS is when the character of Pearl (played by the great Maureen Stapleton) is introduced. Pearl is the woman Arthur (E.G. Marshall) has started seeing after leaving his wife. She enters off-screen, and Allen and Ralph Rosenblum stay on shots of Arthur’s adult children and their spouses, as they regard Pearl standing in the doorway. When, a few seconds later, we cut to a medium shot of Pearl, in the red dress that Allen clearly selected to contrast with the palette of the rest of the film, it feels like there has been a kind of build-up to her entrance. The reaction shots of Diane Keaton and Mary Beth Hurt have prepared us for her entrance. The beautifully timed editing also further establishes character. Standing alone in a medium shot, Pearl is an outsider, though also the kindest, most redemptive character in the film; seen in reaction shots, the adult children are revealed as completely unlikeable and narrow-minded.

    In contrast to the carefully presented introduction of Pearl in INTERIORS, which both tells us who she is and what she is all about, the identities of several characters in TREE OF LIFE were, at best, unclear to me. I only knew that Fiona Shaw was the grandmother because of the end credits; after her first scene, I thought she was a neighbor or something. I think Malick has gone too far in abandoning context for his characters.

  • Peter, your account of the film is the most persuasive one I’ve read so far, along with Stewart Klawans’ review in The Nation (which unfortunately can’t be linked for nonsubscribers). The main observation I’d like to add here is how hilarious it is to find that many of the same reviewers who’ve been castigating Godard for narrative incoherence in Film Socialisme have been granting Malick a free pass for the same thing, more or less, apparently because they prefer his ideological and iconographic content (such as the “universalizing” of Americana that Stewart writes about, in which Norman Rockwell is the apparent key for unlocking the secrets of the universe). What’s also funny about this is that many reviewers who are livid about Godard also routinely assume that the usual crap they review every week is perfectly coherent, perhaps because they aren’t paying very close attention to it. Far from presenting himself as any sort of seer, Godard is simply inviting us to mingle with his material (hence the “Navajo subtitles”), using the same sort of poetic license that Malick’s fans are granting to him, not to assume that we need any esoteric code to unpack him. But I should also admit that for me part of the difference is temperamental: as a near-contemporary of Malick, I’m reminded of my own southern childhood by The Tree of Life in ways that I find both unpleasant and unedifying.

  • Johan Andreasson

    I agree with Alex and Antti that BICYCLE THIEVES and UMBERTO D are really good movies (and yes, they seem better to me now than when I first saw them and expected something with more of an edge), and I also like MIRACLE IN MILAN.

    However, the movies mentioned in this weeks NY Times column I have the fondest memories of are DIVORCE, ITALIAN STYLE and BIG DEAL ON MADONNA STREET.

    DIVORCE was the first Italian film I ever saw, and at the time I thought it was also the funniest film I’d ever seen. Sort of reminded me of KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS but with an even nastier sense of humor.

    BIG DEAL is apparently a favorite of actor Erland Josephson. I saw him introduce it at a series where actors picked films that had meant a lot to them. Josephson is a very eloquent and funny man, and the film was equally entertaining. An evening well spent.

  • Stephen Bowie

    Malick did his best work in the 80s.

    Sorry, that was beyond cheap … but before Terry takes over let me just express my delight that Dave found some space for the much-neglected Pietrangeli. I love both of the films he mentions in the column as well as one Pietrangeli made in between, LA VISITA (1963, with Sandra Milo and the great Francois Perier), which is available as an English-subtitled Italian DVD. In all of them Pietrangeli observes his characters and his milieu with accuracy and detail, and the performances are all very direct and moving. I wish I could see more (or recall those three in enough detail to write about them more persuasively).

  • Tough crowd. I will try to make a case for TREE OF LIFE. First, I think it’s central philosophical theme, that there is a “way of nature” and a “way of grace”, is complicated by Malick. This split is told to the children by their mother, and is her philosophical viewpoint. I think the film problematizes this formulation throughout, and posits that it is impossible to choose one of these paths. Despite her “grace”, the mother cannot avoid her son’s death or the suffering of others in her community (the homeless people she gives water to). Second, the “beginning of the universe” sequence is preceded by her Job-like entreaty to God, “what do you want with us?” [paraphrase]. The beginning of the world is presented in the scientifically accepted manner, from the big bang onward. The images here are clearly both nature and grace – beauty created by the harsh impassivity of nature. It is impossible to have one without the other, and to split them off is hopelessly naïve, as the mother learns in the opening scenes. But it is her yearning for pure beauty that is so admirable and angelic, however inevitable her disillusionment.

    So I think the themes are more nuanced than it’s being given credit for. As for the “impressionistic” editing, this is true, and, I suppose, a matter of taste. Malick clearly finds his rhythm in the editing, and there is no overarching visual structure, aside from a profusion of low-angle shots in the “modern day” sections, and a penchant for setting the camera low to the ground in the flashback sections, to ape the childrens’ POV. What really struck me, though, is the attempt to connect the mundane and the universal. Tom Gunning wrote about this eloquently on his Facebook page (after comparing it to Intolerance):

    “[it makes]the leap from metaphysics to the sensual details of a almost Proustian (but totally American) sense of sense memory, from dinosaurs to window curtains. Hard to make it and I miss the step a couple times, but breath-taking nonetheless. Like Griffith’s sense of envisioning the apocalypse as well as Mae Marsh’s finger tips. And cutting them together. I confess I had real problems with the coda of the film, but, then, the descent of the angels at the end of Intolerance bothers me too. Films like this exceed taste.”

    It’s a film that walks the line between the ridiculous and the sublime with such brazen disregard for either that I found it rapturous rather than kitsch. But I certainly understand how one could come to the latter conclusion. And, unlike Gunning, I was even taken with the beach-front spirit party, especially with the insert of Brad Pitt’s aged hand, which laces this hysterically sentimental vision with the reality of mortality. The reality that this vision lies only in Sean Penn’s (and Malick’s) addled brain, and his aging Dad will soon be on the phone to bitch at him some more. It’s a moment, again, where Malick conjures an image that he yearns for but knows to be false, but is all the more precious because of it.

  • Nice point about Godard vs Malick in the press, Jonathan. It’s like, which page of the paper did you read — the one on which Godard is a fraud, or the one on which Malick is a visionary? The 50s section is full of the little production-designer shocks of recognition (thanks to the great Jack Fisk) that will work on anyone of a certain generation, yet the stern dad/nice mom opposition has a kind of standard issue, one-size-fits all quality that suggests a storefront psychic reading more than a genuinely penetrating artist’s vision.

    Peter, I think most of the folks here are able to appreciate fractured and suppressed narratives. The problem with “Tree of Life” is that the fracturing and suppression acts as a needless diversion from the drama — why should I have to expend so much intellectual energy trying to figure out who Fiona Shaw is playing when the film (to say the least) seems to have a lot more on its mind that posing narrative puzzles. Your own confusion about the “early 70s(?)” sequence is a good example of that. My guess, from the Charles Eamsian decor, is that the setting is the early 60s and old man Brad has somehow hit the jackpot with the mysterious “patents” that are mentioned in passing, but isn’t it kind of a pointless distraction to have to be thinking about that? In the case of “Tree of Life” the missing exposition just seems like an empty gesture toward “being modern” (like the pointlessly scrambled time line in Claire Denis’s otherwise accomplished “White Material”) that flattered the artist without deepening the art.

    Of course, past experience suggests that this is only the first of myriad versions of “Tree of Life.” I’ve heard, for example, that there was a whole third act centered on the failure of the Sean Penn character’s marriage which was dropped from this cut. Should we reserve judgment until the four hour Blu-ray comes out?

    True visionary that he is, Robert Zemeckis already skewered the trite, New Age imagery of the “everyone goes to non-denominational heaven” finale with the climax of “Contact” in 1997, where that grandiose, metaphysical beach turns out to be the ordinary Oedipal dream imagery of an unhappy woman.

    I’m eager to read Stuart’s review.

  • Thanks, Jonathan – I thought Klawans’s review was superb, too. Having spent three years writing a book about James Bridges, Bridges’s film about small-town Southern life in the ’50s – SEPTEMBER 30, 1955 – was also fresh in my mind, and TREE OF LIFE suffered by comparison.

    Dave, you mention Jack Fisk, who is surely a genius. A number of critics have lauded Fisk, which is great, but I thought that the editing rhythms thoroughly disguised most of Fisk’s work. I certainly have a much poorer sense of the film’s locations and sets than I do those in, for example, DAYS OF HEAVEN. “Pointlessly scrambled” is not just a good description of the film’s timeline, but also its aesthetic. I actually laughed to myself when I saw the shot (perhaps it was two shots?) of Pitt in a courtroom, late in the film, without any dialogue or context. I’m sure that Fisk found the perfect courtroom location; his efforts seem rather wasted in the final decision about how to present the “scene.”

    Robert, you describe well Malick’s intentions with the low-angle shots that proliferate the 1950s scenes – in my recollection of the film, the majority of them are close-ups, very tight, sometimes purposely (?) ill-framed close-ups. I agree the idea is to give a sense of a child’s eye view of the world. But I think this was at the total expense of a directorial vision. I don’t think there is one shot in the film comparable to the one I describe in THE MAN IN THE MOON in my piece, one in which the camera is moved by the director-as-storyteller, regarding the scene from an “outside” perspective, if that makes sense.

  • Sorry for misspelling Stuart’s name! I must have been in one of my late-night funks at the time.

  • Peter Henne

    Peter Tonguette, I still feel you are in the same position as Monet’s academic critics: “Paint for me a cathedral that I can recognize all the architectural elements in. Prove your articulation, and don’t let the careful measuring and play of components of the building escape you, for there lays the building we know and love. Paint it beautiful as you see fit, but allow me to notice and enjoy what brings the building together.” This critic is focused on carefully representing the relationships and unity of the subject matter, which were traditional prescriptions. But that’s not really what Monet delivered or what he is appreciated for. While this distinctive building emerges, Monet was at least as interested in light effects glinting off of the cathedral at particular times of day, much of which obscured a full appreciation from the ground of the building’s finer points. Of course, I’m not speaking against those traditional values. I’m merely asserting that Impressionism can co-exist with them and that it offers fine and much-loved art which needs to be judged on its own terms.

    Similarly, Malick is interested in achieving an overall effect rather than pinpointed, narrative clarity. I don’t think it matters if we can’t identify the woman as a grandmother; moreover, there are plenty of moments in conventional films that allow a minor character with a speaking part to pass through without tying down hardly anything about their relations to others. I wouldn’t dwell on it; I wonder if Malick had originally made her a character with a more important part (thus originally had a family standing for her), then later in the editing stage decided to make her a flitting presence. There is another moment in “Tree of Life” where an unidentified, elderly man, addressing the camera and one of the boys (we don’t know which one), says, “See you in five years.” This is deliberately kind of a loony moment—wouldn’t you crack up later as a kid if an adult said that to you on parting?—and I think it casts some humor toward the grandmother’s cursory appearance.

    Jonathan Rosenbaum, Not everyone who likes “Tree of Life” is digging in on “Histoire(s) du Cinema.” It seems a little false to set up guilt by association. I’ve expressed my avid appreciation for HdC on this blog and a_film_by many times now. I’ll let my published reviews, LACMA program notes I was commissioned to write for the museum’s Godard retrospective, and scores of citations speak for my commitments to the director. Also, Jonathan, when you replied to “Peter,” it was hard to tell at first whether you meant Tonguette or myself. In these cases, when two or more contributors on a thread have the same first name (here in consecutive posts, no less), usually we distinguish them by adding the first initial of the last name to make an identification: e.g., “Peter T” or “Peter H”.

    Dave K, You’re right, I was confused about the time setting for this brief scene when the parents get the news. Since we find out the boy was 19, I was trying to get the date by the time the main story started. Using that method, I’m not sure early ’60s hits it right, either, and going on the style of the street, the house and its interior perhaps it could be any time over a nearly 10-year stretch. That style of architecture and interior design continued to be popular into the early ’70s.

    Dave, you might notice that this event happened in one of the sections I would cut out because it was “disconnected.” So I agree with you to that extent. But my last post emphasized that it is the middle section of the film I value.

    Sorry for misspelling “interpreting” in my last post.

  • Peter T., I think the incredible skill of Robert Mulligan is irrelevant to discussing TREE OF LIFE. Mulligan is using a different visual language than Malick, and they shouldn’t be judged by the same criterion. This would be like demeaning FILM SOCIALISME because it is not A TALKING PICTURE. They engage with similar ideas, but use a radically different form (like Peter H., I admire both SOCIALISME and TREE OF LIFE). Slag TREE OF LIFE all you want, but it should be done on its own terms (which is more “inside” than “outside”, using your terms) which I’m sure you could do eloquently (and which Dave K. did against the NEW WORLDers a few years back).

    Also, the courtroom scene that you indicate is shown “without context” I thought to clearly indicate Brad Pitt’s character losing the rights to his patents, which he had been so proud of earlier. I think most of the narrative material is explicable.

  • Alex

    Didn’t mean to imply that de Sica is a total waste outside the ‘Sciuscià’ – Miracolo stretch. “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis” is very good, as is “The Children are Watching Us.” I don’t much like the comedies. Much prefer Germi’s SEDUCED AND ABANDONED to DIVORCE ITALIAN STYLE.

    My case for THE TREE OF LIFE is that it is a poetic, not a narrative, film — specifically a mix of what Bordwell terms the associative film and a formal. as a poetic film I think the nature- and-grace and salvation-though- grace sections that bookend the family memoir are visually as well as spiritually trite, especially the last reverie.

    As a narrative film, Malick’s editing style indeed certainly “denies the audience of a lot of the pleasures of movie storytelling, such as the introduction of a key character.” The editing is perhaps too dependent on the point of view (POV) of particular characters (indeed, on a distant present as evoked in memories) to do good dramatic work even though evocative dramatic undercurrents do emerge. Whether a case could be made for the material in quasi- narrative terms — say that it’s as effective in its own way as “To the Lighthouse” only we’re still pre “Lighthouse” cinematographically, or that there’s a family narrative as coherent as that of Tarkovsky’s THE MIRROR— but I don’t think so, not for the film as a whole.

    My defense would be that, as poetry, great stretches such as we get with Jack and his parents, don’t have to cumulate in narrative terms AND CAN EVEN BE ENJOYED IN ISOLATION FROM OTHER, FAILED STRETCHES. This is the way I’ve enjoyed nearly all off the much Ezra Pound I love. However, this doesn’t really sit comfortably with me. I’m not used to a film that’s 35-40 as a digressive and windy as part “1” and “3,” “3” most especially. For Christian spirituality there’s plenty of sublime film from Dreyer, Tarkovsky, Olmi and Bresson. So for me what’s great in THE TREE OF LIFE boils down to one big stretch that doesn’t much work as narrative or drama. But perhaps one might say of the family vibrations, as Ezra said of Love, “Where memory liveth, it takes its state, formed like a diafan from light on shade…Cometh from a seem form which being understood taketh locus…Go song, surely thou mayest whether it please thee… for so art thou ornate that thy reasons shall be praised by they understanders, with others hast thou no will to make company.”

    Helluva way, though, to spend invester’s money or fool the mall crowd.

  • Peter H., I actually liked the bit with the unidentified elderly man looking right into the lens and saying, “See you in five years.” It is loony, and interesting. But if I had to bet, I would say that it was written and conceived as a “moment.” Whereas the Fiona Shaw scenes seem obviously edited down from something more substantial. This is where Malick’s casting gives him away, alas. It seems unlikely that an actress of Shaw’s caliber would have been cast in what amounts to a cameo, even though that’s what it ended up being. It’s a little like when Claire Bloom was listed on the poster of Woody Allen’s MIGHTY APHRODITE, and I think she has about a minute of screen time.

    Robert, I contrast Mulligan with Malick because I find one style to represent everything I love about movies, and the other to be rather infuriating, as deployed by Malick. But let’s not forget: it’s a new style for Malick. I would say that his films of the seventies were in a mode closer to the Mulligan school. Think of that extraordinary pair of shots in DAYS OF HEAVEN, when Linda’s friend is leaving. There’s that wonderful dialogue (“I don’t want you to do anything wrong, if you do anything wrong I’ll come back and get you,” etc.), better than any of the narration in TREE OF LIFE. As she walks and then runs toward the train, the camera tracks laterally with her, Linda following behind several paces. This is, for sure, “outside” rather than “inside” film style. Then there’s that magical cut to a close-up of Linda. I’m sure everyone here knows the scene well.

    I sort of shudder to think of how Malick would film it today. I guess the question is, was there something lacking in his earlier style? Would this scene be better if it was done with the Steadicam, with the camera in the actors’ faces, and three or four interchangeable cuts instead of a single breathtaking cut?

  • jean-pierre coursodon

    In his brilliantly undecided piece Stuart Klawans describes THE TREE OF LIFE as “a psalm or prayer,” then as “a sermon about finding reconciliation within a world filled with suffering,” then later again as “a head-trip theodicy movie,” adding that the film is also “a work of universalizing Americana.” Then, before closing, he bundles all the above categorizations into one. The last paragraph ultimately finds the film “at once deeply, dismayingly conventional and thrillingly visionary.” I have always preferred this “on one hand-on the other hand” kind of criticism to delirious raves or all out pans. I haven’t seen TREE OF LIFE yet but Klawans’ remark that the film has moments “that could make the most stringent atheist burst into tears or gasp with wonder” definitely makes me curious to see it.

    By the way, in February The Nation published a nice review of Jonathan’s latest book, which I purchased together with Dave Kehr’s and have been perused both with relish.

  • Alex

    Comparing Tree of Life” and “Histoire(s) du Cinema” just because they’re both non-narrative overlooks the fact that very, very many more review readers and mall viewers are likely respond to “a sermon” and lots of “universalizing Americana” than to poeticized essays and essay-like poems from an esoteric qausi-Marxist cultural and economic critic.

  • “I sort of shudder to think of how Malick would film it ["Days of Heaven"] today.”

    Maybe he adapted his style to the material.

    Did anyone see Malick’s adaptation of “Sansho the Bailiff”?

  • My apologies, Peter H., for not clarifying which Peter’s remarks about Malick I was referring to. But you should also recognize that I didn’t even mention Histoire(s) du Cinema, and I don’t even consider the mainstream reviews of that videos series (I can’t recall seeing many of these) a relevant comparison to the mainstream reviews of Malick’s feature. In fact, I was mainly thinking of the difference between Roger Ebert’s one-star review of Film Socialisme and his four-star review of The Tree of Life, although I’m sure other examples of the same double standard in the mainstream press could be cited.

  • ” I was mainly thinking of the difference between Roger Ebert’s one-star review of Film Socialisme and his four-star review of The Tree of Life,”

    The titles alone are ideologically charged, and it seems me to that the mainstream reviewers are by ideological inclination more favorably disposed to a movie called “The Tree of Life” than they are to a movie called “Film Socialisme,” especially in the US.

  • Peter Henne

    Sorry for that confusion, Jonathan. I’m not sure where I got off talking about “Histoire(s),” and I wait with baited breath to see “Film Socialisme.” Unfortunately I wasn’t able to catch it May 26 at UCLA here in Los Angeles. It only took, what, a year for a U.S. distributor to release it? The Lorber Films site does not provide a clue about booking cities after New York.

  • D R

    Petet T wrote: “I guess the question is, was there something lacking in his earlier style?”

    Another question…isn’t it acceptable, expected, and often rewarding when an artist changes over time?

    But then, if styles must be privileged rigidly one over another, and if all must flow forth without break from the mighty spring of classical style, certain directors will be knocked off various lists before opening credits roll. In this Steadicam-less universe, a comparison of Malick and Mulligan (“everything I love about movies”) makes some shred of sense, I guess.

    Beyond that, a lot of sympathy in these parts for poor Fiona Shaw. But surely she knew the score with Malick. None of his productions–not Badlands, nor Days of Heaven–have been what one might call usual.

  • D R, yes it is acceptable, expected, and often rewarding when an artist changes over time. I just don’t think the changes in Malick’s style have been for the better.

  • Scott

    I’m pretty agnostic on “The Tree of Life”. I don’t think it’s the masterpiece some are saying it is, but I did admire parts of it a great deal. My first reaction was that I liked it a LOT more than “The New World”, which I found beautiful, but hollow and misdirected; a colonial postcard. I flat-out loved the first hour or so of “Tree”, which struck me as genuinely thrilling and adventurous. It was like a big, epic poem, whose subject is nothing less than the birth of the world; or an abstract collage of chaos and creation.

    But, alas, it couldn’t last. There are lovely, evocative moments in the family stuff (often due to the acting — “Tree” is perhaps Malick’s most strongly acted film, despite the performers not having a whole lot to work with; Brad Pitt has never been better and the children, particularly Hunter McCracken, are incredibly natural, soulful presences), but much of it also seemed problematic to me, and I think Dave really articulated what I found false about it. Frankly, I didn’t find the material distinctive or individualized enough to justify Malick’s allusive, free-associative approach. The images, the family dynamics, etc. often seemed archetypal, rather than personal — so that, for me, the flashes of recognition (there are some exquisite, affecting moments) came more from familiarity with certain tropes than from the deep, unconscious resonance Malick appeared to be aiming for with his style.

    A filmmaker I keep thinking about in relation to “Tree” is Terence Davies. I’ve been contemplating how Davies successfully does a lot of the same things that feel slightly fussy and forced in the Malick. In “Distant Voices, Still Lives” and “The Long Day Closes”, we have the archetypal brutal father and saintly mother. Davies also eschews narrative linearity in favor of a sort of cinematic stream-of-consciousness. And he doesn’t always go out of his way to establish characters either (for instance, in “Long Day”, I remember not being sure whether a character was the protagonist’s sister or one of his brother’s girlfriends). But, in Davies, that approach feels very authentic. He’s more reflective about the way involuntary memory works, which gives his films a kind of emotional coherence that “Tree” occasionally lacks. Indeed, what Davies accomplishes seems to me even more remarkable, in that he turns the quotidian into something transcendent, by virtue of his technique and precision (and not by invoking the cosmos!).

    Anyway, sorry for being so vague and abstruse. I’m still working out my thoughts on the film, and sort of just throwing stuff out there! A film like this deserves a second viewing, so I’d like to see it again at some point.

  • Brad Stevens

    “I was mainly thinking of the difference between Roger Ebert’s one-star review of Film Socialisme and his four-star review of The Tree of Life, although I’m sure other examples of the same double standard in the mainstream press could be cited.”

    Coincidentally, both these films are going be released theatrically in the UK on the same day (July 8th), so it will be interesting to see if British critics make any connections between them. I haven’t yet seen the Malick, but I regard the Godard (which I reviewed for SIGHT & SOUND)as a masterpiece.

  • Alex

    Brad Stevens.

    Would you agree that Malick “turns the quotidian” –or at least the worldly– “into something transcendent, by virtue of his technique and precision (and not by invoking the cosmos!)” in all his films preceding TOL?

    (For me this evocation of the cosmos, right onto stage center, is he source of any decline in Malick’s work and really only begins with Witt’s reveries in THIN RED LINE, only gets way out of hand with TOL).

  • ‘The Tree of Life’ made the cover of the new June issue of Cahiers. Stéphane Delorme from it’s editorial: “But what impresses the most, is its astounding mise en scène … a New Age trip à la ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ … discrediting ‘The Tree of Life’ in talking about kitsch, is to pass over in silence the project’s aesthetic singularity.”

    When the ‘The Tree of Life’ played for the staff at the Lightbox in Toronto it had the largest turn out of all of the staff screenings, over 60 people showed up to see it. The ushers were the ones that were blown away!

  • Brad Stevens

    “Would you agree that Malick “turns the quotidian” –or at least the worldly– “into something transcendent, by virtue of his technique and precision (and not by invoking the cosmos!)”

    I suspect that seeing Malick in these terms may be as big a mistake as seeing Bresson in religious/transcendental terms. Certainly Malick’s characters tend to view their lives transcendentally, but Malick always criticizes this tendency. Curiously, most critics seemed to get this the first couple of times Malick did it, understanding that Holly’s insistence in BADLANDS on discussing the events with which she is involved in the language of romantic novels did not represent, and was in fact directly opposed to, the director’s viewpoint. Yet nobody seems to have realized that Malick was doing the same thing in THE NEW WORLD, a film which is highly critical of the ways in which its characters romanticize their experiences: Captain Smith’s voiceover comments are strikingly similar to Holly’s, as well as to Linda’s in DAYS OF HEAVEN, and perhaps even more clearly incorrect in their assumptions (“Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor”).

  • Tom Brueggemann

    David D

    My first thought after seeing Tree was Koyaanisqatsi, which frankly is a film I dislike a lot for the same reasons much of Tree doesn’t work for me.

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘My first thought after seeing Tree was Koyaanisqatsi, which frankly is a film I dislike a lot for the same reasons much of Tree doesn’t work for me.’

    What is reason for dislike Tom? KOYAANISQATSI was not so interesting movie to me because simple theme was disguised with over expression. Is that same reason for you?

  • Tom Brueggemann

    That’s close to my reaction Junko. Pretty pictures trying to be “profound” without being anything more than half-baked thematically, makes more sensed stoned I suppose than not.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    I think someone mentioned this on another thread, but Frank Tuttle’s 1956 film noir Cry in the Night is on TCM overnight (early Weds)

    Also, John Ford’s Wagon Train episode, The Colter Craven Story, is on Encore Western next week (Thursday I believe).

  • Peter Henne

    Alex wrote, ‘Whether a case could be made for the material in quasi- narrative terms — say that it’s as effective in its own way as “To the Lighthouse” only we’re still pre “Lighthouse” cinematographically, or that there’s a family narrative as coherent as that of Tarkovsky’s THE MIRROR— but I don’t think so, not for the film as a whole.’

    I’m sure that MIRROR was a key reference for Malick: for example, finding a sprawling, amorphous and enormous context for a story of childhood. Also, that so much emphasizes wooded natural surroundings, fleeting experiences, and that it is strongly autobiographical. And a levitating mother. The nuclear explosions in MIRROR are not so different from the galaxy formations in TREE. Pulling up roots in the yard has a complement in Tarkovsky’s ANDREI ROUBLEV. I don’t think either MIRROR or TREE shows either director at his best–they both bite off more than they can chew in my opinion, but both have remarkable stretches. On the other hand, I’ve always felt the limitations inherent in MIRROR pushed Tarkovsky to make STALKER (the second, completed version) into something much stricter, tougher, harder, leaner, less ephemeral and precious, but even more sensitive–and that’s how we got STALKER and NOSTALGHIA, his two most polished films and most resolutely withstanding parody in my opinion.

    So maybe Malick’s next will show a distinctive change, too. Yet, Malick’s TREE betrays some staleness just because that ambitious, start-all-over design is in fact not as fresh as it first appears and owes a substantial debt to previous efforts, both MIRROR and the one that’s been more often noted in the mainstream press, Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. To quote Scott in his 6-15, 2:26am post, there is something “slightly fussy and forced in the Malick.” Very thoughtful and excellent post, Scott. I share in your comparison to the other Terence (though spelled differently) and your cogent observations on his first two features. If TREE is a stumble, it is one with finesse inside of it, but not executed naturally enough.

  • jbryant

    Tom: I’m the one who mentioned the Tuttle film was being shown, but since I totally forgot to set my DVR, thanks for the reminder! And ditto for the heads up on Ford’s WAGON TRAIN ep. I’ve seen a few episodes of that over the last couple of weeks and have enjoyed them. I presume Ford kicks it up a notch.

  • joe dante

    The Colter Craven Story is a mini-masterpiece, with a cast of Ford regulars. Definitely worth checking out as it’s been pretty hard to find in recent years, although I think it’s on the Season 4 Wagon Train dvd collection.

  • Alex

    Brad Stevens,

    Thanks for the response to my “transcendence” question.

    I don’t recall any case of “transcendence” in BADLANDS, but I haven’t seen it in at least 15 years.

    It does seem to me that there’s a lot of transcendentalism in “Days of Heaven” but perhaps it’s all in the authors vision, a revelation of a sort of parallel world that the films characters pass by in poignant ignorance. (For example, the slow motion shot of the glass falling down into the river and through its waters is not, as I recall, one any character sees)

    Seems to me there’s some “immanence”, if not “transcendence,” in the strongly romantic feelings of Smith and Pocahontas.

    TOL’s Mrs. O’Brien is certainly full of “grace,” Mr. O’Brien seems to have moments of it, and the Older Jacks seems to have some sense of grace here and there in his childhood world, at least as he recollects it.

    And, of course, THIN RED LINE’s Witt’s full of it, call it what you will.

  • I think there is a clear difference between the editing style that currently dominates (American cinema anyway) where “if a scene works in twenty cuts, it will work even better in fifty” and what Malik is up to. I think it has more to do with the way in which the film was shot, right? It’s not as if Malik is setting up 12 different cameras covering a scene in every conceivable way possible and then constructing a scene out of that material. From what I understand, the shooting process is a lot less planned out, more improvisational, and the editors are then piecing together the best bits from that. In other words, instead of shooting a scene in way that is going to be cut by rules of continuity, every scene is shot with a number of master shots that the editors are then working with to build the scenes. Shooting this way makes jump cuts and the chaotic feel of the scenes (or snapshots) inevitable.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    I don’t know what if anything this has to do with coverage, but I do recall hearing that Malick created Linda Manz’s voiceover after the film was assembled, or as part of the assemblage (it had not been in the original script).

  • Scott, I appreciate your mentioning the similarities between Malick and Terence Davies (whose work I love, particularly DISTANT VOICES and THE HOUSE OF MIRTH), but surely there is some irony in the fact that Davies is a filmmaker known for his long takes!

    I think that Phil is right that Malick’s working methods would tend to inevitably produce the editing style seen in TREE OF LIFE. David Bordwell has discussed the “choppy style” of editing in George Stevens’s films as resulting from Stevens’s tendency to “overshoot” his scenes. I hasten to add that I like some of Stevens’s films as much as I like Malick’s early films.

  • Peter Henne

    Peter T., I’m not sure where you’re going about production and post-production working methods. Are you generalizing? I don’t see how short takes are prima facie evidence of overshooting, anymore than long takes imply a low production budget. Though improvisation was reported by the lead actors, and plainly must have taken place given many results, I’m not convinced that acknowledgement necessarily leads to Phil’s scenario of how production and post-production took place. It seems clear that Malick deliberately manufactured an abbreviated editing style throughout TREE OF LIFE, including in the CGI sequences where everything must have been produced with forethought. Whether or not one likes these sequences, their pace feels consistent with the rest of the film. Overall I found the editing style intermittently jolting but more often providing an energetic balance to the lean sprinkling of conventional drama, emotional peaks, etc. Fast cutting usually isn’t my thing but it was at least valid here.

  • Peter Henne

    Let me add that fast cutting can but needn’t be a way of balancing out a spare degree of conventional drama and emotional peaks. A director can go the exact opposite route. Rivette, for instance. There are many different ways to express a worthy cinematic vision. Though I very often favor long takes, there have been great films comprised mostly of brief ones. That European guy some here were just talking about, Jean-Luc what’s-his-face, has made some of both.

  • Peter H., in the case of TREE OF LIFE, it isn’t just the frequency of cuts, but what I take to be their random quality; the cutting isn’t deliberate (as it is in the scene I referenced from DAYS OF HEAVEN). I didn’t feel like there was a lot of (intellectual or intuitive) meaning in the decision to cut here or to cut there, as opposed to anywhere else. I think it is plausible that this could result from what Phil calls the scenes not being planned out on the set, or what Bordwell calls, in reference to Stevens, “overshooting.”

    Fast cutting can be great. But I sense much more thought behind the montage sequences in King Vidor’s AN AMERICAN ROMANCE or even what Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson called the “associative editing” of Nicolas Roeg’s films, than I do in TREE OF LIFE.

  • I was responding more to Peter’s comment in his article that implied that Malik is following the same over editing style that many current movies employ. While there are a lot of cuts in TREE, I would disagree that over editing puts it in the league of other contemporary movies. There’s a clear reason why it took three years and five editors to finish this. And really that has nothing to do with the finished movie, right?

    I’ve only seen the movie once and I could be wrong, but I believe there is a clear difference in the editing pattern in the “beginning of life” sequence and the rest of the movie. The shots are held longer, and I do think it is because those shots had to be more planned out. I’m not claiming that really means anything one way or the other.

  • Dan Clinton

    This may be an association no less capricious than a few of Mr. Malick’s cuts, but the virtual absence of any intermediate scale between intimate memories and sublime vistas reminded me of Alexis de Tocqueville’s chapter on “the inflated style of American writers”:

    “In democratic communities each citizen is habitually engaged in the contemplation of a very puny object, namely himself. If he ever raises his looks higher, he then perceives nothing but the immense form of society at large, or the still more imposing aspect of mankind. His ideas are all either extremely minute and clear, or extremely general and vague: what lies between is an open void. When he has been drawn out of his own sphere, therefore, he always expects that some amazing object will be offered to his attention; and it is on these terms alone that he consents to tear himself for an instant from the petty complicated cares which form the charm and the excitement of his life. This appears to me sufficiently to explain why men in democracies, whose concerns are in general so paltry, call upon their poets for conceptions so vast and descriptions so unlimited.”

    Those sharp turns from Oedipal drama into theodicy seem to express a similar mindset.

  • Robert Garrick

    I just finished watching “A Cry in the Night” on TCM. The film was not without interest, but I think it would be fair to characterize it as unexceptional. Frank Tuttle’s mise-en-scene has been far more interesting, elsewhere.

    But there was one striking thing about the film. “A Cry in the Night” opened in August, 1956. It stars Natalie Wood, and she’s kidnapped. There’s a frantic “search” for her, led by her stridently angry father, who regards young men as animals. When Natalie is finally located, the father (whose temperament has been softened by the trauma) takes Natalie by the hand and gently says, “Let’s go home.”

    “The Searchers,” with Natalie Wood in an identical role, opened in March, 1956, and John Wayne uttered almost exactly the same line when he finally found her. Jean-Luc whatsizface has singled out that exact moment as one that allowed him to temporarily “love” John Wayne.

    Now back to “Tree of Life.”

  • Adrian

    “Of course, past experience suggests that this is only the first of myriad versions of “Tree of Life.” ”

    Dave, what are you going on about ? Only once has Malick produced multiple public versions of a film, with “The New World”, and that was a particular case. All the others except “Badlands” went through a process of expansive filming/improvisation/exploration and then intensive reduction – that’s his process, and he’s certainly not the only film artist in the world who uses it (Wong Kar-wai, etc). And anyhow, what’s wrong with ‘variant versions’ per se? Rivette has done them, Straub & Huillet did them … you’re just projecting your dislike of the recent Malick films (and you’re entitled to that dislike, of course) onto what you take to be his sloppy processes. As for me, I believe THE TREE OF LIFE is a great film, and an extremely carefully-formed one – like every Malick film, misunderstood and disparaged by many (most) critics on its first appearance, and then slowly re-evaluated over time. I find most of the comments so far on this page – including from friends I deeply admire – to be pretty narrow-minded and normative, judging the film according to classical standards it does not even pretend to evoke for one second. Time is going to prove you wrong! – just as it did with DAYS OF HEAVEN, which was dismissed by many as a pretentious mess (read P. Kael on that one for a history lesson!) in 1978, long before it came around for Criterion Canonisation !!

  • Barry Putterman

    See the tree!/How big its grown
    Well, friend/It hasn’t been too long
    It wasn’t big

    Actually, I haven’t yet seen the film in question. And frankly, rectifying that situation hasn’t quite risen to the top of my “to do” list. Nevertheless, in light of Dan’s turn to de Tocqueville, I somehow feel that the preceding ode, courtesy of Bobby Goldsboro, is appropriate to the discussion.

    Interesting (to me) that Godard has figured so prominently in the proceedings, since most obviously De Sica has come to represent Truffaut to Rossellini’s Godard in the current storyline regarding Neorealism. That is, of course, assuming that you believe that there is such a thing as Neorealism.

    But I’m wondering if there has been any successful attempt to redefine careers such as De Sica and Fellini on the one hand, and Zerlini and Pietrangeli on the other, in terms of an overarching vision of Italian cinema rather than as individual voices popping up amid historical movements and genre studies. One advantage which I think that auteurism has given to the complete field of American directors is a context for studying them outside of a competition for inclusion in some kind of international Hall of Fame. I might also ask Junko that question vis a vis Japanese directors and cinema.

    I’ll come back later to see if anybody had thoughts on that matter. Right now, I must return to crying over some sad and silly “Late Late Show.”

  • An impression:
    Modernism was far more prestigious among intellectuals in 1960, than it is today.
    Many intellectuals defined themselves as “scholars promoting modern art, music and literature”.
    Today by contrast, many intellectuals have embraced Realism-without-Modernism as the source of all goodness. They want realistic novels in the tradition of Jane Austen, long TV serials like THE WIRE, and “serious dramas” like YI YI. They have abandoned abstract art, atonal music, experimental poetry, and all the rest of the Modernist movement.

    This abandonment of Modernism leads to endless trouble in discussing Modernism-influenced artists like Godard and Malick. There is no consensus today about whether Modernism is good or bad. And no consistent treatment that is applied to Godard, Malick, Brakhage and all the rest.
    ***
    While we are quoting Tocqueville and Bobby Goldsboro, Revelations Chapter 22 from the Bible might be relevant, describing the founding of the City of God, or the New Jerusalem:

    And he shewed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

    I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
    Blessed are they that do His commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city.

    This passage has been hugely influential.
    In Fritz Lang’s DESTINY, Death sketches a cross with the Greek letters Alpha and Omega (the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet).