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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

  • Alex

    This talk that cutting in TREE OF LIFE has a “random quality” and “isn’t deliberate” pretty closely mirrors Dave K’s critique of THE NEW WORLD. No doubt, there’s something to it: at least the comparisons to DAYS OF HEAVEN and (in Dave case critique of THE NEW WORLD) Murnau make valid distinctions. However, the use of “deliberate” seems to me largely a red herring. Clearly, we don’t have film most prefigure in planning head like Hitchcock’s or some analog to written music. Nonetheless, “random quality” strikes as very exaggerated and “isn’t deliberate” –used pretty synonymously– misleading. I see no reason not to regard Malick’s editing in THE NEW WORLD and in the 1950s portions of TREE OF LIFE as just as disciplined and well designed as many a great recording of an improvisational jazz ensemble, say Miles David’s “Kind of Blue.” I think Malick fully effective in his editing of THE NEW WORLD and of the 1950s portions of TREE OF LIFE. I see no stylistic –or communicative — problem with any of THE NEW WORLD except some scenes in the stockade where Malick’s editing AND INEXTRICABLE CAMERA MOVEMENT is no longer an expression of a clear point of Smith’or Pocahontas’s POINT OF VIEW. I think that his editing of TREE OF LIFE STRONGLY TENDS TO wonderfully captures a sense of moment to moment spirituality recalled fROM the point of view of one or another recollecting consciousness; and I’ve only problems with the yoking of the cosmic stuff to the ’50s material (and, I suppose, the editing within the Cosmic stretches, since it’s generally unintelligible to me at present).

    Mike Grost, Good stuff on modernism, but it bears mention that in literary modernism the great modernist masterpieces – Temps Perdu, The Magic Mountain, Man without Qualities, Absolom, Absolom– very often subsume strong narrative functions, indeed are high points in the history of narrative.

    Eevn a relatively recent peice of modernist film like Vivre sa Vie incoporates a lot of narrative.

  • Blake Lucas

    “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.”

    Goodness, Mike, as sometimes before you throw in a lot of things together under the “Realism” heading which seem very unalike and may not even belong there, like Jane Austen and YI YI (I haven’t seen THE WIRE). Edward Yang seems to me a true modernist–there is narrative in his films but articulated in a highly modernist way. You don’t need to make films like Godard to be a moderist. The Yang films I’ve seen show me a world perceived with the kind of overarching vision Malick aspires to (haven’t seen TREE OF LIFE yet but know his other four) but with more supple artistry. Many elements besides “narrative” are at play–realism is the last thing that would come to mind watching his films, though “blind truth” (Godard’s wonderful phrase on BITTER VICTORY) does come to mind in watching especially A BRIGHTER SUMMER DAY but also the beautiful YI YI, a film you cruelly underrate and dismiss with this “realistic drama” tag everytime you mention it.

    I think one has to be careful with the term “realism”–it’s really loaded and can mean almost anything one wants it to mean. I’ve been thinking about the relationship between classicism and modernism lately–it’s complex and these things overlap in so many artists, not only filmmakers. When these categories are discussed it should be done in a nuanced way. As to the forever elusive “postmodernism” I’ve been thinking about that too–and so far, as little as I feel I understand it even now, believe it doesn’t apply to any of the greats.

    Using “Realism” as a negative may misrepresent and mischaracterize a work as well as branding it in an unfair way, just like “fast cutting” may also do. Alain Resnais is a director whose gift for mise en scene has included films with very long takes, which he does with the utmost style and grace. But JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME and MURIEL–in truth my two favorites of all his films–are mostly composed of brief, beautifully edited shots, though both have key passages that are done differently, like the end of MURIEL and a revelatory, long-held closeup of Claude Rich, an actor Resnais took to the heights in JE T’AIME, JE T’AIME.

  • Peter Henne

    Very interesting posts by all. I’m enjoying this thread. Barry, I asked a friend to record A CRY IN THE NIGHT and if the disc turned out, hoping to see it soon. Thank you for discussing this director whose films are unknown to me. Mike Grost, I think you make an astute summary of the standing modernism once enjoyed. It seems fair to say that ever-scowling deconstruction and its sidekick wag postmodernism have hustled it off of the bandstand but it’s still irregularly holding court in the corners of the public park. Peter T., If by deliberate you mean deliberative, then sure, it isn’t making classically forward-propelling cuts cleanly demonstrating cause and effect. Just about all of the middle did add up intuitively to me. Like Robert Sweeney in this thread, I didn’t have a hard time following the narrative of the middle section, and for the record neither did the friend I attended with who generally keeps to popular fare. Phil, I agree that two of Malick’s known habits, yielding a particular lovely lighting style demonstrably his own and laboring long over the editing stage, at least shows the film was not put together routinely from impersonal coverage. Whether one likes it or not, and whether or not one agrees that Fiona Shaw’s part should have been so small and mysterious (hey, remember David Bowie in TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME?), the best evidence is that it was made with careful attention by Malick in all stages.

  • D R

    Again, to Peter Tonguette: you’re getting on Malick for not planning out his scenes thoroughly enough on set, when the lack of planning is integral to his method? He’s not Polanski or Hitchcock. His methods differ–they might not be to your taste, but please don’t accuse Malick of not being “deliberate” enough, because his recent films don’t cut together like Preminger’s. He’s not after the same things. His methods have grown closer to what we think of as experimental. Not a bad evolution by default–not good either, necessarily. But it’s certainly not shooting in the absence of an idea. If anything, it’s a foregrounding of the idea.

    To say his mode of editing–polyrhythmic, highly dependent on visual motifs, specific interplays of sound and visual–isn’t “deliberate”…well, might I recommend you avoid the films of Stan Brakhage entirely? And Claire Denis? What is this gold standard these filmmakers have betrayed?

    And, I’m sorry, you saw no signs of “associative editing” in TREE OF LIFE? Youch. The film could be seen as, among other things, one giant exhibition of associative editing.

  • Alex

    Sorry I forgot to “edit.”

  • Barry Putterman

    Mike, as long as you have broadened out the quotes to include the Bible, what would be the effect if we replaced Modernism with Catholicism in your post? Would not being a Catholic lead to all kinds of trouble in understanding the work of Catholic artists?

    In any event, why do we need a consensus on these things anyway? Godard isn’t a bill that we’re trying to push through congress.

    Peter, as Robert indicates, A CRY IN THE NIGHT may not be the best place to foster enthusiasm for Tuttle. It isn’t exactly bad, but for me, beyond the Raymond Burr performance, it isn’t particularly remarkable. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it. And that SEARCHERS connection, which hadn’t occured to me, should offer some added interest.

  • Alex

    “Godard isn’t a bill that we’re trying to push through congress.”

    Goddard-1959-1967 isn’t. (It’s law.) But as for the rest….

  • Alex

    BTW, are the last ten minute of episode 12 of AMC’s THE KILLING as good as prime Hitchcock (if only in the scripting) or what?

    Not sure there’re any TEN MINUTES as good in THE WIRE!

    Of course, there are obscene rants from Swearengen in DEADWOOD that evoke good Shakespeare. (But there no doubt are mixed opinions of Olivier’s RICHARD III herabouts).

  • Junko Yasutani

    About realism, in university it was taught that associated with Emile Zola in literature, genre of daily life in painting like American Ash Can school, Ibsen drama in theater. Different style possible, but scene was real life situation. Melodramatic treatment also if story was about ordinary life. Could be mistaken understanding.

    Also, is poetic realism related to realism? Looking that way to me, because it is treatment of daily life.

    I do not think random cutting is wrong aesthetic, because depending on effect. Many other art form using random things, like John Cage prepared piano. It is depending on contribution to whole art work.

  • Alex

    Aristotle nicely defined realism as the depiction of the probable.

  • Adrian Martin, thanks for introducing the tone of personal vituperation that has so far been notably and nobly absent from this discussion. I know you aren’t familiar with my work (and would no doubt dismiss it as mere “appreciation” in any case), but I am in fact very clearly on record about “Days of Heaven,” a film I defended vigorously on its first release (the review is reprinted in my new book).

    “Only once” out of a grand total of five films doesn’t seem like an insignificant figure to me, particularly when Malick’s addiction to endless editing (sorry, “expansive filming/improvisation/exploration and then intensive reduction”) is well known. Are you really ready to go on record claiming this particular theatrical release as the definitive version of “Tree of Life”?

    And please don’t tell me that I’m “just projecting” my dislike of recent Malick films onto what I ” take to be his sloppy processes.” I have no idea how sloppy his processes may or may not be; he does seem to have a small army of editors on hand to help him keep things under control (five are credited on “Tree of Life”) so I expect someone is keeping pretty good track of where the shots are.

    What does bother me is the monumental banality of the final product — a generic family melodrama (“The Great Santini” comes to mind) wrapped in the sort of pretty-pretty imagery one finds in the poster department of a New Age bookstore. You’re quick to accuse others of being “narrow-minded and normative” in judging the film by classical standards (which the film certainly does invoke, if by that you mean attempting to tell a story), but aren’t you being reactive yourself in automatically seizing on any perceived modernist gesture as proof of artistic worth?

    We’re now heading into half a century of this kind of narrative deconstruction, and in that context “Tree of Life” looks awfully “normative” next to the far more productively disruptive practices of films like Rivette’s “Celine and Julie Go Boating” (now 37 years old) or Straub-Huillet’s “Trop tot, trop tard” (29 years old). If there’s one passage in “Tree of Life” that can come anywhere close to the non-linear lyricism of Brakhage’s thematically similar “Window Water Baby Moving” (49 years old), I’d be grateful if you’d point it out to me.

    “Tree of Life,” by the way, has an 87 percent positive rating on, so welcome to the mainstream, Mr. Martin.

  • Peter H., I actually think Phil makes my point for me (perhaps unintentionally) – that Malick labored so long in the editing room because he and the editors faced so many choices. There is such a thing as having too many choices. (Was it Anthony Lane who brought up the fact of Ulmer’s DETOUR being shot in a week?) When I interviewed the editor of Roeg’s films, Tony Lawson, he told me that when they cut TWO DEATHS on 16mm, it made him think twice about changing or entirely reshaping a scene. “If you used a 16mm Moviola,” he said, “it just used to tear the film up. So you don’t want to do anything unless you’re pretty sure that’s what you want to do; to change it becomes a hassle. Going to 16mm, after working on 35mm for so long, made me think about why I do things, and whether I wanted to do that, and whether it might be better to do something else.”

    D R. is right: Malick’s methods aren’t to my taste, but more importantly the results aren’t to my liking. Put very simply, I find the “associative editing” in WALKABOUT (or BEAU TRAVAIL, for that matter) much better than that the “associative editing” of THE TREE OF LIFE!

    Let’s keep in mind how relatively few films today are made in the classical style I am pointing to, with directors like Cukor, Preminger, and Mulligan (and countless others) as its exemplars. Malick was part of its tradition, too, when he started, but no longer. I am merely noting this fact with some regret, and pointing to a different way of making movies, which I confess I do find to be “the gold standard.” Perhaps we’ve reached an impasse as far as this part of the discussion is concerned.

  • Brad Stevens

    There seems to me a certain irony in the fact that the greater freedom and control American filmmakers have enjoyed since the late 60s – specifically control of the editing process – frequently results in films which seem less purposeful than those of Ford or Walsh, who rarely had much influence on the editing of their work. If Ford wanted a scene to start with an establishing shot, then cut to a close-up at precisely THIS point, he would shoot only the material he required, knowing that it could only be edited one way.

  • Peter Henne

    Peter T., I seldom thought of Roeg belonging to the classical tradition. Not that you said that outright, but you seem to esteem him as well as leaving the thought that you commend the classical tradition alone. I wrote a lengthy review of TWO DEATHS when it was released, a longer piece on an American Cinematheque retrospective for Roeg and other articles on his films as well, but it’s been many years since I’ve seen his films. Still, it seems like there are myriad moments in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH and EUREKA that don’t have the cut-and-dried connections to, and justification from, the narrative that you are demanding for TREE OF LIFE. But it’s very different from Roeg, and also Resnais, Rivette and Straub/Huillet. (I have seen a feature-length program of later Brakhage shorts but still not enough to speak about the director.) You don’t seem to be extending curiosity or generosity–“This is different, let’s see where it’s going to take me”–but instead seem quick to gang up on it. Nor have you really said much, Peter, about the film except that it doesn’t compute by that tradition, and that you don’t like it. And that it isn’t like Roeg and that you don’t like it. These aren’t personal remarks I’m making, I’m only observing how you seem to be treating this film.

    But I am starting to agree that the impasse is nearing. Where some see the lighting as distinctive, tremulous and gorgeous, Dave K sees it as sacharine and generic. Where to go from here?

  • Blake Lucas

    Brad, doesn’t your second, very apt sentence indicate that contrary to the first, Ford did have “much influence on the editing…”

    I haven’t read the same first-hand accounts of Walsh editing in the camera as Ford did but given the distinctive rhythms, pace, editing within shots of a very individual style, it seems at the least that he too mostly shot the films as he wanted them cut.

    I support your wider point on how purposeful the realization of so many classical films seemed to be in the end, even if the director was off on his boat or something while the actual editing was done.

  • Blake Lucas

    But not to say that contemporary films cannot–and in best cases are–edited with the same purposefulness by directors more “hands on” in the process. Let’s not forget that while TREE OF LIFE is getting all the attention here, Monte Hellman’s ROAD TO NOWHERE is also now playing in New York–and poised to open in L.A. tomorrow. It’s hard for me to imagine this same argument over its editing. And it’s certainly a modernist narrative work, if one pleasingly free of pretension, given its genre contours.

  • Brad Stevens

    Blake – My point was that if Ford or Walsh had known in advance that they were going to be allowed into the cutting room, perhaps they wouldn’t have been quite so precise about what they shot.

  • Brad Stevens

    “Monte Hellman’s ROAD TO NOWHERE is also now playing in New York–and poised to open in L.A. tomorrow. It’s hard for me to imagine this same argument over its editing.”

    Indeed. But Monte is the last of the dinosaurs.

  • Alex

    “an 87 percent positive rating on RottenTomatoes…”

    I wish THE TREE OF LIFE well in film scholarship, high-brow criticism, and at the Whitney. However, I’d say at

    yet,as one who regards it as wretched as a whole in (supposedly popularly central) narrative terms, as well as wretched in parts for those disposed to see excellence in failure (or triumph in subsections), I think it important to regard TTOL as a cultural phenoma and, for the moment, grant Dylan the last word: “Something is happening and …[we]… don’t know what it is!”

    As pehnom, I’s say lines above on the film as “sermons” and “American” are the most relevant here so far; and I’d suggest that we may be seeing a magnet for tea party spirituality and values.

  • Peter H., just to clarify something: I thought I was pretty clear in my earlier comment that I was citing Roeg as an example of a director who deviated from the type of filmmaking I was praising in my piece and initial comments (THE MAN IN THE MOON; INTERIORS). He’s about as far from that tradition as possible, and I like him. Vidor’s montages (also mentioned when I brought up Roeg, and about which I’ve written extensively) also are different than Mulligan, Allen, et al. But I find much more coherence in the best instances of Roeg’s “associative editing” (I want to remind everyone the term, as used to describe Roeg, is Farber and Patterson’s) than what I saw in TREE OF LIFE. When I reviewed WALKABOUT not too long ago, I referred to the intercutting of Gulpilil hunting and shots inside a modern butcher’s shop; this cut has a lot of force because it has meaning. So much of the editing, even within individual scenes, in TREE OF LIFE, just strikes me as jumbled; at best, simply not as well done as Roeg. But, yes, I feel I’ve said my piece on it.

  • Walter Lewis

    Hi everybody,
    First time poster here. First of all Dave K., been reading you since the 70s and even when I totally disagree with you, your way with language keeps bringing me back.

    This is one of those times I disagree. Although I didn’t love all of Tree of Life, I appreciated the audacity of it. To me, it was filling in the humanity that 2001 left out. Also, I didn’t find the family story generic at all. The emotional specificity of the oldest boy was extremely moving to me. I’ve never seen the confusion, anger, gentleness and perceptiveness of that 11 to 13 year old time frame so realistically portrayed before. For me, the Americana was representative of a time and place when an ideal childhood was possible. But even in an Eden like this, we all still struggle with emotions we can’t control. I don’t think Malick was using this as some sort of cultural imperialism, but as an example that he understood personally. Like Jonathan Rosenbaum”s, my childhood was very different than the protagonists. But I certainly understood the emotions very well. It did not feel generic to me, it felt very specific (like Ozu’s families) and so, for me, became universal.

    Anyway, thanks for letting me put my two (devalued) cents in.

  • “if Ford or Walsh had known in advance that they were going to be allowed into the cutting room, perhaps they wouldn’t have been quite so precise about what they shot.”

    Good point comrade. In our recent discussion of Sternberg we failed to note that he was another director who cut in the camera.

    I wonder if we can divide those directors who cut in the camera from those who shot 1000s of feet of coverage (I’m thinking of Wyler.) It’s a subject for empirical research; which directors supervised the cutting of their pictures, which didn’t but cut in the camera and which left the assembly up to the editors.

    One more thought: since Mizoguchi is sometimes compared to Wyler, I understand that Mizo is of the cut in the camera tribe. Perhaps our Japanese correspondent can confirm that.

  • jonah

    adrian martin wrote: “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.”

    that’s jumping the gun a bit, no? the film’s not even in general release in the states yet. and it has already picked up many ardent defenders, who i don’t think constitute a small minority. indeed, it’s been easier for me to find positive than negative reviews online. it’s hard to know when and how it might be ‘re-evaluated over time.’

    my sense is that we will have to wait a while to see if this film is indeed ‘carefully-formed.’ i found the large-scale structure puzzling to say the least, and only noticed a few overt formal rhymes that would suggest that malick is making connections between the various parts other than the utterly cosmic ones (life, death, nature, grace, etc.). in some cases those rhymes–the ‘cosmic beam’ that sounds as the father learns of his son’s death, and later as a meteor hits the earth–seem to reinforce the sense that the themes of the film, to the extent malick is in control of them, are disappointingly banal.

    i think those who assert that the film is “carefully-formed” are bound to demonstrate this through description and analysis. i understand that most have only seen the film once or twice, and probably aren’t prepared to make a close analysis (though ignatiy vishnevetsky’s essay on mubi is a good preliminary attempt). which is why i say that we will have to wait a while to understand if and how the film fits together ‘carefully.’

    that said, i do think dave k. and peter t. are a bit off the mark with their particular criticisms of malick’s editing.

    not that they aren’t right to criticize it, but i think lumping malick in with the general trend that david bordwell has identified as ‘intensified continuity’ is a mistake. his recent films look, sound, feel quite different from those of (to name a few–-very different–- contemporary directors who employ fast cutting) michael bay, edgar wright, or tony scott. i think dave was smart to point out, in his comments on the new world, that the appearance of online editing suites probably accelerated malick’s propensity to overshoot and results in sometimes-meandering ‘centrifugal editing’ (dave’s nice phrase). but the intense elliptically of his style, coupled with the self-consciously oddball framings and inserts–-whether you like them or not-–don’t really beg comparison with most contemporary american directors. clearly malick has decided to make this style his own (i doubt there’s any returning to the more heterogenous, more patient style of his first films), and i think it deserves to judged on its own terms, and not held up as evidence in the by-now-very-tired mise-en-scène vs. editing debate.

    this is one reason people have invoked dorsky, brakhage, and other experimental filmmakers in talking about the tree of life (not just because some experimental work is borrowed or copied for the birth-of-the-universe sequence) and i think these comparisons can be the basis for criticisms. for example, for all his self-seriousness, brakhage rarely made his themes so plain, or used hectoring choir-of-angels music cues to imbue his films with unearned gravitas. to me, the equivalent to tree of life would be if brakhage literalized his favored metaphor of the untutored eye’ by showing, at the beginning of anticipation of the night, a small child traipsing through the grass and investigating the surface of a pond —- or if soft voices whispered ‘the untutored eye…’ on the soundtrack as diaphanous imagery passed onscreen…

    i had a bad time with tree of life, despite wanting very much to love it. close friends whose opinions i deeply respect did love it, and i respect that. enough to see it again, at least.

  • Shawn Stone

    Ford, Walsh, Sternberg . . . add Lubitsch to the list of directors who cut in the camera. And, like Terence Davies, Lubitsch liked to show the actors how to play their parts.

  • Scott

    Well, if this tidbit from Emmanuel Lubezki is correct, Malick is indeed planning a longer cut of “The Tree of Life”. Apparently, it will run six hours long, and mainly extend the middle family section:

    Though, perhaps this should be taken with a grain of salt. I’ve heard things about Malick working on an IMAX film, and he’s actually just wrapped his next feature, so who knows if/when this alternate version will ever see the light of day. (Also, if you click on the above link, there’s another link in the article to an brief, interesting video clip of Christopher Nolan and David Fincher speaking reverently about Malick.)

  • Bharath

    Lubitsch used to cut in the camera? That’s very interesting (so, I’ve read somewhere, did Wilder). And Lubitsch apparently played the part of each actor in his film to show them exactly what he wanted out of them. For this or whatever reason, he seems incapable of getting a bad performance from his actors even in movies where the casting is derided – I am thinking especially of HEAVEN CAN WAIT and DESIGN FOR LIVING – and much of his thirties work have a mode of acting that is unique and unmistakable for instance, TROUBLE IN PARADISE or ONE HOUR WITH YOU.In this respect (and many others) he seems to acutely resemble Renoir in his strengths and quite opposite of masters like Lang or Hitchcock or even Ford, where performances could be extremely variable. I am way out of my depth here but in connection with Lubitsch’s distinctive style of acting you can observe sophistication (and the sneaky brilliance) of the staging techniques: the favored two-shot of the actors sitting down, on a settee or the back seat of a car or even standing outside a cafe window looking in and the series of subtly different poses they adopt.

  • Dave, with all due respect, you’re nuts! I wasn’t saying YOU personally disliked DAYS OF HEAVEN in 1978 – hey, I bought your book (it’s expensive over here in Australian stores) and I love it ! So don’t load that particular projection onto me. If you dislike TREE OF LIFE you dislike it and there ain’t much I’ll say that is likely to change your mind about that. But – honestly – all this stuff, explicit or implicit, from you and others here, about Malick’s process – that he films too much, cuts too much, doesn’t have a solid old-fashioned script, uses too many stars, too much music, too many voice-overs, blah blah – is a load of bollocks, really ! Who gives a flying fuck whether he has 5 or 50 editors? George Miller had five separate editing suites going for MAD MAX 2, and Godard had five directors/cinematographers feeding him images for FILM SOCIALISM – and none of that matters at all, all that matters is that the film gets formed somehow. You mock how I described Malick’s process – of filming a lot and then bringing it down and finding the form in post-production – but MANY artists work that way in many media. And I don’t honestly care what fickle figure TREE OF LIFE is getting on fucking Rotten Tomatoes today: what’s more worrying is that a respected blog site like this one is going in for so much backlashing of Malick, even from some contributors who haven’t seen it yet but don’t like the ‘tendency’ of his work away from solid scripts and three-dimensional characterisation and the mise en scene of MAN IN THE MOON (a film I love, you know that, Peter T!) and a bunch of old-fashioned stuff like that !

  • Brad Stevens

    “Ford, Walsh, Sternberg . . . add Lubitsch to the list of directors who cut in the camera.”

    Lubitsch, like Hawks, frequently functioned as his own producer, and thus would have been able to participate in the editing process. But all of these filmmakers were part of a tradition that encouraged them to make their key decisions behind the camera rather than in the editing room. And I think it’s the changes I was discussing, whereby filmmakers are expected to control the editing, that has led to the death of a certain kind of mise en scene, in which points were made by means of carfully arranged and clearly thought out compositions. Of course, the modern style has its advantages too, and the finest post-60s filmmakers – including Malick (at least on the basis of the four films I’ve seen), May, Peckinpah, Altman, Ferrara and Cimino – manage to strike a happy balance between the two traditions. But the general trend seems to me to be increasingly negative, and a recent viewing of Anton Corbijn’s THE AMERICAN suggested that attempts by younger directors to create precisely controlled compositions are unlikely to result in anything except self-consciousness.

  • Ted Kroll

    Gentlemen, as Sir Hitchcock once said to Ms Bergman – it’s just a movie. Nobody is going to convince anyone about anything by shouting louder at each other. If Malick’s new movie is your cup of tea, fine. If not, fine. I haven’t seen it. As someone who is hard of hearing, I find the whispering sound tracks in the previous two Malicks annoying because I cannot understand what is being said. Also, I missed the droll dead pan humor in the Days of Heaven voice over. I do not think that any well reasoned review is going to change my opinion on that. Turning up the volume in the critical discussion (yes,I hear you) is not going change anything except create bad feelings that are going to make personal differences that prevent people from listening to one another. There is no accounting for one ‘s taste. I say state your case and trust the truth of your convictions. I am discouraged to read that this site has been infected by the standard blog discourse of saying anything you please because we are anonymous to each other. Respect, please. We are about the love of cinema which soars above anybody’s personal taste.

  • D R

    ROAD TO NOWHERE is free of pretension? I must’ve seen a different cut. The film’s editing is clean, sure, but Hellman’s direction of the actors is mostly abysmal, and script-wise the film surely gives TREE OF LIFE a run for its money in the messy throughline department.

    Also, this notion of “cutting in the camera” is starting to sound a little vague, even counter-factual. As if John Ford never shot overlapping set-ups. By definition, once you employ, say, shot-reverse shot, you’re no longer “cutting in the camera.” To say nothing of the fact that John Ford’s (or Ernst Lubitsch, et al) relevance in a discussion of TREE OF LIFE is faint.

    For, ahem, living examples of directors who plan intensively beforehand for the edit (aka cut in the camera): Fincher? Scorsese? Polanski? Wes Anderson? PT Anderson? The Coens?

  • Brad Stevens

    “As someone who is hard of hearing, I find the whispering sound tracks in the previous two Malicks annoying because I cannot understand what is being said.”

    I share your pain! I’d recommend watching the films on DVD with the English subtitles turned on.

  • Barry Putterman

    Ted, congratulations on a beautifully expressed statement of principle. It ought to be set to music. Some ideas are indeed old fashioned. Others are eternal.

    Adrian, I am thoroughly confused. If I am reading you correctly, everybody has a right to respond to THE TREE OF LIFE as they please. Except if you don’t like the movie on seeing it, or even haven’t seen it but might possibly harbor suspicions regarding it, you are engaging in “backlash.”

    Well, didn’t the film just open a few weeks ago? Don’t we have to have an initial lash before there can be any possible backlash? And if I read your previous post correctly, you say that Malick’s films are always met by initial critical rejection which evolves into understanding and praise over time. So, isn’t this alleged crucifixtion from us reactionary yahoos merely the natural course of events? And wouldn’t the inevitable evolution of thinking to come more accurately be called a “backlash?”

    With all due respect Adrain, this is nothing but a jumble. And the confusion in your thinking is exceeded only by the poverty of language you use to express it. However, I know that you will not take offense at what I am saying. Because I say it, with all due respect.

  • dm494

    D R, you’re right that the acting in ROAD TO NOWHERE is terrible. Pace Richard Brody, the performances do matter in a film like Hellman’s, where the meaning of many of the scenes hinges on the quality of the acting–when people tell Shannyn Sossamon’s character that her performance in the film within the film is great, it’s hard to know whether the comments are meant sincerely. And this “ambiguity” has consequences for, among other things, how we understand Velma Duran and the infatuation of the director with his star. I’d take issue with you however when you blame the performances on Hellman. To suppose that a director can elicit good performances from bad actors is a fallacy comparable to that of thinking a teacher can inspire a terrible student to get A’s.

  • Frederick Wiseman is another director that films a lot and then finds the form during the editing process. And his last two films ‘La dance’ and ‘Boxing Gym’ are just beautiful.

  • Alex

    Films that fully address their directors’ visions may satisfy, for example “Apocalypse Now Redux” “and the director’s cut of “Big Red One.” The very idea of an interesting film fleshed out in line with its author’s desire is invigorating, For example, “One Eyed Jacks” complete with the Durango prison sequences in Brando’s Ringo is repeatedly beaten to a pulp only to strike each time by seducing each of the warden’s daughters, the “The Magnificent Ambersons,” complete with the croquet game between George and Lucy, the restored “Patton” in which George C. call everyone a “nut,” and –my favorite– “2001: A Service Comedy.” Just the thought of a six-hour “Tree of Life,” restored to its quotidian ‘50s core, complete with it rumored little league sequences (Ah, that miraculously long ball off Jack’s bat that is lost in the Sun!), stirs the blood.

  • Brad Stevens

    “D R, you’re right that the acting in ROAD TO NOWHERE is terrible.”

    I find this kind of comment simply bizarre when used in connection with a film so centrally concerned with definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acting, a film which interrogates the thin line between performing and being. Did you consider the possibility that “when people tell Shannyn Sossamon’s character that her performance in the film within the film is great, it’s hard to know whether the comments are meant sincerely” might actually be the point?! Simply saying that the acting is ‘terrible’ makes about as much sense as accusing Godard of narrative incoherence when one of his aims is to make us rethink what we expect from narratives. What exactly is your definition of ‘terrible’ acting?

  • Tom Brueggemann


    No one has a probem with your enthusiasm for The Tree of Life. What Dave and others (including me) object to is your tone, your aggressive and inconsiderate dismissal of those who criticize it, and your misleading representation of their arguments (for example, suggesting that Dave’s argument is mainly about process – the number of editors he used – rather than substance is also offensive. Dave asked that you tone it down, instead you want to ratchet it up.

    My disappointment with the film was not remotely tied in to backlash. No film this year was higher for me in anticipation. No film did I want more to love. Yet the film was a major disappointment for me. Please don’t place me (or others you don’t know) in a group who somehow are primarily involved in some sort of “backlash.” Among other things, any inteliigent and discerning reader of the early reviews was able to read between the lines that most critics thought the film had problems (unlike, say, The Social Network, which received completely unabashed praise from most early critics).

  • Junko Yasutani

    ‘since Mizoguchi is sometimes compared to Wyler, I understand that Mizo is of the cut in the camera tribe.’

    Mizoguchi made plan and rehearsed before shooting, so he did not shoot many thousands of feet like Wyler. Especially from 1930s, he worked with set designer to accommodate camera placement so not necessary to shoot so much film. Sometimes rehearsing many times before shooting. Also, in those days, negative was cut during editing.

    But Kurosawa Akira shot many thousands feet, also using multiple camera. Also making great movie like Mizoguchi.

    ‘all of these filmmakers were part of a tradition that encouraged them to make their key decisions behind the camera rather than in the editing room.’

    I agree about that Brad. Kurosawa also comes from this tradition, but later in career from 1950s he wanted choice of shots. Both method can be good like Brad wrote.

  • dm494

    Brad, I assure you that I did consider that possibility about Sossamon/Velma. And yes, Hellman is clearly examining the thin line between being and performing–only I don’t think that this is a case of skillful actors playing with different performance styles or–if you will–at certain moments “deliberately” acting “badly”. You could argue alternatively and, I think, more forcefully, that ROAD TO NOWHERE is a film that questions received notions of good and bad acting by creating a context within which acting conventionally deemed bad actually works to the benefit of the movie; but I’m not much more persuaded by such an it’s-relative-to-the-mise-en-scene argument than I am by claims that these are accomplished actors who are, by their own artifice, acting “badly”.

  • Yann Heckmann

    I haven’t seen “The Tree of Life” yet, but in the context would like to mention Kieslowski as another director who embraced the editing process as an essential part of making his films (

    Personally I think that for me editing has two functions. First, here the film really comes into being. To me everything which is done before is just gathering material. That’s one aspect of editing. Second, only during editing and not before an only to a certain extent, I enjoy a feeling of being free. A feeling I do not have while I write the screenplay nor during casting. There is absolutely no freedom in the shooting process. (…) Only in the editing this feeling comes back and I like it. I like the consequences which result from this freedom. I mean, when I edit I am aware that very soon it is possible to edit out of the same material, which is gathered in all these boxes completly different films. Very often I do make different versions. Quite a few and much more then there are versions of the screenplay. Usually at least five to ten.

    The Artificial Eye DVDs of “Bleu” and “Rouge” contain some interesting interviews with the director and his editor on these films, Jacques Witta, detailing this approach.

  • Blake Lucas

    “D R, you’re right that the acting in ROAD TO NOWHERE is terrible.”

    “I find this kind of comment simply bizarre when used in connection with a film so centrally concerned with definitions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ acting, a film which interrogates the thin line between performing and being.”

    Though Brad’s full post including the above is probably the best answer to this, I too would like to ask both of you exactly what the word “terrible” means, or as Brad said so well “What exactly is your definition of ‘terrible’ acting?”

    Because frankly the word “terrible” says little, indeed nothing. I’ve seen ROAD TO NOWHERE a couple of times now and also talked with a lot of other people who have seen it–the consensus, for the filmmakers as well as viewers, is that Shannyn Sossamon was a find and of great benefit to the movie. If you don’t agree, O.K. but I’m sure not hearing why here. Her acting in the film within a film especially appeals to Mitch–doesn’t that make sense, given his intense involvement with her? And doesn’t it thoughtfully interrogate the subjective element of what a director seeks in his or her film, which may have nothing to do with what is conventionally considered “great acting.”

    For the record, I personally never had any feeling any actor in ROAD TO NOWHERE was unconvincing within the reality of the film and the characters they played within that reality–the only test that matters to me. Honestly, I had more problem believing Georgia Lorrison/Lana Turner was the great actress everyone was saying she was in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL–she seemed no better than Lana Turner to me in the film within a film being made (transparent heavy emoting being Turner’s usual register) , yet intriguingly, Lana Turner as Georgia had uncharacteristic depth and believability as that character so Georgia is credible in the wider narrative. Otherwise, we can take something like “What a great actress” on faith–it’s what the people in the movie believe and they make it convincing. And by the way, I consider this Minnelli a masterpiece and, allowing that it’s something of a fantasy (true of every movie about moviemaking including ROAD TO NOWHERE, and I can’t imagine any good director who wouldn’t acknowledge that), profound and definitive about moviemaking, and creating more generally, in relation to life.

    I’m betting more than one person said of DETOUR when it came out “The acting is terrible.” Tom Neal seems weak and uncertain throughout, while Ann Savage may be seen as excessively harsh and abrasive. Well guess what, Al Roberts is a weak and uncertain man and Vera is an excessively harsh and abrasive woman. These performances are in fact perfect, indeed ideal.

    And I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that the actors in RED LINE 7000 are all terrible. They are indeed often awkward, and either lack confidence or seem to have too much–again, a perfect description of that group of characters, so they are all real to me, indelible creations who serve the film perfectly. So where is the bad acting there?

    Coming back to Monte Hellman, I always like the acting in his films–if anyone wants to see great acting, see non-actor Sam Peckinpah in his cameo in CHINA 9, LIBERTY 37 and listen to his eloquent reading of the words “the lies they need…we all need…” The ambiguous resonance for him personally, as well as for the film he’s in, and indeed on some level for all cinema has a intense and moving reality and is to be treasured. Similarly, while many might agree that there is no better acting than Warren Oates in TWO-LANE BLACKTOP (or COCKFIGHTER for that matter), what about that trio of younger leads in TWO-LANE, all inexperienced, complete newcomers and in the case of the two musicians they never tried this again. And yet all three seem absolutely real as these characters and in this world; I’m not saying they could do things Warren Oates did with his role, but they don’t need to–they hold their own with Oates and do as much and as credibly, indeed movingly, to define the film’s world.

    I will take the high road on this occasion and leave off with these positive examples, not commenting about my idea of “terrible acting” and how it has so often been true of Academy Award winners and others of “great acting mystique.”

  • Blake Lucas

    Oh, yes, I guess I was supposed to answer on that “no pretension in ROAD TO NOWHERE?” question. But I’m not sure I understand why. As Dave K. said of modernist deconstruction, these kinds of relationships between different aspects and the past/present of a narrative have been common in so many films for so long, and in fact the idea of someone dead possibly being alive and returning as someone else is hardly new either (think of one mystery made pre-modernist cinema that most people now agree is a central masterpiece of cinema). If I don’t find ROAD pretentious, neither do I find it conspicuously original, but it doesn’t need to be, and if that’s what it offered it would be less than it is. It is the personal inflection Monte Hellman can bring to something like this that lifts it above the run of films. Pretension to me would more likely be felt in a conscious nod to some cosmic statement (no I’m not invoking any specific film and again, have not yet seen THE TREE OF LIFE), but even though he famously staged WAITING FOR GODOT while waiting on his film career, Hellman has never done that in his films. When he has found something eternal, it has been within the specific, and he is content to start in the worn paths of genres and familiar narrative structures
    and journeys.

  • “I personally never had any feeling any actor in ROAD TO NOWHERE was unconvincing within the reality of the film and the characters they played within that reality–the only test that matters to me.”

    Blake has succinctly and clearly stated a usable criterion for judging screen acting here. I don’t think there’s a “one size fits all” standard of screen acting. One has only to think of the acting in Bresson’s films or Ozu’s films (and other non-Western filmmaker’s works) to see that there’s a plenum of acting styles that suit the requirements of the story in a given picture.

  • D R

    So it would appear Monte Hellman–last of the dinosaurs, pawn of the cruel Hollywood machine, promoter of classical space–has created the perfect vehicle for critic-proof acting, wherein the badness is ideal, even perfect. Wherein a “weak” character can justifiably–nay, necessarily–be portrayed weakly. QED.

    And acting simply doesn’t get better than Warren Oates’ turn in COCKFIGHTER.

    No need to discuss this then, I guess.

  • jbryant

    I dunno, it sure looked like a discussion to me.

  • “this notion of “cutting in the camera” is starting to sound a little vague, even counter-factual. As if John Ford never shot overlapping set-ups.”

    Concerning Ford’s shooting methods, there’s this eye-witness anecdote: A gaffer on “7 Women” noted that Ford periodically covered the lens of the camera with his cap when making a shot. Sounds like cutting in the camera to me.

    The expression itself is an industry term and refers broadly to shooting only what you need. For example, Selznick objected to Hitchcock’s shooting methods on “Rebecca” because Hitchcock didn’t shoot anything that Selznick could use for coverage.

  • dm494

    Blake, in all honesty, would you be objecting now to my use of the word “terrible” if I had applied it to the acting in a film by Spielberg or Paul Schrader or some other director whose work you deplore? I don’t understand all this hand-wringing about dismissive remarks anyway. It’s obvious that it’s all very selective–few if any people here would care if Spielberg were called abominable, but the same comment would provoke outrage at some other site where no one would take offense at Douglas Sirk’s being dismissed in similar terms. It’s true that the word “terrible” doesn’t express much information, but, then again, neither does a positive adjective, and no one complains about uninformativeness in the latter case. In the interests of consistency, everyone who objects to a comment about terrible acting in Hellman’s latest film should also take issue with the remark (with which I agree) that RIDE IN THE WHIRLWIND is a beautiful western: neither declaration is any more informative than the other.

    I can’t give you or Brad a definition of terrible acting for the simple reason that this isn’t math–there are no necessary and sufficient conditions for a terrible performance. I will say that, with the notable exception of Shannyn Sossamon, none of the actors in ROAD TO NOWHERE struck me as having any screen presence at all, and few if any of them gave me a sense of the controlled intensity I usually feel in a trained and talented actor. This was especially so in the case of Tygh Runyan, who seemed extremely miscast as an obsessive filmmaker; he was, for me at least, quite unconvincing in the reality of the film. Speaking for myself, all of the actors came off as inexpressive even though (and I add this so no one will invoke Bresson as a counterexample) they were trying to be expressive. I would have to see the film several more times to put my finger on the source of this problem, but it must have something to do with how the actors use their voices, and probably also their faces, especially their eyes.

  • Peter Henne

    D R, If you review Blake’s comments from just yesterday about editing, you will see that he says there can be accomplished long-take films and accomplished short-take ones too. It seems likely, don’t you think, that likewise he’s not insisting there is one and only path to a style of good acting. The provision that performers be “convincing within the reality of the film and the characters they played within that reality” doesn’t put any constraints on what that reality is going to be. If there’s an awkward, uncertain character, what’s called for is to make that awkwardness and uncertainty convincing within the reality of that film. That’s not necessarily the same, and can be much different from playing the character awkwardly and uncertainly.

  • Hey fellas (and Junko), WTFIU?

    Just thought I’d stop by and, by way of keeping my own nose clean (compulsively, as it were) point out that I greatly admire BOTH “Film Socialisme” and “Tree of Life,” just to demonstrate that such a thing is possible. Of course I may be an idiot, and that would explain it, but still. If I’m not, and this information is of comfort for some out there who feel similarly, then I’ve at least put something positive out in the universe, eh? (I have few other thoughts to offer at the moment but I find that as thorough and appositely allusive as Mr. Tonguette’s analysis is, it seems a constant castigation of the film for being…itself, as opposed to some other film. As if its fragmentation, that Tonguette finds so frustrating, was an accident rather than part of the film’s design. We are very nearly in Sam Wasson territory here I’m afraid.)

  • Nathan

    I haven’t seen Road to nowhere so can’t comment, but you bring out Bresson, I’ll just point out that Nicole Brenez has an interesting article about Bresson’s influence on Garrel, Eustache and Hellman, for those who can read french. I don’t know Bresson or Eustache’s work well enough to read those sections, but the section on Hellman was very thought-provoking (in a nut-shell, it’s about the opposition between two ways of being, and therefore of presenting oneself to the world: expressivity and its tendency for the accidental, the random encounter (GTO) and pure being seeing life as a task to focus on (the Driver)).

    The article can be found here: