Teleology, Always You Wrestle Inside Me

Submitted by Andy on Sun, 07/03/2011 - 20:48

Last weekend I went to Boston to endorse the wedding of two good friends (Congratulations again Andrew and Erica) and while Angela is off in Rome I took the opportunity to briefly live the bachelor life with my friend, composer Joe Colombo, who himself is shortly off to San Francisco. As a musicologist and composer, our carousing took a decidedly pretentious turn as we decided to go see Terrence Malick's bewildering new movie The Tree of Life. Don't worry, this was immediately after Joe chatted up a girl by dropping the sultry sounds of Iannis Xenakis.

The one art-house/independent theater around me closes up during the summer1, and it has been a rare movie critic that seem to be capable off keeping it in their pants about this capable film so I figured I had better take the opportunity when it's given to me. I, for one, thought the movie was okay, which is about the wrongest reaction one can have apparently. Neither sacramental revelation or masturbatory pretension, I found it often beautiful and occasionally engaging. So why am I writing about it, other than those couple film classes I took in undergrad? Upon later reflection (as one should always do with these sorts of movies) I've come to the conclusion that Tree of Life, as much of music I've been studying lately does, defies genre conventions more than any other American movie I can think of.

One way to cop out of this is to say that Malick has spent his career developing the oxymoronic genre of the "big-budget experimental film." As this spoilerrific guide to the movie by Matt Zoller Seitz often mentions, Malick gets to use techniques rarely seen at this pay grade since (everyone say it with me) Stanley Kubrick. So an audience enters with two necessarily incongruous sets of expectations that

  1. This is a non-linear experimental film that when I ask people who have seen it what it's about they have to think for a second.
  2. This is a movie by a director I've heard of, starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn2

Unsurprisingly, rather than coalescing these two sets of expectations, Tree of LIfe subverts both. A lot of the European art film tradition (e.g. Godard), much like American minimal music, spent a lot time in the 60s and 70s trying to escape the linear teleological forms dominant in music and film. Unfortunately for the underdogs, these forms are placed upon these media by time itself, so it's an uphill battle. However, this artistic tradition was successful to the point that once a movie eschews normal cinematic grammar long enough, an audience will relax and accept the "meaning" of the film is oblique at best and discerned through the juxtaposition of visuals presented to them by the director.

A lot of provocateurs would likely be outraged by this sort of passive approach, but I don't think its quite that simple. The dominance of narrative forms leads most viewers to believe that the director does have a single "solution" that will be revealed once the entire movie is shown. The game then becomes to speculate on the answer as evidence is slowly presented (over time! See, teleological.) This is where the analogy to minimal music starts to break down, as the default state is to "bliss out" and quit speculating as to the next motion.

As opposed to the jump cuts, POV shots, and incongruous visual symbolism popular amongst the French New Wave, Malick's direction looks a lot more like the standard grammar of a modern film. (Well, except for the symbolism. But that's been absorbed into modern filmmaking technique.) Tree of Life stays on this knife-edge for opening 20 minute sequence in which the primary cast is introduced in a relatively non-linear fashion. At least when I saw it, this was the movie that the audience was expecting.

The opening sequence ends with the much heralded "creation of the universe" shots. From here we see a sequence of events from the Big Bang to dinosaurs for some reasons to the birth of our protagonist Jack to the birth of his younger brothers. After a reel and half of secretly trying to divine what Malick's artistic statement is, the audience how has something it recognizes as a chronology and the desire for a narrative form becomes insatiable.3 The problem, of course, is that no questions are answered and there is no underlying "moral."

Judging from Malick's earlier movies, this crossfade of "big-budget experimentalism" is an intentional part of his aesthetic. As such, I am increasingly impressed with how inconspicuous this intentionality is. Compare that to, of all things, The Hangover Part II, which I think is one of the most self-conscious sequels ever made. I don't mean this as any sort of slight, but simply that its makers never lost sight that they were making a sequel. Every part of that production was either the diametric opposite or doubling-down on what they did the first movie.

I think that I would probably enjoy Tree of Life much more on a second go round, hopefully being freed from the constant urge to figure out the story. I'm not entirely sure, however, that I want to give it another two hours. While the cinematography was stunning, it certainly wasn't to the level of a Kubrick and I felt little of the nostalgic pull that so many critics exalted. (Who knew my parents were mystifying an entire class of art to me by not being assholes?) In a potentially cynical but not untrue take, Joe said it seemed like Malick tried to find the average age of the major film critics and strike them in heart. Nonetheless, it is a beautifully crafted film that anyone interested in challenging and evocative cinema should see. Just no matter how much you may want to, don't try to figure it out.


  1. I'd love to be proven wrong, but I far as I can tell it's not showing anywhere in the state of Iowa. ↩︎

  2. By the way, Sean Penn getting second billing on this movie is total bullshit, amirite? ↩︎

  3. This attempt to juggle linear and non-linear forms reminds me a lot of Reich's addition of a bassline in Music for 18 Musicians↩︎