So, my post about The Tree of Life yesterday was cranky, and worse, inarticulate. I ended up sounding silly, and Simon, justifiably, slapped back at me for it. As an apology and explanation, I wanted to lay out a couple of things to do a better job of explaining both my preexisting assumptions and prejudices and what I find obnoxious about this particular trailer.
1. I tend to think of mass-market movies and film as discrete things: all I mean is that I think there’s a difference that’s conveyed by context. Film’s a medium, and it includes things that I would gladly be hypnotized by in a museum, whether it’s looping images of Sarah Palin speaking intercut with Alaskan native dancers or anything by Matthew Barney. If I’m hitting up a multiplex, I tend to expect something a bit more conventionally plotted.
2. That is not to say that I think artistic, experimental, plot-averse, etc. film should go sit in the corner, or anything. I’m all for a world where we see much more diverse things in mainstream movie theaters. But…
3. I think studios and directors have an obligation to sell audiences on those more unusual projects. And I think that pitch has to sell the project on the merits. Most of what I found so objectionable about the trailer for The Tree of Life is that it essentially seemed to tell viewers: “It’s Brad Pitt! And Sean Penn! And it’s deep! And we have arty images!” If Malick’s actually doing something “radical,” if this movie stretches back to prehistoric Earth (all things that have been reported out of it), then that campaign is both a cheat to audiences and an insult to their intelligence. Give us at least a sense of what we’re going to see, and make a strong pitch for why we should want to see that. If that hideously pretentious voiceover in the trailer isn’t part of the movie, it’s very silly marketing. If it is in the movie, I reserve the right to consider it bad, pretentious writing.
4. Additionally, I, very personally, don’t think any director is so visionary that they automatically deserve my time. The movies are a business, and if you’re going to work through the studio system, and get $25 million to make a movie, then I don’t think you’re exempt from explaining what you’re doing and can just expect audiences to just follow along (I’m speaking generally here, not necessarily about Malick). That said…
5. I’ll probably, in perpetuity, watch anything Tony Gilroy makes, without explanation. And the reason for that is this. When I go to a mainstream theater to see a movie, I ultimately worship at the altar of the writing. I understand this is a specific preference, and it is not necessarily correct, and certainly not necessarily the most sophisticated way to watch movies. But I think it’s worthwhile to be honest about it.
What I really want to see is brilliant plotting and dialogue, and I’m interested in how that gets played out in front of me. Gilroy’s so compelling to me because he can stage something like the opening fight scene in Duplicity, which is a gorgeous piece of physical comedy, and sort of formally stunning in its severe color palate and battle lines of corporate suits, but that also serves the plot and the writing directly, making you wonder why these men are fighting, and alerting you that what follows is going to be both dead serious and very silly.
I love him because he can work with actors in such a way that a line like “I am Shiva, the god of death,” can sound like perfectly natural speech out of the mouths of both an insane man and a perfectly sane one in Michael Clayton, that he imbues a child’s explanation of a fantasy series with an incredible richness that gives a dignity to it, makes us feel the pull of that fantasy for the person reading it. His language shows us the semi-permeable barriers between madness and sanity and the divine, and he does it in movies about corporations.
I feel the same way about Preston Sturges. The physical comedy in the dining room scene in The Lady Eve is funny, but it’s the verbal translation of the action that makes it brilliant. Something like this sequence:
See those nice store teeth all beaming at you. Oh, she recognizes you! She’s up, she’s down, she can’t make up her mind. She’s up again. She recognizes you! She’s coming over to speak to you. The suspense is killing me. “Why, for heaven’s sake, aren’t you Fuzzy Oathammer I went to manual training school with in Louisville? Oh you’re not? Well, you certainly look exactly like him, it’s certainly a remarkable resemblance… But if you’re not going to ask me to sit down, I suppose you’re not going to ask me to sit down… I’m very sorry, I certainly hope I haven’t caused you any embarrassment, you so and so.”
Is Veronica Geng decades before Veronica Geng, and it’s incredible. Even Buster Keaton, who never gets to talk in his best movies, it’s the writing that matters, the jokes on the title cards, the plotting that creates a mirror image of all the gags.
Anyway, I’m way off-topic here. All I meant to say is that when it comes to the movies, rather than film as a whole, the rigor of the plotting and dialogue are the bones to me, and the execution and visual expression of those plots and themes are what matter most. If you want me to love something else, I’m open to it. But I want to be persuaded, rather than pandered to.