Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Unlikely Duo: Allen & Malick

For a variety of reasons, I didn't get to many movies this past summer. It would also appear that I wasn't alone. (According to CBC News, box office attendance was at its lowest since 1997.) So I didn't feel like I missed much. But there were a couple of movies over the past few months that did cause some lively discussions and unresolved arguments. Students in my classes and people attending various lectures all wanted to talk about Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris and Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Given the dramatically different sensibilities of both of these directors, the talk reflected much of that divide.

In the case of Midnight in Paris, a romantic comedy fantasy about a screenwriter and novelist (Owen Wilson) visiting Paris with his fiancĂ©e (Rachel McAdams), the story is about how a contemporary writer's nostalgia for an earlier artistic culture allows him to wish-fulfill himself back into that time. In this case, it's the twenties with Gertrude Stein, Man Ray, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Picasso and Ernest Hemingway. Midnight in Paris is a completely enjoyable and charming picture where the pleasures exist within the conception of the story rather than in what Allen does with the inhabitants in it. The characters mostly reflect the screenwriter's impressions of them rather than becoming fully fleshed out versions of Hemingway and Stein. Still Midnight in Paris has deservedly become a huge global hit, one of the director's most successful films, and it continues to sell out at rep houses showing it in second run. What I enjoyed most about Midnight in Paris though was the way Woody Allen finally confronts his need to hide in the past. It was a significant step coming from a man who stopped being a strong contemporary comic voice a long time ago.

In the early seventies, in pictures like Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973), where he went into the future, Allen provided a satiric counter-culture alternative to the mainstream acceptance of WASP values. This slight, harmless hero celebrated braininess over brawn; the substance of sex over style, and allowed us to accept our vulnerabilities. We could laugh at our desperate attempts to be people we weren't and feel free to be ourselves. But, by the eighties, Allen decided he wanted to be someone he wasn't: Ingmar Bergman (Interiors, September, Another Woman), Arthur Miller (Crimes and Misdemeanors) and Fritz Lang (Shadows and Fog). Pretty soon, he lost that contemporary voice while choosing instead to grow nostalgic. Even his choice of music, the jazz of the swing era, carried a pedigree of snobbery that rejected contemporary pop and rock. You got the feeling that the music of Fletcher Henderson was present not because of the pleasure it gives but because it represented the High Culture Allen wished to embrace over pop.

Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Sleeper 
For years, Allen turned out one bummer after another with rare occasional exceptions (Bullets Over Broadway, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Vicky Christina Barcelona) while audiences continued to wait - and hope - for his return to form. Most moviegoers (even critics) usually have their patience exhausted after a short time, but Woody Allen had been given a wide berth. He was like a batter in a long slump who people hoped to see break free of it. Allen had built up an inordinate amount of good will. So when Midnight in Paris turned out to be good, audiences began flocking happily to it. Now I don't think they responded (as I did) to the fact that Owen Wilson's screenwriter (Allen's surrogate) gets to deal with his need to escape the present and to find new meaning in his life. Besides, I don't know if this represents a shift in Allen's thinking, or that it will bring us even more interesting work in the years to come. Time will tell. But I do think audiences were looking for some sign of sensibility at the movies.

So many films today (and not just Hollywood ones) have abandoned intelligent and engaging craft-work for either the impersonal studio product gutted of any personality (The Green Hornet), buried in effects (The Adjustment Bureau), or cannibalizing Steven Spielberg (Super 8). Some film-goers (and I include myself here) have grown weary of the packaging, the lack of risk and imagination, and the committee room devised concept scripts. So try and imagine then a film that completely breaks with any standard of conventional storytelling, abandons any means to engage the audience on terms it understands and yet still contains a singular voice with the wonkiest of visions guiding it. If you can, then you've likely encountered Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

As in the case of Midnight in Paris, I heard a lot about this picture before I got to see it. The only difference was people weren't excitedly asking me what I thought, instead they were screaming angry about it. The common complaint was that critics had misled them to believe that The Tree of Life represented the second coming of Orson Welles. They were furious at the movie's pretensions, its length, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, even the dinosaurs that turned up. One movie theatre began posting signs in their ticket booths reminding people that they must walk out in the first half-hour if they wish to get their money back. In thirty years of reviewing, I don't ever recall such a step taken by a movie-house. Even with its acclaim at Cannes winning the Palme d'Or, The Tree of Life was dividing critics as well. Lines were being drawn and names taken.

Of course, this made me all the more curious to see what was causing the fuss. So I was surprised that when I finally saw it, I was more fascinated than repelled. While I agree with Shlomo Schwartzberg (and many other friends who were exasperated) about the picture's follies - and there are many - there was something about The Tree of Life that still gripped me. Now Terrence Malick is not a director who's work usually inspires strong angry reactions (especially since his pictures are visually arresting but dramatically attenuated). His first film, Badlands (1973), was a crime story based on the real-life murder spree in 1958 by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. But Malick's attempt to locate the gutted emotions in the killers, as a means to discover what motivated them, he also extended to the culture that created them. As a result, Badlands became an abstract, almost amorphous rendering of what makes a criminal.

Days of Heaven (1978) fared little better as Malick tried to tell a romantic story set early in the 20th Century about a farmer (Sam Shepard) who is swindled by a couple (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) working his farm.While trying to contrast nature's scorn (a locust attack) with human betrayal, Malick revealed a key to his work. It was the idea that nature had determined laws that man always chose to violate. So although Days of Heaven had moments of both grandeur and beauty, inspired by Johannes Vermeer and Edward Hopper, it was deprived of dramatic motivation. The Thin Red Line (1998) had a vague narrative (very loosely) based on James Jones' 1962 epic novel about American forces at the Battle of Mount Austen during the Guadalcanal campaign in World War Two. If Jones concentrated on the specific horrors that men act out under the strain of battle, Malick turned the novel into a pastiche of man's continued war against the natural world. It lasted a lifetime and (like Shlomo) I couldn't find some of the actors who were apparently in it.

Colin Ferrell and Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World
His last film, The New World (2005), offered something of a strange surprise. Ostensibly a historical drama that depicted the founding of Jamestown, Virginia by Captain John Smith (Colin Ferrell) and his romance with Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), The New World had the same languidly paced beauty of Malick's other work, but there was also a new passionate quest here, the sense of someone looking into the process of discovery itself. The new world of the story wasn't just what the discoverers found in the new America but also what the indigenous cultures would later observe in the so-called civilized world. In The Tree of Life, Malick has made getting to those sources of discovery much more personal this time. He directed it with a searching eye as if trying to get to the source of life itself.

Sometimes a movie's failure yields more to discuss than an ordinary movie's success. The Tree of Life is certainly not an ordinary failure, but one that has a way of raising the stakes. Critics have been throwing the word ambitious around when they've discussed the film, but I would say that it's more audacious. In The Tree of Life, a memoir about his growing up in Waco, Texas, Malick doesn't give the story a typical dramatic narrative. He tells the story instead through a series of associations, fleeting memories and abstract thoughts. (Imagine Jordan Belson interpreting Carson McCullers.).Unlike in his past movies, though, where Malick's disassociated style becomes awkwardly wedded to traditional dramatic narratives, The Tree of Life disassociates itself altogether from traditional narrative. Is it any surprise then that people were walking out? A viewer can feel lost in a series of elliptically linked daydreams.

Jessica Chastain in The Tree of Life
If Malick has a striking eye for detail (Jessica Chastain dancing through the air like Mary Martin), his biggest weakness is his inability to provide dramatic structure and motivation for all the pirouettes. Because of that, he gives you no clue as to why Sean Penn's architect is so spiritually adrift in his life and work (apparently Penn has expressed similar confusion). Malick continually loses track of characters and plot details. He seems so doggedly determined to create his bigger picture that he loses complete touch with the smaller details that could help an audience make sense of it. Yet despite sitting there muttering to myself about how nutty the picture was in its mad desire to wed spiritual grace and nature's cruelty, I was still held by Malick's desire to discover the process of the narrative rather than giving it one. What I realized was that despite the film's failure to provide a clearly developed vision, it was still a vision and not a negligible one.

In part, the critical lines being drawn over The Tree of Life is the continued acting out of the Andrew Sarris/Pauline Kael debate over auteurism. But I also believe that the debate reveals something about the way so few movies being made today inspire any kind of strong reaction. We've grown so used to the ordinary. When Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980), another epic folly, pretty much sank the power of the director in Hollywood, the industry turned towards accepting the bland and the conventional.Yet as bad as Heaven's Gate was, the anger directed towards it was never directed with the same force towards some equally bad studio product. That may be because it's hard to hate something impersonal and committee driven. But in Michael Cimino there was actually someone to despise.

Mad visions are an integral part of the history of movies and we wouldn't have great works without the great follies that sometimes make them possible. The Tree of Life is very much in that tradition. Midnight in Paris and The Tree of Life might indeed an unlikely duo, but in their very different ways, they've woken up a sleeping desire in the audience, a desire for movies that matter.

Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Through Ryerson Chang School, Courrier begins a 10-week course on writing criticism (Analyze This: Writing Criticism) that begins September 12th (6:30pm until 9pm) until November 21st. Classes will be held at the Bell Lightbox. (For more information, or to sign up, see here.)    

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