The Tree of Life
dir. Terrence Malick, 2011, USA
Midnight in Paris
dir. Woody Allen, 2011, USA/France
The bottom line: Movies about guys walking with their hands in their pockets!
Terrence Malick and Woody Allen are both directors who came of age in the 1970s, concurrently with but quite apart from Hollywood’s beloved Film School Generation (Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, De Palma, et al). Unlike their more commercially-minded countrymen, neither Allen nor Malick studied film production at a four-year university, both distinguished themselves by writing their own scripts and both showed a greater adherence to classical notions of “high art” in terms of both the great cinema of the past and, more importantly, the other arts – literature in Allen’s case, philosophy and painting in Malick’s. (Also, neither Malick nor Allen sported beards!) In the ensuing decades the two have come to represent polar opposite approaches to how an artistically ambitious American filmmaker can live and work; Malick’s output has been legendarily sparse (only five released movies in as many decades) where Allen’s annual releases (now totaling forty-one) have become as dependable as the turning of the earth. This has led to a problematic categorization of Allen as a businesslike journeyman, a talented comic writer but sloppy visual stylist who is indifferent to actors, someone who works compulsively to stave off a fear of death. By contrast, Malick’s advocates view him as the contemporary cinema’s great Romantic artist, a consummate perfectionist in the technical sense who is nonetheless open to improvisational whims, someone who only works when and if the inspiration strikes.
The sad reality is that since the release of Days of Heaven in 1978, Malick’s work has become increasingly bloated and pretentious, a state of affairs that hits a remarkable, dizzying, frustrating new high with The Tree of Life. Although Malick’s films have always featured de-centered narratives in favor of rapturous imagery, the balance here has shifted beyond all reason; Malick and his great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have captured some of the most magisterial images in contemporary movies (a volcano erupts, CGI dinosaurs wander a primordial landscape, a child chases soap bubbles on a well-manicured lawn) but, after an amazing first hour, the disappointing sense begins to settle in that they will fail to acquire the cumulative power necessary for the kind of transcendental payoff one is expecting. The narrative fragments (a grown man roams the modern world musing on his childhood in rural Texas as well as the creation of the universe) obstinately refuse to become anything more than broken shards and are held together only by the glue of Malick’s copious voice over narration, which by now is approaching self-parody in its new-agey pseudo-profundity: “There are two ways through life: the way of nature, and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.”
This brings us to the movie’s real problem: even more so than The New World, there is an abiding sense of looseness and wastefulness about The Tree of Life. It feels like a film made by a man with an unlimited amount of freedom, as if Malick had all the time, money and resources in the world to shoot all the footage he wanted and then spent years massaging that mountain of footage into its final shape. The best comparison I can make is with Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, another loose, baggy monster created by a secretive, reclusive genius that dazzled in its early stages before painfully spiraling into seemingly endless tedium. And while Malick’s supporters are quick to point out that “loose” working methods have always been his modus operandi, that all of his movies are about poetic feeling more than intellectual understanding and yadda, yadda, yadda, the sense of rigor that characterized Badlands and Days of Heaven is long gone. The idea that Malick will ever again make a film as tight, compressed or short as those earlier hour and a half long masterpieces seems increasingly unlikely, even as Malick’s rate of production dramatically increases (he already has one new movie in the can and has reportedly begun work on at least one after that).
I don’t know or care whether The Tree of Life is an “autobiographical” film as some of its most passionate defenders are claiming, which to them I suppose makes it inherently brave. I do admire it for individual moments of beauty, Brad Pitt’s scary performance as the tough love father and Malick’s overall ambition and foolhardiness, qualities in short supply in today’s Hollywood. But I didn’t feel a sense of cosmic wonder while watching it, the interconnectedness of “all things” that seems Malick’s overarching goal, one that he appears to be laboring awfully hard to achieve. For a more effortlessly cosmic cinematic experience I think I’ll see again Pedro Costa’s lo-fi, black and white Change Nothing, a documentary about a singer that conjures up the wonders of creation without the digital dinosaurs.
Woody Allen has long had his pretentious side (the complaint that his Bergman influenced dramas were inferior to his “earlier, funnier work” became so ubiquitous that he actually worked it into Husbands and Wives in 1992) but his recent attempts to rebrand himself as a European filmmaker have actually produced some of the fleetest movies of his career; 2005’s London-set Match Point and 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona were simultaneously mature without being pretentious, succeeding as both penetrating character studies and nimble storytelling. If critics and fans (including me) have taken Allen’s best recent films for granted, it is likely because they’ve been sandwiched between lesser works that tend to make us judge Woody Allen not by his greatest hits but by his overall batting average. I suspect that will change with the release of Midnight in Paris, a delightful comic valentine to the film’s title city that ranks among the best and most imaginative movies Allen has ever made.
Like the short stories of Allen’s hero S.J. Perelman, the premise of Midnight is Paris is simple and irresistibly clever, and Allen executes the clean narrative arc to perfection: Gil (Owen Wilson) is a successful Hollywood screenwriter vacationing in Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. The city’s romantic aura inspires him to contemplate moving there permanently and finally realize his ambition of becoming a serious novelist. These plans don’t square with the more pragmatic Inez who finds herself spending more and more time with a former college professor, an insufferable know-it-all (in a long line of similar Allen pedants) deliciously played by Michael Sheen. Gil meanwhile finds himself magically transported back to the Golden Age of Paris in the 1920s where he hobnobs with the world’s artistic élite and falls for Adrianna (a very lovely Marion Cotillard), a fashion designer and muse to Picasso and Hemingway. To give away more of the plot would be criminal but suffice to say that the film’s sweetness of tone is perfectly balanced by its cautionary notes about the dangers of idealizing the past. Crucially, one also feels that this latter aspect contains a healthy amount of self-criticism for its writer/director, something that can’t often be said of a Woody Allen film. Also important is that the film’s funniest and most entertaining conceits (like Adrien Brody’s inspired cameo as Salvador Dali) serve to effectively prevent it from becoming the academic exercise it might have in other hands.
The real masterstroke of Midnight in Paris though, and a risky one that could have backfired, is the casting of Owen Wilson as Gil. While it has become increasingly common for the now elderly Allen to cast younger actors to play the part of an “Allen surrogate” in the lead role, this has often been a problematic strategy; most of these actors (from John Cusack to Edward Norton to Kenneth Branagh) end up essentially imitating Allen’s familiar stammering-intellectual-nebbish speech patterns. Wilson, however, slows down Allen’s dialogue to fit his own laid-back Texas persona and the result is both hilarious and refreshing. He captures the typical Allen character’s excitability while softening the misanthropy. Check out Gil’s infectious enthusiasm in the short, wonderful scene where he talks to himself while lying in bed at night, amazed at his good fortune. In the end, it’s hard to say if Gil seems more romantic and naïve than the usual Allen protagonist because Allen wrote him that way or because Wilson’s line deliveries makes it feel that way. Regardless, Allen has allowed Wilson (an actor I have occasionally found grating in the past) to display his innate intelligence, sincerity and optimism in a role that he seems born to play. He is absolutely magical. So is the movie.