I’m used to mockery of modern art. I’ve seen plenty of old Hollywood movies and read lots of vintage New Yorker cartoons. And nowadays, even museums and art-friendly websites strive to be in on the joke, with their “Rothko Paint-By-Numbers” kits and “DIY Jackson Pollock.” Whether the intention is to skewer the art world’s pretensions or warmly embrace its quirkiness, the underlying premise is essentially the same: “Anyone could do this.”
But I’ve never seen anything like the Forrest Wickman piece that ran in Slate earlier this year, in conjunction with the release of Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life. Wickman constructed a video quiz, asking readers to guess whether a given shot was from a Malick film or a nature documentary. The joke was good-natured (maybe), but still mildly alarming. Malick has a reputation as one of cinema’s premier visual stylists. Even people who find his movies inscrutable will admit that they at least look beautiful, full of images that linger in the mind long after the closing credits. And now here’s Wickman, suggesting that Malick isn’t doing anything you couldn’t see on Discovery HD.
So here’s my question: Even if you accept the premise that there’s no significant distinction between The Tree Of Life and, say, Earth (visually speaking, anyway), does this really speak badly of Malick? Or does it just speak well of the advancements in nature-doc cinematography?
Because I have to admit, there is something of a beauty-boom afoot. I used to be able to distinguish the kinds of movies I’d see at the Sundance Film Festival from the kind I’d see in Toronto largely by how they looked. Toronto tends to favor world-cinema auteurs more beholden to pictures than words, while Sundance traditionally champions American indie filmmakers who’ll spent three years workshopping a script and three minutes thinking about how to shoot it. I can’t say that dichotomy is so blatant anymore, though. The advent of digital technology hasn’t just made the basic tools of filmmaking easier to obtain, it’s also narrowed the gap between the master cinematographers and the novices with a decent sense of composition. On the whole, it’s easier in 2011 to light and shoot and make a scene look good than it was a decade ago.
I’ve even noticed this trend on television. Since the advent of HD, TV has become more “cinematic,” though early on, that mainly meant procedurals and adventure shows had the kinetic style and frenetic editing of a Tony Scott or Michael Bay film. This season, though, I can tell that the producers of network shows have spent a lot of time watching cable—specifically The Shield and Breaking Bad. Even gimmicky case-of-the-week-ers like Unforgettable and Person Of Interest are experimenting with off-kilter camera angles, editing tricks, and mood lighting to enhance the storytelling. The visuals are no longer merely functional, or merely slick and gleaming.
Is this a bad trend? Not necessarily. One of the chief pleasure of any visual medium is how attractive it looks, and whenever a film or TV show makes an effort to depict the world in a way that’s eye-catching, that’s a boon. That said, I do find it harder now to hail an independent film solely for its visuals. If the dialogue is clunky, the performances amateurish, and the plotting overdone, then an amazing use of natural light and vivid color is no longer as redemptive as it used to be. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I could hand a high-end digital camera to anyone on the street and they’d come back with footage to rival Christopher Doyle. It’s still necessary for cinematographers to have “an eye,” and it’s more than helpful if they’ve studied the craft. I’m just saying that realizing a vision doesn’t take as much arcane knowledge as it once did, back in the days when Vilmos Zsigmond was baking film stock. We now live in the age of Instagram.
If anything, the reaction against beauty may be behind the enthusiastic reception of the grubby indie romance Bellflower in some critical circles. Or at least it’s partly behind my reception. I think Bellflower is a mess of a movie, which I admire as a bizarrely literal, bloody dramatization of how it feels to live through a bad breakup, even as I acknowledge that pretty much the last third of the film is incoherent. But when I saw Bellflower at Sundance, I enjoyed its can-do spirit and often purposefully ugly look, which is like a ’70s drive-in movie viewed through a bug-spattered windshield. In a festival full of movies that were either flat or tastefully pretty, here was one eager to show off some scars. I dug the contrast.
As for The Tree Of Life, I missed it when it was in theaters—the perils of living in a small town—but I watched the Blu-ray, which came out this week. And what can I say? The movie is beautiful. Malick tells the story of life on Earth from the age of the dinosaurs to the afterlife, focusing on how cruelty and grace are interwoven into the natural order, and anchoring the whole enterprise to a possibly autobiographical story about a young mid-20th-century Texan being raised by a demanding-but-loving father and a sweet-but-weak mother. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki carry forward the “grasslands at magic hour” look that Malick has clung to since Badlands and Days Of Heaven, but The Tree Of Life also gazes up at steel and glass skyscrapers, and tracks through the stone and sand of a metaphysical plane. And Malick plays around with a semi-subjective shooting style that conveys the world as experienced by a child: low to the ground, limited, and constantly in motion.
In short: The Tree Of Life ain’t just limbs and leaves swaying gently in the breeze. As clever as it may be to look at a splash of paint on a canvas and grunt, “That’s like something my kid made,” or to sniff that a beautifully shot movie is like a perfume commercial, there’s a context that ought to be considered. The arc of an art form’s history matters. The arc of an artist’s career matters. How an image fits into an exhibition—or a narrative—matters. This doesn’t give every bona fide master a free pass, mind you. The Tree Of Life, for example, tries too hard at times, and strains for profundity. But it achieves profundity frequently too, especially in any scene where Brad Pitt as the hero’s stern father tries to express his affection through his curt commands. (It’s refreshing to see a movie about an overbearing dad that acknowledges the love that’s mixed in with the brusqueness.)
The problem with the relative ease with which filmmakers can capture beauty onscreen these days is that it makes beauty seem less hard-won, and thus less special. But the true artists can still imbue beauty with real meaning. With The Tree Of Life, it isn’t just that Malick and Lubezki give a dreamlike feel to a scene of boys running through a cloud of pesticide in a lovely Texas neighborhood, it’s that the shot conveys a sense of wonder amid an atmosphere that’s literally poisonous, and thus reinforces one of the movie’s major themes. A pretty picture is a pretty picture. But throughout his career, Malick has confidently answered the question Pauline Kael once launched at Richard Lester: “It’s a great technique, but what can you do with it?”